Friday 16 August 2013

The unknown Battle of Britain

Sgt John Hannah VC (IWM)
In August 1940, the Battle of Britain was at it's height and had been raging since early July. The enduring image of the Battle for most people around the World is of 'The Few', that gallant band of fighter pilots from the RAF supported by their comrades in arms from the Commonwealth and Allied air forces who succeeded in taking on the Luftwaffe over southern England, denying the Germans air supremacy and thus rendering stillborn any chance of a land invasion of this country.

To put matters simply, this is what happened; history tells us so and the fact remains that the efforts of RAF Fighter Command provided a turning point in the war and proved to the remainder of the World that the Nazi war machine was capable of being beaten and more importantly kept these islands free to ultimately provide the springboard for the liberation of Europe some four years later.

Of course, it was not known at the time that Hitler was lukewarm about an invasion of the British Isles, as were his Generals and especially his Admirals who rightly harboured a deep seated inferiority complex to the Royal Navy and despite the promises from Goering of air supremacy feared a bloodbath amongst the invasion fleet should the Navy be let loose amongst them. These divisions were not known to the British people and their Government and an invasion attempt was widely expected at some point during the summer or early autumn of 1940.

August 13th 1940 was 'Adler Tag' or Eagle Day, which was planned to be the first day of a concerted attempt by the Luftwaffe to knock out the RAF on the ground as a prelude to invasion. As so often during the Battle of Britain, German intelligence was faulty and many airfields which were not part of Fighter Command were attacked and thus Fleet Air Arm, Training Command and Coastal Command stations were attacked. This represented a hugely wasted effort by the Luftwaffe which merely allowed them as the hunters to become the hunted when RAF fighters from airfields hitherto untouched on the day tore into the German attackers, taking an especially heavy toll of the Ju87 Stukas. The sequence of events on August 13th 1940 is really beyond the scope of this particular article but suffice to say Adler Tag ended in a resounding defeat for the Luftwaffe, with forty five of their aircraft shot down for the loss of thirteen RAF fighters. Even a 700 per cent exaggeration by the German press of the RAF's losses could not disguise the fact that this was a defeat and that air supremacy over the British Isles would not come easily. After further heavy fighting and another decisive defeat on September 15th 1940, the day we now commemorate as Battle of Britain Day, Hitler postponed the invasion of Great Britain indefinitely two days later.

However, whilst this struggle for Britain's airspace was raging, another battle was going on, which to this day receives little publicity but which in it's own way was vital and demonstrated the British determination to defend the homeland whatever the cost.

In 1940, RAF Bomber Command was a shadow of the force it was to become two to three years later. Like the Luftwaffe's bomber force, it consisted almost entirely of twin engined light and medium bombers, along with the remnants of the single engined Fairey Battle force which had been all but wiped out during the Battle of France. The twin engined bombers were mainly obsolescent types such as the Blenheim, Whitley and Hampden, all of which were unsatisfactory aircraft and deeply unsuitable for daylight operations. The only modern bomber in the RAF's arsenal in 1940 was the Vickers Wellington, designed by Barnes Wallis, which with it's revolutionary geodetic construction was able to absorb huge punishment, which was just as well as this aircraft too, was unable to defend itself in daylight attacks, forcing the RAF to adopt the night bombing tactics with which it was to largely persevere for the remainder of the war.

83 Squadron Badge
Bomber Command had been at war almost as soon as war had been declared on September 3rd 1939, when a force of Hampdens from 83 Squadron at RAF Scampton set out to attack German warships at Wilhelmshaven. Fortunately for the bomber crews, they could not find their targets and eventually all returned home safely. The following day fifteen Blenheims set off for Wilhelmshaven, whilst a further fourteen Wellingtons departed for Brunsbuttel. This time the results were disastrous for the RAF; five Blenheims were shot down as were two Wellingtons, without any of the shipping targets being hit. This was to prove the shape of things to come for these unescorted daylight raids, culminating in a truly appalling attack on 18th December 1939 by twenty two Wellingtons on the Wilhelmshaven area which resulted in twelve of the bombers being shot down, after which the RAF retired to lick their wounds.

