New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force (Vol. I)
CHAPTER 4 — The Battle of Britain
The Battle of Britain
NOW Hitler stood triumphant in Europe. Only the British people, sheltered for the moment by the narrow moat of the Channel, remained defiant. They knew, however, that the full fury of the enemy would shortly be turned upon their island, and in town and village, factory and garrison, they made ready to withstand the worst the enemy could cast upon them and, if necessary, to resist the invader with whatever weapons remained or could be quickly forged. In these tasks they were inspired by a leader who never failed to express their buoyant and imperturbable spirit. The closing words of his address to the House of Commons on 18 June were typical:
Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age, made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the light of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say: ‘This was their finest hour.’
But while the Germans, for their part, were anxious for a speedy decision, they hoped that Britain would accept defeat without further struggle and end the war. It was not until Hitler’s flamboyant peace offers had been repeatedly ignored that the German High Command began to argue their plans for an invasion of Britain. The difficulties of the operation were realised, in particular by the Naval Staff under Admiral Raeder, who insisted that if the operation was to succeed, both the passage and the landing of troops and supplies would have to be protected from aerial attack. This demanded mastery of the air which, in turn, meant the elimination of the fighter arm of the Royal Air Force. The Germans shaped their plans accordingly and so it came about that, during the summer and autumn of 1940, Fighter Command engaged in a series of bitter air battles in defence of the British Isles. They were to prove the most fateful battles of the whole war, and the victory which followed one of the most decisive. The invasion of Britain was prevented and the base from which page 71 in time the forces of liberation were to set out and free Europe was preserved. The legend of German invincibility was destroyed and the power of the Luftwaffe considerably weakened.1
While it was the fighter pilots of the Royal Air Force who were primarily responsible for the victory, aircrews of both Bomber and Coastal Commands made a definite contribution to the upset of the enemy’s plans. Continuous reconnaissance patrols were flown over the North Sea and the Channel ports by the coastal aircraft, and as the invasion flotillas were seen assembling in the harbours and canals they were heavily attacked by the bombers. Bomber Command also attacked aircraft factories in Germany and the airfields from which the enemy machines flew against Britain, while in the Western Approaches the Hudsons and Sunderlands of Coastal Command continued to protect the convoys carrying petrol and supplies to the British Isles.
Altogether in the fighter battles, the bombing raids, and the various patrols flown between 10 July and 31 October 1940 by the Royal Air Force, 1495 aircrew were killed, of whom 449 were fighter pilots, 718 aircrew from Bomber Command, and 280 from Coastal Command. Among those killed were 47 airmen from Canada, 24 from Australia, 17 from South Africa, 35 from Poland, 20 from Czechoslovakia and six from Belgium. Forty-seven New Zealanders lost their lives, including 15 fighter pilots, 24 bomber and eight coastal aircrew. The names of these Allied and Commonwealth airmen are inscribed in a memorial book which rests in the Battle of Britain Chapel in Westminster Abbey. In the chapel is a stained glass window which contains the badges of the fighter squadrons which operated during the battle and the flags of the nations to which the pilots and aircrew belonged.
But the Battle of Britain was not fought exclusively in the air. The constant devotion to duty of the ground staffs, often under the enemy’s fire, was a vital contribution to the victory, while the hard work of Flying Training, Maintenance and Technical Commands greatly increased the flow of men and machines to the fighting units. A notable part was played by the men and women at the anti-aircraft gun sites, while the contribution of those who worked in the aircraft and munition factories should also be remembered.
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1 According to enemy records, a total of 1733 German aircraft were destroyed between 10 July and 31 October 1940. Fighter Command’s losses were 915 machines.
The German Air Force was now faced with the tasks of deploying its units and arranging for their supply and maintenance in the new positions, so that a further three weeks elapsed before they were able to develop heavy and sustained attacks on Britain. In the meantime, the Germans attempted to draw Fighter Command into battle under unfavourable conditions by sending formations against coastal shipping and ports during daylight, with scattered attacks on inland targets by night.
This short respite from immediate heavy attack enabled the whole defensive system of Fighter Command to be strengthened and extended to cover areas previously regarded as comparatively safe but which now faced enemy-occupied territory. No. 11 Fighter Group was able to recover from the heavy fighting over Dunkirk; squadrons were re-equipped and civilian airfields taken over and prepared as second-line fighter airfields, which later proved invaluable when enemy bombs wrought heavy damage on permanent RAF bases in south-east England. The production of fighter planes was increased considerably, but the shortage of trained pilots remained serious and could not be remedied so easily.1 It was in this respect that the Dominions and Allies were able to make a valuable contribution.
1 There were only three fighter operational training units at the time. Nevertheless, during the lull between Dunkirk and the start of the German attacks, they worked intensively, an RAF report noting that, ‘Maximum output was helped by the keenness of the pupils; some New Zealanders who had been trained on Gordons and Vincents in their own country, reached Hawarden one evening, spent the night on Spitfire cockpit drill by the light of torches and began flying the following morning. Salvage of aircraft was imperative: if a Spitfire from Hawarden made a forced landing near the Dee, every available man was rushed to the spot to drag it out of reach of the tide. When the battle began the Operational Training Units added unofficial sorties to their other duties and shot down several raiders.’
1 Wing Commander M. V. Blake, DSO, DFC; born Newman, Eketahuna, 13 Feb 1913; permanent commission RAF 1937; commanded No. 234 Sqdn, 1940–41; Wing Leader, Exeter and Portreath, 1941–42; p.w. 19 Aug 1942.
3 In his despatch on the Battle of Britain, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, Commander-in-Chief Fighter Command, writes: ‘I must pay a very sincere tribute to Air Vice-Marshal Park for the way in which he adjusted his tactics and interception methods to meet each new development as it occurred…. during periods of intense fighting there was no time for consultation and he acted from day to day on his own initiative.’
