Operation ‘PX’

Japan’s submarine construction programme eventually produced the single most extraordinary class of boats conceived by any of the combatant navies of the Second World War. The I-400-class submarines were created in order to take Fujita’s original plan to attack the United States on home ground to a devastating conclusion. Fujita’s plan was dusted off, read again and evaluated, and the problems of the September 1942 missions over the forests of Oregon analysed. Solutions were sought to make any future attacks a success.

As early as April 1942 the Imperial Navy had decided to order the construction of a class of submarine that would dwarf previous Japanese creations in order to provide a far-reaching strike capacity. The problems with Fujita’s original concept were obvious and based around the equipment the Japanese had utilized when making the attacks. The Yokosuka E14Y1 floatplane was not a dedicated bomber, but a reconnaissance plane that could be used as a bomber, capable of carrying a tiny munitions payload. The bomb load was pathetically small, and getting the aircraft in range of a ground target was largely a waste of naval resources. The aircraft was also ponderously slow, with a cruising speed of only 90 miles per hour, which although making it an ideal reconnaissance platform, also made it very vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire and enemy fighters. The E14Y1 was also virtually defenceless, armed with a single rear firing 7.7mm machine gun, so if it had encountered an enemy fighter it would in all probability have been shot down with ease. The submarines that were fitted with the E14Y1, such as the I-25, were only able to store a single aircraft inside their waterproof hangar. The only conceivable way the Japanese could have mounted a sizeable raid with these little planes would have been by gathering several submarines together off the American coast, which in itself was a waste of the submarines’ own fighting potential as they waited around for the return of their aircraft, and exposed the boats to the risk of aerial and ship attacks.

The answer to all of these problems was a single submarine large enough to both reach land targets in the United States without requiring any refuelling, and able to carry more than one aircraft. The new bombers would have to be potent weapons, able to deliver a large payload of bombs, but still retaining the floatplane characteristics enabling their operation at sea from submarines. In effect, the Japanese Navy required a submarine aircraft carrier, and this is exactly what they set about designing and constructing between April 1942 and December 1944.

Each I-400-class vessel was a monster, the largest submarines built until well into the post-war nuclear age, their size only surpassed in 1962 when the Americans commissioned the USS Lafayette. Displacing 5,223-tons surfaced, each boat was 400.3 feet in length with a beam of 39.3 feet and was powered by four diesel engines and electric motors. Atop the weather deck was a 115 feet long waterproof hanger, twelve feet wide, big enough for three specially designed torpedo bombers. In front of the hangar, bolted to the immense deck stretched a pneumatic aircraft-launching catapult eighty-five feet long, and alongside this a powerful hydraulic crane for recovering the aircraft from the sea. Through the Yanagi underwater trade in weapons and new technologies conducted between Nazi Germany and the Japanese, the Imperial Navy had copied the snorkel technology fitted to late-war U-boats, and these were fitted to all four I-400-class submarines. The snorkel mast, when extended above the surface of the water as the submarine cruised at periscope depth, enabled the boat to run on its diesel engines instead of batteries, producing a greatly increased underwater speed and protection from aerial detection and attack. Hugely capacious fuel tanks on each boat meant that each of these submarine aircraft carriers was capable of cruising an astounding 35,500 nautical miles at 14 knots before the tanks ran dry, in other words giving the Japanese skipper the ability to circumnavigate the globe one and a half times. The huge range of these vessels meant that for the first time in the war the Japanese Navy had a machine capable of not only crossing the Pacific to attack the west coast of the United States, but also, in theory, of crossing into the Atlantic via Cape Horn and unleashing air strikes against New York or Washington DC, and both cities were later seriously considered by naval planners in Tokyo for attacks. The I-400-class submarines were capable of a top surface or submerged snorkel speed of 18.7 knots, or if fully submerged and running on electric motors 6.5 knots. Radar and radar detectors, though not up to the German standard, were fitted to all four boats of the class. Although submarine aircraft carriers the I-400-class boats were more than capable of fighting like any other submarine types, having eight torpedo tubes (and twenty torpedoes) and an improved 140mm 50 calibre deck-gun. Improved anti-aircraft defences increased each boat’s chances of standing off an aerial assault, with a 25mm cannon mounted on the conning tower, and three triple barrelled 25mm cannon located on top of the aircraft hangar, giving a total of ten guns. With a maximum diving depth of almost 330 feet, each boat took slightly under one minute to crash-dive.

Such superb and powerful vessels required an equally superb and capable aircraft type, and here the Japanese also excelled. Each I-400-class submarine was designed to carry a maximum of three Aichi M6A1 Seiran torpedo bombers. Seiran can be translated as ‘Storm from the sky’, and these aircraft were no ponderous reconnaissance types but sturdy birds of destruction. Still floatplanes, each monoplane measured thirty-five feet in length, with a wingspan of forty feet. Designed by Toshio Ozaki, chief engineer at Aichi, the Seiran had to conform to a series of guidelines laid down by the Imperial Navy as they sought the perfect plane for their new submarines. In late 1942 Ozaki began developing the aircraft that the navy specified must have been capable of carrying a maximum bomb load consisting of a single 1,288-lb (800kg) aerial bomb or torpedo. In the light of the desperate position Japan was in by late 1944, if a kamikaze mission was called for the floats could be detached and the fuel and bomb load increased for a one-way mission against the enemy. The navy also stipulated that the aircraft must be capable of a top speed of 294 miles per hour with floats, or 347 miles per hour with the floats detached. Under normal, non-kamikaze, operating conditions each Seiran had a range of 654 miles, which meant that the ‘mother’ submarine could sit some way off from the enemy shore when launching and recovering its air group, instead of having to come close inshore to launch and then sit vulnerably on the surface awaiting an aircraft’s return from its sortie.

The first prototype Seiran was completed in October 1943, and several others followed. The navy, however, was overjoyed with the performance of the prototype aircraft and ordered full production before testing had been completed at Aichi in early 1944. This decision was probably hastened by the deteriorating Japanese naval situation, and the necessity of getting the new submarines and aircraft into action as soon as possible. This was to prove to be no easy task as American bombing raids and even an earthquake, which completely shut down production at Aichi by March 1945, hampered production of the aircraft. In the end Aichi engineers managed to cobble together twenty-six Seiran torpedo bombers (including prototypes) and a pair of land-based trainers, the M6A1-K Nanzan. The navy no longer required a large number of Seiran aircraft as they had been forced by the weakening of Japan’s economy to scale back the number of I-400-class submarines under construction. The I-400 was ready for service on 30 December 1944, and the I-401 followed a few days later. I-402’s duties were changed from being an underwater aircraft carrier, and instead she was refitted as a submarine fuel tanker. Two other boats, I-404 and I-405 were abandoned on the slips and not completed before the Japanese surrender.

Although each I-400-class submarine’s complement was listed officially as 145 men, on operations up to 220 crewmen were carried aboard in order to make the dispatching and recovering of the aircraft as efficient an operation as possible. The Seiran aircraft were stored inside the huge hangar with their floats detached, and their wings and tails folded up. Each well-trained team of aircraft technicians and mechanics could assemble a single aircraft in around seven minutes, ready for launching. All three torpedo bombers could be assembled, fuelled and fitted with either torpedoes or aerial bombs, attached to the launching ramp and catapulted away in about forty-five minutes (close enough to the original Japanese Navy stipulation of thirty minutes). In order to maintain the air group while the submarine was at sea a special compartment was located inside the pressure hull beneath the hangar where engineers could test aircraft engines and maintain the airframes. Beside this was the aircraft magazine, containing four aerial torpedoes, fifteen bombs and ammunition for the aircraft’s cannon and machine guns.

The I-400 and I-401 were placed into a new unit alongside two modified AM-class submarines, the I-13 and I-14. Originally this type of boat had only been capable of carrying a single floatplane, but while under construction in 1944 the Japanese changed their plans and altered the configuration of the AM-class boats to take two of the new Seiran bombers. Although having a range of 21,000 nautical miles at 16 knots, the modifications meant the boats’ underwater performance suffered, making them relatively easy targets for both American aircraft and warships. Under the overall command of Captain Tatsunosuke Ariizumi, the submarines were organized as 1st Submarine Flotilla, with the aircraft and aircrew forming the new 631st Air Corps. The I-13 and I-14 would each carry two aircraft, while the I-400-class pair was loaded with full air groups of three Seiran each. The Japanese Navy now had the most potent collection of submarines yet assembled in war, and what was required now was a plan to use all of this potential against the enemy.

The Japanese Army had for years been experimenting with biological warfare at a secret research facility at Harbin in China. In 1936 the army had organized Unit 731 under Colonel Dr Shiro Ishii. The experiments had been conducted on human beings, both Chinese soldiers and civilians and American prisoners captured in the Philippines in 1942, and the results had demonstrated that various lethal bacteria and diseases could be used against civilian populaces, and delivered either by dropping infected insects or rats or delivering the bacteria in special aerial bombs. Tens of thousands died as a result of infected fleas being dropped over wide areas of the Chinese countryside. The Japanese also managed to kill around 1,700 of their own troops when the experiments backfired. At this stage of the war, with Japan clearly losing, some in the navy advocated using the ten aircraft of 1st Submarine Flotilla to drop bubonic plague, cholera, dengue fever, typhus, anthrax or a wide variety of other virulent bacterial agents on the United States in order to create widespread infection and panic among their enemies. A leading advocate of such a strategy was Vice-Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa, then Vice-Chief of the Naval General Staff in Tokyo, who along with others formulated a plan codenamed Operation ‘PX’ to this end. This plan envisaged the dropping of infected fleas into the downtown area of San Francisco from Seiran aircraft, an event that would have killed thousands of Americans. However, there were those in positions of higher command who considered such a plan to be lunacy, and stated this quite emphatically at the time. A leading member of the opposition to ‘PX’ was the army’s most senior officer, General Yoshijiro Umezu. Umezu was Chief of the General Staff, and managed to quash the plan on 26 March 1945 before any move was made to carry it out.

This diabolical operation was a massive step on from Fujita’s modest bombing proposals, and even for many Japanese dropping plagues into the enemy camp was going too far. As for Unit 731, when the war ended Ishii and his group of scientists and soldiers were captured by the Americans. Instead of hauling these mass murderers before a war crimes tribunal the Americans struck a deal whereby the members of Unit 731 were granted immunity from prosecution in return for passing their germ warfare data to the Americans. The exigencies of the new Cold War with the Soviet Union meant that the United States was prepared to overlook how this data had been created in order to stay one step ahead of its enemy.

Although Operation ‘PX’ was dropped, the Imperial Navy still wanted to launch its ten Seiran aircraft against targets in America, but this time armed with conventional weapons. Various targets were placed before the naval staff, including San Francisco, New York and Washington DC, as well as the Panama Canal, ironically once Fujita’s target of choice. All things being considered, the navy eventually decided that a strike against the Panama Canal would have had the greatest effect on America’s ability to prosecute the war against Japan. The specific target that the Japanese identified as creating the most damage would have been a strike aimed at destroying the Gatun Locks. The Panama Canal is very different from its much longer cousin, the Suez Canal. The Suez Canal remains at sea level for its entire length, whereas the Panama Canal has six sets of locks to raise and lower ships along its course. Water for these locks comes from two artificial lakes, Gatun and Madden. If the lock gates could be breached Gatun Lake would empty itself, making the canal impassable for American shipping for several months and severely disrupting the American build-up in the Pacific. It was reasoned that the ten Seiran torpedo bombers would be able to breach the locks in a determined attack, and it would be the last place the Americans would expect a sudden Japanese aerial assault, so surprise might also have meant encountering little opposition at the target. It was planned that the ten Seirans would attack the Gatun Locks with six aerial torpedoes and four conventional bombs. The trip from Japan to Panama and back again would be 17,000 nautical miles, and the Japanese would require 6,400-tons of diesel fuel for the four submarines. This quantity was not available at the submarine base at Kure in Japan. Therefore, before the plan could be launched an annoying delay ensued as the I-401 was sent to Darien in China to obtain the necessary fuel and transport it back to Japan.

