Winston Churchill finally gets back to Chequers. Later his private secretary will tell him the news from abroad, all of which is bad. For now, he simply goes to bed, and sleeps for the rest of the day. Mrs Churchill has her birthday present.
In France, the shattered German pilots stand down. They were expecting to meet an RAF on its last legs. Clearly, that was a total delusion. Fighter Command is very obviously still in business.
And while Douglas Bader’s big wing didn’t actually score many kills, it had a significant psychological effect. One Luftwaffe report thought it must have contained “up to eighty aircraft” – rather than 56.
Horst Schulz, who flew on the second raid, recalls:
When we got back we all agreed it had been a terrible day, but there was not much discussion. Not until the following day did the significance of the one-third losses we had suffered sink in fully. WE came to realise that if there were any more missions like that, our changes of survival would be almost nil.
Roderich Cescotti, another German airman, agrees:
I regard September 15 as the fiercest battle. None of the other battles in which I was involved made such a profound impression. We were shaken by the number of fighters the Royal Air Force was able to put up on that day, and by the determination of the pilots. It was becoming clear that we were likely to break before the enemy.
Despite Park’s misgivings, No 11 group’s interception rates have been exemplary. In the course of the day, every single squadron except one has made contact with its intended target. The Dowding System has worked perfectly.
The last Heinkel vanishes from radar. All clear.
At Uxbridge, Winston Churchill and Keith Park emerge from the bunker to get some air. Churchill remarks that the attack seems to have been repelled “satisfactorily.” Park replies that he is not satisfied with the number of bombers which have been shot down.
Flanked by return escorts, the bedraggled German bombers cross into France. Their formation starts to break up as those with wounded on board seek a quick landing while others press on to the home base near Paris.
One Dornier 17′s wheels have locked up. It stands up on its nose as it lands, sliding along the ground and then crashing back down to earth. The radio operator opens the hatch — releasing a flood of spent cartridge cases onto the grass.
For some time now Keith Park’s tote board in Uxbridge has shown all squadrons either engaged, refuelling, or ordered to land. Almost none were available to be scrambled if the Germans somehow managed to attack again at this moment.
Then, silently, the lights of No 213 Squadron at Tangmere switch to AT READINESS. Over the next few minutes, several more squadrons flash on.
For both Churchill and Park, this is a moment of supreme relief. The danger of having no reserve has passed.
The back-up raid of Heinkel 111s finally reaches its target — but it’s not an airfield. The Royal Navy base at Portland takes minor damage to buildings, with two people killed and fourteen wounded.
Six Spitfires chase them out to sea and shoot one down before turning back.
Florence Tappenden finally reaches her home in Chatham. But the German plane has crashed on her neighbour’s house, not on hers. Small boy s are racing around the site looking for souvenirs.
This activity can be dangerous. In Kilndown, a burning Dornier with unexploded bombs suddenly explodes, killing three people.
At West Malling, a stricken Heinkel with only its pilot left standing finds an unorthodox landing site: the RAF airfield.
At first its landing is perfect, but then the undercarriage gives way and it flops down into the dust. The fighters keep firing at it until it’s stopped moving, despite the nearby RAF personnel. “Heavy firing from eight or nine Hurricanes and Spitfires made aerodrome unhealthy,” remarks the station diarist afterwards.
Nearby, Herburt Michaelis and his battered Do 17 burst out of the cloud cover into the gunsights of Squadron Leader John Sample.
Sample comes in with relish, hunting him through the cloud spires and firing off short bursts. One shatters the bomber’s glass nose and blows up the packet of yellow dye marker contained in Michaelis life jacket. Everyone’s eyes are filled with brightly coloured dust. Coughing, Michaelis orders everyone to jump.
Werner Kittman comes down in somebody’s back garden, between two apple trees. As he extricates himself from his parachute he looks up into the barrel of a shotgun.
“Are you German?” says the man, looking nervous.
“Yes…” says Kittman, slowly.
Several miles away, Florence Tappenden, visiting her mother in law at Chatham Hill, watches Kittman’s bomber go down. At first she feels a stirring of pride – but then she realises the plume of smoke seems to be coming from her house. She starts to run.
North of the river, other bombers are trying to use the clouds to their advantage. Pilot Werner Kittman remembers:
In the cloud we were safe from the fighters. We thought we would be able to sneak home. But as we continued south east we we entered a clear patch of sky. We were at about 2,000 metres. Flak began detonating behind us, and the bursts got closer and closer.
Suddenly the pilot called ‘I can’t hold it any longer!’ The elevators were not working. I shouted ‘Get out!’ Then the flight engineer bellowed, ‘Herr Leutnant, my parachute pack has come open’. In trying to clip it on either he had picked up the pack by the ripcord or the ripcord had got caught on something. I told him to hold the parachute in his arms against his body. He did so standing on the escape hatch, so I pulled the lever to jettison it. Away it went, with him as well.
The secret German back-up raid is still on its way. British radar operators have picked it up, but in all the chaos they have mistakenly assessed it to have “six plus” planes. No 10 Group leaves it alone.
This is a dangerous mistake. The Heinkels could conceivably flatten a British airfield. They are precisely the kind of sneak attack which Churchill and Park are so scared of. With all the fighters engaged over London, there’s nothing around to stop them.
The bombers drop their loads on whatever targets of opportunity they see on the long path out of London. 17 people are killed in the borough of West Ham, and 132 injured.
Yet the big wing’s loss is other fighters’ gain. It’s drawn in a lot of the escorts, leaving the Heinkels undefended. Soon they come under sustained attack.
Douglas Bader’s big wing finally arrives. But it’s been scrambled too late, and it’s still climbing when it meets the Messerschmitts.
