Friday 14 August 2015

Creeping Towards London

Reputedly the site of the first bomb of the war - Fore Street, EC2 (Author's photo)
In August 1940, the Battle of Britain was at it's height but to those people living in London, the war was still somewhat at a distance, although slowly creeping closer all the time.

The First Phase of the Battle had seen the Luftwaffe concentrating by day on shipping targets in the Channel, Straits of Dover and along the East Coast and by night on minelaying and sporadic raids on mainly coastal targets, as well as some leaflet dropping activities. The leaflets in question contained a transcript of Hitler's now famous "Last Appeal to Reason" speech made on 19th July 1940. During this typically rambling, two hour diatribe, Hitler created twelve new Field Marshals as well as promoting the Hermann Goring to the unique position of Reichsmarschall. Following this orgy of self congratulation after the Fall of France, The Fuhrer turned his attention to Britain in which he tried to appeal to the British people directly, separate from the belligerent defiance of Winston Churchill's government and stated that he saw little point in continuing with the war. Despite the talk of peace, there was still a threatening undercurrent to Hitler's speech when he made it clear that if the war was to continue, he would deal "the final blow" to Britain. Perhaps Hitler and most of his devoted audience were expecting the peace offer to be accepted after some deliberation but it must have come as something of a shock for it to be rejected out of hand within the hour in a BBC broadcast. Official rejection, in the form of a statement from Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary came on July 22nd.

With the British seemingly rejecting peace, Hitler ordered Goring to prepare for 'Adlerangriff' - Eagle Attack, culminating in 'Adlertag' - Eagle Day on August 13th 1940, which would see the complete destruction of RAF Fighter Command, thus giving the Luftwaffe the air supremacy vital for ensuring the success of an amphibious invasion, which otherwise could be devastated by the Royal Navy.

This second phase of the Battle would see concerted attacks on the RAF's radar stations and airfields, in the hope of destroying fighters on the ground, as well as drawing them up into air combat where, it was confidently predicted by the Luftwaffe High Command, that the superior strength and aircraft of the Germans would win the day.

It would take a book, rather than a blog, to write a detailed history of the Battle of Britain and there are many excellent works on the subject but we should highlight several crucial factors that are relevant to the story.

Throughout the Battle, the Luftwaffe's leadership consistently believed it's own faulty intelligence which led them to understand that the RAF was far weaker than it actually was (on 16th August the Luftwaffe estimated that Fighter Command were down to 300 aircraft - in fact on this day they had over 700 on strength) and that British aircraft production was plummeting, when in fact, it was consistently growing. There was also a refusal to accept the limitations of some of the German aircraft used in the Battle. For example, both the Do17 and He111 were slow, carried a relatively small bomb load and were unable to adequately defend themselves. The Bf109 was a superb fighter aircraft but was not designed to operate at extreme ranges and had a very limited endurance over England. The Bf110 was much trumpeted as a 'heavy fighter' and would come into it's own later in the war as a night fighter but during the Battle of Britain was consistently outclassed by the Spitfire. The Ju87 'Stuka' had to be withdrawn from the Battle as it was simply unable to defend itself in hostile skies - a situation that had never arisen during it's previous conquests in Poland and France. The Luftwaffe's aircrew, were like the RAF, superbly trained professionals but also like the RAF later in the Battle, the Luftwaffe was to suffer shortages of suitably trained aircrew because of the ongoing attrition rate and unlike the RAF, any Luftwaffe aircrew who survived being shot down, were lost as Prisoners of War. Refusal by the High Command to recognize these factors led to an overconfidence that was apparent for much of the Battle.

This overconfidence could be typified thus; at a meeting with his senior staff and Luftflotten commanders on August 15th at Karinhall, Goring's country residence outside Berlin, the Reichsmarschall, ordered that the British radar stations should no longer be attacked as it had so far proved impossible to put them out of action and that they were of doubtful value. This showed remarkable ignorance of the both the importance of radar and the abilities of his own bomber crews, as the Radar Station at Ventnor had been put out of action three days earlier and repairs were still being effected!

Pilots at readiness - RAF Kenley, August 1940 (author's collection)

Another example of this overconfidence was demonstrated when the focus of the Luftwaffe's efforts switched to knocking out the RAF's fighter airfields. Once again, the intelligence was lazy and incomplete. Almost every airfield shown on German photo reconnaissance was identified as a fighter station, this included Fleet Air Arm airfields, as well as those belonging to Coastal, Training and even Bomber Commands. As a result, the wrong airfields were often attacked and whilst the consequences could be appalling for those on the wrong end of an air raid, it had no effect on Fighter Command and some fighter airfields well within range of the Luftwaffe were never bombed during the Battle of Britain. Also, follow up reconnaissance often identified non-existent aircraft such as the American Curtiss Hawk as being destroyed, when in fact the RAF did not use this type during the Battle of Britain!

Some airfields such as Biggin Hill, Kenley and Manston were repeatedly attacked by the Luftwaffe but only the latter was ever put out of action and abandoned temporarily by Fighter Command. Too often, the German bombers would drop their loads on an airfield and the High Command would then assume it was out of action and 'chalk off' the units based there as being permanently lost. This sort of overconfidence undoubtedly added to the remarkably optimistic loss estimates quoted above.

