Spitfire versus Dornier

Things are starting to get rough. Automatically I have followed my self-imposed drill that I always do at times like this. Reflector sight on; gun button to fire; airscrew pitch to 2,650 revs; better response. Press the emergency boost over- ride, lower my seat a notch and straps tight. OK, men, I’m all set. Let battle commence. Please, dear God, like me more than you do the Germans.

‘I press the gun button and all hell is let loose; my guns make a noise like tearing calico…’
But Geoffrey Wellum’s first combat with a Dornier was head on.

Like all battles the experience of those involved could be wildly different. There were many pilots in RAF Fighter Command who were now exhausted by the constant tension and the need to fly several missions a day.

Yet the real genius behind Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding’s command of the battle was that he carefully managed the deployment of Squadrons to front line bases as much as he could. There was still time for fresh Squadron’s to be blooded.

Geoffrey Wellum was just over 18 years old when he went into combat with No. 92 Squadron for the first time on 11th September, when they were directed to intercept a mass of German bombers :

I glance round at the ten brave little Spitfires and a strengthened resolve flows into me. Well, there’s not many of us but we’ll knock shit out of some of you, at least for as long as we can. One thing to say that now but, in amongst that lot, things may turn out to be different. Must be some other friendly squadrons about somewhere, at least I bloody well hope so, but I’m damned if I can see them.

How the hell can ten of us cope with this lot? Where do we start? Only one answer, attack and get stuck in and trust in the Lord. This is interception. Good God, I’ve never seen so many aircraft in one bit of sky before. It’s absolutely breathtaking. Not long to go now. Brian’s voice is in my earphones. ‘Gannic from leader. OK boys, in we go. A good first burst and away. Watch for 109s.’

Voices over the R/T. Urgency. ‘109s above the first lot coming round to six o’clock, 3,000 feet above.’ ‘Six more at four o’clock high.’ ‘I see them, they’re starting to come down, here they come, watch ’em, Blue Section. Break into them, Blue, break starboard, break, break for Christ’s sake.’

Things are starting to get rough. Automatically I have followed my self-imposed drill that I always do at times like this. Reflector sight on; gun button to fire; airscrew pitch to 2,650 revs; better response. Press the emergency boost over-ride, lower my seat a notch and straps tight. OK, men, I’m all set. Let battle commence. Please, dear God, like me more than you do the Germans.

I hold Brian’s Spitfire in view some thirty feet away and look ahead for a potential target and at the same time I assess the situation. This will be a head-on attack from below and it’ll be bloody hot work. The lower lot are Dorniers; can see them very clearly now and closing rapidly. Pick my target. A Dornier slightly out of formation, you’ll do. A quick glance above and behind. No 109s immediately behind but that bunch up there might be troublesome. Just a mix-up of aeroplanes; in fact, bloody chaos. Now for my target. There, I see you, you sod. Back in tight formation now, however; never mind, have a crack at him.

All at once, crossfire; heavy and pretty close at that. Bloody front gunners. My target, concentrate, the target. Looking at him through the sight, getting larger much too quickly, concentrate, hold him steady, that’s it, hold it … be still my heart, be still. Sight on, still on, steady . . . fire NOW! I press the gun button and all hell is let loose; my guns make a noise like tearing calico.

Geoffrey Wellum’s memoir ‘First Light’ was not published until 2002. It’s quickly became a best seller and a classic autobiography of World War II, not just of the Battle of Britain.

See also the memoirs of Brian Kingcome – A Willingness to Die, who led No. 92 Squadron that day.

The current RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight now fly a Spitfire with the ‘QJ-K’ markings of Geoffrey Wellum’s 92 Squadron aircraft, as flown on 11th September 1940. There is much more detail about Geoffrey Wellum’s career there – but really, you just have to read his book.

St Thomas’s Hospital bombed

Everybody who was near when the bomb exploded was absolutely covered in black dust – was quite unrecognisable. We found five nurses who were trapped and let them out by shifting some enormous piece of furniture and thus allowing a piece of wall to fall down. They seemed quite cheery.

All the while the bombs were falling round about – but we did not take much notice of them then. The amazing thing was that only five nurses were killed, and a lot of them had cuts and bruises but nothing serious. One was pinned under the ruins for hours before she died.

Eileen Dunne, aged three, sits in bed with her doll at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children, after being injured during an air raid on London in September 1940.
Eileen Dunne, aged three, sits in bed with her doll at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children, after being injured during an air raid on London in September 1940.

On the 10th September 1940 Dr Frank Crockett writes to his family in Australia describing the previous two nights at St Thomas’s Hospital in central London:

I did my night rounds, and watched the bombs dropping for a bit, then wandered about having tea here, and ovaltine somewhere else, as nearly everybody else was also doing, and then about 2 am went to bed in my basement and got to sleep. The next thing was I found myself sitting up in bed – chaps were rushing here and there. St Thomas’s has been hit by a bomb.

I donned my dressing gown and slippers and went out into the corridor and was met by a pall of dust. I asked a few questions and found that the wing opposite Westminster Bridge – the nurses’ home – had been hit. I went along and joined a party which was hunting for people who were trapped. Then from 2.30 to 3.30 am we climbed about in the ruins calling out and searching for people. The nurses’ home had been demolished – was just a heap of ruins.

Everybody who was near when the bomb exploded was absolutely covered in black dust – was quite unrecognisable. We found five nurses who were trapped and let them out by shifting some enormous piece of furniture and thus allowing a piece of wall to fall down. They seemed quite cheery.

All the while the bombs were falling round about – but we did not take much notice of them then. The amazing thing was that only five nurses were killed, and a lot of them had cuts and bruises but nothing serious. One was pinned under the ruins for hours before she died.

In the morning what a spectacle! I can’t describe it but it must have been a high explosive bomb to do all that damage. Then last night the whole hospital, doctors, nurses, maids, pundits and pinkies all slept together in the basement! A most incredible sight – one could hardly move without stumbling over a sleeping form. We all slept very well, partly because we were so tired and partly because we were now getting used to bombs….

