The War of the Grand Alliance

Battle of Beachy Head.

King Charles II’s brother, James, Duke of York, succeeded him in 1685. The Royal Navy remained an efficient force during the reign of King James II (1685-88). King James was a Catholic and an ally of King Louis XIV of France. England was divided into two political factions. These factions were known as Whigs or liberals and Tories or conservatives. The Tory or conservative faction was loyal to James. The Whigs or liberal faction preferred the Protestant Prince William of Orange. Prince William was Charles I’s grandson and married to King James II’s daughter, Mary. In the Revolution of 1688 William and Mary were invited to become joint sovereigns. William landed at Torbay on 5 November 1688. James fled to France. The Royal Navy had been prevented by the weather from intercepting William’s mainly Dutch fleet. Many naval officers preferred William and Mary and the Navy accepted the change of regime.

King Louis XIV of France was already at war with the Emperor Leopold I, Sweden and Spain (their alliance was known as the League of Augsburg). These countries opposed his aggressive actions on the mainland of Europe. Prince William, as sovereign of the Netherlands, was an active opponent of King Louis XIV. King Louis supported the deposed King James by sending an expedition to Ireland in 1689. An indecisive naval action took place between an English fleet and a French fleet off Bantry Bay on 1 May 1689. This led to an actual declaration of war by Louis XIV. The alliance against King Louis became known as the Grand Alliance. The French navy had been strengthened by the efforts of King Louis’ minister, Colbert. It could send more powerful warships to sea than the combined Dutch and English fleets.

In 1690 there was a threat of a French invasion to restore King James. The French fleet under the Comte de Tourville actually outnumbered the combined Dutch and English fleet when they met off Beachy Head on 30 June 1690. The combined Dutch and English fleet under Lord Torrington was upwind and approached from the north-east. The Dutch formed the van squadron of 22 ships. They opened fire at 9 am having turned parallel to the French van. Torrington reported:

About eight I ordered the signal for battle, to prevent the Dutch steering to the southward, as I did; for by the eighth Article of the Fighting Instructions when that signal is made, the headmost ships of our fleet are to steer away with the headmost ships of the enemy.

The centre of the French line sagged to leeward. Torrington allowed his own centre squadron to edge away to larboard. The Dutch in the van and the English rear squadron were both outnumbered and in danger of being “doubled”. By 1 pm the French were doubling on the Dutch. Several ships in the English rear squadron were heavily damaged and had to be towed out of the line of battle. At 3 pm the wind fell. By 5 pm the allies anchored. The French drifted away to leeward. The next day they followed up the retreating allies cautiously, allowing the damaged allied ships to get away.

Torrington had to face a court-martial. He was acquitted, claiming that his action had prevented an invasion. Admiral Edward Russell was appointed commander-in-chief of the allied fleet. In 1691 the French fleet sailed against merchant shipping in the western approaches to the English Channel. Both the Dutch and the English built up their fleets. In 1692 King Louis XIV supported another invasion force to restore the exiled King James II. This was assembling on the Cotentin peninsula where it awaited escort by the French fleet under de Tourville. The allied fleet heavily outnumbered the French squadron in the Channel. Another French squadron sailed from Toulon but was scattered by a storm. After Russell’s captains had assured him of their loyalty to King William III and Queen Mary, the allied fleet sailed from St Helen’s on 18 May 1692.

The Battle of La Hogue 19-23 June 1692

Richard Allyn was aboard HMS Centurion, 50 as a chaplain. HMS Centurion was in Sir Cloudesley Shovell’s division of Sir Ralph Delavall’s Blue (rear) squadron. Allyn:

Thursday, May 19, 1692. At three this Morning our Scouts made the Signal for discovering the Enemy; so the Admiral presently made the Signal to draw into a Line of Battle, which we soon did, and made clear Ships. It being foggy, we in the Fleet did not see them until seven, when we made them to be about Fifty Sail bearing down upon us in a Line with a small Gale about the West-south-west. About eleven we began to engage. The French Admiral came within point blank of our Admiral, who with his Squadron lay by to receive him. Mr. Russel as soon as he saw Tourville bring to, gave him three Cheers, which was answered by a Volley of Small Shot from Tourville, and was soon returned with a Broad-Side from our Admiral. The Vice-Admiral of the French White engaged Sir Ra. Delavall. In a trice we were so buried in Fire and Smoke, and had such hot Service our selves, that we could not see or mind what others did. Between four and five, word was brought to the Captain on the Quarter-Deck that there was above Seven foot Water in the Hold, and that notwithstanding both Pumps were kept going, yet the Water increased ; and besides this, that the Powder Room was full of Water, and the Powder Barrels all swimming about, which was occasioned by a great Shot that came into the Carpenter’s Store-room. The Captain sent word of this misfortune to Sir Ra. Delavail our Flag, who ordered him to hasten out of the Line and careen the Ship, and stop the Leaks, which we did. Some of our Pow- der-Barrels were so tight that the Powder in them was not at all damnifyed, so that out of Eighty Barrels we saved about Forty. Between six and seven, having made a bad shift to stop our Shot-holes, we set sail to recover into our station. About five the Wind came up about the South-east, and then the French tack’d and made away from us as fast as they could. But Sir Cloudesly Shovel and part of his Division being got to the Westward of them with some of the Blue, took them up and engaged them until nine when they left off and drove to and fro on the tide, there being little or no wind. We lost in the Engagement seven Men, and had Eighteen wounded; most of them having their Legs shattered, or shot off above knee. Trie Cook, James Duell, was one of the first that fell. Soon after half of poor Webber’s Face was shot away; notwithstanding which he lived two days, and almost all the time kept singing. A Shot came through my Cabin, which killed one Kern, a Plymouth Man. A Gun on the Quarter Deck split, which killed two, and wounded three, one of which was Mr. Raymond, whose leg was much shattered, and is since cut off. Our Long-boat was sunk at our stern. Most of the damage we received was from the Vice-Admiral of the White, who, finding the Sovereign’s side too warm, tack’d astern and revenged himself upon us. At ten a great Ship blew up, which we suppose to be one of the French. We had it very foggy all night, so that, we lost sight of the Enemy.

Sir Cloudesley Shovell described:

Thursday being the 19th of May at Daylight, the Wind at South-west by West, a fine gale, and hazy weather, we saw our Scouts to Windward making the signal of the Enemy’s approaching, and at broad day saw the French Fleet to the Westward of us standing towards us. We soon got into a Line of Battle, and were soon prepared and lay by to receive them. We had so little Wind that it was about eleven o’ clock before we joined Battle, which was begun in the Center of the Fleet. For Tourville in the Royal Sun (a glorious Ship of 106 Guns) stood directly for our Admiral Mr. Russel, then on board the Britannia, a Ship little inferior to the French General either in Glory or Strength. Here the Fight begun; and I will do the French that Justice, that is, their Admiral and all his Squadron, as to declare that I never saw any come so near before they began to fight in my life. I will leave the two chief Admirals with their whole Squadrons, it may be, in as hot Engagement as ever was fought, and take a little notice of what the other part of our Enemy’s Fleet did.

First the Dutch who led our Van, being about Twenty- five Line of Battle Ships were attack’d by Amphreville, who commanded the French White and Blue Divisions which consisted of about Fifteen Ships, whereof five or six were Three-deck Ships, and none had under Sixty Guns. Amphreville seeing himself overmatched in number, fought the Dutch at that distance, that very little Damage was done on either side.

The French Blue that was commanded by Gabarel, finding they could not stretch our Blue, joined close with Tourville’s Squadron, and had their Station and share in the Battle, all but seven of them with our Rear Admiral of the Red.

In this Posture, Affairs stood about two Hours, by which time the Britannia had so beaten the French Sun, that I saw when he could not make use of his Main-top-sail, it being shot away, he let down his Main-sail, and tack’d from the Britannia. This tacking, with the Wind shifting from the South-west by West, to the West-north-west, brought the French Admiral a farther distance from the Britannia, than could be recovered the whole day; and from the French Admiral’s first Tacking I reckon they began to run; he ever after taking every little advantage to get farther from the Britannia.

Now our Blue happened to be to Leeward of our Line of Battle when we begun; and about seven or eight of the French Blue which reached astern of the Rear-Admiral of the Red’s Division had no Ships to fight with, unless they would bear to Leeward of their Line, therefore had nothing to do. When the Wind shifted to the West-north-west, as before I took notice of (it was then about one o’Clock) with this Shift of Wind the Rear-Admiral of the Red kept his Luff; and with six of his Division and his Fireships weathered Tourville and all his Squadron, and broke the French Line, dividing trie French Blue from the White. But our Blue with this Wind kept their Luff and weathered the French; upon which the French Vice-Admiral of the Blue, and other five or fix Ships that were near him, and had never fired a Gun all day set their Sails and run. Our Rear Admiral of the Blue and his Division fell upon the Admiral of the French Blue and his Division, but pretended not to hinder their joining the French Admiral, but exchanged some Shot, and suffered them to bear athwart the Rear- Admiral of the Red, and join Tourville’s Division.

By this time it was four in the Afternoon, when the Wind duller’d away, and a small air came Easterly, when Tourville and his Division with the French Ships near him anchor’d, the Tide setting strong up North-east. The Rear-Admiral of the Red with that part of his Division that was with him, also anchored in half shot a-head of him, all but the Sandwich, who drove through the French as they lay at Anchor, and Captain Hastings in that Pass was kill’d.

The Rear Admiral of the Red found that Tourville mightily galled some of his Ships as they lay at Anchor, and there- fore ordered one of his Fireships to drive athwart Tourville’s Halse. The Tide running very strong, the Fireship’s Captain did his Duty, but Tourville escaped burning by cutting his Cable, and towing from the Fireship.

Tourville soon anchored again. All this day hath been accompanied with Fogs, so that sometimes we have been obliged to leave off Fighting, though in less than point- blank one of the other. Here we lay at an Anchor till about eight at Night, at which time our Blue drove amongst the Rear-Admiral of the Red’s Division; and they together drove through the French Fleet; so ended the day.

This Evening in driving through the French, three of our Fireships were burnt, and a great French Ship of three Decks, but whether by accident or by our Fireships I know not.

The Allies kept up their pursuit of the outnumbered French. On 20 May, Allyn:

May 20. At four this morning, for every Ship to make the best of his way after them. We could not see any of them until about nine, when it cleared up and we discovered them standing to the Westward with all the sail they could crowd, the Wind Easterly. At this time Dunnose bore North seven Leagues off. We made the best of our way after them, and at twelve Cape Barfleur bore South and by West distant about six leagues; and the Enemy was about three leagues to the Southward of us. The Wind in the Afternoon came about to the South-West, and we kept plying after them until six, when the Ebb being done, both Fleets came to all Anchor. Cape de Hague bore from us W. S. W five leagues off; and the Enemy was about four miles to windward. At twelve we weighed as they did, and plyed after them all the Ebb; viz. until

May 21. Six this morning; when the Enemy anchored between Ornay and Cape de Hague in the Race; and we about a League to Leeward of them, the Wind still South- west. At about sixteen of the Enemy’s Ships drove to lee- ward of our Fleet, between us, and their own Shore; which our Admiral seeing, made the Signal for the Fleet to cut and chase; which we did, leaving the Admiral of the Dutch, and Admiral of our Blue with several Dutch and English Frigates at Anchor to take care of about fifteen sail of the French at Anchor in the Race, and about thirteen without it. The General, Vice-Admiral of the Blue, and Rear of the Red, gave chase to Ten or Twelve sail to the Eastward: our Flag with his Division chased three of the French into Cheirburg, or Sheerbrook. About three in the afternoon we anchored off of Cheirburg, having the Town open, and the three Ships close under the Town. Sir Ralph ordered a Fire- ship to go in and destroy one of them, which was ashore, and had cut away his Masts; but they shot away her Boat, and so she returned without execution. Sir Ralph finding his own Ship too big to venture in within Gun-Shot, hoist- ed his Flag on board the Saint Alban’s, and went in and battered at the Ships a little, and came out and anchored again.

On Saturday Morning the 21st, we plainly saw the French at Anchor in the Race of Alderney, and we had a fine fresh gale at South-west; but when the Flood came strong, the French, that is, fifteen of them, their Anchors would not hold, which obliged them to cut and stand to the Eastward along their shore. Our Admiral did the same with part of the Fleet, that is, the Dutch and the Admiral of the Blue rid fast to keep their Chace after the rest of the French that did not drive. Those Ships which cut, followed the French so close, that the Royal Sun their Admiral, and two other great Ships run on shoar at Sherbrook, alias Cheirburg, where they were the next day burnt by Sir Ralph Delavall’s directions. The twelve other kept along shoar, and a little out of the Ebb-tide, fo that they out-sailed all our Fleet but Sir Cloudesly Shovel and two or three more.

Sir Cloudesly kept close to them, that is, some-times within shot, but never fired, that he might not hinder his way. At Night their ships were got near the Shore not far from La Hogue, where they anchored. Sir Cloudesly anchored in sight of them, and watched them with his Boats, and rid fast all night. The next day being Sunday the 22d, the Admiral and the Fleet came near them, the French haled near the Shore, and pretended to defend their Ships. Our Ships and Boats were appointed for attacking them, and the Admiral appointed Sir Cloudesly Shovel to command the Attack, and so we rid quiet that night.

Almondee was the Dutch Admiral. Allyn:

May 22. Most of our Ships under the Second Rate weighed at three this morning, and anchored within reach of the Enemy’s Guns, and exchanged several Shot. At ten Sir Ralph ordered in three Fireships; one on board her, that yesterday cut her Masts by the Board, which proved to be the Royal Sun. She fired a great number of Guns at the Fire-Ship but did no great damage to her. When the Fire- Ship was got so near her that there could be no thoughts of getting back again, they found that they could not come to lay the Royal Sun on Board because of the Boats which were by her side to keep them off, and her Masts which were thrust out for the same purpose. The Captain of the Fire- ship however set fire to his Ship, and left her floating with the Tide. The Fire-ship shot astern of the Sun, and no one expected that fire would do any service. But Providence ordered it so that the Wind and Flame overpower’d the Tide, and drove her back on the only part of the Royal Sun where she could be lain on board, viz. on her stern; and so she was burnt, having several hundreds of Men on board when she was set on fire; but Tourville went ashore yester- day in his Boat. She was a Ship of about 108 Guns, and by all relation as goodly a Ship as ever was seen. Another Fire- ship went aboard another Three-deck’d-ship, called the Conquerant, and burnt her without much opposition. When the Men in the third Ship had seen two of their Consorts thus burn, they got away as fast as they could from her, and left her to be fired by our Boats. The third Fire-ship which was sent in run aground, and was fired by her own Com- pany, that she might not be left for the Enemy. All day we had good weather and fine Westerly Gales. At one in the afternoon we weighed, and sailed from Cheirburg and joined Sir John Ashby and Admiral Almondee, and at eight at night anchored four leagues from Cape de Hague, which bore West-south-west.

May 23. Sir John Ashby and the Dutch Admiral having left off their Chace before we came up with them, we all together at six this morning weighed and stood to the East- ward. At ten or eleven we discovered our Fleet about two leagues to the Northward of La Hogue, and at two we anchored by them, they having chaced into La Hogue thirteen sail of the French. In the afternoon Vice-Admiral Rook, and about Ten sail of Third and Fourth Rates, by the Admiral’s orders weighed, and went in almost within shot of the Ships, but the Pilots would not carry them farther in by reason of the Shoal Water, besides several Banks which are on that Coast. TheVice-Admiral shifted his Flag in the Eagle, and besides the Ships that were with him, he had all the Barges and Pinnaces of the Fleet to attend him, well mann’d and arm’d. In the evening he sent in a Fire-ship and all the Boats to destroy the Six Ships that lay outmost. The Fire-ship ran ashore, but was got off the next day. As soon as the French saw our Boats with a Fire-ship coming near them, they all quitted their Ships, being afraid of being served as the poor Fellows were at Cheirburg the day before. Our Boat was the first that got aboard any of the Ships. Lieutenant Paul entered a Three-Deck Ship, and found no creature aboard, so he ordered the Boats Crew to cut Chips and lay them together in order to set her on Fire, which was soon done. My Lord Danby burnt his face as he was blowing Tow and Oakam, &c. to set another Ship on fire, some Gun-powder taking fire near him. The whole mob of Boats went from Ship to Ship untill they burnt the six, notwithstanding they were within less than Musket shot of the Town, a small Fort of about six or eight Guns. But as the Ships were burning, their Guns which were all loaden went off, and the Bullets flying all round, so disordered all the Men on the Shore, that they quitted their Posts.

May 24. This morning all the Boats and Fire-ships were again ordered in to destroy Seven Sail more, that were got at least a mile above the Town. The Fire-ships ran ashore, and not being able to get off were burnt by our own Men; but though the Fire-ships met with such bad success, yet our Boats met with better, and did execution even beyond expectation, for they not only burnt the seven Men of War, but also at least Twenty vessels supposed to be Transport Ships designed for England, and every thing they met with so far as they went. In the whole Action (both overnight and this morning) we lost not ten Men. They plainly saw King James’s Camp and Standard near La Hogue from their Boats. By Noon our Boats were all returned with French Colours flying as Trophies, which occasioned this mistake: in the evening the Admiral sent his Boat towards the Shore with a Flag of Truce, to know what they would have done with the Prisoners, and whether they would have them put ashore or not; but the People on the Shore thinking the White Flag was designed only to insult over them, as was done in the Morning, fired at the Boat, and would not let her come near the Land.

