Bombing attacks on Italian targets

On the night of the 12th/13th, five Wellingtons, also operating from this country, attacked the oil refineries at Venice. One large building was seen to collapse and another was hit by a heavy bomb. The last aircraft reported the target area to be a mass of flames. During these operations a large liner in the vicinity of Venice and hangars and workshops at Padua were machine-gunned.

An early image of Wellington bombers in flight, the only RAF bomber to remain in service throughout the war.

Italy.

On the night of the 11th/12th January seven Wellingtons operating from this country located and bombed the Royal Arsenal at Turin; all bombs fell in the target area causing large fires and heavy explosions. One other aircraft attacked a ball-bearing factory at Turin with similar results.

On the night of the 12th/13th, five Wellingtons, also operating from this country, attacked the oil refineries at Venice. One large building was seen to collapse and another was hit by a heavy bomb. The last aircraft reported the target area to be a mass of flames. During these operations a large liner in the vicinity of Venice and hangars and workshops at Padua were machine-gunned.

On the night of the 9th/10th January seven Wellingtons, operating from Malta, attacked the harbour and marshalling yards at Messina. A Naval oil storage depot was bombed, together with the marshalling yards and oil tanks nearby. Bombs also straddled cruisers and ships in the harbour.

With the object of destroying German aircraft operating from air bases in Sicily against our naval forces, ten Wellingtons were despatched from Malta to attack the aerodrome at Catania. The attacks appear to have been most successful. Photographic reconnaissance disclosed that thirty or forty aircraft on the ground were burned out or severely damaged. In addition, one hangar was destroyed, another severely damaged, and administrative buildings hit.

From the Air Situation report for the week see TNA CAB 66/14/33.

Pilot Officer William Lidstone "Willie" McKnight, a fighter pilot from Calgary, Canada, photographed during the Battle of Britain, when serving with No. 242 (Canadian) Squadron RAF. Between May and November 1940, McKnight achieved 16.5 victories in combats over France and England. He was shot down and killed during a low level intruder sortie ('Rhubarb') over France, on 12 January 1941.
Pilot Officer William Lidstone “Willie” McKnight, a fighter pilot from Calgary, Canada, photographed during the Battle of Britain, when serving with No. 242 (Canadian) Squadron RAF. Between May and November 1940, McKnight achieved 16.5 victories in combats over France and England. He was shot down and killed during a low level intruder sortie (‘Rhubarb’) over France, on 12 January 1941.

Condor Base at Bordeaux bombed

On the night of the 22nd/23rd twenty-four heavy bombers attacked the aerodrome at Bordeaux; twenty-nine tons of high explosive and two thousand eight hundred incendiaries were dropped. The attack appears to have been most successful. Direct hits were obtained on hangars and barrack blocks, and many aircraft on the aerodrome were seen to be on fire. The hangars on the south-west side of the aerodrome were completely burnt out.

Wellington night bomber, moonlit flight 1940
This study of a Wellington bomber departing for a night time raid
was released to highlight the role of Czechoslovak airmen in the RAF.

The Focke Wolf Condor bomber was operating far out into the Atlantic, capable of attacking ships itself but also playing an important role in spotting for U-Boats. The Empress of Britain  was amongst its victims. From the Air Situation for the week ending 28th November 1940:

A total of 39 day and 414 night sorties were flown by Bomber Command during the week. In addition, a number of bombing sorties were made by aircraft of the Coastal Command. The principal features of the week’s operations have been the concentrated attacks which have been carried out against industrial and communication targets in the Cologne area, and a heavy attack on the aerodrome at Bordeaux, at which the Focke Wolf Condor aircraft are reported to assemble for operations against shipping in the North-Western Approaches. Military objectives in the Berlin area were attacked on two occasions.

On the night of the 22nd/23rd twenty-four heavy bombers attacked the aerodrome at Bordeaux; twenty-nine tons of high explosive and two thousand eight hundred incendiaries were dropped. The attack appears to have been most successful. Direct hits were obtained on hangars and barrack blocks, and many aircraft on the aerodrome were seen to be on fire. The hangars on the south-west side of the aerodrome were completely burnt out.

