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

British fighter production re-assures Churchill

He sent Prof. and me for some of his cherished graphs and diagrams and began to expound the supply position. Beaverbrook, he said, had genius and, what was more, brutal ruthlessness. He had never in his life, at the Ministry of Munitions or anywhere else, seen such startling results as Beaverbrook had produced; and Pownall, looking at the Aircraft Production charts, agreed that there had never been such an achievement.

Winston Churchill inspecting 9.2-inch guns of 57th Heavy Regiment, Royal Artillery, during a tour of East Coast defences, 7 August 1940.
Winston Churchill inspecting 9.2-inch guns of 57th Heavy Regiment, Royal Artillery, during a tour of East Coast defences, 7 August 1940.
A gas decontamination party from of 167th Field Ambulance dress in protective clothing during a training exercise near Canterbury, 10 August 1940.
A gas decontamination party from of 167th Field Ambulance dress in protective clothing during a training exercise near Canterbury, 10 August 1940.
King George VI talking to a member of the Home Guard during an inspection in Kent, 10 August 1940.
King George VI talking to a member of the Home Guard during an inspection in Kent, 10 August 1940.

The 10th August saw thundery showers and poor visibility which brought a lull in the fighting over Britain, with just a few bomber attacks by the Luftwaffe. Around the south coast the Army continued its preparations for the anticipated German invasion.

At the Prime Minister’s country retreat, Chequers, Winston Churchill spent the weekend in discussions with a wide variety of different political and military figures, including De Gaulle.

His principal Private Secretary John Colville was keeping a fascinating diary of these deliberations at the heart of government, as well as Churchill’s private views on the course of the war.

Of the many issues facing Churchill that weekend the progress of (what would later become known as) the Battle of Britain was uppermost in his mind. He knew that much depended not only the RAF prevailing in the air battles – but that aircraft production had to be able to make good the losses they sustained:

Saturday, August 10th

In a telegram to the Prime Ministers of Australia and New Zealand, promising that we will abandon the Mediterranean and send our fleet eastwards in the event of Japan attacking Australia or N.Z., Winston has written: “If Hitler fails to invade and conquer Britain before the weather breaks he has received his first and probably fatal check.”

Later on, at lunch, Winston gave me his own views about war aims and the future. He said there was only one aim, to destroy Hitler. Let those who say they do not know what they are fighting for stop fighting and they will see. France is now discovering what she was fighting for.

After the last war people had done much constructive thinking and the League of Nations had been a magnificent idea. Something of the kind would have to be built up again: there would be a United States of Europe, and this Island would be the link connecting this Federation with the new world and able to hold the balance between the two. “A new conception of the balance of power?” I said. “No,” he replied, “the balance of virtue.”

Lord Beaverbrook [Minister of Aircraft Production] rang up to say that the Germans had bombed an important factory at Rochester heavily but had contrived to miss with all their bombs. The Almighty is not always against us, he said, “In fact God is the Minister of Aircraft Production and I am his deputy. ”

[At Dinner they were joined by General Pownall, commanding the Home Guard, and Professor Lindemann, the Governments chief scientific adviser]

I … listened to Winston. He mentioned the numerous projects, inventions, etc., which he had in view and compared himself to a farmer driving pigs along a road, who always had to be prodding them on and preventing them from straying.

He praised the splendid sang-froid and morale of the people, and said he could not quite see why he appeared to be so popular. After all since he came into power, everything had gone wrong and he had had nothing but disasters to announce. His platform was only “blood, sweat and tears”.

He sent Prof. and me for some of his cherished graphs and diagrams and began to expound the supply position. Beaverbrook, he said, had genius and, what was more, brutal ruthlessness. He had never in his life, at the Ministry of Munitions or anywhere else, seen such startling results as Beaverbrook had produced; and Pownall, looking at the Aircraft Production charts, agreed that there had never been such an achievement.