May 25. But one Captain Macdonnell was sent off with a Flag of Truce to excuse it. This Morning at eight we and the whole Fleet came to sail with small Gales between the East and South-east. At twelve Cape Barfleur bore North- west by West three or four leagues off. At two in the after- noon the Admiral of the Blue, a Vice and Rear-Admiral of the Dutch, with about thirty Sail anchored, being left by the General to destroy three or four more of the French, which we heard were ashore farther to the Eastward, whilst all the rest stood to the Northward.

May 26. Moderate Easterly Gales and thick Weather. At four this evening we all anchored at Saint Helen’s. May 29. Admiral of the Blue and all we left behind, came hither, having done nothing. June 4. We and all the Ships that had been much damaged in the Engagement, ran into Spithead to refit, and this day our Carpenters began to work.

After the Battle of La Hogue the French resorted to the guerre de corse, cruising against merchant shipping. The French won battles on land at Fleurus (1690), Steenkerke (1692) and Neerwinden (1693). The War of the Grand Alliance finally ended at the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697. On the American continent the conflict was known as King William’s War.



A German twin propelled Messerschmitt BF 110 bomber, nicknamed “Fliegender Haifisch” (Flying Shark), over the English Channel, in August of 1940.

After Dunkirk, the rhetoric of Prime Minister Winston Churchill made it seem as though the fighters of the Royal Air Force had snatched a victory out of the overall tide of defeat that had swept away the British Expeditionary Force. The reality was somewhat different; the losses sustained by RAF Fighter Command and the Luftwaffe during the evacuation phase were about even, while the French campaign as a whole had cost Air Chief Marshal Dowding’s Command 453 Hurricanes and Spitfires.

While Fighter Command strove to make good its losses during June 1940, Bomber and Coastal Commands both stepped up their offensive operations against enemy targets. In Coastal Command’s case, this involved intensifying attacks on enemy shipping, with particular reference to convoys, off the Dutch coast; night attacks were also made by Lockheed Hudsons on Dutch oil targets and harbour installations. Bomber Command, while concentrating on attacking communications and oil targets in Germany, and on minelaying activities, also carried out limited attacks on coastal targets in the Channel area; on the night of 13/14 June, for example, Handley Page Hampdens bombed the docks at Boulogne and Dunkirk.

From 5 June, the Luftwaffe was also active, small numbers of bombers attacking ‘fringe’ targets on the east and south-east coasts of England. These attacks caused little significant damage; their main purpose was to provide the German bomber crews with operational and navigational experience. On both sides, great care was exercised in avoiding damage to civilian property and loss of life. As one Ju 88 pilot, Kapitän Hajo Herrmann, later recorded:

We were allocated important strategic and military targets off the east coast of England, the oil refineries at Thames Haven and the nitrogen works at Billingham [the latter in the north-east of England]. We dive-bombed them under a full moon, with strict instructions either to bring our bombs home or look for shipping targets if we were unable to identify our main target quite clearly. I always flew on ahead and gave the others clearance to attack only after I had recognised the target positively and had put down one or two benzol bombs.

Many coastal reconnaissance and minelaying operations were undertaken in the Channel area during this phase by Heinkel He 115 floatplanes.

On 30 June, the C-in-C of the Luftwaffe, Reichsmarschall Hermann Goring, issued a general directive setting out the aims of the planned air assault on Britain. The Luftwaffe’s main target was to be the Royal Air Force, with particular emphasis on its fighter airfields and aircraft factories; as long as Fighter Command remained unbeaten, the Luftwaffe’s first priority must be to attack it by day and night at every opportunity, in the air and on the ground, until it was destroyed. Only then would the Luftwaffe be free to turn its attention to other targets, such as the Royal Navy’s dockyards and operational harbours, as a preliminary to invasion.

On 3 July the Luftwaffe carried out its first daylight attacks on the English coast. Among other targets, the forward airfield at Manston in Kent was attacked by a small force of Dornier Do 17s, which came in at low level and dropped anti-personnel bombs on the landing area. The only damage was to a lawnmower. On the following day the Germans began flying fighter sweeps over south-east England. Dowding and the Air Officer Commanding No. 11 Group Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park, refused to be drawn, and it was not until 7 July that there was serious skirmishes, the RAF losing six aircraft and the Luftwaffe five. Three of the aircraft were Spitfires of No. 65 Squadron from Hornchurch, bounced by Messerschmitt 109s.

On the morning of 10 July – the date generally accepted as marking the start of the Battle of Britain – a Dornier Do 17P reconnaissance aircraft of 2/Fernaufklärungsgruppe 11 sighted a large coastal convoy off the North Foreland, heading south-west for the Straits of Dover. Although escorted by Me 190s of I/JG 51, the Dornier was attacked and severely damaged by Spitfires of No. 74 Squadron from Manston, eventually crash-landing near Boulogne with the loss of three of its four crew. But the damage had been done, and the Germans were now fully alerted to the passage of the convoy, code-named Bread.

At about 1030, a Staffel of Me 109s appeared over the Channel, sweeping parallel to the Kentish coast. Nine Spitfires were scrambled from Biggin Hill to intercept them and, in a brief but inconclusive engagement, one Spitfire of No. 610 Squadron was hit in the port wing and had to make an emergency landing at Hawkinge.

The main action began after 1330, when the CH radar station at Dover detected a build-up of considerable size behind Cap Gris Nez and passed on the information to HQ No. 11 Group at Uxbridge. As the enemy force – consisting of 24 Dornier 17s of KG 2, closely escorted by 20 Me 110s of ZG 26 Horst Wessel, with a similar number of Me 109s of JG 51 flying top cover – was plotted leaving the enemy coast, five squadrons of Hurricanes and Spitfires were scrambled to intercept. In the battle that followed one Me 109 was shot down into the Thames Estuary and two more crash-landed in France after sustaining damage. The twin-engined Me 110 Zerstörer, which had performed well against inferior opposition over Poland and France, suffered heavily; ZG 26 lost three aircraft over Folkestone and two more were damaged by RAF fighters as they fled across the Channel. Of KG 2’s Dorniers, two were destroyed – one when a Hurricane of No. 111 Squadron collided with it – and three others were damaged.

The RAF’s only combat loss during the action was Hurricane P3671 of No. 111 Squadron, which had collided with the Dornier whilst under attack by a 109 of JG 51, losing a wing. The pilot, Flying Officer T.P.K. Higgs, baled out but was killed. Three other 111 Squadron Hurricanes were damaged, one by friendly fire; three Spitfires of No. 74 Squadron also received damage, and although some of the RAF fighters had to make crash-landings their pilots were unhurt and all the aircraft were repairable.

The determined RAF fighter attacks, together with some accurate anti-aircraft fire – especially at Dover, where the barrage was radar-directed – had made it impossible for the Dorniers to make a co-ordinated attack on the convoy, although they did succeed in sinking one small ship. Away to the west, however, the Luftwaffe enjoyed better fortune.

While the attack on the Bread convoy was still in progress, 63 Junkers Ju 88s of Luftflott 3 approached the Cornish coast from the west, confusing the radar controllers at Dry Tree, on Lizard Point. Splitting up, the enemy force attacked Falmouth and Swansea, its bombs falling on railways, ships at anchor and a munitions factory, causing 86 casualties. It was a grim foretaste of what the population of southern England would suffer in the weeks to come, and to make matters worse the raiders escaped unscathed. Because of the radar confusion, Spitfires of No. 92 Squadron were not scrambled from Pembrey in time to make an interception; in fact, the only RAF pilot to come near the Ju 88s was Wing Commander Ira (‘Taffy’) Jones, the World War I ace with 40 recorded victories. Taking-off from a training airfield in an unarmed Hawker Henley target tug, he chased a Ju 88 out to sea, firing Very flares at it and doubtless cursing his lack of guns and ammunition. Jones’ exploit reinforced the view of many Fighter Command pilots that the Henley – originally developed as a fast light bomber, but never used in that role – might have been used to good effect against enemy bombers if fitted with machine-guns. Capable of nearly 300mph (480kmh), it would at least have taken some of the strain from the hard-pressed Spitfire and Hurricane squadrons. About 200 were in service in 1940.

Thursday 11 July saw more fierce fighting over the Channel; when the day ended the Luftwaffe had lost 15 aircraft to the RAF’s six. It was on this day that the Junkers Ju 87 dive-bomber entered the battle, with aircraft of LG 1 and StG 2 attacking Portland. Two Stukas were shot down, and the inferiority of their escorting Me 110s was again demonstrated in dramatic fashion when four were shot down by RAF fighters, two off Portland and one off the Ney Breakwater. The fourth crash-landed at Grange Heath near Lulworth after being attacked by pilots of Nos. 238, 87 and 601 Squadrons, in that order. All the Me 110s belonged to 9/ZG 76.

Not all the successes of 11 July belonged to Fighter Command. Early in the morning, an Avro Anson of No. 217 Squadron, based at St Eval in Cornwall, was on patrol over the Channel when the Coastal Command crew sighted a Heinkel He 59 floatplane, the type used by the German air-sea rescue service. It was also found suspiciously close to British coastal convoys from time to time. This example, belonging to Seenotflugkommando 1 and bearing the civil registration D-ASOU, was damaged by the Anson and forced down into the Channel. Its four-man crew took to their dinghy and were later picked up drifting near the Channel Islands; the aircraft was retrieved by the Royal Navy and beached at Walmer Harbour, Kent.

Actions against south coast targets and Channel shipping also resulted in the loss of several Heinkel He 111s on 11 July. I/IKG 1 lost two aircraft and had a third damaged during night operations against coastal towns on 10/11 July, and in the early evening RAF fighters destroyed two Heinkels of KG 55 in an attack on Portsmouth, damaging a third so badly that it was a write-off. The Luftwaffe also lost two Dornier 17s and a Ju 88 during the day’s operations.

The Heinkels suffered even more heavily on 12 July, five being shot down and a sixth damaged beyond repair. All the Heinkels except one, which belonged to KG 26 and was shot down over Aberdeen, were engaged in attacks on convoys off Aldeburgh and Orfordness. Two Dornier 17s and a Ju 88 were also shot down. The fight, however, was not all one-sided; return fire from the bombers – especially the Do 17s – was very accurate, accounting for two Hurricanes destroyed and a number damaged.

Saturday 13 July, was hailed as a major success for the Hurricanes of No. 56 Squadron from North Weald, which intercepted a force of Ju 87s and their fighter escort over Portland. The Hurricane pilots claimed the destruction of seven Stukas; in fact, all the enemy dive-bombers returned to base except two which made forced landings in France. One of the Me 110 escorts was shot down and three suffered heavy damage. Elsewhere, Hurricanes of No. 238 Squadron shot down a Dornier 17 reconnaissance aircraft off Chesil Beach, while Spitfires destroyed an Me 109 south of Dover. In the day’s action, No. 56 Squadron lost two Hurricanes and No. 238 Squadron one.

During this phase, Air Chief Marshal Dowding, anxious to preserve his fighter strength, committed the Hurricanes and Spitfires to convoy protection work in relatively small numbers; fighter cover was only increased when a convoy reached the perilous waters of the Dover Straits, although the forward coastal airfields of Fighter Command were reinforced on 19 July, when an improvement in the weather brought expectations of greater enemy activity. In fact, this day proved a black one for the Command, which lost ten fighters against four Luftwaffe aircraft shot down. Six of the RAF aircraft were the hapless Boulton Paul Defiants of No. 141 Squadron from West Mailing, which were bounced by the Me 109s of III/JG 51 off Dover and shot down in flames one after the other. Ten of the squadron’s pilots and air gunners were lost.

There were several major engagements over the Dover Straits during the last days of July, and the entry in the war diary of No. 32 Squadron, operating out of Biggin Hill, is fairly typical of an 11 Group unit during this period:

20 July 1940. Convoy escort, 10 miles east of Dover. At 17.58 hours with 610 Squadron, intercepted a raid on the convoy by about fifty Junkers Ju 87s and Messerschmitt 110s, escorted by Messerschmitt 109Es. Led by S/L Worrall the Squadron shot down six of the enemy (3 Me 110s, 2 Me 109s and one Ju 87) and damaged four others (all Me 109s). One Hurricane was lost but the pilot, F/Lt Bulmer, is reported to have baled out near North Foreland. Sgt Higgins was slightly wounded in the face by splinters from bullets striking his protecting armour.

Also typically, the claims in the above report are wildly exaggerated. In all probability, No. 32 Squadron scored no success that day. No Me 110s were lost on operations, and the five Me 109s confirmed as destroyed were attributed to other fighter squadrons. Nor did the Luftwaffe lose any Ju 87s, although four made forced landings in France with varying degrees of damage. In all, the Germans lost 14 aircraft on 20 July, the RAF nine fighters.

On 25 July the Luftwaffe adopted a change of tactics, sending out strong fighter sweeps to draw the RAF fighters into battle before launching its bomber attacks. As a consequence, 60 Ju 87 Stukas were able to bomb a convoy with impunity while the fighters of No. 11 Group were on the ground refuelling. Later in the day, the convoy was attacked by 30 Ju 88s, escorted by about 50 Me 109s. The attacks continued until 1830 hours; 15 of Dowding’s fighter squadrons were engaged in the course of the day, destroying 16 enemy aircraft for the loss of eight of their own, all Spitfires.

In four weeks of operations over the English Channel, the Luftwaffe had sunk 40,000 tons of British shipping, including three destroyers. Combat losses during the month’s air fighting were Luftwaffe 190, RAF Fighter Command 77, of which 46 were Hurricanes – the aircraft which had borne the brunt of the fighting, and would continue to do so. Fifty RAF fighter pilots were killed or missing, and with German preparations for the invasion of England clearly under way, the loss was serious. It was already apparent that such a continued rate of attrition would be extremely hard, if not impossible, to make good.

There followed a comparative lull lasting a week. Then, on 8 August, Hurricanes were at the forefront of a furious air battle that developed when large formations of Ju 87s, under strong fighter escort, attacked a 250-ship convoy code-named Peewit off the Isle of Wight. One of the Hurricane squadrons involved was No. 145 from Westhampnett, led by Squadron Leader J.R.A. Peel. The RAF pilots were about to engage a Stuka formation when they were themselves bounced by 109s and forced on the defensive. Two of the squadron’s Hurricanes, one of them Peel’s, were shot down; the CO was rescued from the sea off Boulogne. That day’s fighting cost the RAF 15 Hurricanes and Spitfires against 21 enemy aircraft destroyed; it was the biggest loss sustained by Fighter Command since the offensive began. The RAF’s losses for 8 August included a number of aircraft destroyed in air actions over Dover and the Thames Estuary, when six squadrons of Hurricanes and two of Spitfires intercepted two heavy raids carried out under strong fighter escort. Six Hurricanes were lost in these battles, the others claiming six enemy aircraft.

The Peewit convoy, meanwhile, had lost six ships, three sunk by S-boats before dawn and the others by air attack. Several more were damaged. It was the first convoy to attempt a passage through the Dover Straits in daylight since 25 July, in the day of furious action when S-Boats and bombers had sunk or badly damaged 11 out of 21 ships, mostly colliers. Peewit was unfortunate in that the enemy had been alerted to its presence by a newly-completed coastal radar station at Wissant (Ushant), one of several experimental stations that were being set up along the arc of coast from the Friesian Islands to the Cherbourg Peninsula. It was to be some time before the British became aware that radar – or radio locations, as it was still known – was no longer their sole monopoly.

Bad weather frustrated operations on 9 and 10 August, the latter originally scheduled as Adlertag– Eagle Day, the start of the German air offensive proper – but on the 11th four heavy air attacks were launched on Dover and Portland. The Dover raids were intercepted by the Hurricanes of Nos. 1, 17, 32, 56, 85 and 111 Squadrons, which claimed 11 enemy aircraft for the loss of nine of their own, and by the Spitfires of Nos. 64, 65 and 74 Squadrons, which claimed five for the loss of three. Five of the shot-down Hurricanes belonged to No. 111 Squadron, which could claim only one Messerschmitt 109 in return, and worse than the loss of the aircraft was the fact that four of the pilots were killed. The attack on Portland, carried out by Ju 88s with an escort of Me 110s, was broken up by 16 Hurricanes of Nos. 87, 213 and 218 Squadrons, together with ten Spitfires of Nos. 152 and 603; nine enemy aircraft were shot down for the loss of five RAF fighters. There were more skirmishes in the afternoon as the Germans attempted to bomb a convoy, and the day ended with 35 enemy aircraft destroyed for the loss of 30 Hurricanes and Spitfires. Since the beginning of July the Luftwaffe had lost 274 aircraft, the RAF 124.

On 12 August, the Luftwaffe switched the weight of its attacks to the coastal radar stations and the forward airfields of Manston, Lympne and Hawkinge. That morning, 24 hours before the main offensive was due to begin, 21 Messerschmitt 109s and 110s took off from Calais-Marck airfield and set course out over the Channel. They belonged to Erprobungsgruppe 210; the only unit of its kind in the Luftwaffe, its aircraft had all been fitted with racks enabling them to carry 500- and 1,000lb (225 and 450kg) bombs. On the previous day the Gruppe had tried out the idea operationally for the first time when 24 Messerschmitts dive-bombed convoy Booty off the Harwich–Clacton coastline, setting two freighters on fire. The German aircraft had been intercepted by the Spitfires of No. 74 Squadron, but all had returned to base.

