The attacks on London on 7th September were made in two or three distinct waves, at intervals of about 20 minutes, the whole attack lasting up to an hour. The waves were composed of formations of from twenty to forty bombers, with an equal number of fighters in close escort, additional protection being given by large formations of other fighters flying at a much higher altitude. Most of the German aircraft came over at heights above 15,000 feet in sunny skies, which made the task of the Observer Corps very difficult.
At this stage, too, the enemy's dive bombers reappeared in attacks on coastal objectives and shipping off Essex and Kent. They were a diversion, for they came over while the mass attacks by the long-range bombers were in progress. By night the Germans greatly increased their attacks by single aircraft. These made no attempt to hit military targets, but contented themselves with dropping their bombs at random over the large area of London.
All the attacks, however, were in essence the same. Over came the German aircraft in one or more of the many formations already described. Somewhere between the coast and London, usually in the Edenbridge-Tunbridge Wells area, but sometimes nearer to the sea, the German squadrons were met by our fighters. The Spitfires tackled the high-flying fighter screen covering the German attack.
The Hurricanes, which had taken off first, engaged the fighter escort, followed by other squadrons who went for the bombers. There were dog-fights all over Kent. The air was for some minutes -- never for very long -- vibrant with machine-gun fire. People on the ground have described it as like the sound made by a small boy in the next street when he runs a stick along a stretch of iron railings. As a background there was the faint roar of hundreds of engines, which on occasion swelled to a fierce note as some crippled enemy fighter or bomber fell to the ground or made for its base, dropping lower and lower with Spitfires or Hurricanes diving upon it. Sometimes watchers, like those upon the keep of Hever Castle, would see the blue field of the sky blossom suddenly with the white flowers of parachutes. The warm sun of those superb September days shone on an ever-increasing number of the wrecked carcases of aircraft bearing on their wings the Black Cross of Prussia or the crooked symbol of Nazi power.
The Last Throw
The attack on London and its environs was the crux of the battle. It continued with little respite from the 7th September until 5th October and was the last desperate attempt to win victory. This could no longer be achieved cheaply, for the Luftwaffe had already suffered terrible losses. But it might still be possible to destroy London and thus to win the war. Despite the hard fighting of the previous month, the Fighter defences of the R.A.F. were still fighting as hard as ever. They had to be overcome before London could be placed at Hitler's mercy. Göring still believed in superior numbers. These would win the trick. They had brought him swift victory in Poland, Norway, the Low Countries, Belgium and France; they might still bring victory in Britain. He put forth all his strength in a final endeavour to knock down the nine-pins at any cost. The Luftwaffe delivered thirty-eight major attacks by day between the 6th September and 5th October.
After battering away morning, noon, and night throughout the 6th September against our inland fighter aerodromes, the German Air Force made a tremendous effort on the 7th to reach London and destroy the Docks. Three hundred and fifty bombers and fighters flew in two waves East of Croydon up to the Thames Estuary, some penetrating nearly as far as Cambridge. They were met over Kent and East Surrey, but a number broke through and were engaged over the capital itself. For the first time since that September day in 1666, when Mr. Samuel Pepys informed the King at Whitehall that the City was on fire, Londoners saw flames leaping up from various points in the crowded and densely populated districts of Dockland and Woolwich, while from every German radio station, announcers broadcast a running commentary on the action, in which imagination and wishful thinking were nicely blended. London did not emerge unscathed. Damage was inflicted on dock buildings, on several factories, on railway communications, and on gas and electricity plants. Damage was also inflicted on the enemy. One hundred and three German aircraft were destroyed. These heavy casualties shook the German High Command, for though the attacks were renewed and continued, evidently all was no longer well. Still, the Luftwaffe persevered with great tenacity and courage, delivering heavy attacks on 9th September, using on that occasion a number of four-engined bombers; on the 11th, when about thirty aircraft penetrated to Central London; on the 13th and again on the 15th. Those who got through on the 11th were so savagely handled by our fighter defence that the losses among their crews were estimated to be not less than two hundred and fifty. On the next day, a single German aircraft penetrated the defence, by the clever use of cloud cover, and bombed Buckingham Palace in the morning. On the 15th September came the climax; five hundred German aircraft, two hundred and fifty in the morning and two hundred and fifty in the afternoon, fought a running fight with our Hurricanes and Spitfires from Hammersmith to Dungeness, from Bow to the coast of France. This engagement will be described in greater detail later. It cost the enemy one hundred and eighty-five aircraft known to have been destroyed. Altogether, between the 6th September and the 5th October, he had lost eight hundred and eighty-three aircraft.
