1941: The Difficult Year

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German Raids over Britain Apart from operations against shipping, the enemy continued in November to make the fighter and fighter-bomber sweeps over Kent and ...
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German Raids over Britain

Apart from operations against shipping, the enemy continued in November to make the fighter and fighter-bomber sweeps over Kent and Sussex which had been a feature of his operations in October. But in November these sweeps were made at less extreme altitudes than in October, perhaps to avoid causing condensation trails or to reduce the strain on pilots. Consequently they were rather easier to counter. Heavy casualties were inflicted on the enemy’s fighters as well as his dive bombers, and in this month No. 11 Group claimed the highest proportion of enemy aircraft destroyed to their own pilots lost which had yet been recorded.

The fighter sweeps virtually ceased in the middle of December and were resumed on a reduced scale in February. In the meantime the Germans made a number of so-called “pirate” raids on aircraft factories and similar objectives These raids were made by single aircraft, flying over carefully prepared routes, often in cloudy weather. The German pilots showed great skill in taking advantage of every favourable circumstance of topography and weather to elude the defences. Although the raids were too infrequent to do much harm to our war potential, they caused some anxiety and resulted in great pressure being put on me to provide local fighter protection for the threatened factories.

The unsoundness of this method of defence, which, if carried to its logical conclusion, would have been impossibly extravagant and would have exposed our fighter force to defeat in detail, needs no elaboration. Nevertheless the Minister of Aircraft Production was so insistent that eventually I devised a scheme whereby a number of aircraft factories were to be allotted fighters for local defence, these to be piloted by the firms’ own test pilots. Although put into effect later in the year, the scheme achieved little practical success and was eventually allowed to fall into abeyance. As to its thorough unsoundness from the military viewpoint there can be no doubt; but I think that it may have been worth, while at the time simply for its moral effect. Workers who, seeing no fighters in the immediate neighbourhood of their factory, were unaware of the protection that they were receiving from the general air defence system, may have been and probably were heartened by the knowledge that there was a fighter on the factory airfield expressly for the purpose of defending them.

The introduction of Messerschmitt Bf 109E in fighter-bomber role gave the Luftwaffe new tactical opportunities. These were fully exploited in the form of nuisance raids which increased during the Spring of 1941. Lack of effective means of defence against these fast raiders caused considerable concern in Britain, out of proportion to the negligible tonnage of bombs which these aircraft, flying in small formations, could drop over England.

A more important measure taken at this stage concerned the flying of balloon barrages. On the outbreak of War the intention had been to fly the balloons at all times. This practice proved so expensive, chiefly because of the large number of balloons carried always or damaged by bad weather that it soon gave way to a system whereby balloons were close-hauled in doubtful weather and raised only on the approach of hostile aircraft. The disadvantage of this system was that the weather conditions in which balloons were likely to be close-hauled were precisely those in which a “pirate” raider might hope to approach its target undetected, or at least without its purpose being divined in time for the barrage to be raised. Thus, if the barrage commanders interpreted their freedom to close-haul the balloons too liberally, there was a risk that the barrages would be out of action just when they were most needed.

The experience of the “pirate” raids revealed this danger. In consequence I overhauled the machinery which had been set up to inform barrage Commanders of the approach of hostile aircraft, and laid down the principle that some risk of damage to balloons by bad weather must be accepted and that all barrages must be kept flying by day unless there were really strong grounds for close-hauling them.

Protection of Shipping

At the end of February a decision was reached at the highest level to give absolute priority to the defence of shipping in the North-Western approaches, which was now dangerously threatened by a combination of U-boats and long-range aircraft.

The measures taken in consequence of this decision included the transfer to Northern Ireland of some Units of Coastal Command which had hitherto shared with my Command the task of protecting coastwise trade off the East Coast. Consequently, when announcing this decision on 28th February, the Air Ministry instructed me to provide additional “watch and ward” for this traffic, at the expense, if necessary, of other tasks. At the same time I was warned of the possibility of increased attention by the German bomber force to West Coast Ports.

These instructions were followed on 9th March by a directive which made the defence of the Clyde, the Mersey and the Bristol Channel my primary task.

I made arrangements in consequence of these instructions to increase the anti-aircraft and night fighter defences of the West Coast Ports. At the same time, I increased the day-fighter defences of the Bristol Channel and the Mersey by bringing into operation Nos. 118 and 316 (Polish) Squadrons, which had been training for some time past at Filton and Pembrey, and by moving the newly formed No. 315 (Polish) Squadron to Speke. I did not consider that any addition was necessary to the day fighter defences of the Clyde, as No. 602 Squadron was already at Prestwick, while Nos. 43, 603 and 607 Squadrons at Turnhouse and Drem could quickly be made available as reinforcements.

