Douglas Bader leads the ‘Big Wing’ into attack

They were directed to enemy aircraft by A.A. fire and made a perfect approach with the Spitfires between the Hurricanes and the sun and the E/A below and down sun. The Hurricanes had to wait until Spitfires and Hurricanes already engaging the enemy broke away. The Spitfire Squadrons above held the enemy fighters off and 242 Squadron went in with the other Hurricane Squadrons to destroy the bombers.

The RAF met successive waves of German aircraft on the 15th September and came off best, although not as decisively as the contemporary propaganda suggested.

The RAF Fighter Command Squadrons often faced very much larger numbers of German aircraft, both bombers and fighters, as Geoffrey Wellum describes so vividly. It really was the case of ‘the Few’ against overwhelming odds on many occasions. So one response was to try to change the odds through organisation and discipline:

The Squadron, with S/Ldr. D.R.S, Bader, D.S.O., leading Group Wing which also had 302, 310, 19 and 611 Squadrons, assembled over DUXFORD before noon, and proceeded south, the three Hurricane Squadrons at 25,000 feet and the two Spitfire Sqdns. at 27,000 feet.

They were directed to enemy aircraft by A.A. fire and made a perfect approach with the Spitfires between the Hurricanes and the sun and the E/A below and down sun. The Hurricanes had to wait until Spitfires and Hurricanes already engaging the enemy broke away. The Spitfire Squadrons above held the enemy fighters off and 242 Squadron went in with the other Hurricane Squadrons to destroy the bombers.

1 Do.17 destroyed – S/Ldr. D.R.S.Bader, D.S.O.

Pilot, with the leading Section of the formation, attacked the last Section of 3 Do.17’s, of which he attacked the middle one. He opened fire at 100 yards in a steep dive and saw large flash behind the starboard motor of the Do.17 as its wing caught fire and thinks he must have hit the petrol pipe or tank. He attacked other E/A but it was difficult to get them in his sights an the sky seemed to be full of spitfires and hurricanes queuing up to attack E/A.

As all the bombers were destroyed, S/Ldr.Bader’s final comments are worthy of repetition:

“It was the finest shambles I have been in since for once we had position height and numbers. E/A were a dirty looking collection.”

242 Squadron claimed five Dornier 17 bombers and one Me 109 destroyed plus one Dornier damaged in this attack. The original combat report can be read in full at the RAF Museum site.

The ‘Big Wing’ strategy attracted controversy within the RAF at the time and continues to do so. This meant forming up large groups of aircraft composed of several different Squadrons, as described here, to meet the Luftwaffe in strength. It was only ever practiced by the RAF’s 12 Group, commanded by Leigh-Mallory. They were responsible for the area north of the Thames so potentially had the advance warning and the time to form up in this manner. Whereas 11 Group, based south of the Thames and meeting the German aircraft as they came over the Channel, operated a much more flexible approach of scrambling individual Squadrons to meet the various threats as they were plotted.

Although this particular post combat report purports to show that the Big Wing was a resounding success, it was written under the aegis of Douglas Bader who was one of the chief proponents of the practice. Critics of the theory said that it took too long for the Big Wing to form up and that it was often in the wrong place when it did form up, unable to respond to the rapidly changing scale and direction of the raids coming in. The number of kills claimed, which were far more than were subsequently established, made it difficult to evaluate at the time.

‘Over-claiming’ was not confined to the Big Wing Squadrons, it was a feature of all units operating in the Battle of Britain, on both sides. It was one of the reasons why Goring claimed that ‘Britain only has 50 Spitfires left’ : the 15th September was to prove him to be dramatically wrong. Although the contemporary claims of 185 German aircraft shot down were also very exaggerated – the real figure is now put at 56 – the Luftwaffe still suffered disproportionately on the 15th and it could subsequently be seen as a turning point in the battle.

Still from camera gun footage taken by Pilot Officer Keith ‘Skeets’ Ogilvie of No. 609 Squadron showing a Dornier Do 17Z (F1+FH) of 1./KG 76 piloted by Oberleutnant Robert Zehbe under attack, 15 September 1940. The aircraft was later abandoned and flew on until being rammed over central London by Sergeant Ray Holmes of No. 504 Squadron. It crashed on Victoria station with two of the crew baling out. Zehbe was attacked by civilians and died of his injuries the following day.

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.

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.