On the morning of 12 August, Erprobungsgruppe 210’s targets were the radar stations at Dover, Pevensey and Rye. At 1100 hours, Me 110s dropped eight 1,000lb (450kg) bombs on the Pevensey station, while the remainder of the Gruppe attacked the masts at Rye and Dover. Although the bombs caused some damage, all three stations were operational again within three hours.

It was a different story at Ventnor on the Isle of Wight, where the radar station was attacked 30 minutes later by 15 Junkers 88s of KG 51 and KG 54. Their bombing was extremely accurate and the station was damaged beyond repair. To cover up the dangerous gap created by the loss of the Ventnor station, the British transmitted a false signal on the wrecked transmitter’s frequency; the German listening-posts on the other side of the Channel believed that Ventnor was still fully operational. In fact it was only after 11 days of non-stop work that another station was brought into action on the Isle of Wight.

While Ventnor was under attack, around 75 more Ju 88s dive-bombed Portsmouth harbour, Portland and industrial targets in Portsmouth and Southampton, including the Supermarine Spitfire production plant at Woolston. The Ju 88s made their attack through the balloon barrage and intense anti-aircraft fire put up by shore batteries and ships in the harbour. Their bombs caused substantial damage, especially in Portsmouth, and 100 or so casualties. But the attack cost the Luftwaffe dearly; ten Ju 88s failed to return, falling victim either to the anti-aircraft barrage, the Spitfires of No. 152 Squadron or the Hurricanes of No. 213. Five Me 110s and an Me 109, escorting the bombers, were also destroyed.

At noon, the CHL radar station at Foreness, untouched by the morning’s attacks, reported 50 plus hostiles off North Foreland. They were Junkers Ju 87s, and they were searching for two Channel convoys, Agent and Arena. The attack on the latter was successful, the escorting fighters keeping the Spitfires and Hurricanes at arm’s length, and several vessels were sunk or damaged, but the attack on Agent was beaten off, albeit at the cost of four Hurricanes destroyed. All the Ju 87s returned to base.

In parallel with these attacks, a force of Dornier 17s of KG 2 raided the airfield at Lympne with showers of 100lb (45kg) bombs, causing some damage to the hangars, tarmac and buildings. Then, at 1330 hours, it was once again the turn of Erprobungsgruppe 210; 20 Messerschmitts swept across the airfield at Manston and dropped their bombs just as a flight of Spitfires of No. 65 Squadron was preparing to take-off. The Spitfires got airborne amid the exploding bombs and climbed for altitude, but the raiders had gone. Manston was temporarily put out of action. Later that afternoon the German bombers struck at Hawkinge and again at Lympne; both airfields were heavily damaged, and all through the night personnel worked like slaves to repair the cratered runways.

By nightfall on 12 August the Luftwaffe had despatched 300 bombers, with as many escorting fighters, against British targets. The Germans had lost 27 aircraft, the RAF 20; and the main offensive had yet to develop.


A formation of low-flying German Heinkel He 111 bombers flies over the waves of the English Channel in 1940.

There was a significant development on 12 August and it had nothing to do with the air battle. Soon after the Luftwaffe completed its attack on the radar stations, heavy-calibre shells from a German long-range battery across the Channel exploded in Dover. It was the town’s first experience of such an attack, but it would not be the last.

During the night, the Luftwaffe carried out several harassing attacks on coastal targets, including the docks at Bristol. During this raid, a Heinkel He 111 of KG 27 crash-landed at Sturminster Marshall, near Wimborne, Dorset, after being abandoned by its crew, who were all taken prisoner. The Heinkel had been attacked by a Blenheim night-fighter equipped with highly secret, and still very experimental, AI radar.

At 0730 the next morning the Luftflotten stood ready to launch the first attacks of Adlertag, but at the last minute H-Hour was postponed because of bad weather. The Dornier 17s of KG 2, however, failed to receive the signal in time; they took off in fog and rain and set course for the English coast without fighter escort. The 55 Dorniers were tracked by radar and Air Vice-Marshal Park scrambled two squadrons of Hurricanes and a squadron of Spitfires, dividing them between the damaged airfields at Hawkinge and Manston and a convoy in the Thames Estuary. He also ordered most of a squadron of Hurricanes to patrol between Arundel and Petworth, leaving behind one section to cover their home base of Tangmere, near Chichester. Lastly, a squadron of Hurricanes orbiting over Canterbury could be called upon to support any of the other units engaging the enemy. Further west the Air Officer Commanding No. 10 Group, Air Vice-Marshal Quintin Brand, scrambled a squadron of Hurricanes to patrol the Dorset coast. Another squadron and a half of Hurricanes were held on immediate readiness at Exeter.

Flying in tight information, just under the cloud base, the Dorniers passed over Eastchurch airfield and unloaded their bombs on the runways, hangars and parked aircraft. At that moment the raiders were attacked by the Spitfires of No. 74 Squadron from Hornchurch, led by Squadron Leader A.G. Malan. One of the Dorniers was shot down and the remainder scattered, climbing towards the clouds. The battle was then joined by the Hurricanes of No. 151 Squadron, under Squadron Leader E.M. Donaldson, followed a few minutes later by the Hurricanes of No. 111 led by Squadron Leader J.M. Thompson, and a fierce air battle developed over the Thames Estuary. By the time the bombers reached the shelter of the clouds four more had been destroyed.

At 1130 hours, 23 Me 110s of Zerstörer-Lehrgeschwader 1 took off from their airfield near Caen with orders to patrol the English south coast near Portland. Although they were picked up by radar as they crossed the French coast near Cherbourg, and although their strength was correctly reported as ‘twenty plus bandits’, the radar could not tell what type of aircraft they were. Since Dowding had given orders that his Spitfires and Hurricanes were to avoid combat with enemy fighters if possible (a fact that had been known to the Germans since late July, thanks to Luftwaffe signals intelligence, which had intercepted transmissions between RAF Sector Controllers and patrolling fighters) the controllers of No. 11 Group would probably not have scrambled any fighter squadrons had they known the identity of the enemy aircraft. In the event three squadrons took off from Tangmere, Warmwell and Exeter to intercept the enemy, and in so doing fell into the very trap that Dowding had been trying to avoid. The Germans planned that when their bombers eventually arrived they would catch the Spitfires and Hurricanes on the ground as they refuelled and re-armed.

The Hurricanes engaged the Me 110s over the coast and the German fighters immediately adopted a defensive circle. Three Hurricanes were forced to break off the action with battle damage, but five Me 110s went down into the sea, and five more returned to France severely hit. The action once again highlighted the heavy, twin-engined Me 110’s vulnerability in combat with lighter, more manoeuvrable fighters, and to make matters worse ZLG l’s mission had failed. The unit had drawn three British fighter squadrons on to itself so that the bombers could slip through according to plan – but the bombers did not come for another three hours, by which time the RAF fighter squadrons were ready for them once more.

At 1500 hours, 52 Junkers 87s of StG 2 took off from their base at Flers to attack RAF airfields in the Portland area. They were escorted by the Me 109s of JG 27. However, southern England was hidden under a blanket of cloud, making a dive-bombing attack out of the question, and the Stukas circled over the coast in search of a target. Within minutes their fighter escort was being hotly engaged by a strong force of Hurricanes from Exeter and Middle Wallop, while 15 Spitfires of No. 609 Squadron attacked the bombers. Five of the Stukas were quickly shot down; the remainder jettisoned their bombs and fled for home.

The next wave of bombers, approaching the coast a few minutes later, ran into the hornets’ nest stirred up by StG 2. They were the Ju 88s of KG 54, and they used the cloud cover to good advantage. One formation dropped its bombs on Southampton harbour, while others dived on the airfield at Middle Wallop, one of Fighter Command’s vital sector stations. The bombs caused only light damage, but severe damage was inflicted by another Ju 88 formation at Andover, a few miles away. Three Ju 88s were shot down and 11 returned with battle damage, some making crash-landings.

Meanwhile, over Kent, No. 11 Group was having a hard time. General Bruno Loerzer’s II Fliegerkorps has sent in both its Stuka-Geschwader, as well as a third from VIII Fliegerkorps, preceded by the Me 109s of JG 26. The Messerschmitts were able to beat off a flight of Spitfires from Kenley, allowing the 86 Junkers 87s to proceed unmolested to their target, the airfield of Detling near Maidstone. Fifteen minutes later the airfield lay in ruins; the hangars were burning, the operations room was wrecked, the station commander was dead and 20 British aircraft were destroyed. It was a brilliant attack, and in terms of its execution was highly successful. But there were no RAF fighters at Detling; it was a Coastal Command station. Nevertheless, among the aircraft destroyed were eight Blenheims of No. 53 Squadron, recently deployed there to carry out attacks on the enemy-held Channel ports.

At the close of Adlertag the Luftwaffe had flown 485 sorties, mostly against RAF airfields; three had been badly damaged, but none was a fighter base. The cost to the Luftwaffe was 34 aircraft; the RAF lost 13 aircraft and seven pilots. On 14 August, operations against the British Isles were hampered by bad weather. Nevertheless, attacks by small numbers of aircraft on Manston, Dover, Middle Wallop and Sealand cost the Luftwaffe bombers and six fighters, while the RAF lost five Hurricanes and a Spitfire, together with three Blenheim fighters of No. 600 Squadron destroyed on the ground during an attack on Manston by Me 110s of Erpobungsgruppe 210.

At 1030 hours on 15 August patches of blue sky began to show through the grey overcast which had stretched from horizon to horizon since dawn, and by 1100 the clouds had broken up completely. A few minutes later, 40 Stukas of II Fliergerkorps, escorted by a similar number of Me 109s, crossed the French coast near Cap Blanc Bez. Their targets were the airfields of Lympne and Hawkinge. As they approached the English coast they were met by the Spitfires of No. 64 Squadron and the Hurricanes of No. 501, but these were held at bay by the 109s and the Stukas caused severe damage at Lympne, putting the airfield out of action for two days. The damage was less severe at Hawkinge, where one hangar was hit and a barrack block destroyed.

The battle now shifted to the north, where two Geschwader of Luftflotte 5, operating from bases in Norway and Denmark, attempted to attack airfields and industrial targets in the Tyne–Tees area and in Yorkshire. The raids were intercepted by seven RAF fighter squadrons, which destroyed eight Heinkel 111s, six Junkers 88s and eight escorting Me 110s for the loss of one Hurricane. In mid-afternoon the battle flared up again in the south, when a major raid was mounted by the Dornier 17s of KG 3 from St Trond and Antwerp-Deurne, in Belgium. Over the coast they made rendezvous with their fighter escort, the Me 109s of JG 51, 52 and 54. The German formation was detected by radar as it assembled over Belgium and northern France, and as it headed across the Channel 11 RAF fighter squadrons – about 130 Spitfires and Hurricanes – were scrambled. Such was the diversity of the incoming raid plots, however, that the fighters were shuttled to and fro by the sector controllers with no real co-ordination. For example, the Hurricanes of No. 17 Squadron were patrolling the Thames Estuary when they received an urgent recall to their base at Martlesham Heath, north of Harwich. While still a long distance away the pilots could see columns of smoke rising from Martlesham, and when they arrived overhead they found that the airfield had been badly hit. Unnoticed and without any opposition, Erprobungsgruppe 210’s 24 bomb-carrying Messerschmitts had slipped in at low level, bombed, and got clear before anyone had a chance to fire a shot. It was 36 hours before the field could be made serviceable once more. Meanwhile, the Dorniers of KG 3 had split into two waves, one heading for Eastchurch and the other for Rochester. At the latter target their bombs caused severe damage to the Short aircraft factory, setting back production of the Stirling bomber by several months.

So far, Kesselring’s Luftflotte 2 had been attacking across the Straits of Dover. Now it was the turn of Sperrle’s Luftflotte 3; 120 miles (190km) to the south-west, his units were forming up over their airfields. At 1645 the Junkers 88s of LG 1 began taking off from Orleans, followed 15 minutes later by the Ju 87s of StG 1 from Cherbourg. The bombers rendezvoused with the Me 109s of JG 26 and JG 53 and the Me 110s of ZG 2, and the whole armada of more than 200 aircraft set course for the English coast.

The Germans, however, had thrown away their tactical advantage. The time elapsing between the raids had enabled Park and Brand to take adequate counter-measures, and to meet the attackers they were able to put up 14 fighter squadrons – a total of 170 aircraft, the biggest number of fighters the RAF had so far committed to the battle at any one time.

The Spitfires and Hurricanes met the bombers over the coast and concentrated on the Ju 88s, destroying nine of them in a matter of minutes and breaking up the enemy formation. Of the 15 aircraft of II/LG 1, only three managed to break through to their target, the Fleet Air Arm base at Worthy Down, north-east of Southampton. The others jettisoned their bombs and turned for home, under continual attack. II/LG 1 lost two Ju 88s, and IV/LG 1 three aircraft out of seven. I/LG 1 was more fortunate. Its 12 Ju 88s had been the first to cross the coast, and had managed to achieve an element of surprise. They dived on Middle Wallop, just a fraction too late to catch two fighter squadrons on the ground. The last Spitfires of No. 609 Squadron were just taking off when the bombs exploded among the hangars. It was the third raid on Middle Wallop in three days. During the attack the German pilots had the impression that they were bombing Andover; apparently they still did not know that Middle Wallop was a much more important sector station.

The fact that the Ju 88s bore the brunt of the RAF fighter attacks probably saved the vulnerable Ju 87 Stukas from a severe mauling. Even so, six were shot down. But it was the Messerschmitt 110 that suffered the worst attrition of the day. While I and III/ZG 76 had been detached to escort the northern attacks, losing eight of their number, the Geschwader’s other units had been operating in support of the cross-Channel operations, during which they lost 12 aircraft. Together with the destruction of an aircraft of ZG 2 over the Channel, this brought Me 110 losses during the morning and afternoon to 21 aircraft, and the day was by no means over.

At 1830 hours, 15 Me 110s and eight Me 109s of Erprobungsgruppe 210 set out over the Channel, escorted by the Me 109s of JG 52. Their target was Kenley, south of London, but they made a navigational error and bombed Croydon by mistake, destroying 40 training aircraft, killing 68 people and injuring 192, mostly civilians. As they were carrying out their attack they were intercepted by the Hurricanes of Nos. 32 and 111 Squadrons and four Me 110s were quickly shot down. The remainder ran for the Channel, but near the coast they were attacked by the Spitfires of No. 66 Squadron and two more were destroyed, together with an Me 109.

As night fell on 15 August, both sides retired to lick their wounds and assess their losses and victories. The Luftwaffe had flown 1,270 fighter and 250 bomber sorties during the day, and the Germans had lost 71 aircraft, mostly bombers and Me 110s. The RAF’s loss was 31.

On 16 August the Luftwaffe returned in force and struck at Brize Norton, Manston, West Mailing, Tangmere, Gosport, Lee-on-Solent, Farnborough and Harwell. Forty-six training aircraft were destroyed at Brize Norton, and the radar station at Ventnor on the Isle of Wight was bombed once more. In the afternoon the weather clamped down again, and although Luftflotte 2 sent out a force of bombers to attack the fighter airfields of Debden, Duxford, North Weald and Hornchurch the raiders were forced to turn back, unable to find their targets under a thick blanket of cloud. Despite the sporadic nature of the fighting, air combats during the day cost the Luftwaffe 44 aircraft and the RAF 22. It was on this day that Flight Lieutenant J.B. Nicholson of No. 249 Squadron, patrolling near Southampton in a Hurricane, was attacked by a Me 110. Cannon shells wounded Nicholson in the leg and eye and set his aircraft on fire, yet he remained in the blazing cockpit and managed to shoot down his attacker before baling out, severely burned. He was awarded the Victoria Cross, the only one to be won by RAF Fighter Command.

On Sunday 18 August, following another spell of bad weather, the Germans launched a series of heavy attacks on the sector stations of Kenley and Biggin Hill. These attacks were carried out mainly by the Dornier 17s of KG 76, which, despite their fighter escort, suffered heavily, losing six aircraft with several more damaged. Two Ju 88s operating with KG 76 (the Geschwader was in the process of re-equipping with the new type) were also destroyed. The most fearful German loss of the day, however, was sustained by the Ju 87 Stukas of StG 77, which set out to attack the airfields at Ford, Gosport and Thorney Island, together with the radar site at Poley on the south coast. They were intercepted by the Hurricanes of No. 43 Squadron and the Spitfires of No. 152, which destroyed no fewer than 18 of the dive-bombers and damaged five more. It was the last time that the Stuka appeared in British skies.

StG 77 was not the only Luftwaffe formation to suffer heavily that day: ZG 26, flying escort missions, lost 15 Me 110s to RAF fighters, while the single-engined fighter Geschwader lost 16 Me 109s between them. KG 53, attacking North Weald, lost four Heinkel 111s. The total Luftwaffe loss for 18 August was 66 aircraft; the RAF lost 35 fighters.

From 19 to 23 August inclusive, air action was confined to skirmishing as both sides rested and regrouped. During this period the Luftwaffe lost 27 aircraft, the RAF 11 fighters. 23 August saw the radar station at Ventnor back in operation again. The weather continued to improve steadily, and the Luftwaffe resumed its attacks on RAF ground installations. The next day, 24 August, North Weald was heavily bombed, together with Hornchurch, Manston and Portsmouth naval base. By noon Manston had ceased to function, although Hornchurch escaped with relatively light damage. The airfield attacks cost the Germans seven Ju 88s and four He 111s. In all, the Luftwaffe lost 30 aircraft during the day, and Fighter Command 20. Among the latter were four Boulton Paul Defiants of No. 264 Squadron, shot down during an engagement over the Channel. Three more Defiants were damaged.