This was just one of a dozen occasion when the hospital was hit by bombs during the war, see British Medical Journal 22nd December 1990: ‘The bombing of St Thomas’s’.

St Thomas's Hospital in Lambeth which was badly damaged in an air raid during September 1940.
St Thomas’s Hospital in Lambeth which was badly damaged in an air raid during September 1940.
St Thomas\’s Hospital, across the Thames from the Houses of Parliament, was bombed for the first time on 8th September 1940.

Air Raids now hitting public morale

In the areas which have been most heavily raided there has been little sign of panic and none of defeatism, but rather of bitterness and increased determination to ‘see it through’. There is widespread and deeply felt apprehension, which is apparent mostly in the London Dock area, of a continuation of raids, and much anxiety about the chaos in domestic affairs which has resulted from the activities of the last few nights.

The morning after, a London street sometime during late 1940.

The public attitudes to the air raids and bombing had been recorded on the 6th September as being broadly positive. The Ministry of Information’s daily survey of public morale now found that people were very much more disturbed by the intensified bombing:

In the areas which have been most heavily raided there has been little sign of panic and none of defeatism, but rather of bitterness and increased determination to ‘see it through’. There is widespread and deeply felt apprehension, which is apparent mostly in the London Dock area, of a continuation of raids, and much anxiety about the chaos in domestic affairs which has resulted from the activities of the last few nights.

As far as the East End is concerned, this is beginning to show itself in an aimless evacuation to what are believed to be safer places, e.g. the St James’s Park shelters and Taddington Station. It appears that this exodus is caused by greater fear than the actual circumstances justify, and it might be a good thing if loud speaker vans, giving encouragement and instructions, could circulate in the streets. There is at present very little official reassurance being given to the public, and it is to some extent this lack of guidance which is causing them to leave their homes. There seems evidence that unless some immediate steps of this sort are taken to check this movement, it is likely to grow.

Men working in factories in the East End are encouraging their wives and families in this haphazard escape, but express their own willingness to stay and face further raids if they can be sure that their relations are in comparative safety.

LONDON

Strongest feeling one of shock amongst all classes and in all districts as people have lulled themselves into a state of false security saying: ‘London is the safest place’, and ‘they’ll never get through the London defences’. No signs of defeatism except among small section of elderly women in ‘front line’ such as East Ham who cannot stand constant bombing.

Districts sustaining only one or two shocks soon rally, but in Dockside areas the population is showing visible signs of nerve cracking from constant ordeals. Old women and mothers are undermining morale of young women and men by their extreme nervousness and lack of resilience.

Men state they cannot sleep because they must keep up the morale of their families and express strong desire to get families away from danger areas. Families clinging together, however, and any suggestions of sending children away without mothers and elderly relations considered without enthusiasm. People beginning to trek away from Stepney and other Dockside areas in families and small groups. Many encountered in City today with suitcases or belongings.

See TNA INF 1/264

Direct hit on shelter kills 78 people

The modern day memorial to the disaster at the Peabody Estate, Whitechapel, where whole families died together when a bomb hit the air raid shelter.

The Prime Minister Winston Churchill visits bombed out buildings in the East End of London on 8 September 1940.
The Prime Minister Winston Churchill visits bombed out buildings in the East End of London on 8 September 1940.
Two Dornier Do 217 bombers flying over the Plumstead sewer bank, Crossness pumping station and the Royal Arsenal butts on Saturday 7 September 1940, the first day of the sustained Blitz on London.
Two Dornier Do 217 bombers flying over the Plumstead sewer bank, Crossness pumping station and the Royal Arsenal butts on Saturday 7 September 1940, the first day of the sustained Blitz on London.

With the outbreak of what soon became known as ‘The Blitz’ Londoners had to abruptly adjust to a new kind of existence. Everyone was exposed to the threat and there were daily reminders in the street of how serious that threat was, as the devastation mounted. Children going to school in the morning would pass bodies under blankets lined up in the street. Hitler’s ‘Terror bombing’ was to kill tens of thousands – although it was to prove to be much less apocalyptic than pre war estimates had suggested.

No area was more badly affected than the east end of London, where the docks were a key strategic target, and easily identifiable from the air by the Luftwaffe.

Henry R.J.Pilott was a schoolboy in Plumstead, East London and he describes his general experiences during this period:

From the first week in September we had continuous day and night raids for about 3 weeks, then the bombers came only at night and we had heavy raids every night until the middle of November. We had bought a Manchester terrier bitch dog during 1938 and after the first few nights she would sense the onset of a raid and let us know by howling at least 20 minutes before the air raid warning went off. She was unable to stand the anti-aircraft guns going off and the bomb explosions and we had to have her put down. During this period each night I would crawl under the dining room table (the shelter was full of water and unusable) praying that I would get through the night.

One night the street was showered with incendiary bombs and my dad with other neighbours who were on night watching duty went outside to deal with one that had fallen in the road. There was my father arguing with a neighbour about the best way to deal with it. Pick it up in a shovel and put it in a bucket or put sand over it and let it burn. He wouldn’t have done this later in the war as the Germans began dropping explosive incendiaries.

A number of houses had been hit including that of my friend David Edwards. The 2lb bomb had gone through his roof into the front bedroom and his father with the aid of neighbours managed to put most of the fire out from inside. This didn’t however stop the AFS (Auxiliary Fire Service) rushing round and causing more damage by breaking the top-floor widows and throwing out all his furniture. The next day I found a large 6ft container for all these incendiary bombs in our garden.

One morning we woke up to find an unexploded bomb had fallen into the front garden of a house eight doors away. The street was cleared and we all had to move to a rest centre that had been set up in Plumstead High Street School. There were so many unexploded bombs around that it was impossible for the army to deal with them. Many went off within a few hours and then one could move back. It seemed to me we were in the rest centre for weeks but I know it was only days. The place was crowded and many of the people who were in poor physical and mental condition had come from Silvertown in East London having been bombed out.