303 (Polish) Squadron’s first combat patrol

‘A’ Flight, at 16,000 ft east of Biggin Hill, saw about 60 Dorniers going east, protected by fighters. The bombers were in tight vics with sections of Me109s circling around them. Some fighters were covering them above. ‘A’ Flight attacked out of the sun and took enemy escorts by surprise. Each of our pilots selected one Me109 and six dogfights took place.

An Me 109 that just made the coast of France.
303 Squadron shot down six in under an hour on their first combat patrol.
Pilots of 303 Squadron pictured during the Battle of Britain

Highly experienced fighter-pilots from the Polish Airforce who had escaped from occupied Europe were being formed into their own Squadrons. 303 Squadron was still training with Hurricanes when they made their first kill on the 30th August. Squadron Leader Kellett decided that further training was unnecessary. As a consequence they were declared operational the next day:

INTELLIGENCE PATROL REPORT 31:8:40

No. 303 (Polish) Squadron, ‘A’ Flight

13 Hurricanes Up: Northolt 18:05
13 Hurricanes Down: Northolt 19:04

1. ‘B’ Flight made no contact with enemy. ‘A’ Flight, at 16,000 ft east of Biggin Hill, saw about 60 Dorniers going east, protected by fighters. The bombers were in tight vics with sections of Me109s circling around them. Some fighters were covering them above. ‘A’ Flight attacked out of the sun and took enemy escorts by surprise. Each of our pilots selected one Me109 and six dogfights took place.

2. Squadron Leader Kellett, Red 1, ordered his section to attack 3 Me109s which were circling in towards the bombers. He fired several bursts totalling six seconds in all. Enemy aircraft swerved from side-to-side and pulled up his nose into a steep climb in his endeavour to escape, but he burst into flames and fell perpendicularly.

3. Red 2, Sgt Karubin, shot down his Me109 in flames – only evasive tactic was a dive – as surprise was complete. Red 3, Sgt Szaposznikow’s, opponent rolled and dived, finally rolling onto his back and falling vertically training a thick cloud of black smoke.

4. Yellow 1, F/O Henneburg, tried to lead his Section up against 4 Me109s which were diving to attack the Hurricane, but they became engaged with other Me109s and he attacked alone. He fought one enemy aircraft to the coast and it fell into the sea about six miles south of Newhaven.

5. Yellow 2, P/O Feric, attacked a Me109 from 70 yards and the engine caught fire. The pilot baled out. Only 20 rounds per gun were fired. Yellow 3, Sgt Wunsche, fired two burst at 150 to 100 yards. The engine caught fire and the enemy aircraft crashed in flames. Sgt Wunsche is also certain that he saw a Me110 crashing with both its engines in flames.

6. All six of our pilots destroyed their enemy fighter, but not one of them was able to make contact with the bombers.

7. This is the first action by a Flight of No 303 (Polish) Squadron.

Enemy casualties – Six Me109s destroyed.
Our casualties – Nil.

All our aircraft serviceable.

Intelligence Officer,
No 303 (Polish) Squadron,
RAF Station, Northolt.

Although they missed the first two months of the battle 303 Squadron were to become the top scoring Squadron during the official period of the Battle of Britain, with 126 kills.

The August 1940 Operations log for 303 Squadron – who were still in training when they made their first kill on 30th August 1940.

For more on 303 Squadron see Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum.

The Luftwaffe bombing attacks were still being directed against military targets – but this made little difference to those civilians living in the vicinity. Florrie Collinge lived close to the A.V. Roe factory in Manchester:

31.8.40
We had a hectic night on Saturday, 31st August. They came over at about 11 o’clock and we could hear them over our house. We watched at the back door, the flashes and the verey lights dropping for half an hour before we got the siren. As soon as we came into the house we heard bombs dropping somewhere behind the house, then we heard a screaming bomb which ended in a dull thud.

I went into the pantry (my aid raid shelter) for a little while, then came out and sat in the big chair, while Harry lay on the couch. We couldn’t go to bed until we got the “all clear”. We were both dozing when a loud knock came at the door; it was the wardens. They told us to get out of the house at once and go into the shelters, as we were in a danger zone which had to be evacuated. Sixteen bombs had dropped nearby without exploding.

The shelters were packed with people, and we stayed there until 2.45 a.m. when we got the “all clear”, but they wouldn’t let us go home as they said bombs had dropped behind our houses. From Mills Hill Bridge to Bay Tree Avenue, and part of Middleton Junction was a prohibited area. Engineers were already on the job looking for the bombs.