W. regretted that the Ministry of Supply had shown themselves incapable of producing similar results for the army.

He proceeded to examine the statistics, calling on Prof. for frequent explanations, and declaring that we were already overhauling the Germans in numbers (our production already exceeds theirs by one third). It was generally agreed that Hitler’s aircraft position must be less good than we had supposed; otherwise why the delay, why the sparsity of attack?

After dinner (i.e. about 11.15!) we walked up and down beneath the stars, a habit which Winston has formed…

See John Colville: The Fringes Of Power. 10 Downing Street Diaries 1939-1955

UK-FLAG
US FLAG
Universal carriers and cyclists of 6th Battalion, The Black Watch, passing through Haven Street on the Isle of Wight, 10 August 1940.
Universal carriers and cyclists of 6th Battalion, The Black Watch, passing through Haven Street on the Isle of Wight, 10 August 1940.
Troops of 6th Battalion, The Black Watch, stage a bayonet charge over trenches during a training exercise on the Isle of Wight, 10 August 1940.
Troops of 6th Battalion, The Black Watch, stage a bayonet charge over trenches during a training exercise on the Isle of Wight, 10 August 1940.

RAF Fighter Squadrons prepare for battle

Dispersal pen and my Spitfire. I pause and look at her. A long shapely nose, not exactly arrogant but, nevertheless, daring anyone to take a swing at it. Lines beautifully proportioned, the aircraft sitting there, engine turning easily and smoothly with subdued power. The slipstream blows the moisture over the top of the wings in thin streamlets. Flashes of blue flame from the exhausts are easily seen in the half light, an occasional backfire and the whole aeroplane trembling like a thoroughbred at the start of the Derby.

A Supermarine Spitfire Mark 1A of No 19 Squadron, Royal Air Force being re-armed between sorties at Fowlmere, Cambridgeshire.
A Supermarine Spitfire Mark 1A of No 19 Squadron, Royal Air Force being re-armed between sorties at Fowlmere, Cambridgeshire.
Spitfire Mark IA, X4474 ‘QV-I’, of No. 19 Squadron RAF, taking off from Fowlmere, Cambridgeshire, with Sergeant B J Jennings at the controls.
Spitfire Mark IA, X4474 ‘QV-I’, of No. 19 Squadron RAF, taking off from Fowlmere, Cambridgeshire, with Sergeant B J Jennings at the controls.

RAF Fighter Command knew that the Luftwaffe’s efforts were bound to intensify. Across the country aircraft production was being stepped up and every effort was made to keep as many fighter aircraft as possible fully operational. The RAF engineer ground crews worked around the clock to service aircraft engines and maintain them at peak performance.

On the airfields across southern England the day began at dawn. In a memorable passage from his best selling memoir ‘First Light’ Geoffrey Wellum describes the very first actions of the day of a RAF fighter pilot:

Dispersal pen and my Spitfire. I pause and look at her. A long shapely nose, not exactly arrogant but, nevertheless, daring anyone to take a swing at it. Lines beautifully proportioned, the aircraft sitting there, engine turning easily and smoothly with subdued power. The slipstream blows the moisture over the top of the wings in thin streamlets. Flashes of blue flame from the exhausts are easily seen in the half light, an occasional backfire and the whole aeroplane trembling like a thoroughbred at the start of the Derby.

The engine note increases as my fitter opens up the Merlin to zero boost whilst the rigger stands with his hand on the wingtip, watching expectantly. I think to myself, ‘Don’t open her up any more, you twit, or the tail will lift and the whole shooting match will end up on its nose.’

The engine note changes fractionally as the magnetos are tested. The fitter, intent on his instruments, red cockpit lights reflecting on his face. Sounds OK, no problem there at all. Throttle back, mag check again at 1,500 revs by the sound of it and then throttle right closed, engine idling, smoke from the exhausts, cutout pulled and the engine splutters to a stop. Peace again.

Bevington, the fitter, looks from the cockpit and gives me the thumbs up. He levers himself out on to the wing and jumps to the ground. I walk forward and hang my parachute on the port wing for a quick getaway; you can easily put it on whilst the engine is being started, saves a lot of time.