It is not necessary to record in detail the rest of the fighting which endured to 31st October. Enough has been said to show the nature of the German effort and of our defence. There were, however, three more major assaults delivered, on 27th September, 30th September and 5th October.
Thus, between 11th September and 5th October, the enemy delivered some thirty-two major attacks by day. In all these, bombers were used and their escort of fighters steadily increased in numbers, till the ratio rose to four fighters to one bomber. Of these attacks, fifteen were made on the area of Greater London, ten against Kent and the Thames Estuary, six on Southampton and one on Reading. While these last attacks were well executed and pressed home, those on London were less determined than in the opening stages of the battle. On many occasions, the enemy jettisoned his bombs before reaching his apparent objective, as soon as he found himself in contact with our fighters. Throughout this period, the bombing attacks were mostly made from high level. To enable their bombers to reach their targets, the Germans sought to draw off our fighter patrols by high altitude rather than by geographical diversions. High fighter screens were sent over to occupy our fighters while the bombers, closely escorted by more fighters, tried to get through some 6,000 to 10,000 feet below.
Success of British Fighter Interception
As autumn came on and the sky grew more cloudy, the enemy began to make increasing use of fighters flying very high above the clouds. His most usual practice was to put a very high screen of these fighters over Kent, from fifteen minutes to three-quarters of an hour before his bombers appeared. The object was evidently to draw off our fighters, exhaust their petrol, and thus make it impossible for them to engage the bombers. Sometimes, however, the high-flying enemy fighters appeared only a few minutes before the bombers, which were themselves escorted by other fighters. These escorts were normally divided into two parts, a big formation above and on both flanks or rear of the bombers, and a small formation on the same level as, or slightly in front of, the aircraft they were protecting.
The enemy's high fighter screen was engaged by pairs of Spitfire Squadrons half-way between London and the coast, while wings of two or three Hurricane Squadrons attacked the bombers and their escorts before they reached the fighter aerodromes East and South of London. Other Squadrons formed a third and inner ring patrolling above these aerodromes, forming a defensive screen to guard the southern approaches to London. These intercepted the third wave of any attack and mopped up the retreating formations belonging to earlier waves. The success of these tactics may be gauged by the number of casualties inflicted on the Germans. Between 11th September and 5th October, No. 11 Group of Fighter Command alone destroyed four hundred and forty-two enemy aircraft for certain. This was accomplished with the loss of fifty-eight pilots, giving a ratio of seven and a half enemy to one British pilot lost.
September came and went, and by the end of the first week in October, our aerodromes had recovered from the damage inflicted on them at the end of August and the beginning of September. The percentage of raids intercepted increased, as did the casualties of the enemy, while our own steadily decreased. Thus on 27th September, No. 11 Group destroyed ninety-nine German aircraft, out of a total for the day of one hundred and thirty-three, for the loss of fifteen pilots, a proportion of six and a half to one. Three days later, when thirty-two enemy aircraft were destroyed, the proportion rose to sixteen to one, and on 5th October only one pilot was lost, though twenty-two of the enemy were shot down. Many times, one aggressively-led squadron was able to break up an enemy bomber formation. On three occasions, a lone Hurricane flown by a Sector Commander was successful in causing the enemy to drop his bombs wide of the target. The brunt of all this fighting fell on No. 11 Group. This Group was reinforced when necessary by elements of Numbers 10 and 12 Groups, which were especially useful during the period of the heavy attacks on London.
How hard fought was the battle can be seen from the fact that from 8th September to 5th October inclusive, 3,291 day patrols of varying strength were flown, and from 6th October to the last day of that month 2,786, making a total for these fifty-five days of 6,077.
On 6th October, the fourth and final stage of the battle began. The enemy's strategy and method of attack now changed completely. He withdrew nearly all his long-range bombers and tried to achieve his end by means of fighters and fighter bombers. This change is the surest proof that he had received such a hammering as to make further use of his depleted bombing force by daylight too costly. He preferred to send it over by night, and this he did in increasing numbers. His tactical handling of his fighters and fighter bombers -- a few of them were Me.110s but they were mostly Me.109s fitted with a make-shift bomb carrier enabling them to take a pair of bombs at a speed of about three hundred miles an hour -- was this.
Mass fighter formations were sent over at a great height, in almost continuous waves, to attack London, still the principal target. He doubtless hoped by this means to wear out our fighter defence by forcing it to engage, at much higher altitudes, aircraft which were making the best use possible of high cloud cover. In the early stages, he reduced the size of his formations and used flights of from two to nine aircraft. The fighter bombers were protected more and more by Me.110 fighters. Evidently, however, this new plan did not achieve the success for which he hoped, for in the third week of October he reverted once more to large formations flying at 30,000 feet or higher. To enable them to break through, the Germans continued to use the tactics of diversion. Whenever the weather was good enough, waves of fighters appeared almost continuously over the South-East of England. Using the cover these provided, very high flying fighter bombers made frequent and rapid attacks on the London area. On sighting our fighters, however, they often jettisoned their bombs and made off. They showed, in fact, little tendency to engage, but when they did so they sometimes gained the advantage of surprise, owing to the height at which they were flying.
The Last Move Countered
Our own tactics were immediately altered so successfully that No. 11 Group accounted for one hundred and sixty-seven enemy aircraft in three and a half weeks. The cost to the Group was forty-five pilots. In this phase, the number of enemy probably destroyed rose considerably, because the fighting took place so high up that our pilots were unable to see the ultimate fate of many of the German aircraft, which fell away after the encounter towards the sea. The physical strain of fighting at heights of 30,000 feet or more proved very severe.
It is possible to detect a feeling of despair in the hearts of the Luftwaffe during this final phase of the struggle. Try as they might, and did, our defences were still not only intact but invulnerable. Occasionally an odd Me.109 or a small formation broke through and reached London, but the weight of the bombs which they succeeded in dropping was only a fraction of what had been dropped in August and September. Moreover, there was little attempt at precision bombing. There can be no better proof of the enemy's failure than that furnished by the citizens of London. During the early stages, many of them took cover when the sirens sounded. Post Offices, Ministries and Public Departments, large stores -- all closed their doors and sent their staffs and any visitors in the building to cover. Very soon, however, it was noticed that most of the noise, at no time to be compared with the nightly barrage which soon became the background of their slumbers, was due to gunfire and not to the explosion of bombs. Trails of white vapour, forming fantastic and beautiful patterns in the summer sky, were often the only indication that the Luftwaffe was over the capital. These pleased the eye and provided a subject for speculation in the streets and public resorts. Soon, however, even these failed to attract much notice. As the days wore on, the Londoner, always confident in the ability of the Royal Air Force to protect him in the hours of daylight, began to take that protection for granted. Except when roof-watchers -- the Prime Minister's "Jim Crow's" -- signalled that danger was imminent, life went on as usual and still does.
There can be no better tribute to the men of the Fighter Squadrons.
The foregoing is a summary, necessarily brief and incomplete -- for the battle took place too recently for a full account to be written -- of almost three months of nearly continuous air fighting. To better comprehend its nature, it is necessary to examine in greater detail an individual day's fighting. Sunday, 15th September, is as good a day as any other. It was one of "the great days," as they have come to be called, and the actions then fought were described by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons as "the most brilliant and fruitful of any fought upon a large scale up to that date by the fighters of the Royal Air Force." The enemy lost one hundred and eighty-five aircraft. This is what happened.
Over the South-East of England, the day of Sunday, 15th September, dawned a little misty, but cleared by eight o'clock and disclosed light cumulus cloud at 2,000 or 3,000 feet. The extent of this cloud varied, and in places it was heavy enough to produce light local showers. Visibility, however, was on the whole good throughout the day; the slight wind was from the west, shifting to north-west, as the day advanced.
The first enemy patrols arrived soon after 9 a.m. They were reported to be in the Straits, in the Thames Estuary, off Harwich, and between Lympne and Dungeness. About 11.30, Göring launched the first wave of the morning attack, consisting of a hundred or more aircraft, soon followed by one hundred and fifty more. These crossed the English coast at three main points: near Ramsgate, between Dover and Folkestone, and a mile or two north of Dungeness. Their objective was London. This formidable force was composed of Dornier bomber 17s and 215s, escorted by Me.109s. They flew at various heights between 15,000 and 26,000 feet. From the ground, the German aircraft looked like black dots at the head of long streamers of white vapour; from the air, like specks rapidly growing. They appeared first as model airplanes and then, as the range closed, as full-sized aircraft.