Some of the people were in night attire with just a coat round them and carpet slippers on their feet, but they wouldn’t allow them to go home for anything. We were fortunate enough to be fully dressed as we stay up late every night waiting for the bombers. They brought a motor coach for us, right up to the shelter, and took us to Cowhill School.

When we got there the place was full — about 200 of us. They brought us hot tea, Oxo, and two kinds of biscuits. Also, at 8.00 a.m. we were given tea, bread, butter and biscuits. We were in the school all night. At 9.00 a.m. on Sunday, they came to tell us we could go home as they thought the danger was over behind our houses, then they took us all home in motors and ambulances. They didn’t find any bombs in the field behind our house, but three were found a little further away.

They have found more since, buried deep in gardens, back yards and streets. These are roped off and the houses evacuated until the bombs have been removed.

I was worried to death all the Saturday night because I had left Tiny and Joey (the two budgies) in the house, and Tony, the cat, shut up in the kitchen. We were informed that there was no telling when we would be allowed to go home. I never missed my home so much in all my life.

Read the whole of Florrie Collinge’s diary on BBC People’s War.

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.

RAF Ace ‘Sailor’ Malan’s Ten Rules for Air Combat

TEN OF MY RULES FOR AIR FIGHTING

Wait until you see the whites of his eyes. Fire short bursts of one to two seconds only when your sights are definitely “ON”.

Whilst shooting think of nothing else, brace the whole of your body: have both hands on the stick: concentrate on your ring sight.

Always keep a sharp lookout. “Keep your finger out”.

Still from gun camera film shot by Flight Lieutenant A G "Sailor" Malan, leader of 'A' Flight, No. 74 Squadron RAF, recording his first aerial victory, a Heinkel He 111 over Dunkirk. Although debris and billowing smoke issue from the Heinkel's starboard engine and the starboard undercarriage has dropped, Malan's claim was categorised as unconfirmed since he did not observe the aircraft's destruction. 'A' Flight was based at Hornchurch but was flying out of Rochford at this time in order to shorten the patrol range to France. By the end of July 1941, Malan had achieved a total of 27 and seven shared confirmed victories, and two and one shared unconfirmed victories to become the highest scoring pilot of the war in Fighter Command.
Still from gun camera film shot by Flight Lieutenant A G “Sailor” Malan, leader of ‘A’ Flight, No. 74 Squadron RAF, recording his first aerial victory, a Heinkel He 111 over Dunkirk. Although debris and billowing smoke issue from the Heinkel’s starboard engine and the starboard undercarriage has dropped, Malan’s claim was categorised as unconfirmed since he did not observe the aircraft’s destruction. ‘A’ Flight was based at Hornchurch but was flying out of Rochford at this time in order to shorten the patrol range to France. By the end of July 1941, Malan had achieved a total of 27 and seven shared confirmed victories, and two and one shared unconfirmed victories to become the highest scoring pilot of the war in Fighter Command.

The weather meant that there was some respite for RAF Fighter Command on the 27th. The Luftwaffe had made a number of bombing attacks overnight but the day was relatively quiet with only scattered attacks and a number of photographic reconnaissance flights – they were still trying to establish how much damage they were inflicting.

Throughout the battle there was some re-arrangement of the fighter squadrons, with those that had been in the thick of the battle being rested in more northerly airfields, while fresh Squadrons were rotated south to replace them. No 74 Squadron went to Lincolnshire in mid August. The War Artist Advisory Committee immediately took the opportunity to try to get a portrait of their Squadron Leader.

74 Squadron Operational Record Book – 27 August, Kirton Lindsey

Mr Mansbridge RA who has been appointed by the Air Ministry to paint portraits of famous fighter pilots arrived and painted portrait of S/L Malan DFC (bar).

Colour oil painting of Sailor Malan by Cuthbert Orde, 1940

‘Sailor’ Malan had already become an ‘Ace’ and his aggressive battle leadership, now that he was Squadron Leader, was to become renowned throughout the RAF. His famous ‘Ten Rules’ were soon to be seen displayed by many Fighter Squadrons, as well as in Training Schools:

TEN OF MY RULES FOR AIR FIGHTING

Wait until you see the whites of his eyes. Fire short bursts of one to two seconds only when your sights are definitely “ON”.

Whilst shooting think of nothing else, brace the whole of your body: have both hands on the stick: concentrate on your ring sight.

Always keep a sharp lookout. “Keep your finger out”.

Height gives you the initiative.

Always turn and face the attack.