That night, during attacks on targets in the London area, some bomber crews made a navigational error and dropped bombs on London itself – an act that was to have a far-reaching effect on the future conduct of the battle. On the night of 25/26 August, following a day that had seen heavy German raids on Portland, Weymouth, Warmwell and Dover, RAF Bomber Command attacked Berlin for the first time, aiming at industrial targets in the city by way of reprisal for the previous night’s raid on London. The attack was hampered by thick cloud. Of the 81 aircraft despatched (Wellingtons, Whitleys and Hampdens of Nos. 3, 4 and 5 Groups) 29 claimed to have bombed Berlin. Six aircraft, all Hampdens, failed to return; three ditched in the sea and their crews were rescued.

From 1100 on 26 August, fighters of No. 11 Group fought a running battle between Canterbury and Maidstone with 50 bombers escorted by 80 fighters. In this action, No. 616 Squadron lost five out of 12 Spitfires, No. 264 Squadron lost three more Defiants, and No. 1 (Canadian) Squadron three Hurricanes, but an attempted raid on Biggin Hill was broken up. All available squadrons were committed to intercept a further attack by 40 Dornier 17s of KG 2 and KG 3 on Debden and Hornchurch airfields, escorted by 120 fighters; the latter were compelled to withdraw through lack of fuel and the bombers suffered heavily, 11 Dorniers being shot down. A third major attack, by 50 Heinkel 111s of KG 55 escorted by 107 fighters, was intercepted by three RAF squadrons and four bombers were destroyed. The Luftwaffe’s total losses on this day added up to 34 aircraft, and KG 3 had suffered so much attrition that it took no further part in the battle for three weeks.

But the RAF had also suffered heavily, losing 28 fighters and 16 pilots, RAF Fighter Command was now under immense strain, and it was a relief when the weather closed in again on 27 August, bringing a brief respite. There were scattered combats between Fighter Command and the Luftwaffe, but most were interceptions of reconnaissance aircraft. The Germans lost two Dornier 17s and a Heinkel 111 over the British Isles, the latter shot down by anti-aircraft during the night raid on Coventry. The RAF lost one Spitfire through enemy action.

Luftwaffe attacks resumed on 28 August, two heavily-escorted bomber formations crossing the Kent coast soon after 0900. Eastchurch airfield was badly damaged. During the morning’s action the luckless No. 264 Squadron lost three more Defiants, with another three damaged, which brought its losses in three operational sorties to 12 aircraft and 14 aircrew. After this, the Defiant was withdrawn from daylight operations. Later in the day, Rochford was damaged in an attack by 30 Dorniers. Fighter Command accounted for 26 enemy aircraft during the day for the loss of 15 of its fighters, one of which was shot down by friendly fire, and on the following day, when the Germans launched 700 fighter sorties over southern England in an attempt to draw Fighter Command into battle, the score was 12 German aircraft against nine British.

The refusal of Fighter Command to be drawn into action on 29 August encouraged the Germans in the belief that they were well on the way to achieving air supremacy, but although the fighter defences were seriously weakened, they were not worn down nor compelled to withdraw on any large scale from their forward airfields in southern England. The Luftwaffe was still a long way from attaining its primary objective, which was to put Fighter Command out of action in the potential invasion area. Meanwhile, Luftflotte 3 had switched to night bombing on the night of 28/29 August, launching 340 sorties against Merseyside and targets on the south coast. These attacks brought the total number of night sorties mounted against the British Isles so far to 600, during which the Luftwaffe had lost only seven aircraft. It seemed a far more attractive option than the costly daylight raids.

By day, the Germans continued to attack the RAF airfields lying in a defensive semi-circle before London: Kenley, Redhill, Biggin Hill, West Mailing, Detling, Manston and Gravesend to the south-east, and to the north-east Hornchurch, Rochford, Debden and North Weald. On 30 August Biggin Hill was completely wrecked, with 65 personnel killed and wounded, and on the following afternoon this target was hit again.

Despite the damage to the air defences, the oft-quoted thesis that the British fighter defences would have broken down if German air attacks on fighter installations had continued for 14 days longer than they actually did, exaggerates the effects of the German bombing attacks and disregards the overall potential available on either side. As a last resort, Fighter Command could have withdrawn its units from airfields in the southeastern coastal area to bases out of range of German single-engined fighters, or No. 11 Group’s fighters could have been reinforced by the fighters of the other three groups. In either case, the Germans would never have achieved numerical fighter superiority over the southern coastal area because of a simple arithmetical fact: fighter production in Britain was more than double that of Germany.

In fact, the crisis facing Fighter Command as September opened revolved around a shortage of aircrew, rather than a shortage of aircraft. The Command had lost about 300 pilots in the Battle of France, and was still short of 130 pilots at the beginning of August. During that month losses exceeded replacements, the deficit growing to 181. Had the battle not taken place over British soil, the situation might have become critical. From 19 August to 6 September Fighter Command suffered a total loss of 290 aircraft and 103 pilots, while the Luftwaffe, whose aircraft did not go down over friendly territory when hit, lost 375 aircraft and 678 aircrew.


There was no doubt that the strain, and the growing number of relatively inexperienced aircrew being committed to the battle – some with as little as 20 hours’ experience on Spitfires or Hurricanes – was beginning to tell on Fighter Command during the last days of August and into September, as the deficit between British and German losses narrowed. To make matters more difficult, the Germans were tightening up their fighter escort procedure. On 1 September, when the Heinkels of KG 1 attacked the docks at Tilbury, its 18 bombers were escorted by three Jagdgeschwader – roughly four fighters to every bomber. All the German aircraft returned to base, having been virtually unmolested by the RAF. The day’s operations cost the RAF 15 fighters, including four Hurricanes of No. 85 Squadron, against the Luftwaffe’s nine. The losses contrasted sharply with those sustained during a series of savage air battles on 31 August, when the RAF lost 24 aircraft and the Luftwaffe 28.

The scores were again close on 2 September, when several airfields, including Biggin Hill, Lympne, Detling, Eastchurch (three times), Hornchurch (twice) and Gravesend were heavily attacked, together with the aircraft factory at Rochester and Brooklands aerodrome, adjacent to the vital Hawker and Vickers factories. Fighter Command maintained standing patrols over its sector airfields during the day and lost 23 aircraft against the Luftwaffe’s 26, seven of which were Messerschmitt 110s.

On 3 September the airfield attacks continued, North Weald being very severely damaged, and in the day’s fighting the RAF and Luftwaffe each lost 16 aircraft. Meanwhile, across the Channel, events were taking a new and dramatic turn.

That morning, Reichsmarschall Göring summoned his Luftflotten commanders, Kesselring and Sperrle, to a conference at The Hague. The main item on the agenda was the feasibility of a ‘reprisal’ attack on London; the Luftwaffe Operations Staff had ordered Luftflotten 2 and 3 to prepare such an attack on 31 August, even though there still existed ab order from Adolf Hitler forbidding bombing raids on the capital.

A lack of documentary evidence makes it hard to reconstruct the process leading to the decision to attack London. Hitler’s desire for reprisals following RAF attacks on Berlin, themselves a consequence of the erroneous raid on London in August, certainly played its part, but this is not the whole of the story. Bombing attacks on targets in the London area had been at the core of a plan originated by II Fliegerkorps before the start of the air offensive, the idea being to wear down the British fighters by bringing them to battle over the city, which was within the range of German single-engined fighters. That was one valid reason for attacking the city, although it hinged on another, far less valid one. This was the belief of Luftwaffe Intelligence that Fighter Command only had between 150 and 300 aircraft left early in September, so that the final blow could be delivered to it over London. The head of Luftwaffe Intelligence, Oberst Josef Schmidt, had arrived at this conclusion by simply deducting the wildly exaggerated figures of German combat claims from the originally assumed British fighter strength, at the same time underestimating British fighter production. It was one of the most incredible misconceptions of wartime German intelligence, and yet it was supported by both Göring and Kesselring. It was not supported by Feldmarschall Hugo Sperrle of Luftflotte 3, nor by Luftwaffe Signals Intelligence, which had compiled far more accurate figures for Fighter Command’s strength.

On 4 September, Hitler declared in public that he now wanted to ‘erase’ British cities, and on the following day he gave the order to attack London and other major cities by day and night. The assault on London was to begin in the afternoon of 7 September, and was to be directed mainly against the docks. The city was to be attacked by Luftflotte 2 by day and Luftflotte 3 by night. Simultaneous attacks were to be conducted against armament factories and port installations. Thirty aircraft and armament factories were selected, and attacks on these began on 4 September, in parallel with continuing raids on Fighter Command’s airfields. But from now on, London was the key target, and on that decision rested the outcome of the Battle of Britain.

While the young pilots of Dowding’s Fighter Command fought and died over the Channel and the harvest-fields of southern England, RAF Bomber Command had been waging its own war against the enemy in the Channel and North Sea areas. On 13 July 1940, Bomber Command switched a major part of its efforts to the German invasion preparations in the ports, anchorages and harbours stretching from Delfzijl in the north of Holland to Bordeaux in south-west France. These ports were to be attacked frequently during the four years that were to pass before the Allied invasion of Europe, but the most intensive phase of the air offensive against them – the ‘battle of the Barges’, directed against the armada of small craft assembled by the Germans for the thrust across the Channel – lasted until the end of October 1940.

Aircraft of every Bomber Command Group, as well as Coastal Command and the Fleet Air Arm, took part in this nightly offensive, the importance of which has to a great extent been eclipsed by the massive air battle that dragged its vapour trails over the skies of southern England during that long summer. But the Battle of Britain was, in the broad sense, a victory for the British bombers too; for although the Hurricanes and Spitfires of Fighter Command denied the Germans the air superiority necessary for a successful invasion, the attacks mounted on the invasion ports were so effective that, even if the Luftwaffe had succeeded in obtaining temporary mastery of the air over southern England, Hitler’s invasion fleet would have been in no position to sail on the planned date.

This was clearly substantiated by the Germans themselves on several occasions. On 12 September, for example, only three days before Operation Sealion was scheduled to take place, HQ Navy Group West sent the following signal to Berlin:

Interruptions caused by the enemy air forces, long-range artillery and light naval forces have, for the first time, assumed major significance. The harbours at Ostend, Dunkirk, Calais and Boulogne cannot be used as night anchorages for shipping because of the danger of English bombing and shelling. Units of the British fleet are now able to operate almost unmolested in the Channel. Owing to these difficulties further delays are expected in the assembly of the invasion fleet.

With the invasion thought to be imminent, Bomber Command launched a maximum effort offensive against the enemy-held ports. On the night of 13/14 September the bombers sank 80 barges in Ostend harbour, and the following night severe damage was inflicted on concentrations of enemy craft at Boulogne. This raid was carried out by the Fairey Battles of the newly-formed Nos. 301 and 305 (Polish) Squadrons, flying their first operational mission. The Battles of Nos. 12, 103, 142 and 150 Squadrons – at full strength again after the losses they had suffered in France – also carried out attacks on the enemy ports during this period. It was the Battle’s swan-song as a first-line aircraft; in October it was withdrawn from operations and replaced by Wellingtons and Blenheims.

On 14 September, Hitler issued a Supreme Command Directive postponing the launch of Operation Sealion until 17 September. On the morning of the 16th, however, the German Naval War Staff once again reported that the invasion ports had been subjected to heavy bombing:

In Antwerp considerable casualties have been inflicted on transports. Five transport steamers in the port have been heavily damaged; one barge has been sunk, two cranes destroyed, an ammunition train has blown up, and several sheds are burning.

There was worse to come. On the night of 16/17 September, only hours before the crucial German Supreme Command conference that was to decide whether or not the invasion would take place, a force of Blenheims and Battles surprised a strong concentration of enemy landing craft in the open sea off Boulogne. Several barges and two transports were sunk, with heavy loss of life. The vessels had been engaged in an invasion training exercise. German bodies, washed up on the English Channel coast later, gave rise to rumours that an invasion had actually been attempted.

On that same night the RAF also struck at the whole coastal area between Antwerp and Le Havre, and this prompted the German Naval Staff to report the following day that:

The RAF are still by no means defeated; on the contrary, they are showing increasing activity in their attacks on the Channel ports and in their mounting interference with the assembly movements.

This statement was underlined by Bomber Command on the night of 17/18 September when, in full moonlight conditions, every available aircraft pounded the Channel ports and caused the worst damage so far to the invasion fleet. Eighty-four barges were sunk or damaged at Dunkirk alone, while elsewhere a large ammunition dump was blown up, a supply depot burned out and several steamers and MTBs sunk. The next day, the Naval Staff report made gloomy reading:

The very severe bombing, together with bombardment by naval guns across the Channel, makes it necessary to disperse the naval and transport vessels already concentrated on the Channel and to stop further movement of shipping to the invasion ports. Otherwise, with energetic enemy action such casualties will occur in the course of time that the execution of the operation on the scale previously envisaged will in any case be problematic.

On 19 September, four days after the great air battle over London and southern England that would henceforth be marked as Battle of Britain Day, and which cost the Luftwaffe 56 aircraft, Hitler ordered the invasion fleet assembled in the Channel ports to be dispersed so that ‘the loss of shipping space caused by enemy air attacks may be reduced to a minimum.’ Operation Sealion had been postponed indefinitely, and Hitler’s preoccupation now was with the projected attack on the Soviet Union.

Between 15 July and 21 September, according to German naval sources, the British air offensive sank or damaged 21 transports and 214 barges in the Channel ports, about 12 per cent of the total invasion fleet. These figures should be treated with some reservation, as even at this stage of the war the Germans were in the habit of playing down their actual losses in confidential reports to the Supreme Command. The actual loss, in terms of both men and material, was probably higher, but even the figure of 12 per cent is sufficient testimony that the bombing effort during those crucial weeks was far from wasted.

Nevertheless, the effectiveness of the effort against the Channel ports was grossly under-estimated by the War Cabinet. Churchill in particular expressed disappointment at the results of the attacks, as revealed by air reconnaissance, in a minute to the Air Minister, Sir Archibald Sinclair, on 23 September:

What struck me about these [reconnaissance] photographs was the apparent inability of the bombers to hit very large masses of barges. I should have thought that sticks of explosive bombs thrown along these oblongs would have wrought havoc, and it is very disappointing to see that they all remained intact and in order, with just a few apparently damaged at the entrance.

Churchill did not take into account the fact that many of the barges, although apparently intact, had been made unseaworthy by damage that the photographs did not show. The bomber crews who were over the ports night after night knew that they were sinking the barges faster than anyone had thought possible. The only question in their minds was whether they were sinking them fast enough to thwart the invasion if Fighter Command were annihilated.

The ports were easy to find, but they were not an easy target. Light flak was plentiful and losses were heavy. The anti-aircraft defences were particularly strong around Antwerp, and it was while attacking this target on the night of 15/16 September 1940, that Sergeant John Hannah, one of the crew of a Hampden of No. 83 Squadron, carried out an act of great courage that won him the Victoria Cross. The citation tells the story.

On the night of 15 September 1940, Sergeant Hannah was the wireless operator/air gunner in an aircraft engaged in a successful attack on an enemy barge concentration at Antwerp. It was then subjected to intense anti-aircraft fire and received a direct hit from a projectile of an explosive and incendiary nature, which apparently burst inside the bomb compartment. A fire started which quickly enveloped the wireless operator’s and rear gunner’s cockpits, and as both the port and starboard petrol tanks had been pierced there was a grave risk of fire spreading. Sergeant Hannah forced his way through to obtain two extinguishers and discovered that the rear gunner had had to leave the aircraft. He could have acted likewise, through the bottom escape hatch or forward through the navigator’s hatch, but remained and fought the fire for ten minutes with the extinguishers, beating the flames with his log book when these were empty.

During this time thousands of rounds of ammunition exploded in all directions and he was almost blinded by the intense heat and fumes, but had the presence of mind to obtain relief by turning on his oxygen supply. Air admitted through the large holes caused by the projectile made the bomb compartment an inferno and all the aluminium sheet metal on the floor of this airman’s cockpit was melted away, leaving only the cross bearers. Working under these conditions, which caused burns to his face and eyes, Sergeant Hannah succeeded in extinguishing the fire. He then crawled forward, ascertained that the navigator had left the aircraft, and passed the latter’s log and maps to the pilot.

This airman displayed courage, coolness and devotion to duty of the highest order and by his action in remaining and successfully extinguishing the fire under conditions of the greatest danger and difficulty, enabled the pilot to bring the aircraft to its base.

The Royal Air Force was not alone in its campaign against the German invasion forces that were assembled mainly in the ports of Dunkirk, Ostend, Calais and Boulogne. Whenever possible, even though operating conditions in the Channel had become very difficult because of air attack, the Royal Navy took the opportunity to strike at shipping movements off the enemy coast. On 8 September 1940, for example, three motor torpedo boats, MTB 14, MTB 15 and MTB 17, set out from Dover to attack a German convoy of about 30 small vessels approaching Ostend. Two of the boats, MTBs 15 and 17, entered Ostend harbour under cover of darkness and an RAF air raid and launched their torpedoes, hitting two vessels. Exactly what they hit was never established, but it was the first successful MTB torpedo attack of the war.