For fighter ace Adolf Galland, this is an unexpected delight. Galland has 32 kills to his name, but his rival, Werner Moelders, has 37 – only three more to the next medal. And young Helmut Wick is quickly catching up with him. Galland must score today to stay in the game.
Now the planes below him look like nothing so much as a flock of pheasants. In he goes, bagging a Hurricane and with it kill #33.
On the armada’s left flank, heavy cloud cover makes the briefed target impossible. So the bombers simply turn around without dropping their bombs.
The Hurricanes on their tail are simply amazed. They believe they have scared the Germans into submission. This event will later give rise to the myth that bomber formations were “broken up” on September 15; in fact, all of them returned to France more or less in good order.
The gas works at Bromley-by-Bow take a heavy pounding. One bomb strikes St Mary’s Hospital; another hits Upton Park train station, causing twenty casualties. Residential areas also catch their share.
Bomb bay doors open. 120 tonnes of explosives plummet towards the city.
To the Germans it looks like the British fighters are attacking without any care for the flak bursting all around. In truth, the British pilots are angry and very confused: flak batteries are supposed to stop firing when they go in.
Heinz Kirsch is about to let go his own bombs when someone spots another formation of Heinkels underneath. The wait is agonising. Then they’re passed. “Bombs gone!”
Despite the RAF, the German armada is now approaching its targets. Four bombers have been destroyed and seven forced to turn back, but over 100 are still in the game.
But the clouds of last night have returned, with huge pillars of stratocumulus floating eight thousand feet tall. The Royal Victoria Docks are simply invisible – so the bombers head for East Ham instead.
Most aerial combats in 1940 last a maximum of 20 seconds. Squadron Leader Brian Lane, however, has the privilege of a 60-second encounter.
Banking hard, he tries to get the Messerschmitt in his gunsights. But the German twists and turns, now this way, now that, suddenly rolling out of the fight in a way that will stall Lane’s engine if he tries to follow. A short burst – miss! – and the Me 109 drops into the clouds.
To this day it’s not clear who the pilot of this Messerschmitt was. No reported Luftwaffe loss correlates with the incident.
Many things now happen simultaneously.
Above Gravesend, Tom Neil closes in on a formation of eight Dorniers. Tracer fire rakes across his target and it bursts into flames. Then two “large objects” fly past his windscreen – so fast he can barely believe what he’s saying. They are German crew members wearing parachutes, arms and legs waving.
Neil has no time to be shocked: he is “engulfed” by Me 109s and forced to take evasive action.
Heinz Kirsch writes:
The Tommies were staking everything they had. Never before had we come under such heavy attack. Some came so close that I thought they were going to ram us.
At Uxbridge, Winston Churchill can see from the tote board that every single squadron is engaged. As he tells it:
I become conscious of the anxiety of the commander, who now stood still behind his subordinate’s chair. Hitherto I had watched in silence. I now asked: ‘What other reserves have we?’ ‘There are none,’ said Air Vice-Marshal Park.
In an account which he wrote about it afterwards, he said that I looked ‘very grave’. Well I might. What loses should we not suffer if our refuelling planes were caught on the ground by further raids of ‘40-plus’ or ‘50-plus’! The odds were great; our margins small; the stakes infinite.
Some historians have taken this to mean that all the RAF’s forces are engaged, but that is not so. Park is referring only to his own squadrons in 11 Group. There are still others left in neighbouring Sectors.
The German escorts regroup. But as the bombers fly over the Thames, flak batteries outside Chatham open up on them.
Heinz Kirsch remembers:
Suddenly flak bursts appeared beneath us; ugly black puffs about 600 metres below. We had to be getting near London.
One Dornier and one Heinkel go down.
An almighty scrap has developed around the bombers. They stay in formation, pooling their fire against the swooping Spitfires. Again and again the RAF come in; again and again the Messerschmitts dive from above to drive them away. One Dornier and one Hurricane are lost simultaneously when they collide in an attack run gone wrong.
As Pilot Officer Tom Cooper-Slipper closes in, machinegun fire finds his frail fighter. He knows he’ll have to bail out, so he decides to ram the Dornier first. The Germans are dumbfounded. Some of them assume the RAF is actually employing kamikaze tactics.
While Keith Park orders his last reserves into the fray, 27 Heinkel 111s are taking off from bases around Paris. They head out into the Channel, target unknown.
Meanwhile, in France, the Dorniers from the lunchtime attack have all landed safely. Theodor Rehm’s aircraft has come back with 47 hits.
The Germans are shaken. They had gone in expecting a weakened RAF, ready for the coup de grace. Instead, squadron after squadron had sprung at them out of the sky. When Douglas Bader’s big wing showed up over Clapham, the shock was terrible. Someone had made a serious mistake.
The map table at Uxbridge now shows three separate columns and multiple blocks of fighter escorts. Keith Park feels sure that the Luftwaffe is committing everything they have.
He does the same. From 14:05 to 14:15 he scrambles 17 squadrons, each with anything between 10 and 20 fighters. Douglas Bader’s big wing is called in again. He also calls in planes from neighbouring Groups.
At 14:15 exactly, Spitfire squadrons 41 and 92 cry out: “Tally-ho!”
The first German bombers pass over Dungeness. Feldwebel Heinz Kirsch describes the atmosphere:
In our aircraft there was complete calm. The radio was silent. The safety catchers were off, our steel helmets were on, and each man searched his individual sector.
Of the enemy there was nothing to be seen. In recent actions we had not had much contact with British fighters. We felt safe protected by the Me 109s.
Alan Wright has the enemy formation in sight. He tries to get closer, but sees six Messerschmitts climbing towards him. Banking, he dives straight at them in the hope of scattering them so he can escape. Instead he is trapped in a terrifying 70-degree plummet which locks up his controls.