The I-401’s cruise across to Manchuria would take her through the. Inland Sea, where the voyage almost ended in disaster. American B-29 Superfortress bombers, as well as flattening Japanese cities in fire raids, had also been busily mining areas of the Inland Sea known to still be used by the remaining surface and submarine forces of the shattered Japanese Navy. The Americans were also, by this stage of the war, able to operate aircraft carriers off the Japanese coast with virtual impunity. On 19 March 1945 Vice-Admiral Marc Mitscher led his Task Force 5811 on a devastating attack on the Kure Naval Arsenal. Over 240 American carrier planes bombed and strafed the remains of the once great Imperial Navy. As well as the huge I-400-class submarines drawn up in dry-docks, the I-13 was in the harbour and narrowly escaped damage. The Japanese battleships Yamato, Haruna, Hyuga and he were all bombed and strafed, as well as Japan’s remaining aircraft carriers Kaiyo, Amagi, Ryuho and Katsuragi.

It was onto an American aerial mine that the I-401 bumped on 12 April off Hime Shima Lighthouse in the Inland Sea, and although the damage she sustained was not terminal, the vessel had to head back to Kure for repairs. In her stead the I-400 was sent across to Darien and managed to secure the necessary fuel and transport it safely back to Japan. With the acquisition of the fuel, and the return to service of the I-401 following hasty repairs, the stage looked set for the attack on the Panama Canal. The Japanese now decided to carefully train for the proposed operation, constructing a life-size replica of the Gatun Lock gates in Toyama Bay so that the Seiran pilots could make dummy attack runs. The training period was fraught with dangers for the submarines and aircraft as the Americans had, by this stage, almost complete mastery of the air over the Home Islands and American submarines lurked close inshore sinking any remaining merchant ships with impunity. Mines dropped by B-29s littered the sea routes, and the I-401’s recent collision with one demonstrated how vulnerable Japanese submarines had become, a situation being faced at the same time by German U-boats attempting to train crews and work up their new Type XXI and XXIII electro-boats in Baltic waters, heavily mined by the RAF. Captain Ariizumi watched his squadron preparing for the forthcoming attack and he grew increasingly confident that the strike would be a success as the pilots laboured to accurately hit the mocked-up lock gates time and time again.

However bold and far-reaching a strike the Panama Canal raid would have been, it was events closer to home that diverted the Japanese High Command’s attention, and made them change the focus of the 1st Submarine Flotilla attack. Panama was a long way away in the minds of many Japanese strategists, who examined their maps with growing anxiety as they watched thousands of American and British ships congregating close to the Home Islands in preparation for the projected invasion of Japan itself. Perhaps the new submarine aircraft carriers would be better employed in attacking the enemy ship concentrations closer to Japan than crossing the Pacific to points distant? Ariizumi was astounded when he was informed that he was to abandon further training for a strike against the Panama Canal, just at the point when he believed his submarines and aircraft were ready to commence the operation, and he was directed instead to take his squadron out against the American anchorage at Ulithi Atoll. The message Ariizumi received from headquarters read: ‘A man does not worry about a fire he sees on the horizon when other flames are licking at his kimono!’ but this did little to placate the squadron commander’s anger and protestations over the change in plan. Headquarters refused to change its mind, and ordered Ariizumi to conduct an air strike against Ulithi in mid-August, necessitating a completely new plan and little time to prepare the boats or the aircrew. This was Operation Hikari, an operation that envisaged six Seirans of 631st Air Corps launching a concerted kamikaze attack on the American anchorage.

The I-13 was the first of the new submarines to proceed with the changed operation, moving to Ominato Naval Base on Honshu Island on 4 July. There she was loaded with two crated Nakajima C6N2 Ayagumo reconnaissance aircraft, the planes destined to assist the 631st Air Group pilots with finding targets at Ulithi. Once loaded aboard Commander Ohashi headed directly for the Japanese base at Truk. On 14 July the I-14 took the same route to Truk in preparation for the attack scheduled to commence on 17 August 1945.

The I-13 never made it to her destination, as she was intercepted 550 miles east of Yokosuka on the early morning of 16 July by aircraft from the carrier USS Anzio. A Grumman Avenger discovered the submarine on the surface and immediately engaged it with machine-gun fire and 5-inch rockets. The damaged I-13 crash-dived, and the Avenger pilot dropped a Fido homing torpedo in her wake, as well as several depth charges. A further two Avengers arrived at the scene and dropped another homing torpedo into the sea. Later that morning the destroyer USS Lawrence C. Taylor finished off the damaged submarine with a pattern of twenty-four 7.2-inch Hedgehog mortar bombs, killing all 140 Japanese aboard the vessel.

Commander Toshio Kusaka aboard the I-400 cruised confidently out of Ominato harbour on 23 July, followed soon after by Lieutenant-Commander Shinsei Nambu and the I-401. Both vessels were travelling on different routes for safety, but planned to rendezvous three weeks hence south-east of Ulithi. The I-14 arrived at Truk on 4 August and unloaded two crated Ayagumo reconnaissance aircraft. The waters around Ulithi were soon to be infested with Japanese submarines carrying Kaiten human torpedoes, excluding the submarine aircraft carriers, as the Imperial Navy bet everything it had on smashing the American fleet anchorage with suicide attacks.

The Japanese had modified a torpedo as a suicide weapon and aptly christened it Kaiten (returning to the heavens). Only the Type-1 one-man model fitted with a 3,000-pound warhead was used on operations, the Japanese deploying about 100 in the dying months of the war. It was not a very effective weapon as Allied warships and aircraft easily sank them. The Kaiten only managed to sink two American ships, the USS Mississenewa on 20 November 1944 and the USS Underhill on 24 July 1945. However, the Japanese continued to deploy the Kaiten until the end of the war, a large submarine carrying up to six that could be launched while the boat was submerged.

Unfortunately for the Japanese, their huge new I-400-class submarines, and the planes they carried, were in the end destined never to see action. The attack on Ulithi Atoll had been scheduled for 17 August, but as the submarines made their way into position the Japanese government capitulated following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and surrendered unconditionally on 15 August. For Captain Ariizumi the news of Japan’s defeat just as his well-trained and committed squadron was about to demonstrate their worth to the navy and the nation was shattering. The Emperor himself had addressed the nation and its armed forces and ordered them all to cease fighting, and none of the submarine captains would go against his word. Naval headquarters in Tokyo ordered all submarines to raise a black flag and return to their home ports on the surface. All that was left for Ariizumi was to empty his vessels of anything the hated Americans might like to examine when they came to take possession of his boats. All sensitive documents, code-books and signalling equipment was pitched over the side, along with ammunition for the submarines’ weapons. In a few hours of mad activity Japanese submariners set about firing off all their torpedoes, and onboard the I-401 the crew catapulted pilotless Seiran bombers off the vessels into the sea. On the I-400 the Japanese sailors punched great holes in the three Seirans floats and then pushed the aircraft overboard. On 28 August, as the three I-400-class submarines closed on Japan they were overtaken by American forces, their colours were struck, and duly replaced with the Stars and Stripes. Taken over by the US Navy, both the I-400 and the I-401 were sailed across the Pacific, ironically to the American west coast they had been designed and built to strike. There the boats were extensively tested, and along with surrendered German U-boats the technologies of their former enemies were integrated into submarine designs for the Cold War. After they had outlived their usefulness the Americans towed the vessels out into the Pacific and scuttled them in 1946. The I-402, the only other completed I-400-class submarine, never undertook a mission to transport fuel to Japan and was also scuttled by the Americans in 1946. When work ceased on the I-404 and I-405, the former submarine was ninety per cent complete. Both vessels were later scrapped where they lay. The only survivor of the I-400-class project is a single Seiran torpedo bomber, discovered by the Americans in the ruins of the Aichi factory in 1945, taken back to the United States for testing and display, and now, after a complete rebuild, displayed at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC. In a final footnote to the story, in March 2005 a deep diving submersible from the Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory located the wreck of the I-401 off Oahu.

In the end Fujita’s plan of 1942, to strike against the American mainland, has been recorded in the history books as a mere two feeble aircraft sorties over the great forests of Oregon. The planned Japanese operation for 1945, striking the Gatun Locks at the Panama Canal as Fujita had suggested years before, never went ahead because the Japanese decided to confront the enemy closer to home. Fortunately for everyone concerned, the evil Operation ‘PX’, the biological warfare attack aimed at the western United States, was actually shelved by the Japanese who realized it was a step too far. Would they have been so accommodating if they had known about the American atomic bombs about to be dropped on two of their cities? The war ended just in time to prevent the I-400-class pilots from sallying forth to Ulithi on what would have been one-way missions for all of them. Fujita’s plan cast a long shadow over Japanese submarine operations, but in the end, although the technology was created in time to have made his plan an infinitely more serious proposition than his actual twin attacks in September 1942, circumstances intervened and have left us instead with a series of ‘what if scenarios which the American public fortunately never had to face on their own home ground.

The Battle of Barking Creek

Supermarine Spitfire Mark Is

Such was the threat of terror from the air in Britain that even before the Wehrmacht struck against Poland on 1 September 1939 very many thousands of people were suffering the first inconveniences of war. Not only were large numbers of militiamen and reservists called to report for fulltime duty, large numbers of children and adults were evacuated from major cities considered most vulnerable to German air attack.

That such an assault was possible and indeed probable was something Britain’s leaders had convinced themselves of. Neville Chamberlain’s government were at one with opposition parties and military experts in assessing the chances of annihilating air raids that would bring a great weight of bombs on the civilian population as almost a certainty. In 1937 the Air Raid Precautions Sub-Committee of Imperial Defence reported that based on World War I experience every ton of bombs dropped would cause fifty casualties

(seventeen killed, thirty-three injured). Therefore, a total Luftwaffe offensive using gas, explosive and incendiary bombs would bring 200,000 casualties in one week, 60,000 of those fatalities. In the event, though some night raids on cities caused more casualties even than those suffered by the Germans under far greater RAF assault, overall casualty figures were lower than expected: almost 30,000 were killed in London throughout the war, for instance, 60,000 in all. Most of the great numbers of cheap coffins quietly made and stored before the war were not needed.

Nonetheless, in 1937 the government was correct to make ARP (air raid precautions) a compulsory matter, as were the Germans. Through an Act of Parliament local authorities were compelled to take action in setting up appropriate organisations to deal with air raid emergencies. How they coped is beyond the scope of this work; what is relevant is the `knock-on’ effect which resulted from the fear of air attack at the top, leading to widespread anti-raid propaganda through various effective means such as cigarette cards. And when war finally came, the nervous state of the government resulted in the immediate closing of all places of entertainment, a panic measure that brought a depressing loss of morale and was soon rescinded. In fact, Nazi propaganda – and, of course, the terrible bombing of Guernica by the German Condor Legion Heinkels during the Spanish Civil War – had helped to establish the air raid neurosis in British leaders, especially Winston Churchill, who felt that in certain circumstances the Germans would be unable to resist using mass air terror to cow the enemy. All of these prognostications were not upset simply because the Luftwaffe failed to show up when war was declared. The false alarm sirens of 1 September did nothing to alleviate matters; the Lord Chancellor’s declaration in December 1938 that Hitler’s air force was capable of delivering 3,000 tons of bombs in one day was still taken seriously. News of the swift subjugation of Poland and the Luftwaffe’s part in it, including the blitz on Warsaw, simply amplified such notions.