1 The Blenheim, owing to its low speed and lack of manoeuvrability, had been turned over to night duties for these reasons, and because adequate space was available for an extra operator and the scientific apparatus which was necessary for the development of a new night-interception technique. The Defiant, after some initial success, proved to be too vulnerable against fighters and was also relegated to night work and the attacking of unescorted bombers.
During July 1940 Goering made his dispositions for the assault that was to secure the air supremacy which the German High Command regarded as the essential prerequisite to invasion. By the end of that month a striking force of some 2600 aircraft, consisting of 1480 bombers, 760 single-engined and 220 twin-engined fighters, together with 140 reconnaissance machines, had been assembled at various airfields in France, Belgium and Holland. In addition there was a force of approximately 130 bombers and 30 fighters stationed in Norway which had a diversionary value in that it compelled the RAF to retain fighter squadrons in the north. The elimination of the RAF and the British aircraft industry was to be accomplished in two stages. In the first place, the fighter defences located south of a line between Chelmsford and Gloucester were to be beaten down, after which the air offensive was to be extended northwards by stages until RAF bases throughout England were covered by daylight attacks. The first stage was timed to begin early in August, and the day for its launching was given the dramatic code-name of Alder Tag (Eagle Day). Goering considered that this phase, the destruction of Fighter Command in the south, would occupy four days, and the whole task of eliminating the RAF four weeks. Thereupon the invasion itself, with Luftwaffe support, was to be aimed in its greatest strength at the English coast between Dover and the Isle of Wight. Alder Tag was provisionally fixed for 10 August, given favourable weather, so that the invasion could take place at some time during the first two weeks in September. In the event, Goering’s timetable went badly awry and Hitler was forced to postpone the actual date of the invasion, first by a few days, then by a week, then indefinitely, and finally ‘until the following year’.
During the first week of July when the fighter pilots were engaged in intercepting sporadic enemy raids against widely scattered targets, page 76 several New Zealand airmen were among those who had successful combats. Flying Officer Carbury, leading a section of Spitfires, shared in the destruction of an enemy bomber near Aberdeen; another was claimed by Pilot Officer Lawrence1 while flying on convoy patrol off Land’s End—this was his squadron’s first victory. On 9 July Flight Lieutenant Deere had the first of many amazing experiences that were to come his way during the next two months. He was with a squadron of Spitfires sent to intercept an enemy formation reported near Dover. There they found two groups of Messerschmitts escorting a seaplane which, it was later discovered, had been sent to survey part of the south coast. Deere led a section in to attack and the enemy fighter he selected went straight down into the sea. Whilst manoeuvring to attack a second Messerschmitt, he suddenly saw the enemy plane coming straight at him. Both pilots started to fire simultaneously, neither gave way, and the aircraft collided. Deere’s Spitfire was severely damaged, the Messerschmitt having caught the propeller and hood. Unable to bale out, with his engine stopped, and nearly blinded and choked by glycol fumes, he managed to head inland where, after ploughing through various obstacles, his aircraft finally came to rest in the middle of a cornfield and caught fire. Deere broke his way out but, apart from minor abrasions and slight burns, he was uninjured and the following day was back on patrol again.
Attacks on coastal targets and shipping began in earnest during the second week of July.2 These raids were not easy to intercept owing to the limited warning that could be given of the enemy’s intention and the fact that standing patrols could not be maintained in sufficient strength to deal with the larger formations the enemy was now employing. Another difficulty was that the Germans would sometimes send over a small raid first so that the British fighters would be returning to their bases to refuel when the actual attack developed. Nevertheless, a considerable toll was taken of these raiders3 and the damage inflicted on shipping was not extensive.
2 On the 10th two formations of German aircraft attempted to attack convoys in the Channel. This day, when really large enemy forces—70 in one attack—were first employed, is generally regarded as marking the opening of the battle.
3 192 enemy aircraft were destroyed during the period of these attacks on coastal targets i.e., 10 July–7 August.
On 29 July shipping in Dover Harbour was again the target for a heavy attack by some forty dive-bombers. Four squadrons of fighters, two of Spitfires and two of Hurricanes, were despatched to intercept; all were engaged and 15 of the enemy were claimed destroyed for the loss of three Spitfires. Leading a section of No. 501 Hurricane Squadron, Pilot Officer Gibson was early in combat. He afterwards reported:
Sighted enemy aircraft approaching Dover Harbour—engaged a Junkers 87 as it broke away from attack on the ships. Saw enemy machine dive steeply with black smoke pouring from it. Broke off attack as I saw a Spitfire with another Junkers 87 on its tail. Fired at this dive-bomber which burst into flames and plunged into the sea.
In another encounter Pilot Officer Horton1 drove a Junkers 87 down to sea level but ran out of ammunition before he could destroy it. He then made close dummy attacks in an effort to force the bomber lower and was finally rewarded by seeing it strike the water and break up.
So far the enemy’s attacks had been directed mainly against the southern coasts of England. In fact, German eyes were already firmly fixed on this part of the country and the fighter squadrons there. Therefore pilots stationed in other parts of Britain, although steadily employed in investigating unidentified plots of aircraft and in protecting coastal convoys, had not been heavily engaged. They were available to reinforce the southern sectors but, before they were called upon to do so, many of them flew long hours on patrol and escort duties, seldom sighting an enemy aircraft.
The first really heavy attack on a land target came on the morning of 11 August. On this occasion there was little doubt as to the enemy’s objective, since three enemy formations were plotted over mid-Channel on course for Portland and no convoy was in the vicinity at the time. Accordingly, the greater part of eight squadrons was ordered towards that area to intercept. Among them was No. 213 Hurricane Squadron from Exeter, led by Squadron Leader McGregor. In the early stages the Messerschmitt fighters, which were some distance east of the main formation, were brought to battle by other squadrons, but it fell to McGregor’s Hurricanes to make the only interception of the bombers before they reached their target. The Hurricanes had been ordered to patrol at 10,000 feet over Portland and had just arrived when the enemy was sighted—50 Junkers 88s flying at about the same level, with an escort of 30 Messerschmitt 109s above and behind them. The Hurricanes immediately attacked the head of the bomber formation and forced many of the bombers to jettison their loads wide of any target. McGregor and his pilots claimed seven of the Junkers destroyed.