Wright comes out of the dive hard and blacks out due to the G-forces. When he wakes up, he’s cruising peacefully along upside down at 7,000 feet. The Messerschmitts are nowhere to be seen. He thanks his luck and guns it for home.
At RAF North Weald, Tom Neil is dragged out of his sleep by the scramble order.
Rolling off my bed, I followed in the wake of the thumping boots like a zombie. Two o’ clock, for God’s sake! What were the Huns doing to us?
No word yet from Alan Wright, but the German force is now being plotted at 225 or more. In reality it’s more than twice that. Either way it’s enough for Park. He puts two squadrons over Sheerness at 20,000 feet and two more over Hornchurch at 15,000.
Though the first attack has been blunted, the second is already underway.
At Keith Park’s headquarters in Uxbridge, new hostile plots appear on the map. These are the Dornier 17s and Heinkel 111s of Bomber Wings 2, 3, 26, and 53. Their targets: the docklands of east London and Surrey Quays.
Instead of sending out fighters, Park scrambles a single Spitfire from RAF Hawkinge on a ‘spotter’ mission. Flying Officer Alan Wright swiftly climbs to high altitude.
The delicate operation to remove a nine-foot bomb from under St Paul’s Cathedral is finally complete. Now it is parading through Hackney on its way to the marshes where it will be detonated at the so-called bomb cemetery.
Police cars with loudspeakers precede it through the borough, instructing the residents to keep their windows open to lessen the chance of them breaking.
Not long afterwards, the bang is heard – several miles away.
Spitfires of the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit take advantage of the lull in combat to go snooping on the French ports. They have no guns, and rely on their speed to escape harm.
Pictures are taken of Antwerp, Cherbourg, and Calais. Analysts will pore over the murky images of extra invasion barges and minesweepers – Operation Sea Lion in full swing.
While the RAF were busy trying to take down the Dorniers, a sneaky raiding force of Me109s carrying bombs snuck through the line and rained down bombs haphazardly across Dulwich, Streatham, and Lambeth.
Only one person was killed, but 2,500 workers had to be sent home from a telephone company due to an unexploded bomb. Rail services between Beckenham Junction, Norwood Junction and Crystal Palace were also disrupted.
At air bases across the south-east, Spitfires and Hurricanes are coming back to earth. The mechanics mob them immediately.
Tom Neil, now the battle’s only surviving fighter ace, recalls:
My crew were excited when I returned, the charred gun ports a sure sign of action. Running towards me, their enthusiasm waned when my face told the story. Nothing? Hard luck, sir, they sympathised.
They hooked in the bowser and tore off the wing panels to rearm the guns with endless yards of bullets. Guns okay? I thought so; they didn’t stop, anyway. A man dragging oxygen in my direction. Engine all right, sir? I said that it was but thought fit to complain of oil from the airscrew…they agreed and set about inspecting the front, also for bullet holes. Had I been hit? I didn’t think so, but you could never tell. They searched – hopefully.
Not a great squadron success. Lunch arrived with combat reports, plates and food sharing the same table. I sat in my bed, eating. Not too happy with my life. Finally, I lay back and, still in my Mae West, slept. Like a log.
At the Group 11 HQ in Uxbridge, markers representing the German attack are finally taken off the board. There is a tangible relaxation in the room: most of these people should have been off duty hours ago.
But first, congratulations. Vera Saies recalls:
After the action Winston Churchill came down to the floor of the Operations Room to congratulate us on our work. He looked round the room and said ‘Well done!’ in that deep voice of his.
Rolf Heitsch is also safe. Unwilling to abandon his wounded radio operator, he makes an orderly landing in a field near Sevenoaks, narrowly missing some cows.
It takes them a while to open the escape hatch. When they get out, it’s clear the radio man is already dead. Soon they are arrested by eight Home Guardsmen. All in all, 63 Germans will be captured today.
Peter Brothers has managed to make a skilful touchdown after his control cables snapped during the attack on Raab. He landed at more than twice the Hurricane’s recommended speed.
Wilhelm Raab is hanging from his parachute in a tree. Several hundred yards away his Dornier lies in a burning heap.
I had never set foot on English soil before, and doing so was no easy business. There were no footholds, the branches at the top of the tree would not bear my weight. And all the time the tree was swaying in the wind.
Slowly, however, Raab manages to extricate himself from the tree. He surrenders himself to a civilian, who takes him to the Home Guard.
In London, the all-clear sounds. Twenty-four people are dead, and thirty injured, in the boroughs of Battersea and Clapham. Numerous bombs have fallen but are yet to explode.
This picture is from the previous day, but shows how much damage these bombs can do.
New fighter escorts finally arrive to meet the outgoing Dorniers. In total, six of them have been shot down – a heavy toll – but it’s a testament to their discipline that any of them have survived after being swarmed by so many “Tommies”.
Chastened, they head for the coast.
Oberleutnant Robert Zehbe is also drifting on the wind. He was the pilot of the empty Dornier, who managed to get his crew out before it crashed.
Now his parachute gets caught on some power cables and he ends up dangling above the ground. Citizens start to gather. Surely his war is over.
But this is Kennington, which has suffered heavily from past bombing raids. The crowd is hostile. Walter Chesney and his wife, forced off the bus at Oval Station, hear them chanting: “Kill him! Kill him!” They pull the German down and go at him with knives and pokers.
Soldiers fight their way through the crowd and manage to put him in the back of a truck, but he dies of his wounds on the way to hospital.
Ray Holmes has managed to bail out and his parachute is open. But as he drifts down towards the Victoria rail tracks, he realises they are electrified.