Now to the cockpit. Up on to the wing and step in. I hang my helmet on the stick and plug in the R/T lead and oxygen tube. At the same time, I check the bottle contents: full. Fuel? Press the fuel gauge button, reads full also.

Now brake pressure. OK, that’s fine. Trim? Let’s adjust it now and then it’s done With. Full rudder bias to help with the swing on take-off, elevators one degree nose heavy, that’s good. Airscrew, full fine pitch. That’s about it, then, ready to scramble when the time comes. Bound to come sometime. It’ll be a miracle if we get through to midday without one.

I climb out of the cockpit and my fitter and rigger are waiting, as always. What stalwarts they are, both utterly loyal to ‘their’ pilot, dedicated and uncomplaining. They are both smiling and friendly. ‘Twenty-five drop on both mags, sir. We found that oil leak last night. Nothing to worry about and in any case we reckon we’ve cured it.’

‘Splendid; so we’re at readiness, are we?’

‘On the top line, sir.’

‘Good men, see you both later, no doubt.’ .

‘We’ll be here.’

No need to tell them what is expected when the balloon goes up. It occurs to me and not for the first time, as I walk back to the dispersal hut, that the respect and feeling that these ground crews have for their pilots borders on affection.

No standing to attention and shouted orders, we all get on together keeping Spitfires flying. To my mind, the atmosphere in a front-line fighter squadron is something approaching unique and certainly gives an inner feeling that will remain with me as long as I survive. I will never forget.

I pause at the hut door and look at the ever-brightening sky. Clear as a bell and I go inside. As I put on my Mae West [Inflatable life jacket, so called in reference to the then-popular busty American actress of that name] the telephone orderly at his blanket-covered table lifts the receiver.

‘Hello, Operations? 92 Squadron now at readiness, sir. Twelve aircraft. That’s right, sir. Goodbye.’

American support promised – but Britain fights alone

Spitfire pilots pose beside the wreckage of a Junkers Ju 87 Stuka, which they shot down as it was attacking a Channel convoy, 1940.
Spitfire pilots pose beside the wreckage of a Junkers Ju 87 Stuka, which they shot down as it was attacking a Channel convoy, 1940.
Hurricanes of No. 56 Squadron in flight, April 1940.
Hurricanes of No. 56 Squadron in flight, April 1940.

What was later to be designated the ‘Battle of Britain’ was now firmly underway, with more and more of RAF Fighters Command’s squadrons being drawn into action. Nevertheless much of the fighting was still taking place offshore, as the Luftwaffe continued its attacks on convoys. As a consequence the battle was not yet taking place regularly over the heads of civilians in the south east of England.

Reporting on the atmosphere in London was Mollie Panter-Downes, correspondent for New Yorker magazine:

28 July 1940

Except for isolated air raids and attacks on convoys round the coast, this has been a quiet week. The results of the air battles have confirmed the general impression that the British pilots are outflying the Germans, man for man and plane for plane.

On Friday afternoon, newspaper-sellers were chalking up on their boards “Twenty-three Planes Down Yesterday” — a new record which was later corrected to twenty-eight and which greatly encouraged people who had already been heartened a night or two earlier by Lord Beaverbrook’s broadcast announcement that arrangements had just been made for the production in the United States of three thousand planes a month for this country.

Skeptical listeners were even more impressed by Mr. Morgenthau’s [the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury] subsequent statement that the United States Government had agreed to give the British “every possible facility to place their orders and secure delivery.” That, the doubters agreed, means something, though the date of the first of these precious deliveries must necessarily be far distant and time is a factor which may be heartbreakingly decisive.

The President’s statement on the possibility of sending American vessels to fetch children to the States brought hope to many anxious parents, but his insistence that there should be “reasonable assurances” of immunity from submarine and air attack didn’t sound very good, for the recent example of the Meknés is in everybody’s mind.

Although most Britons believe that the sinking of one child-refugee ship would have the same galvanizing effect on American public opinion that the Lusitania outrage had, there are plenty of people who think that the Germans might be clumsy or callous enough to risk it.