Night Bombing of Britain intensifies

During the week the enemy made a greater number of long-range nightbomber sorties than during any other week of the war. On the 19th/20th. approximately 500 aircraft were employed; this is the highest number recorded in operations on any night against this country. Attacks also showed greater concentration, and on the nights of the 14th/15th, 15th/16th and 19/20th heavy attacks were made on Coventry, London and Birmingham respectively; 350 aircraft attacked Coventry, under ideal weather conditions, and 340 were used against Birmingham.

A Heinkel He III Bomber undergoing maintenance –
using a captured RAF airfield crane, November 1940.

From the Naval, Military and Air Situation for the week up to November 21st, as reported to the War Cabinet:

46. During the week the enemy made a greater number of long-range nightbomber sorties than during any other week of the war. On the 19th/20th approximately 500 aircraft were employed; this is the highest number recorded in operations on any night against this country. Attacks also showed greater concentration, and on the nights of the 14th/15th, 15th/16th and 19/20th heavy attacks were made on Coventry, London and Birmingham respectively; 350 aircraft attacked Coventry, under ideal weather conditions, and 340 were used against Birmingham.

On other nights fewer aircraft were employed and the bombing was more widespread. Parachute mines are being employed in increasing numbers. During the week about thirty aerodromes have been attacked, but damage was again very small in proportion to the effort expended, though ten aircraft were severely and twenty slightly damaged at Hawarden on the 14th/15th November. At Hythe on the 17th/ 18th a civil flying boat was destroyed and two others damaged.

Civilian Casualties.

72. The approximate figures for the week ending 0600 the 21st November are 1,190 killed and 3,738 injured. Of these totals, London suffered 484 killed and 1,080 injured; Coventry, 380 killed and 800 injured; and Birmingham (with West Bromwich), 228 killed and 802 injured in the three raids.

Unexploded Bombs.

73. The number of unexploded bombs during the week was 801, 363 less than last week. The total remaining for disposal is 2,939, a reduction of 130.

See TNA cab/66/13/37

 

Christ Church, Spitalfields: Shelterers sleep against the white walls of the church crypt – November 1940.
Christ Church, Spitalfields: Man sleeping in a stone sarcophagus in Christ Church-November 1940

Leonard Cheshire wins the DSO

He decided to attack the railway marshalling yards at Cologne instead and while he was approaching this target his aircraft was suddenly shaken by a succession of violent explosions. The cockpit filled with black fumes and Cheshire lost control of the aircraft, which dived about 2,000 feet, with its fuselage on fire. Cheshire regained control, the fire was extinguished and the Whitley, with a gaping hole in its fuselage, was brought safely back to base after, being in the air for 8 1/2 hours.

Armstrong Whitworth Whitley bomber in flight
The Armstrong Whitworth Whitley bomber was the RAF\’s principal night bomber from the beginning of the war. Powered by the the Rolls Royce Merlin engine it was regarded as reliable, some pilots described flying it as ‘like driving a London bus’.

Bomber Command flew 489 night bomber sorties during this week. The Air Situation for the week up 14th November gives just an indication of some of the difficulties encountered:

Attacks on German industry and armaments have been maintained whenever weather conditions have permitted and, though on one night no operations were possible and on another they were restricted to harassing attacks on French aerodromes by a few aircraft, the total number of night sorties has considerably increased. Low clouds, magnetic storms and severe icing conditions have been frequently encountered.

Damaged Whitley bomber
Damaged Whitley bomber successfully flown back by Pilot Officer Cheshire on 13th November.

No. 102 Squadron was foremost in these operations. Amongst its officers was Leonard Cheshire, later to win the V.C.:

On the night of 12/13th November 1940, Pilot Officer GL Cheshire was captain of Whitley V P5005 “N – Nuts” detailed to attack an oil refinery at Wesseling, not far from Cologne. It appears that he arrived in the target area within a few minutes of the ETA but owing to intercom trouble was unable to discover his exact position until some twenty minutes later, by which time the target was blanketed by cloud.

He decided to attack the railway marshalling yards at Cologne instead and while he was approaching this target his aircraft was suddenly shaken by a succession of violent explosions. The cockpit filled with black fumes and Cheshire lost control of the aircraft, which dived about 2,000 feet, with its fuselage on fire.

Cheshire regained control, the fire was extinguished and the Whitley, with a gaping hole in its fuselage, was brought safely back to base after, being in the air for 8 1/2 hours.