Preparations in ARP begun in 1938 included the digging of deep trenches in public parks; these were abandoned to the elements following Chamberlain’s `triumph’ at Munich which `solved’ the crisis over Czechoslovakia. As soon as the real thing came a year later the workmen were turned out again to drain the trenches and turn them into proper air raid shelters. In the armed forces, while the Royal Navy had always been seen as Britain’s first line of defence, in the modern age the comparatively new Royal Air Force protected our skies from aerial incursion, though judging by the experts’ views on probable air raid casualties the government held little faith in the RAF’s ability to hold back enemy bombers. Aiding the 750-strong fighter force were the `barrage’ balloons of a command only set up in 1938, plus a woefully inadequate Anti-Aircraft Command. Fighter Command was organised into thirty-nine front-line squadrons, with 400 planes in reserve. Of its first-line strength 347 were Hurricanes and 187 Spitfires, the rest made up of obsolete biplanes and the new twin-engined Blenheim Mk Is. Among the biplanes were seventy-six Gladiators, some of which would be called upon to combat the modern Messerschmitts of the Luftwaffe in the Norwegian campaign the following year. Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding estimated that forty-six fighter squadrons would be needed to combat German air attack on Britain, but soon after war came he was obliged to despatch some of his Hurricane units to France.

The RAF’s fighter interception force relied on a system of ground control, at the heart of which lay advanced warning of attack by the new and secret radar system: eighteen Chain Home (CH) units covering the east and south coasts of Britain, from Aberdeen to Portsmouth. The Germans also had radar (radio detection and ranging), but had so far failed to develop it into a fighter control system. British radar posts, in theory, would give warning of incoming raiders up to 100 miles distant at whatever height except low level. Aiding the existing anti-aircraft lookout posts were the highly skilled volunteers of the Observer Corps. The system was much more extensive in coastal coverage than that eventually organised in World War I when the Army and police were the chief planks of defence warning, but the radar sets themselves were untried in war and crude by later standards, and of course the operators were inexperienced, Fighter pilots, too, were quite naturally inexperienced, and would take time to learn the techniques and skills necessary for defence and survival in air combat.

It was these shortcomings that led to the so-called `Battle of Barking Creek’.

Belief that fear of air attacks was justified came early. The crowded streets of central London emptied quite rapidly when, not long after Prime Minister Chamberlain’s sombre announcement of war, the eerie cadences of the air raid sirens began to howl across the capital and southern England. Thousands hurried to the nearest shelter; the few who through bravado tried to remain, gawking in the streets, were bullied away by harassed and nervous policemen. As a demonstration of how the British public would behave under threat from the air it was admirable, and when soon afterwards the single wailing note of the `All Clear’ came, the crowds emerged relieved and smiling into the Sunday morning sunshine. The cause of the alarm had been an unidentified civil plane crossing the Channel, but that night other areas along the East Anglian coast suffered more alarms as jittery defence posts made more errors. A further alarm followed the next day.

Then, soon after six a. m. on Wednesday, 6 September, the CH radar station at Canewdon near Southend-on-Sea, Essex, began recording `enemy aerial activity’ over the North Sea. It appeared that groups of up to twenty German aircraft were heading in towards the Thames estuary. Fifteen minutes were needed to confirm that no RAF planes were in that area, so the plots were accordingly marked as `hostile’ and the air-raid sirens began to wail in the zones to be affected. It looked as if the first, expected, mass enemy air attack was becoming a reality.

Then, AA units on the Essex coast reported aircraft near West Mersea, and the whole British defensive system swung into action. The 11 Group sector controller, Group Captain Lucking, alerted the Hurricanes at North Weald to scramble a flight of fighters to investigate, put the adjacent 12 Group on alert and advised the Observer Corps of his actions. Contrary to orders, the station commander at North Weald promptly ordered his entire fighter strength into the air; twelve serviceable Hurricanes of 56 and 151 Squadrons scrambled, soon followed by two more excited pilots who flew after the main formation but trailed behind one thousand feet lower. It would be this luckless pair who suffered as the episode took on fiasco proportions.

The Hurricanes began patrolling the line Harwich-Colchester, the eyes of every pilot straining to catch a glimpse of the enemy they fully expected to see at any moment. In the meantime, at 06.45 hrs twelve Spitfires were scrambled from 54, 65 and 74 Squadrons based at Hornchurch and flew east to intercept the `enemy’ raiders. As they reached the mouth of the Thames they spotted their `prey’ and the cry `Tally-ho!’ was given by 74 Squadron pilots, who at once went into the attack. The future Air Commodore Donaldson, then the leader of 151 Squadron, watched in disbelief and then horror as immediately after he called `Bandits!’ and ordered his pilots to await verification, he realised the `enemy’ coming at them were Spitfires. Two of the latter, flown by Flying Officer Byrne and Pilot Officer Freeborn, attacked some of the Hurricanes, this despite having the rising sun in their faces which had prevented positive identification. Pilot Officer Hulton-Harrop was struck in the head by a bullet and died; his Hurricane went down in a gentle glide, over Essex and into Suffolk, to crash on Manor Farm, Hintlesham. Had his fighter been fitted with head armour it is most likely he would have escaped injury. His fellow airman, Pilot Officer Rose, escaped injury, but was forced to land at Whetstead in Essex.

More confusion occurred when AA gunners opened fire on 65 Squadron Spitfires off the coast, this despite the pilots flashing the correct recognition signal in Morse. In the subsequent inquiry, it was found that the ground gunners were young, unable to read Morse, and woefully ignorant in aircraft recognition. Indeed, the Observer Corps personnel were far from being up to standard themselves. During the episode, these watchers had received reports from the radar post of incoming enemy planes, but had been unable to see or hear any at all.

Group Captain Lucking was relieved of his command the same day and taken under close arrest to Air Vice Marshal Keith Park’s HQ. The offending Spitfire pilots were also placed under arrest, while Pilot Officer Rose flew to Hornchurch the same day to give evidence.

Reports that twin-engined Blenheims had been responsible in the first instance for this episode, a story published long after the war by one eminent researcher, seem to be untrue. As for the radar crew at Canewdon, their records, if any, have long since vanished. In his history of Hornchurch fighter base, Raiders Approach!, Squadron Leader Sutton OBE commented that it was `unsurprising’ Spitfire pilots and AA gunners should have been so trigger-happy in the first days of the war, when it seemed `inconceivable’ that Hitler would refrain from launching mass air attacks on Britain. Fighter pilots were by nature aggressive and quick off the mark, but Sutton states it was AA bursts around Hurricanes which alerted the Spits and brought about the attack. The early usage of ground-to-air radar at Canewdon had resulted in a fluke: echoes from the west were somehow reflected as if from the east and not filtered out. The incident led to better practice and the introduction of identification, friend or foe, devices in RAF aircraft.

And this was by no means the only melee of the war between friendly fighters of either side. The Luftwaffe indulged in the Battle of Koepernick, and four days after Christmas 1939, the British defence system erred again – with serious results. Spitfires of No. 602 (City of Glasgow) Squadron were scrambled from their base at Drem, east of Edinburgh and near the sensitive Firth of Forth, after a warning of `bandits’ heading in from the sea. Although only just after three p. m., dusk was falling and there was sea mist, neither helping visibility. Despite these conditions, the intruders were spotted and the RAF pilots zoomed in for a first attack. One after another the Spits roared in, each pilot thumbing his gun button to set his eight .303 machine-guns chattering, sending streams of lead at the alarmed crews of the twin-engined, twin-tailed machines now trying to escape only one thousand feet above land. Only as the Spitfires broke away past their targets did the terrible truth dawn on their pilots: the `bandits’ were RAF Hampdens. By then it was too late; two of the friendly bombers were going down. The survivors were almost out of fuel and made emergency landings on the fighters’ own base at Drem, their crews soon facing their chastened attackers. It seems liaison between Bomber Command – who had despatched the Hampdens on an exercise – and the defence system was not as it should have been.

Next morning the fighter pilots rose, went to attend to their ablutions and found all the toilet rolls gone. The bomber boys had already taken off, but soon roared back over the fighter field – to bomb it with toilet rolls.

By July 1942, the officer commanding the famous Biggin Hill fighter station in Kent was Group Captain `Dickie’ Barwell. Misidentification in air combat had become a problem: twenty-five Allied aircraft had been shot down in error. Group Captain Barwell promoted recognition contests to help counter the situation, only to become a victim himself. When a `bogey’ was reported over the sea, Barwell took off in a Spitfire Mk VI, despite the fact he had broken his back and was still in plaster; he was accompanied by Squadron Leader Bob Oxspring. They failed to find the enemy plane but were themselves attacked by two Spitfires from Tangmere. Hampered by his plaster cast, Barwell was trapped in his blazing fighter and fell into the sea.

The Third Eagle Squadron of American volunteer pilots trained on Spitfires had unfurled their flag at Biggin on 3 May in the same year. By September, these pilots were about to transfer to the US Army Air Force, and in the middle of that month flew what was to have been their final operation before donning American uniforms. It proved more than that. In one of the most incredible episodes in the history of air warfare, the whole squadron of twelve Spitfires was blown wildly off course over the Channel by a vicious headwind, and the pilots failed to realise this until they emerged from cloud to find themselves over Brest. Taken on by the heavy German flak defences, the Spits were damaged and, out of fuel, were forced to make emergency landings. The French lie de France Group would never take over the Eagles’ mounts: the aircraft and the American pilots were captured by the enemy. Only one of the pilots managed to escape. He headed north towards Cornwall, only to crash into the cliffs at the Lizard.

The Sicilian Pillbox

On 10 July 1943, No. 3 Commando landed near Cassible in Sicily, a little south of the port of Syracuse. Three days later it re-embarked and was sent up the coast to land behind enemy lines at Agnone. No. 3 Commando was charged with capturing a vital bridge several miles inland, a feat it accomplished early on 14 July. As enemy pressure mounted, the Commando was forced to withdraw, and, after splitting into small groups, the men began making their way across the hills towards the British front line near Augusta. They were dogged by enemy patrols as they went, but eventually they joined up with the advance elements of the British Eighth Army. This scene shows a small group of Commandos taking a short rest break during the withdrawal. In the background the troop commanders – a lieutenant and a sergeant – consult their map and plan the next phase of the march.

At the start of the campaign in Sicily, in July 1943, a small episode of little or no significance to the main battles on the island occurred.

The British and American armies under Generals Montgomery and Patton were to land on Sicily two months after the Axis capitulation in North Africa, where a quarter of a million soldiers surrendered, some 125,000 of these German. Coming as it did on the heels of the disaster at Stalingrad, the loss of yet another whole army came as a second terrible blow to Hitler.

There were only two German divisions on Sicily, one of them the tough Hermann Goering Panzer grenadier, the other six were Italian, most assigned the role of coastal defence and ripe for surrender before the invasion fleet came over the horizon. The two-pronged Allied assault would take on the nature of a race between the rivals, Patton and Monty. Many small encounters would never be recorded, save perhaps in abbreviated form in unit histories. One such occurred when two small parties comprising British commandos and pioneers were landed on a remote part of the island coast in order to reconnoitre any Italian resisters. Little opposition was expected in this pre-dawn landing as the soldiers scrambled ashore well ahead of the main armies then about to begin disembarking from their transports offshore. Although these were accompanied by warships, there was no pre-landing bombardment. The invasion morning produced something like an anti-climax, especially for the tough commandos who in their young zeal were fired up for action.

Obviously, the Germans had concentrated their own force inland, leaving their supposed allies to resist on the coast, though having little faith in the Italian soldiers putting up much of a fight. As the commandos climbed the bare slopes, weapons at the ready, the troopships at sea began disembarking their loads. The commandos’ enthusiasm soon evaporated as they encountered not a soul, and as they reached the clifftop, sweating and tiring from the climb, their officers commiserated with each other on the disappointment they shared. No commando had fired a shot, no pioneer had seen a chance to blow up any enemy forts and bunkers.