Instead the wind blows him onto a rooftop. He hits it square on and starts to slide.
I tried to grab something to halt my fall but it was no good. I slithered down the tiles. Everybody knows you can’t fall off the roof of a three-storey building and get away with it. As I slithered past the gutter I thought, ‘this is it. After all I’ve been through, I’m going to break my neck falling off a roof.’
There was a terrible jolt – and I came to a stop just off the ground. The canopy had caught over an up-spout! I came to rest, my toes just touching the bottom of an empty dust-bin with the lid off.
Somewhere above him, almost a mile away now, the severed wings of the Dornier bomber flutter through the sky on the wind.
Meanwhile, Wilhelm Raab’s plane is in a gunfight with Hurricane ace Peter Brothers. It’s not winning. Raab pulls into a dive and the distance until the cloud cover seems to last forever. Finally they punch through into the murk.
But the Dornier’s machinegunner is dead, slumped across his seat, and the left engine is too. It’s losing altitude fast. Before Raab can do anything it pops out of the underside of the cloud, where Brothers is waiting.
The bomber’s shadow grows ever larger as it rushes over the fields and houses below. “Bail out!” Raab tells his crew.
Lucky Ray Holmes is going after the empty bomber. One problem: he’s out of bullets. So he decides to ram it.
There was no time to weigh the situation. His aeroplane looked so flimsy, I did not think of it as something solid and substantial. I just went on and hit the Dornier.
I thought my aircraft would cut right through it, not allowing for the fact that his plane was as strong mine. There was a jolt when I hit him, but not a big one. I thought that I had got away with it.
The Dornier certainly has not. It splits in half, plummeting down in pieces towards Victoria Station. G-forces rip the bombs out of its belly and scatter them across the city.
One of them punches through the roof of Buckingham Palace and comes to rest in a royal bathroom. Then Holmes’ Hurricane piledrives into Pimlico Road. Finally the Dornier itself hits the ground.
Reg Garman recalls:
It was the most amazing sight I have ever seen. A German bomber, its tail missing, sailing past overhead. It disappeared behind some buildings, then I heard the crash, and a column of black smoke rose into the sky. The plane had crashed beside Victoria Station, about 400 yards north of me.
The Brits are now so numerous that they have to queue for their chance at each Dornier. One bomber has fallen behind the main formation and is mercilessly harassed. Its crew bail out, but nobody notices.
Rolf Heitsch is wishing he’d never bothered with the flamethrower. Every time he fires it the British pilots assume his plane is catching fire, which only makes them more eager to help it on its way. Soon the radio operator is wounded and the engines are gone.
Surrounded and trapped in metal tubes full of ricocheting bullets, the Dornier crews do the only thing they can: drop their bombs.
Theodor Rehm comes under attack from the big wing. He recalls:
We could hear the patter of bullets striking our wings and fuselage, but somehow the motors kept going. Our pilot, Hanke, pulled the bomber first to the left and then to the right to make it difficult for the enemy to hit us.
Suddenly there was a loud crash as bullets smashed through the radio operator’s window and wrecked the mounting of his machine gun. The radio operator received splinter wounds to the chin. I felt a hefty blow on the back. But our wounds were only minor.
At this moment, Douglas Bader’s big wing arrives. Flight Lieutenant Bob Oxspring remembers:
I thought, ‘this is great! Five squadrons, that’s what we want!’ It must have been devastating for the Germans to see that lot coming in all at once.
The sheer speed of events at this point makes a full record impossible.
Lindmayr’s bombers have passed over Lewisham and are nearing their targets in Clapham. But now the forty minute delay has come back to bite.
The escorts start to drop away in twos and fours to preserve their fuel, just as 127 more Spitfires and Hurricanes finally make their appearance.
William Raab describes the moment:
I saw what looked like a swarm of small flies emerge from behind one of the clouds ahead. Of course they weren’t flies. I counted ten British fighters before I had to give up and concentrate on holding formation.
Ray Holmes, still wet from his bath, comes up slowly behind the Dornier with the secret flamethrower. Rolf Heitsch hits the switch – but instead of fire, Holmes gets a squirt of sticky black oil all over his windshield. Somebody has failed to test the flamethrower at high altitude.
A blinded and puzzled Holmes almost crashes into the back of the Dornier – but at the last minute he is able to slip under its belly.
It was. Down near the Staplehurst railway station, police Constable Bill Albon is staring up at the clouds when a Hurricane crashes to the ground less than one hundred yards away, bounces over the railway, smashes through two buildings, and comes to rest on the far side. One burning wheel smashes through the house of Margaret Nolan, nearly setting it alight.
The impact kills a railway clerk who was working in one of the buildings, and also the Hurricane’s Belgian piulot, Georges Doutrepont.
Hans Bertel of FW52 is just lining up his gunsight on a Hurricane when another one smashes into his tail. Both planes go into and Bertel is pinned to his seat by savage G-forces.
For an agonising minute Bertel strains and strains to reach the eject handle. Finally the G-forces decrease and he pops off the canopy.
I must have been going down very fast because the noise outside sounded like a thunderstorm. I released my seat straps and was hurled clear of the aircraft. My first thought was ‘don’t open the parachute yet or it will be torn to shreds’! After a short wait I pulled the ripcord.
Descending, Bertel sees a spinning Hurricane vanish into the clouds. Was that the plane that struck his?
While the Spitfires keep the fighter escorts busy, Park’s second round of Hurricanes now appear. 253 and 501 Squadrons make a head-on attack run at the now-exposed bombers.
Wilhelm Raab stares in horror as the Hurricanes get “bigger and bigger” – but Lindmayr has trained them well. The bombers huddle together for protection and manage to keep their formation.