The next few days saw intensive enemy activity between the Thames Estuary and the Isle of Wight with attacks on radar stations, airfields, ports and coastal shipping. In an effort to exhaust the British squadrons, the Germans continued to send simultaneous raids page 81 against widely separated areas; feint approaches were also made to conceal the real point of attack and to confuse the defenders. Portsmouth and Southampton were frequent targets during this period, and on one or two occasions enemy aircraft penetrated as far as London, notably on 15 August when a force of some thirty bombers broke through to bomb Croydon. In their efforts to meet these heavy attacks the fighter squadrons in southern England were now constantly engaged in interception and combat. Early on 12 August Deere led eleven pilots from No. 54 Squadron—with Gray leading a section—to intercept an enemy raid over Kent. Very soon they sighted some twenty Messerschmitt 109s and climbed to attack. Deere claimed one of the enemy fighters while Gray, after shooting one down near Dover, pursued a second as far as the French coast where he saw it crash on the beach near Cap Gris Nez. The same evening Deere claimed two Messerschmitts while leading his squadron to intercept an attack on Manston aerodrome in Kent. The enemy formation was prevented from reaching its objective and most of the bombs fell harmlessly in open country. Meanwhile, during the afternoon, the Germans had launched a heavy attack against two convoys off North Foreland. But action was joined with such vigour that the dive-bombers never approached within striking distance of the ships. Gibson, who took part in the inter- ception, attacked four of the enemy machines and saw the pilot of one of them bale out. Pilot Officer W. S. Williams1 was with one of the squadrons which intercepted another attack by nearly 200 aircraft towards Portsmouth. After he had set one bomber on fire, his Spitfire was heavily hit and he was forced to break away. Williams subsequently landed at an airfield on the Isle of Wight with wheels up and his aircraft on fire. Shortly after he had scrambled clear, it blew up.
New Zealand airmen were early in action. The first major attack of the day, directed against aerodromes in Kent, saw Pilot Officer Gibson leading a section of three Hurricanes from No. 501 Squadron which became involved with a formation of some twenty dive-bombers. Each member of the section claimed one of the enemy, Gibson seeing his victim burst into flames and crash into the sea. He then noticed that other Junkers 87s were bombing his home airfield at Hawkinge so returned at speed to engage them. In the combats which followed he damaged one of the dive-bombers before their rear gunners set his Hurricane on fire. He was then directly over Folkestone but managed to steer his blazing machine away from the town before abandoning it. Deere’s No. 54 Squadron was involved in two major clashes with the enemy during the day. In the first encounter Deere himself scored an easy victory when he caught a German so intent on pursuing a damaged British aircraft that he failed to see the approach of the Spitfire and was blown to pieces in the air. During a further interception by his squadron, Deere chased a Messerschmitt across the Channel and finally shot it down near Calais. Then almost immediately he was set upon by five German fighters which pursued him back towards the English coast. His instrument panel was shattered and his aircraft riddled with bullets. Fortunately the attackers broke away as the coast was reached, but a minute or two later his Spitfire burst into flames and he was forced to bale out at about 1500 feet. Once again his luck held and he landed in some shrubs which broke his fall.1 In a further engagement over the Isle of Sheppey, near the mouth of the Thames, Pilot Officer McIntyre2 shared in the destruction of one Dornier and damaged a second. Another victim was claimed by Pilot Officer Mackenzie,3 who was with one of the squadrons which intercepted the German force from Norway and Denmark in the north-east of England.
1 Describing this incident, Deere afterwards told how ‘Bullets seemed to come from everywhere and pieces flew off my aircraft. Never did it take so long to cross the Channel. Then my Spitfire burst into flames, so I undid my straps and eased the stick back to gain height before baling out. Turned my machine on its back and pushed the stick hard forward. I shot out a few feet but somehow became caught up. Although I twisted and turned I could not free myself. The nose of my aircraft had now dropped and was pointing at the ground which was rushing up at an alarming rate. Then suddenly I was blown along the side of the fuselage and was clear. A hurried snatch at the rip cord and, with a jolt, the parachute opened.’
During the afternoon of the 15th heavy attacks were directed towards Portsmouth and Plymouth by forces totalling nearly 300 aircraft. No. 87 Hurricane Squadron, led by Squadron Leader Lovell-Gregg, was one of the 14 units despatched to intercept. Near Portland the Hurricanes met some thirty dive-bombers escorted by approximately a hundred fighters, and the air battle which followed was described as the fiercest the squadron had so far experienced. Lovell-Gregg was shot down but his loss was avenged by two other New Zealanders flying with him, Flying Officers Ward and Tait,1 each of whom claimed a Messerschmitt. In another encounter between Dover and Folkestone Pilot Officer Smith,2 after persistent attacks in which he exhausted his ammu- nition, finally saw his target, a Messerschmitt 109, go spinning earthwards. His squadron had intercepted a large force of enemy fighters acting as withdrawal cover for a formation attacking further inland, and had fared badly losing four pilots in the encounter. His was the only success. These actions were typical of many in which New Zealand pilots were involved on this memorable day, at the end of which 76 German aircraft had been destroyed for the loss of 34 British fighters.3
3 At the time, 185 German aircraft were claimed as destroyed. But this was not due to any great exaggeration on the part of the fighter pilots, whose claims were almost always made in good faith. In the confused and heavy fighting which occurred it was easy for a pilot to conclude that the German aircraft he saw crash was the one at which he had been firing. At the same time several pilots could, unknown to each other, share in the destruction of one and the same enemy. It is interesting to note that on days of less intensive fighting, the Royal Air Force claims were often actually lower than the figures which German records now reveal.