Make your decisions promptly. It is better to act quickly even though your tactics are not the best.

Never fly straight and level for more than 30 seconds in the combat area.

When diving to attack always leave a proportion of your formation above to act as a top guard.

INITIATIVE, AGGRESSION, AIR DISCIPLINE, and TEAMWORK are words that MEAN something in Air Fighting.

Go in quickly – Punch hard – Get out!

Contemporary newsreel produced by Ministry of Information, seen by the public in cinemas during this period, ‘Fighter Pilot’ has a compilation of gun camera footage:

A portrait from 1943. Group Captain A G "Sailor" Malan, Officer Commanding No. 145 Wing based at Merston, climbing in to the cockpit of his Supermarine Spitfire before taking off from Appledram, Sussex.
A portrait from 1943. Group Captain A G “Sailor” Malan, Officer Commanding No. 145 Wing based at Merston, climbing in to the cockpit of his Supermarine Spitfire before taking off from Appledram, Sussex.
Also on this day: The controlled detonation of a German bomb, which fell on the parade ground at RAF Hemswell, Lincolnshire, on 27 August 1940. The bomb did not explode, but buried itself deep in the ground where it was subsequently destroyed by the Station Armament Officer.

Hurricanes attack bombers head on

Ease the throttle to reduce the closing speed – which anyway allowed only a few seconds’ fire. Get a bead on them right away, hold it, and never mind the streams of tracer darting overhead. Just keep on pressing on the button until you think you’re going to collide – then stick hard forward. Under the shock of ‘negative G’ your stomach jumps into your mouth, dust and muck fly up from the cockpit floor into your eyes and your head cracks on the roof as you break away below.

Hawker Hurricanes of No. 85 Squadron RAF, October 1940.
Hawker Hurricanes of No. 85 Squadron RAF, October 1940.

As the Luftwaffe’s assault on Britain’s air defences continued the RAF had to develop tactics that avoided unnecessary air combat with enemy fighters and targeted the bombers.

Squadron Leader Peter Townsend led No. 85 Squadron’s Hurricanes into the attack on 26th August:

There was one way to get at the bombers without getting mixed up with the fighter escort. ‘Stand by for head-on attack and watch out for those little fellows above,’ I called.

Then I brought the squadron round steadily in a wide turn, moving into echelon as we levelled out about two miles ahead on a collision course. Ease the throttle to reduce the closing speed – which anyway allowed only a few seconds’ fire. Get a bead on them right away, hold it, and never mind the streams of tracer darting overhead. Just keep on pressing on the button until you think you’re going to collide – then stick hard forward.

Under the shock of ‘negative G’ your stomach jumps into your mouth, dust and muck fly up from the cockpit floor into your eyes and your head cracks on the roof as you break away below.

See Peter Townsend: Duel of Eagles: The Struggle for the Skies from the First World War to the Battle of Britain

Squadron Leader Peter Townsend, 1940

Citation of award of second DFC to acting Squadron Leader Peter Townsend

“In July, 1940, whilst leading a section of the squadron to protect a convoy, this officer intercepted about twenty or thirty enemy aircraft, destroying one and severely damaging two others. The enemy formation was forced to withdraw. Under his command, the squadron has destroyed eight enemy aircraft while protecting convoys against sporadic enemy attacks. In August, 1940, his squadron attacked some 250 enemy aircraft in the Thames Estuary. He himself shot down three enemy aircraft, the squadron as a whole destroying at least ten and damaging many others. The success which has been achieved has been due to Squadron Leader Townsend’s unflagging zeal and leadership”.
Awarded as a bar for on the ribbon of the first DFC.

A fleet of Dornier 17 light bombers, Summer 1940. The Dornier 215 was a variant of the 17.

Pilot Officer Frank Walter-Smith was one of those taking part in the attack:

At approx 1500hrs the squadron was ordered to scramble. At 15.27 we sighted 18 Dornier 215s flying in a stepped up formation. The whole squadron delivered a frontal attack led by the CO. On the second attack (another frontal) the bottom section of three broke away from the main body. This section was attacked again by myself and F/O Woods-Scawen. The Dornier 215, at which both of us aimed, broke formation and both of us attacked it at the same time. Bits were seen to break off and the Starb’o motor emitted black smoke. The plane then went down in a long glide and disappeared into the clouds. My bursts were of two and three seconds duration. Claim: Half Dornier 215 destroyed.

For combat reports see TNA Air 50.