The Hurricanes wheel around for another go, but now Fighter Wing 3 is upon them. Belgian Pilot Officer van dem Hove d’Ertsenrijck is killed instantly when his plane explodes n mid-air. Squadron Leader Harry Hogan drops into the cloudbank after a Messerschmitt punctures his engine.
In the nearby village of Staplehurst, Reverent Alfred Walker is giving a sermon. Freda Tomlin is in the pews:
We could hear the machinegun fire during the sermon, but by then this was quite common. The vicar continued speaking and we just sat there and listened.
The Spitfires’ attack quickly descends into a chaotic dogfight. Planes twist through the air, chasing and being chased.
Sergeant William Rolls climbs up underneath a Messerschmitt and fires a three-second burst into its underside – but then another Me109 appears on his tail and forces him to evade. The same pattern is repeated across several cubic miles of sky.
“Watch out! Spitfires!”
The pilots of Fighter Wing 53 have little time to react before squadron leader Alfred Mueller is knocked out of the sky. Within a minute, four or five more Me109s are struck down as the Spitfires scythe past.
At 25,000 feet, Flight Lieutenant John “Pancho” Villa spots the enemy in the distance. He cries out “Tennis squadron, tally-ho!” This is the signal to ground controllers that his squadron is engaging.
In Uxbridge, indicator lights flash on under each squadron’s name on the tote board. 72 and 92 squadrons: ENEMY SIGHTED.
Villa scopes the skies above for more escorts but sees none. It seems Park has managed to put them 3,000 feet above Lindmayr’s top cover, and 9,000 feet above the bombers themselves. Delightful.
One by one, in orderly fashion, Villa’s fighters peel off into a dive.
The Spitfires from Biggin Hill are now approaching the enemy, but can’t see anything yet.
“Hello, Gannic leader! Gannic leader!” comes the sector controller’s voice over the radio. “200-plus coming in over Red Queen. Vector 120. Angels 25. Watch out for snappers above.”
“Angels” means altitude, 25 means 25,000 feet; “snappers” refers to Lindmayr’s top cover escorts, flying above the bombers.
All across south London, the sirens switch on. Walter Chesney, 33, is on a bus with his wife as it approaches Oval. The bus driver stops and orders everyone off to take shelter.
In Victoria Station, Reg Garman, the chief engineer, makes sure everyone is out of the building before he switches off the elevators and boilers.
The first Spitfires from Biggin Hill are climbing steadily above the Thames Estuary.
In this battle, height is everything. Height helps you spot your enemy, and is easily convertible to speed. But height takes time: Hurricanes take nine minutes to climb up to the ideal interception height of 20,000 feet. That’s why Park and de Broke chose to scramble the Spitfires so early.
In just the last four minutes, they have launched:
• 20 Hurricanes from North Weald to South London
• 24 Hurricanes from Northolt to defend Kenley Airfield
• 12 Spitfires from Hornchurch to Gravesend
• 32 Hurricanes and 15 Spitfires from Tangmere
• 11 more Spitfires from Hornchurch
There are now over 250 fighters in the air, with four squadrons on the ground as a reserve.
Lindmayr’s 25 bombers now fly over Folkestone at 16,000 feet. But there’s a problem: powerful 90mph headwinds have cut their speed in half, causing a 40 minute delay.
As they fly into the range of the British guns, Wilhelm Raab watches little puffs of black smoke explode merrily all around his aircraft. The bombers loosen their formation and begin a “flak waltz” – a dance of avoidance.
The first German escorts cross the coast, flying ahead of the formation to sweep for fighters. They are engaged by anti-aircraft guns in Dover, but to little effect.
Once they’re inland, radar will stop working, and a network of observation posts like the one below will report their movements to the Filter Room.
Douglas Bader taxis onto the runway at Duxford. Headstrong, blunt, foul-mouthed, and undeniably heroic, he lost his legs in a flying accident in 1928 and now wears two prosthetics. It doesn’t impair him; he is what they call a flying ace.
As he lifts off, 35 Hurricanes and 20 Spitfires, many flown by refugee Polish and Czechoslovakian pilots, follow his lead. The big wing is on its way.
Park makes a request to Air Vice-marshal Trafford Leigh Mallory, the commander of No 12 Group.
The two men do not get on. Mallory reportedly feels he should have Park’s job, protecting the south instead of the industrial Midlands. They also disagrees about tactics: where Park favours piecemeal attrition, Mallory and his star pilot Douglas Bader believe in assembling multiple squadrons into huge formations called “big wings”.
Big wings haven’t really been tested. They might well scare the Germans, and score a lot of kills. But they’re also unwieldy and slow to gather, meaning they risk missing their targets entirely.
Now, however, they are getting their chance. Park asks Mallory to send Douglas Bader and his big wing towards Gravesend, hoping to catch Lindmayr’s bombers near the end of their run.
A low, continuous hum rises from the Ops Room floor. It looks increasingly likely that the Germans are making a major attack, and London is the target.
But Park has done this before. He knows the Me 109s have problems with fuel. So he aims to feed individual squadrons continuously into the fight at different points along the attack route, slowly peeling away the escorts and forcing them to burn up their gas. Sooner or later they will have to pull out, and one of his squadrons will get through.
As the first Dorniers leave the French coast, and Air Raid Warning Red comes into effect in Dover, Park scrambles 12 Spitfires from Hornchurch, 13 from neighbouring 10 Group, and 20 Hurricanes from North Weald.
Sergeant Ray Holmes of is having a bath when the readiness order comes. His Hurricane squadron has just come off alert duty and into a rest period.
Suddenly there is a bang on the door. Holmes leaps out, throws on a shirt and trousers, and races outside to a waiting truck, socks dangling from his fist.