My father had not been able to get to work for some days. He set off on his bicycle to find what had happened in Bow: he returned to tell us that his factory had been badly bombed and no work was possible. The raids during each night continued and we were all crammed into the basement of the school, which had been strengthened outside with sandbags and bricked-up windows. Local cheer-leaders (including our own Mr Potter) got people singing songs to keep up their courage and take their minds off the destruction taking place outside.

After about a week as the bomb in our road had not gone off, my mother decided to chance it and we moved back to our house. The road was still closed to traffic and we were warned that there was still a risk of an explosion. After another week or so others moved back and the bomb was forgotten and the hole was filled in. When we had returned home as my dad was unable to go back to work to his old firm, he was directed for a short time to work on bomb damaged house by covering up the blasted windows and roofs with felt to keep out the rain.

Some years later in 1946 after the war had ended an unexploded bomb that had also been forgotten exploded off near the Elephant and Castle killing some children. As a result the numerous undealt-with bombs including our own were dug up and dealt with. In our case the bomb had gone down about 10ft and was still alive.

At this time I was not attending school as the normal organisation had been disrupted and teachers were not available. I was not getting any proper sleep at night. There were half-time lessons at my old school but there was no compunction to go and I missed some months of vital schooling. My mother decided that I could do with a rest from the bombing and sent me off to live with my Aunt Rose in Burnt Oak. Although this area was still in London and Hendon Airport and the surrounding aircraft factories were targets, the German bombers did not automatically fly over the area on their way to Central London.

We heard the sirens each night but it was rare that bombs dropped in the area and I was able to sleep in a bed and attend the local school without disruption. My aunt was a widow (my Uncle Joe had died in 1940 as the result of wounds he received in the 1st World War) but still had two children of school age, Irene, then aged 15 and Arthur, aged 6 (my cousin Joey was in the army and had gone through Dunkirk). I settled down well and my aunt was easy-going if a bit fussy. She was however liberal with pocket money and trips to the cinema. The first thing she did when I arrived was to take me to Hendon Central WVS Centre where they kitted me out with new clothes on the basis that I had been bombed out.

I liked living with my aunt and started school in Burnt Oak. When the teacher introduced me to the class she told them I had been bombed out so I was the centre of attraction for a while. I told them that I came from Dover to increase the attention (everybody had heard of Dover as it was being shelled from France across the Channel but nobody knew of Woolwich) so my teacher was a bit confused. Whilst I lived there a German plane was shot down and placed on view in a site of the present Burnt Oak library and we had to pay a penny to see it. I was doing well at school, but I think my mother was not too happy that I had settled in so easily and after a few months she sent my brother Stan to bring me home.

Read the whole of this story on BBC People’s War.

Young children from the East End of London carrying their belongings, including their gas masks, as they set off on their journey to safer areas.
Young children from the East End of London carrying their belongings, including their gas masks, as they set off on their journey to safer areas.
The modern day memorial to the disaster at the Peabody Estate, Whitechapel, where whole families died together when a bomb hit the air raid shelter.
Image: Danny McL., Flickr. Click to enlarge.

“The Blitz” hits London

During the night of 7th/8th September, attacks extending over many hours covered a considerable area of London and were of an intense nature. Preliminary reports do not permit an accurate review of the full extent of the places hit or of the damage. Possibly the most serious effect has been in Silvertown which has been described as a ‘raging inferno’ and complete evacuation became necessary. Over 600 fire appliances were in use during the night.

A famous image of the bombing of London, a Heinkel III bomber over the Thames, taken from another German bomber at 6.48pm on the 7th September 1940

Following Hitlers promise of retaliation on 4th September, German bombers made the first co-ordinated attack on London on the 7th September 1940.

Ulrich Steinhilper was a German fighter pilot escorting the bombers in:

… it was an unbelievable sight. In the first wave in the late afternoon there were about 1,000 aircraft assembled in layers, stacked at about 600 metres (2,000 feet) intervals.

We were flying high cover as we approached London and there we could already see many oil tanks burning with huge clouds of smoke reaching high into the sky. The main targets were the docks which were easy to find on the distinctive U-bend of the Thames.

Once in a while we would snatch a glance down and see the flashes of bombs as they exploded and the shock waves radiating out with the force of the explosion. But from our height, some 10,000 metres (32,000 ft) these were just pin-pricks of dirty light, more impressive was the oily smoke. There wasn’t much time to take anything but the briefest observations.

We were in the hottest of combat areas and anyone who was distracted for too long was going to end his day there and then. Everywhere was danger; from the British fighters, from the heavy flak and from loose barrage balloons – one of which was floating around near our altitude and burning in a tumult of colour and smoke.

Now we really came up against the full force of the RAF. If the calculations of our High Command had been correct there should have been minimal fighter opposition to us now. But whilst we saw numerous head-on and flank attacks on the bombers below we were often too busy with our own defence to intervene.

There were constant dog-fights with aircraft wheeling and diving, pursuing each other, sometimes with success sometimes not. There were stark black lines diving down, showing the path of a stricken aircraft and parachutes floating in the thin, cold air.

There was tragedy, too, as I watched one parachute begin to burn, its helpless charge falling faster and faster. Hard to take, too, were the accidents of identification. I sat helpless with the hard lump of frustration boiling in my chest as I saw below me a 109 latch onto the tail of another of our fighters and then to see them suddenly linked by four straight grey lines as the guns were fired. Quickly the yellow tail of the leading fighter ignited and it rolled out to dive towards the ground. In such tense and charged surroundings such mistakes were inevitable.

Sometimes I wish I had the skill of an artist so that I could have recorded these beautiful but awe-inspiring sights. The pure azure-blue of the sky with the sun dimmed by the sinister smoke penetrating to extreme height; this interwoven and cross-hatched by the contrails of fighters locked in their life and death struggles. In amongst this the burning balloons and the few parachutes in splendid and incongruous isolation. These images are clear and bright in my mind today and it is to my regret that such fantastic scenes will only live as long as the few of us who saw them and survived.