PHASE 2: 24 August–6 September 1940
Attacks on airfields covering London
Usually when ordered to intercept, a squadron climbed quickly to gain the advantage of height, during which time the leader received further information regarding the enemy’s height and direction. On sighting the German aircraft the leader gave the signal for attack to his squadron over the radio-telephone. Thereupon it became a matter of individual combats in which each pilot had his page 85 own swift decisions to make in applying the tactics that had been carefully worked out beforehand. Sometimes these combats were short and sharp. As one New Zealand pilot related on 18 August:
We sighted about twenty Messerschmitts below us … dived on to one of them and after several bursts saw his perspex collapse and the aircraft spiralled into the sea.
On the same day another reported:
Intercepted a formation flying south … they dived towards the coast. We followed and I attacked a Messerschmitt from the rear. Smoke came from him as I broke away and eventually saw him crash about 5 miles from the coast.
But often the fighting was more confused with machines milling round as the British fighters broke into the enemy formations:
Attacked a Messerschmitt with a short burst but broke away owing to another on my tail. Turned and got a snap shot at him. Now had three on my tail so climbed steeply and got a short burst at one of them. Climbed further and dived on a Dornier which went down with smoke pouring from one engine. Then turned on a Messerschmitt which was diving on my tail. Gave him a burst but saw others above me so climbed away and dived on a straggler and got in a short burst whilst dodging another. Saw another formation … headed in that direction and dived on one Messerschmitt giving him a burst but had to climb steeply to avoid others. Then attacked a straggling bomber but ran out of ammunition so zig-zagged home.
It was during this critical phase of the battle that several New Zealand airmen—notably Deere, Gray and Gibson—established themselves as outstanding fighter pilots. Gray accounted for at least seven enemy machines in the intensive air fighting of the last two weeks of August. One of his victims crashed into the sea after he had pursued it to within half a mile of the French coast; another blew up and disintegrated in mid-air after his first burst, while two more fell to him whilst they were attacking the airfield at Horn- church, Essex, where his No. 54 Squadron was based. It was after yet another successful combat that his victim landed in a field in Kent and Gray, circling above, saw the German pilot expressing his anger at being shot down by jumping up and down on his life jacket. In a further engagement Gray destroyed two more Messerschmitts when his squadron intercepted a formation retiring after a bombing attack on Tilbury. But during these various encounters he twice had narrow escapes. On the first occasion, his aircraft suddenly went into a spiral dive after the elevator control wires had been severed by a stray bullet, Gray just managing to regain control and land safely. During another encounter a cannon shell exploded behind his cockpit but he was uninjured, even the splinters missing him entirely. Strangely enough Gray, who was to win further page 86 distinction in the Middle East and later in France, had failed to pass his medical examination in Wellington when he first applied for a commission in the RAF in 1936. It was not until two years later, after he had worked on a farm to improve his health, that he was finally accepted for training as a pilot.
With the same squadron, and frequently leading either sections or the whole squadron, Flight Lieutenant Deere continued to score more successes during the same period. One of these came on the morning of 28 August when No. 54 Squadron was the first unit to intercept a force of some sixty aircraft over Manston, in Kent. Shortly after he had shot down one of the enemy fighters, Deere’s Spitfire was hit and so badly damaged that he was once again forced to bale out. After just missing a farmhouse he landed in the middle of a fully-laden plum tree, bringing most of the fruit to the ground. It is recorded that this tree happened to be the only one still bearing fruit, a choice crop that was being carefully husbanded, and the farmer’s indignation on finding the hefty New Zealander sprawling in the bare tree was, for a time, considerable. Three days later Deere had what was his luckiest escape when the airfield at Hornchurch was bombed just as the squadron was ordered to take off. Eight aircraft had safely left the ground and the remaining section, which he was leading, was in the act of taking off when bombs exploded near them and all three Spitfires were wrecked. One machine was thrown across a stream two fields away but the pilot scrambled out unhurt. Deere had one wing and the propeller torn off his Spitfire, whereupon it rose in the air, turned over, and slid across the airfield upside down. He was extricated amidst bursting bombs by the pilot of the third machine, which had suffered a similar fate except that it had landed the right way up. A few minutes later this rescuer collapsed and was carried to safety by Deere. There were other similar narrow escapes. On the same day Pilot Officer Tracey,1 after making a head-on attack against a Dornier, which went down with an engine on fire, found his oil duct was pierced so headed for Biggin Hill, only to land just as the enemy bombers arrived overhead. He attempted to take off again but his machine was thrown about and badly damaged by flying metal and debris from bursting bombs. It was indeed inevitable that, under the continuous enemy pressure, fighter aircraft should occasionally be caught on the ground.
1 Flying Officer O. V. Tracey, DFC; born Dunedin, 15 Mar 1915; joined RAF Aug 1939; killed on air operations, 8 Dec 1941.
The enemy bomber started smoking as I broke away. Turned to attack again only to see him crash into the sea about a mile off Margate.
On 29 August, after sending a Messerschmitt down in flames, Gibson found his own aircraft on fire and had to bale out over the sea, two miles from the coast. But he was picked up by a motor boat and a few days later was reporting:
There were about twenty bombers escorted by some thirty fighters above and behind them … a dogfight started and I managed to position myself on the tail of a Messerschmitt and gave him a short burst. He wobbled and then dived to the ground and crashed near Kingswood….
By the last week of August the heavy fighting had much depleted the squadrons of No. 11 Group and a number had to be with- drawn,1 their places being filled by units from other groups which had been comparatively inactive. Among those whose squadrons had now moved south into the battle area was Flying Officer Carbury, of No. 603 Squadron, who was to win both the Distinguished Flying Cross and bar before the end of the battle. Carbury had been with this squadron before the war and had done valuable work in training pilots when the unit was re-equipped with Spitfires. During the more recent period while stationed in a comparatively quiet area, he had nevertheless twice engaged in successful combat. On 28 August his squadron entered the thick of the battle and was to be continually engaged in the interception of enemy formations over Kent; during the next ten days Carbury was to claim eight victims. The first of these was shot down while he was leading a section of Spitfires on patrol near Manston airfield. After a frontal attack the Messerschmitt‘… began to smoke and then blew up.’ On 31 August, when particularly heavy raids were directed against airfields around London, Carbury was able to report the destruction of five enemy machines in three successive engagements. Early in the day his squadron intercepted a formation of some twenty enemy fighters. ‘… we were climbing over Canterbury when the enemy were sighted below … dived on a Messerschmitt 109 which turned over and spun in, the pilot jumping by parachute.’ The second encounter took place over his own airfield.
