The “Battle of Britain” is now generally considered to have begun in mid July 1940 as the Luftwaffe stepped up their attacks on shipping in the Channel. RAF Fighter Command had been carefully nursing its resources, not allowing them to be frittered away in the battle for France, however much they might have been needed.
This policy of maintaining vital reserves continued as the Luftwaffe began probing into British airspace. Even so air activity over southern England had increased and the number of sorties being flown was beginning to increase dramatically.
Flying Officer Alan Geoffrey Page of 56 Squadron, RAF was amongst many pilots who received their baptism of fire during this period:
My first time in combat; six of us — half a squadron – were sent up. As we climbed, the controller advised us that there were 20 bombers coming in to attack a convoy and 6O fighters above them, acting as their escort.
Our leader ordered Taffy Higginson to take three aircraft down to attack the bombers and he ordered the other three of us to climb to attack the 6O fighters. As we climbed, I caught sight of this enormous swarm of aircraft. They were above us and this was dangerous. When you’re climbing, your speed is low whereas the enemy is way up in the sky and flying quite fast. He has a tremendous advantage over you.
Anyway, we got up and we saw two types of aeroplanes, both fighters. One was a twin-engine fighter, the Messerschmitt 11O and the other was the single-engine Messerschmitt 1O9. The Messerschmitt 11Os started flying in a defensive circle when they saw the three of us. That made me chuckle to myself, despite my mouth feeling rather dry with fear.
I dived into this circle, firing rather wildly through absolute inexperience and then the 109s came down on us.
Suddenly came the phenomenon that I saw again and again throughout the war. You’re in a dogfight with so many aeroplanes about and then suddenly it’s as if the hand of God has wiped the slate clean and there’s nothing else in the sky. I found myself alone except for one speck of an aeroplane in the distance.
I approached the speck and he approached me until I saw that he was a Messerschmitt 1O9. It became the equivalent of tilting at the lists in medieval times. We attacked each other head on and I could see the little white flashes on the leading edge of his wing as he fired at me. I was feeling a bit stubborn that morning so I didn’t budge. He ﬂashed over the top of me and I returned to base and landed.
Extracts from the WEEKLY RESUME of the
NAVAL, MILITARY AND AIR SITUATION to 12 noon July 11th, 1940
THE British Mediterranean Fleet and Italian fleet have been engaged with indecisive results. Italian air action against British naval forces in the Mediterranean has been generally ineffective. Further steps have been taken to prevent important units of the French Fleet falling into enemy hands. There has been increased enemy air activity against ports and shipping in the Channel, and E-boats have also attacked shipping in this area with some success.
2. A force of cruisers and destroyers successfully attacked shipping in Bardia harbour (Libya-Egyptian frontier) on the 6th July and sank two military supply ships. Our ships were attacked from the air without result. Aircraft from the Fleet Air Arm at Malta carried out a dive-bombing attack on Catania aerodrome on the same date; 9,000 lbs. of bombs were dropped and four big fires were started in the hangars and workshops. A combined Fleet Air Arm and E.A.F. raid was also carried out successfully on Tobruk. The destroyer Zeffiro was sunk and 1 other destroyer, 1 submarine and a number of merchant ships damaged.
3. Early on. the morning of the 8th July H.M. Submarine Phoenix reported a force of 2 enemy battleships and 4 destroyers proceeding on a southerly course about 200 miles east of Malta, and later in the day another force of 6 cruisers and 7 destroyers was sighted by our aircraft proceeding north 60 miles north of Bengazi. At this time a strong force of the Mediterranean Fleet, consisting of 3 battleships, 4 6-inch cruisers, 1 aircraft carrier and 11 destroyers, was at sea but well to the eastward of these positions. While passing between Cyrenaica and Crete our ships were continuously bombed and H.M.S. Gloucester was hit on the bridge, killing the Captain and inflicting further severe casualties.
On the morning of the 9th numerous reports from our aircraft indicated that an enemy force of 2 battleships, 6 cruisers and 11 destroyers had been joined by several more cruisers and destroyers from Augusta. This force was sighted by H..M.S.Neptune at 1507 and shortly afterwards the Commander-in-Chief reported that he was engaging the enemy. A short and confused action resulted, the enemy retiring under cover of a smoke screen soon after the heavy ships became engaged. H.M.S. Warspite obtained one hit on an enemy battleship at long range. A torpedo attack by aircraft from H.M.S. Eagle is believed to have resulted in 1 cruiser being hit. Subsequently a damaged enemy cruiser was reported to be in tow about 70 miles from Messina at 1900. The Mediterranean Fleet suffered no casualties either in material or personnel other than those in the Gloucester.
MILITARY SITUATION. German Activities.
27. Increased preparations for a possible invasion of the United Kingdom have been reported, and it is possible that in Norway preparations for a seaborne expedition of two to three divisions, including some A.F.Vs., must now be nearly complete. It is, however, still uncertain if all, or any, of these forces are intended for the invasion of the United Kingdom. Eire, the Shetlands, the Faroes and Iceland are all possible subsidiary objectives. Air reconnaissance of Bremen and Emden has not shown the presence of any abnormal quantity of shipping. No concentration of shipping has been observed in the ports of the Low Countries and Northern France. While there is a considerable number of barges in these ports, this may be due to the interruption of other communications and does not necessarily indicate preparations for invasion.
35. Our bombing attacks have been on a lower scale than recently, owing to adverse weather conditions, though minelaying has been more extensive. Fighter operations have been considerably more intense than recently and have been almost entirely over this country. Enemy air attacks were mainly concentrated against ports and shipping and were becoming heavier towards the end of the week. Operations in the Mediterranean and Middle East were of a similar character to those of last week.
36. Enemy bombing attacks by day have been concentrated mainly on our Southern and South-Western ports and on shipping in the Channel. Casualties have been higher, but little serious damage has been done to objectives on land. Raids on the East Coast and on Scotland have been less frequent and reconnaissance appears to have been their primary objective. There has been little deep penetration except during the hours of darkness, when attacks were relatively light and achieved little success. Activity increased steadily up to the 10th July, when a formation of about 120 bombers and fighters assembled behind Calais and attempted to attack a convoy between Dover and Dungeness. Minelaying appears to have continued nightly during the week off the South and East Coasts.
37. Fighter operations have been of considerably increased intensity. Enemy attacks have been escorted by fighters, which have, also carried out sweeps over the South Coast. Fighter Command flew 1,040 patrols, involving 3,275 sorties, over this country and destroyed 44 enemy aircraft confirmed “and 33 unconfirmed; enemy casualties included 33 fighters. Our losses totalled 18.
See TNA CAB /66/9/42