The two squads then pushed on along the clifftop ridge, until in a sudden dip they encountered an enemy pillbox. Uncamouflaged, its dirty-looking concrete sat among the sandy soil and scrub grass, with a steel door visible at the rear, its weapon slits placed for all-round defence. The two British parties had dropped to the ground to survey this menace, both officers peering through binoculars, trying to decide if the post was manned. No weapons poked through the embrasures. Finally, the commando lieutenant remarked, `It’s OK, old chap, we can deal with this.’

`Oh?’ the pioneer officer responded. `It’s one for us, I believe.’

So they tossed a coin. The pioneer won and brought his men forward with their explosives to set charges around the structure as the commando officer withdrew in disgust with his own troops.

Suddenly, all the British soldiers were startled to see a solitary figure in green uniform appear beside the pillbox. It was one of the Italian defenders. He peered at the invaders briefly before vanishing through the steel door again. Not a moment later a white rag tied to a stick was poked out of the doorway. The British watched with mixed feelings as several Italians, minus equipment, stepped tentatively outside. The two British lieutenants grinned and cursed mildly.

The commando officer sat down to open up his ration pack and his men started to brew some tea while their engineer comrades got on with the job. The commando officer, grinning, now suggested `tickling up’ the Italians with a Bren. His opposite number obliged, picking up their light machine-gun to send a burst of fire over the heads of the startled Italians, who rushed back into their bunker. A moment later they fired a few token shots from their embrasures, this act finally sealing their fate.

That settles it,’ the pioneer officer remarked, and he ushered his men off with their explosive charges. The pillbox door had been left ajar so that the white flag could continue to be waved in surrender. A few more rounds changed that. The door was slammed shut and the pioneers got on with their task, laying charges at intervals round the bunker and withdrawing hurriedly.

The engineer officer had never been in any doubt as to his proper course of action: every enemy fortification found had to be destroyed, with or without the enemy within. He now stood erect, contemptuous of any possible Italian fire, announcing that the commandos would now see a demonstration in the art of demolition. The wretched Italians, meanwhile, unaware perhaps that their last moments were at hand, were jabbering together inside what was about to prove their steel and concrete coffin.

And so it proved. The enemy soldiers’ arguments among themselves on the best course of action were cut short very abruptly as the charges were detonated and the whole structure, complete with occupants, was reduced to rubble in an explosion that proved most satisfying for the onlookers, who then proceeded to enjoy breakfast as they admired their handiwork and watched the troop-laden craft approaching the beaches

The Napoleon of Hawaii, Kamehameha I

Kamehameha I of Hawaii fought his way to supremacy in the Hawaiian archipelago in the 1790s in part thanks to his use of European arms, rather than spears, clubs, daggers and slingshots. His power was based on the west coast of the island of Hawaii, a coast frequented by European ships, and he employed Europeans as gunners.

The Napoleon of Hawaii, Kamehameha I, fought his way to supremacy over the archipelago in the 1790s, using muskets and cannon and winning victories such as Nuuanu (1795). The so-called unification of the Hawaiian islands was far from predetermined, however. Kamehameha won dominance of his home island of Hawaii in 1791 and of the islands of Maui and Oahu in 1795. In 1810 Kaumualii, the ruler of the islands of Kauai and Niihau, agreed to serve as a client king to Kamehameha.

Hawaiian Wars (1782-1810)

The three decades from about 1780 to 1810 that saw the Hawaiian Islands brought together into a unified kingdom for the first time by King Kamehameha “the Great” (c. 1752-1819). As in other parts of the world, this consolidation was made possible in the Hawaiian Islands in great part through the introduction of firearms.

When Captain James Cook was killed on the Big Island of Hawaii in 1778 by armed warriors of that island’s primary chief, Kalaniopuu, the islands of Hawaii were far from a unified polity. Political power and control varied from island to island, with even the Big Island divided among rival chieftains. Yet within a generation the armaments and technology that Cook and other Western traders and explorers introduced would become decisive in that archipelago’s unification. Soon after Chief Kalaniopuu’s death in 1782 a rivalry ensued between Kalaniopuu’s relations, including his sons Kiwalao and Keoua and his nephew Kamehameha, for control of the Big Island. But the rival chieftains and their bands of warriors were of relatively equal strength, and as a result their struggle persisted throughout the 1780s without conclusive results.

In 1790 an American trading vessel, the Fair American, along with its guns and two English crewmen, fell into the hands of Kamehameha after it was attacked and seized as retaliation for losses suffered in an encounter with an earlier Western ship. Such trading vessels had begun to appear with increasing frequency in the islands, a convenient watering hole between China and the West Coast of the Americas. Kamehameha would use the two foreigners to manufacture Western handguns and train his men in Western fighting tactics.

Even before establishing his power on the Big Island, Kamehameha decided to attack the neighboring island of Maui, then under the control of the most powerful chief in the islands, Kahekili. In the narrow valley of Iao on Maui, Kamehameha, employing his two Englishmen and newly acquired guns, inflicted a decisive defeat upon an army led by Kahekili’s son. Despite this victory Kamehameha returned to the Big Island, where fighting had erupted again in his absence. The renewed struggle on the Big Island was again indecisive until Kamehameha ambushed and killed his chief rival, Keoua, along with his retinue of warriors, after inviting him to meet at a newly constructed heiau (temple), dedicated tellingly to the god of war. With this death Kamehameha established himself as master of the Big Island of Hawaii.

Soon thereafter Kahekili sent a fleet of native canoes and special bands of warriors, along with his own Western vessel, to harass Kamehameha on his own turf. A sea battle was fought off the Big Island between the two rival chieftains’ vessels, which proved sanguinary but indecisive. Kahekili died on his home island of Oahu soon afterward, his domains, like those of Kalaniopuu previously, falling into dispute between his various heirs. Only in late 1794 did Kahekili’s son Kalanikupule emerge as victor, following the defeat on Oahu of his half-brother, and primary foe, with the help of guns supplied by an English merchant. In January 1795 the victorious Kalanikupule decided to take his campaigns to the Big Island of Hawaii, hoping to defeat his father’s rival Kamehameha. Now equipped with a plentiful supply of firearms and several Western vessels, his hopes of bringing the Big Island under his control were not farfetched. His luck did not hold, however, and the foreign crews of his ships, pressed into his service, mutinied and succeeded in driving Kalanikupule and his warriors overboard and back to Oahu in humiliation.

Kamehameha meanwhile had been colluding with the English. In 1794 he agreed to “cede” the Big Island of Hawaii to Great Britain and in return received English help in building a fighting ship. Eyeing his strategic opportunity, Kamehameha decided to move and in early 1795 seized Maui and the narrow island of Molokai, which lay just to its north. Despite the defection of one of his primary chiefs to Kalanikupule, Kamehameha proceeded with plans to attack Oahu and landed on that island’s southern coast near modern Waikiki. Kamehameha scattered his foe, driving many over the high cliffs of the pass, and with his victory, and the death of Kalanikupule, secured his control over Oahu.

The only island remaining outside Kamehameha’s control was the far western island of Kauai. On Oahu Kamehameha received further British help in building a 40-ton ship with which to attack Kauai. Kamehameha and his forces set sail for Kauai in summer 1796, only to have his plans postponed at the last moment by an uprising on the Big Island. Perhaps the delay was fortunate. The uprising was soon subdued but plans for the invasion of Kauai were put on hold. The interval allowed Kamehameha time to consolidate his newly won domains and to set up efficient means of administration and communication. He set up governors on each of the islands, and like resourceful rulers before him, such as France’s Louis XIV or Toyotomi Hideyoshi in Japan, he invited potential rivals to dwell with him in his capital. He also set about building a stronger navy, switching to innovative twin-hulled canoes rather than the traditional and less stable single-hulled ones. From the foreigners arriving in increasing numbers and with increasing frequency in the islands Kamehameha procured yet more armaments and foreign vessels.

In 1802 Kamehameha finally sailed again for Kauai, then ruled by the chief Kaumualii, with a fleet of nearly 800 vessels and an armed force of thousands. Kamehameha and his fleet tarried for some time on Maui, hoping unsuccessfully to threaten Kaumualii into submission, before continuing westward to Oahu. On Oahu in 1804 Kamehameha’s efforts were struck an almost fatal blow, in the form of an epidemic that wiped out many of his troops, though it spared him. For several more years Kamehameha stayed on in Oahu, which was yearly growing in population and prosperity. At this point Kamehameha let it be known that he would be satisfied with the outward submission of his rival on Kauai, and gaining it would allow him to rule on there as his governor. The two rival chieftains were finally brought together in Honolulu in early 1810. The result was the formal inclusion of Kauai as a tributary island to Kamehameha with Kaumualii as its leader. It was a diplomatic terminus to almost two decades of conflict, and with it Kamehameha secured his control over all of Hawaii and effected the first unification of the islands in their history.

References and further reading: Cahill, Emmett. The Life and Times of John Young: Confidant and Advisor to Kamehameha the Great. Honolulu: Island Heritage Publishers, 1999. Daws, Gavan. Shoal of Time: A History of the Hawaiian Islands. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1968. Kuykendall, Ralph S. The Hawaiian Kingdom. 3 vols. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1967.

British Mark I Tank

As Little Willie was making its appearance, Foster was completing work on a battlefield version. Because the chief requirements for the vehicle were that it be able to cross open ground as well as wide trenches, Tritton and Wilson came up with a lozenge-shaped design with a long, upward-sloping, tall hull and all-around tracks on either side that carried over its top. These maximized the vehicle’s trench crossing ability. Because a turret would have made the machine too high, its designers mounted the guns in sponsons, one on either side of the hull. As it turned out, this was not a satisfactory arrangement. The resulting machine was first known as “Centipede,” then “Big Willie,” and finally “Mother.”

Mother first moved under its own power on 12 January 1916. Thirty-two feet long and weighing some 69,400 pounds, it debuted on 29 January 1916 in Hatfield Park, within a mile of Lincoln Cathedral and under extremely tight security. A second demonstration on 2 February took place in front of British military and political leaders, including cabinet members. In Swinton’s words,

it was a striking scene when the signal was given and a species of gigantic cubist steel slug slid out of its lair and proceeded to rear its grey hulk over the bright-yellow clay of the enemy parapet, before the assemblage of Cabinet Ministers and highly placed sailors and soldiers collected under the trees.

Although Mother met the expectations placed on it, even crossing a 9-foot trench with ease, Kitchener was unimpressed. He held to his already stated belief that the new weapon was little more than “a pretty mechanical toy.” But Kitchener was in the minority. Most of those in attendance were quite persuaded as to the new weapon’s potential. The enthusiasts included Chief of the Imperial General Staff Sir William Robertson, Prime Minister Balfour, and Lloyd George. Balfour was even given a ride. Churchill was certainly correct when he wrote in his memoirs that Mother was “the parent and in principle the prototype of all the heavy tanks that fought in the Great War.”

Another trial was held on 8 February before King George V. Three days later the BEF in France requested the new weapon be sent there, and shortly thereafter the government ordered 100 units (later increased to 150), with production to be overseen by a new committee.

Unfortunately, the perceived need to rush the new weapon into production meant that design flaws remained largely uncorrected. For one thing Mother was woefully underpowered. The 28-ton vehicle was propelled by a 105-hp Daimler engine, the only one available. This translated into only 3.7 horsepower per 1 ton of weight. Half of Mother’s eight-man crew was engaged simply in driving it: one as commander, another to change the main gear, and two “gearsmen,” or “brakemen,” who controlled the tracks; the remaining four men manned two 6-pounders (57mm/2.25-inch) and two machine guns. The new machine was also insufficiently armored. Its 10mm protection could not keep out German armor-piercing bullets at close range, and a direct hit by a high-explosive artillery round would most likely be fatal.

