Phases in the Battle of Britain
Any attempt to describe the events of the Battle day by day would make this despatch unduly long and would prevent the reader from obtaining a comprehensive picture of the events. I have therefore decided to show the main features of each day’s fighting in an appendix on which our own and the Germans’ aircraft casualties will be shown graphically. I shall then be able to deal with the progress of the Battle by phases, thus avoiding the tedious and confusing method of day-to-day description.
I find it impossible to adhere to a description of the fighting phase by phase. The Enemy’s strategical, as well as his tactical moves had to be met from day to day as they occurred, and I give an account of my problems and the lessons to be derived from them roughly in the order of their incidence.
The Battle may be said to have divided itself broadly into 4 Phases:
- First, the attack on convoys and Coastal objectives, such as ports, coastal aerodromes and radio-location stations.
- Second, the attack of Inland fighter aerodromes.
- Third, the attack on London.
- Fourth, the fighter-bomber stage, where the target was of importance quite subsidiary to the main object of drawing our fighters into the air and engaging them in circumstances as disadvantageous to us as possible.
These phases indicated only general tendencies; they overlapped and were not mutually exclusive.
Attack on Convoys and Coastal Objectives
The amount of physical damage done to convoys during the first phase was not excessive. About five ships (I think) were actually sunk by bombing, others were damaged, and convoys were scattered on occasion. It was, of course, much easier to protect the convoys if they kept as close as possible to the English Coast, but one convoy at least was routed so as to pass close to Cherbourg, and suffered accordingly. Later, it was arranged that convoys should traverse the most dangerous and exposed stretches by night, and convoys steaming in daylight either had direct protection by fighter escorts, or else had escorts at readiness prepared to leave the ground directly danger threatened.
I may perhaps mention the question of the long range guns which were mounted along the coast of France near Cap Gris-Nez. They were within range of our coastal aerodromes, which they occasionally subjected to a desultory shelling. Their main targets, however, were Dover and the Convoys passing through the straits. So far as I am aware, neither they nor the guns which we installed as, counter measures, had any great influence on the air fighting, but they did of course make it impossible for any of our warships to approach the French coast in clear weather, and might have had an important effect if it had been possible for the Germans to launch an invading army.
Attack on Fighter Aerodromes
Three of the radio-location stations in the south of England suffered rather severe damage and casualties. No station was permanently put out of action, and the worst damage was repaired in about a month, though the station was working at reduced efficiency in about half that time. The operating personnel, and particularly the women, behaved with great courage under threat of attack and actual bombardment.
As regards aerodromes, Manston was the worst sufferer at this stage. It, Hawkinge and Lympne were the three advanced grounds on which we relied for filling up tanks when a maximum range was required for operations over France. They were so heavily attacked with bombs and machine guns that they were temporarily abandoned. This is not to say that they could not have been used if the need had been urgent, but, for interception at or about our own coastline, aerodromes and satellites farther inland were quite effective.
Heavy damage was done to buildings, but these were mostly non-essential, because aircraft were kept dispersed in the open, and the number of men and women employed was not large in comparison with the number at a station which was the headquarters of a sector.
Works personnel, permanent and temporary, and detachments of Royal Engineers were employed in filling up the craters on the aerodromes. Experience at this stage showed that neither the personnel nor the material provided were adequate to effect repairs with the necessary speed, and the strength and mobility of the repair parties was increased. Stocks of hard-core rubble had been collected at fighter aerodromes before the war.
It may be convenient here to continue the subject of damage to fighter stations other than those attacked in the first phase.
Casualties to personnel were slight, except in cases where a direct hit was made on a shelter trench. The trenches commonly in use were lined with concrete and were roofed and covered with earth; but they gave no protection against a direct hit, and, in the nature of things, they had to-be within a short distance of the hangars and offices.
Only non-essential personnel took coyer; aircraft crews and the staff of the Operations Room remained at their posts. The morale of the men and women of ground crews and staffs was high and remained so throughout.
At Kenley and at Biggin Hill direct hits were sustained on shelter trenches, at the latter place by a bomb of 500 kg or more. The trench and its 40 occupants were annihilated.
Wooden hangars were generally set on fire by a bombing attack, and everything in them destroyed.
Steel, brick and concrete hangars, on the other hand, stood up well against attack, though, of course, acres of glass were broken. Hangars were generally empty or nearly so, and those aircraft which were destroyed in hangars were generally under repair or major inspection which made it necessary to work under cover.
It must, nevertheless, be definitely recorded that the damage done to fighter aerodromes, and to their communications and ground organisation, was serious, and has been generally underestimated. Luckily, the Germans did not realise the success of their efforts, and shifted their objectives before the cumulative effect of the damage had become apparent to them.
Damage to aerodrome surface was not a major difficulty. It was possible for the Germans to put one or two aerodromes like Mansion and Hawkinge out of action for a time, but we had so many satellite aerodromes and landing grounds available that it was quite impossible for the Germans to damage seriously a number of aerodromes sufficient to cause more than temporary inconvenience.