RAF Fighter Command was now starting to lose experienced fighter pilots at an unsustainable rate. Just a few names illustrate the personal stories behind the statistics:

No. 85 Squadron was based at Croydon from 19th August 1940, one of the front line stations. Of the twenty pilots in the Squadron on that day, fourteen were shot down within the next two weeks, two of them twice.

Squadron Leader Peter Townsend was shot down on the 31st August, wounded in the foot by cannon shell, he had his big toe amputated but returned to flying on the 21st September.

Frank Walter-Smith was shot down on August 29th but parachuted to safety over Hawkhurst airfield. Although he had a few toes shot off he returned to the Squadron the same day. He was later to continue flying until he was killed in an air accident in 1941. His full story is on BBC People’s War.

F/O Patrick Woods-Scawen, who shared in the claim of 26th August, was killed when his parachute failed to open on the 1st September. His brother F/O Tony Woods-Scawen, from No. 49 Squadron was killed the next day, 2nd September, when he baled out of his burning Hurricane at too low a height.

 

Also on this day: Wellington bomber crews photographed at a press event after the first raid on Berlin, which took place on the night of 25/26 August 1940.
Two crew members of Bristol Blenheim Mark IV, R3811 ‘BL-G’, of No. 40 Squadron RAF enjoy the fresh air while waiting to take off from Wyton, Cambridgeshire. On 26 August 1940, R3811 failed to return from a night intruder sortie over Querqueville and Maupertus airfields in France, all the crew being killed.

"Never in the field of human conflict …"

“we must never forget that all the time, night after night, month after month, our bomber squadrons travel far into Germany, find their targets in the darkness by the highest navigational skill, aim their attacks, often under the heaviest fire, often with serious loss, with deliberate careful discrimination, and inflict shattering blows upon the whole of the technical and war-making structure of the Nazi power.”

Battle of Britain poster with Churchill's 'the few'
Winston Churchill knew how to coin a memorable phrase and the Ministry of Information knew how to use it. In the earliest posters using his words Bomber Command pilots were featured. Churchill included bomber crew amongst ‘the few’ when he spoke on 20th August.
Armstrong Whitworth Whitley Mk Vs of No. 102 Squadron during a press day at Driffield, March 1940. N1382 DY-A in the background was lost on a raid to Augsburg, 16/17 August 1940. The foreground aircraft is N1421 DY-C, which was shot down over Norway on the night of 29/30 April 1940.
Armstrong Whitworth Whitley Mk Vs of No. 102 Squadron during a press day at Driffield, March 1940. N1382 DY-A in the background was lost on a raid to Augsburg, 16/17 August 1940. The foreground aircraft is N1421 DY-C, which was shot down over Norway on the night of 29/30 April 1940.

On the 20th August 1940 Churchill addressed Parliament on the state of the war. Once again his speech was a rhetorical masterpiece, taking the listener on a journey through the present difficulties to an eventual outcome that would see all Europe liberated. There was an unshakeable confidence in achieving this final full victory, whatever it might take.

It was full of memorable phrases including one that has become one of his most famous, a phrase now indelibly associated with the Battle of Britain:

Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.

“The Few” is now a widely understood reference to those RAF fighter pilots who were fought in the skies over Britain that summer. For example the Churchill Centre and Museum states in its introduction to the speech:

In this speech Churchill coined the phrase “The Few” to describe the R.A.F fighter-pilots.

Except that he didn’t. Any ordinary reading of the phrase in the context of the speech shows that he was referring to all RAF aircrew, including bomber crew, not just fighter pilots:

The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the world war by their prowess and by their devotion.

Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.

Perhaps a little unfairly, since the RAF incorporated significant numbers of pilots from conquered Europe as well as from around the Empire, he refers to “British airmen”. But this is not a reference to fighter pilots alone.

In the very next sentence he elaborates upon this:

All hearts go out to the fighter pilots, whose brilliant actions we see with our own eyes day after day; but we must never forget that all the time, night after night, month after month, our bomber squadrons travel far into Germany, find their targets in the darkness by the highest navigational skill, aim their attacks, often under the heaviest fire, often with serious loss, with deliberate careful discrimination, and inflict shattering blows upon the whole of the technical and war-making structure of the Nazi power.

On no part of the Royal Air Force does the weight of the war fall more heavily than on the daylight bombers who will play an invaluable part in the case of invasion and whose unflinching zeal it has been necessary in the meanwhile on numerous occasions to restrain.