The production model, known as the Mark I, was almost identical to Mother. It weighed some 62,700 pounds and had a top speed of only 3.7 mph-over rough ground only half that-and it had a range of some 23 miles. Its principal parts were a simple, steel box-type armored hull, two continuous caterpillar tracks, a 105-hp Daimler gasoline engine, and armament of cannon and/or machine guns. A two-wheeled trailing unit assisted with steering, but this was soon discarded as ineffective over rough ground and vulnerable to enemy fire. The clutch-and-brake method was then employed on the tracks but required four crewmen. And though it could span a 10-foot trench, the Mark I was only lightly armored in the mistaken belief that this would be sufficient to protect against rifle and machinegun fire. Armor varied in thickness from 6mm to 12mm.

Turning the tanks was a time-consuming, difficult process. One British participant in the Battle of Cambrai recalled that rounds

were striking the sides of the tank. Each of our six pounders required a gun layer and a gun loader, and while these four men blazed away, the rest of the perspiring crew kept the tank zig-zagging to upset the enemy’s aim. . . . It required four of the crew to work the levers, and they took their orders by signals. First of all the tank had to stop. A knock on the right side would attract the attention of the right gearsmen. The driver would hold out a clenched fist, which was the signal to put the track into neutral. The gearsmen would repeat the signal to show it was done. The officer, who controlled two brake levers, would pull on the right one, which held the right track. The driver would accelerate and the tank would slew round slowly on the stationary right track while the left track went into motion. As soon as the tank had turned sufficiently, the procedure was reversed.

In between pulls on his brakes the rank commander fired the machine gun.  

The Mark I came in two types. Half of them mounted two 6- pounder/.40-caliber naval guns in sponsons, or half-turrets, on the sides that provided a considerable arc of fire, with four machine guns; these were known as the “male” version. The “female” version mounted six machine guns and was intended to operate primarily against opposing infantry.

The name “tank,” by which these armored fighting vehicles became universally known, was intended to disguise the contents of the large crates containing the vehicles when they were shipped to France. The curious would draw the conclusion that the crates held water tanks. The French made no such effort at name deception; they called their new weapon the char (chariot).

The Mark I was the mainstay of tank fighting in 1916 and early 1917, but it had notable defects. The stabilizer tail proved worthless; its fuel tanks were in a vulnerable position; the exhaust outlet on the top emitted telltale sparks and flame; and there was no way for a “ditched” tank to retrieve itself. Some of these deficiencies were addressed in the Marks II and III. These tanks appeared alongside the Mark I in early 1917.

Summary: The first production model tank, essentially a copy of “Mother,” designed by William Tritton of Foster & Co. of Lincoln. The Mark I first saw action in the Battle of the Somme on 15 September 1916.

Production dates: January 1916-

Number produced: initial order was 150

Manufacturer: Foster & Co., Lincoln

Crew: 8

Armament: Male version, 2 x 57mm (6- pounders) mounted in sponsons on sides and four machine guns; female, no main gun but six machine guns

Weight: 28,450 kg (62,721 lbs.)

Length (excluding gun): 32’6″ (including tail)

Width: 13’9″

Height: 8’2″

Armor: maximum 12mm; minimum 6mm

Power plant: Foster-Daimler 105-hp gasoline engine

Maximum speed: 3.7 mph

Range: 23 miles

Vertical obstacle: 4’6″

Trench crossing: 11’6″

Special characteristics (pos/neg): steering assisted by means of a two-wheeled trailing unit, which was soon discarded as ineffective over rough ground and being vulnerable to enemy fire

RAF in the Battle of Britain: On the Brink? I

Despite the losses, Fighter Command was hardly wasting away. There had been some difficult times during August, but taking the month as a whole, the factories had turned out 251 Hurricanes and 163 Spitfires to replace the 253 Hurricanes and 137 Spitfires lost. On 1 September 1940, the Command still had more fighters than it had at the beginning of the battle, and, for all Dowding’s concerns, more pilots to fly them. The main problem was still the self-imposed handicap of operating a relatively small proportion of the available fighter force in the crucial battle area. Fighter Command had nearly 900 fighters on 1 September, but less than 350 were in Park’s No. 11 Group.

Many of the squadrons stationed outside No. 11 Group were units recuperating from losses in the south, but many could have been used in the south east. The battle-experienced squadrons of No. 10 Group had been side-lined by the Luftwaffe’s shift to the east, and many other squadrons—such as the Polish No. 302 Squadron and Czech No. 310 Squadron, not to mention No. 242 Squadron and its redoubtable commander Douglas Bader—were only able to operate on the fringes of the battle, if at all. On 30 August, No. 11 Group commanders again voiced the general feeling that more fighter squadrons should be moved to the south east, but C-in-C Fighter Command ACM Hugh Dowding felt he had no choice but to stick to his policy. Lord Beaverbrook, Minister of Aircraft Production, was again sounding the alarm about the vulnerability of British aircraft factories. Dowding still had visions of the German bomber fleet descending on British factories and wiping them out in a single blow. As a reminder of what the German Air Force could do even in the well-protected south, on 15 August a daylight attack on the Short’s factory in Rochester had caused severe damage. Six of the first four-engine Stirling bombers to come off the production line were destroyed—an especially severe blow for an Air Staff that still saw increasing the striking power of the bomber fleet as the priority. On 4 September, AVM Keith Park C-in-C No. 11 Group RAF tentatively asked Dowding for two more squadrons to strengthen two of his sectors. He received one.

Despite the handicaps, Park’s Group was grimly hanging on—indeed, perhaps even doing a little better than this. On the evening of the 1 September, after another fierce day’s fighting, his squadrons mustered on average sixteen pilots, excluding those fresh out of OTUs. Each squadron had around fifteen serviceable fighters, which, after the ground crews had got to work on the machines they could patch up on base, was expected to rise to an average of seventeen the following morning. Some squadrons had been particularly badly hit. No. 85 Squadron had lost five planes in two missions during the day’s fighting and was down to just nine serviceable fighters and nine operational pilots. No. 616 was also down to just nine pilots. Interestingly No. 303 (Polish) Squadron was overflowing with pilots, with twenty-one fully operational and no less than thirteen non-operational. The latter were probably not the typical green British pilot straight out of an OTU. Despite the fierceness of the struggle, Park’s command was still an effective fighting force.

Nevertheless, the pressure was mounting. The first week in September was another tough one for Park’s squadrons. The escorts were now virtually impossible to break through; the Luftwaffe only lost around twenty bombers on missions in the first six days of the month, and many of these were victims of anti-aircraft fire. Attempts to intercept the bombers were turning into the fierce fighter-versus-fighter battles that the Luftwaffe wanted and Dowding did not. Losses on both sides were heavy. Again, fresh squadrons moving into No. 11 Group suffered some of the heaviest losses. On 4 September, No. 66 Squadron, which had just arrived from No. 12 Group, lost five Spitfires in combat with Bf 109s. The next day, it lost another three. No. 41 Squadron, from No. 13 Group, lost five Spitfires on the 5th. The experience of the Polish pilots of No. 303 Squadron could not save them on the 6th, when they were caught climbing by Bf 109s and lost five of their Hurricanes in a single engagement. In the first six days of September, 140 Hurricanes and Spitfires were lost or badly damaged, losses that were well in excess of production. However, the German fighter force was also losing heavily; in the same period, just over 100 Bf 109s and Bf 110s failed to return or were written off on return.

The failure to pass on the lessons being learned in the south did not help squadrons fresh to the battle. AVM Trafford Leigh-Mallory C-in-C No. 12 Group, complained about the lack of information on tactics being used by Park’s No. 11 Group or AVM Quintin Brand’s No. 10 Group. Perhaps justifiably, Park was too concerned with mere survival. There was, however, no overall direction from Dowding about the best tactics to use; squadrons still had to work it out for themselves.

In the relative calm of Leigh-Mallory’s No. 12 Group, there was more time to do this and ponder alternative tactics. So far, Park had used mainly single squadrons, sometimes pairs, to ensure the bombers were intercepted as far forward as possible. So far, this tactic had paid off; German attacks had been disrupted, sometimes to the extent that the raid was completely ineffective. Leigh-Mallory, with his more northerly squadrons, had more time to assemble larger formations. Douglas Bader, the commander of No. 242 Squadron at Coltishall, was very keen on what would become known as ‘big wing’ formations. Bader was a charismatic and pugnacious leader. The loss of both his legs in a flying accident had forced him out of the service, but his relentless determination had seen him readmitted on the outbreak of war, initially as a ferry pilot, but eventually as a combat pilot. His enforced absence had left him well behind many of his contemporaries on the career ladder, and at the age of thirty, he was relatively old to be given the command of his first squadron. He was, therefore, by no means an ordinary Squadron Leader. He was not lacking in self-confidence, and his age lent his opinions a certain authority. Like all the pilots in No. 12 Group, Bader was hugely frustrated that his squadron was not involved in the fierce fighting taking place further south.

On 30 August, Bader’s squadron finally got the chance for some action, being ordered to fly south and cover Park’s airfields. His squadron intercepted a formation of He 111 bombers escorted by Bf 110s and claimed twelve without loss. It would seem to have been a particularly extreme example of over-claiming; his squadron had probably only shot down two German bombers. However, Bader insisted that if he had possessed twice the number of fighters, he could have inflicted twice the losses. It was a simple enough argument, and his Group commander did not need much persuading. Leigh-Mallory had always believed it was the total number of planes shot down that counted, not whether they were shot down approaching or leaving the target. The aim was not to prevent a particular attack on a particular target, but rather to halt the offensive by inflicting the highest possible losses. If using larger formations meant intercepting the bombers later—even possibly after they had delivered their attack—then so be it.

There were other advantages to flying fighters in larger formations. The general expectation in No. 11 Group was that the Spitfires would deal with the escorts while the Hurricanes went for the bombers, but this was difficult to put into practice when all the squadrons were operating individually and often far apart. Flying as part of a much larger formation, it was much easier for the Spitfires to provide protection. With calls to action still rare, Bader had the time to practise his Wing tactics with the Spitfire-equipped No. 19 Squadron, the Hurricane-equipped No. 303 Squadron, and his Hurricane-equipped No. 242 Squadron. The wing used Duxford as its rendezvous point and the formation became known as the ‘Duxford Wing’. Bader would soon have the opportunity to try out his wing in combat.

Across the Channel, minds were also focusing on how more decisive results might be achieved. Outright victory seemed as far away as ever. The numbers of enemy fighters rising to meet the Luftwaffe attacks did not seem to bear out the intelligence estimates that Fighter Command was on its last legs. To try and stop the apparently endless flow of replacement aircraft reaching RAF squadrons, the German Air Force was instructed to target aircraft factories more vigorously. On 2 September, the Luftwaffe bombed the Vickers and Hawker factories at Brooklands. The long-awaited and much-feared offensive against the British aircraft industry seemed to have begun.

An alarmed Dowding instructed Park to make sure the Hurricane factories at Kingston, Langley, and Brooklands and the Spitfire plant in Southampton were covered. No. 10 Group was given the task of patrolling these areas whenever No. 11 Group was involved in major operations. On 4 September, the Luftwaffe returned to Weybridge; in a low-level attack on the Vickers plant, just six bombs killed eighty-eight and injured many hundreds. Two days later, it was the turn of the Brooklands Hawker factory, on the other side of the airfield.

The death tolls were heavy, but the actual damage to the plant was not as devastating as many had feared. It was not as easy as it seemed to knock out aircraft factories. Just one bomb exploding in the middle of the factory might be expected to cause mayhem; the initial destruction looked serious and the casualties were shocking, but once the rubble had been cleared away, it was often found that machine tools had survived and production resumed remarkably quickly. The apparently hugely successful attack on the Vickers plant on the 4th only stopped production for four days. The raid on the Hawker factory caused no loss of output at all.

To have any chance of success, you also have to know where the factories are. The Supermarine factory at Southampton was particularly vulnerable, but it would seem that the Germans were not aware that this was where nearly all the Spitfires were being built. The Castle Bromwich Spitfire plant in the Midlands opened with such public fanfare in the summer of 1938, was the target of some nocturnal raids. According to the management, these worried the workers enough to reduce production on the night shift by 50 per cent. However, the plant was only producing a trickle of planes anyway; the apparently unfortunate publicity given to the opening of the Castle Bromwich plant was perhaps paying dividends. The plant had effectively become a decoy. Overall, German bombing was having very little effect on fighter production.