He’s just finished pulling them on when the truck skids to a halt. Just in time – the loudspeakers are blaring to scramble. Holmes makes a mad dash for his Hurricane, picking up his boots and life jacket on the way, and starts the engine while mechanics strap him in. He waves away the chocks and pulls out into the runway.
Keith Park and Willoughby de Broke watch carefully as more plots appear on the map. It now shows three distinct groups, estimated to comprise about 100 planes.
Is it a real raid, or just a very realistic feint? Park can’t be sure, but he can’t risk ignoring it. He scrambles six squadrons and aims them all along what the plotters say is the likely line of attack.
Here’s a map of the territory they have to defend. Only Group 11 is divided into sectors like this – reflecting its importance.
In the alert hut at Biggin Hill, a telephone rings.
Shifts like this are always tense. The Spitfire pilots of No 92 Squadron have been up since the small hours and are now dozing in iron carts or gazing at aircraft spotters’ charts. Now they look up.
Flying Officer Brian Kingcome picks up the handset and everyone watches him in silence for a few seconds. Then he slams it down. “Okay, chaps – it’s scramble angels twenty, redenzvous with 72 over base.”
Looking down on the map, Churchill watches a new marker placed on the map and pushed to Calais. Its designation is “H06 30+” – Hostile #6, 30 planes or more.
Nearby, Lord Willoughby de Broke is thinking hard. If this is a real bomber attack, then he needs to launch interceptors as soon as possible. But if it’s just a diversionary raid, consisting only of harmless fighters, it should be ignored. Time is of the essence:
Each minute of unnecessary delay waiting to make absolutely sure that the raid was coming in meant about 2,000 feet of vital atltitude our fighters would not have when they met the enemy.
Park excuses himself from Churchill and says something to de Broke, who starts giving orders “in a calm, low monotone.”
Vera Saies’ headphones crackle into life. Radar has picked up the German movements and Fighter Command plots forty hostile aircraft over Calais.
Swiftly she dons the headphones and begins rattling off information to her assistant.
16,000 feet above the French coast, eighty miles away from London, the German escort fighters are waiting anxiously for their bombers.
The Messerschmitt 109 is an impressive machine and the Luftwaffe’s primary fighter plane. Its big weakness is fuel. After flying all the way from France it can often manage only ten or twenty minutes of fighting over Britain. Every minute the Dorniers delay is therefore one less minute the Messerschmitts can stay with them.
Finally the bombers appear, ten minutes late, and the attack run can begin.
This is the Operations Room at Uxbridge.
In his memoirs, Churchill described it as a “small theatre”. He and Park take their seats in what would be the dress circle. Opposite them, covering the entire wall where the theatre curtain would be, is a gigantic ‘tote board’ which tracks the status of each squadron with colouredl lightbulbs – from STANDBY, through LEFT GROUND, to LANDED AND REFUELLING.
Around the map, tellers and plotters occupy themselves with knitting, magazines, or – in the case of Aircraftwoman Vera Saies – letters to their parents. Headphones hang casually around their necks.
“I don’t know whether anything will happen today,” says Park to the PM, “At present all is quiet.”
Churchill’s car pulls up outside the No 11 Group HQ, carrying John Martin, Mrs Churchill, and an armed bodyguard as well as the PM.
Park is waiting at the entrance to guide them down the long concrete stairway to the Operations Room, one hundred feet below ground.
He is forced to explain that the bunker’s air conditioning system cannot deal with cigar smoke. Churchill reluctantly agrees, and will spend the rest of the day chewing an unlit Havana.
The Nazi attack formation finds itself in thick cloud. Feldwebel Theodor Rehm, a navigator aboard one of the Dornier 17s, remembers:
In the cloud the visibility was so bad one could see only the flight leaders plane a few metres away. In our bomber four pairs of eyes strained ot keep the aircraft in sight as its ghostly shape disappeared and reappeared in the alternating darkness and light. One moment it was clearly visible, menacingly large and near; then suddenly it would disappear from view, in the same place but shrouded in billowing vapour.
After several anxious minutes that felt like an eternity, we emerged from the cloud at about 11,000 feet. Around us were the familiar shapes of Dorniers spread out in ones, twos and threes. Our attack formation had been shattered.
The bombers are forced to regroup, delaying their attack by ten minutes.
Back at Uxbridge, Keith Park receives word of Churchill’s impending visit.
it shouldn’t be a surprise. As John Martin, Churchill’s private secretary, recalls:
Mr Churchill would often do a thing like that on the spur of the moment. He liked to drive very fast and would urge the driver to go faster. The car was fitted with a police gong so it could ignore traffic lights and hazards; there was very little traffic anyway.
One of the Dorniers has an unusual modification: a flamethrower. Feldwebel Rolf Heitsch has been chosen to test this “secret weapon”, with the intention of using it more widely if it works.
Supposedly, it will project a plume of fire 500 feet long from the back of the plane, engulfing or at least deterring anyone foolish enough to get that close.
The Dorniers slowly climb towards 16,000 feet.
The man in charge of the whole attack is Field Marshal Albert Kesselring. He is courteous and enormously popular with his men, who call him ‘Uncle Albert’. Today he plans two big operations.
The first wave of bombers will strike the railway sidings at Battersea, disrupting London’s transport links. Then, a larger second wave will attack the docklands of east London. These are targets of such importance that the RAF will be forced to send out its entire force to defend them.
In this, Kesselring is correct. But the RAF’s “entire force” is rather larger than he believes.
A green flare leaps into the sky: the signal to take off. The first three Dorniers rumble across the grass– then the next three, and then the next three. Bomber Wing 76 is away.