Although London may not be precisely comfortable, it is at the moment one of the most exhilarating cities in the world in which to find oneself. It can’t be comfortable to anyone who hasn’t a morbid affection for danger, since, as people say simply, however good the defences are, some of those waves of dive bombers which may momentarily be sent against them will certainly get through.

Horror may glide down suddenly and noiselessly out of the summer sky as it did on Barcelona, but all the same it’s stimulating to be here, as one of the remaining Americans remarked, because of a new vitality which seems to have been injected into the staid British atmosphere.

Possibly the feeling of increased confidence and purpose one gets from everybody is due to the fact that the British people are now not trusting in anybody or anything—not in the French Army or even in the American promise of planes – except the British people. After the bitterness and bewilderment of the last few tragic weeks, there’s relief in finding that faith can be so simplified.

See Mollie Panter-Downes: London War Notes, 1939-1945

A working class family in wartime: every day life with the Suter family in London, 1940. Doris and Alan Suter examine something of interest in a bush in the front garden of their Eltham home, in the summer of 1940. Note that both carry gas masks.
A working class family in wartime: every day life with the Suter family in London, 1940. Doris and Alan Suter examine something of interest in a bush in the front garden of their Eltham home, in the summer of 1940. Note that both carry gas masks.
Two members of the Home Guard with a Vickers machine gun on a village green in Surrey. Originally known as the Local Defence Volunteers, the force was set up in 1940 as a precaution against enemy parachute landings behind the lines in the event of an invasion. By July the Home Guard numbered 500,000.
Two members of the Home Guard with a Vickers machine gun on a village green in Surrey. Originally known as the Local Defence Volunteers, the force was set up in 1940 as a precaution against enemy parachute landings behind the lines in the event of an invasion. By July the Home Guard numbered 500,000.

Australian pilot downs Me 109 over English Channel

Stuart tried to contact control to see if the relief section was on its way but could not raise them. He then ‘turned and headed for convoy climbing to get into sun’. When he was 5 miles from the vessels, he saw bombs exploding around the escorting destroyer. Despite being alone, he ‘pulled the plug and went after the enemy aircraft which had turned southwards’.

When he was southeast of the convoy, at 10000 feet, he saw ‘three Me 109s flying in wide vic at about 9000 feet’. He dived and attacked the machine on the left, opening fire at 200 yards and firing two rapid 2—second bursts as he closed to astern at approximately 50 yards.

Troops and police inspect Messerschmitt Bf 109E-1 (W.Nr. 3367) "Red 14" of 2./JG52, which crash-landed in a wheatfield at Mays Farm, Selmeston, near Lewes in Sussex, 12 August 1940. Its pilot, Unteroffizier Leo Zaunbrecher, was captured.
Troops and police inspect Messerschmitt Bf 109E-1 (W.Nr. 3367) “Red 14” of 2./JG52, which crash-landed in a wheatfield at Mays Farm, Selmeston, near Lewes in Sussex, 12 August 1940. Its pilot, Unteroffizier Leo Zaunbrecher, was captured.
RAF personnel inspecting the burnt-out wreckage of a Junkers Ju 88 reconnaissance aircraft of 4.(F)/122 on Cockett Wick Farm, St Osyth near Clacton-on-Sea in Essex. The aircraft was shot down on 20 July 1940 by No. 56 Squadron Hurricanes.
RAF personnel inspecting the burnt-out wreckage of a Junkers Ju 88 reconnaissance aircraft of 4.(F)/122 on Cockett Wick Farm, St Osyth near Clacton-on-Sea in Essex. The aircraft was shot down on 20 July 1940 by No. 56 Squadron Hurricanes.

A 2015 publication examines the contribution of eight Australian fighter pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain. Only one of the eight ever went home – so necessarily much of their service has been reconstructed from the available reports.