See Ulrich Steinhilper: Spitfire on My Tail: A View from the Other Side

German bombers over London
Two Dornier Do 217 bombers flying over the Plumstead sewer bank, Crossness pumping station and the Royal Arsenal butts on Saturday 7 September 1940, the first day of the sustained Blitz on London.

 

A still from camera-gun film taken from a Supermarine Spitfire Mark I of No. 609 Squadron RAF, flown by by Flying Officer T Nowierski as he closed in on a formation of Dornier Do 17Zs of KG3 south-west of London at approximately 5.45 pm on 7 September 1940. Tracer bullets from the intercepting Spitfires can be seen travelling towards the enemy aircraft which were heading back to their base after bombing East London and the docks.
A still from camera-gun film taken from a Supermarine Spitfire Mark I of No. 609 Squadron RAF, flown by Flying Officer T Nowierski as he closed in on a formation of Dornier Do 17Zs of KG3 south-west of London at approximately 5.45 pm on 7 September 1940. Tracer bullets from the intercepting Spitfires can be seen travelling towards the enemy aircraft which were heading back to their base after bombing East London and the docks.

British fighter pilots going up to meet the attack were equally impressed by the spectacle of the mass of aircraft.

Twenty-one-year-old Pilot Officer John Beard was flying with 249 Squadron:

It was really a terrific sight and quite beautiful. First they seemed just a cloud of light as the sun caught the many glistening chromium parts of their engines, their windshields, and the spin of their airscrew discs. Then, as our squadron hurtled nearer, the details stood out. I could see the bright-yellow noses of Messerschmitt fighters sandwiching the bombers, and could even pick out some of the types.

The sky seemed full of them, packed in layers thousands of feet deep. They came on steadily, wavering up and down along the horizon. ‘Oh, golly,’ I thought, ‘golly, golly . . .’

And then any tension I had felt on the way suddenly left me. I was elated but very calm. I leaned over and switched on my reflector sight, flicked the catch on the gun button from ‘Safe’ to ‘Fire,’ and lowered my seat till the circle and dot on the reflector sight shone darkly red in front of my eyes.

The squadron leader’s voice came through the earphones, giving tactical orders. We swung round in a great circle to attack on their beam-into the thick of them. Then, on the order, down we went. I took my hand from the throttle lever so as to get both hands on the stick, and my thumb played neatly across the gun button. You have to steady a fighter just as you have to steady a rifle before you fire it.

My Merlin [the airplane’s engine] screamed as I went down in a steeply banked dive on to the tail of a forward line of Heinkels. I knew the air was full of aircraft flinging themselves about in all directions, but, hunched and snuggled down behind my sight, I was conscious only of the Heinkel I had picked out. As the angle of my dive increased, the enemy machine loomed larger in the sight field, heaved toward the red dot, and then he was there!

I had an instant’s flash of amazement at the Heinkel proceeding so regularly on its way with a fighter on its tail. ‘Why doesn’t the fool move?’ I thought, and actually caught myself flexing my muscles into the action I would have taken had I been he.

When he was square across the sight I pressed the button. There was a smooth trembling of my Hurricane as the eight-gun squirt shot out. I gave him a two-second burst and then another. Cordite fumes blew back into the cockpit, making an acrid mixture with the smell of hot oil and the air-compressors.

I saw my first burst go in and, just as I was on top of him and turning away, I noticed a red glow inside the bomber. I turned tightly into position again and now saw several short tongues of flame lick out along the fuselage. Then he went down in a spin, blanketed with smoke and with pieces flying off.

I left him plummeting down and, horsing back on my stick, climbed up again for more. The sky was clearing, but ahead toward London I saw a small, tight formation of bombers completely encircled by a ring of Messerschmitts. They were still heading north. As I raced forward, three flights of Spitfires came zooming up from beneath them in a sort of Prince-of-Wales’s-feathers maneuver. They burst through upward and outward, their guns going all the time. They must have each got one, for an instant later I saw the most extraordinary sight of eight German bombers and fighters diving earthward together in flames.

I turned away again and streaked after some distant specks ahead. Diving down, I noticed that the running progress of the battle had brought me over London again. I could see the network of streets with the green space of Kensington Gardens, and I had an instant’s glimpse of the Round Pond, where I sailed boats when I was a child.

In that moment, and as I was rapidly overhauling the Germans ahead, a Dornier 17 sped right across my line of flight, closely pursued by a Hurricane. And behind the Hurricane came two Messerschmitts. He was too intent to have seen them and they had not seen me! They were coming slightly toward me. It was perfect.

A kick at the rudder and I swung in toward them, thumbed the gun button, and let them have it. The first burst was placed just the right distance ahead of the leading Messerschmitt. He ran slap into it and he simply came to pieces in the air. His companion, with one of the speediest and most brilliant ‘get-outs’ I have ever seen, went right away in a half Immelmann turn. I missed him completely. He must almost have been hit by the pieces of the leader but he got away. I hand it to him.

At that moment some instinct made me glance up at my rear-view mirror and spot two Messerschmitts closing in on my tail. Instantly I hauled back on the stick and streaked upward. And just in time. For as I flicked into the climb, I saw, the tracer streaks pass beneath me.

As I turned I had a quick look round the “office” [cockpit]. My fuel reserve was running out and I had only about a second’s supply of ammunition left. I was certainly in no condition to take on two Messerschmitts. But they seemed no more eager than I was. Perhaps they were in the same position, for they turned away for home. I put my nose down and did likewise.

This account first appeared in THEIR FINEST HOUR, published in 1941.

The Government’s daily Home Security report summarises the extent of the attack:

Up to 1700 hours on 7th September 1940, enemy air activity was slight, a few bombs were dropped at Bristol and at Hawkinge, Kent.