This table gives some idea of the strength of Luftwaffe on the morning of September 15.
||Air Fleet 2
||Air Fleet 3
||Air Fleet 5
During previous attacks on London, bad weather and tactical errors meant many of the RAF interceptors didn’t make contact at all. As a result, the Luftwaffe believes that Fighter Command is much weaker than it really is.
On the other side of the channel, 27 bombers of the Luftwaffe’s Bomber Wing 76, commanded by Major Alois Lindmayr, are waiting at an airfield near Paris.
Among their crew is Feldwebel Wilhelm Raab, a 25-year-old from Dresden who is already a veteran of Poland and France. This will be his 44th combat mission, and his 16th against the RAF.
His plane, the Dornier 17, is fast and tough; its air-cooled engines allow it to take far more punishment than any water-cooled machine. Its four-man crew can drop bombs anywhere in the south of England, flying at a maximum speed of 255mph.
Sitting below de Broke on the plotting room floor is Aircraftwoman Vera Saies. Hers is a highly skilled job. As she later writes:
The whole thing could best be described as organised chaos. When things got going plots from the filter room were coming through at five per minute on each track. Girls would be calling for new counters to update their blocks, runners would be dashing to get them from the table beside the map. If one asked for one thing and one’s neighbour asked for something else, it was a matter of who shouted loudest!
Presently, however, it is quiet. Most of the WAAFs are knitting or reading magazines. Some German reconnaissance planes have been plotted flying over Wales, Liverpool, and the Thames, but they are too fast and too high for even the Spitfires to catch.
Here’s a newsreel produced to explain the system – you can hear how clearly the tellers have to speak.
The Operations Room for No 11 Group is 100 feet below ground in a concrete bunker. Just like Fighter Command, it has a giant map with a soundproof booth overlooking it.
In this booth sits Park’s chief fighter controller, the young Lord Willoughby de Broke. De Broke’s job is to order fighter squadrons to readiness to meet any attack, positioning them like game pieces and matching them to enemy squadrons. After that he hands them over to his sector control rooms so he can focus on the big picture.
As he later recalls:
The Group controller’s job was like a glorified game of chess, only infinitely more exciting and responsible, as so much was at stake. The Germans would frequently put up ‘spoof’ raids with the deliberate intention of ‘foxing’ our controllers, so that squadrons were ordered to patrol lines only to find that the ‘plots’ faded away as the enemy aircraft dispersed back to their bases in northern France.
Our squadrons then had to land and refuel and, sensing this, the Germans would follow their ‘spoof’ raid pretty quickly with a genuine one, which necessitated putting up fresh squadrons to meet it while the others were refuelling.
Here is a map of the British air defence system in 1940.
As head of No 11 Group, you can easily see that Keith Park has one of the most important jobs in Britain. Most of the Battle of Britain’s worst fighting happen around the south-east coast and the city of London.
Not far away lives Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park, the commander of No 11 Group.
Park is a devout New Zealander and veteran pilot who almost went into the Church after the First World War. At 48, he cuts an austere figure, but he’s respected by his men; he often surprises them by turning up at airfields unannounced in his personal Hurricane.
Now he leaves his house through the green wooden door at the bottom of his garden and descends the long concrete staircase which leads down into the Ops Room.
It’s breakfast time at Chequers, the Prime Minister’s countryside residence, and Winston Churchill is in trouble.
It’s nothing to do with the war. Instead, he has forgotten that today is his wife’s birthday. “A good bag of German aircraft would be an excellent present,” she tells him.
At some point Churchill decides to visit the local group headquarters at RAF Uxbridge. He’s done so before, and nothing much has happened, but today the weather is very suitable for an enemy attack.
The Heinkel is clearly in trouble. David:
I could see petrol steaming from both wings, like a plume. The port engine had stopped and the undercarriage dropped down – that always seemed to happen when a Heinkel’s hydraulic system was damaged. The aircraft went into a steep diving turn into cloud and disappeared from our view.
The two pilots loiter for a while to make sure, then head for home, happy with the day’s first kill.
The two Hurricanes come within sight of Raid 16. It’s a Heinkel 111 of the German Weather Reconnaissance Unit 51. Dennis David recalls:
It was a funny sort of day, with layers of cloud both above and below the Heinkel. It seemed the pilot was experienced; when he saw us he turned south trying to get away. He was trying to get back into cloud. But we had plenty of speed and were on to him before he got there.
David steers in close and fires two four-second bursts from his machineguns, followed shortly by Jay.
The two Hurricanes rise to 6,000 feet as they head out to sea.
The Hawker Hurricane is the workhorse of the RAF. Heavier and slower than the Spitfire – not to mention less glamorous – it is also easier to fly, and more rugged. It has a climbing time of nine minutes to reach 20,000 feet, and is armed with eight machine guns.
Both planes have a disadvantage. Their fuel injection systems are highly dependent on gravity, so they stop working in extreme manoeuvres.
Flying Officer Dennis David and Pilot Officer Trevor Jay jog across the runway, yawning as they go.
The pair have been sleeping on camp beds in the squadron’s readiness hut. Their uniforms and life jackets are hurriedly pulled on over their pyjamas.
British pilots at this time have a reputation for hard drinking. It’s not unusual for them to get blind drunk in countryside pubs, party with locals until the early hours, clamber into their cockpits when the scramble order comes, and leave it to the in-air oxygen system to blast away their hangovers.
David and Jay are not so lucky. They climb into their cockpits, start their engines, and take off.
Raid 16 comes within interception range. Two Hurricanes are scrambled from No 87 Squadron based in Exeter.
Back at Fighter Command, a very similar map is reproduced for Air Chief Marshal ‘Stuffy’ Hugh Dowding.