Cheshire was awarded an immediate DSO, Sergeant Davidson won a DFM. Cheshire was later to give an account of the night:

The anti-aircraft gunfire, which had been very severe and accurate for the last hour, slowed down, and it seemed as though we could not miss our new target. The bomb doors were open, the wireless operator was standing by to drop the great flare and the bomb-aimer had started giving the usual alterations of course.

Then anti-aircraft fire opened up intensely again, and one shell burst very close. It was what is technically known as a near miss, but it was near enough for fragments to hit us. There was a blinding explosion from the front, the perspex of the front turret was blown away, and there was another terrific explosion in the fuselage. The shell had touched off the flare.

The explosions had hurled the control column out of my hands, and the cabin filled with dense black smoke. I remember asking the bomb-aimer if he had dropped his bombs, but the only answer I got was, “I’ve been hit.” Very soon the smoke cleared a little, and to my amazement I saw that, not only were the engines still there, but that they were both running.

Then the bomb-aimer came up through the well, his face streaming with what looked like blood. He was holding his head, and could not stand upright. I could not possibly help him, since it was all I could do to regain control of the aircraft. Suddenly he shouted ” fire ” and staggered towards the tail.

A little later I looked round and saw the wireless operator coming through the door with flames licking his flying suit. He was on fire himself. The bomb-aimer dashed up to him and beat the flames out with his hands. Then he disappeared down the fuselage again. He seemed to have recovered completely, and it turned out that what I had taken to be blood was only oil.

Then the cabin cleared of smoke, and things seemed to be fairly all right, except that the aircraft was flying in an erratic sort of way. Back in the body of the machine the crew were working frantically to get rid of the incendiaries and anything that might explode.

We carried on and dropped our bombs. We hadn’t made the journey for fun, and the job had to be done as best we could do it.

 

Leonard Cheshire, upper right, with members of 102 squadron in 1940.

 

Cheshire was 23 at the time. He would go on to earn two bars to the DSO and the VC. He was perhaps lucky to survive the war, serving in a series of front line roles right up to the bombing of Nagasaki in 1945, where he was a airborne observer. After the war he founded the charity now known as Leonard Cheshire Disability.

 

Improved Anti-Aircraft defences help morale

Enemy operations were chiefly confined to London and South-East England, although single attacks were reported in other districts and larger formations bombed Portland and Southampton on the 15th September. Several aerodromes were attacked, but none suffered damage of any importance. The main objectives appear to have been railways, public services and industrial targets : details of damage are set out in the Home Security Section. Attacks were, however, largely indiscriminate, particularly at night.

3-inch gun crew of 303rd Battery, 99th Anti-Aircraft Regiment, Royal Artillery, in action at Hayes Common in Kent, May 1940.
3-inch gun crew of 303rd Battery, 99th Anti-Aircraft Regiment, Royal Artillery, in action at Hayes Common in Kent, May 1940.
In the days following the start of the Blitz large numbers of additional Anti-Aircraft guns were brought into the London area.

From the Weekly Resume of the Naval Military and Air Situation for the week ending 19th September 1940, as reported to the War Cabinet:

Air Situation : Great Britain.

29. Enemy operations were chiefly confined to London and South-East England, although single attacks were reported in other districts and larger formations bombed Portland and Southampton on the 15th September. Several aerodromes were attacked, but none suffered damage of any importance. The main objectives appear to have been railways, public services and industrial targets : details of damage are set out in the Home Security Section. Attacks were, however, largely indiscriminate, particularly at night. Reports have been received of the occasional use by the enemy of single British aircraft with British markings, and an aircraft that attacked Dover on the 13th September was identified as a Blenheim. A number of parachute mines were dropped in the London area.

HOME SECURITY.

General.

53. The enemy’s main attack is still centred on London. The main objectives would appear to have been :— 1. Communications, particularly railways. 2. Electrical undertakings. Another important objective would appear to be the weakening of public morale.

54. The hits on railways in the London Area have not been followed up by attacks on the resulting congestions of traffic in the marshalling yards.

55. The moral effect of the intensification of the A.A. barrage on the public has been very striking.

Civilian Casualties.

61. Killed, 988; injured 4,051 (including slight casualties). The figures for London during the period are: killed, 711; injured 1,042. These must be regarded as approximate.

Unexploded Bombs.

62. This problem remains acute and much of the dislocation of communications is due to unexploded or delayed action bombs. They have also necessitated the temporary evacuation of considerable numbers of people. Every effort is being made to strengthen the bomb disposal parties to deal with the various aspects of the situation.

Parachute Mines.

63. A formidable parachute mine made its first appearance among the enemy’s weapons on the 17th and was again used on the nights of the 17th/18th and the 18th/19th. The mine is in the form of a cylinder about 8 ft. in length by 2 ft. diameter, and its blast force is very extensive. Preliminary inspection supports the view that the mines are the ordinary magnetic ones and already a number have been rendered harmless by Naval personnel.

Second World War period German land and sea mine, exhibited in a museum after the war. There were two types of magnetic sea mines used by the the Germans, who termed them the Luftmine A (LMA ) of 500kg, and the Luftmine B (LMB) of 1000kg. They were known by the British Admiralty as the Admiralty Type D and Admiralty Type C respectively. This is an example of the larger mine. The Luftwaffe began dropping magnetic mines into the waters around Britain during November 1939, first from He115 and He111 aircraft. The mines were cylindrical in shape with a hemispherical nose, and deployed under a 27ft diameter green artificial silk parachute, falling at about 40mph. They were fitted with magnetic firing and later with acoustic or magnetic/acoustic firing. When the mine hit the water and sank to more that 8ft, hydrostatic pressure and the disolution of a soluble plug actuated the magnetic device and the mine became operational against shipping. The mine was also armed with a clockwork bomb fuze which caused the bomb to explode when used against land targets, and this was started by the impact of hitting the ground. The mine was timed to detonate 25 seconds after the fuze had started. When deployed at sea, the time fuze did not operate as a diaphragm stopped the clockwork when under the pressure of 7 feet of water or more. The first intentional use of magnetic mines against land targets was on the night of 16 September 1940, when the mines with their charge/weight ratio of 60 - 70 % explosive caused considerable blast damage in built up areas. Inevitably, they became known to the British populace as 'Land Mines'.
Second World War period German land and sea mine, exhibited in a museum after the war.

There were two types of magnetic sea mines used by the the Germans, who termed them the Luftmine A (LMA ) of 500kg, and the Luftmine B (LMB) of 1000kg. They were known by the British Admiralty as the Admiralty Type D and Admiralty Type C respectively. This is an example of the larger mine. The Luftwaffe began dropping magnetic mines into the waters around Britain during November 1939, first from He115 and He111 aircraft. The mines were cylindrical in shape with a hemispherical nose, and deployed under a 27ft diameter green artificial silk parachute, falling at about 40mph. They were fitted with magnetic firing and later with acoustic or magnetic/acoustic firing. When the mine hit the water and sank to more that 8ft, hydrostatic pressure and the disolution of a soluble plug actuated the magnetic device and the mine became operational against shipping. The mine was also armed with a clockwork bomb fuze which caused the bomb to explode when used against land targets, and this was started by the impact of hitting the ground. The mine was timed to detonate 25 seconds after the fuze had started. When deployed at sea, the time fuze did not operate as a diaphragm stopped the clockwork when under the pressure of 7 feet of water or more.

The first intentional use of magnetic mines against land targets was on the night of 16 September 1940, when the mines with their charge/weight ratio of 60 – 70 % explosive caused considerable blast damage in built up areas. Inevitably, they became known to the British populace as ‘Land Mines’.

An Air Raid Shelter in Chelsea After returning to London from France in July 1940, Gross began recording the Blitz in London including air raid shelters in Chelsea, bombed buildings and wrecked water mains. In a letter to Sir Kenneth Clark, Director of the National Gallery, on 17 September 1940, Gross described his time in the midst of the Blitz in London: 'Some days I am perched up among ruins and the next down in the bowls of the earth with my sketch book. Anyway I find that as soon as I get properly going and well into a drawing I forget all about my surroundings, so an excellent way to forgetting the raids.' (Imperial War Museum War Artist's Archive: GP/55/34)
An Air Raid Shelter in Chelsea
After returning to London from France in July 1940, Gross began recording the Blitz in London including air raid shelters in Chelsea, bombed buildings and wrecked water mains.
In a letter to Sir Kenneth Clark, Director of the National Gallery, on 17 September 1940, Gross described his time in the midst of the Blitz in London: ‘Some days I am perched up among ruins and the next down in the bowls of the earth with my sketch book. Anyway I find that as soon as I get properly going and well into a drawing I forget all about my surroundings, so an excellent way to forgetting the raids.’
(Imperial War Museum War Artist’s Archive: GP/55/34)