Soon after 1700 hours, however, the enemy launched a very big attack and the principal objectives seem to have been industrial and dock property on both sides of the Thames, bombs were dropped at Woolwich, Purfleet and the Dockland area of London.

Fires broke out and some damage was done to the Arsenal and to Siemen’s Bros. Works at Woolwich and to Harland & Wolff’s factory at North Woolwich. Serious damage was caused to a main sewer in Woolwich and there has been considerable interference with rail and road communications in the area.

At Purfleet, serious fires occurred at the Anglo-American Oil Works and other industrial buildings were hit and fires broke out. In Dockland, principally in the East India, West India, Surrey Commercial and Milwall Dock very serious fires broke out, due to the a large number of bombs.

The Gas Works at Beckton was seriously damaged and great interference will be caused to gas supplies in many parts of East London.

A number of bombs were also dropped at different points of South-Eastern London where also serious interference was caused to rail and road traffic.

During the night of 7th/8th September, attacks extending over many hours covered a considerable area of London and were of an intense nature. Preliminary reports do not permit an accurate review of the full extent of the places hit or of the damage. Possibly the most serious effect has been in Silvertown which has been described as a ‘raging inferno’ and complete evacuation became necessary. Over 600 fire appliances were in use during the night.

In the Battersea area, as in many others, major damage is reported, including the Battersea Power Station and London Power Company’s property.

Southwark, Bermondsey, East and West Ham, Poplar, Plaistow, Barking, Hackney, Rotherhithe and Stepney are amongst those districts quoted in the category where major damage has occurred. Finsbury and Lewisham are also added to this category at a late hour.

Fires in many places are still raging at the close of this Summary.

The other well known image from the 7th September, also taken in the evening. The view from central London looking east down the Thames towards the docks which are ablaze.

British ‘take the bombing in good heart’

An increasingly fatalistic attitude towards the effect of bombing is reported, and this appears to be coupled with a high state of morale. In the East End the searchlights rather than the sirens are now taken as a sign for going to the shelters. Cooperation and friendliness in public shelters are reported to be increasing …

At the beginning of the war Air Raid Wardens were often seen as unnecessarily officious and interfering. Attitudes changed as the bombing became more intense and there were eventually nearly 1.4 million voluntary unpaid wardens.

On the 5th September Churchill had addressed the House of Commons on the war situation. The following day the Ministry of Information had collated the response to the speech and attitudes to air raids generally, in its daily public attitude survey:

The public continue to take the bombing in good heart. In London last night’s alarm was talked of jokingly for the most part, and fewer people complain of tiredness today; more are sleeping through the night alarms.

There is general satisfaction at the Prime Minister’s announcement that something is to be done about the sirens, and the details are awaited eagerly.

An increasingly fatalistic attitude towards the effect of bombing is reported, and this appears to be coupled with a high state of morale. In the East End the searchlights rather than the sirens are now taken as a sign for going to the shelters. Cooperation and friendliness in public shelters are reported to be increasing, but there are many complaints about ‘insanitary messes’ in shelters, and improper behaviour of various varieties is causing distress among the more respectable elements of the community.

There was more detail in the London regional report:

LONDON

The Prime Minister’s speech was welcomed. The siren policy is still a controversial subject; most Londoners seem to approve the idea of a preliminary ‘stand-by’ siren with a further warning to indicate immediate danger. However there is a small school of thought who wish for no sirens.

The problem of night sleeping in shelters is the greatest concern of observers, particularly in the poor and crowded districts. Sanitary arrangements in many cases are inadequate: the atmosphere becomes very foul: there are increasing numbers of cases of colds and septic throats especially among children and it is feared that there may be epidemics. In several districts cases of blatant immorality in shelters are reported; this upsets other occupants of shelters and will deter them from using the shelters again.

See TNA INF 1/264

In the summer of 1940 the first Polish squadrons were formed in Fighter Command. No. 303 'City of Warsaw' Squadron was the top-scoring RAF unit in September 1940, with nine of its pilots claiming five or more kills. Pilot Officers Jan Zumbach (left) and Mirosław Ferić, two of its aces, playing with the Squadron's mascot - a puppy dog. RAF Leconfield, 24 October 1940.
In the summer of 1940 the first Polish squadrons were formed in Fighter Command. No. 303 ‘City of Warsaw’ Squadron was the top-scoring RAF unit in September 1940, with nine of its pilots claiming five or more kills. Pilot Officers Jan Zumbach (left) and Mirosław Ferić, two of its aces, playing with the Squadron’s mascot – a puppy dog. RAF Leconfield, 24 October 1940.

Meanwhile the daily battles over the south east of England continued unabated. 303 (Polish) Squadron’s Diary for the day is just one example of the activity of RAF Fighter Command, albeit by a group of men particularly motivated by their hatred of the Germans:

Nine Hurricanes left Northolt at 08.40 hours [on 6 September 1940]. Four Hurricanes landed Northolt 08.35 [sic] — 09.50 hours. After various patrol orders the [303 Polish] Squadron was over western Kent and saw very large formations of enemy aircraft moving up from the coast to the east of them and above.

Their lack of height forced them to attack climbing and at only 140 mph. This contributed largely to our heavy casualties.

S/Ldr Kellett destroyed one Do 215 and force-landed at Biggin Hill slightly wounded.

F/O Urbanowicz reports:

‘I was Yellow 2 with S/Ldr Krasnodebski; the second section. I saw a raid a mile away travelling westward – about 40 Dorniers. Red Section went in to attack. I saw Me 109s and Hurricanes flying across from left to right on each other’s tails. One Me 109 then attacked me from starboard. we had a short dogfight. I fired 3 or 4 seconds at 200 yards. The engine caught fire and E/A fell vertically to earth.