This over claiming of losses wasn't restricted to the Germans; on September 15th 1940 for example, the RAF initially claimed 185 German aircraft shot down and immediately released these figures to the World, to great German protest and privately, to Dowding and Park's great annoyance. These latter two officers believed that the best way to come up with an accurate figure of losses was basically to count the wrecks on the ground but in the fog of war, the Air Ministry released the figures based on claims largely submitted by Leigh Mallory's 'Big Wing', thus sending out the message that the RAF were shooting down the Luftwaffe in droves and far from defeated. Whilst this sent the right message to the Americans amongst others, it also boosted Leigh Mallory and his claims for Park's job in 11 Group, but this is another story for another blog article.

In the meantime, the action began to move ever closer to the capital. On August 15th, Croydon was attacked and whilst the RAF airfield was the main target, some local factories were also hit including a radio components works as well as destroying many training aircraft on the ground. Some 63 people were killed, with many more injured and this was the first recorded raid in the Greater London area. On the following day, Esher and Wimbledon were both bombed, as was New Malden Railway Station where some railway staff and passengers were killed.

On August 18th, Croydon was once again attacked, with two Spitfires on the ground destroyed along with one airman killed and fifteen injured. The RAF Stations at Biggin Hill, West Malling and Kenley were all attacked on this day, with nine people killed and a further fifteen injured at the latter airfield, where three hangers were destroyed along with four Hurricanes and three trainer aircraft. A respite followed on the 19th August while Goring held further conferences. Activities resumed on the 20th but poor weather kept the raiders largely away from the London area until the early hours of the morning of the 23rd August, when a lone raider dropped his bombs on the suburb of Wealdstone. Later the same day Biggin Hill received another small attack but it was the following day when the attacks on the RAF's airfields resumed in earnest and when the seeds for the London Blitz were to be sewn.

In the first attacks of the day, Manston was reduced to a shambles and evacuated, for immediate use as an emergency landing ground only. RAF North Weald received the attention of fifty Do17s and He111s, which dropped some 200 bombs on the airfield, severely damaging the officers' and airmen's Married Quarters, killing nine people and wounding a further ten. During the evening, the target was Rochester and the oil refinery at Thameshaven but owing to bad navigation during indifferent weather, the bombs fell on London Wall, Islington, Finsbury, Stepney and Bethnal Green - the first bombs to fall on Central London and a foretaste of things to come.

August 25th saw the main Luftwaffe activity in the South West of England but that evening, 81 RAF bombers headed for Berlin in retaliation for the previous night's bombing of London and whilst the damage caused was slight, the loss of face caused by this attack was to lead to a major policy change and one which would not only have grave consequences for London and other British cities but which would also swing the outcome of the Battle of Britain decisively in favour of the British.

Heinkel He111 shot down at Kenley 30th August 1940 (author's collection)

The following day saw attacks on airfields resume with Kenley, Biggin Hill, Hornchurch, North Weald and Debden all attacked and with the Sergeants' Mess and NAAFI being destroyed at the latter airfield with five killed. Poor weather again kept the focus of the attacks away from the London area until August 30th, when North Weald, Kenley and Biggin Hill were again attacked. At the Kentish airfield, a trench shelter was hit, as were the WAAFs' Quarters, with 39 being killed and another 26 injured. Slough was bombed, as was the Vauxhall Motors factory in Luton, where 50 people were killed as well as severe damage being caused to the works. Attacks on airfields continued now on a daily basis with North Weald, Kenley, Croydon, Hornchurch, Rochford, Debden and Biggin Hill all regularly raided. Biggin Hill especially was pounded mercilessly but although severely damaged, the airfield was never put out of action.

On September 4th, the Vickers Armstrong factory at Brooklands in Surrey was attacked, with a shelter being hit. Some 88 people were killed and 600 were injured. The factory was out of action for four days and production of the Wellington bomber severely affected. Terrible as this attack was, it was of no consequence to Fighter Command and was another example of the Luftwaffe's poor intelligence - Brooklands had an airfield but was never used by Fighter Command. Also on this day, a lone raider, no doubt looking for a target of opportunity along the River Thames, instead dropped it's bombs on a church in Charlton, southeast London, thus giving St Paul's Church the unhappy distinction of being the first London church to be destroyed in the war. This incident was covered in the very first edition of this blog back in April 2010.

St Paul's Church Charlton - the first London church to be destroyed in the war (Greenwich Heritage Centre)

Airfield attacks continued on the following two days, with Biggin Hill and Kenley again being singled out. The Hawker factories in Kingston and Langley were also targeted but production of the Hurricane fighter was not affected.

Whilst all this was going on, a meetings took place on August 31st at which the Command Staff of the Luftwaffe drew up preliminary plans for a raid on London in reprisal for the RAF's attack of seven days previously and on September 3rd in The Hague, the Luftwaffe High Command received a personal order from Hitler for 'the start of reprisal raids against London.'

Unwittingly, Hitler was taking pressure away from the RAF's fighter airfields, allowing them to rebuild and re-group. The easing of attacks on aircraft factories was also a vital factor in allowing production to build up reserves.

The dye was cast for 'Black Saturday' September 7th and the Blitz.

Published Sources:

Dowding of Fighter Command - Vincent Orange, Grub Street 2008
The Most Dangerous Enemy - Stephen Bungay, Aurum Press 2000
The Narrow Margin - Derek Wood with Derek Dempster, Tri-Service Press 1990
Park - Vincent Orange, Grub Street 2001