Battle was soon joined and raged for about three-quarters of an hour over East Kent and London. Some hundred German bombers burst through our defence and reached the eastern and southern quarters of the capital. A number of them were intercepted above the centre of the city itself, just as Big Ben was striking the hour of noon.
To understand the nature of the combat, it must be remembered that the aircraft engaged in it were flying at a speed of between 300 and 400 miles an hour. At that speed, place names become almost meaningless. The enemy, for example, might have been intercepted over Maidstone, but not destroyed until within a few miles of Calais. "Place attack was delivered -- Hammersmith to Dungeness" or "London to the French Coast." Such phrases in the Intelligence Patrol Reports forcibly illustrate the size of the area over which the battle was fought. That being so, it is better perhaps not to attempt to plot the place of attack too accurately -- an almost hopeless task -- but to refer to it simply as the Southern Marches of England.
The battle, in fact, took place roughly in a cube about 80 miles long, 38 miles broad and from 5 to 6 miles high. It was in this space, between noon and half-past, that between 150 and 200 individual combats took place. Many of these developed into stern chases which were broken off within a mile or two of the French Coast.
Sixteen squadrons of No. 11 Group, followed by five from Nos. 10 and 12, were sent up to engage the enemy. All but one of the Squadrons taking part in the battle were very soon face to face with him. Five Squadrons of Spitfires opened their attack against the oncoming Germans in the Maidstone-Canterbury-Dover-Dungeness area. These were in action slightly before the Hurricane Squadrons, which intercepted farther back, between Maidstone, Tunbridge Wells and South London.
The Germans were found to be flying in various types of formations. The bombers were usually some thousands of feet below the fighters, but sometimes this position was reversed. The bombers flew either in Vics ( a "V"-shaped formation) of from five to seven aircraft or in lines of five aircraft abreast or in a diamond formation.
The Me.109s were usually in Vics. One pilot has described the attacking German aircraft as flying in little groups of nine arranged in threes like a sergeant's stripes. Each group of nine was in this case supported by a group of nine Me.110 fighters with single-seater Me.109s or He.113s circling high above.
The enemy soon realised that our defence was awake and active, for the German pilots could be heard calling out to each other over their wireless 'phones "Achtung, Schpitfeuer!" ("Attention, Spitfires!"). They had need to keep alert. Our pilots opened fire at an average range of from 200 to 250 yards, closing when necessary to 50. Many of the enemy fighters belonged to the famous Yellow-Nose Squadrons, though some had white noses and even occasionally red.
Justification for Our New Tactics
Once the battle was joined, regular formation was frequently lost and each pilot chose an individual foe. The following account of one combat can be taken as typical of the rest.
A pilot, whose Squadron was attacking in echelon starboard, dived out of the sun on to an Me.109, which blew up after receiving his first burst of fire. By this time he found that another Me.109 was on his tail. He turned, got it in his sights and set it on fire with several bursts. He was now separated from his comrades and therefore returned to his base. As he was coming down he received a message saying that the enemy were above. He looked up, saw a group of Dorniers at 14,000 feet, climbed and attacked them. He got in a burst at a Dornier; other friendly fighters came up to help. The enemy aircraft crashed into a wood and exploded.
While the Spitfires and Hurricanes were in action over Kent, other Hurricanes were dealing with such of the enemy as had succeeded, by sheer force of numbers, in breaking through and reaching the outskirts of London. Fourteen Squadrons of Hurricanes, almost immediately reinforced by three more Squadrons of Spitfires, took up this task, all of them coming into action between noon and twenty past. There ensued a continuous and general engagement extending from London to the coast and beyond.
In it, the tactics so carefully thought out, so assiduously practised, secured victory. Let a Squadron-Leader describe the results they achieved.
"The 15th of September," he says, "dawned bright and clear at Croydon. It never seemed to do anything else during those exciting weeks of August and September. But to us it was just another day. We weren't interested in Hitler's entry into London; most of us were wondering whether we should have time to finish breakfast before the first blitz started. We were lucky.
"It wasn't till 9.30 that the sirens started wailing and the order came through to rendezvous base at 20,000 feet. As we were climbing in a southerly direction, at 15,000 feet we saw thirty Heinkels, supported by fifty Me.109s 4,000 feet above them, and twenty No. 110s to a flank, approaching us from above. We turned and climbed, flying in the same direction as the bombers, with the whole Squadron stringed out in echelon to port up sun, so that each man had a view of the enemy.
" 'A' flight timed their attack to perfection, coming down sun in a power dive on the enemy's left flank. As each was selecting his own man, the Me.110 escort roared in to intercept, with cannons blazing at 1,000 yards range, but they were two seconds too late -- too late to engage our fighters, but just in time to make them hesitate long enough to miss the bomber leader. Two Heinkels heeled out of the formation.
"Meanwhile, the Me.110s had flashed out of sight, leaving the way clear for 'B' flight, as long as the Me.109s stayed above. 'B' flight leader knew how to bide his time, but just as he was about to launch his attack, the Heinkels did the unbelievable thing. They turned south; into the sun; and into him. With his first burst, the leader destroyed the leading bomber, which blew up with such force that it knocked a wing off the left-hand bomber. A little bank and a burst from his guns sent the right-hand Heinkel out of the formation, with smoke pouring out of both engines. Before returning home, he knocked down an Me.109. Four aircraft destroyed, for an expenditure of 1,200 rounds, was the best justification for our new tactics."
Dropping Every Few Miles
It must be borne in mind that this great battle was made up of Squadron attacks followed by numbers of personal combats, all taking place more or less at the same time over this wide area. Squadrons flying in pairs or wings of three units went into action in formation against an enemy similarly disposed. After the first attack, delivered as often as possible out of the sun, they broke up and individual duels took place all over the sky.
Certain of the more striking incidents may be briefly recorded.
There were the dive attacks carried out by one Squadron of Spitfires, which twice passed through an enemy bomber formation, each time delivering beam attacks as they did so. These tactics threw the enemy into extreme confusion. The bombers turned almost blindly, it seemed, aircraft dropping in flames or in uncontrolled dives with every few miles of the return journey. One such aircraft, of which the cowling and cabin top had blown off, shed its crew who baled out, all except the rear gunner, who was seen to be hanging from the lower escape hatch until the aircraft dived into a wood, ten miles east of Canterbury.
Then there was the pilot who twice attacked an Me.109, which each time strove to escape in an almost vertical dive. The first of these from 20,000 feet was successful, for the German pilot straightened out, but only to find that the British pilot had followed him down and was close upon him. "By that time," said the British pilot, "I was going faster than the enemy aircraft and I continued firing until I had to pull away to the right to avoid a collision." His burst of fire had taken effect, for the German never recovered, but plunged down until he entered cloud, about 6,000 ft. below, when the British pilot had to recover from the dive as his aircraft was going at approximately four hundred and eighty miles an hour. "I then made my way through the cloud at a reasonable speed," he reported, "and saw the wreckage of the enemy aircraft burning furiously . . . . I climbed up through the cloud and narrowly missed colliding with a Ju.88, which was on fire and being attacked by numerous Hurricanes."
There was also the Dornier which crashed just outside Victoria Station. Members of its crew landed by parachute on the Kennington Oval, while the Hurricane pilot, who had shot it down and whose aircraft had gone into an uncontrollable spin when the enemy blew up beneath him, landed safely in Chelsea. Nevertheless, the yellow-nosed squadrons, the elite of the German Air Force, acquitted themselves bravely and showed greater skill than their less well-trained comrades. It was observed that they usually attacked in pairs disposed in line astern some seventy-five yards apart.
Occasionally, fire at long range proved effective. Close range combat was the rule, but it is recorded that a Hurricane pilot fired at an enemy aircraft moving faster than his own and about to get out of range, and hit it at 800 yards. This caused it to slow up, and his second burst was fired from 500 yards. Eventually he finished it off at 25 yards. Another Hurricane pilot, who had broken off a fight because the cooling system of the engine of his aircraft was giving trouble, and who was therefore returning to base, encountered a lone Me.109 which he stalked out of the sun and shot down from 500 yards.
At this stage in the fight, it became clear that the enemy bomber pilots felt themselves to be no match for the British. It was generally observed that, as soon as contact was established, they jettisoned their bombs, then broke formation and turned at once for their base. Thus, twenty Dornier 215s were encountered over the London Docks, flying in a diamond formation escorted by Me.109s "stepped up" to 22,000 feet. The bombers were broken up by a level quarter attack, and this enabled our intercepting Squadron to pursue them relentlessly and shoot most of them down.
Occasionally in this confused and struggling fight, the British Squadrons found themselves temporarily outnumbering the enemy. Thus at 12.15 p.m. a mixed force of Hurricanes and Spitfires, amounting to the greater part of five Squadrons, was over the south of the Thames, somewhere near Hammersmith. Here they encountered an inferior number of the enemy and did terrible execution.
But it was seldom that we had the advantage in numbers. The enemy, however, seemed unable to profit by his numerical superiority. A single Hurricane, for example, encountered twelve yellow-nosed Messerschmitts flying straight at it. The pilot dived under them but swooped upwards and shot down the rear aircraft from directly underneath. As he still had plenty of speed, the British pilot half rolled off the top of his loop and followed the enemy formation, which had not apparently perceived the fate of their comrade in the rear rank. The British pilot accordingly destroyed another enemy aircraft from the rear and damaged a second before the Germans became aware of what was happening, and he was forced, being still in the numerical inferiority of nine to one, to break off the action.
The fight was all over by 12.30, and by the time the citizens of London and the South-East of England were sitting down to their Sunday dinner, the enemy were in full flight to their bases in Northern France. One of those citizens had special cause to rejoice in the result of the fighting. The Prime Minister had spent the morning in one of the Operations Rooms of No. 11 Group. It was observed that, for once, his cigar remained unlit as he followed the swift changes of the battle depicted on the table map before him.
Some of the enemy had, for a brief moment, succeeded in penetrating into the centre of the capital, but they dropped only a few bombs. The fire was too hot, the defence too strong. Seventy of the estimated two hundred and fifty aircraft in the attack, equalling twenty-eight per cent, were seen to crash that morning. Ten more were considered probably to have been destroyed and twenty-eight were observed by our pilots to break off action in a damaged condition. These figures, compiled immediately after the fight and in accordance with the very strict rules applied by the Royal Air Force to pilots' reports, probably underestimated the casualties they inflicted. Even so, the Luftwaffe lost slightly over forty-three per cent of the aircraft used in this morning attack.
Second Wave of Afternoon Attackers
Despite the sound and fury of battle that sunny autumn day, the citizens of London had their Sunday dinner in peace. A lull ensued for about an hour and a half. Then, shortly after two, fresh enemy forces returned to the attack in about the same strength as had been employed that morning. German aircraft crossed the coast near Dover in two waves, the first of one hundred and fifty, the second of one hundred. These formations spread over the South-East and South-West of Kent and over Maidstone.
Before they could proceed farther, they were intercepted by fighters of the Royal Air Force. Twenty-one Squadrons were sent into the air and twenty-one squadrons made contact with the enemy. This time the numbers on each side were fairly equal, and the fighting superiority of the British force was immediately established. Our fighters tore into the enemy's formations, ripping through them like a knife through calico. That was how it sounded from the ground. So determined was the British defence, so effective these tactics, that the German formations were again instantly broken up. This was the opportunity for each pilot to single out an adversary, and in a few moments the sky was again a battlefield. In all that space from the Thames Estuary to Dover, from London to the coast, dog-fights were soon in furious progress. Squadrons were swiftly scattered, so that two which took off together from their base might, fifteen minutes later, be fighting fifty miles apart.
There was nothing haphazard about this interception of the enemy. It was only possible on such a scale and in so effective a manner because every detail had been planned and tested in the fighting of the previous months. So, as reports came through of the German approach, we were able to despatch, from the correct tactical points, enough Squadrons to achieve complete interception and the best results, without dissipating our forces. The general principle applied in coping with earlier assaults, having proved so successful, was put into effect in this second great attack. Certain Squadrons were detailed to deal with the enemy screen of high-flying fighters halfway between London and the coast. This enabled the others to attack the bomber formations and their close escort before they reached the line of fighter aerodromes East and South of London. Those of the enemy who succeeded in penetrating these defences -- some seventy or so -- were tackled by Squadrons of Hurricanes, mostly from Nos. 10 and 12 Groups, who came into action over the capital itself. They also pursued stragglers. As in the morning's fighting, some two hundred individual combats took place and, although no two were quite alike, the general pattern was the same.
"I engaged the enemy in formation, causing them to scatter in all directions," ran the report of one pilot. "We sighted a strong formation of enemy aircraft," wrote another, "and carried out a head-on attack. The enemy scattered, jettisoned their bombs and turned for home. We encountered heavy cannon fire . . ." The reports are laconic: "The whole of the nose, including the pilot's cockpit, was shot away . . ." "I saw tracer flying past my left wing and saw an Me.109 attack me . . . " "I saw his perspex burst and the enemy aircraft spun down . . ." "I did not consider it worth while to waste any more ammunition upon it . . ." "I then looked for more trouble and saw an He.111. I attacked and closed to about 10 feet . . ." "I gave him everything I had . . ." "Aircraft became uncontrollable. I baled out, coming down with left arm paralysed (afterwards learned dislocated) . . ."
