The Luftwaffe’s ‘Black Thursday’

Seventy two Heinkel III bombers from Norway sought to attack RAF airfields at Usworth and Dishforth on the 15th August.

The 15th August saw some of the fiercest fighting of the Battle of Britain as the Luftwaffe launched a series of raids aimed mainly at RAF bases. This was intended as the knockout blow that had been envisaged on ‘Eagle Day’, although the results were not as anticipated. The resources of the RAF were far from being as depleted as the Luftwaffe intelligence suggested, and scored some notable successes, particularly when German bombers were unescorted by fighters.

For the first time attacks were made on the north of England from German bases in Norway. The long range meant that the Heinkel III bombers could not be escorted by Me 109s but were accompanied by the less capable Me110 fighter bombers, some without their rear gunners to help fuel consumption, some with long range fuel tanks. However German intelligence that the bulk of RAF fighter defences had been moved south was badly wrong. The large formation met a hostile reception when they approached the Scottish coast at midday and turned south to look for their airfield targets in the north of England.

Pilot Officer Robert Elliot was flying a Spitfire with 72 Squadron based at Acklington, Northumberland, they had the advantage of height when the raiders were spotted:

I do not think they saw us to begin with. When they did, the number of bombs jettisoned was fantastic. You could see them falling away from the aircraft and dropping into the sea, literally by the hundreds. The formation became a shambles.

The Messerschmitt Me 110 fighter bomber, which escorted the raid on the 15th August.

Flight Lieutenant Harry Welford was flying Hurricanes with 607 Squadron, based at Usworth, which joined the action slightly later:

On Thursday, 15th August, 1940, we were to have our first big encounter with the enemy, and one considered on a par with those attacks that 11 and 12 Groups were experiencing in the south. At 12.30 pm we were going off duty for 24 hours leave when the whole squadron was called to Readiness. We heard from the Operations Room that there was a big “flap” on, that is a warning of imminent enemy action up and down the NE coast.

We waited out at dispersal, then we were told to “Scramble” in Squadron formation – I was in a feverish state of excitement and quickly took off and climbed up to our operational height of 20,000 ready to patrol the coast. We kept receiving messages on the R/T of 40 or 50 plus “Bogeys” approaching Newcastle from the north. Although we patrolled for over half an hour we never saw a thing.

Just as I was expecting the order to “Pancake” I heard the senior Flight Commander shout “Tally Ho!”, and “Tally Ho!” it was! There on our port side at 9,000 ft must have been 120 bombers, all with the swastika and German crosses as large as life, having the gross impertinence to cruise down Northumberland and Durham’s NE coast. These were the people who were going to bomb Newcastle and Sunderland and our friends and relations who lived there.

I’d never seen anything like it. They were in two groups, one of about 70 and the other about 40, like two swarms of bees. There was no time to wait and we took up position and delivered a No 3 Attack in sections. As only three machines attacked a line of 20, I could not see how they could miss us. However, we executed our first attack and in spite of the fact that I thought I was being hit all over the place, it was their machines that started dropping out of the sky.

In my excitement during the next attack I only narrowly missed one of our own machines doing a “split arse” breakaway. There couldn’t have been more than two feet between us.

Eventually, spotting most of the enemy aircraft dropping down with only their undercarriages damaged, I chased a Heinkel and filled that poor devil with lead until first one. then the other engine stopped. I then had the sadistic satisfaction of seeing the aircraft crash into the sea. With the one I reckoned to have damaged in the first attack, they were my first bloods and I was elated, especially to later discover that the squadron had not suffered any losses.

Just one of the amazing stories recorded by Dilip Sarkar who has collected numerous accounts of the Battle of Britain, see Few of the Many: Memories of the 1939-45 Air War.

In total eight He III bombers and seven Me110s were shot down for no loss in this attack. There were no further attacks from the Luftwaffe’s Norwegian bases during this phase of the war.

The series of attacks in the rest of the country were less one sided – in total 75 aircraft enemy aircraft were shot down on the 15th August for the loss of 30 RAF planes, with 17 pilots killed.

Earlier in the war:

Later in the war: