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Statistical summary, Week 7:

  • Total Fighter Command Establishment: 1558 planes
  • Strength: 1377 planes
  • Balance: understrength 181 planes
  • Losses: 20 Hurricanes (+ 1 damaged), 23 Spitfire, 4 Defiants
  • Aircraft Production: 5 Beaufighters, 8 Defiants, 64 Hurricanes, 44 Spitfires

Good intelligence relies on the capacity to understand what is going on in the head of the enemy. During the Battle of Britain, the Germans were not good at this. The Germans had a number of intelligence agencies, each of which jealously guarded their own information. This rivalry, coupled with the intelligence officers providing the leadership with the figures that they wanted to hear, meant that German intelligence could be notoriously inaccurate .

On one occasion, the Luftwaffe had convinced itself that in every way it was more effective than any other air force that existed including the RAF. The trouble was that the Luftwaffe completely failed to appreciate the potential advantage which the new control system of defence, based on radar, gave the RAF. This system was after all the very core of the way the British fought the Battle. The underestimation by the Luftwaffe of the importance of radar to the British can be seen from the way that Goering, in the middle of August, countermanded the orders to attack radar installations. This was because, very shortly after being attacked, they were once again transmitting their signals. The explanation for this was that the Germans thought that the workings were buried beneath concrete reinforcements, which was just not the case. Being above ground, once damaged they could be put back together again very quickly.

The teams responsible for repairing bomb damage were extremely efficient. The only concrete reinforcements were to be found at Fighter Command Headquarters at Bentley Priory and at 11 Group where the control room was protected in this way. All the rest of the radar installations were housed in flimsy huts, easily damaged but easily reconstructed. It also seems as though the Luftwaffe had no system for identifying which airfield being attacked actually belonged to Fighter Command. Consequently, they attacked airfields belonging to Coastal and to Training Command. Indeed, the most apparently successful attack by the Luftwaffe during the Battle was when a couple of Ju88s succeeded in destroying over 50 aircraft at Brize Norton airfield. In fact these had been training aircraft. It was a brilliant attack but had no effect on Fighter Command. The result was a continuing overestimation by the Luftwaffe of how, in the light of the rate of destruction, Fighter Command was being damaged. It all contributed to the feeling that they were much nearer achieving the complete elimination of Fighter Command than in reality was the case.

Statistical summary, Week 6:

  • Total Fighter Command Establishment: 1558 planes
  • Strength: 1379 planes
  • Balance: understrength 179 planes
  • Losses: 29 Hurricanes (+ 5 damaged), 10 Spitfires (+8 damaged), 76 unidentified (not categorised in the reporting)
  • Aircraft Production: 5 Beaufighters, 11 Defiants, 43 Hurricanes, 31 Spitfires

When the great assault which it was hoped would bring Britain to its knees began, it was beset by a very un-German dose of “finger trouble”. There are two theories about why this happened. The bombing force that day, August 12th, consisted of dozens of Dornier 17s and was led by a senior officer, Johannes Fink. He had been appointed Commander of the Kanalkampf. Fink had set up his headquarters in a bus on the cliffs of Cap Gris Nez where he could actually see through his binoculars the defences of Dover.

This day he had deserted his bus for a pilot’s seat in the lead bomber. His fleet of Dornier 17s were to be accompanied by an equally large armada of Me109s. The trouble that day was that his radio broke down. One explanation is that the wavelength had been altered. But his radio had not been fitted with the new crystals required. Either that or his radio communications just didn’t work.

However, the accompanying fighters had radios which were fully operational. The problem was that the weather that day turned out to be less good than expected. Goering, back in Karinhall, his comic opera pile south of Berlin, got the disappointing news about the weather and duly cancelled the operation.

By then, the massive group of Fink’s air armada was on its way. The cancellation was radioed to them. The fighters received the message and turned back. Fink didn’t get it and pressed on. One of the fighter pilots saw what was happening. His group had turned back. Why hadn’t Fink done so too? On his own initiative he flew just ahead of Fink’s armada gesticulating, trying to send some kind of signal to them, that the operation had been postponed. But to no avail. Fink’s group pressed on. They duly bombed their target in Kent.

