Excerpts from The Battle of Britain, AUGUST – OCTOBER 1940
An Air Ministry Account of the Great Days from 8th August to 31st October 1940
- Courtesy of Biggin Hill Library.
PART I – THE SCENE IS SET
ON TUESDAY, 20TH AUGUST, 1940, at 3.52 in the afternoon, the Prime Minister gave the House of Commons one of those periodic reviews on the progress of the war with which members in particular and the country in general have grown familiar. The occasion was grave. On 8th August, the Germans, after a period of activity against our shipping, which had lasted for somewhat longer than a month, had launched upon this island the first of a series of mass air attacks in daylight. For some ten days, and notably on the 15th and the 18th, men and women in the streets of English towns and villages and in the countryside had seen high up against the background of the summer sky the shift and play of aircraft engaged in the fierce and prolonged combat which has come to be known as the Battle of Britain.
The House was crowded. Its mood was one of anxious enthusiasm but enthusiasm waxed and anxiety waned as the Prime Minister proceeded to describe the swiftly changing movements of the battle, the opening stages of which some of the members had themselves witnessed.
After referring to the work and achievements of the Navy, Mr. Winston Churchill turned to the war in the air. “The gratitude of every home in our island,” he said, “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 mortaf danger, are turning the tide of 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.”
The Prime Minister was speaking at a moment when the battle was still at its height, for it was not until the end of October that the German luftwaffe virtually abandoned its attacks by daylight and began to rely entirely on a policy of night raiding – its tacit admisision of defeat.
In a rather nice reversal of the history of the airfield, a Lufthansa Junkers JU-52
First Great Air Battle in History
IT IS NOW POSSIBLE TO TELL, in great part, the story of the action on which such high praise had been bestowed. Before doing so, however, it is worth while to recall the extraordinary nature of the battle Nothing like it has ever been fought before – in the history of mankind. It is true that aircraft frequently met in combat in the last war; but they did so in numbers very small when compared with those which were engaged over the fields of Kent and Sussex; the rolling country of Hampshire and Dorset, the flat lands of Essex and the sprawling mass of London. Moreover, from 1914 to 1918 fights took place either between individual aircraft or between small formations, and an engagement in which more than. a hundred aircraft on both sides were involved was rare even in the later stages of the war. The issue was, in fact, decided not in the air, in which element the rival air forces played an important but secondary part, but by slowmoving infantry in the heavy mud of Flanders and the Somme It may be that the same thing, or something like it, will ultimately happen in the present war. Up to the moment, however, the first decisive encounter between Birtain and Germany has taken place in the air and was fought three, four, five, and sometimes more than six miles above the surface of the earth by some hundreds of aircraft flying at speeds often in excess of three hundred miles an hour.
While this great battle was being fought day after day, the men and women of this country went about their business with very little idea of what was happening high up above their heads in the fields of air. This battle was not shrouded in the majestic and terrible smoke of a land bombardment with its roar of guns, its flash of shells its fountains of erupting earth. There was no sound nor fury – only a pattern of white vapour trails, leisurely changing form and shape, traced by a number of tiny specks scintillating like diamonds in the splendid sunlight. From very far away there broke out – from time to time – a chatter against the duller sound of engines. Yet had that chatter not broken out, that remote sound would have changed first to a roar and then to a fierce shriek, punctuated by the crash of heavy bombs as bomber after bomber unloaded its cargo. In a few days the Southern towns of England, the capital of the Empire itself, have suffered the fate of Warsaw or Rotterdam.
The contest may, indeed, be likened to a duel with rapiers fought by masters of the art of fence. In such an encounter the thrusts and parries are so swift as to be often hard to perceive and the spectator realises that the fight is over only when the loser drops his point – or falls defeated to the ground.
These were the Weapons Used
BEFORE WE CAN UNDERSTAND the general Strategy and tactics followed by both sides, something must be said of the weapons used. The Germans sought a decision by sending over five main types of bombers – the JU. 87; a dive-bomber the JU. 88, various, type of the Heinkel 111, the Dornier 215 and the Dornier 17. The JU. 87 type B was a two-seater dive bomber. It was an all-metal low-wing cantilever monoplane, armed with two fixed machine guns, one in each wing, and a movable machine gun in the aft cockpit. When looked at from straight ahead the wings had the shape of a very flat W. Its maximum speed in level flight was a trifle over 240 miles an hour. The JU. 88 was also a dive bomber with a maximum speed of 317 m.p.h. Its crew and armament were similar to those of the Heinkel 111. The Heinkel 111k Mark V. was a low wing all-metal cantilever monoplane with two engines. It carried a crew of four and was armed with three movable machine guns, one in the nose, one on the top of the fuselage and one in the streamlined “blister” underneath. Its maximum speed was nearly 275 m.p.h. The Dornier 215 was a high-wing cantilever monoplane of all-metal construction with three movable machine guns similarly placed to those of the Heinkel 111k. Its maximum speed was about 312 m.p.h. It was a development of the Dornier 17, familiarly known as “the flying pencil.” This aircraft was a mid-wing cantilever monoplane. It was armed with two fixed forward-firing machine guns in the fuselage, one movable gun in the floor and one on a shielded mounting above the wings. Its maximum speed was about 310 m.p.h. Variations and increases in armament were constantly made in all these aircraft which carried the bombs intended to secure victory. These bombers were protected by fighters of which the Germans used two main types, the ME. 109 and the ME. 110. The ME. 109 in the form then used was a single-seater fighter. It was a low-wing all-metal cantilever monoplane armed with a cannon firing through the airscrew hub, four machine guns and two more in troughs on the top of the engine cowling. Its maximum speed was a little more than 350 m.p.h. Its pilot was later protected by back and front armour of which the size and shape became standardized during the course of the battle. The ME. 110 was a two-seater fighter powered with two engines. It was an all-metal low wing cantilever monoplane with two fixed cannons and four fixed machine guns to fire forward from the nose. It was much larger than the ME. 109 but had not got the same capacity of manoeuvre. Its maximum speed did not exceed 365 m.p.h. In this aircraft the crew were protected by back armour only. The Germans also used a few Heinkel 113’s. This was a low-wing all-metal cantilever monoplane with a single engine. A cannon fired through the airscrew hub and there were two large-bore machine guns in the wings. The maximum speed was about 380 m.p.h.