As in the morning, a single British aircraft, in this case a Hurricane, piloted by a Group Captain, encountered a large formation of German aircraft, both fighters and bombers, and went into the attack alone. "There were," he said on his return, "no other British fighters in sight, so I made a head-on attack on the first section of the bombers, opening at 600 yards and closing to 200 yards." After describing how, all alone, he broke up the enemy formation, the Group Captain adds, "I made further attacks on the retreating bombers, each attack from climbing beam . . . One Dornier left the formation and lost height. With no ammunition left, I could not finish it off. I last saw the bomber at 3,000 feet, dropping slowly . . ."
So it appears that each pilot had his own swift decisions to make, his own problems to meet. He was not found wanting. While the fight lasted, the Germans were destroyed at the rate of two aircraft a minute. That afternoon's attack cost them ninety-seven destroyed. In the entire day we lost twenty-five aircraft, but fourteen pilots were saved.
Such was a typical day's fighting in a battle which lasted for nearly three months over the South of England.
When the order to begin the assault on these islands was given, the morale of the German air crews was undoubtedly high. The reason was obvious. For years, these young German airmen had been "groomed" for victory. They were assured of their own superiority as individuals and their omnipotence as a striking force. Had they not seen, in the first weeks of the spring of 1940, the terrible predictions of their leader come to pass? Each country Germany had attacked had fallen before the crushing blows of the Nazi war machine, of which they, the Luftwaffe, formed so vital a part. Now, only the British Empire remained inviolate. As those young airmen had swept across Europe from Poland to the English Channel, so they expected to sweep over Britain, subdue her people and prepare the way for an invading army. Disillusion awaited them. As yet, still flushed with victory, they were to see their comrades spin to earth or sea in flames. Nevertheless, let it be said for the German morale, so near it approached to fanaticism, that it never faltered, even when the Luftwaffe was losing seventy, one hundred, and one hundred and fifty aircraft during each period of daylight. Certainly the German pilots showed qualities of courage and tenacity; but these were of little avail against the better quality and still higher courage of the British pilots. Even in their hour of defeat, some pilots of the Luftwaffe thought that the invasion of Britain might take place at any time and that, if it had to be postponed, it would be successfully accomplished in the spring of 1941. It was not, then, any faltering on their part that caused the daylight attacks to die away.
Of the morale of our own pilots little need be said. The facts are eloquent. They had only to see the enemy to engage him immediately. Odds were of no account and were cheerfully accepted. Only a very high degree of confidence in their training, in their aircraft and in their leaders could have enabled them to maintain the spirit of aggressive courage which they invariably displayed. That confidence they possessed to the full.
Polish and Czech pilots took their full share in the battle. They possess great qualities of courage and dash. They are truly formidable fighters.
Sky Full of Spitfires and Hurricanes
To read the combat reports, written by the pilots immediately after landing from a fight, is to receive the impression of well-trained young men, conscious of their responsibilities and fulfilling them at all times with resolution and high courage.
"Patrolled South of Thames (approximately Gravesend Area) at 25,000 feet," runs the report of one Squadron Leader in action on one of the "great" days. "Saw two squadrons pass underneath us in formation travelling N.W. in purposeful manner. Then saw A.A. bursts, so turned Wing and saw enemy aircraft 3,000 feet below to the N.W. Managed perfect approach with two other squadrons between our Hurricanes and sun and enemy aircraft below and down sun. Arrived over enemy aircraft formation of twenty to forty Do.17s. Noticed Me.109 dive out of sun and warned our Spitfires to look out. Me.109 broke away and climbed S.E. Was about to attack enemy aircraft, which were turning left-handed, i.e., to west and south, when I noticed Spitfires and Hurricanes engaging them. Was compelled to wait, for risk of collisions. However, warned wing to watch other friendly fighters and dived down with leading section in formation on to last section of five enemy aircraft. Pilot Officer took left-hand Do.17, I took middle one and Flight-Lieutenant took the right-hand one, which had lost ground on outside of turn. Opened fire at 100 yards in steep dive and saw a large flash behind starboard motor of Dornier as wing caught fire; must have hit petrol pipe or tank. Overshot and pulled up steeply. Then carried on and attacked another Do.17, but had to break away to avoid Spitfire. The sky was then full of Spitfires and Hurricanes, queueing up and pushing each other out of the way to get at Dorniers, which for once were out-numbered . I squirted at odd Dorniers at close range as they came into my sights, but could not hold them in my sights for fear of collision with other Spitfires and Hurricanes. Saw collision between Spitfire and Do.17, which wrecked both aeroplanes. Finally ran out of ammunition chasing crippled and smoking Do.17 into cloud. It was the finest shambles I've been in, since for once we had position, height and numbers. Enemy aircraft were a dirty looking collection."