But as they turned for home, the inevitable happened. Spitfires and Hurricanes intercepted them. Undefended, they immediately lost five of their number shot down. The mistake had proved costly. When he landed, Fink was so furious that he rang Kesselring, the Commander of Luftflotte 2 in Brussels to complain. Fink was extremely angry. One thing the Germans had was an unrivalled expertise on staff work. But this day had been a disaster.

Statistical summary, Week 5:

  • Total Fighter Command Establishment: 1558 planes
  • Strength: 1396 planes
  • Balance: understrength 162 planes
  • Losses: 33 Hurricanes (+ 3 damaged), 12 Spitfires (+10 damaged), 3 Blenheims
  • Aircraft Production: 5 Beaufighters, 10 Defiants, 64 Hurricanes, 37 Spitfires

By early August, the German attitude to Britain had hardened. After the fall of France, most of the world had expected Britain one way or the other to fall out of the war, either because it was pushed out or it opted out. This is certainly what Hitler had hoped for. But when that didn’t happen, Hitler had to think again. On July 19th, in a speech to his assembled top brass, who were there to receive their decorations and promotions, following the French campaign, Hitler made what was to be called his ‘last appeal to reason’. What he said was that he’d never wanted to make war on the British Empire. He urged London to reconsider its attitude.

A few days later, when Halifax made it quite clear that Britain wasn’t in the least interested in falling into line with Hitler’s policies, Hitler set in motion a new strategy. He decided to unleash attack from the air.

Britain was surrounded by sea. This meant that the only way to force Britain to accept a German settlement was by attacking it from the air. The RAF had to be neutralised. This is where Goering came in. He was delighted that “his” Luftwaffe had been chosen as the instrument to bring Britain to terms. So the orders were given. Adler Tag, Eagle Day, was to be fixed very shortly with the exact day to be decided according to the weather. After a postponement from the original date, August 8th, it was finally launched on August 13th – though not without some confusion, as our previous post examines.

The following weeks were to see an intense and concentrated effort to smash the RAF.

US citizen William 'Billy' Fiske, copyright RAF Museum Hendon

Statistical summary, Week 4:

  • Total Fighter Command Establishment: 1558 planes
  • Strength: 1434 planes
  • Balance: understrength 124 planes
  • Losses: 4 Hurricanes, 4 Spitfires, 0 damaged
  • Aircraft Production: 3 Beaufighters, 13 Defiants, 68 Hurricanes, 48 Spitfires

Of the near 3000 pilots who flew in the Battle of Britain, roughly a fifth came from overseas to help the RAF win this encounter. Of these, about half came from British Dominions, of what was then the British Empire. The largest contingent came from New Zealand, but the man who turned out to be the best shot in Fighter Command came from South Africa. He was called “Sailor” Malan.

The rest of the contingents of overseas pilots came from countries already overrun by Hitler’s legions. Of these, the largest number came from Poland.

Meanwhile, it is worth noting an all-important fact. This is that the contribution of so many nationalities to the RAF’s efforts that summer led to the feeling that this was not just a battle, but a crusade, not just a purely national struggle, but something much more significant. The pilots who flew in this battle had come from half way round the globe. A pilot who typifies what might be called the ‘chivalry’ involved, was a young American, Billy Fiske.

America was not yet a participant in the War. That country was very much in the neutral camp. Furthermore, the American Ambassador in London, Joe Kennedy, father of John F. Kennedy the future President, was deeply sceptical about Britain’s chances of survival. Nevertheless, Fiske threw in his lot as a participant in the fight. He paid with his life in doing so.

Billy Fiske came from a banking family and was, in fact, a banker himself working for Dillon Read. He’d made his name heading the US bobsleigh team in the 30s representing his country in the Olympics. He was apparently a superb pilot. He was also very charming and had become an extremely popular member of 601 Squadron, nicknamed the ‘Millionaires Squadron’. Additionally, he was the owner of a 4.5 litre open racing Bentley. In action, flying his Hurricane on August 16th from Hornchurch, he took a hit from an Me 109 while chasing a pack of Stukas, a number of which were shot down. Instead of bailing out, he nursed his damaged plane back to his airfield and despite a substantial wound and burnt ankles and hands, landed his plane safely. But he had to be helped out of his cockpit and taken to hospital when he landed.

Later that day, when the Adjutant of the squadron visited him in hospital he appeared in great form, but the next day he died from surgical shock. There is a memorial plaque to him in the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral which reads “He died that England might live”. He tombstone in the graveyard of a small English country church reads simply ‘He died for England’.