I lost my section and orbited. I saw bombs dropping in one place and Me109s circling round that place and much AA fire. I circled there and attacked a bomber; One Me 109 was in the way and two more attacked me. I had to dogfight with the three Me’s. I had no chance to fire. I escaped over some balloons by the sea, and the Me’s climbed up. I heard “All Apany Pancake” calling the squadron in to land and I came home.’

F/Lt Forbes shot down one Me 109 and damaged another. He was forced down by petrol pouring into the cockpit. He tried to land but overshot the field and was slightly wounded by splinters. The aircraft was damaged by shellfire and the landing and was Cat 3. [i.e. destroyed]

F/O Feric destroyed one Me 109 and probably another

Sgt Frantiszek shot down one Me 109 and his aircraft was hit in the tail by a shell. He landed at Northolt and his aircraft has been repaired here;

S/Ldr Krasnodebski’s aircraft a/c was hit by a shell before he had engaged the enemy and immediately caught fire. He was taken to Farnborough Hospital suffering from burns and shock.

Sgt Karubin claims to have shot down one He 111. He crashed near Pembury, shot down by a Me109, and was admitted to Pembury Hospital, slightly injured.

Summary: Enemy casualties — 1 Do 215, 5 Me 109s and 1 He 111 destroyed. 2 Me 109s probable. Own casualties — 5 Hurricanes Cat 3, 1 Hurricane Cat 2. [i.e. badly“ I damaged], Two pilots wounded and two pilots slightly wounded.

A group of pilots of No. 303 Polish Fighter Squadron RAF standing by the tail elevator of one of their Hawker Hurricane Mark Is at RAF Leconfield, 24 October 1940. Left to right: Pilot Officer Mirosław Ferić, Flying Officer Bogdan Grzeszczak, Pilot Officer Jan Zumbach, Flying Officer Zdzisław Henneberg and Flight Lieutenant John A. Kent, a Canadian who commanded 'A' Flight of the Squadron at this time.
A group of pilots of No. 303 Polish Fighter Squadron RAF standing by the tail elevator of one of their Hawker Hurricane Mark Is at RAF Leconfield, 24 October 1940. Left to right: Pilot Officer Mirosław Ferić, Flying Officer Bogdan Grzeszczak, Pilot Officer Jan Zumbach, Flying Officer Zdzisław Henneberg and Flight Lieutenant John A. Kent, a Canadian who commanded ‘A’ Flight of the Squadron at this time.

Daylight bombing raids into Britain increase

The scale of enemy attack on this country by day during the week under review was considerably greater than it was in the previous week, but by night it was slightly smaller. Attacks were chiefly against aerodromes by day and industry by night, though some damage was inflicted on aircraft and other factories in daylight and aircraft production will be affected, though not seriously. Attacks on aerodromes have achieved no important results.

Flight-Sergeant George "Grumpy" Unwin of No. 19 Squadron RAF climbs out of his Supermarine Spitfire Mark I at Fowlmere, Cambridgeshire, after a sortie. Unwin shot down 14.5 enemy aircraft between May and September 1940.
Flight-Sergeant George “Grumpy” Unwin of No. 19 Squadron RAF climbs out of his Supermarine Spitfire Mark I at Fowlmere, Cambridgeshire, after a sortie. Unwin shot down 14.5 enemy aircraft between May and September 1940.
The Prime Minister Winston Churchill sings with a group of Australian troops at Tidworth, Hampshire, England, during his visit to the camp on 4 September 1940.
The Prime Minister Winston Churchill sings with a group of Australian troops at Tidworth, Hampshire, England, during his visit to the camp on 4 September 1940.

From the Weekly Resume of the Naval Military and Air Situation up to 12 noon on 5th September 1940:

NAVAL SITUATION.
General Review.

An agreement has been concluded to transfer 50 destroyers from the United States to Great Britain. British naval forces have been active in both the Eastern and Western Mediterranean. U-Boat activity in the North Western Approaches has been maintained and E-Boats have achieved some success in attacks on shipping off the South-East coast.

One of the first United States destroyers to arrive in Britain, built in 1919-20 they were described as \’luxurious\’ because they had bunk beds for the crew and the equipment included coffee machines.

AIR SITUATION.
General Review.

35. Our bombing operations against Germany were on the same scale as in the previous week. The main objectives were aircraft factories, power stations and other industrial concerns engaged in the manufacture of armaments. Targets in the Berlin area were again successfully attacked and several forests in Germany were set on fire by incendiary bombs. Attacks were made on two nights on objectives in Northern Italy.

36. The scale of enemy attack on this country by day during the week under review was considerably greater than it was in the previous week, but by night it was slightly smaller. Attacks were chiefly against aerodromes by day and industry by night, though some damage was inflicted on aircraft and other factories in daylight and aircraft production will be affected, though not seriously. Attacks on aerodromes have achieved no important results.

Great Britain.
38. About twice as many aircraft were employed by the enemy in daylight attacks as in the previous week. The raids were generally of a mass character by large formations and were repeated two or three times daily. These daylight operations have been mainly directed against aerodromes, especially those in the South-East of England.

The attacks were particularly heavy on the 30th and the 31st August and on the 2nd September, the enemy employing between 600 and 800 aircraft on each of these days. On one day only, the 31st August, was any extensive damage done, but the three aerodromes concerned were soon made serviceable again.

On the afternoon of the 4th September an attack was made on Vickers-Armstrong aircraft factory at Weybridge, Surrey, which was seriously damaged, and heavy casualties were incurred. The majority of the enemy aircraft which took part in this attack were destroyed.

HOME SECURITY.
General Review.

61. The main objectives of enemy day attacks appear in most cases to have been the aerodromes of Kent and the Thames Estuary; but the aircraft industry has also suffered. Systematic machine-gunning of civilians is reported from Wareham and also from the Scilly Islands, where earlier reports of severe panic among the inhabitants have since proved to have been exaggerated.