To combat this formidable array of fighters and bombers, which Goring had boasted were ” definitely superior” to any British aircraft, the Royal Air Force used the Spitfire, the Hurricane and occasionally the Boulton-Paul Defiant.
A Full-size model spitfire at Biggin Hill Airport
The Spitfire, Mark I was a single-seater fighter with a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. It was a low-wing all-metal cantilever monoplane armed with eight Browning machine guns, four in each wing set to fire forward. outside the airscrew disc. The maximum speed was 366 m.p.h. The Hawker Hurricane Mark 1 was also a single-seater fighter similarly engined and armed. Its maximum speed was 335 m.p.h. In both these aircraft the pilot was protected by front and back armour. The Boulton-Paul Defiant was a two-seater fighter with a Rolls-Royce engine. It was an all-metal low-wing cantilever monoplane, and was armed with four Browning machine guns mounted in a power-operated turret.
With such machines as these the Royal Air Force and the Luftwaffe faced each other on 8th August when the battle began.
The British Fighter Force on Guard
BEFORE DESCRIBING IT something must first be said about our methods of defence, although it is not easy to do this without giving away “state secrets.”
The governing principle is that a sufficient strength of Fighters must be assembled at the required height over a given place where it can intercept the oncoming enemy raid and break it up before it can reach its objective.
There is general agreement that the principle of employing Standing Patrols is impracticable owing to its wastefulness. To keep a sufficient strength of Fighters always in the air to guard our shores from any attack would be beyond the powers of the biggest Air Force imaginable. The Fighter Force is therefore kept on the ground in the interests of economy of effort and only ordered off the ground when raids appear to be imminent.
Information regarding the approach of the enemy is obtained by a variety of methods and is co-ordinated and passed to Operations. The coastline of Britain is divided into Sectors each with its own Fighter Aerodromes and Headquarters. These Sectors are grouped together under a conveniently situated Group Headquarters which in its turn comes under the general control of Headquarters Fighter Command. The information about enemy raids is illustrated by various symbols on a large map table in Group and Sector Operations. Rooms, the aim being to give each “Controller ” the same picture of the progress of raids in his particular area. In addition to this the have all possible information set out before them such as the location and “state ” of their own Squadrons, the weather and cloud conditions all over their area. They are also in touch with Anti-aircraft Defences and Balloon Barrages.
Squadrons are maintained at their Sector Aerodromes at various states of preparedness. The most relaxed state is ” released,” which means that the Squadron is not required to operate until a specified hour and that the personnel can be employed in routine maintenance, flying training and instruction, organised games, and that in some cases they may leave the Station. Next comes “Available,” which means the Squadrons must prepare to be in the air within so many minutes of receiving the order. ” Readiness ” reduces this to a minimum and is the most advanced state normally used. Occasionally “Stand-by ” is employed which means that the pilots are seated in their aircraft, with the engines “off,” but all pointing into wind ready to start up, and take off, the moment the leader gets his orders from the Controller.
In good weather conditions and when there is reason to anticipate an attack, Squadrons are perforce kept at a high state of “preparedness , which is relaxed as much as possible when the weather deteriorates. The broad principle is usually to keep one part of the force at “Readiness,” a second part at “Advanced Available ” and a third at, “Normal Available.” When the attack develops, the “Readiness ” Squadrons are. ordered- off in appropriate formations and the “Available” Squadrons are ordered to “Readiness ” and used as a reserve to meet a second or a third attack or to protect aerodromes or vulnerable points such as aircraft factories.