…. Heard over the radio-telephone that enemy were bombing home base so set course and saw enemy proceeding eastwards. Attacked one Heinkel which went straight down into the ground. Made a beam attack on another which after a long burst, went on its back, the pilot jumped and the aircraft crashed and burst into flames near Southend.
1 Among them was No. 54 Squadron with which Deere and Gray were flying. During the next month both men did valuable work training new pilots.
His third report regarding his part in an engagement with a large enemy formation during the afternoon was equally brief:
Sighted enemy aircraft over London and we attacked, three of us going for nine Messerschmitts. Got one of them which went straight down. After beam attack on another, it rolled over and went down into a wood.
On the afternoon of 30 August Pilot Officer Hodgson1 was engaged with No. 85 Hurricane Squadron over the Thames Estuary against some thirty Dornier bombers escorted by about one hundred fighters. After damaging one of the Dorniers Hodgson became involved with a Messerschmitt which he shot down. But in this combat his Hurricane was heavily hit and the engine set on fire. He was about to bale out when he realised that he was directly over the Thames oil storage tanks and a thickly populated area. By skilful side-slipping he managed to keep the fire under control and finally landed in a field in Essex, just missing wires and other obstacles erected to prevent the landing of enemy forces by air. This was but one of his many experiences in the course of the battle. After destroying two Messerschmitts in an encounter with a large enemy formation over Ramsgate, he was successively engaged by seven more but managed to evade their attacks without appreciable damage to his aircraft. On another occasion he chased an enemy fighter down from 17,000 feet to sea level near the French coast, where it was seen to crash.
Other fighter pilots who reported successful combats during the heavy fighting which took place in the last week of August and the first week of September included Squadron Leader Blake, who was in command of a squadron in the south-west of England, Flying Officers Tait and Ward, and Pilot Officers Horton, Lawrence, Mackenzie, Tracey, Trousdale and W. S. Williams. But it is not possible to describe all the many engagements nor to record in detail the numerous incidents which occurred—the narrow escapes from destruction at the hands of the enemy, the rescues from the sea and the bombing of the airfields from which the Hurricanes and Spitfires operated. Yet it was with enduring courage that the fighter pilots faced the increasing strain of the intensive flying and fighting demanded of them during this critical period. As one pilot wrote afterwards:
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By the end of the first week in September both sides were feeling the strain of the intensive fighting. The Germans had lost just over 400 aircraft since 24 August and many of their best pilots. Nor were the British defences in a happy state. Very serious damage had been done to the fighter airfields in No. 11 Group and to their communications and ground organisation. On several occasions Manston and Lympne on the Kent coast were unfit for days at a time for operating fighter aircraft. Biggin Hill sector to the south of London was so severely hit that for a week only one fighter squadron could operate from it. After the battle Park wrote:
There was a critical period between 28 August and 5 September when the damage done to sector stations and our ground organisation was having a serious effect on the efficiency of the fighter squadrons. The absence of many essential lines of communication, the use of scratch equipment in emergency operations rooms and the general dislocation of the ground organisation was seriously felt in the handling of squadrons to meet the enemy’s massed attacks…. Had the enemy continued his heavy attacks against the fighter airfields and knocked out their operations rooms and communications, the fighter defences of London would have been in a perilous state….
But an even graver problem was the shortage of trained pilots, which made it difficult to keep units up to strength and relieve them when exhausted. In the fortnight from 24 August to 6 Sep- tember, Fighter Command had lost 103 pilots killed and 128 page 90 seriously wounded, while 466 Spitfires and Hurricanes had been destroyed or seriously damaged. The casualties to pilots represented the loss of nearly a quarter of the total pilot strength. Their place could only be taken by new, ardent, but inexperienced men from the training units, and further casualties were incurred because of their lack of familiarity with the latest developments in the air fighting.1
It was at this point in the battle that the Germans unexpectedly switched the main weight of their attack to London. It now appears that the Germans overestimated the extent to which Fighter Command had been weakened. They were also working to a timetable which had to be completed if their invasion was to take place before the onset of unfavourable weather. In addition Hitler wanted reprisals against London for the attacks by Bomber Command on Berlin and other German cities. Nevertheless, this change was in every way favourable to Fighter Command, since it not only removed the strain on the fighter airfields but also allowed more time for the assembly of larger formations to meet the enemy’s attacks.
The Germans now also increased the weight of the desultory and scattered attacks by night which they had been making for some weeks. It was as yet impossible to deal effectively with these attacks since both equipment and methods of night interception were still in the experimental stage, and in the face of the great events that were unfolding by day, the aircrews engaged on the unprofitable task of combing the night skies gained little satisfaction from the knowledge that they were laying the foundation for later successes. Among the few encouraging results of the night patrols at this time was the unique achievement of Pilot Officer Herrick,2 one of the small group of New Zealand airmen flying with No. 25 Blenheim Squadron against these night raiders. On the night of 4 September Herrick destroyed two German bombers within a few minutes of each other. Nine days later he sent another down in flames, thus accounting for three of the four aircraft claimed by Fighter Command in night operations during the month. All three of Herrick’s victims were seen to crash by observers on the ground.
1 By the beginning of September the incidence of casualties became so serious that a fresh squadron would become depleted and exhausted before any of the resting and reforming squadrons were ready to take its place. Fighter pilots were no longer being produced in numbers sufficient to fill the gaps.’—Air Chief Marshal Dowding’s despatch on the Battle of Britain.