Quiet and aloof, the 58-year-old Dowding is something of a mystery to most of his men – but the Filter Rooms and the plotting maps are all his idea.
During the 1930s, most defensive fighter missions would return to base without ever having seen the bombers they were supposed to stop. Now they regularly achieve interception rates of 80 or 90 per cent.
Thousands of practice interventions have honed the Dowding System into what Winston Churchill would later call “the most elaborate instrument of war.”
On September 15, as on most days, Dowding leaves most of the fighting to his group commanders. His role is to watch, and only intervene if necessary.
This is the Operations Room for No 10 Group – responsible for defending the south-west of England.
Women “tellers” take information from the Filter Room and relay it to the “plotters”, who reproduce it on their map. Like croupiers at a roulette table, they push around wooden blocks with coloured flags representing friendly and enemy forces. Now they place Raid 16 onto the board.
Looking down over it all is the group controller. His filters, tellers and plotters give him a real-time awareness of the battlefield which is almost unprecedented in the history of war. All this feverish activity exists to create for him something like an analogue videogame – an interface through which he can command his forces easily.
Bentley Priory, just south-east of Watford, was once a stately home, and after that, a girls’ school. Now it is the nerve centre of the British air defence: Fighter Command.
Reports from the radar stations first come to the Filter Room. Women officers with detailed knowledge of the radar system try to understand what each blip really means and where it’s going. They filter the mass of raw information, plotting the results on an Ordnance Survey map and telling the regional Operations Room only what they need to know.
The filters designate the intruder “Raid 16”, and phone it on.
Contact! A coastal radar station picks up a single unidentified plane heading west over the English channel.
The “Chain Home” radar system, developed over years of top secret experiments, has transformed the RAF’s defence strategy. German military planners consistently underestimate its importance.
Quickly the radar operators plot their contact on an Ordnance Survey map and telephone it through to Fighter Command.
At St Paul’s Cathedral, a team of Royal Engineers are working on an unexploded bomb.
The 2,200lb device has smashed through the pavement and buried itself 27 feet under the cathedral’s southwest tower, igniting a gas main as it went. To remove it the engineers have to dig a vertical shaft braced with timber planks, working shifts in teams of three.
Because St Paul’s is a major national landmark, the sappers have orders not to let the air raid sirens stop their work. They will still be digging away during all the events to come.
The sun is now fully risen. The temperature is mild, and the clouds which covered the city during the night have now all but dispersed. Decent bombing conditions.
The German Voelkischer Beobachter (People’s Observer) takes a different view.
LONDON’S FIRST WEEK WITHOUT SLEEP
“During the evening German bombers and fighters broke through the strong British flak barrage and dropped accurate concentrations of bombs. These started new fires and caused further damage to installations of military importance, as well as Buckingham Palace, the Palace of Westminster, and prominent business areas such as Regent Street and Bond Street.
Particularly colourful is this description of decadence and class envy in the teeth of destruction:
In spite of the considerable resentment from the sorely tried population, after dark there is a nightclub atmosphere in the basement shelters of the luxury hotels. Bands play dance music, champagne and whisky flow freely.
Those parts of London not already deserted have become pick-up places for good-time girls and prostitutes offering themselves to the playboy plutocrats who have dodged conscription. Meanwhile the abandoned women and children are left to find what shelter they can in a city largely gutted by fire.”
It’s important to remember that at this point in the war the Nazis were still trying to persuade Britain to quit. They thought that internal pressure might yet force the government to make peace.
It’s Sunday, which, in 1940, means no Daily Telegraph. But here’s yesterday’s front page:
So far, this nation’s head is ‘bloody but unbowed’. That calculated and accumulated ‘frightfulness’ which is the enemy’s most trusted weapon has been most employed in vain against British steadfastness and resolution. It beats like an angry sea against the impregnable cliffs, and, like an angry sea, its biggest waves will be broken against that barrier.
It is true that the enemy is the master of many devices, which he multiples in his frustrated fury. He tried a new one yesterday, when isolated aircraft dived through the cloud-screen to drop bombs on any target within range… For the time being, the order of the day must be to stand firm under such hammering as the British squares stood at Quatre Bras.
The Prime Minister has solemly warned us that these days may be the most critical of all in the struggle now afoot – a struggle which the whole world is watching with parted lips and straining eyes, and on the issue of which depends the destiny of the civilised world.
First light creeps over the rooftops of east London.
The city has suffered its eighth consecutive night of bombing, with 19 dead and 31 injured. The main areas hit were Chelsea, Fulham and Westminster. Cardiff, Bootle, Leicester and Ipswich were also bombed.
September 15, 1940. The war so far has been a series of humiliating defeats for Great Britain. First there was the occupation of Norway, then the lightning invasion of Belgium and the near-catastrophe at Dunkirk. Finally the French government surrendered. Europe belongs to the Nazis.
With newly-elected Prime Minister Winston Churchill still refusing to make peace, Hitler issues a directive: “Operation Sea Lion” is go. The plan for invading Britain is rash, impractical, and opposed by most German generals. But Hitler hopes that the sheer threat of it will force Britain to the table. To make his threat remotely plausible he must eliminate the Royal Air Force and gain air superiority over the Channel.
Throughout July and August, the German Luftwaffe makes constant probing attacks against the RAF. By September it has switched to bombing raids on London itself, killing more than four hundred civilians on September 7 alone. A weak response from the RAF convinces German planners that Fighter Command is on its last legs.
Tasting victory, the Germans plan their largest attack yet. Their targets are calculated to lure the RAF into an open battle where its fleet will be annihilated. They do not know that this will be the last decisive battle of what Churchill cannily termed “the Battle of Britain.”