These orders are issued by the Controller whose function it is to study the Operations Room Map and put a suitable number of-aircraft into the air at selected points to intercept the oncoming raids, or to cover vulnerable points. His duty also is to keep a constant watch on his resources so as not to run the risk of being caught by a third or fourth wave of raids, with all his Squadrons on the ground “landed and refuelling.” It must be remembered that the endurance of a modern Fighter aircraft, if it is to have ample margin for full throttle work, climbing and fighting, is limited. Allowance must also be made for the journey back to the parent station, especiall y if visibility is bad.
With the tracks of the enemy raid and of his own Fighters both before his eyes, the Controller’s task of making an interception is in theory a comparatively simple mathematical problem.. He is in constant touch with his Fighters by radio telephone, is able to give them orders to change course from time to time, so as to put them in the best position for attack.
Once the Fighters report that they have “sighted the enemy,” the Controller’s task is over, except that he may have to give them a course to bring them back to their aerodromes when the battle is over.
The enemy sighted signal, the tally-ho is at once transmitted to Group H.Q. and recorded on the Squadron state indicator. The Red Letter day for any Group was on the 27th September, when, in No. 11 group, 21 squadrons out of 21 ordered up were able to report enemy sighted. But the successful interception of raids is not, always so easy. In practice,exercises before the war, thirty per cent. interception was thought satisfactory and fifty per cent. very good. When the test came, however, the percentage rose to seventy-five, ninety, and sometimes a hundred This consistently high rate of interception made it possible for our superiority in pilots and aircraft to achieve its full effect.
The task of the Controller in setting the stage for the battle is governed by one factor – accurate and timely information about the raids. In clear weather with little or no cloud, the raiders came over at such high altitude that they were almost invisible even with the use of binoculars. The numbers of aircraft employed made a confusion of noise in the high atmosphere and thus increased the difficulty of detecting raids by sound. In cloudy weather this difficulty was increased, for the Observer Corps had then to rely entirely on sound. In view of these difficulties, that Corps and other sources of information deserve very great credit for the remarkably clear and timely picture of the situation they presented to the Controllers. These, then, set the pieces on the wide chessboard of the English skies and made the opening moves in the contest on the outcome of which the safety of all free peoples depended. Flexibility was their motto. Each day the Controllers held a conference at which every idea or device for thinking and acting one step ahead of their cunning and resourceful foe was set forth, earnestly discussed and, if found useful, adopted. Without this system of central control, no battle, in the proper sense of the word, would have taken place. Squadrons would, have gone up haphazard, as and when enemy raids were reported. They would either have found themselves heavily outnumbered or with no enemy at all confronting them.
Great care was taken to keep the burden of the fight distributed as equally as possible between all the Squadrons engaged. This was achieved by hard training which continued right through the battle. Whenever there was a lull, new formations were devised and flown, new tactics practised. No Squadron was ever thrown into fight experience of fighting.
They were carefully nursed and went into action under the leadership of an experienced Squadron Leader with many hours of combat to his credit. The importance of teamwork was fully realised. It was a lesson learnt in France during the battles of May and June, and fortunately many of the pilots in them were in positions of command during the battle of Britain. Their knowledge and experience was invaluable.
The German Command Plans a Knockout
THE AVOWED OBJECT of the enemy was to obtain a quick decision and to end the war by the autumn or early winter of 1940. To achieve this an invasion of Britain was evidently thought to be essential. Preparations to launch it were pushed forward with great energy and determination throughout the last days of june, the month of July and the first week of August. By the 8th August the enemy felt himself ready to begin the opening phase on the success of which his plan depended. Before the German Army could land it was necessary to destroy our coastal convoys, to sink or immobilise such units of the Royal Navy as would dispute its passage, and above all to drive the Royal Air Force from the sky. He, therefore, launched a series of air attacks, first on our shipping and ports and then on our aerodromes. There were four phases in the battle, the first from 8th~18th August, the second from the 19th August 5th September, the third from the 6th September – 5th October, the fourth from the 6th-31st October. During this last phase daylight attacks gave way gradually to night raids which increased, as the month went on. It should, however, be remembered that throughout the battle the enemy made use of night, as well as day bombing, the first growing in volume and violence as the second fell away.
What was the plan which he sought to carry through in these four phases ? It is impossible to say with certainty at this moment. The German mind is very methodical and immensely painstaking. Schemes are worked out to the last detail; the organisation is superb’and provided the calculations are correct the plan goes without a hitch. But again and again history has shown that, if the original plan fails or becomes impracticable, the German has little power of improvisation, and if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle ? A brand new plan has to be worked out in tull detail, and when this has been done it may well be too late. In this instance the Luftwaffe was designed to prepare the way for the German Army by smashing the enemys resistance, and it was a fundamental assumption in Berlin that Germany could in every case, establish and maintain air supremacy.
The general plan for the use of the Luftwaffe was to seize and exploit the full mastery of the air. This was the main feature in the Polish campaign, in the attacks on Norway, and the Low Countries, and even to a large extent in France. Aerodromes were to be put out of action, thus tying the opposing airforces to the ground. Ports and communications could then be destroyed without hindrance, the military forces of the enemy paralysed and the German armoured divisions placed in a position to operate undisturbed. Success meant the destruction of civilian morale and then internal disruption and surrender.