Categories 1941

The ‘Battle of Britain’ defined

The first edition of the pamphlet was a very plain wartime economy version with no illustrations.
The first edition of the pamphlet was a very plain wartime economy version with no illustrations.
Subsequent editions were rather more colourful and included diagrammatic explanations of Fighter Command organisation and tactics.
Subsequent editions were rather more colourful and included diagrammatic explanations of Fighter Command organisation and tactics.
One of the diagrams in the Air Ministry pamphlet that sought to explain how the RAF had fought off the Luftwaffe.

In the spring of 1941 the Air Ministry produced the ‘information’ pamphlet “The Battle of Britain”. In doing so it helped give shape to the ‘Great Days from 8th August -31st October 1940’ and defined it as being Fighter Command’s battle, completely omitting the contribution of Bomber Command. It took as its starting point Churchill’s memorable speech of 20th August 1940” but managed to redefine his characterisation of “the few”.

In describing the battle it took as an example one day of action:

The Greatest Day — 15th September, 1940

The foregoing is a summary, necessarily brief and incomplete — for the battle took place too recently for a full account to be written — of almost three months of nearly continuous air fighting. To better comprehend its nature, it is necessary to examine in greater detail an individual day’s fighting. Sunday, 15th September, is as good a day as any other. It was one of “the great days,” as they have come to be called, and the actions then fought were described by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons as “the most brilliant and fruitful of any fought upon a large scale up to that date by the fighters of the Royal Air Force.” The enemy lost one hundred and eighty-five aircraft. This is what happened.

Over the South-East of England, the day of Sunday, 15th September, dawned a little misty, but cleared by eight o’clock and disclosed light cumulus cloud at 2,000 or 3,000 feet. The extent of this cloud varied, and in places it was heavy enough to produce light local showers. Visibility, however, was on the whole good throughout the day; the slight wind was from the west, shifting to north-west, as the day advanced.

The first enemy patrols arrived soon after 9 a.m. They were reported to be in the Straits, in the Thames Estuary, off Harwich, and between Lympne and Dungeness. About 11.30, Göring launched the first wave of the morning attack, consisting of a hundred or more aircraft, soon followed by one hundred and fifty more. These crossed the English coast at three main points: near Ramsgate, between Dover and Folkestone, and a mile or two north of Dungeness. Their objective was London. This formidable force was composed of Dornier bomber 17s and 215s, escorted by Me.109s. They flew at various heights between 15,000 and 26,000 feet. From the ground, the German aircraft looked like black dots at the head of long streamers of white vapour; from the air, like specks rapidly growing. They appeared first as model airplanes and then, as the range closed, as full-sized aircraft.

Battle was soon joined and raged for about three-quarters of an hour over East Kent and London. Some hundred German bombers burst through our defence and reached the eastern and southern quarters of the capital. A number of them were intercepted above the centre of the city itself, just as Big Ben was striking the hour of noon.

To understand the nature of the combat, it must be remembered that the aircraft engaged in it were flying at a speed of between 300 and 400 miles an hour. At that speed, place names become almost meaningless. The enemy, for example, might have been intercepted over Maidstone, but not destroyed until within a few miles of Calais. “Place attack was delivered — Hammersmith to Dungeness” or “London to the French Coast.” Such phrases in the Intelligence Patrol Reports forcibly illustrate the size of the area over which the battle was fought. That being so, it is better perhaps not to attempt to plot the place of attack too accurately — an almost hopeless task — but to refer to it simply as the Southern Marches of England.

The battle, in fact, took place roughly in a cube about 80 miles long, 38 miles broad and from 5 to 6 miles high. It was in this space, between noon and half-past, that between 150 and 200 individual combats took place. Many of these developed into stern chases which were broken off within a mile or two of the French Coast.

“Achtung, Schpitfeuer!”

Sixteen squadrons of No. 11 Group, followed by five from Nos. 10 and 12, were sent up to engage the enemy. All but one of the Squadrons taking part in the battle were very soon face to face with him. Five Squadrons of Spitfires opened their attack against the oncoming Germans in the Maidstone-Canterbury-Dover-Dungeness area. These were in action slightly before the Hurricane Squadrons, which intercepted farther back, between Maidstone, Tunbridge Wells and South London.