Australians Jack Kennedy and Stuart Walch were sent to 238 Squadron in May 1940, based at Middle Wallop in Hampshire. They were soon in the thick of the action. Jack Kennedy was killed on the 13th July. Stuart Walch had little time to grieve:

Following a two-day hiatus in operations because of bad weather, Stuart Walch was in the air again at 1.45 p.m. on 17 July, when the squadron scrambled to intercept a raid off Portland. His new mount was Hurricane P3618, which he had taken charge of on 15 July.

After a series of uneventful patrols, Red, Blue and Green sections were on convoy protection on 20 July. Blue Section had a new member that day, Sergeant Leslie Pidd, who had recently arrived from 6 Operational Training Unit, Sutton Bridge. Stuart was introducing him to operations as his number two.

Flying at 8000 feet, Blue Section arrived at the convoy, which was 15 miles southeast of Portland, at 12.20 p.m. They encountered the enemy ‘in force’ and ‘the sections broke for individual combat’.

Stuart ‘twice investigated aircraft which turned out to be Hurricanes’. By 1 p.m., he had lost sight of Pidd and Blue Three, Sergeant Eric Seabourne. His main petrol tank was empty, so he switched to the reserve and decided to return to base.

Approaching Swanage, a coastal town about 60 miles from Middle Wallop, he climbed from 6000 to 8000 feet and ‘observed 15 aircraft flying in formation towards the convoy on [a northerly] course at approx. 12 000 feet’. He was too far away to identify the aircraft, but given the direction they were taking he concluded ‘they were hostile’.

Stuart tried to contact control to see if the relief section was on its way but could not raise them. He then ‘turned and headed for convoy climbing to get into sun’. When he was 5 miles from the vessels, he saw bombs exploding around the escorting destroyer. Despite being alone, he ‘pulled the plug and went after the enemy aircraft which had turned southwards’.

When he was southeast of the convoy, at 10000 feet, he saw ‘three Me 109s flying in wide vic at about 9000 feet’. He dived and attacked the machine on the left, opening fire at 200 yards and firing two rapid 2—second bursts as he closed to astern at approximately 50 yards.

He watched as ‘black smoke poured from under the engine of the enemy aircraft’. It ‘turned right and made vertical dive towards sea’. He did not follow it down to confirm its destruction, ‘as the other aircraft were trying to get astern of me’. His tanks were almost empty, so he ‘pulled up in a steep stall turn and made for home’.

Stuart did not mention it in his report, but as he had ‘fired a burst causing the Me 109 to catch fire’ he had been assisted by another friendly aircraft and was accordingly credited with a one-half share of the 109.

See Australia’s Few and the Battle of Britain.

The Battle of Britain Memorial has details of Stuart Walch and Jack Kennedy.

Universal Carrier Mk I with experimental armoured hood and Boys anti-tank rifle, Albury Heath, Surrey, 20 July 1940.
Universal Carrier Mk I with experimental armoured hood and Boys anti-tank rifle, Albury Heath, Surrey, 20 July 1940.
Cruiser Mk I tanks of 5th Royal Tank Regiment, 3rd Armoured Brigade, 1st Armoured Division, on Thursley Common, Surrey, July 1940.
Cruiser Mk I tanks of 5th Royal Tank Regiment, 3rd Armoured Brigade, 1st Armoured Division, on Thursley Common, Surrey, July 1940.

The glorious ‘Few’ who are defending Britain

It was impossible to look at those young men, who might within a matter of minutes be fighting and dying to save us, without mingled emotions of wonder, gratitude, and humility. The physical and mental strain of the long hours at dispersal, the constant flying at high altitudes (two or three sorties a day were normal, six or seven not uncommon), must have been prodigious.

And yet they were so cheerful, so confident, and so obviously dedicated. They were always thrilled to see Churchill, and they gave me a kindly welcome.

