The Luftwaffe attempt to overcome RAF Fighter Command had now entered a new stage. Despite their losses on ‘Black Thursday’ they were now intent on destroying the British fighter bases and the associated air defences. The next few weeks would see an even more intense battle over the skies of southern England.
RAF Tangmere, an airfield close to the Channel coast in Sussex, England was one of the most active fighter bases in the summer of 1940. It was an obvious target for the Luftwaffe while they attempted to destroy the airfields and infrastructure of Fighter Command. On 16th August it was the target of a massed attack by Ju 87 Stuka dive bombers accompanied by Me 109 and Me 110 fighters.
Leading Aircraftman Maurice Haffenden was an engine fitter with No. 43 Squadron and later described the day’s events in a letter to his relations:
At lunchtime at 1 pm the loudspeakers with a greater urgency than before suddenly appealed, “Take cover! Take cover!” Within three minutes of that warning I saw the first of the Junkers coming straight down on the ‘drome in a vertical dive.
The leader was within 2,000 feet of the ground – long wing span –fixed undercarriage – single engine – and then w-h-e-e-z . . . I went head first down a manhole as the first bomb landed on the cookhouse. For seven minutes their 1,000-pounders were scoring direct hits and everything was swept away by machine gun bullets. I never believed such desolation and destruction to be possible. Everything is wrecked – the hangars, the stores, the hospital, the armoury, the cookhouse, the canteen – well, everything.
By special permission a Lyon’s ice cream fellow is allowed in the ‘drome. He always stands just outside the cookhouse on the square. He was last seen standing there guarding his tricycle but now at the same spot is a bomb crater thirty feet deep. But there were quite a few casualties. In the early evening they still were sorting out the bloody remnants of flesh and bones and tied them in sheets.
On 16th August 1940 Squadron Leader Sandy Johnstone had just moved to Tangmere’s satellite station Westhampnett with 602 Squadron. He was about to sit down to lunch when ‘the fun and games started’:
We were surprised to be given the order to scramble from a state of ‘released’, but the reason was all too apparent as we rushed helter-skelter from the mess to see thirty Ju 87 dive-bombers screaming vertically on to Tangmere. The noise was terrifying as the explosions of the bombs mingled with the din of ack-ack guns which were firing from positions all round us. We could hear the rattle of spent bullets as they fell on the metal-covered nissens where we hurriedly donned our flying kit.
Chunks of spent lead fell about us as we jinked out to our aircraft. Our crews, wearing steel helmets, had already started the engines and sped us on our way with the minimum of delay. It was a complete panic take-off, with Spitfires darting together from all corners of the field and it was a miracle that none collided in the frantic scramble to get airborne. I called the boys to form up over base at Angels 2.
‘A’ Flight was already with me, but there was no sign of ‘B’ Flight. However, there was no time to stop and look for them! The air was a kaleidoscope of aeroplanes swooping and diving around us, and for a moment I felt like pulling the blankets over my head and pretending I wasn’t there! I had no idea it could be as chaotic as this. Selected a gaggle of 110s and dived to attack. Out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of a Spitfire having a go at another 110 and blowing the canopy clean off it. A Hurricane on fire flashed by and I was momentarily taken aback when the pilot of the aircraft in front of me baled out, until I realized he had come from the 110 I had been firing at!
Then it was all over. No one else was about.
Thirty people died in the attack and there was substantial damage but the airfield was fully operational again within days.
For more on the attack on RAF Tangmere see article by Tangmere Military Aviation Museum
German propaganda newsreel for a French audience of Stuka bombers and other aircraft over Britain in 1940: