Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Battle of Britain Day, Buckingham Palace and Sgt Ray Holmes

Sunday, September 15th 1940 was a pivotal day in the Battle of Britain and saw the scene set for a German blow against London which was intended to exploit what their planners saw as the desperate state of RAF Fighter Command and to have a decisive effect on the morale of the British public as a prelude to a German invasion. A large formation of German bombers led by III Gruppe of KG76 under Alois Lindmayr had initiated this daylight raid but had been relentlessly attacked all the way from the Channel coast by the RAF's fighters. They had first been detected by the British radar at 1104 when forming up over France and the attacking fighters had first peeled away the escorting Bf109s and by 1207, when the formation was over Lewisham in southeast London, the Hurricanes of 257 and 504 Squadrons, of whom Sergeant Ray Holmes (pictured) was a member, had intercepted the bombers and joined the fray.

However, so well disciplined was Lindmayr's unit that despite all of the attacks, they still remained in formation except for one machine, piloted by Oberleutnant Robert Zehbe which had dropped out of the formation due to engine problems. Straggling behind the main formation, this aircraft, a Dornier Do17, became a particular target for the attacking fighters and at one point was being assailed on both sides by two aircraft from each of the attacking squadrons. With two of his crewmen already dead, Zehbe ordered the remaining two to bale out, set his aircraft onto auto-pilot and followed his men out. He landed in Kennington, near the Oval Cricket Ground and hanging by his parachute from some cables, was set upon by an angry mob, including several women armed with pokers and kitchen knives. Although this 'mob rule' behaviour cannot today be condoned, at the time, after a week of the Blitz, feelings were already running high amongst some Londoners. Zehbe was rescued by the Home Guard and driven away but died of his wounds shortly afterwards. In the meantime, his bomber flew on unmanned across Central London.

The remainder of the German formation completed their bombing run on the railway lines running between Clapham Junction and Battersea and turned for home at 1209, being assailed by British fighters on all sides. Apart from his own squadrons of 11 Group, Air Vice Marshall Keith Park, who was in command, had also called for assistance from the neighbouring 12 Group, whose commander, Air Vice Marshall Trafford Leigh-Mallory was a leading advocate of the so-called 'Big Wing' system of defence against attacking formations. Park and Leigh-Mallory had disagreed vehemently in the past over tactics, with Park distrusting the 12 Group commander due to their non-appearance at crucial times during the battle. This was due to the time it took to assemble such large numbers of fighters in the air. On this occasion though, the German bombers of KG76 were under attack by vast numbers of Spitfires and Hurricanes. These were the fighters of the Duxford Wing commanded by Wing Commander Douglas Bader and there were so many of them attacking at one point that they had to break off for fear of collision with one another.

Robert Zehbe's damaged and now empty Dornier flew on alone but was still being attacked by five aircraft from three different squadrons, including the Hurricane of Sergeant Ray Holmes. However as Holmes lined up for his attack and pressed his gun-button, he was appalled to discover that nothing happened. He had run out of ammunition and not knowing that the bomber was unmanned and flying on auto-pilot, decided that he had to bring it down at all costs. He decided to ram the Dornier in an attempt to slice off it's tail, which he did, causing the bomber to go into an uncontrolled spin. The resulting g-forces caused the bomber's bomb load to be ejected, part of which fell on Buckingham Palace. The Dornier itself fell on Victoria Station, with parts of it falling on the station forecourt in Wilton Road. As for Ray Holmes's Hurricane, it too went into a spin and he baled out, landing on an apartment block close to the railway lines. His parachute caught on some guttering and he was suspended with his feet resting on a dustbin. His reception could not have been more different to Robert Zehbe's, for after cutting himself free, he kissed two pretty girls who had appeared in an adjacent garden and then took himself off to Chelsea Barracks for a celebratory drink in the mess before returning to his base at RAF Hendon later in the day.

Up above, the beleagured German fighters and bombers of the morning's attacks, including those of KG76 fought their way home. Only fifteen of Lindmayr's Dorniers now remained in formation and most of these were damaged to greater or lesser degrees. Six had been shot down and another four were straggling home out of formation in a damaged condition. They eventually made it back to their base in France without further loss.

During the remainder of the day, further attacks continued through the afternoon and into the night, with London being heavily attacked once darkness fell. Winston Churchill had spent the day at RAF Uxbridge watching the battle develop and at one point had asked Keith Park what reserves Fighter Command had in place, only to receive the reply "There are none sir."

However, as the afternoon wore on, it became clear that the RAF was gaining the upper hand and once darkness had fallen and the sirens sounded again over London, the British and World media were given statistics by the Air Ministry that the RAF had shot down 185 German aircraft. The Germans protested that the figures were wildly exaggerated although nobody listened. Privately, many of the British side - especially Dowding and Park - were angry that these figures had been released. They felt that 12 Group especially had overstated their claims - for example, Zehbe's Dornier, the one eventually brought down by Ray Holmes had been claimed by nine different pilots. This was not a deliberate overstatement but arose from the confusion of a fast and furious battle in which there was not time for squadron intelligence officers to accurately cross check and verify claims outside of their own squadrons. As Stephen Bungay points out in his excellent book 'The Most Dangerous Enemy' it is difficult enough for modern day researchers to ascertain this information, so was nigh on impossible to do it quickly in 1940. It was therefore hardly surprising that the 'kills' total for the day had been so exaggerated and in reality the actual German losses amounted to a total of 56 aircraft - 18 in the morning's engagements, 35 in the afternoon plus 2 reconnaissance aircraft and another in an evening raid over Portsmouth. This was obviously far fewer than the official claim but still represented a decisive victory for the RAF, who had lost 30 fighters but with ten of those pilots being saved. Much was also made in the press of the bombing of Buckingham Palace, even though in reality this was an accident which had only happened when the bomber spun into the ground following it's collision with Ray Holmes's Hurricane.

Back in France, the returning survivors from the Luftwaffe's raids were severely shaken. They had been led to believe by their own intelligence officers that the RAF was on it's last legs. Today they had seemed to be stronger than ever. This was due to the 'Big Wing' under Bader appearing over London. Although this tactic was dubious in terms of the time it took to assemble, from the psychological viewpoint of the Germans, it was devastating - to them, the RAF had more fighters than ever before.

This was September 15th 1940, a day seen in retrospect as the day when some of the senior Nazi echelons began to realise that an invasion of Britain was not a viable proposition and for that reason, it has been celebrated ever since as Battle of Britain Day.

Published Sources:

The Most Dangerous Enemy - Stephen Bungay, Aurum Press 2000
The Narrow Margin - Derek Wood with Derek Dempster, Hutchinson 1961
Battle of Britain Day - Alfred Price, Sidgwick & Jackson 1990

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