The Germans were found to be flying in various types of formations. The bombers were usually some thousands of feet below the fighters, but sometimes this position was reversed. The bombers flew either in Vics ( a “V”-shaped formation) of from five to seven aircraft or in lines of five aircraft abreast or in a diamond formation.

The Me.109s were usually in Vics. One pilot has described the attacking German aircraft as flying in little groups of nine arranged in threes like a sergeant’s stripes. Each group of nine was in this case supported by a group of nine Me.110 fighters with single-seater Me.109s or He.113s circling high above.

The enemy soon realised that our defence was awake and active, for the German pilots could be heard calling out to each other over their wireless ‘phones “Achtung, Schpitfeuer!” (“Attention, Spitfires!”). They had need to keep alert. Our pilots opened fire at an average range of from 200 to 250 yards, closing when necessary to 50. Many of the enemy fighters belonged to the famous Yellow-Nose Squadrons, though some had white noses and even occasionally red.

Justification for Our New Tactics

Once the battle was joined, regular formation was frequently lost and each pilot chose an individual foe. The following account of one combat can be taken as typical of the rest.

A pilot, whose Squadron was attacking in echelon starboard, dived out of the sun on to an Me.109, which blew up after receiving his first burst of fire. By this time he found that another Me.109 was on his tail. He turned, got it in his sights and set it on fire with several bursts. He was now separated from his comrades and therefore returned to his base. As he was coming down he received a message saying that the enemy were above. He looked up, saw a group of Dorniers at 14,000 feet, climbed and attacked them. He got in a burst at a Dornier; other friendly fighters came up to help. The enemy aircraft crashed into a wood and exploded.

While the Spitfires and Hurricanes were in action over Kent, other Hurricanes were dealing with such of the enemy as had succeeded, by sheer force of numbers, in breaking through and reaching the outskirts of London. Fourteen Squadrons of Hurricanes, almost immediately reinforced by three more Squadrons of Spitfires, took up this task, all of them coming into action between noon and twenty past. There ensued a continuous and general engagement extending from London to the coast and beyond.

In it, the tactics so carefully thought out, so assiduously practised, secured victory. Let a Squadron-Leader describe the results they achieved.

“The 15th of September,” he says, “dawned bright and clear at Croydon. It never seemed to do anything else during those exciting weeks of August and September. But to us it was just another day. We weren’t interested in Hitler’s entry into London; most of us were wondering whether we should have time to finish breakfast before the first blitz started. We were lucky.

“It wasn’t till 9.30 that the sirens started wailing and the order came through to rendezvous base at 20,000 feet. As we were climbing in a southerly direction, at 15,000 feet we saw thirty Heinkels, supported by fifty Me.109s 4,000 feet above them, and twenty No. 110s to a flank, approaching us from above. We turned and climbed, flying in the same direction as the bombers, with the whole Squadron stringed out in echelon to port up sun, so that each man had a view of the enemy.

” ‘A’ flight timed their attack to perfection, coming down sun in a power dive on the enemy’s left flank. As each was selecting his own man, the Me.110 escort roared in to intercept, with cannons blazing at 1,000 yards range, but they were two seconds too late — too late to engage our fighters, but just in time to make them hesitate long enough to miss the bomber leader. Two Heinkels heeled out of the formation.

“Meanwhile, the Me.110s had flashed out of sight, leaving the way clear for ‘B’ flight, as long as the Me.109s stayed above. ‘B’ flight leader knew how to bide his time, but just as he was about to launch his attack, the Heinkels did the unbelievable thing. They turned south; into the sun; and into him. With his first burst, the leader destroyed the leading bomber, which blew up with such force that it knocked a wing off the left-hand bomber. A little bank and a burst from his guns sent the right-hand Heinkel out of the formation, with smoke pouring out of both engines. Before returning home, he knocked down an Me.109. Four aircraft destroyed, for an expenditure of 1,200 rounds, was the best justification for our new tactics.”

The pamphlet was necessarily a one sided account of a great victory, published at a time when Britain was devastated by the Blitz. It concluded that “Future historians may compare it with Marathon, Trafalgar and the Marne”. The pamphlet itself was hugely influential in shaping views of the period over the summer of 1940, hundreds of thousands were sold around the Empire and in the United States.

The description of how the battle was fought omitted one vital feature that still remained secret – the use of radar. Propaganda at the time gave prominence to the efficiency of the ‘Observer Corps’ in spotting hostile aircraft.

2 thoughts on “The ‘Battle of Britain’ defined”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.