Whatever meaning “The Few” has come to represent in the time since, there can be no doubt that in this speech Churchill was referring to both fighter and bomber aircrew. There was intense public interest in the air battles above and in sight of the British public that summer but Churchill emphasised that the sacrifice was being made by unseen bomber crews as well. He would have been only too well aware of the scale of losses being sustained by Bomber Command on, for example, the [permalink id=7117 text=’Dortmund-Ems canal’] raid and the [permalink id=7295 text=’Aalborg airfield’] raid. Only some of these could be publicly acknowledged at the time.

The Ministry of Information pamphlet, published in 1941, which defined the Battle of Britain around RAF Fighter Command.
The Ministry of Information pamphlet, published in 1941, which defined the Battle of Britain around RAF Fighter Command.

When on the [permalink id=1381 text=’18th June’] Churchill first used the term ‘the battle of Britain’ he was certainly not using the phrase to refer to the defence of Britain by fighter pilots. It referred to a much wider potential conflict, including possible invasion, that was yet to come. ‘The Battle of Britain’ was an Air Ministry pamphlet produced in March 1941, with a version widely distributed in the United States. The pamphlet was exclusively concerned with the fighter battle defence of Britain and, as an introduction, prominently featured this extract of Churchill’s of speech:

The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the world war by their prowess and by their devotion.

Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.

In the text the same extract was used, still without the following two elaborating sentences. No mention was made of Bomber Command operations. Only photographs of fighter aircraft and fighter pilots were featured. The Battle of Britain had been created and it was now inextricably and solely linked to Fighter Command. It became obvious and natural that “the few” referred to fighter pilots. According to the Air Ministry ‘The Battle’ took place between 8th August and 31st October.

In due course the Battle was given even more shape and became even more celebrated. The Battle of Britain clasp was issued as an adornment to the 1939-1945 Campaign Medal – and was only eligible to fighter pilots from certain squadrons who had served between specified dates. Now the scope of the Battle was even more closely defined, although the date of commencement moved to the 10th July 1940.

The clasp is not available for personnel who flew in aircraft other than fighters, notwithstanding that they may have been engaged with the enemy during the qualifying period.

battleofbritain1940.net has the full 1946 Air Ministry Order.

As the war ended in 1945 the work of Bomber Command suddenly seemed more controversial. Gratitude to the Bomber Command pilots and aircrew of the summer of 1940, whom Churchill had so clearly identified as being amongst “the few”, was now in short supply. Bomber Command as a whole was now associated with the laying waste of large swathes of Germany. Whatever the terrible sacrifices involved and whatever the contribution to ultimate victory, the later bombing campaigns were something that post war Governments did not want to celebrate. There was no campaign medal for any of Bomber Command.

The speech in which Churchill urged that “we must never forget” the bomber squadron crews ultimately achieved the opposite. It became used to promote a myth that excluded them from popular memory. The myth that the “few” who fought in the summer of 1940 in the “battle of Britain” came only from the ranks of fighter pilots. Fortunately some sources now challenge that myth – see What is the Battle of Britain?.

For all these reasons, and more, Churchills speech is well worth reading in its entirety.

Handley Page Hampden being bombed up, 2 August 1940.
Handley Page Hampden being bombed up, 2 August 1940.
Blenheim crews of No. 110 Squadron at Wattisham add Le Bourget to a list of recent targets, August 1940.
Blenheim crews of No. 110 Squadron at Wattisham add Le Bourget to a list of recent targets, August 1940.

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

Flight Lieutenant Nicolson wins V.C.

Flight Lieutenant Nicolson has always displayed great enthusiasm for air fighting and this incident shows that he possesses courage and determination of a high order. By continuing to engage the enemy after he had been wounded and his aircraft set on fire, he displayed exceptional gallantry and disregard for the safety of his own life.

Flight Lieutenant James Brindley NICOLSON V.C.

Twenty three year old Flight Lieutenant James Nicolson won the only V.C. of the Battle of Britain on 16th August 1940. His aircraft was set on fire during an action with the enemy near Southampton, he was about to bale out when he saw an Me 109 and settled back into the burning cockpit to shoot it down:

Flight Lieutenant James Brindley NICOLSON (39329) No. 249 Squadron.

During an engagement with the enemy near Southampton on 16th August, 1940, Flight Lieutenant Nicolson’s aircraft was hit by four cannon shells, two of which wounded him whilst another set fire to the gravity tank. When about to abandon his aircraft owing to flames in the cockpit he sighted an enemy fighter. This he attacked and shot down, although as a result of staying in his burning aircraft he sustained serious burns to his hands, face, neck and legs.