The Prime Minister Winston Churchill helps to build a pillbox at Canford Cliffs, Poole, England, during a visit to Southern Command on 17 July 1940.
The Prime Minister Winston Churchill helps to build a pillbox at Canford Cliffs, Poole, England, during a visit to Southern Command on 17 July 1940.
Spitfire pilots of No. 610 Squadron relaxing between sorties at 'A' Flight dispersal at Hawkinge, 29 July 1940.
Spitfire pilots of No. 610 Squadron relaxing between sorties at ‘A’ Flight dispersal at Hawkinge, 29 July 1940.

The war had now seemingly resolved down to a simple scenario. Britain was under direct threat from a German invasion. At present the Royal Navy stood in the way of any amphibious landing – yet only so long as her ships could be protected from the air. In the ‘narrow seas’ between Britain and the continent of Europe if the Luftwaffe got the upper hand then no ship would be safe.

It was now readily apparent to those within the military command that only the thin line of ‘fighters boys’ of RAF Fighter Command kept Britain safe. It was a stark reality to confront, especially when they met the young men themselves, many of whom were only just out of school.

General Hastings “Pug” Ismay was Secretary of the Committee of Imperial Defence and Churchill’s principal military adviser, standing between the military establishment and the politicians, he saw the situation as clearly as anyone:

The German Air Force had been at full stretch throughout the Battle of France, and it was not until the first week in July that the Battle of Britain started in earnest.

As usual, the Prime Minister took every opportunity to go and see things for himself, and I accompanied him on many of his visits to fighter stations in Kent and Sussex.

From the moment one set foot on the tarmac, one sensed the tension in the air – the pilots standing by ‘on readiness’, waiting to ‘scramble’ into their machines at a moment’s notice.

It was impossible to look at those young men, who might within a matter of minutes be fighting and dying to save us, without mingled emotions of wonder, gratitude, and humility. The physical and mental strain of the long hours at dispersal, the constant flying at high altitudes (two or three sorties a day were normal, six or seven not uncommon), must have been prodigious.

And yet they were so cheerful, so confident, and so obviously dedicated. They were always thrilled to see Churchill, and they gave me a kindly welcome.

But they seemed a race apart, and I felt an intruder. They brought to my mind something that I had once read in the Old Testament. I looked it up when I got home. ‘And they shall be mine, saith the Lord of hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels.’ [Malachi, chapter III, verse 17]

See The Memoirs of General the Lord Ismay K.G., P.C., G.C.B., C.H., D.S.O..

Hawker Hurricane Mk I of No. 85 Squadron, July 1940. The battery cart is plugged in and a member of the ground crew on standby beneath the wing, ready to start the engine as soon as the alarm is given.
Hawker Hurricane Mk I of No. 85 Squadron, July 1940. The battery cart is plugged in and a member of the ground crew on standby beneath the wing, ready to start the engine as soon as the alarm is given.
Pilots of No. 85 Squadron run to their Hurricanes at the satellite landing ground at Castle Camps, July 1940. In the foreground is P2923 VY-R, flown by Plt Off Albert G Lewis.
Pilots of No. 85 Squadron run to their Hurricanes at the satellite landing ground at Castle Camps, July 1940. In the foreground is P2923 VY-R, flown by Plt Off Albert G Lewis.

Air combat over the Channel at Dover

“Now then, oh, there’s a terrific mix-up over the Channel! It’s impossible to tell which are our machines and which are the Germans. There was one definitely down in this battle and there’s a fight going on. There’s a fight going on and you can hear the little rattles of machine-gun bullets. Crump! That was a bomb, as you may imagine.”

The Junkers 87 ‘Stuka’ dive bomber was vulnerable to attack and invariably had fighter protection, in this case the Me 109.

Following an ‘air battle’ RAF pilots completed a combat report describing in considerable detail their engagement with the enemy. The cumulative intelligence gained from such reports, about the relative performance of aircraft, tactics, weaponry etc, was immensely valuable. For the pilots these reports represented their claims to ‘kills’ so it was important that they presented as much information as possible that might corroborate or support their claim. It is therefore in the official records that we have some of the most vivid accounts of the air war that now began in earnest over Britain. Pilot Officer Jack Hamar was a Hurricane pilot with 151 Squadron who went to intercept Stuka bombers attacking a shipping convoy off Eastbourne, in the English channel:

At 1500 hours the Squadron was ordered off from Rochford to intercept E/As [Enemy Aircraft] south of Dover. At approximately 1520 hours, when the Squadron was almost over Dover, a bunch of Me 109s were sighted about 5,000 feet above our formation, in which I was flying Red Two.