Jersey: Notice displayed in a shop window of a men's outfitters in Jersey, 'Juedisches Geschaeft/Jewish Undertaking'. The first anti-Semitic laws were introduced in the islands in September 1940.
Jersey: Notice displayed in a shop window of a men’s outfitters in Jersey, ‘Juedisches Geschaeft/Jewish Undertaking’. The first anti-Semitic laws were introduced in the islands in September 1940.

Hitler declares that he will bomb British cities

You will understand that we shall now give a reply, night for night, and with increasing force. And if the British Air Force drops two, three or four thousand kilos of bombs, then we will drop 150,000, 180,000, 230,000, 300,000 or 400,000 kilos, or more, in one night. If they declare that they will attack our cities on a large scale, we will erase theirs! We will put a stop to the game of these night-pirates, as God is our witness.

The Heinkel III, mainstay of the German bomber fleet, in flight, September 1940.

After German boasts that Berlin was too well protected to be bombed, there was shock when the RAF did hit the German capital for the first time on August 25th. The raid, and those on subsequent nights, provoked a significant change in strategy in the air offensive against Britain.

Until now the bombing had been confined to broadly military targets, with the emphasis on airfields and aircraft factories. Hitler had expressly forbidden ‘Terror raids’ on Britain or the bombing of London. He had long hoped that he could somehow arrange a peace with Britain, its conquest had never been part of his long term objectives, he really wanted to turn his attention East.

The prolonged air battles were not bringing the RAF to heel. Perhaps general bombing of the civilian population might produce a less obstinate Britain.

This was not the whole story – the Nazi regime also felt compelled to simply respond to the insult of having its own heartland bombed, as Hitler made abundantly clear in his speech of 4th September:

It is a wonderful thing to see our nation at war, in its fully disciplined state. This is exactly what we are experiencing at this time, as Mr Churchill is demonstrating to us the aerial night attacks he has concocted. He is not doing this because these air raids might be particularly effective, but because his Air Force cannot fly over German territory in daylight.

Whereas German aviators and German planes fly over English soil daily, there is hardly a single Englishman who comes across the North Sea in daytime. They therefore come during the night – and as you know, release their bombs indiscriminately and without any plan on to residential areas, farmhouses and villages. Wherever they see a sign of light, a bomb is dropped on it.

For three months past, I have not ordered any answer to be given; thinking that they would stop this nonsensical behaviour. Mr Churchill has taken this to be a sign of our weakness.

You will understand that we shall now give a reply, night for night, and with increasing force. And if the British Air Force drops two, three or four thousand kilos of bombs, then we will drop 150,000, 180,000, 230,000, 300,000 or 400,000 kilos, or more, in one night. If they declare that they will attack our cities on a large scale, we will erase theirs! We will put a stop to the game of these night-pirates, as God is our witness.

The hour will come when one or the other will crumble, and that one will not be National Socialist Germany. I have already carried through such a struggle once in my life, up to the final consequences, and this then led to the collapse of the enemy who is now sitting these in England on Europe’s last island.

Spitfire versus Messerschmitt

Then, just below me and to my left, I saw what I had been praying for – a Messerschmitt climbing and away from the sun. I closed in to 200 yards, and from slightly to one side gave him a two-second burst: fabric ripped off the wing and black smoke poured from the engine, but he did not go down. Like a fool, I did not break away, but put in another three-second burst. Red flames shot upwards and he spiralled out of sight.

Spitfires in flight: a contemporary British image.
Three Spitfire Mk Is (including R6712, YT-N, and R6714, YT-M) of No. 65 Squadron, taking off from Hornchurch, August 1940. Note censor's marks on factory chimney behind.
Three Spitfire Mk Is (including R6712, YT-N, and R6714, YT-M) of No. 65 Squadron, taking off from Hornchurch, August 1940. Note censor’s marks on factory chimney behind.

The attacks on RAF airfields were now at their most intense, with the Luftwaffe re-doubling their efforts to destroy RAF Fighter Command on the ground as much as in the air.

Richard Hillary - his memoir of the Battle of Britain became a best seller during the war.
Richard Hillary – his memoir of the Battle of Britain became a best seller during the war.

Spitfire pilot Richard Hillary left a vivid portrait of life in a front line Squadron during the Battle of Britain. No 603 Squadron had arrived at Hornchurch on the 27th August and immediately found themselves very much in the thick of the action. Hillary had already claimed five ME 109s shot down and two probables when his luck ran out on the 3rd of September:

I was peering anxiously ahead, for the controller had given us warning of at least fifty enemy fighters approaching very high. When we did first sight them, nobody shouted, as I think we all saw them at the same moment. They must have been 500 to 1000 feet above us and coming straight on like a swarm of locusts. The next moment we were in among them and it was each man for himself.

As soon as they saw us they spread out and dived, and the next ten minutes was a blur of twisting machines and tracer bullets. One Messerschmitt went down in a sheet of flame on my right, and a Spitfire hurtled past in a half-roll; I was heaving and turning in a desperate attempt to gain height, with the machine practically hanging on the airscrew.

Then, just below me and to my left, I saw what I had been praying for – a Messerschmitt climbing and away from the sun. I closed in to 200 yards, and from slightly to one side gave him a two-second burst: fabric ripped off the wing and black smoke poured from the engine, but he did not go down. Like a fool, I did not break away, but put in another three-second burst. Red flames shot upwards and he spiralled out of sight.

At that moment, I felt a terrific explosion which knocked the control stick from my hand, and the whole machine quivered like a stricken animal. In a second, the cockpit was a mass of flames: instinctively, I reached up to open the hood. It would not move. I tore off my straps and managed to force it back; but this took time, and when I dropped back into the seat and reached for the stick in an effort to turn the plane on its back, the heat was so intense that I could feel myself going. I remember a second of sharp agony, remember thinking “So this is it!” and putting both hands to my eyes. Then I passed out.