Men like these saved England.
Nor must the ground staffs be forgotten. Their tasks were to "service" the fighting aircraft and to maintain communications at any cost. Those attached to the fighter aerodromes, East, South-East and South of London, fitters, mechanics , signallers, telephone operators, despatch riders and the rest, carried on under heavy and sustained bombing by day and by night. For the first time since William of Normandy set foot on these shores, men and women of England -- the Women's Auxiliary Air Force was in the thick of it -- found themselves in the front line. They did not fail and the list of awards they won bears witness to their bravery and their endurance. They made it possible, by carrying out their duties, sleep or no sleep, bombs or no bombs, for the Fighter Squadrons to confront the enemy, day after day, until he was defeated.
Of the anti-aircraft batteries a whole story can be written; but this narrative is concerned only with the part played by the Royal Air Force in the victory. Its controllers received most important aid from the A.A. Units. Their shells, bursting in black or white puffs against the sky, gave to watchers on the ground, or in the air, invaluable information concerning the whereabouts of the enemy. Moreover, they accounted for nearly two hundred and fifty hostile aircraft in daylight during the period of the struggle.
Shattered and Disordered Armada
By 31st October the battle was over. It did not cease dramatically. It died gradually away; but the British victory was none the less certain and complete. Bitter experience had at last taught the enemy the cost of daylight attacks. He took to the cover of night. For what indeed did the Germans accomplish in all their attacks? At the outset, they sank five ships and damaged five more sailing in our Coastal convoys; they next did intermittent and sometimes severe damage to aerodromes; they scored hits on a number of factories, which caused production to slow down for a short time. In London they did considerable damage to the Docks and to various famous buildings, including Buckingham Palace. They destroyed or damaged beyond repair some thousands of houses; they killed, during the day, 1,700 persons, nearly all of them civilians, and seriously wounded 3,360. At night, 12,581 persons were killed and 16,965 injured. These heavy casualties occurred during the hours when darkness prevented the enemy from being met and turned back, as he was in daylight. They provide a striking, if ominous, proof of the efficiency and devotion of the fighters of the Royal Air Force. To what height would those figures have risen had there been no Hurricanes and Spitfires on the alert from dawn to dusk, engaging the enemy whenever he appeared -- resolute, ruthless, triumphant?
Such, then, was the measure of the enemy's achievement during eighty-four days of almost continuous attack. A little earlier in the year, the Germans had taken thirty-seven days to overrun and utterly to cast down the Kingdoms of the Netherlands and of Belgium, and the Republic of France. What the Luftwaffe failed to do was to destroy the fighter squadrons of the Royal Air Force, which were indeed stronger at the end of the battle than at the beginning. This failure meant defeat -- defeat of the German Air Force itself, defeat of a carefully designed strategical plan, defeat of that which Hitler most longed for -- the invasion of this Island. The Luftwaffe, which, as Goebbels said on the eve of the battle, had "prepared the final conquest of the last enemy -- England," did its utmost and paid very heavily for the attempt. Between the 8th August and 31st October, 2,375 German aircraft are known to have been destroyed in daylight. This figure takes no account of those lost at night or those, seen by thousands, staggering back to their French bases, wings and fuselage full of holes, ailerons shot away, engines smoking and dripping glycol, undercarriages dangling -- the retreating remnants of a shattered and disordered Armada. This melancholy procession of the defeated was to be observed, not once but many times, during those summer and autumn days of 1940. Truly it was a great deliverance.
It was not achieved without cost. The Royal Air Force lost 375 pilots killed and 358 wounded. This was the price, and of those who died, let be said that:
"All the soul
Of man is resolution which expires
Never from valiant men till their last
Such was the Battle of Britain in 1940. Future historians may compare it with Marathon, Trafalgar and the Marne.