As it looked as though the E/A were about to attack us, the leader ordered our defensive line astern tactics. As we turned sharply to port, two Me 109s were seen diving to attack the last aircraft in our formation. ‘Milna Leader’ attacked the leading Me 109 and I the second.

I turned inside the E/A, which had pulled up into a steep left hand climbing turn. I closed rapidly and opened fire at about 250 yards with a 45° deflection shot. The E/A seemed to falter and straightened out into a dive. I placed myself dead astern at about 50 yards.

I opened fire, closing to almost no distance. I saw a large explosion just in front of the pilot and a large amount of white smoke poured from the E/A, which by this time was climbing steeply.

I was then forced to break away quickly due to fire from the rear, lost sight of the E/A and therefore did not see it crash. This action was also witnessed by Flying Officer Forster.

TNA Air 50

The combat was witnessed by a BBC radio reporter, standing on the cliffs of Dover. Charles Gardner gave a live running commentary that was later to become famous:

The Germans are dive-bombing a convoy out at sea: there are one, two, three, four, five, six, seven German dive-bombers, Junkers 87s. There’s one going down on its target now – bomb! No! He missed the ships, it hasn’t hit a single ship – there are about 10 ships in the convoy but he hasn’t hit a single one and – There, you can hear our anti-aircraft going at them now.

There are one, two, three, four, five, six – there are about 10 German machines dive-bombing the convoy, which is just out to sea in the Channel. I can’t see anything! No! We thought he had got a German one at the top then, but now the British fighters are coming up. Here they come.

The Germans are coming in an absolutely steep dive, and you can see their bombs actually leave the machines and come into the water. You can hear our guns going like anything now. I can hear machine-gun fire but I can’t see our Spitfires. They must be somewhere there.

Oh! Here’s one coming down. There’s one going down in flames. Somebody’s hit a German and he’s coming down with a long streak – coming down completely out of control – a long streak of smoke – and now a man’s baled out by parachute. The pilot’s baled out by parachute. He’s a Junkers 87 and he’s going slap into the sea – and there he goes: SMASH! A terrific column of water and there was a Junkers 87. Only one man got out by parachute, so presumably there was only a crew of one in it.

Now then, oh, there’s a terrific mix-up over the Channel! It’s impossible to tell which are our machines and which are the Germans. There was one definitely down in this battle and there’s a fight going on. There’s a fight going on and you can hear the little rattles of machine-gun bullets. Crump! That was a bomb, as you may imagine.

Here comes one Spitfire. There’s a little burst. There’s another bomb dropping. Yes, it has dropped. It has missed the convoy. You know, they haven’t hit the convoy in all this. The sky is absolutely patterned with bursts of anti-aircraft fire, and the sea is covered with smoke where bombs have burst, but as far as I can see there is not one single ship hit, and there is definitely one German machine down.

And I am looking across the sea now. I can see the little white dot of a parachute as the German pilot is floating down towards the spot where his machine crashed with such a big fountain of water two minutes ago.

In fact he was mistaken. The pilot shot down was British, although rescued from the sea Pilot Officer Michael Mudie died the next day in hospital. The original recording can be heard in the BBC Archives.

Opinion was divided over the nature of Gardner’s broadcast. There were letters to The Times complaining that mortal combat was being reduced to the terms of a sporting contest. However Mollie Panter-Downes reported in her weekly column for New Yorker magazine:

The majority of citizens, possibly less squeamish, sat by their radios, hanging onto their seats and cheering.

This perspective appears to have been very accurate, it is consistent with a ‘Listener Research Report‘ that was urgently conducted by the BBC, concerned about the controversy, after the broadcast.