Burnt to the face and hands, Hillary was to endure a series of operations with the pioneering plastic surgeon Archie McIndoe, becoming one of the early members of the Guinea Pig Club. It was while he was recuperating that he wrote his classic memoir ‘The Last Enemy’, which brought him considerable acclaim. Despite his injuries he persuaded the RAF to let him return to flying. He died in an air crash in early 1943.

See Richard Hillary: The Last Enemy.

Dornier Do 17Z-3 W.Nr. 2669 of 4./KG3 burning itself out after crash-landing at Princes Golf Club on Sandwich Flats, near Ramsgate, following an attack on Hornchurch, 31 August 1940.
Dornier Do 17Z-3 W.Nr. 2669 of 4./KG3 burning itself out after crash-landing at Princes Golf Club on Sandwich Flats, near Ramsgate, following an attack on Hornchurch, 31 August 1940.

HMS Sturgeon torpedoes a troopship

We waited in dead silence, our eyes fixed on the minute hand of the control-room clock. It seemed to creep round the dial. One minute went by, then two, and my doubts and uncertainties began to grow agonizing. I strained my ears for a distant sound, but heard only the hum and tick-tock of the gyro near the helmsman, the faint noises of the sea outside the hull, and the glug- glug of the ballast tanks as we kept our depth.

The commander of a Royal Navy submarine at the periscope as he prepares to launch torpedoes.

The Royal Navy submarine HMS Sturgeon was patrolling between Denmark and Norway when she spotted a military transport being escorted by smaller craft. It was the 3624 tonne troopship Pionier taking troops to Norway.

The light was going, and we were in about the worst possible position to attack. The enemy ships were just ahead of us on our beam, and steaming a parallel course, but in the opposite direction. We had to alter course quickly and travel unseen to a position from which, on a converging track, our torpedoes would have the maximum chance of striking home.

I remember the captain taking his eye away from the lens for a moment and seeing the No. 1 and the men in the control room watching him eagerly, “A big one,” he said to them briefly, “with a destroyer escort.”

Another look at the swiftly oncoming ships, a glance at the bearing figures on the periscope, a last summing up of our position, and he issued the order, “Blow all torpedo tubes.” [Drive water out of tubes and insert torpedoes ready For firing.]

He stayed at the lens for another moment, getting a last “fix” and giving the information and orders which would bring us to our next position: “Bearing red seven 0; I am 20 degrees starboard; Port wheel five knots! . . . steer 350 degrees. . . . DOWN PERISCOPE.”

The next few minutes, as the boat slowly turned under water to get on to the new course, we worried ourselves sick. Had we estimated the enemy course and speed aright? How long were we going to be getting round? Where would they be when we put the periscope up again?

Impatiently, the captain watched the torpedo tubes signal lights. I heard him snap out to our No. 1 , “When the hell are Nos. 2 and 4 going to be ready?” But before he had even finished the sentence the “readiness” signals flashed up.

I watched the silent men at the depth control valves. The electric driving motors whined louder, flooding into the silence in the control room. Then again he called “Up Periscope!”

There they were — much nearer, but at a new angle. The Germans had altered course slightly. “We might miss them yet,” I thought. So the captain yelled another series of hurried orders…

The rest was a matter of seconds. We were closing rapidly, and even at our distance of about 2 1/2 miles and in the last of the light the white water could be seen breaking away from the speeding transport’s bow. She was dead on our line of sight. “Stand by!”, ordered the “up periscope” captain without taking his eye away from the lens.

He pressed the button of his stop watch and counted as the angle was closing. “One . . . two . . . three.” Then: “FIRE!” The rating who had been standing by the firing panel, head cocked expectantly towards him, pushed home the switches.

I felt the boat shudder as the torpedoes left her and sped on their way. I had a last look. The transport, curiously it seemed to me, was steaming serenely on against that patch of light to the north-west. Then the captain bellowed, “Down Periscope … Down 60 feet.”

We waited in dead silence, our eyes fixed on the minute hand of the control-room clock. It seemed to creep round the dial. One minute went by, then two, and my doubts and uncertainties began to grow agonizing. I strained my ears for a distant sound, but heard only the hum and tick-tock of the gyro near the helmsman, the faint noises of the sea outside the hull, and the glug- glug of the ballast tanks as we kept our depth.

“We’ve missed,” I thought gloomily. “We’ve missed her.” We would not have another chance. We could not attack again at the altered angle.

In that instant, when I had given up all hope, I heard a distant muffled bang. Then another and another. All the light bulbs flickered for a moment or two. A gentle tremor shook the deck plates beneath me.

The captain from his swivel seat near the instrument panels sprang up and ordered the submarine to periscope depth. He had a quick look and then silently handed the glass to me. I thought first that the coating of sea-spume would never clear from the glass, but then in a flash the whole terrific picture leapt into view.

An enormous column of black smoke reared high above the transport. To the left and right of it giant fireballs, which must have been exploding ammunition, arched outwards against the background of darkening sky.

The captain turned to the men in the control room who were staring at him questioningly. “She’s gone,” he said. Their faces broke into broad grins.

This account by an unknown officer on Sturgeon first appeared in THEIR FINEST HOUR, published in 1941.

The log of the Sturgeon records:

At 19.39 a large transport could be seen escorted by a “T”-class torpedo boat on either bow. There were some smaller vessels astern. Two torpedoes were fired at 19.53 from a range of 6000 yards. The target was silhouetted against the sun. One explosion was heard at 19.58 and when the periscope was raised a dense column of black smoke was seen rising from the target to a height of about 2000 feet. The small vessels astern of “Pionier” scattered and no attack on them was possible. “Sturgeon” went deep to reload her torpedo tubes at 21.15 and at that time “Pionier” was burning furiously and settling low in the water.

When HMS Sturgeon surfaced at 22.30 the ‘Pionier’ had disappeared.

The submarine HMS Sturgeon in 1940

 

The crew of HMS Sturgeon following their return to port in September 1940 – Lieutenant G.D.A. Gregory, the commander, is standing fifth from left. He was promoted following this patrol, which was his last with Sturgeon.