The battle in the air was causing far more concern. The Prime Minister grimly reported to his cabinet that the battle was becoming precisely what Britain did not want—a contest between the two fighter forces. Losses on both sides were now approximately equal, and the RAF was getting through its reserves of aircraft ‘at a dangerous rate’. In truth, a reduction in the Hurricane/Spitfire reserve from 190 to 151 during the last three weeks of August scarcely seemed to spell imminent disaster. Nevertheless, Dowding continued to spread gloom. On 7 September, he called an emergency meeting with No. 11 Group and Douglas, representing the Air Ministry. Dowding quite bluntly described his command as going ‘downhill’. The purpose of the meeting, he explained, was to decide how best to manage this decline.

Dowding used an array of arguments to demonstrate how desperate the situation was. As always, he was happy to put the worst possible spin on the facts. He claimed that requests for replacement aircraft had not been met; on 4 September, for example, he had wanted fourteen Hurricanes and twelve Spitfires, but none had been delivered. The complaint infuriated those responsible for issuing reserves. Dowding had simply chosen the only day when there had been a temporary problem; on every other day, all requests for replacements had been met immediately.

Dowding insisted that squadrons were so weak they were having to pair up to form effective fighting units. This might have been true in some cases, but using pairs of squadrons was actually a positive decision to give intercepting formations more punch. He suggested the situation was so serious that squadrons not in the battlezone might have to give up their Spitfires and Hurricanes and reequip with American Mohawks and Buffaloes. It seems to have been the first time anyone suggested using the American fighters. There was no relief that such a useful reserve existed; the suggestion was merely supposed to underline how desperate the situation was. He was also worried about pilots. He predicted that at current loss rates, there would be a deficit of sixty-eight over the next four weeks. This scarcely suggested a force with 1,300 pilots was likely to collapse before the autumn.

Douglas refused to accept the picture was as bleak as Dowding was claiming. He pointed out that in August, Hurricane and Spitfire production had far exceeded losses, and Air Ministry figures showed there were nearly 300 fighters in reserve. There was much consternation on both sides that each should see the situation so differently. In fact, both Dowding and Douglas were playing rather free and easy with the figures. Douglas’s loss figures did not include the seventy-odd fighters that were so seriously damaged they had to be sent to the maintenance units for repair. The reserves he quoted included fighters being repaired, most of which would not be available for some time. At the time of the meeting, reserves had dropped to 127 Spitfires and Hurricanes. It was dropping, but there was a reserve, and it was still adequate to cope with losses. The number of serviceable fighters the Command could put into the air had never slipped below 600 during the entire battle, and on 4 September it stood at 700. There were, on average, twenty-two pilots in each squadron, although there were undoubtedly problems with the quality of those straight out of OTUs.

The situation was not as rosy as the Air Ministry was insisting, but it was not nearly as bad as Dowding was claiming. The main problem was still the self-inflicted disadvantage of not focusing the available resources where they were needed. Dowding had to admit his squadron-rotation system was not working; rather reluctantly, he decided to adopt Park’s preferred option of replacing pilots rather than squadrons. Experienced pilots would move from squadrons stationed outside the battlezone, and pilots from OTUs would replace them. Gradually, squadrons outside the south east would lose all their experienced pilots and effectively become Operational Training Units. This had the added advantage of relieving front-line squadrons of the task of inducting OTU pilots. The sectors flanking No. 11 Group in No. 10 and No. 12 Groups were in the front line, so these would also be kept at full strength.

The result was the ABC system. No. 11 Group and the flanking sectors from No. 10 and No. 12 Groups would be entirely equipped with full-strength category-A squadrons. There would be a small number of category-B squadrons, which would be outside the battlezone but kept at full strength, serving as replacements for squadrons needing a rest. The majority of the squadrons outside the south east would be category C. These would guard the less-vulnerable parts of the country, but their main task would be to complete the training of pilots emerging from OTUs. As far as Dowding was concerned, it was a desperate measure for desperate times; in fact, by the back door, Park was beginning to get the concentration of resources he needed. Fighter Command finally had its best pilots where they were needed.

Not that Dowding thought this would make much difference. During the course of the 7 September meeting, he repeatedly emphasised to Douglas that Fighter Command was losing the battle. This was the message he insisted Douglas had to take back to the Air Ministry. Dowding saw no reason why the German offensive would not go on until his force was wiped out. Park, on the other hand, felt sure the Germans would not be able to sustain the existing intensity of operations for more than another three weeks. Dowding was not persuaded; he could see no light at the end of the tunnel. No. 11 Group would do its best—his pilots would fight until the last Spitfire and Hurricane, and then fight on with anything that could fly. It was a grim scenario.

Dowding’s pessimism stemmed from his failure to appreciate the nature of the battle Fighter Command was engaged in. Both Dowding and Park believed they were facing an open-ended air offensive, for which seasons made no difference. The air battle would rage through the autumn and winter until one side or the other was exhausted. This was not the situation—the Luftwaffe was trying to pave the way for an invasion. They did not have even three weeks; the invasion had to be launched before autumnal storms made it impossible, and the last possible date was supposed to be 15 September. The Germans were running out of time, and Dowding was far closer to the finish line than he believed.

The Luftwaffe had the upper hand, but it was still a long way from defeating Fighter Command. It was perhaps easier to come to this conclusion from the distance of a detached Air Ministry, with just the cold figures to analyse. Understandably, the battle looked very different from Dowding and Park’s perspective. Airfields were being bombed, hangars were being smashed, and Air Force personnel were being killed. The pilots were exhausted. However, the squadrons continued to function. Fighter Command was adapting: aircraft were no longer kept in vulnerable hangars, instead being dispersed around the airfields; ground crews became used to working in the open; and bombed airfields were soon made serviceable again, with only two airfields—Lympne and Manston—put out of action for more than a few hours. Engineers, sometimes working in appallingly dangerous conditions, repaired smashed cables and got power running again to airfields and sector control centres. Bombed-out sector stations started up operations from wherever it was possible—on one notable occasion, in a local village shop. In the most difficult of circumstances, Fighter Command was battling through, on the ground and in the air.

The heavier escorts were making life much more difficult for Dowding’s fighters, but even this represented a victory of sorts. The higher proportion of escorts meant the German Air Force was using fewer and fewer bombers. At the beginning of August, on average, the Luftwaffe was flying two and a half escorts per bomber. By the end of August, this had gone up to nearly four and a half. The weight of attack had effectively been halved. The very accurate Ju 87 had been driven from the skies and low-level bombing had proven too risky. These were all very significant achievements.

Who was actually winning the battle depended on which battle was being considered. The Luftwaffe was a long way short of destroying Fighter Command. However, Luftwaffe fighters were succeeding in protecting the bombers. As long as they had an escort, German bombers could operate over the entire south-east corner of England without suffering unacceptable losses. A degree of air superiority had been established; Park was nowhere near defeat, but his force had been worn down. If the invasion had been launched in early September, his squadrons would not have been able to continue defending their airfields and sector stations, protect the Royal Navy, provide air cover for the Army, and escort the Battles, Blenheims, and Banquet bombers.

RAF in the Battle of Britain: On the Brink? II

RAF and Luftwaffe bases, group and Luftflotte boundaries, and range of Luftwaffe Bf 109 fighters. Southern part of British radar coverage: radar in North of Scotland not shown.

The Germans had all the air superiority they needed to invade, but the German High Command still wanted more. The Luftwaffe had been set the task of destroying Fighter Command. It had failed to achieve this, and it seemed unlikely that the Air Force would succeed in this aim before the weather broke and invasion became impossible. It was not obvious that the German fighter force could maintain the offensive much longer. Operating over enemy territory in a fighter with a very limited endurance imposed an enormous strain on the pilot. A close eye had to be kept on the petrol gauge and there was always the possibility of having to fly back over the Channel in a damaged machine. The defending fighters had all the advantages Dowding had always insisted he needed. Every time a German fighter was shot down over Britain, the pilot was lost as well, whereas a British pilot was often back with his squadron the same day. RAF fighters that crash-landed could be repaired, but Messerschmitts that were forced down were lost. Production of the Bf 109 was actually running at a lower level than Spitfire/Hurricane production. Ironically, while Dowding was considering the possibility of using the French Curtiss Hawks to reequip squadrons in the rear, the Germans were seriously considering reequipping some of their squadrons in the rear with captured French Bloch 152 fighters.

The battle in the skies was becoming a stalemate. The German Air Force was no nearer to its goal of eliminating Fighter Command, but RAF fighters were not making any substantial inroads into the German bomber force either. On 3 September, with air supremacy still not established, Hitler put the invasion date back a week to 21 September. The British were unaware of this postponement; they were only aware an invasion was imminent. Reconnaissance planes were picking up the movement of invasion barges making their way to the Channel ports.

While the air forces battled it out, the respective armies prepared as best they could. From nothing, the German Navy conjured up an invasion fleet with all manner of improvised landing craft. There were even submersible tanks and a primitive artificial harbour. The British Army was still in a desperate state, but the American government had responded magnificently; the US Army pulled hundreds of thousands of obsolete rifles, tens of thousands of machine guns, and hundreds of artillery pieces and mortars out of stores and shipped them across the Atlantic. Even so, only four of the twenty-seven divisions were considered to be fully equipped. There were just two armoured divisions and six independent tank brigades, with no more than 600 tanks in the entire country. Churchill remained bullishly optimistic any invasion would be defeated, but Brooke was not so confident; he did not think his forces were sufficiently trained, powerful, or mobile to defeat the mighty Wehrmacht. He desperately hoped his forces would at least get a winter of training before being put to the test.

With air reconnaissance picking up barges heading for the Channel ports, it seemed Brooke was not going to get his wish. It was only now that the British Chiefs of Staff realised the invasion was likely to come along the south coast rather than the east. From the night of 6–7 September, the Battles and Blenheims of Nos 1 and 2 Groups, supported by Fleet Air Arm and Coastal Command squadrons, began bombing the ports where the barges were congregating. The following night, twenty-six Hampdens joined them, but the threat of imminent invasion was not allowed to disrupt the heavies’ offensive against German industry. On 8 September, Invasion Alert No. 1 was released, but it was another week before Nos 3, 4, and 5 Groups switched all their efforts to the Channel ports.

When cloud cover allowed, Blenheims attacked by day, but coastal targets are always relatively easy to find by night, and the growing mass of invasion barges made for an attractive target. In ten days, around 1,000 sorties were flown against the ports. Up to 21 September, air and sea attack resulted in about 10 per cent of the invasion fleet being destroyed or damaged. The number that survived was another reminder of how surprisingly little damage bombing can inflict even on such an apparently vulnerable target. The bombers had made a useful contribution, but ample craft remained to set course for Britain.

There was never any doubt that the Navy would have risked all to sink the invasion fleet in transit and bombard any forces that landed. The time it took for Bomber Command to switch its main effort from German industry to invasion ports did not suggest the Air Force response would be so spontaneous. In the three months since the defeat of France, virtually no progress had been made in preparing the RAF to support the Army any more effectively than it had in May and June. If anything, the Air Force was less prepared. Tactical air support was going backwards.

There was no equivalent to the tactical BAFF that had existed in France. The Air Ministry had refused to create an Army Cooperation Command. The Combined Operations Room existed to pass on requests for fighter and bomber support, but Fighter and Bomber Command had not made any serious preparations to prepare their squadrons to respond. Early in September Fighter Command was reminded of its bomber escort and fleet defence responsibilities; at the very bottom of the list of priorities came protecting the troops from the Stukas. It rather underlined how short of fighters the RAF was. To have any chance, the RAF needed to mobilise every available fighter pilot and fighter in the country, regardless of their country of origin.