On the night of 10/11 September, a striking force comprising the destroyers Malcolm, Veteran and Wild Swan set out to patrol the Channel off Ostend, which was again under air attack, when radar contact was made with an enemy convoy. Soon afterwards, the destroyers made visual contact with the enemy, aided by the light of flares dropped by the RAF, and opened fire, sinking an escort vessel, two trawlers that were towing barges, and a large barge.

Offensive sweeps of this kind were a regular feature during September 1940, when the threat of invasion was at its height, the naval forces usually operating from Harwich or Portsmouth; the Dover destroyer force had been dispersed, having suffered substantial damage through air attack. At the same time, aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm, operating from bases in south-east England, joined the RAF in maintaining pressure on the enemy invasion ports.

The biggest guns the Navy could bring to bear on the enemy coast were mounted in two warships of World War I vintage, the battleship Revenge and the monitor Erebus. Both mounted 15-inch guns, the Erebus being fitted with a twin turret bearing her main armament and also with four twin 4 inch and two single 3 inch AA guns. She carried a crew of 300. On 20 September she set out from Sheerness to bombard the German gun battery at Cap Gris Nez, but the sortie had to be abandoned because of bad weather. On 30 September, however, she fired 17 rounds into a concentration of invasion craft in the Calais docks area, the fire being directed by a Fairey Swordfish spotter aircraft. On the following day, the German battery at Wissant fired precisely the same number of rounds at Dover by way of retaliation.

On 10 October it was the turn of HMS Revenge, the old battleship – armed with eight 15-inch guns – sailing from Plymouth with a screen of 5th Flotilla destroyers: Jackal, Kipling, Jupiter, Jaguar, Kashmir and Kelvin. The cruisers Newcastle and Emerald were also at sea, protecting the western flank, while a flotilla of six MTBs sailed from Portland to provide a screen against S-boats. Revenge’s target was Cherbourg, and for 18 minutes, beginning at 0333 on 11 October she laid a barrage of 120 15-inch shells across the crowded harbour, to which was added a total of 801 4.7 inch shells from the seven escorting destroyers. The resulting conflagration could be seen 40 miles (64km) out to sea. The British force reached Spithead at 0800 without damage, despite being shelled for the best part of 10 miles (16km) by a German heavy battery.

On 16 October HMS Erebus, escorted by the destroyers Garth and Walpole, again bombarded the French coast in the vicinity of Calais with the aid of spotter aircraft. Forty-five salvoes were fired, beginning at 0100, before the British force withdrew. Neither Erebus nor Revenge made any further sorties of this kind, even though the British heavy gun defences on the Channel coast in October were still pitifully weak. The pre-war heavy gun strength on the Straits of Dover, comprising two 9.2 inch and six 6 inch guns, had been reinforced during the summer by one 14 inch, two 6 inch and two 4 inch guns, all Naval weapons, together with a pair of 9.2 inch guns on railway mountings; and in October these were further reinforced by two 18.5 inch guns from the old depot ship Iron Duke, also on railway mountings, and a battery of four 5.5 inch guns from HMS Hood. Further heavy gun batteries, at Fan Bay, South Foreland and Wanstone, would not become operational until a much later date, by which time the invasion threat had passed.

While the British strove to disrupt enemy invasion plans, German destroyers were extremely active in the Channel area during September and October 1940, laying minefields to protect the flanks of their projected cross-Channel invasion routes and also making hit-and-run sorties against British shipping. One particularly successful sortie was undertaken on the night of 11/12 October by the German 5th Flotilla from Cherbourg, comprising the destroyers Greif, Kondor, Falke, Seeadler and Wolf. They sank the armed trawlers Listrac and Warwick Deeping with gunfire and torpedoes, and shortly afterwards destroyed the Free French submarine chasers CH6 and CH7, manned by mixed French and Polish crews. The German ships withdrew safely; although they were engaged by the British destroyers Jackal, Jaguar, Jupiter, Kelvin and Kipling, the latter achieved nothing more spectacular than several near misses. Another inconclusive action was fought between British destroyers of the 5th Flotilla, supported by the light cruisers Newcastle and Emerald, and enemy destroyers off Brest on 17 October, with no damage suffered by either side. The British warships came under air attack during the operation, the most serious threat coming from a flight of very determined RAF Blenheims whose crews had clearly not been trained in warship recognition!

November 1940 saw a resurgence of air attacks on British shipping by Junkers Ju 87 Stukas, which had been standing by at their airfields in the Pas de Calais to lend tactical support to Operation Sealion, now postponed. Their area of operations was the Thames estuary, where British convoys were assembling, and between 1 and 11 November they sank one merchant vessel and damaged six more. On 14 November they attacked targets in the Dover area, destroying a drifter and damaging three more vessels, but these missions marked the Stuka’s swansong over the British Isles.

There was a further destroyer action on 27/28 November 1940, when the British 5th Destroyer Flotilla intercepted an enemy flotilla from Brest. In the ensuing engagement the destroyer HMS Javelin was hit by two torpedoes, which blew off her bows and stern and detonated the ammunition in her magazine, destroying her superstructure as well as killing three officers and 43 ratings. Amazingly, she remained afloat and was towed into harbour, to spend 13 months in dock being virtually rebuilt. She eventually returned to operations and went on to survive the war.

Notwithstanding actions such as these, it was enemy mines that accounted for the highest proportion of British shipping losses in the closing months of 1940. Of the 42 Royal Navy vessels lost in the Channel area between 1 September 1940 and the end of the year, 28 were sunk by mines.

The threat of invasion had receded, and Hitler’s eyes, by the end of 1940, were turned towards the east. But the question must be asked whether Operation Sealion might have succeeded, had it gone ahead. All the accumulated evidence suggests that it would not. The matter is summed up admirably by the official Royal Navy historian:

We who lived through those anxious days may reasonably regret that the expedition never sailed for, had it done so, it is virtually certain that it would have resulted in a British victory comparable for its decisiveness to Barfleur or Quiberon Bay; and it can hardly be doubted that such a victory would have altered the entire course of the war. It is indeed plain today that, of all the factors which contributed to the failure of Hitler’s grandiose invasion plans, none was greater than the lack of adequate instruments of sea power and of a proper understanding of their use on the German side. Britain, on the other hand, not only possessed the necessary ships and craft, but they were manned by devoted crews who were imbued with a traditional and burning desire to come to grips with the enemy invasion fleet. Finally, we may remark how the events of the summer of 1940 emphasised once again what many other would-be conquerors of Britain had learnt in turn – namely, that an overseas expedition cannot be launched with any prospect of success without first defeating the other side’s maritime forces, and so gaining control of the waters across which the expedition has to pass.

In conflict with a centuries-old maritime power, there is little doubt that Hitler, had he launched his invasion, would have learnt too late the landsman’s lesson.


The British invasion of Corsica in 1794 resulted in the creation of the British Martello Tower, a corruption of Cape Mortella on Corsica, where an armed tower held a garrison of French troops that put up a spirited resistance to the invasion.

As the first year of the war against France drew to a close, Britain and her allies confronted general uncertainty, with a stalemate on land and a lack of any result upon sea. The broad situation that the British parliament surveyed as it met at the end of January 1794 offered little of immediate prospect to build upon, with scant gain so far against the turbulent power that commanded France.

France’s rush against Holland and Belgium had been held. But strong doubts were arising concerning the staying power and involvement of Prussia, which remained preoccupied with Poland and territories it wanted there. Austrian mistrust of Prussia was deep and growing. The coalition and its military thrust appeared stalled. So it would remain, deep into 1794, accompanied by increasing anxiety about the rising strength, cohesion and success of the French army under the organizing vitality of Carnot.

The spirited new French army was everywhere demonstrating its recovery. Across the south the anti-Jacobin revolt had been fully suppressed. But for the British it was the failure at Toulon and the lack of any line ship action in the western approaches during 1793 that had provoked real dismay.

The overall strategy for the Continent visualized by Pitt was destruction of the Jacobin government. This was seen as the most likely means of terminating the war. The Austrians preferred it as the quickest solution and it was agreed that Paris should therefore be the target of a new campaign. But who would bear the fullest burden of the cost of it all, particularly the huge Austrian and Prussian armies?

The formula taking shape was the traditional one in which a Britain weak in land forces and chary of committing those she possessed to Continental warfare instead contributed to the costs of others or paid for mercenaries who fought on her behalf. But the picture that was forming even in late 1793 already hinted that the position against France might not hold even on that familiar basis. Weighing it up, Britain at the start of 1794 could, with perspicacity, recognize the other side of that situation, something equally familiar, which was that somewhere along she might find herself on her own. And that brought her back where her own certainties dwelled, what she felt sure of: the sea and her navy. But in January 1794 anxious questions touched that as well.

Earl Howe’s failure to bring the French grand fleet to battle sat badly upon the nation as a whole. The British public wanted battle from its navy. They wanted it in their home waters, where their real security lay. They wanted the assurance of it in a war the direction and balance of which no one yet could properly fathom. It was from the navy, so closely tied to British emotion and sentiment and conviction of destiny, that some positive assurance was required. Some affirmation of British naval mastery was needed to alleviate the ingrained fear of invasion.

Whatever the outcome on the Continent there had to be assurance that the navy retained its full capability of defending Britain’s shores, her primal defence, while maintaining its dominance upon the broad oceanic strategic picture, the source of Britain’s power and wealth.

The man committed to the latter was Secretary of State for War Dundas, a hard, ruthless, greedy Scot who later, as Lord Melville, head of the Admiralty, was to face a difficult trial in parliament on charges of corruption.

He effectively dominated colonial policy under Pitt. Unlike Pitt, he upheld slavery and the slave trade, attracting the implacable hostility of the Evangelical Abolitionists. It was symptomatic of Pitt’s broadly balanced position in the fractured society of late-eighteenth-century Britain that as Prime Minister he was equally comfortable in his working relationships with such different characters and viewpoints.

Dundas had already declared that in this war he never wanted to have to choose between colonial defence and that of the Continent. Here was the revived voice of Chatham, Pitt the Elder. For Henry Dundas, too, if forced to choose, his priority would ever be oceanic, attached to colonial possession and trade rather than Continental Europe. In early 1794 his colonial focus was anxiously fixed upon the West Indies.

After Britain’s loss of the American colonies and France’s loss of Canada, the West Indies had become the focal point of colonial interests. The West Indies stood as the immediate indispensable source of colonial wealth. Troops that would have made a big difference at Toulon were mustered for the West Indies instead. Departure of the Indies force was delayed until the end of November, after deployment to the French coast in the futile attempt to give assistance to the rebellion in La Vendée. Finally, on 27 November 1793, a powerful squadron commanded by Vice Admiral Sir John Jervis, bearing seven thousand troops under Lieutenant General Sir Charles Grey, sailed from St Helens for a winter crossing of the Atlantic.

The loss of Toulon signified something greater than the loss of the base itself. After sweeping away rebellion in the south, the French now had what they called the Army of Italy, a new threat to all the British allies along the coasts of the Ligurian Sea. Sardinia, Genoa, Leghorn (Livorno) and, though much more distantly, Naples and Sicily, all suddenly looked more vulnerable.

This was what Hood contemplated in January 1794, as his fleet lay anchored in its retreat at Hyères Bay, just a few miles from Toulon. Hood had lost the place that Marlborough in his war had considered being the key to Mediterranean and trans-Alpine military action. French success in the south of France and French pressure on the Austro-Sardinian forces around and beyond the Alps meant that Marlborough’s Mediterranean strategy had become as relevant to this war as it had been to his.

Unhappily for Hood the French fleet at Toulon and the extensive naval facilities there, the command base of French power on the western Mediterranean, would soon be restored.

Hood required a new base to cope with that. It had to be somewhere accessible to supplies, where storage depots could be maintained and ships repaired and refitted. And from where Austrian and Sardinian military operations could be supported. Hood looked at his maps and with Corsica lying large before him it was the obvious choice. It offered good harbours, easy provisioning and, best of all, plenty of timber for ship repair.

Corsica, formerly the possession of Genoa, had been ceded to France in 1768. It was the Genoese connection that had given Napoleon Buonaparte his Italian antecedents. The nationalist leader, Pasquale Paoli, was fighting the French and had already asked George III to take the island under British protection. In 1793 his partisans had established positions of strength across much of this wild, mountainous island, but the French commanded its principal strategic bases.

The objective for Hood would be the large bay of San Fiorenzo at the northern end of Corsica. Fiorenzo was the natural shelter for a fleet with defensive outposts at the fortresses of Bastia and Calvi. With these three points taken from the French, the British navy would cover the most vitally strategic stretch of coast in the entire Mediterranean, the Ligurian coast.

Fiorenzo lay a mere two hundred or so kilometres directly south of Genoa across the Ligurian Sea. Within easy reach stretched the entire coastline from Toulon to Elba. Apart from Toulon itself, this reach embraced such diverse points as Nice, Genoa, Spezia and Leghorn. A tight blockade of Toulon would be maintained with French trade and supply through Genoa and Leghorn to Corsica equally tightly controlled, if not curtailed.

To Captain Nelson, Hood promptly delegated the task of preparation for this critical offensive through which British command of the Mediterranean might become absolute. The zeal with which Nelson committed himself to his new task indicated his own conviction of that. From the last days of the old year into the first weeks of the new he had been blockading the Corsican coastline to lock in the French ships at their Corsican anchorages and to deny the French army its supplies. Two French frigates were destroyed at their anchorage. Garrison stores on land were destroyed by Agamemnon’s guns from the sea. Supply ships were captured. Nelson in short time made himself master of the coast around Bastia. Agamemnon’s sailors began to regard themselves as ‘invincible, almost invulnerable’, he wrote to his wife. ‘They really mind shot no more than peas.’

The first assault on Fiorenzo nevertheless failed. Hood suspected treachery from islanders who, though fighting the French, were ever hostile to any invaders of their shores. On 12 January Hood sent a delegation from the fleet to Corsica for new discussions with Paoli at his base. The party consisted of two army officers and Sir Gilbert Elliot, who was to represent Britain on the island. The group reported favourably and Hood immediately sailed for Fiorenzo from Hyères Bay.

As the siege of Fiorenzo began sailors undertook the task of reducing one of the outlying fortifications, Forneilli, whose guns covered Fiorenzo. Forneilli was a formidably fortified redoubt that appeared to defy any form of assault. Its natural defence, height and steep access, was the common one of a place as ruggedly mountainous as Corsica. It was dominated, however, by a rock-like projection, several hundred feet above sea level, which the French had failed to fortify, in an apparent belief that it was inaccessible. The ascent to the top appeared close to perpendicular in places, seldom much wider than what allowed one person to stand. But up that path the sailors dragged the heavy guns brought ashore to form a battery, from which they poured shot upon Forneilli, forcing the French to retreat into Fiorenzo. Getting the guns to the top was an astonishing feat of strength, endurance and determination, a tough accomplishment of a kind not at that time associated with naval sailors. But the precedent had been set at Toulon, where a naval officer had led the invading force ashore and where artillery had similarly been hauled to the heights and manned there by sailors.

Nelson initiated on Corsica the sort of sailor landings and land operations that would become a frequent and indispensable form of naval assault throughout this war. On Corsica those provided the fuller action and excitement that Nelson had been craving. Toulon had denied him action, although many of his own sailors had been taken ashore to fight. Corsica at once promised something different, and delivered it. This sudden licence for what Nelson relished most, independent action, enlivened him. He wrote to his wife, ‘I have not been one hour at anchor for pleasure in eight months; but I can assure you I never was better in health.’

Hood’s dependence upon Nelson mounted steadily. Certainly he would have found no one else with the same zest for what was allocated to him. All of it resounds from Nelson’s correspondence at the time. Hood, he said, trusted his ‘zeal and activity’. On the business of contacting and conferring with Paoli, ‘This business going through my hands is a proof of Lord Hood’s confidence in me, and that I shall pledge myself for nothing but what will be acceptable to him.’

On 19 February the French abandoned Fiorenzo and retreated to Bastia. That same day Nelson had gone ashore with sixty troops and marched to within three miles of Bastia. He was surveying Bastia’s defences at the time of the Fiorenzo assault and delivered an exhaustive report on the fortifications, their vulnerabilities and on how the place might be taken. That task became the fire in his mind.

Hood’s faith in Nelson had reached the point where he took care to avoid placing a senior captain over him on these Corsican operations, the next phase of which, Bastia, was thus entirely entrusted to Nelson, who now had six frigates under his command.

Closing off Bastia was vital. From Bastia across to Leghorn offered the shortest direct passage between Corsica and the mainland. It was therefore the main supply point for the French. Bastia was a walled town of ten thousand inhabitants with a citadel at its centre. The main fortifications were along the sea front, with others in the hills above guarding the approaches from Fiorenzo. The high batteries would also intimidate any force that might manage to seize the town. But Nelson was all for rushing and taking the place at once. He had examined landing places near Bastia and believed that troops and cannon could be landed with great ease on level country south of the town. His reports went over almost daily from Agamemnon to Hood aboard Victory lying off Fiorenzo. He reported that the French were ceaselessly strengthening the defences of Bastia. Nevertheless, ‘Bastia, I am sure, in its present state, would soon fall,’ he wrote to Hood.