PHASE 3: 7–27 September 1940
Day and night offensive against London
During their attacks on 7 September the Germans lost 40 aircraft, but even such heavy casualties might have been accepted had they been able to repeat the successful breakthrough in strength to London. This, however, they were prevented from doing, their subsequent attacks being met and defeated with steadily increasing success by Fighter Command. Formations aiming towards London were intercepted, broken up, and forced to drop their bombs short of the capital or in its southern outskirts while, at the same time, the number of bombers destroyed rose appreciably. Although this failure of the Germans to bomb London heavily in daylight was due partly to the onset of autumn, with cloudier skies in which the bomber formations became separated from their fighter escorts and fell an easy prey to the British fighters, it was more the tactics employed by Air Vice-Marshal Park which prevented the enemy from achieving his purpose. Park so disposed his squadrons that the Germans were engaged early in their approach and throughout their flight over England. As always, he was determined that the enemy squadrons should be intercepted before they reached their objective with whatever force could be despatched in the time available.
Nevertheless his plan aroused acute controversy. In particular, Air Vice-Marshal Leigh-Mallory, in charge of No. 12 Group on the northern flank, did not see eye-to-eye with Park. He preferred to assemble large formations of fighters before sending them south in support of the battle. These did achieve successful interceptions on some occasions but by no means always; moreover it is significant that almost all their successes were scored against retreating enemy forces. This was because of the delay involved in assembling large formations of fighters drawn from several airfields. But such delay might well have been fatal. ‘If the policy of big formations had been attempted at this time in No. 11 Group,’ writes Air Chief Marshal Dowding in his despatch on the battle, ‘many more German bombers would have reached their objective without opposition.’ He might well have added that, as a result, much of London would have been destroyed and tens of thousands of its citizens killed.1
1 In reply to a post-war critic of his tactics, Sir Keith Park made this revealing statement: ‘In view of the criticism of No. 11 Group, I have no option but to record the very unsatisfactory state of affairs in my left rear occupied by No. 12 Fighter Group throughout the Battle of Britain. On a few dozen occasions when I had sent every available squadron of No. 11 Group to engage the main enemy attack as far forward as possible, I called on No. 12 Group to send a couple of squadrons to defend a fighter airfield or other vital targets which were threatened by outflanking and smaller bomber raids. Instead of sending two squadrons quickly to protect the vital target No. 12 Group delayed while they despatched a large Wing of four or five Squadrons which wasted valuable time…. Consequently they invariably arrived too late to prevent the enemy bombing the target.
‘On one occasion I asked for two squadrons to protect North Weald fighter aerodrome from an approaching raid. No reinforcing squadrons arrived from No. 12 Group before this vital station was heavily bombed with loss of life and destruction of hangars, workshops, operations room, etc. On another occasion, No. 12 Group was asked to send a couple of squadrons to protect the fighter station at Hornchurch, but again no reinforcements arrived in time to prevent heavy bombing of this aerodrome….
‘On scores of days I called on No. 10 Fighter Group on my right for a few squadrons to protect some vital target. Never on any occasion can I remember this group failing to send its squadrons promptly, to the place requested, thus saving thousands of civilian lives and also the naval dockyards of Portsmouth, the port of Southampton and aircraft factories.
‘After further experience as commander of the air forces in Malta, in the Middle East and lastly on the Burma front, I say that we should have lost the Battle of Britain if I had adopted the “withholding” tactics of No. 12 Group.’—From an article in the New Zealand Herald, dated 9 September 1952.
In the many encounters which occurred during these attacks towards London, New Zealand fighter pilots continued to score successes. On 8 September Flight Lieutenant W. G. Clouston was leading No. 19 Spitfire Squadron on patrol over south-west London when they were directed towards a formation of Messerschmitts. He afterwards reported:
…. Was about to attack when two crossed my sights so turned on them. The rear one emitted smoke after a short burst and then caught fire. Attacked the second firing the rest of my ammunition, saw my shots register and he went down apparently out of control.
In the same engagement Pilot Officer Bush1 saw the Messerschmitt he attacked go down in flames and break up. In the late afternoon of 11 September several New Zealanders were with the squadron which intercepted an enemy formation south-east of the capital. It consisted of some forty bombers well protected by a box-like force of fighters. Nevertheless, the Spitfires broke through to the bombers and were able to claim ten of them. Pilot Officer Mackenzie saw his victim glide down and force-land. Carbury concentrated on a Heinkel which became separated from its formation; his first burst hit one of the engines, and subsequent attacks caused the undercarriage to fall out and pieces broke off its nose. At the same time a second attack was pressing towards London from the south-east. Squadron Leader Blake and Pilot Officer Verity2 were with the squadrons which met the enemy over Brooklands and both men reported successful combats. One enemy bomber formation on being attacked immediately turned and fled southwards, jettisoning its bombs to make good its escape.
Altogether the day’s operations were disastrous for the enemy.1 The bitter opposition which his formations encountered and their failure to break through to London were to have a decisive effect on Hitler’s plans for invading Britain. These plans had been maturing steadily over the past month, and by this time the assembly of ships and barges in the Channel ports was almost complete. But the gathering of this armada had not been allowed to proceed without interruption as, from the beginning of September, a large part of the effort of Bomber and Coastal Commands had been directed against the assembly points. Considerable damage was done, including the sinking of a number of ships and barges. This was not without its effect on the German Naval Command who were responsible for getting the invading forces across the narrow seas, and on 10 September the Naval Staff reported to Hitler: ‘The timely conclusion of the preparations is endangered by further difficulties and stoppages resulting from enemy action.’ On 13 September 80 barges were sunk at Ostend, and the following day Admiral Raeder reported, ‘The present air situation does not provide conditions for carrying out the operation as the risk is still too great.’ Concern at the failure of the Luftwaffe to beat down the British air defences increased among the High Command, and on 17 September Hitler, already uncertain, was persuaded to postpone the invasion to an indefinite date. An entry in the German War Diary for that day reads: ‘The enemy Air Force is still by no means defeated; on the contrary, it shows increasing activity.
1 German records reveal that they lost 56 aircraft, the second highest total for the battle. British losses this day were 27.