On 14 September, with the invasion expected any day, the Air Ministry was reminded that Fighter Command cannon-armed fighters must be held back for ground-attack duties; unfortunately, Fighter Command no longer had any. No. 19 Squadron had the cannon removed from their Spitfires because they jammed so often, and nothing came of the plan to arm Blenheims with them. Plans to equip more Hurricane Is with cannon had been postponed until the Hurricane II became available, and the four-cannon Whirlwind was still struggling with its unreliable Peregrine engines. Fighter Command did not have an anti-tank capability.

Slessor’s Plans department did not see this as an Air Force problem—it was the Army and ‘its Lysanders’ that must first deal with tanks once they got ashore. Unfortunately, these were not armed with cannon either. The army-cooperation squadrons were still administratively part of Fighter Command, so it was Dowding’s responsibility. When Deputy Chief of the Air Staff AM Shoto Douglas quizzed Dowding, he claimed to be completely unaware and very ‘perturbed’ that this instruction had not been carried out. He might argue that nobody in Fighter Command had the time to worry about army-cooperation squadrons or any cannon ground-attack capability. It would be difficult to dispute that, but it was also a rather obvious example of why the ‘Army Cooperation Command’ the War office wanted was so necessary.

Bomber Command had grown in strength during the summer. No. 2 Group had thirteen squadrons, with over 200 Blenheims immediately available. The four Polish Battle squadrons being formed brought the number available to No. 1 Group to eight, but no effort had been made to improve their ground-attack capabilities by adding armour or increasing their ground-strafing capability. The Battles had still not been equipped with self-sealing tanks. Instead of getting Bostons or Marylands, the first two squadrons (Nos 103 and 150) had begun converting to the Wellington.

The fate of the American combat planes was bordering on a scandal. American aircraft companies were modifying the ex-French aircraft to British standards and rushing them across the Atlantic as fast as they could, along with any artillery, machine guns, and rifles the American Army could spare. Obsolete artillery was gratefully received and distributed amongst the divisions. Equally obsolete rifles were handed out to the 500,000-strong Home Guard. Brand new, modern American combat planes, however, were left unused. Around 300 had arrived by the end of August, of which only half had been assembled. Bomb racks for Tiger Moth trainers and constant-speed propellers for Spitfires had been conjured up and fitted in weeks, but not a single American bomber or fighter reached a front-line squadron.

What the Prime Minister would have made of it can only be imagined. Churchill had told Sinclair how ‘shocked’ he was to see so many communication aircraft on a visit to Hendon. He felt these and their pilots could form ‘two good fighter or bomber squadrons of the reserve category’, which could be used in an emergency. Churchill might have been even more shocked if he had known about all the unused American combat planes and the unemployed Polish and Czech pilots who might have flown them.

The resources existed for a useful tactical air force, but too many within the Air Force did not believe it was their duty to provide it. In September 1940, the RAF had no specialist close-support capability and no high-speed tactical-reconnaissance planes. Bomber Command was focusing on Germany, and Fighter Command was totally consumed by its battle for survival. Winning this battle was becoming the only opportunity for the RAF to make a significant contribution to stopping an invasion. It need not have been so; Fighter Command’s furious defence of British skies should have been just the first RAF obstacle the Germans had to overcome. Instead, it was the RAF’s last stand. For the Luftwaffe, invasion would have meant a welcome return to its more familiar Army-support role. For the RAF, it was a transition the force was incapable of making. The air battle Fighter Command was engaged in was even more crucial than it need have been. The RAF might be able to prevent an invasion, but it could do very little to help defeat one. For the RAF, there was no Plan B.

That air battle was now reaching its climax. At the beginning of September, after a month of intense fighting, both sides were looking for new solutions to break the deadlock. To win the battle, the Luftwaffe needed to shoot down more RAF fighters. To achieve a decisive victory, Fighter Command needed to shoot down more bombers. Avoiding defeat, however, might be enough—provided the German High Command did not change its mind about requiring air supremacy. In this respect, the battle was still on a knife-edge. Britain needed Germany to stick to its plans.

Luftwaffe commanders were divided about how close to defeat Fighter Command was. Figures of British fighter strength produced by German intelligence fluctuated between 100 and 350. Field Marshal Sperrle, the commander of Luftflotte 3, believed Fighter Command still had 1,000 planes. Field Marshal Kesselring, at Luftflotte 2, insisted Dowding’s force was almost finished and one final push would see total victory achieved—it just required the last remnants of Fighter Command to be induced into the air. Circumstances conspired to give Kesselring the decisive battle he wanted. On the night of 25–26 August, German aircraft dropped some bombs on central London by mistake. Whitleys retaliated with an attack on Berlin. Neither of these raids caused much damage, but Hitler’s pride was hurt. He wanted retaliation, and this gave Kesselring his opportunity. Surely the British could be relied on to throw in every last reserve in defence of their capital—the destruction of Fighter Command would still be the objective, but London would be the battleground.

The attack was launched on 7 September. The sudden change in focus took Fighter Command controllers by surprise. Squadrons had to be hurriedly switched from blocking the path to their airfields to the bombers heading for the London Docks. Once again, the escort bore the brunt of the Fighter Command assault. Fourteen Bf 109s and seven Bf 110s were lost, but only eight of the attacking 348 bombers. With Fighter Command losing thirty-seven Hurricanes and Spitfires destroyed or seriously damaged, it was another tactical victory for the Luftwaffe.

The bombing was concentrated and heavy. In ninety minutes, 300 tons fell on the East End. Warehouses, gasworks, and oil depots from Tower Bridge to Thames Haven were left blazing, and although the targets were legitimate, there was heavy loss of life. For London, it was just the beginning—the blazing fires clearly marked the way for the night bombers that would follow—but London’s suffering was Fighter Command’s salvation. The immense pressure of operating from airfields that were constantly under attack was lifted. Fighter Command stations had the respite they desperately needed. It was one of the great ironies of the war; the Command had been set up to defend London, but in the end, it was London that saved Fighter Command.

Too many advantages now lay with the RAF fighters. The Bf 109 would be operating at the very limit of its range; it was now a very long return flight. Park had more time to pair up his squadrons and get them into position at adequate patrolling altitudes. London was also reasonably close to where both No. 12 and No. 10 Groups converged with No. 11 Group, which would now allow Dowding’s fighters to be concentrated in a way that had not previously been possible.

The next day, there was a noticeable relaxation in Luftwaffe pressure. For the first time in many days, not all squadrons were placed on readiness. In the operations that were flown, there was a growing wariness amongst the German fighter pilots as they sought to counter the high-flying British fighters by flying well above the bombers they were supposed to be escorting. It was a defensive move by the fighters that left the bombers more exposed.

On the 9th, the German escorts again absorbed a lot of the Fighter Command effort. Fighter Command pilots attempted to counter the freer, high-flying German fighter formations by flying higher themselves. Altitude was everything; controllers were adding a few thousand feet to be on the safe side, and squadron commanders would invariably add a few thousand more. Bomber formations at medium altitude were getting through unhindered. Dowding ordered his sector controllers to stick to the altitudes radar was indicating. Eighteen escorts were lost, but the defending fighters probably only shot down five enemy bombers. Another twenty-three Hurricanes and Spitfires were lost.

Poor weather on the 10th prevented much activity and provided yet more time for Fighter Command to catch its collective breath. On the 11th, the premature departure of the escorting Bf 109s of LG 2 and JG 51 through lack of fuel emphasised how stretched the German fighter force now was. Hurricanes and Spitfires took advantage, shooting down seven bombers and damaging ten. Two days of relatively light activity kept German losses to a minimum but also provided yet more time for Fighter Command to prepare for the climax of the battle.

The more relaxed atmosphere at sector stations was in stark contrast to the growing tensions between Park and Leigh-Mallory. Bader had led his Duxford Wing into action for the first time in the 7 September raid on London, with No. 19 Squadron (Spitfires) covering the Hurricanes of Nos 242 and 310 Squadrons. By the time they reached their patrol altitude, the German bombers were starting to head for home, and Bader’s fighters only engaged the rear-guard escorts. On the 9th, his wing was called on again; this time, they claimed an astonishing nineteen Do 17 bombers. This seems to have been a gross exaggeration; German records do not actually record any Dorniers lost that day. More successes were claimed on the 11th, with elements from four squadrons forming a three-squadron-strong wing. Bader still felt there were insufficient fighters to take advantage of the disorder the initial attack had caused, and that more than one squadron was needed to keep off the German escort. Five squadrons was a more satisfactory number, with two Spitfire squadrons to take on the escort and three Hurricane squadrons to deal with the bombers.

Park did not take kindly to Leigh-Mallory’s claim that his tactics were better than those that No. 11 Group was using. He blamed the late arrival of Leigh-Mallory’s fighters on the need for these cumbersome wings to form up and made it clear he would prefer one squadron patrolling his airfield in fifteen minutes rather than several arriving too late. If wings had to be used, they should form up over the airfields he had asked them to defend. It was a tetchy response, demonstrating the strain Park was under. He correctly felt that winning the battle was his and No. 11 Group’s responsibility. Perhaps understandably, he saw any unsolicited help or advice that he should be fighting the battle any differently as a suggestion that his Group was not coping and evidence of personal weakness.

In practice, there was not a great deal separating the fighter formations the two Groups were using. Park seems to have been won over by his commanders’ insistence that squadrons should go into action in pairs. By 11 September, Park was instructing his controllers to use pairs whenever possible. Ideally, Park wanted a pair of Hurricane squadrons to be covered by a pair of Spitfire squadrons operating 5,000–8,000 feet higher. This was not as closely coordinated as Bader’s idea of two Spitfire squadrons 3,000–4,000 feet above a wing of three Hurricane squadrons, but the principle was the same.

Bader did not agree that using larger formations wasted valuable time, partly because he saw no advantage in the tight, rigid formations that were still common in Fighter Command. Any ‘forming up’ could be done on the way to the designated patrol zone. If his wings arrived too late, it was only because they had not been scrambled in time. With radar providing plenty of early warning, there was nothing to stop Bader getting the extra time he wanted.

Dowding saw no reason to intervene in the dispute, but giving his Group commanders free rein looked like tacit support for Leigh-Mallory, which must have offended his protégé, Park. To his critics in the Air Ministry, it looked like a lack of leadership. In the Park/Leigh-Mallory dispute, the ministry tended to side with the latter; there was growing frustration at the cantankerous commander-in-chief’s failure to make better use of No. 12 Group. It was all rather unsavoury, but for the RAF it all worked out well for the decisive assault on 15 September.

On this day, the Luftwaffe launched two raids on London. Both were relatively small compared to previous raids, but both also had massive escorts. The German crews set off, encouraged by claims that Fighter Command was down to just a handful of fighters. The first raid consisted of fifty bombers and 150 escorts. Park’s squadrons engaged as soon as the formation crossed the coast, harassing the bombers all the way to London. Up to this point, the escorts had done a reasonably good job, but over the capital, four more Hurricane squadrons and Bader’s wing of two Spitfire squadrons and three Hurricane squadrons hit the German formation simultaneously. The remaining escort was swamped and the closely packed bomber formations scattered. The crews dropped their bombs haphazardly and headed for home as best they could.

In the afternoon, a second wave of bombers had no better luck. One hundred and fourteen bombers with around 500 fighter escorts crossed the Kent coast and headed for London. On the approach, German escorts again successfully fended off the efforts of No. 11 Group but they burned precious fuel in the process. Over London, six squadrons from No. 11 Group, two sent over from No. 10 Group, and the five squadrons of No. 12 Group’s Duxford Wing broke through the now scattered German escort. Once again, the bombers hurriedly dumped their loads on the suburbs before being chased back to France. Demoralised bomber crews described how formations of eighty enemy fighters had met them over the capital. The Luftwaffe lost sixty-four planes; these losses were serious, but the psychological blow of meeting such formidable formations of fighters was even greater. It was now clear to Luftwaffe aircrew and their commanders that Fighter Command was still a very effective force. On 17 September, the invasion was postponed indefinitely.