Following the Battle of France, it was clear that a potential invasion of this country was next on the German agenda and the large numbers of invasion barges photographed by the RAF's fledgling Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (PRU) shown gathering along the Channel ports was testimony to this threat. The Blenheim light bombers were identified as being best able to deliver the low level attacks on the gathering invasion fleet, although the entire force was used on several occasions to attack the barges. By September, some sixty percent of the bomber force was consistently being directed towards the Channel ports.

Guy Gibson, three years later to become known to the World as the leader of the Dambusters raid, was at that time a relatively lowly Flying Officer with 83 Squadron flying Hampdens out of RAF Scampton and described the relentless nature of the attacks on invasion barges at Antwerp in his autobiography, Enemy Coast Ahead.

"After each raid a reconnaissance was made and the C.O. would call all crews together. 'I have got some pictures of C Basin at Antwerp. Yesterday there were 400 barges there; today's reconnaissance shows 350. Who is on C Basin?'

Some pilot would shuffle to his feet.

'Well, you sank fifty, you and the rest, but that is not enough. You have got to put all your bombs in that basin, not a stick starting on the edge and then doing it's job, but every single bomb. Otherwise those bastards are going to come over here and invade us and then you will have to fight with your bare hands.'

Then off we would go again."

Guy Gibson and crew in 617 Squadron days (IWM)

These attacks were usually made from a height of around 4,000 feet and due to the low-level nature of these raids and the intense light flak, losses were heavy amongst the bombers but the German invasion barges and their naval personnel also suffered grievously and the forces concentrated in places such as Antwerp, Boulogne, Calais, Dunkirk and Ostend were never allowed to assemble in peace.

One of Bomber Command's Victoria Crosses was won by a member of 83 Squadron, Sergeant John Hannah, a Wireless Operator in one of the Hampden bombers in Gibson's squadron. On 15th September, Hannah's Hampden had delivered yet another attack on the invasion barges gathering at Antwerp and turning for home, the bomber was struck inside the bomb bay, immediately starting a fierce fire. The fire was so intense that the rear gunner was forced to bale out of the stricken bomber and Hannah could certainly have done the same. However, he chose to remain behind and fight the fires whilst the pilot, Pilot Officer Connor, a Canadian, attempted to bring the crippled Hampden home. Hannah fought the fires for fully ten minutes, exhausting two fire extinguishers and eventually resorting to stamping out the fire with his feet and hands. Hannah was wearing a flying suit, which had some fire resistant qualities but in his efforts to put out the fires, he suffered serious burns to his hands, face and eyes, as well as losing his parachute in the process. Effectively trapped on his aircraft, Hannah eventually succeeded in completely extinguishing the fire, by which time the aluminium floor of the bomber had completely melted in places, leaving a precarious grid formed by the main structure of the aircraft. The fires safely extinguished, Connor succeeded in nursing the damaged Hampden back home to Scampton. Tragically, John Hannah contracted tuberculosis in 1941, no doubt as a result of the smoke inhalation and was invalided out of the RAF. He struggled to make a living as a cab driver but his health was too frail to continue in this employment and he died in 1947 from a heart attack, aged only 25.

Handley Page Hampden (RAF photo)

In 1942, under Sir Arthur Harris, Bomber Command truly went onto the offensive with it's area bombing tactics, using their ever growing force of four-engined heavy bombers to wreak havoc by night amongst German cities and their occupants. As with the 'Battle of the Barges', the cost was a high one; by the war's end, some 55,573 Bomber Command aircrew had perished. The vast majority of these losses were on operations over German cities but when looking back at the Battle of Britain, it is wise to remember that at least some of 'The Few' were bomber crews.

Published Sources:

Bomber Boys - Patrick Bishop, Harper Press 2007
Bomber Command 1939-45 - Richard Overy, Harper Collins 1997
Enemy Coast Ahead - Wing Commander Guy Gibson, Crecy 2013
The Most Dangerous Enemy - Stephen Bungay, Aurum Press 2001
VCs of the Second World War - John Frayn Turner, Pen & Sword 2004

1 comment:

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.