On 23 February Nelson decided on close reconnoitre and bombardment of Bastia from the sea. It was to be a studiedly slow-paced challenge to Bastia’s firepower from his frigates, led by Agamemnon. ‘I backed our main top-sail and passed slowly along the town.’ Twenty-seven identifiable guns and four mortars firing from the shore, the heights and the town itself commenced pouring shot and shells upon the small fleet of frigates. The cannonading between ships and shore lasted nearly two hours. Although every ship was struck not a man was killed or wounded aboard any of them.

During the action British troops appeared on the heights above Bastia. They were under Lieutenant General Sir David Dundas, who had commanded the military at Toulon. He was a close relative of Minister Henry Dundas, to whom he sent ‘whining’ letters that the ever-optimistic Dundas contemptuously rejected. The troops had come over on the twelve-mile land route from Fiorenzo. They made no move down to attack from the heights.

The appearance of the military raised impatient reflection with Nelson. In a letter to his wife detailing the events of that day he said, ‘If I had carried with me five hundred troops, to a certainty I should have stormed the Town, and I believe it might have been carried. Armies go so slow, that Seamen think they never mean to get forward; but I dare say they act on a surer principle, although we seldom fail. You cannot think how pleased Lord Hood has been with my attack…’ In a letter to his brother on the same event he gave the army less allowance: ‘Our troops are not yet got to work. I can’t think what they are after.’

What he himself was after, now even more determinedly so, was to do what he felt the army was failing to do. Hood, in remarkable concurrence with such precipitate possibility of conflict between the two services, was swiftly of the same mind. But when Dundas brought his troops back down to Fiorenzo, Hood sought to persuade him to return and attempt to take Bastia. Dundas refused. He believed that starvation by blockade would in due course bring submission, without the loss of life that would result from direct assault. And, he forcefully asserted, Hood indubitably would be of the same opinion were the whole responsibility of such an attack to rest upon his shoulders.

‘Nothing would be more gratifying to my feelings, than to have the whole responsibility upon me,’ Hood coldly corrected.

‘What the general could have seen to have made a retreat necessary, I cannot conceive,’ Nelson wrote in his journal. ‘I wish not to be thought arrogant, or presumptuously sure of my own judgment, but it is my firm opinion that the Agamemnon with only the frigates now here, lying against the town for a few hours with 500 troops ready to land…would to a certainty carry the place. I presumed to propose it to Lord Hood and his Lordship agreed with me.’


Hood agreed that Nelson might take the town with five hundred troops backed by three ships of the line from Hood’s squadron but doubted that Nelson could take the heights as well. Hood therefore went back on shore from Victory two days after his first meeting with Dundas to press the matter with him again. But he got no further: Dundas refused even more vehemently than before, declaring that an attack on Bastia was impracticable without the reinforcement of two thousand troops requested from Gibraltar, adding ‘I consider the siege of Bastia, with our present means and force, to be a most visionary and rash attempt, such as no Officer could be justified in undertaking.’ Dundas’s force consisted of sixteen hundred regulars and 180 artillery men. Nelson’s estimate of the strength of the French in Bastia had been one thousand regulars and fifteen hundred ‘irregulars’, the latter Corsicans.

Hood’s written reply to Dundas was sharply edged: ‘I must take the liberty to observe, that however visionary and rash an attempt to reduce Bastia may be in your opinion, to me it appears very much the reverse, and to be perfectly a right measure…and I am now ready and willing to undertake the reduction of Bastia at my own risk, with the force and means at present here, being strongly impressed with the necessity of it.’2

Faced by that intractable declaration of intent Dundas resigned his command. Unfortunately for Hood the successor to the command, General d’Aubant, shared Dundas’s views. And he unrelentingly stuck by them. He not only refused soldiers for an assault on and siege of Bastia but also withheld from Hood mortars, field guns and ammunition from the stores he controlled at Fiorenzo. Hood was compelled to send to Naples for the materiel he lacked. But he exercised his own powers by recalling on board his ship’s soldiers from four regiments who had previously been allocated to him to do temporary service as marines and whom he had loaned to Dundas for the capture of Fiorenzo. Since these soldiers were now registered as part of the complements of the ships aboard which they were quartered d’Aubant was unable to refuse to release them.

The siege of this remote Corsican fortress of Bastia became bitter infighting between the Royal Navy and the army. With the soldiers under d’Aubant’s command confined to their garrison in Fiorenzo, this was the navy’s war or, so to speak, Hood’s and Nelson’s personal campaign. For Nelson, Bastia had to fall, and soon. To him the attitude of the army in refusing to join with Hood in the assault was incomprehensible. ‘Not attacking it I could not but consider as a national disgrace. If the Army will not take it, we must, by some way or the other.’

Through March Nelson maintained the blockade of Bastia, with Agamemnon riding out near-continuous gales and thick weather. From his storm-lashed quarterdeck Nelson angrily watched the town daily strengthening its defences: ‘…how that has hurt me’. Some of the hardship he was imposing upon Bastia was being experienced aboard Agamemnon as well. On 16 March he reported to Hood, ‘We are really without firing, wine, beef, pork, flour and almost without water: not a rope, canvas, twine or nail in the ship…We are certainly in a bad plight at present, not a man has slept dry for many months.’ As postscript to that same note in his journal he added, ‘But we cheerfully submit to it all, if it but turns out for the advantage and credit of our country.’ Holding on was critical for Nelson personally, his fear being that if Agamemnon were compelled to go to Leghorn for stores he would lose his own role in the attack on Bastia. He was in something like near panic over missing out on another land operation, one so closely involving his own efforts and persuasion. He put it to Hood, ‘My wish is to be present at the attack of Bastia; and if your Lordship intends me to command the Seamen who may be landed, I assure you I shall have the greatest pleasure in doing it, or any other service where you may think I can do most good: even if my ship goes into port to refit, I am ready to remain.’ Hood responded and Agamemnon’s deficiencies were supplied from the squadron and other sources.3

Nelson, together with an army artillery officer and an army engineer, then made steady reconnaissance ashore to decide landing beaches and sites for batteries northward of Bastia. He pitched a tent on a beach with the union flag hoisted above it, and was thereafter in continual movement between tent and Agamemnon. His presence on land was constant because his sailors, with others from the squadron, were building batteries, clearing roads and hauling guns and ammunition to the batteries. Like the earlier effort, it was a phenomenal task dragging guns up those rocky and precipitous heights, requiring physical strength and stamina that astonished all who witnessed it. ‘It is very hard service for my poor seamen, dragging guns up such heights as are scarcely credible,’ Nelson wrote. And, after his sailors had dragged guns to a pinnacle just seven hundred yards from the town, he described it as a feat ‘which never, in my opinion, would have been accomplished by any other than British seamen’.

Hood took full command on 4 April, though preparation for the siege remained with Nelson. By 11 April three batteries equipped with sixteen heavy guns and mortars were ready to open fire on Bastia. Hood sent in a flag of truce demanding surrender. The answer he got from La Combe St Michel, Corsica’s commissioner, was defiant: ‘I have hot shot for your ships and bayonets for your troops. When two-thirds of our troops are killed, I will then trust to the generosity of the English.’

The battle for Bastia began at once. Navy and Bastia began pouring shot and mortars upon one another. The cannonade was immense. From commanding positions over the town, the citadel and the outworks five British 24-pounders, four mortars and two heavey carronades poured their fire while the ships opened up from the sea. Thus it was to remain through April and on into the third week of May. Bastia continued to hold out defiantly, in spite of the destruction raining upon it and the starvation afflicting its garrison and populace.

Bizarrely, throughout the campaign General d’Aubant and his officers had simply stood by as interested observers.

On 19 May the French asked for negotiation. A boat went from Victory to the town. ‘The enemy met us without arms, and our officers advancing, they shook hands, and were good friends: they said it was all over, and that Bastia was ours,’ Nelson recorded in his journal. General d’Aubant and the soldiers from Fiorenzo simultaneously appeared on the hills above the town. They were there because reinforcement had just arrived from Gibraltar. They then proceeded to occupy Bastia and all its outposts.

The garrison was far stronger than Hood believed and had held out longer than expected. Nelson, however, had known. He knew it two months before the siege began. Here, then, was the near-fearful recklessness that ever pulsed in this extraordinary man. He had got the information from a packet boat intercepted by Agamemnon. The mailbag on board contained a letter from Corsica’s commissioner, General La Combe St Michel, declaring that he needed subsistence for eight thousand French and Corsican soldiers. This was four times as many as estimated by Nelson and Hood, but Nelson kept that critical information to himself. He rightly believed that disclosure would set Hood against any assault against Bastia. It would embarrassingly confirm Dundas’s verdict that such an attack would be ‘visionary and rash’. Failure to attack had been insufferable to Nelson. It went wholly against his disdain for holding off and failing to try. There was as well the conviction that his sailors could master any situation given the proper leadership and motivation.

Had he persuaded Hood into the sort of landing that he had cried out for at the start it could have finished them both, for they likely would have suffered heavy loss in the attack. This provided illustration of the length to which Nelson was prepared to go, whatever the risk and circumstances, to ensure action for himself. It worked at sea, and much of his future glory would be based upon it. But he never learned the point that Napoleon, in his memoirs, made on the difference at battle scene between land and sea: ‘A marine general has nothing to guess; he knows where his enemy is, and knows his strength. A land general never knows anything with certainty, never sees his enemy plainly…When the armies are facing each other, the slightest accident of the ground, the least wood, may hide a party of the hostile army. The most experienced eye cannot be certain whether it sees the whole of the enemy’s army, or only three fourths of it…The marine general requires nothing but an experienced eye; nothing relating to the enemy’s strength is concealed from him.’4 A year after Bastia had fallen Nelson was to confess, ‘I never yet told Lord Hood that…I had information given me of the enormous number of troops we had to oppose us; but my own honour, Lord Hood’s honour, and the honour of our country must have all been sacrificed, had I mentioned what I knew.’5 He had been prepared for that risk, and would be again. And in his correspondence on this matter he described as well as he ever would the settled principles that drove him: ‘I feel for the honour of my country, and had rather be beat than not make the attack. If we do not try we can never be successful…My reputation depends on the opinion I have given; but I feel an honest consciousness that I have done right. We must, we will have it, or some of our heads will be laid low. I glory in the attempt,’ he told his wife in one of his many assertive letters at the time. Or, on another occasion, ‘My disposition cannot bear tame and slow measures.’ Also, ‘…our country will, I believe, sooner forgive an officer for attacking his enemy than for letting it down’. And, in response to his wife’s continual fears over his safety, ‘Only recollect that a brave man dies but once, a coward all his life long.’

At all events, Bastia had been won. He and his sailors had done it. ‘The more we see of this place, the more we are astonished at their giving it up,’ Nelson said. Starvation was probably the greatest factor in compelling early surrender. On that point at least General Dundas has been insightfully correct.

The surrender and occupation of Bastia and its fortifications were complete by 22 May. The army had taken over, under Lieutenant Colonel Villettes, and for Nelson what had been his operation no longer was. An attack was about to be launched against the other fortress, Calvi, and he saw his own role diminished and uncertain. Although Hood had allowed Nelson a free hand while the army held off, he had never in any way defined Nelson’s command. In the new circumstances Nelson saw himself at a disadvantage with the army. He was, he said in a letter home, ‘everything, yet nothing ostensible’.

Nelson then put his unease to Hood: ‘Your Lordship knows exactly the situation I am in here. With Colonel Villettes I have no reason but to suppose I am respected in the highest degree…but yet I am considered as not commanding the seamen landed. My wishes may be, and are, complied with; my orders would possibly be disregarded. Therefore, if we move from hence, I would wish your Lordship to settle that point.’

Hood gave sympathetic acknowledgement without, however, issuing any decisive clarification of the sort Nelson wanted. Hood had already had too many difficulties with the army without inviting more. The idea of conceding clearly defined authority to Nelson as his man there may have raised fear in Hood of Nelson’s impatience and impetuosity provoking trouble with the army.

For Hood defeat at Toulon had been followed, after much uncertainty, by triumph at Fiorenzo and Bastia. Towards Calvi all now directed their attention. There was no basis for doubting another imminent triumph there as well. Hood was in poor health and expected soon to be going home. He would wish to return expecting the sort of salutation and honours that these successes would ensure. He now possibly believed that Nelson’s energetic and impulsive bravado needed to be subdued. Hood was by this time certainly aware of the possible loss that might have been suffered had he yielded to Nelson’s early impetuous conviction that Bastia might be won by merely five hundred seamen. Nevertheless, he had benefited in the end from that impetuosity. What Hood’s reputation had gained here he owed to Nelson. Difficult therefore to understand what Hood now officially delivered concerning Nelson’s part at Bastia.

Aboard Victory lying off Bastia, on 22 May Hood wrote his first report, his general order of thanks directly to the participants in the action. It was brief, direct. ‘The commander in chief returns his best thanks to Captain Nelson…as well as to every officer and seaman employed in the reduction of Bastia…’ But when Hood sat down and composed his official report to the Admiralty his tributes were framed differently.

Hood’s report to Admiralty began with particularly fulsome praise for ‘the unremitting zeal, exertion and judicious conduct’ of Colonel Villettes. As for the other army officers, ‘their persevering ardour, and desire to distinguish themselves, cannot be too highly spoken of; and which it will be my pride to remember to the latest period of my life’. Then, ‘Captain Nelson, of His Majesty’s ship Agamemnon, who had the command and direction of the seamen, in landing the guns, mortars and stores; and Captain Hunt, who commanded at the batteries…have an ample claim to my gratitude; as the seamen…’ This praise for Hunt particularly riled Nelson, for Hunt was a protégé of Hood who had made minimal contribution to their success.

Apart from the spareness of the praise in comparison with that which extolled the army officers, for Hood to have so limited Nelson’s part in all of it to that of a mere supervisor of the landing of guns and stores coldly denigrated the whole of Nelson’s extraordinary achievement there, ignored Hood’s own faith in and dependence upon him, dismissed the boldness and endurance that had helped to establish their very presence on the Corsican coast.

Lord Nelson, John Hoppner, c.1805. RNM. The Corsican campaign is often credited as the first in which Nelson rose to prominence within the Royal Navy

Like the others, Nelson saw Hood’s initial congratulatory General Order at once. But it would be several weeks before copies of the Admiralty report reached him. When it did it was to be a jolting shock. Regardless of that brutal insensitivity and lack of consideration, it was nevertheless Hood’s gift of responsibility on Corsica that finally meant everything. For here on Corsica in the first half of 1794 began the remarkable ascendancy in this war of this unique character, Horatio Nelson. So much of what was to mould his greater role in such a determining war was cast here. In Corsica Nelson drew upon himself the sort of command he sought in which to exercise his independence and express the individuality so vital to him. The conquest of Corsica was Nelson’s achievement. Land battle thus arrived before sea battle for Nelson in this war. He had had his first action at sea, a small encounter on the way to Tunis, but what he ardently longed for was to be part of the confrontation between the French and the British navies on that large and decisive scale that might settle the issue on this sea and on the ocean beyond. That was yet distant.

Coastal Command Requirements

‘Caught on the Surface’.  The sinking of U-461 by RAAF Sunderland “U” of 461 Squadron RAAF, in the Bay of Biscay in July 1943.  [As depicted by aviation artist Robert Taylor.]


At the outbreak of war in September 1939 Air Marshal Sir Frederick Bowhill, the Air Officer-in-Chief of Coastal Command, had forces of ten Anson squadrons, including four Auxiliaries, one Hudson squadron, and two strike squadrons of Vildebeests. The flying-boat units were two squadrons of Sunderlands, three with Saro Londons, and one equipped with Supermarine Stranraers. The Vildebeest strike-aircraft and the London and Stranraer flying-boats were all obsolescent.

The Ansons represented the equipment for more than half his total force, but with insufficient range to undertake the reconnaissance required, and four out of the six flying-boat squadrons were equipped with obsolescent aircraft. Sir Frederick was thus left with just three squadrons with modern aircraft, namely Hudsons and Sunderlands, that were considered able to operate effectively.

In the early months of 1939 supplies of engines for the Avro Anson aircraft were limited, and there was a need to restrict the flying of Ansons on that account. It was necessary also to conserve even the outdated Vildebeests, as there were only six in store to supply both home and abroad. At that time the Command had ten Stranraers, seventeen Londons, four Short Singapore flying-boats, and two Sunderlands. Deliveries of the latter to the Command were given as only two per month.

The Director of Organisation at the Air Ministry, then Charles Portal, following the Munich crisis, foresaw what was to be a problem in respect of the availability of aircraft throughout the war. That was that aircraft could be weather-bound for days at various places round the coast. Coastal Command was required to operate throughout the twenty-four hours, and to do that bases were required for both take-off and landing with some degree of safety. This applied particularly to flying-boats. The new twin-engined flying-boat, the Saro Lerwick, had not been expected to be delivered before April 1939, and therefore was unlikely to be operational before the end of the year, but then it was to be found unsuitable for operations.

There was a need, therefore, for land-based aircraft to cover the South-Western Approaches, and significantly, in the same memo of 25 October 1938, Portal refers to having Newquay (St Eval) laid out to take two squadrons.

Between December 1939 and August 1940 the following reinforcements were received by Coastal Command: No. 10 Squadron RAAF Sunderlands in December 1939, four Blenheim squadrons on loan from Fighter Command in February 1940 (Nos 235, 236, 248 and 254); in June 1940 Nos 53 and 59 Squadrons with Blenheims on loan from Bomber Command, and in August 1940, No. 98 Squadron’s Fairey Battles, also on loan from Bomber Command, the latter to be based in Iceland.