18 year old Sergeant Hannah wins the Victoria Cross

Sergeant Hannah succeeded in forcing his way through the fire in order to grab two extinguishers. He then discovered that the Rear Gunner was missing. Quite undaunted he fought the fire for 10 minutes, and when the fire extinguishers were exhausted he beat the flames with his log book. During this time, ammunition from the gunner’s magazines was exploding in all directions. In spite of this and the fact that he was almost blinded by the intense heat and fumes, he succeeded in controlling and eventually putting out the fire. During the process of fighting the flames, he had turned on his oxygen to assist him in his efforts.

Handley Page Hampden being bombed up, 2 August 1940.
Handley Page Hampden being bombed up, 2 August 1940.
Handley Page Hampdens in flight, seen from the ventral gun position of one of the aircraft, 1940.
Handley Page Hampdens in flight, seen from the ventral gun position of one of the aircraft, 1940.
Pilot Officer Connor points out the damage to the Hampden which he brought back after Sergeant Hannah had successfully fought the fire.

The relatively small RAF Bomber Command was nothing like the force it would become in just a few years time. It was only equipped with twin engined medium bombers that would very soon be regarded as obsolete. Yet, with fear of an invasion of Britain at its height, RAF Bomber Command was given a task regarded as at least as important as defending the skies above Britain – it was sent out, night after night, to do as much damage as possible to the naval forces that Hitler had gathered for the cross channel attack.

Most of these targets were very well defended. There was no shortage of bravery amongst the aircrew that had to face them.

Sergeant John Hannah was 18 when he became one of the youngest recipients of the Victoria Cross. The original recommendation for the award reads:

On the night of September 15/16th., Sergeant Hannah was the Wireless Operator/Air Gunner of an aircraft detailed to carry out operations on enemy barge concentrations at Antwerp.

After completing a successful attack on the target, his aircraft was subjected to intense anti-aircraft fire, during the course of which the bomb compartment received a direct hit. A fire started and quickly enveloped the Wireless Operator/ Air Gunner’s and Rear Gunner’s cockpits. Both the port and starboard petrol tanks were also pierced, thus causing grave risk of fire spreading still further.

Sergeant Hannah succeeded in forcing his way through the fire in order to grab two extinguishers. He then discovered that the Rear Gunner was missing. Quite undaunted he fought the fire for 10 minutes, and when the fire extinguishers were exhausted he beat the flames with his log book. During this time, ammunition from the gunner’s magazines was exploding in all directions. In spite of this and the fact that he was almost blinded by the intense heat and fumes, he succeeded in controlling and eventually putting out the fire. During the process of fighting the flames, he had turned on his oxygen to assist him in his efforts.

On instructions from his pilot, Sergeant Hannah then crawled forward to ascertain if the navigator was alright, only to find that he also was missing. He informed his pilot and passed up the navigator’s log and maps, stating that he was quite alright himself, in spite of burns and exhaustion from the heat and fumes.

An inspection of the aircraft reveals the conditions under which Sergeant Hannah was working. The sides of the fuselage were ripped away by enemy action and exploding bullets. Metal was distorted and the framework scorched by the intense heat. The two carrier pigeons were completed roasted. His own parachute was burned out.

During this operation, in which he received second degree burns to his face and eyes, Sergeant Hannah displayed outstanding coolness, courage and devotion to duty of the very highest order. By his action he not only saved the life of his pilot, but enabled his aircraft to be flown back safely to its base without any further damage.

Sergeant Hannah has completed a total of 74 hours flying as a Wireless Operator/Air Gunner on 11 Operational flights against the enemy.

TNA AIR 2/5686

The citation that was published to mark the award of the Victoria Cross was substantially the same, although it omitted reference to the ‘completely roasted’ carrier pigeons.

Sergeant Hannah won the Victoria Cross and Pilot Officer Connor the D.F.C. after bringing their stricken Hampden bomber back to base.

John Hannah had been badly injured, far more than seems apparent from this photograph. His health was severely affected and, after contracting tuberculosis, he was eventually discharged from the RAF with a disability pension in 1942. He was unable to work full time and he struggled to support his family. He died in 1947.