Flight Lieutenant Nicolson has always displayed great enthusiasm for air fighting and this incident shows that he possesses courage and determination of a high order. By continuing to engage the enemy after he had been wounded and his aircraft set on fire, he displayed exceptional gallantry and disregard for the safety of his own life.

It was perhaps an unexceptional act of bravery amongst so many fighting to defend Britain that summer – yet it was unique because it was witnessed by a number of people on the ground. The need for witnesses to corroborate individual acts of bravery meant that very few RAF crew were nominated for an award of valour. Nicolson was the only fighter pilot to receive the award during the Second World War. He was also one of only two recipients to win the award whilst in British territory, the other being Leading Seaman Jack Mantle of HMS Foylebank on 4th July 1940.

Nicolson was wounded in the eye and foot in the first attack that set his aircraft on fire, and his hands were so badly burnt that he was unable to release his parachute once he landed. Yet his ordeal was not over – he was peppered in the leg by a shotgun fired by an enthusiastic member of the Home Guard who was the first to approach him.

He made a good recovery and was extremely modest about the award – he had to be reminded that it was a discipline offence to be improperly dressed when he was slow to sow the medal ribbon onto his uniform.

Nicolson was later promoted to Wing Commander. He died in May 1945 whilst an observer on an aircraft that crashed into the sea off Burma.

ALSO ON THIS DAY

Royal Navy Bomb Disposal, 1940 – detonating a charge against an unexploded bomb at a distance. Attached to the charge is a cable 800 yards long. Under cover of a bank Lieut West fires the charge by a dynamo charge.

On the night of the 16th-17th August 1940 a parachute mine fell on Bere Farm in North Boarhunt, a village outside Portsmouth. There was a small explosion when it landed and it was soon located by members of the Home Guard.

This was one of the incidents handled by bomb disposal specialist Leonard Walden, for which he would be later awarded the George Medal. Walden, a veteran of the First world War, had been Chief Laboratory Assistant at the Royal Ordnance College, Woolwich before being transferred to the Royal Navy’s Mine and Torpedo Establishment at HMS Vernon, Portsmouth at the beginning of the war.

Something was odd about this mine. After a few days of being worked on, the Admiralty came to the conclusion that it had been dropped with the deliberate intention of blowing up their mine disposal experts. Not only was it dropped close to their home base of HMS Vernon, but the mine was not actually a mine at all. There was no magnetic unit and no clock, so it could not have been used against shipping. However it did contain three elaborate booby traps, one of which went off by accident on impact. Walden was one of those involved in investigating this mine.

On the same day the Boarhunt mine fell, another was reported unexploded at Piddlehinton, Dorset. Commander Thistleton-Smith, along with a mine disposal officer named Anderson, and Leonard Walden inspected the mine where it lay. Again there was no clock or bomb fuze fitted. The mine was rolled over (it had landed at the top of a grassy meadow and had already rolled down it, so rolling it over again was not thought too risky).

The mine was then photographed from all angles. Anderson removed the detonator and primer, having assumed that any booby traps would be hidden in a less obvious place. A hole was then cut in the mine’s casing using a trepanner. This cutting tool was made of non-magnetic materials so that it could be used on magnetic mines and was driven by compressed air. After some time a four-inch circular hole had nearly been cut through the casing.

Walden finished the job by hand using a hacksaw blade, being careful not to let the blade go too deep into the mine’s casing. Once they had access to the inside of the mine they could see the battery power source and the electrical leads connected to it. These wires were cut and insulated. Now the electrically-operated booby trap was not able to function. However, it was believed that a mechanically operated one still existed at the rear ofthe mine. Due to the casing having strengthening ribs, this area would be difcult to drill through.

A parachute mine after being defused and partially dismantled by the Royal Navy Bomb Disposal Team

At this point the men had already spent six days working on the mine. They decided that they would use plastic explosive to open up the rear door of the mine. This task was given to Chief Petty Officer Thorns who was in attendance with a small working party. Having lit the fuze, the men took cover in a slit trench dug in an adjoining eld and waited for the bang. After the charge went off, the men took the precaution ofwaiting a few seconds before approaching the mine. As they got to within about fifty yards from the mine, it suddenly exploded!

of mine and clumps of earth showered down around the men, who were now at on the ground. The heavy battery landed only a yard in front of Thistleton-Smith, and the weighty parachute shackle on their lorry a hundred yards away. It appeared that the booby trap had worked but they were not sure of the reason for the delay. All the pieces were gathered up and taken back to HMS Vernon for analysis? As well as Walden, Thistleton-Smith and A.B. William Comfort were awarded George Medals for their work on these mines.