But although the daylight attacks continued, they became intermittent and steadily diminished in intensity while the night raids became heavier. All the same, the strain on the day fighter squadrons remained considerable for, in addition to increasing autumn cloud, the tactics now employed by the enemy made interception more difficult. In an attempt to divert the fighter patrols from attacking his bombers he used high fighter screens. The bomber formations also operated at varying heights and came over on a much wider front than previously—tactics which greatly increased the difficulty of obtaining accurate advance information of the enemy’s approach. Nevertheless it was only occasionally that single aircraft or a small group got through to London by day, largely owing to successful counter tactics evolved by Park and his staff at No. 11 Group headquarters. Reconnaissance by single aircraft was instituted to supplement the information received from other sources, and the fighter squadrons were so disposed that the Spitfires had time to climb to engage the high-flying fighters while the Hurricanes dealt with the bombers and their close escort. Other squadrons formed a third and inner screen. The daylight defence of London thus remained secure.
Many of the combats fought during the last fortnight of September took place over four miles above the towns and fields of south-east England, when all that could be seen from the ground was the strange pattern of vapour trails which the aircraft wove as they circled and fought. The physical strain of fighting at such high altitudes proved very exacting, but in spite of this the British pilots inflicted increasingly heavy losses on the enemy.
Throughout this phase of the battle New Zealand airmen continued to take part in patrol and interception and to distinguish themselves in combat. On 18 September Hill destroyed an enemy bomber in an engagement which began nearly four miles above the spires of Canterbury Cathedral. He was flying in a section of four Spitfires when they sighted 20 Junkers 88s:
The enemy formation broke up and dived for the coast. I attacked one, following it through cloud and out to sea. Exhausted ammunition in a final attack. Both its engines stopped and it pancaked on the water, about seven miles from the coast. Directed motor boat to pick up crew.
1 There was much speculation later as to whether an actual landing had not, in fact, been attempted. But the widespread rumours that the Germans had been repelled with heavy losses probably owed their origin to an incident which occurred during August, when the Germans were practising embarkations in barges along the French coast. Some of these barges had put to sea in order to escape British bombing; they were sunk either by bombing or bad weather and the corpses of about forty German soldiers were washed up at various points along the south coast of England.
Another bomber from this force was destroyed by W. G. Clouston, while on the same day Pilot Officer Bush of No. 242 Squadron reported the destruction of one of six enemy fighters encountered at 17,000 feet:
While trying to climb and attack one of the rear machines their leader did a quick turn and dived on me. Put my aircraft into a spin and then dived but found one Messerschmitt still following me, so did a sharp turn and managed to manoeuvre into good position behind him. After one long burst, saw enemy break up and crash into the sea near Dover.
But often the combats were inconclusive or else pilots were unable to confirm the destruction of the enemy because of cloud or the height at which they were flying. Many reports contain such remarks as:
‘Enemy aircraft fell away in a spin and was still spinning on entering cloud….’ or
‘Aircraft went down vertically but did not see it hit the sea.’
|Weekly Totals||British fighters lost (complete write-off or missing)||Enemy aircraft actually destroyed (according to German records)||Enemy aircraft claimed at the time|
|July 28–August 3||8||56||39|
|September 29–October 5||44||112||100|
The closing days of September saw the last of the enemy’s attempts to reach London with large formations of bombers, and a distinct change of strategy followed almost at once. Long-range bombers were practically withdrawn from the daylight battle and Messerschmitt fighters, some of them carrying small bombs, were now employed in small but widespread attacks. Such raids were difficult to intercept and demanded further intensive activity on the part of the fighter squadrons, including the maintenance of ‘standing’ patrols over Kent, which were very wearing and often unproductive. Nevertheless the Germans could not hope to secure any decisive result by this last change of tactics. It was, in fact, an admission of failure, confirmed when, on 12 October, Hitler finally postponed his invasion ‘until the following Spring’. Yet the enemy’s activity over Britain did not cease with this decision, so that it was some time before many of the defenders realised what they had achieved—the defeat of the German attempt to gain mastery of the air over England and the disruption of Hitler’s plans for invasion.
Meanwhile, as the tide of battle ebbed slowly away, the fighter pilots continued to fly many and varied patrols, and although the interception of the fast, high-flying fighters and fighter-bombers was very difficult, there were many occasions on which this was achieved. Carbury was again prominent among those who had successful combats during this last stage of the battle. After an engagement over Kent on 7 October, he reported that ‘… the Messerschmitt, after two bursts went straight into the ground.’ Three days later he was leading a section of his squadron when they sighted 20 Messerschmitts over the Channel heading for France. The Spitfires attacked and Carbury saw his victim dive into the sea. A moment later he caught sight of another enemy fighter trying to climb above him, so he went up after it and attacked. The German machine went down vertically. Carbury followed and saw it crash on the beach at Dunkirk. One wing flew off and the rest of the aircraft shot along the sand.
Before the end of the month British fighter pilots were beginning to fight again over the Channel and even over the beaches of France and Belgium, chasing German raiders on the run. The enemy had now lost the initiative, and as the weeks passed his activity in daylight showed a steady decline. The victory had come slowly and only after the most exhausting efforts, but it was none the less decisive. It was a victory for which a few hundred fighter pilots were primarily responsible; while the battle was at its height, Winston Churchill had paid them his memorable tribute.
It should not be forgotten, however, that their skill and courage would have been unavailing without the ground organisation which served them so well, or without the machines which the skill of designers and aircraft engineers had provided. Indeed, the defeat of the Luftwaffe in 1940 was only made possible by the efforts of that small band of men who early took thought for the Empire’s need and quietly laboured to prepare against the day of trial. It was these men who gave Fighter Command the technical superiority, particularly in radio-location and in the firepower and rate of climb of the Spitfire, which, combined with superior strategy and the fine qualities of the British pilots, overcame an almost overwhelming numerical strength under conditions that were largely favourable to the attacker.