“The Blitz” hits London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The Luftwaffe’s ‘Black Thursday’

There on our port side at 9,000 ft must have been 120 bombers, all with the swastika and German crosses as large as life, having the gross impertinence to cruise down Northumberland and Durham’s NE coast. These were the people who were going to bomb Newcastle and Sunderland and our friends and relations who lived there.

Seventy two Heinkel III bombers from Norway sought to attack RAF airfields at Usworth and Dishforth on the 15th August.

The 15th August saw some of the fiercest fighting of the Battle of Britain as the Luftwaffe launched a series of raids aimed mainly at RAF bases. This was intended as the knockout blow that had been envisaged on ‘Eagle Day’, although the results were not as anticipated. The resources of the RAF were far from being as depleted as the Luftwaffe intelligence suggested, and scored some notable successes, particularly when German bombers were unescorted by fighters.

For the first time attacks were made on the north of England from German bases in Norway. The long range meant that the Heinkel III bombers could not be escorted by Me 109s but were accompanied by the less capable Me110 fighter bombers, some without their rear gunners to help fuel consumption, some with long range fuel tanks. However German intelligence that the bulk of RAF fighter defences had been moved south was badly wrong. The large formation met a hostile reception when they approached the Scottish coast at midday and turned south to look for their airfield targets in the north of England.

Pilot Officer Robert Elliot was flying a Spitfire with 72 Squadron based at Acklington, Northumberland, they had the advantage of height when the raiders were spotted:

I do not think they saw us to begin with. When they did, the number of bombs jettisoned was fantastic. You could see them falling away from the aircraft and dropping into the sea, literally by the hundreds. The formation became a shambles.

The Messerschmitt Me 110 fighter bomber, which escorted the raid on the 15th August.

Flight Lieutenant Harry Welford was flying Hurricanes with 607 Squadron, based at Usworth, which joined the action slightly later:

On Thursday, 15th August, 1940, we were to have our first big encounter with the enemy, and one considered on a par with those attacks that 11 and 12 Groups were experiencing in the south. At 12.30 pm we were going off duty for 24 hours leave when the whole squadron was called to Readiness. We heard from the Operations Room that there was a big “flap” on, that is a warning of imminent enemy action up and down the NE coast.

We waited out at dispersal, then we were told to “Scramble” in Squadron formation – I was in a feverish state of excitement and quickly took off and climbed up to our operational height of 20,000 ready to patrol the coast. We kept receiving messages on the R/T of 40 or 50 plus “Bogeys” approaching Newcastle from the north. Although we patrolled for over half an hour we never saw a thing.

Just as I was expecting the order to “Pancake” I heard the senior Flight Commander shout “Tally Ho!”, and “Tally Ho!” it was! There on our port side at 9,000 ft must have been 120 bombers, all with the swastika and German crosses as large as life, having the gross impertinence to cruise down Northumberland and Durham’s NE coast. These were the people who were going to bomb Newcastle and Sunderland and our friends and relations who lived there.

I’d never seen anything like it. They were in two groups, one of about 70 and the other about 40, like two swarms of bees. There was no time to wait and we took up position and delivered a No 3 Attack in sections. As only three machines attacked a line of 20, I could not see how they could miss us. However, we executed our first attack and in spite of the fact that I thought I was being hit all over the place, it was their machines that started dropping out of the sky.

In my excitement during the next attack I only narrowly missed one of our own machines doing a “split arse” breakaway. There couldn’t have been more than two feet between us.

Eventually, spotting most of the enemy aircraft dropping down with only their undercarriages damaged, I chased a Heinkel and filled that poor devil with lead until first one. then the other engine stopped. I then had the sadistic satisfaction of seeing the aircraft crash into the sea. With the one I reckoned to have damaged in the first attack, they were my first bloods and I was elated, especially to later discover that the squadron had not suffered any losses.

Just one of the amazing stories recorded by Dilip Sarkar who has collected numerous accounts of the Battle of Britain, see Few of the Many: Memories of the 1939-45 Air War.

In total eight He III bombers and seven Me110s were shot down for no loss in this attack. There were no further attacks from the Luftwaffe’s Norwegian bases during this phase of the war.

The series of attacks in the rest of the country were less one sided – in total 75 aircraft enemy aircraft were shot down on the 15th August for the loss of 30 RAF planes, with 17 pilots killed.