As part of its revitalised defences against bombers Germany was now building ‘Flak towers’ – massive concrete structures upon which anti aircraft guns were placed.

In Germany the growing threat from RAF Bomber Command was being addressed. More and more four engined heavy bombers were becoming operational and the head of Bommber Command, Air Marshall Harris was determined to prove that they were a war winning weapon by themselves. The RAF had achieved devastating results at Lubeck, a raid which had shocked the Nazi High Command. Then had come two ‘thousand bomber raids’ beginning with the raid on Cologne.

A better co-ordinated fighter defence system, the ‘Y’ system was now brought into operation. RAF Fighter Command had pioneered the close integration of radar early warning and fighter control during the Battle of Britain. This was just the latest stage in a competing arms race between bombers and air defence technologies on both sides of the war.

Heinz Knocke was a Luftwaffe pilot assisting with the development of the new scheme. On the 22nd June 1942 he noted his impressions in his diary:

The introduction of the new “ Y ” system results in vastly improved long-distance radio communications between aircraft in flight and the ground. Operationally speaking, it will now be possible for our fighters to be located and directed by ground control at all times.

The control-room itself is in an enormous bomb-proof concrete shelter. In the centre stands a huge map of Holland on plate glass about thirty feet square. On the far side of this giant map there is a raised platform, with Air Force girls sitting at a battery of headphones and microphones. The girls receive reports of approaching enemy aircraft from radar stations along the coast, and project lights which are moved across the map to maintain a continuous plot of their positions.

Other girls locate our own lighters by means of the “ Y ” system, and plot their positions on the map also.

In front of this map there is another raised platform, equipped with a complicated arrangement of microphones and switches. From here every single fighter formation can be directed by ground-control officers individually by ultra-short-wave radio telephone. A glance at the map is all that is required to obtain a complete picture of the changing situation at any given moment.

The entire scene is presided over by the Division Commander sitting at the control desk with his Senior General Staff Officer and Chief Intelligence Officer.

Approximately 1,000 officers, N.C.O.s, soldiers, technicians, meteorologists, administrative officials, and a large number of very pretty girls keep this fighter control headquarters functioning as a directing brain by day and night.

Heinz Knocke: I Flew for the Fuhrer

The Flak towers housed a combination of heavy and light anti aircraft guns.




June 1942

‘Stunned amazement’ and confusion in the desert

The NAAFI storemen are machine-gunning stocks of beer worth £20 000. I feel an enormous apathy as I watch others rushing about with cases of canned fruit, liquor, jam. There is a mad abundance. I see men hacking tins open with bayonets, drinking the syrup and chucking the cans aside.



June 1942

The fall of Tobruk

Shells were coming more often now, the tanks with their big guns, had now got sight of the harbour. Boats of all kinds were trying to get away. Some were burning from end to end, passing just by our port, some of the men were jumping off and swimming to shore, some jumped off with kit on their backs and sunk. Later the rocket guns on the Harbour side were blown up, we began to think then.




Rommel prepares the assault on Tobruk

An excellent piece of organisational work was now done in building up supplies for the assault. During our advance we had found some of the artillery depots and ammunition dumps, which we had been forced to abandon during the Cunningham offensive in 1941. They were still where we had left them, and were now put to good use.



June 1942

The British retreat in the Desert continues

Old King Cole was hollow cheeked and was beginning to look drudged with weariness. His moustache was droopy and his eyes were red. He had two septic places on his face and, every now and then his right eye twitched uncontrollably. He was unshaven and gaunt. From his dusty boots to his battered hat he was taking on the colour of the desert.



June 1942

The strain of constant battle readiness on Malta

What really worries me is the way my body’s in open revolt. For weeks past I’ve fought the increasing Dog pain, and, in the last few days, its utter lifelessness; but this morning I’ve been vomiting without success in the ruins of a stone house behind my Spitfire, vomiting into my oxygen mask while flying over the harbour, and repeatedly leaving this tent after coming down on the ground again.