1 Wing Commander E. P. Wells, DSO, DFC and bar; RAF; born Cambridge, 26 Jul 1916; farmer; joined RNZAF Oct 1939; commanded No. 485 (NZ) Sqdn, 1942; Wing Leader, Kenley, 1942–43; Wing Commander, Training, No. 11 Fighter Group, 1943–44; Wing Leader Tangmere, Detling, West Malling, 1944; commanded Fighter Leader School, Central Fighter Establishment, 1944–45.
2 Squadron Leader J. C. F. Hayter, DFC and bar; Nelson; born Canterbury, 18 Oct 1917; joined RNZAF Nov 1938; transferred RAF Aug 1939; retransferred RNZAF Aug 1944; commanded No. 274 Sqdn, Middle East, 1942; No. 74 Sqdn, ME and Europe, 1943–44.
On the German side there had not been anything like the same careful preparation. The aerial campaign against Britain was launched after a few weeks’ planning by forces lacking the technical equipment with which they could be used to the best advantage. At this time the Germans had no ground-to-air control system. This meant that when taking their squadrons into action the German leaders had no information regarding the movements of the opposing forces such as was enjoyed by the RAF commanders. Moreover communication between aircraft was often difficult, for their radio-telephone was inferior to the British. It was only after the battle started, when they heard commands skilfully and accurately directing Spitfires and Hurricanes on to their formations, that the German pilots realised their handicap.
The Germans also began the Battle of Britain with a fighter production that was not fully capable of meeting heavy losses, and so confident were they of early success that their production of fighters remained static throughout the battle. But among the many factors which can be discerned as contributing to the defeat of the Luftwaffe, probably the most outstanding was the failure of the German Air Staff to appreciate the vital significance of the British early warning radar system and its possibilities when employed in conjunction with ground-to-air control of the defending fighter squadrons. The early attacks on coastal radar stations caused serious damage and, had they been maintained, might well have proved decisive. Yet it is recorded that on 15 August, at an early stage in the battle, Goering declared: ‘It is doubtful whether there is any point in continuing the attacks on radar stations, since not one of those attacked has so far been put out of action.’
A fundamental weakness in German air strategy and policy was also revealed during the assault on Britain. Over-emphasis on the doctrine of attack had led to a relative weakness in the fighter arm of the Luftwaffe as compared with the bomber and dive-bomber forces. Then, when the latter began to suffer heavy losses, there was a wasteful use of the limited fighter strength as close escort which led to bitter and disastrous quarrels at a crucial point in the battle. The fighter leaders wanted to continue an escort system embodying loose formations and free-lance patrols, but the bomber men demanded closer escort in tight formations. Goering intervened to support the bomber men and the fighters were ordered to fly to a rigid battle plan laid down before take-off. This naturally aroused feelings of resentment and frustration among the German fighter pilots, who saw the entire planning and conduct of the offensive now being dominated by the bomber experts. How strong their feelings were on this matter is revealed in the testimony of page 101 General Adolf Galland who, as a major, led one of Goering’s fighter wings during 1940 and was later to command the German Fighter Arm.
We saw the whole of our experience from the Spanish war onwards being thrown away,’ he declares. ‘We had to fly straight-and-level with the slow unwieldy bomber stream and were forbidden to engage British fighters unless we were attacked. This meant we were compelled to surrender to the Spitfires and Hurricanes the advantage of surprise, initiative, height, speed and, above all, the fighting spirit and aggressive attitude which mark all successful fighter squadrons.’
Galland also reports an interesting episode. On one occasion when he protested against the new orders, Goering turned on him and asked sarcastically just what kind of fighters he would like to have. ‘Reichsmarschall,’ he replied, ‘give me a squadron of Spitfires.’ The remark became legendary in the Luftwaffe and stimulated a lasting respect for the Spitfire.
Undoubtedly the German fighter pilots had reason to complain. In addition to the false policy of escort, the twin-engined Messerschmitt 110 was proving inadequate in fighting power for long-range escort and the single-engined Messerschmitt 109 did not have sufficient endurance to press the battle to the London area and beyond. But the real difficulty lay in the fact that the armament of the German bombers which, in conjunction with their speed, had been relied upon to offset any deficiency in fighters, proved inadequate when tested in the hard fighting over Britain. Certainly the Germans failed to take sufficient account of the fighting qualities of the Spitfire and Hurricane which had first become evident in France and over Dunkirk, and their machines were outclassed by those very qualities in combination with the British system of radar plotting and fighter control.
But, above all, in judging the German campaign against Britain, it must be realised that after the early victories on the Continent, opinion in the German Air Force ignored the possibility of serious opposition to the great and powerful Luftwaffe. Rapid and easy successes had prejudiced judgment of the fighting capabilities of the RAF. Goering himself, at the height of his power, was dazzled by his own self-esteem, and both he and the whole of the Luftwaffe were subconsciously affected by the outpourings of Goebbel’s propaganda department. Only a few of the fighter men had begun to see the possibility of a tough adversary in the Spitfire and Hurricane; but they kept their opinions to themselves for, at that time, anybody who so much as hinted at the possibility of a fighter superior to the Messerschmitt incurred the risk of the serious disapproval of his superiors.page 102
In the almost universal mood of optimism the fact that the Luftwaffe might meet a new set of conditions over England was ignored. The experience of escorted bomber formations during the campaign in France was thought to be adequate, and consequently the Battle of Britain was begun without further training or careful preparation of tactics. When the new conditions were met, the inevitable result was confusion, friction and conflicting opinions. Improvisation followed, with the Germans groping their way from one form of tactics to another in an effort to achieve success.
But by early October it was clear that the battle was lost to the Luftwaffe. The original objectives had already been discarded and now the Germans resorted to attacks on industrial cities, ports, and shipping in the hope of wearing down the British people to the point of capitulation. Concentration of effort gave way to dispersion and there began a long war of attrition. The RAF could now feel more assured of its outcome but Goering and his men, who only three months previously had looked forward to the air battle eagerly and confidently, regarded future operations with considerably less enthusiasm. The wings of the German eagle had been badly bruised and its flight was now less sure and steady.