On 5th March I gave instructions to all the Fighter Groups to allot a greater proportion of their effort to the protection of shipping and ports. The system of giving “escort”, “protection” or “cover” to convoys, according to circumstances, remained in force, but I arranged that “escort” should be given more generously than hitherto in specially dangerous areas, and that, where attacks were likely to be made without warning, fighters giving “protection” should be kept airborne while the risk continued.

The practical effect of these instructions is best shown by a few statistics. In February 1941, my Command devoted to the protection of shipping 443 sorties, or 8% of its total defensive effort by day; in March 2,103 sorties, or 18%; and in April 7,876 sorties, or 49%. During April several Squadrons in No. 10 Group each spent more than 1,000 hours of flying time in the discharge of this task. In no ensuing month of 1941 was the proportion of the total defensive effort of my Command by day which was devoted to the protection of shipping less than 52%, the highest proportion being 69% in August and again in September. The smallest number of daylight sorties expended on this duty in any month after March was 3,591 (in December) and the largest 8,287 (in May).

Besides providing this vastly increased scale of fighter protection, I surrendered from the resources under my operational control a number of light AA weapons for installation in merchant vessels. Other forms of armament now provided for these vessels included rocket projectors and parachute-and-cable projectors.

In consequence of these measures the Germans were forced to make an increasing proportion of their attacks under cover of darkness or twilight. After rising to a peak of 21 ships in March, the number of ships sunk by an action in daylight within the radius of fighter action fell to negligible proportions.

Various means of protecting ships at night as well as by day were tried, but after dark fighters were at a disadvantage, since their presence tended to confuse the ships’ gunners and thus do more harm than good. On the whole the best form of protection for merchant vessels after nightfall proved to be a combination of the AA weapons carried by the ships themselves and their escort vessels, and the orthodox use of night fighters to intercept enemy bombers wherever they could be most conveniently engaged. On the other hand it was important not to withdraw escorting fighters, too early, since the Germans were quick to seize opportunities of attacking ships at dusk. At the end of the last patrol of the day, therefore, fighters had to be landed in the dark. Conversely it was necessary for the earliest patrols to take off long before dawn in order to be in position by “first light”.

A word of tribute is due to the pilots who undertook these unspectacular and often tedious duties. Convoy patrols gave pilots comparatively few chances of distinguishing themselves in combat with the enemy, yet they constituted an essential, often exacting, and sometimes hazardous task, since the possibility of a sudden deterioration in the weather, which ‘might render the handling of a high-performance fighter a business requiring all the pilot’s skill, was always to be reckoned with.

There remained the problem of protecting shipping outside the radius of action of the short-range fighter. Hitherto my Command had not been concerned with this; but in the Spring of 1941 the Air Ministry announced a decision to equip a number of merchant vessels as “Catapult Aircraft Merchant Ships “. At least one of these C.A.M. ships would form part of every Atlantic convoy. Each would carry a Hurricane fighter, which could be launched by rocket-catapult on the approach of an enemy aircraft. On completion of his patrol the pilot would bale out, alight on the sea, or, if, near the coast, make for an airfield on land.

In order to provide the necessary complement of pilots, the formation of the Merchant Ship Fighter Unit began at Speke, in No. 9 Group, early in May 1941. I also made arrangements to train a number of Naval Officers as “Fighter Directing Officers”. The latter were to sail in the C.A.M. ships and, making use of radar and radio-telephony equipment, direct the fighters towards approaching German aircraft. The Merchant Ship Fighter Unit absorbed the equivalent of approximately two fighter squadrons.

The Unit despatched its first pilots and maintenance crews on operational service early in June. In August a detachment opened at Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, to administer a pool of replacement aircraft on the Western side of the Atlantic.

Hurricane on the catapult of a CAM Ship.
Merchant Ship Fighter Units were clearly an emergency solution given the lack of escort carriers.
These units were commanded by the RAF rather than FAA.
[Crown Copyright]

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By George Greenfield  |  2016-07-08 at 11:27  |  permalink

I’ve always thought Sholto Douglas was a second-rate commander (since discovering he advocated the creation of 10 squadrons of Defiants in 1939) and this account confirms me in that opinion. The Circus concept was militarily pointless, and merely served to cost the RAF the services of many experienced fighter pilots, who were shot down for no good reason (including Douglas Bader, for example). As a result of this mistakenly aggressive policy we gave the Luftwaffe exactly the same opportunity in 1941 as they had given us in 1940, and with an even worse result – the defending side achieved a roughly 2:1 kill/loss ratio, and the attacking side did no damage of significance. Meanwhile, Greece, Crete and Singapore were lost and Malta was beleaguered, all largely due to inadequate fighter defences. It is one of the mysteries of the war why Spitfires were not deployed overseas until June 1942, when Malta was on the verge of capitulation. Sholto Douglas was in charge during that period, and should bear much of the blame.

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