There weren’t many Americans who flew in the Battle of Britain that summer – ten in all. On the other hand, the selfless sacrifice by this very attractive young man typified the spirit of the many young men who came from far and wide to join in the Battle.

William Meade Lindsley "Billy" Fiske III Stain Glass Window in St Mary and St Blaise in Boxgrove, Sussex. The inscription on his gravestone reads simply: 'He died for England'.

Heinkel 59 Floatplane, copyright RAF Museum Hendon

The German Red Cross seaplanes were, unfortunately, to become an issue with the RAF. They bore civilian markings with a big red cross painted on the side of the fuselage. The trouble was that these aircraft, usually Heinkel 59s, carried an air gunner. The suspicion was that RAF fighters who took these seaplanes, as bent on a mercy mission, could fall into the trap of being shot down by the air gunner. It was also thought likely that these sea planes could be shadowing the British convoys and feeding back information about their location, thus putting them at an increased risk.

The powers that be, in the Air Ministry, were getting worried about these sea planes. Eventually, the decision was taken that they should be attacked, particularly if at the time it looked as though they were shadowing the convoys. It was to be a contentious matter. Some of our pilots did subsequently shoot down these seaplanes. Others did not. Goebbels the German Propaganda Minister complained of RAF barbarism. On 14th July, Fighter Command issued a statement to pilots saying that these so-called rescue planes could not be guaranteed immunity unless it was clear that they were engaged in rescue efforts. On 29th July, the Air Ministry issued a statement to the same effect.

For the RAF, fighting the Kanalkampf wasn’t what Fighter Command had really prepared for. The expectation had been that the enemy would be flying over the coast and trying to penetrate the mainland. The radar had been deployed so that enemy aircraft could be intercepted as they crossed the coast. The same applied to the Observer Corps, who were to detect their passage over land. But in this first phase of the Battle, enemy aircraft were being intercepted over the sea so that the convoys of coastal ships could be defended. The RAF hadn’t invested in Air Sea Rescue Services, but the Germans had. This meant that when one of our pilots got shot up by an enemy fighter and had to bail out he was at serious risk of falling into the sea and drowning. Whereas, a German pilot in the same predicament would have been provided with, for example, a solid block of dye which, when chucked into the sea, would spread a large stain of vivid colour visible for miles, enabling the downed pilot to be found.

Secondly the pilot stood a good chance of being picked up by German sea planes, usually He59s which were deployed for the task. British pilots just had to rely on luck that they would be seen by a fishing vessel or a coast guard cutter if they were to be saved from drowning. Losing pilots who would have survived being shot down over land, but because they fell into the sea risked drowning, was a serious concern to Keith Park AOC of 11 Group. Eventually, in late July, he managed to obtain the use of a dozen Lysanders, a light aircraft used in army cooperation, to help rescue pilots in the war. But, it was not until the following year that a committee was set up in the Air Ministry to deal with the issue of air sea rescue; too late for the Battle which was now over.

This first confrontation between the Luftwaffe and the RAF arose from the persistence of the Admiralty in continuing with a traditional coastal trade, forming merchant ships into convoys. They arranged for protection both by convoy escorts, usually destroyers, and by air cover in the form of standing patrols by Fighter Command.

This turned out to be too much for the Germans, who could not resist attacking such a juicy target. From July 10th onwards, these convoys were under continuous attack by the Luftwaffe, who targeted the whole coastal trade with a view, presumably, to eliminating it. Certainly the Luftwaffe had its successes here. Several destroyers were sunk and the Navy was forced to withdraw them entirely from Dover to Harwich and Sheerness. From the RAF’s point of view the campaign was not what Fighter Command had prepared for. Inevitably pilots involved in the dogfights risked drowning when they took to their parachutes, and a number were lost in this way. The RAF had no air sea rescue service to put into operation, whereas the Germans had their float planes for this very purpose. Indeed, during the Battle over land in August and September, Park issued orders hoping to prevent pilots being lost over the sea.

Some of the pilots during this first phase did question what they were doing fighting the Luftwaffe for this purpose. It is possible to ask even at this distance why the goods transported by sea at such cost to life continued. However, there are some who maintain that without this coal supply such vital industries such as aircraft construction would have been unable to continue to operate in the south of England.


August 2016
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