These additions had followed an agreement by the Air Ministry with the Admiralty for Coastal Command to have an additional fifteen squadrons by June 1941. By 15 June, that had only been achieved by the loan of seven squadrons from other Commands, with aircraft unsuited to the maritime role, and with a daily average availability of 298 aircraft.

Just a month later, the Command had 612 aircraft with thirty-nine squadrons, but by then it was estimated that future requirements would be sixty-three and a half squadrons with 838 aircraft. The 612 aircraft then available included eleven types, and that would have produced problems in training for aircrew when they converted to a different type of aircraft. At Air Chief Marshal Sir Philip Joubert de la Ferté’s first staff meeting on 30 June as Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief Coastal Command, the number of aircraft available was not stated, but rather that there were only four strike squadrons.

By 1 December 1941 reconnaissance aircraft available to Coastal Command included eighteen Catalina flying-boats, nine Sunderlands, twenty Whitleys and 170 Hudsons. The Command’s strike aircraft comprised sixty Beaufort torpedo-bombers, twenty Beaufort bombers and forty Beaufighters. Additionally, Coastal had sixty of the Blenheim fighter version. The total of 397 aircraft was available to equip eighteen squadrons.

The total number of aircraft available to Coastal Command in June 1942 was 496, and would have included aircraft of four squadrons on loan from Bomber Command, but for Sir Philip, there was a shortage of three landplane squadrons, and ten flying-boat squadrons; and in his report to the Air Ministry he added: ‘I therefore cannot accept your view that we are comparatively well off, nor do I feel that we have sufficient strength to carry out our job.’

Although, in November 1942, Coastal had 259 Hudsons, Sir Philip was concerned about their availability, due to ten squadrons plus other units still operating them, and stated that with the ‘present Hudson commitment … continuance of the present numbers of squadrons is impossible’.

Sir Philip was still concerned about the two types from Bomber Command, such as the Whitley, ‘… on the whole, given unsatisfactory service’ and the Hampden, which was ‘incapable of operating in daylight … off the enemy coast … without a very strong escort of long-range fighters’.

There were no Beaufort-equipped squadrons left with Coastal Command (they were posted overseas), and no trained Beaufighter squadron, and it was known that German Fw190 fighters were 50 mph faster than the Beaufighter, which was therefore hardly suitable as escort to the Hampdens even if available.26 De Havilland Mosquitoes had been made available for Photo-Reconnaissance in 1942, but for the Mosquito Mark VI fighter-bomber priority was given to Fighter Command.

When Air Marshal John Slessor assumed command of Coastal Command in February 1943, the strength was sixty squadrons with ‘some 850 aircraft’. Although he appeared largely content with the aircraft available to him, in respect of both quantity and quality, he wrote to the Air Ministry in September stating, ‘I now find that there are 120 first line Mosquitoes going into photo-reconnaissance in this country, and over 200 first line Mosquitoes going to the Army support in the Tactical Air Force’.

Thus, despite the need for reconnaissance, priority was given to the TAF. He refers, however, to the ‘unforeseen requirement for modification of certain four-engined types to Very Long Range [VLR]’ coinciding with the introduction of a system of ‘planned flying and maintenance … in what was a “difficult period of availability”’.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Sholto Douglas succeeded Air Marshal Slessor in January 1944, when, in respect of numbers of aircraft, equilibrium had obviously been reached. The Command’s records written during his tenure refer to equipment of aircraft such as ASV, and modifications to aircraft rather than the need for more aircraft. Forces for Sholto Douglas included (again, as was the case for Slessor) 430 aircraft for anti-submarine operations.

The 430 aircraft, however, were the equipment for ten squadrons of Liberators, including three of the United States Navy; five Leigh-Light Wellington squadrons, and two squadrons each equipped with Halifaxes, Hudsons and Fortresses. There were also seven Sunderland and two Catalina squadrons. The heavy four-engined aircraft that Sir Sholto then had available did, however, raise another requirement–the need for runways of sufficient length to take such as the Liberator, Fortress and Halifax.

Thus, on 7 February 1944, the Air Ministry was asked to approve the lengthening of the runways at Brawdy, Chivenor, Aldergrove and Leuchars. Although Sholto Douglas expressed no need for more aircraft, he referred to the ‘Bomber Baron’s decision finding the Liberator unsuitable for night operations’, such that Coastal Command’s near starvation came to an end’. He added, ‘By the time that I became C-in-C of Coastal we were using twelve squadrons of them.’

However, by 27 April the Command was obviously preparing for Operation Overlord–the invasion of Europe, and a signal was sent to No. 19 Group regarding the necessity for ‘reducing wastage to conserve aircraft for forthcoming operations’. Specifically mentioned were Mosquitoes and Liberators.

In November the re-equipment of Halifax squadrons with Liberators was again mooted, although these were all bombers that had to be modified for Coastal Command.

In 1945 the Air Ministry agreed to thirty Mark V Sunderlands (those with Pratt & Whitney Wasp engines), which had been intended for overseas service, to be allocated to Coastal Command. This was in sharp contrast to Sir Philip Joubert’s experience three years earlier, when he was losing both aircraft and crews to overseas. During Sir Sholto’s final meetings, a whole spectrum of aircraft types had to be considered. Thus, during the 4 May meeting he asked the Senior Air Staff Officer to find from the Air Ministry what the Command’s commitments might be for modifying fifty Gloster Meteor jet aircraft for photo-reconnaissance, and those required for the Supermarine Sea Otter.


Until the outbreak of the Second World War the number of aircraft considered necessary for Coastal Command to provide trade protection in Home Waters was 281. This number assumed a war by Britain alone against Germany. The prime duty was then to cover the exits from the North Sea.

The capitulation of France, the over-running of the Low Countries and the occupation of Norway and Denmark resulted in a vast coastline from the French Biscay ports to North Cape to be covered. The entry of Italy into the war in addition to a possible hostile French fleet made further demands on Coastal Command. Thus, in addition to covering the North Sea exits, three additional flying-boat squadrons were considered to be immediate requirements to cover the Irish Sea, Faeroes areas, and Western Approaches, plus an additional general reconnaissance landplane squadron and two long-range fighter squadrons–say, another 100 aircraft.

For overseas, an additional five flying-boat squadrons and one landplane squadron were specified; thus, for additional home and overseas commitments, possibly 200 aircraft above the 281 already stated were needed. This assumed that other forces would cover the Caribbean and Newfoundland areas. In December 1939, however, the Command was concerned with close escort of coastal convoys and the chain of patrols to the Norwegian coast.

For those duties reference was made specifically to two types of aircraft, the Avro Anson and the Lockheed Hudson, the reconnaissance landplanes then available. With those two types, a total of 273 aircraft was anticipated, following an agreement to increase the requirements of each squadron to twenty-one aircraft. Other landplanes for reconnaissance then being considered about that time were the Blackburn Botha, the Bristol Blenheim and Bristol Beaufort, with the comments that the Botha was ‘specially designed for reconnaissance’, but that the Blenheim was ‘adversely reported’. It was hoped that twenty Bothas would be delivered to the Command by the end of 1939, and twelve Beauforts were expected in October/November.

The Bothas, however, were found unsuitable for operations, and no more of the Mark IV Blenheims were being allocated to Coastal Command.

In October 1941 the Prime Minister became aware of U-boats operating further afield, and suggested to the First Lord of the Admiralty that it was probably due to our air operations. Following this, Coastal Command’s requirement programme was considered to be 150 Catalinas and seventy-two Sunderlands for twenty-six flying-boat squadrons; thirty-two Liberators and thirty-two Wellingtons or Whitleys to equip four long-range GR squadrons; sixty-four Mosquitoes and 180 GR Hudsons for fifteen and a half medium- and short-range squadrons; 128 Beauforts for eight torpedo-bomber squadrons; and 160 Beaufighters for ten long-range fighter squadrons. However, four flying-boat and two GR short-range squadrons were to be earmarked for West Africa, and three flying-boat squadrons for Gibraltar.

By December 1941 the types of aircraft required were stated as a long-range flying-boat, a long-range landplane, a medium-range landplane, a high-speed reconnaissance landplane, a long-range fighter, and a torpedo- bomber. Changes had been made to requirements following the previous three months’ experience and an analysis of U-boat attacks. At that time it was considered that extra-long-range aircraft should have a range of 2,000 miles because some U-boat attacks had been 700 miles from British bases, and if air patrols were deployed 350–600 miles, the enemy would move to the 600–700-mile area (600 miles from a United Kingdom base would be up to 20’E 15’W; from Iceland, up to 40’E 12’W).

Reconnaissance aircraft were then expected to have ASV (Aircraft-to-Surface Vessel) radar for homing; long-range planes were to be able to operate in all weathers and have a short take-off and landing distance. For high-speed reconnaissance aircraft the Air Ministry suggested the Mosquito, but other services were given priority in their supply.

Three types were suggested to undertake the task of a torpedo bomber: the Handley-Page Hampden, the Bristol Beaufort and the Vickers Wellington III.

All three were to operate as such, despite the lack of forward armament in the Hampden and Beaufort, and the Wellington and Hampden had not been designed for maritime work.

In early 1942 the functions of the Command’s operational aircraft were clearly stated in six categories. Anti-submarine warfare was first in order of importance, covering reconnaissance, depth-charging and bombing. Second and fifth were torpedo warfare (reconnaissance and the attack on large merchant vessels and enemy naval forces) and anti-shipping warfare (reconnaissance and bombing). Third, fourth and sixth in order of importance were photo-reconnaissance, meteorological reconnaissance and coastal fighter warfare.

Coastal fighter and anti-shipping warfare were rated former RAF peacetime functions; anti-submarine warfare had become a highly specialised category, as also torpedo warfare. Little consideration had been given to the latter, as it was ‘uneconomical to have torpedo squadrons locked up for a target which may never materialise so may find ourselves making more use of the GR/TB squadrons for GR work’, as was the case with Beauforts.

At the time of Air Marshal John Slessor assuming command of Coastal in February 1943, the trend (which is reflected in the Command’s records) was concerned about the equipment then being added to aircraft, rather than the aircraft itself. This was resulting in an effect on the aircraft’s range due to the additional loads–a matter of concern throughout the war. Slessor addressed this matter in a letter to all his Group’s headquarters in May 1943.


Range of aircraft for a given design is affected by many factors, such as the all-up weight, the quantity of fuel carried and the type of engine(s). When airborne, other factors include the height at which the aircraft is flown (this because the engines would be designed for an optimum height for greatest efficiency).

Other factors for Coastal Command’s aircrew to consider were whether they should deploy side guns in, for example, Wellingtons or Hudsons; and in the case of the Sunderland flying-boats, whether they should run out their depth charges onto the wings from the bomb-bay.

These were continuing tactical problems in addition to the reduction of speed and range. All four of Coastal Command’s Air Officers Commanding-in-Chief show their awareness of the importance of range for aircraft in the Second World War–notably Sir Philip Joubert –who imposed a limit on the endurance for crews of eighteen hours; and even that figure was to be under exceptional circumstances. At RAF Waddington in April 1998, it was understood that the endurance of aircrew is still the deciding factor in maritime operations, albeit due to toilet facilities.

Although given as having an endurance of 5½ hours at 103 knots, the Anson represented the operational equipment for Coastal Command’s land-based reconnaissance squadrons at the outbreak of war, excluding No. 224, which had just rearmed with Hudsons. The Anson’s lack of range precluded it being effectively used, even for the Command’s prime task on the outset of war, reconnaissance from Britain to Norway. As Capt T. Dorling, RN, stated: ‘Ansons were unable to reach Norway and blockade the North Sea. Only flying-boats and Hudson squadrons were able to do so.’

The Air Ministry, when writing to the C-inC of Coastal Command in September 1941, stated that a limit should not be set on the range of reconnaissance aircraft, but that the matter would be pursued with the Admiralty with a view to limiting the maximum operating distance from base of 600 miles, as convoy escorts beyond that would be uneconomical. Range was necessary to cover, in particular, convoy routes, notably out into the North Atlantic as far as the ‘prudent limit of endurance’, or ‘PLE’.

If on a ‘sweep’, that would have sufficed; but if a convoy was to be escorted, say, at 12°W, it was essential also to have some hours in that area circling the convoy; endurance was therefore also required. Opinions vary in what was considered a useful time with a convoy, but typically two to three hours. In a letter dated 28 July 1941, however, from Air Commodore Lloyd, the Deputy SASO, it was recommended that at least one-third of sorties should be with the convoy.

In Coastal Command, it was decided that the limit of long-range aircraft should be the endurance of the crew rather than the fuel supply. This was decided at a Command meeting on 7 January 1942, when Catalinas were considered able to have a radius of 600 nautical miles, ‘on the fringe of the U-boat area’, with a sortie of eighteen hours’ duration.

Sir Philip Joubert decided that routine patrols should not exceed fourteen hours, but in cases of emergency could be extended up to eighteen hours due to ‘conditions of cold and cramp in which the crews are called upon to operate, and the need for sparing their endurance and not stretching it to the limit unless an emergency arises’.

As an economy measure in Coastal Command’s use of Catalinas in respect of long-range work, it was suggested by the Deputy Senior Air Staff Officer (D/SASO) that Sunderlands could be used for sorties between 250 and 440 nautical miles along convoy routes. It is not clear, however, if that idea was followed.

Range was considered so important that the question of Liberators with or without self-sealing fuel tanks was raised, as without them there would be a reduction of unladen weight but an increase in fuel capacity. In January 1942, however, the Mark I Liberator’s maximum range is stated as 2,720 miles, but with the crew’s endurance limiting it to 2,240 miles.

When the Liberator was just coming into service with Coastal in June 1941 for antisubmarine warfare, the C-in-C wrote to the Air Ministry:

For duties of this nature, which involve flying for long periods by day and night, out of sight of land in all conditions of weather, the Long Range bombers do not provide the same amenities and freedom of movement to the crew as a flying-boat. The Liberator, which is being provided for one squadron, meets these requirements to a greater extent than any existing British bomber ….

He added, however, that more attention should be given to their layout for reconnaissance rather than bomb load.

The long range of 2,240 miles enabled the Liberator in Coastal Command to help close the ‘Mid-Atlantic Gap’ south of Cape Farewell with such as a shuttle service between Newfoundland and Iceland.

Sir Philip Joubert stated that his first problem when he succeeded Sir Frederick Bowhill in 1941 was ‘the need to fill the Gap’, and here the only land-based aircraft that could do the job was the American B24, the Liberator. The C-in-C Coastal Command in a review of the Command’s expansion and re-equipment programme dated 12 June 1941 wrote: ‘The extension of unrestricted U-boat warfare against shipping in the Atlantic to areas outside the range of MR [medium-range] aircraft has necessitated the use of LR


bombers such as the Whitley and Wellington as anti-submarine aircraft.’

The twin-engined medium bombers that came from Bomber Command, the Wellington 1C and Whitley V, were both serving in Coastal by late 1940. Although they helped to fill a gap in the Command’s general reconnaissance requirements, Air Commodore I.T. Lloyd, the D/SASO, wrote to the C-in-C Coastal Command on 28 July 1941: ‘Whitleys and Wellingtons are uneconomical at their speed and with only nine-hour sorties; we require a replacement for these types to give range up to 600 miles … or at least 440 miles.’

Four-engined bombers that were loaned or allocated to Coastal Command included the British Handley-Page Halifax and the Avro Lancaster, but the Halifax when used for meteorological flights was provided with drop tanks to increase the range.

By 30 November 1944 Coastal Command was due to receive Pathfinder-type Mk III Halifaxes from Bomber Command’s production, but it was considered necessary for the first one to be examined and modified at Gosport to bring it up to the Command’s standard. When No. 502 Squadron was due to re-equip with Halifaxes they were to be fitted with long-range tanks, compensated, apparently, in respect of all-up weight, by having the front turret removed.

This was despite the fact that when considering the provision of Halifaxes for No. 58 Squadron, it was stated that for operations in the Bay of Biscay front turrets were needed, largely against enemy fighters.

These essentially bomber aircraft were nevertheless operated by Coastal Command in anti-submarine warfare, and for meteorological flights and anti-shipping sorties. The Avro Lancaster, another four-engined bomber, was only on brief loan to Coastal Command during the war, and does not feature in the RAF’s official history as a Coastal Command aircraft. With a range of 2,350 miles it could have been invaluable, but the Chief of Air Staff was strongly opposed to Lancasters being transferred to Coastal Command, as it was the only aircraft able to take an 8,000 lb bomb to Berlin.

The American-built B17 Flying Fortress was rated a long-range aircraft, but was selected for Coastal Command because it was considered unfit for Bomber Command’s night operations. The Fortress served as a useful reconnaissance aircraft with such as Nos 59, 206 and 220 Squadrons; fortunately it was not required by Bomber Command, and it was reported on 27 January 1942 that all Fortress aircraft from America would go to Coastal Command.

The C-in-C Coastal Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir Philip Joubert, wrote to the Air Ministry on 7 January 1942 of his concern that his long-range aircraft, ‘except the Liberator, fall far short of Coastal Command’s needs … when U-boat attacks on shipping were about 700 miles westwards with Catalinas at 600 miles only on the fringe of the U-boats’ area’. In that same letter, Sir Philip referred to the medium-range Hudson as a ‘stop gap’ with the Ventura [a development of the Hudson] of lesser range; that a medium-range aircraft should have a range of 1,200 nautical miles, while the Wellington and Whitley ‘more nearly meet requirements’. The Air Ministry’s ultimate response was in a letter dated 7 March 1942, which stated:

It would be uneconomical to divert a successful heavy bomber type to a Coastal Command role particularly if … a less successful type of heavy bomber is available … the Fortress … is unfit for night bomber operations and weather conditions strictly limit its employment … in high altitude bombing … for these reasons it was selected for … Coastal Command.