46 Squadron successful in skies over Narvik

‘I fired a 4 second burst and there was a burst of black smoke and the undercarriage dropped. Heavy return fire was coming from all four rear upper gun positions and it appeared that the top gunners had twin guns. I had now closed to about 80 yards and broke away downwards to port. As I did so I noticed that my oil pressure had dropped tp zero. I turned towards the aerodrome, gradually losing height and landed.’

RAF Hawker Hurricane aircraft from 1940, as flown by No. 46 Squadron in Norway
Shellbursts and fire on the shores of Bjerkvik at the head of the Herjangs Fjord, opposite Narvik, which was shelled by the Royal Navy, 5 June 1940.
Shellbursts and fire on the shores of Bjerkvik at the head of the Herjangs Fjord, opposite Narvik, which was shelled by the Royal Navy, 5 June 1940.

In Norway operations continued around Narvik, which the Allies had finally occupied on 28th May 1940. In an attempt to address the German air superiority which had bedevilled the earlier Norwegian campaign (see 24th April) Hawker Hurricanes of No. 46 Squadron had flown off the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious on the 27th May and were now operating from a temporary airfield. In the early hours of 7th June Squadron Leader K.B.B. ‘Bing’ Cross was preparing for an air patrol:

I was taxying [my] aircraft down to the end of the run way when I saw 4 He.III K.’s approaching the aerodrome from the N.E. I had not my straps done up or my helmet on, but as the He.’s were heading direct for the aerodrome, I pulled the emergency boost control and took off. As the enemy aircraft approached the aerodrome they appeared to see my aircraft and Red 2 and turned away to port onto a more southerly course. Red 2 joined me and we climbed up after the enemy. My speed was 240 mph and I was climbing slightly. I set the sight at 80ft. span and 250 yards range and opened fire at that distance from the dead astern position at the aircraft flying in the ‘box’, Red 2 attacking the extreme starboard machine.

I fired a 4 second burst and there was a burst of black smoke and the undercarriage dropped. Heavy return fire was coming from all four rear upper gun positions and it appeared that the top gunners had twin guns. I had now closed to about 80 yards and broke away downwards to port. As I did so I noticed that my oil pressure had dropped to zero. I turned towards the aerodrome, gradually losing height and landed.

There were a total of twelve bullet holes in my aircraft; one in the screen, two in the oil tank, one in the petrol tank, one in the engine, two in the wing and five in the hood behind my head.

The He. III K. was dropping behind the formation as I landed, his undercarriage was down and smoke pouring from the starboard engine.

Squadron Leader Cross claimed a ‘probable’ for this action, see TNA Air 50/20. It now seems that he had a ‘confirmed’: details and photographs of the Heinkel III that crash landed in the early hours of 7th June 1940 are at the Norwegian aircraft wreck site ktsorens.thilde.org. 46 Squadron had 14 kills to their credit during the 10 days they were in Norway.

In London the decision had now been taken to evacuate Norway, even as the Allies were gaining the upper hand in the area around Narvik. All troops and aircraft were needed for the defence of Britain.

The Hurricane aircraft of No 46 Squadron had never been flown onto an aircraft carrier and did not have the arrester hooks that were considered necessary to land such a fast aircraft on a carrier (they had been loaded onto the carrier, not flown, for the trip out to Norway). Therefore the orders were for these aircraft to be destroyed before the Squadron’s personnel returned.

Squadron Leader Cross was having none of it. His entire Squadron volunteered to land their Hurricanes on HMS Glorious in order to get them away, in a manoeuvre that had never been attempted before with this aircraft. None of the pilots had any experience of carrier landings. Using sandbags in their tail planes to give them extra weight, landings were successfully achieved by the entire Squadron later on 7th June.

Smoke rises from burning port installations at Narvik after a bombardment by HMS CAIRO, 8 June 1940.
Smoke rises from burning port installations at Narvik after a bombardment by HMS CAIRO, 8 June 1940.