Investigating mines at HMS Vernon proved problematical. A mine recovered from Birchington in Kent was thought to have had the sting taken out of it. Unfortunately a concealed booby trap detonated as the mine was being stripped down inside Vern0n’s mining shed. A number of men were killed and injured. The booby trap had not detonated the main charge. Had it done so, then HMS Vernon would have been severely damaged.

A mine that has been washed up explodes.

After a rethink, a site for investigating mines, ‘HMS Mirtle’ (so named after the first three letters, standing for Mine Investigation Range), was located in an old quarry at Buriton. This secret establishment was nestled in the rolling hills of the South Downs not far from Portsmouth.

Walden’s work took him to Mirtle often. On 31 October 1940 he was accompanying a dockyard driver, transporting the first acoustic mine to be recovered from HMS Vernon to Mirtle. As they drove up the hill approaching HMS Mirtle the driver was forced to change down a gear. As he did so the lorry lurched. The mine broke free, fell out of the back of the lorry, and rolled off back down the road. Walden was quoted later as saying, ‘If ever a mine should have gone off — it was down that hillside!

The same day, some components removed from that mine arrived at Mirtle from Porthcawl, the place where it originally came down. These parts included the six-lead clock, bomb fuze and primer release mechanism. Walden and Anderson inspected the parts of the mine and found that it had not exploded because the primer had not released owing to a distorted spindle.

The two men suspected the mine was booby-trapped and it was Walden who first heard the very faint ticking sound coming from within the mine. From previous experience of the clocks in mines, Walden and Anderson guessed that this clock was set to run for six days from when it was dropped. They calculated that, if that was the case, they had a day or so to strip the mine before it exploded. However, they were aware that there might also be a mechanical booby trap similar to the one that went off in the mining shed at Vernon.

They cut a hole in the casing and the ticking became more audible. More holes were cut so the wiring became accessible. Batteries were found and wires were cut, and though the ticking continued, the men were satised that no circuit would be completed once the clock stopped.

As predicted, on 3 November, the men found the ticking had stopped without any detonation. Then the rear door of the mine was removed using specialist tools that meant that nobody had to be close to the mine. Again, no explosion and the men for the first time saw the acoustic unit designed by the Germans that would detonate the mine on the sound of ship’s engines pulsing through water.

As a result of this discovery British minesweepers were fitted with Kango vibrating hammers in compartments attached beneath their keels. These were set to a pitch that would detonate the mines at a safe distance.

Reproduced from Chris Ransted: Bomb Disposal in WWII by kind permission of the publishers.

The Luftwaffe launch ‘Adler Tag’ – Eagle Day

We had been briefed the day previous to Adler Tag that we would be going across the Channel in strong formations to attack England. At last, we would be concentrating in large bomber formations with a fighter escort. For so long, we had been flying our individual missions on simple operations like photographic reconnaissance or minelaying duties.

The crew of a Dornier 17 are briefed before a mission, Summer 1940

On 13th August 1940 The Luftwaffe launched ‘Adler Tag’ or Eagle Day the start of intended mass attacks which would knock out the RAF.

We had been briefed the day previous to Adler Tag that we would be going across the Channel in strong formations to attack England. At last, we would be concentrating in large bomber formations with a fighter escort. For so long, we had been flying our individual missions on simple operations like photographic reconnaissance or minelaying duties. Some, like us, had not even seen a British fighter or even fired a shot in anger and it hardly seemed as if a war was on at all. Now, our airfields had many bombers at the ready, many had been flown in from inland airfields, and I could see that now our great Luftwaffe would be at last attacking England.

Feldwebel Karl Hoffmann 1/KG30

The crew of a Ju 88 prepare for combat.
A Heinkel III takes off
A fleet of Dornier 17 bombers in flight

 

In fact, largely due to weather, the Luftwaffe attacks were launched without the close co-ordination of fighters and bombers that had been anticipated, and the resilience of the RAF was much greater than Luftwaffe intelligence suggested. Both sides claimed large numbers of planes shot down, only post war research has established that the true figures were 47 German losses against 13 British fighters shot down.

For much more on Eagle Day and the Battle of Britain see battleofbritain1940.net