The Air Ministry did show some appreciation of Coastal Command’s requirements, but indicated the priority given to Bomber Command with:

We should hamper the normal evolution of GR [general reconnaissance] aircraft by setting a limit to their range. It is now apparent that our requirements for heavy bomber types are unlikely to be realised in full for a very long time. It will therefore be impracticable to provide many squadrons equipped with this type for general reconnaissance work. Consequently this role will have to be fulfilled by normal GR landplanes for some time to come.

The Air Ministry added that the matter would be pursued with the Admiralty, with Coastal Command aircraft limited to a radius of 600 miles; greater distances ‘should be the responsibility of surface forces’.

At Sir Philip Joubert’s fifth staff meeting, photo-reconnaissance aircraft were said to be Coastal’s ‘weak point’, and he stated, ‘We must have long-range Spitfires.’ For both the Beaufighter, and later the Mosquito, attempts were made to increase their endurance and range by the addition of drop tanks. For the Mosquito, modifications are recorded from November 1941 until towards the end of the war.

Foxtrot on the Brink

The Foxtrot class was the NATO reporting name of a class of diesel-electric patrol submarines that were built in the Soviet Union. The Soviet designation of this class was Project 641. The Foxtrot class was designed to replace the earlier Zulu class, which suffered from structural weaknesses and harmonic vibration problems that limited its operational depth and submerged speed. The first Foxtrot keel was laid down in 1957 and commissioned in 1958 and the last was completed in 1983. A total of 58 were built for the Soviet Navy at the Sudomekh division of the Admiralty Shipyard (now Admiralty Wharves), St. Petersburg.[1] Additional hulls were built for other countries.

In the Cold War era, that commitment began with the massive submarine construction programs initiated immediately after World War II-the long-range Project 611/Zulu, the medium-range Project 613/Whiskey, and the coastal Project 615/Quebec classes. Not only did these craft serve as the foundation for the Soviet Navy’s torpedo-attack submarine force for many years, but converted Zulus and Whiskeys were also the first Soviet submarines to mount ballistic and cruise missiles, and several other ships of these designs were employed in a broad range of research and scientific endeavors.

These construction programs were terminated in the mid-1950s as part of the large-scale warship cancellations that followed dictator Josef Stalin’s death in March 1953. But the cancellations also reflected the availability of more-advanced submarine designs. Project 641 (NATO Foxtrot) would succeed the 611/Zulu as a long-range torpedo submarine, and Project 633 (NATO Romeo) would succeed the 613/Whiskey as a medium-range submarine. There would be no successor in the coastal category as the Soviet Navy increasingly undertook “blue water” operations. Early Navy planning provided for the construction of 160 Project 641/ Foxtrot submarines.

Designed by Pavel P. Pustintsev at TsKB-18 (Rubin), Project 641 was a large, good-looking submarine, 2991/2 feet (91.3 m) in length, with a surface displacement of 1,957 tons. Armament consisted of ten 21-inch (533-mm) torpedo tubes-six bow and four stern. Project 641/Foxtrot had three diesel engines and three electric motors with three shafts, as in the previous Project 611/Zulu (and smaller Project 615/Quebec). Beyond the increase in range brought about by larger size, some ballast tanks were modified for carrying fuel. Submerged endurance was eight days at slow speeds without employing a snorkel, an exceptional endurance for the time. The Foxtrot introduced AK-25 steel to submarines, increasing test depth to 920 feet (280 m). The large size also provided increased endurance, theoretically up to 90 days at sea.

The lead ship, the B-94, was laid down at the Sudomekh yard in Leningrad on 3 October 1957; she was launched-64 percent complete-in less than three months, on 28 December. After completion and sea trials, she was commissioned on 25 December 1958. Through 1971 the Sudomekh Admiralty complex completed 58 ships of this design for the Soviet Navy.

Additional units were built at Sudomekh from 1967 to 1983 specifically for transfer to Cuba (3), India (8), and Libya (6). The Indian submarines were modified for tropical climates, with increased air conditioning and fresh water facilities. Later, two Soviet Foxtrots were transferred to Poland. The foreign units brought Project 641/Foxtrot production to 75 submarines, the largest submarine class to be constructed during the Cold War except for the Project 613/Whiskey and Project 633/Romeo programs.

(Two Project 641 submarines are known to have been lost, the B-37 was sunk in a torpedo explosion at Polnaryy in 1962 and the B-33 sank at Vladivostok in 1991.)

The Soviet units served across the broad oceans for the next three decades. They operated throughout the Atlantic, being deployed as far as the Caribbean, and in the Pacific, penetrating into Hawaiian waters. And Foxtrots were a major factor in the first U.S.-Soviet naval confrontation.


Standing on the deck of his submarine, staring at a strange-looking torpedo, Captain First Rank Ryurik Ketov flipped up the collar on the back of his navy blue overcoat to shield his neck from the cold. A fading September sun coated the waters of Sayda Bay and reflected remnants of orange and yellow from the sides of a floating crane. The crane hovered over Ketov’s boat and lowered a purple-tipped torpedo through the loading hatch. Within minutes the long cylinder disappeared into the forward torpedo room. Blowing into his gloved hands to keep his nose warm, Ketov glanced at the submarine’s conning tower. Three large white numbers were painted on the side, but Ketov knew this label held no meaning, except to serve as a numerical decoy for enemy eyes. The boat’s real designation was B4—B as in Bolshoi, which means “large.”

The handsome, blue-eyed Ketov inherited his B-4 Project 641 submarine—known as a Foxtrot class by NATO forces—from his former commander, who was a drunk. Tradition dictated that submarine captains who were too inebriated to drive their boats into port should lie below until they sobered up. First officers took charge and positioned a broomstick on the bridge in their captain’s stead. Atop the handle they placed the CO’s cap so that admirals on shore peering through binoculars would raise no eyebrows. Ketov stood watch with a broom more times than he could recall. He didn’t dislike vodka, nor did he disapprove of his CO’s desire to partake, but Ketov felt that a man must know his limits and learn to steer clear of such rocks when under way. He demanded no less of his crew. Unfortunately, as his appointment to commander required the approval of the dozen sub skippers in his group, and all of them drank like dolphins, Ketov’s stance on alcohol held him back for a year when he came up for promotion.

The Soviet navy formed the sixty-ninth Brigade of Project 641 submarines in the summer of 1962. Ketov and his comrade captains were ordered to prepare for an extended deployment, which they suspected might be to Africa or Cuba. Some wives, filled with excitement, anticipated a permanent transfer to a warm locale.

The four subs arrived in Gadzhiyevo at Sayda Bay a month earlier and were incorporated into the Twentieth Submarine Squadron along with the seven missile boats. Vice Admiral Rybalko assumed command of the squadron, and over the next thirty days, each boat was loaded with huge quantities of fuel and stores.

Now, aboard B-4, Captain Ketov coughed into the wind and turned to stare at the weapons security officer. Perched near the crane, the man shouted orders and waved long arms at the fitful dockworkers. The officer’s blue coveralls and pilotka “piss cutter” cap signified that he belonged to the community of submariners, but Ketov knew better. The shape of a sidearm bulged from under the man’s tunic, and his awkwardness around the boat made it obvious that he was not a qualified submariner.

Ketov also knew that the security officer came from Moscow with orders to help load, and then guard, the special weapon. Although he’d not yet been briefed about the weapon, Ketov figured this torpedo with the purple-painted nose, which stood in sharp contrast against the other gray torpedoes on board, would probably send a radiation Geiger counter into a ticking frenzy.

Ketov looked down at the oily water that slapped against the side of his boat. Attached by long steel cables, three sister boats of the Soviet Red Banner Northern Fleet floated nearby. If one approached these late-model attack subs from the front, their jet-black hulls, upward-sloping decks, and wide conning towers with two rows of Plexiglas windows might look menacing. The silver shimmer of their sonar panels, running across the bow like wide strips of duct tape, might appear odd. The reflective panels of the passive acoustic antenna, jutting from the deck near the bow, might look borrowed from the set of a science-fiction movie. But the seasoned sailors on the decks of these workhorses were unmistakably Russian, and undeniably submariners.

Ketov strutted across the wooden brow that connected B-4 to the pier. Two guards, with AK-47 assault rifles slung on their shoulders, snapped to and saluted. Ice crunched under his boots as he walked toward a small shed less than a hundred meters away. Captain Second Rank Aleksei Dubivko, commander of B-36, matched his stride and let out a baritone grunt.

“Did they give you one of those purple-nosed torpedoes?”

“Yes,” Ketov answered, “they did.”

Although the round-faced commander was about Ketov’s height of five foot seven, Dubivko’s stocky frame stretched at the stitches of his overcoat. He let out another grunt and said, “Why are they giving us nuclear-tipped weapons? Are we starting a war?”

“Maybe,” Ketov said. “Or maybe we’re preventing one.”

Dubivko’s boots clicked on the ice as he hurried to keep up with Ketov. “We haven’t even tested these weapons. We haven’t trained our crews. They have fifteen-megaton warheads.”


“So if we use them, we’ll wipe out everything within a sixteen-kilometer radius. Including ourselves.”

Ketov neared the door of the shed and stopped to face Dubivko. “Then let’s hope we never have to use them.”

Dubivko let out a low growl and followed Ketov into the shack.

Inside, Captain First Rank Nikolai Shumkov, commander of submarine B-130, stood by the door. Only a few stress lines underscored his brown eyes and marked his boyish features. Next to Shumkov, Captain Second Rank Vitali Savitsky, commander of B-59, appeared tired and bored. None of them had slept much since their trip from Polyarny to Sayda Bay.

The tiny shed, once used for storage, offered no windows. A single dim bulb hung from the ceiling and cast eerie shadows inside. Someone had nailed the Order of Ushakov Submarine Squadron flag on one wall. The unevenly placed red banner, fringed in gold and smeared with water stains, appeared as if hung by a child in a hurry. In one corner sat a small stove that flickered with yellow sparks but offered little warmth. The air smelled of burnt coal.

One metal table graced the center of the room, where the squadron commander, Leonid Rybalko, sat with his arms crossed. Ketov noticed that the vice admiral shivered, despite being bundled in a dark navy greatcoat and wool senior officers’ mushanka cap. The tall, broad-shouldered Rybalko had a reputation for analytical brilliance and a smooth, engaging wit. A dedicated performer, Rybalko exuded the confidence and mastery of a seasoned leader.

To the side and behind Rybalko, the deputy supreme commander of the Navy Fleet, Admiral Vitali Fokin, fidgeted with his watch. Thin and lofty, Fokin kept his back straight. Ketov deduced that Fokin, given his close relationship with Fleet Admiral Sergei Gorshkov, held the reins of what ever mission they were about to undertake. A slew of other officers filled the room, including Anatoly Rossokho, the two-star vice admiral chief of staff. Ketov suspected that Rossokho was here to define their rules of engagement about using the special nuclear torpedoes.

Vice Admiral Rybalko motioned for everyone to find a seat. He coughed and brought a handkerchief to his lips to spit out a clump of mucus. His face looked pale and sickly. He locked his eyes on each submarine commander one at a time. When he looked at Ketov, those few moments seemed like days.

“Good morning, Commanders,” Rybalko said. “Today is an important day. I’m not going to discuss mission details, as we’ve included those in your sealed briefings, which you will open under way. So instead we will focus on other aspects of your mission.”

Metal clanked as an attendant creaked open the front panel on the hot stove and dumped in another can of coal pellets.

Rybalko continued. “I’m sure you all know Admiral Fokin. He asked me to emphasize that each of you has been entrusted with the highest responsibility imaginable. Your actions and decisions on this mission could start or prevent a world war. The four of you have been given the means with which to impose substantial harm upon the enemy. Discretion must be used. Fortunately, our intelligence sources report that American antisubmarine warfare activity should be light during your transit.”

Ketov hoped that the ASW intelligence report was correct but feared that optimism probably overruled reality. He glanced at the other sub commanders. Dubivko and Shumkov wore excited smiles. Savitsky, who’d earned the nickname “Sweat Stains” because he was always perspiring about something, wrinkled his brow. Ketov, who received the title of “Comrade Cautious,” shared Savitsky’s angst. As adventurous as this might seem to Dubivko and Shumkov, Ketov knew Project 641 submarines were not designed for extended runs into hot tropical waters and had no business carrying nuclear torpedoes.

Rybalko imparted more information, concluded his speech, and asked if anyone had questions.

Ketov raised a hand. “I do, Comrade Admiral. I understand that our sealed orders provide mission details, but we share concerns about our rules of engagement and the special weapon. When should we use it?”

Vice Admiral Rossokho broke in. “Comrade Commanders, you will enter the following instructions into your logs when you return to your submarines: Use of the special weapons is authorized only for these three situations—One, you are depth charged, and your pressure hull is ruptured. Two, you surface, and enemy fire ruptures your pressure hull. Three, upon receipt of explicit orders from Moscow.”

There were no further questions.

After the meeting, Ketov followed the group out into the cold. A witch’s moon clung to the black sky and hid behind a dense fog that touched the ground with icy fingers. Ketov reached into his coat pocket and took out a cigarette. Dubivko, standing nearby, held up a lighter. Ketov bent down to accept the flame. Captains Shumkov and Savitsky also lit smokes as they shivered in the dark.

Between puffs, Ketov posed the first question to Captain Savitsky. “How are your diesels holding up?”

Savitsky cringed. “No problems yet, but I’m still worried about what might happen after they’ve been run hard for weeks. If they fail on this mission…” Savitsky’s voice trailed off as he shook his head.

Ketov knew that shipyard workers had discovered flaws in B-130’s diesel engines during the boat’s construction. The shipyard dismissed the hairline cracks as negligible, and Savitsky did not press the issue, as to do so would have resulted in his sub’s removal from the mission. Still, he fretted endlessly about the consequences.

Sensing his friend’s distress, Ketov changed the subject. “Have you seen those ridiculous khaki trousers they delivered?”

“I’m not wearing those,” Savitsky said.

“I wouldn’t either,” Shumkov said, “if I had your skinny duck legs.”

Savitsky snorted and threw his head back. “I’d like to see how you look in those shorts, Comrade Flabby Ass.”

“Right now,” Dubivko said as he pulled his coat tighter, “I’d rather look like a duck in shorts than a penguin in an overcoat.”

Ketov smiled and shook his head. “I’m going back to my boat, try on those silly shorts, and have a long laugh and a can of caviar.”

“And maybe some vodka?” Shumkov said.

“I wish,” Ketov said. “We cast lines at midnight.”

Shumkov nodded and said nothing.

Savitsky raised his chin toward Ketov. “Do you think we’re coming back or staying there permanently?”

Ketov shrugged. “All I know is that we can’t wear those stupid shorts in this weather.”

Back on board B-4, Captain Ketov sat on the bunk in his cabin and stroked the soft fur of the boat’s cat. “It’s time to go, Pasha.”

Over the past year, the calico had become a close member of B-4’s family. Like many Russian submarines, B-4 enlisted the services of felines to hunt down rats that managed to find their way on board, usually by way of one of the shorelines. Boats often carried at least one or two cats on board, and the furry creatures spent their entire lives roaming the decks in search of snacks and curling up next to sailors on bunks. Unfortunately, for reasons unknown, headquarters decreed that cats were forbidden on this journey. Given no choice, Ketov found a good home for Pasha with a friend who could care for her and keep her safe.

As Pasha purred by his side, Ketov reached for a can of tuna. “The least I can do is give you a nice snack before we leave.”

Ketov thought about his mother, still living in the rural Siberian village of Kurgan. She’d lost her husband to one war; would she now sacrifice her first born son? When Ketov was thirteen, his father, who was an accountant with bad eyesight, was forced to fight in the battle at Leningrad. He was killed in his first engagement. Ketov became the man of the house and helped support his younger siblings and his mother, who earned a meager teacher’s salary. He could still not explain why, but the day he turned eighteen, one year after the war ended, he took the train to Moscow and enrolled in the naval college. He also had no explanation for why he’d jumped at the chance to serve aboard submarines. He only knew that, despite the sacrifices and often miserable conditions on the boats, no other life could fulfill him like the one under the sea.

A few minutes past midnight on October 1, 1962, Captain Ketov stood on the bridge of B-4 and watched Captain Savitsky cast off lines and guide B-59 away from the pier using her quiet electric motors. Captain Vasily Arkhipov, the brigade’s chief of staff, stood next to Savitsky in the small cockpit up in the conning tower. A flurry of snow mingled with the fog and dusted the boat’s black hull with streaks of white. Thirty minutes later, B-36, commanded by Dubivko, followed in the wake of her sister sub and disappeared into the darkness of the bay. After another thirty minutes, Shumkov, in B-130, followed by Ketov in B-4, maneuvered away from the pier. Ketov stared into the blackness as the three subs ahead of him, all with running lights off, vanished into the night. Then he heard the low rumble of B-59’s diesel engines, signaling that Savitsky had cleared the channel and commenced one of the most important missions undertaken by the Russian navy since World War II.