Battle of Britain – ‘the hardest day’

We were enjoying a chat and a smoke outside the shelter as we had done in the past weeks for, although there was plenty of air activity, nothing much up to now had happened. However, on this day, not many minutes had elapsed before we realised we were being attacked by machine gun and cannon shell fire as three Dornier aircraft, at low level, flew over the rooftops of our billets. There was a mad scramble to get underground and, from then on, all hell let loose.

The burnt-out wreckage of a Dornier Do 17Z-2 of 9/KG 76 at Leaves Green, near Biggin Hill in Kent, 18 August 1940. The aircraft was shot down by ground defences and Hurricanes of No. 111 Squadron during a low-level attack on Kenley aerodrome.
The burnt-out wreckage of a Dornier Do 17Z-2 of 9/KG 76 at Leaves Green, near Biggin Hill in Kent, 18 August 1940. The aircraft was shot down by ground defences and Hurricanes of No. 111 Squadron during a low-level attack on Kenley aerodrome.
RAF aircraftman guard the remains of Dornier Do17Z-2 (F1+HT) shot down during the low-level attack on Kenley aerodrome, 18 August 1940. The aircraft crashed in Golf Road, Kenley at 1.20pm.
RAF aircraftman guard the remains of Dornier Do17Z-2 (F1+HT) shot down during the low-level attack on Kenley aerodrome, 18 August 1940. The aircraft crashed in Golf Road, Kenley at 1.20pm.

A new phase of the Luftwaffe’s attempt to neutralise RAF Fighter Command had begun on 15th August. They were now targeting the forward RAF fighter airfields in the south of England. It was only in retrospect that this period of the battle was recognised as the most difficult, when despite serious losses themselves, the Luftwaffe began to seriously damage RAF effectiveness. The 18th was to see some of the most intense battles – and later became known as ‘the hardest day’.

Three large co-ordinated attacks were mounted on the 18th, the first saw a low level bombing raid on RAF Kenley, a Sector HQ station for 11 Group. 19 year old Jim Crofts was a clerk working in the operations room:

The Operations Room … was situated behind the Officers’ Mess and was manned around the clock by three watches of WAAFs and airmen. It was from here that the aerial battle in our part of south east England was directed.

The enemy was only too aware of the vital part Kenley, together with Biggin Hill, Tangmere and the other four Sector Stations in No.11 Group of Fighter Command, were playing in the destruction of its battle fleet during its campaign to secure air superiority — an essential prerequisite to its plans to invade our homeland.

Kenley’s success rate, although achieved at great cost in human lives, was extremely high. So on Sunday 18th August 1940, the enemy decided that this airfield should be made the object of a direct attack to destroy all the key facilities and render the airfield non-operational for some time to come.

I had been on duty in the Ops Room overnight and, after breakfast, attended at the Station Sick Quarters at 11.15am for dental treatment. I had not been there long before the message came over the Tannoy system, ”Attack Alarm, Attack Alarm. All personnel not servicing aircraft take cover”.

This broadcast came from the Ops Room when enemy aircraft were in close proximity. The Sick Quarters building was immediately evacuated and I joined my colleagues outside the covered slit trench which was directly behind our billets.

We were enjoying a chat and a smoke outside the shelter as we had done in the past weeks for, although there was plenty of air activity, nothing much up to now had happened. However, on this day, not many minutes had elapsed before we realised we were being attacked by machine gun and cannon shell fire as three Dornier aircraft, at low level, flew over the rooftops of our billets. There was a mad scramble to get underground and, from then on, all hell let loose.

Our trench had a near miss at one end and a few of our colleagues were partially buried. However, no serious casualties were sustained and we emerged into the daylight about 1pm to survey the damage.

The sick quarters where I had been earlier, was in flames and the shelter adjacent to this building had received a direct hit where, we learned later, three of our Medical Officers had been killed, including a well known local physician.

Of the seven hangars on the airfield, only one remained intact and a pall of smoke hung over the area. Strangely, although communications were severely damaged, the Operations Room had not been hit…

Read the whole of Jim Croft’s account on BBC People’s War

The Kenley Airfield Friends Group describes the outcome:

Kenley’s finest hour was the day of its greatest bombardment by the Luftwaffe on 18th August 1940, three days after Croydon was hit, surprisingly in error for Kenley. Sixty-three factory workers were killed in that raid (Croydon Airport Industrial Estate).

The ‘early warning’ radar had picked up a lot of enemy activity across the channel that sunny Sunday lunchtime and at about 12.45pm, the perceived threat resulted in 615 and 64 Squadrons being scrambled but targets were still unclear.

At 1pm some sixty aircraft crossed the coast and all the local air raid sirens were sounded, fifteen minutes later the onslaught began; some pilots were still strapping themselves into their machines. Damage to the airfield and its facilities is well documented, three of the hangers were well alight, the equipment stores was a write off as were four Hurricanes and a Blenheim destroyed on the ground.

Damage was sustained to another four parked aircraft and the station’s medical facilities. No communications now existed, nine were killed including the station’s much loved Medical officer and local GP, Flt Lt Robert Cromie, a further ten were injured. 64 and 615 Squadron’s valiant pilots did not allow the Hun to escape unpunished claiming a mixed bag of enemy fighters and bombers.

General view of the Operations Room at No. 10 Group Headquarters, Rudloe Manor (RAF Box), Wiltshire, showing WAAF plotters and duty officers at work.
General view of the Operations Room at No. 10 Group Headquarters, Rudloe Manor (RAF Box), Wiltshire, showing WAAF plotters and duty officers at work.
A downed He 111 during the Battle of Britain
A downed He 111 during the Battle of Britain

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