As RAF reconnaissance followed the transfer of the invasion barges from the exposed Channel ports to safer inland waterways, the Army and country breathed a collective sigh of relief. Brooke had no illusions—it was no more than a postponement. With the return of favourable weather the following spring, the invasion threat would be renewed. Britain had won a valuable six-month breathing space, but that was all. Nevertheless, Brooke would now get the winter he needed to train his army.

Britain had been fortunate. The German Navy had never required air superiority over central London—for an invasion to be successful, the Luftwaffe merely had to control the skies over the Channel and the German bridgeheads. Arguably, the Luftwaffe had long since achieved this objective. Fighter Command would never have been able to achieve the degree of concentration over a beachhead as had been possible over London, and German fighters would not have been operating in such difficult circumstances.

For the Luftwaffe, it was another failure. The German fighter force was good enough to establish a degree of air superiority, but eliminating Fighter Command had proven impossible. Fighter Command ended the summer of 1940 tired and battered, but it had more pilots and planes than at the beginning of the battle. The Luftwaffe had not even come close to destroying it. For the second time in a matter of months, the Luftwaffe had been set the task of achieving results on its own; just as had happened over Dunkirk, it failed. Fighter Command had done well in a battle where it only had to focus on the enemy air force. How well it would have done dealing with an enemy invasion will never be known.

With hindsight, the retreat of the invasion fleet signalled the end of the immediate danger, but this was not how it was seen at the time. The withdrawal of the invasion barges was a relief, but invasion was only one of the threats facing Britain, and for many it was not the most feared; the bomber still remained.

Dowding was in no doubt that the danger had not passed. The air offensive against Britain had not been halted. It was merely evolving. There had always been reasonable confidence that a daylight offensive could be dealt with, but it had always been assumed that once defeated by day, the enemy would merely turn to bombing by night. This would not be some futile act of despair by a defeated and bewildered enemy, but rather a natural progression to an offensive that posed even greater danger. Douglas had no doubt that bombing alone could bring Germany victory. At a dinner party, he was appalled by the naivety expressed by a prominent politician who claimed the bomber was overrated as a weapon of terror and could never bring any country to its knees. Douglas put the counterargument to him so strongly he found himself reported to Churchill for defeatism.

For Dowding, Douglas, and many in the Air Ministry, the battles of July, August, and early September were just the prelude to the main event. The long-awaited assault on British cites was finally underway. The civilian population would now become the principal target. This was the air war the Air Staff had always predicted, the battle they and the politicians had always most feared. It was far more dangerous than mere invasion and the German Panzer blitzkrieg; indeed, the air element of the German blitzkrieg was so prominent in the public mind that the new strategy was seen as merely an extension of the old, a purer form of the strategy with the irrelevant Panzer element removed. The transition was so smooth that the British public and press kept the same name—the German bomber offensive was referred to as the ‘blitzkrieg’, soon abbreviated to ‘the Blitz’.

As far as the Air Staff were concerned, the real war was just beginning.

The Bombing of Hiroshima

6 August 1945

Piloted by Paul Tibbets Jr, the US B-29 bomber Enola Gay approached the south-western Japanese city of Hiroshima. Six hours had passed since the plane’s take-off from the western Pacific island of Tinian – a base taken from the Japanese by US forces in the previous year and whose runways at the time were the world’s longest. On board was the bomb dubbed ‘Little Boy’ by the US military. The explosion occurred at 8.15 a.m. A flash of light, a wave of heat and then a profound roar preceded the rise of a ball of fire followed by a mushroom-shaped cloud. Explosive energy and heat released through nuclear fission reduced an entire city to dust and ashes. Fires spread over 4.4 square miles. One hundred thousand were killed immediately and more than 70,000 others were injured. Three days after Hiroshima’s destruction, Bock’s Car, another B-29 bomber, dropped ‘Fat Man’, another atomic bomb, on the city of Nagasaki, devastating an area of 1.8 square miles and causing an equivalent number of deaths and injuries. Women, children and elderly men comprised the overwhelming majority of the 200,000 killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki: the survivors suffered from varying degrees of burns and the effects of radiation sickness. Cancers and tumours would develop among the two cities’ inhabitants in the next fifty years. The New York Times on 7 August reported the new US president Harry S. Truman as saying: ‘We have spent 2 billion dollars on the greatest scientific gamble in history – and won.’

US atomic bomb research started in February 1940 on a government budget of $6,000 allocated to a committee of scientists. But by 1942 the scale of the work required the direct involvement of the War Department and research was carried out in centres right across the US. The physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, of the University of California at Berkeley, had been committed to the democratic left ever since the Spanish Civil War. As soon as Germany invaded Poland in September 1939 he started work on separating uranium-235, the fissionable component of an atomic bomb, from natural uranium. Once given security clearance, Oppenheimer established a laboratory near Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he led a team working on nuclear fission and the manufacture of an atomic bomb consisting of fissionable material. He demonstrated the results before a small number of observers at 5.30 a.m. on 16 July 1945 at Alamogordo air base, New Mexico, when the world’s first atomic bomb exploded and generated power equivalent to more than 15,000 tons of TNT. The surface of the desert surrounding the point of the bomb’s detonation was fused to glass for a radius of 800 yards.

On 17 July seventy scientists working on the atomic bomb’s development, alarmed by its power, petitioned Truman not to use the bomb on Japan unless the terms of surrender had been both published and refused. These were now crucial points in relation to the morality of atomic warfare. Japan, under the weight of intensive aerial bombardment and suffering the effects of naval blockade, was on the point of collapse. On 30 July Japan refused to surrender unconditionally after the Allied leaders meeting at Potsdam had called on it to do so. The US government and its allies justified the detonations on the basis that so unsurpassed a horror would enforce a surrender and prevent a long and costly territorial invasion. It was fundamental to the Japanese that any surrender would not upset the constitutional status of their emperor whom they considered divine. Even after Hiroshima and Nagasaki the Japanese government, when suing for peace on 10 August, still sought a guarantee that the emperor’s sovereign position would be maintained. The surrender went ahead (14 August) after the Allies had given that assurance.

Both generals Eisenhower and MacArthur thought the bombings unjustified and harmful to the US’s moral standing. President Truman in his broadcast of 9 August described Hiroshima as ‘a military base’ and no more. This was false. His diary entry for 25 July recorded his view that atomic bombs should be used only on military targets, but the written order for the bombing, approved by him on the same day, made no such provision and specified the cities of Hiroshima and of Nagasaki as targets.

The 6th of August 1945 was in fact the planned culmination of a sustained US aerial bombardment. Some 124,000 civilians had been killed in Tokyo during the air attack of 9 March and from July the bombing of Japanese towns and cities intensified. The Allied bombing of Germany illustrated the same strategy of terror: Dresden was destroyed in one night and 135,000 civilians killed.

The main air attacks on Japan accompanied the progress of US land forces after the fall of Okinawa in June in a battle which claimed 50,000 American lives and 100,000 Japanese ones. The US military advances of the late winter and early spring in the Pacific also ran in parallel with the Allies’ thrust through both western and eastern Europe as they converged on a shattered Germany whose besieged army fought tenaciously throughout the last campaigns of 1944–45. Although the US won the race to develop an atomic bomb, Germany was ahead in the development of jet engines and rockets. A jet-powered Messerschmitt 262 first flew in 1942 and the Vergeltung or revenge rockets, the V-1 and V-2, were targeted on London from 1944 onwards.

By March troops of the US 5th Division had crossed the Rhine at Oppenheim and established a bridgehead on the river’s east bank. The Soviet army entered Austria at the beginning of April and occupied Vienna on 14 April. Nuremberg was taken by the US 7th Army on 21 April but by now the Soviets were on the outskirts of Berlin with many of their units running wild. The two invaders met on the River Elbe at a point just south of the German capital on 25 April and the final siege of Berlin was left to the Soviet army. Germany surrendered on 7–8 May. The true nature of Nazism also began to emerge in early 1945: in January the Soviets liberated Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, where a million Jews had been killed in the gas chambers; General George Patton’s 3rd Army liberated Buchenwald north of Weimar on 11 April; Dachau in Bavaria was liberated on 24 April by the Allies. By the spring of 1945 the German regime had killed some fourteen million ‘racial inferiors’, about six million of whom were Jews. Other victims included Slavs and Gypsies. By November the Allies had started their trials of war criminals at Nuremberg but confined the indictments to crimes committed by German officers, politicians and other civilians.

At Yalta in the Crimea between 4 and 11 February 1945, Roosevelt, who would be dead in two months, and Churchill, who would be voted out of office within six months, negotiated with Stalin – who promised that the post-war nations of eastern Europe would be allowed to be democratic. It was agreed that Germany would be divided into four separate zones of Allied occupation and the USSR was allowed to enter the Pacific war at a date soon after the end of European hostilities. Stalin’s declaration of war on Japan came two days after the bombing of Hiroshima when he sent his troops into Manchuria – the Chinese province invaded by Japan in 1931. The defeat of Japan meant that the USSR was denied a pretext for Asian expansion through war, but it still got a good deal in the terms of Japanese surrender signed aboard the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on 2 September. Outer Mongolia, the Kuril Islands and south Sakhalin were ceded to the USSR; Inner Mongolia, Manchuria, Taiwan and Hainan were ceded to China. The US and USSR would occupy Korea pending the creation of democratic structures for the country; a US army of occupation under General Douglas MacArthur ruled Japan. The separate Japanese surrender to China at Nanking on 9 September ended a fourteen-year period of Sino-Japanese conflict. Five hundred and eighty-five thousand Japanese troops in south-east Asia surrendered to the British at Singapore on 12 September. This was the last formal surrender of a power involved in the global struggle and it marked the end of the Second World War.

Among the military personnel who served during the war, the USSR lost 7.5 million, Germany nearly 2.9 million, China 2.2 million, Japan 1.5 million, the UK 398,000, Italy 300,000, the USA 290,000, France 211,000, Canada 39,139, India 36,092, Australia 29,395, New Zealand 12,262, South Africa 8,681 and the remaining territories of the British empire 30,776. For the first time in armed warfare the combatant countries’ civilian populations had been attacked on a major scale and, although it proved impossible to produce a precise figure for civilian deaths, the total is unlikely to be less than forty million.

Nineteen fourteen to 1918 and 1939–45 were two phases of armed hostilities separated by a twenty-one-year armed truce during a thirty-one-year period of conflict whose origins were Asian as well as European and whose ramifications were global. Europe had annihilated itself. Britain, the only European country not to be invaded, was broke and war loans had turned it into the US’s debtor state. Across the corpse of old Europe two superpowers glowered at each other. Ideological communism met its match in an equally ideological anti-communism. Robert Oppenheimer became a victim of the new paranoia when, in 1954, he was accused of past associations with communists and had his security clearance revoked. In Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Romania, the USSR had acquired client states run by puppet regimes answerable to the Soviet politburo. The USSR had also re-absorbed the Baltic states and reasserted its control over the Caucasus.

The build-up of military alliances in defence of democratic powers together with the expense of modern weaponry led to the consolidation of Washington DC’s military bureaucracy. On 24 July, while the leaders were at Potsdam, Truman told Stalin that the US had ‘a new weapon of unusual destructive force’. That evening back at Stalin’s quarters he and his foreign minister Molotov resolved that work on the Soviet equivalent had to be speeded up. After Hiroshima, international relations were plagued by the dilemma of ‘mutually assured destruction’: the nuclear power which deployed an atomic bomb against another such power was ensuring its own destruction through retaliation. This abolished traditional warfare between major states. In its place came surveillance and calculation – a time to test the nerves of the great powers. The armed truce had returned. Meanwhile, on 1 January 1946, emperor Hirohito made a gesture which, in the circumstances, proved helpful. He renounced his divinity.