The ‘Gazala Gallop’ gets under way

16th June 1942: The ‘Gazala Gallop’ gets under way

A troop of heavy artillery pieces were attacked by German tanks which closed in under the range of the guns. The men stood to attention by their pieces after the guns were spiked and awaited capture. They were shot to a man. The only men who escaped were the ammunition files some distance behind the guns. Whether this deed was committed out of sheer savagery or because of the inability to take prisoners no one knows.




HMS Bedouin charges the Italian fleet

15th June 1942: HMS Bedouin charges the Italian fleet

I was in a fortunate position in many ways. I knew what we had to do and that the cost was not to be counted – the Italians must be driven off. It was no time for fancy manoeuvres – it was to my mind merely a question of going bald-headed for the enemy and trying to do him as much harm as possible by gun and torpedo. Otherwise it was within his power to destroy us and then the convoy at his pleasure.

I knew, too, that the other destroyers would follow me and know what I was about, whether they had signals from me or no. Finally, I knew that the ship was as ready for the test as we had been able to make her, and the result of our labours was now to be shown. I could do no more about it, except give Manners a target and do my best to avoid punishment for as long as possible.

The cruisers opened fire almost at once and the first salvos fell astern of the Bedouin. Their spread was good – too good perhaps at that range – and the shooting seemed to be unpleasantly accurate. Perhaps this is always the impression when one is the target!

My attention was taken up by the time-honoured dodge of steering for the last splash. I had often heard of it being done and found it exhilarating. It worked, too, for some time. A little before 0630, Manners reckoned we were within range, so I told him to engage the leading destroyer, and we opened fire at 17,400 yards. Ten minutes later the enemy altered another twenty degrees away and we shifted our fire to the leading cruiser at 12,400 yards.

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Under Stuka dive bomb attack in the Mediterranean

14th June 1942: Under Stuka dive bomb attack in the Mediterranean

First ten, then twenty thirty forty fifty Stukas took shape, advancing remorselessly towards the convoy. Fire was opened immediately and the deep boom of heavy gunfire mingled with the continuous smack of shell bursts. Smoke and fumes slowly drew a dark screen across the sky through which the rays of the sun, penetrating with difficulty twitched eerie, dancing shadows across the sea.

Two bombers, reeling drunkenly away from their companions, spiralled lazily seawards in a series of huge loops; the rest of the air fleet advanced steadily towards their diving positions, accompanied by an extending line of shell bursts. At a signal, the bombers peeled out of formation and dived onto the convoy.

The sharp snap, snap of close range weapons immediately joined the bedlam of the heavier guns and accelerating aero engines. Then the bombs began to burst in and around the supply ships, blotting them from view as wave after wave dived to the attack.

A frightening pillar of flame followed by a heavy detonation suddenly flared up amongst this upheaval. An agonizing few seconds was ended when the supply ship Bhutan, turning helplessly in a wide semi circle with her hull rent by internal explosions, drifted into sight. Leaving a rescue ship to pick up survivors, the convoy pressed steadily westwards under constant air attack which continued throughout the forenoon and aftemoon.

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‘Black Saturday’ for the British Eighth Army

13th June 1942: ‘Black Saturday’ for the British Eighth Army

With the first light the two armies were engaged. Almost at once the battlefield was covered over with rolling sand and the smoke of buming oil. Confused orders and messages were flying over the radio on both sides.

The front line British tanks called for assistance, and launched an attack from the north to cut through the base of Rommel’s wedge. They ran at once on the 88-millimetre guns that had been concealed in the night. Simultaneously, the tip of the enemy wedge threatened the British armoured headquarters which were forced to decamp hurriedly eastwards. During this move the headquarters lost contact with a great part of the tanks joined in battle.

And the battle was ferocious. In an attempt to get within range the British charged headlong upon the German positions. In a few minutes it was a massacre for both sides. From dozens of concealed positions the 88s opened up a tremendous belt of fire. Those British tanks, which had somehow escaped the opening salvoes and got right up to the enemy, found themselves exposed and deserted by their comrades who had fallen by the way.

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