This is an important point, because, in mobile warfare, fighter aerodromes cannot be hastily improvised in broken country, and the number of aerodromes actually or potentially available is a primary factor in the appreciation of a situation.
Sector Operations Rooms were protected by high earth embankments, so that they were immune from everything except a direct hit, and, as a matter of fact, no direct hit by a heavy bomb was obtained on any Operations Room. Communications were, however, considerably interrupted, and I must here pay a tribute to the foresight of Air Vice-Marshal E. L. Gossage, C.B., C.V.O., D.S.O., M.C., who commanded No. 11 Group during the first eight months of the war. At his suggestion, stand-by Operations Rooms were constructed at a distance of two or three miles from Sector Headquarters, and a move was made to these when serious attacks on fighter aerodromes began. They were somewhat inconvenient makeshifts, and some loss of efficiency in interception resulted from their use. Work was put in hand immediately on more permanent and fully-equipped Operations Rooms conveniently remote from Sector Headquarters; these though in no way bomb-proof, were outside the radius of anything aimed at the Sector Aerodrome, and owed they immunity to inconspicuousness. Most of these were finished by October 1940.
Aerodrome defence against parachute troops, or threat of more serious ground attack, was an important and a difficult problem, because Home Defence troops were few and were needed on the Beaches, and the majority of troops rescued from Dunkerque were disorganised and unarmed. The Commander-in-Chief, Home Forces, did, however, make troops available in small numbers for the more important aerodromes and armoured vehicles were extemporised. The difficulty was enhanced by a comparatively recent decision of the Air Ministry to disarm the rank and file of the Royal Air Force. The decision was reversed, but it was some time before rifles could be provided and men trained in their use.
The slender resources of the Anti-Aircraft Command were strained to provide guns for the defence of the most important fighter and bomber aerodromes. High altitude and Bofors guns were provided up to the limit considered practicable, and the effort was reinforced by the use of Royal Air Force detachments with Lewis guns and some hundreds of 20 mm cannon which were not immediately required for use in aircraft
A type of small rocket was also installed at many aerodromes. These were arranged in lines along the perimeter, and could be fired up to a height of something under 1,000 feet in the face of low-flying attack. They carried a small bomb on the end of a wire. Some limited success was claimed during a low flying attack at Kenley, and they probably had some moral effect when their existence became known to the enemy. They were, of course, capable of physical effect only against very low horizontal attacks.
The main safeguard for aircraft against air attack was dispersal. Some experiments on Salisbury Plain in the Summer of 1938 had shown that dispersal alone, without any form of splinter-proof protection, afforded a reasonable safeguard against the forms of attack practised by our own Bomber Command at the time. Thirty unserviceable fighters were disposed in a rough ring of about 1,000 yards diameter, and the Bomber Command attacked them for the inside of a week with every missile between a 500-pound bomb and an incendiary bullet, and without any kind of opposition. The result was substantially: 3 aircraft destroyed, 1 damaged beyond repair, 11 seriously damaged but repairable, and the rest slightly damaged or untouched.
I therefore asked that small splinter-proof pens for single aircraft should be provided at all fighter aerodromes. This was not approved, but I was offered pens for groups of three. I had to agree to this, because it was linked up with the provision of all-weather runways which I had been insistently demanding for two years, and it was imperatively necessary that work on the runways should not be held up by further discussion about pens. I think that the 3-aircraft pens were too big. They had a large open face to the front and a concrete area, of the size of two tennis courts, which made an ideal surface for the bursting of direct-action bombs. Eventually, splinter-proof partitions were made inside, the pens, and till then some aircraft were parked in the open. Losses at dispersal points were not serious; the worst in my recollection was 5 aircraft destroyed or seriously damaged in one attack. Small portable tents were provided which could be erected over the centre portion of an aeroplane, leaving the tail and wing-tips exposed. These protected the most important parts and enabled ground crews to work in bad weather.
Many of the targets attacked during the first two phases of the Battle were of little military importance, and had but slight effect on our war effort. Exceptions to this were day attacks carried out on the Spitfire works at Southampton and the sheds at Brooklands where some of our Hurricanes were assembled and tested. Both these attacks had some effect on output, which would have been serious but for the anticipatory measures taken by Lord Beaverbrook.
The Third Phase – Attack on London
About the end of the second phase, the problems of keeping units up to strength and of relieving them when exhausted began to assume formidable proportions. It was no new experience, because the drain of units and pilots to France, coupled with the Dunkerque fighting, had created similar problems in the spring.
The comparative relaxation in the intensity of the fighting in June and July had afforded a little respite, but units had only partially recovered and were neither fresh nor up to strength when the fighting again became intense.
The most critical stage of the Battle occurred in the third phase. On the 15th September the Germans delivered their maximum effort, when our guns and fighters together accounted for 185 aircraft. Heavy pressure was kept up till the 27th September, but, by the end of the month, it became apparent that the Germans could no longer face the bomber wastage which they had sustained, and the operations entered upon their fourth phase, in which a proportion of enemy fighters themselves acted as bombers.
The Fourth Phase – Fighter-Bomber Attacks
In the fourth phase of the Battle the Germans used a proportion of fighters acting as bombers. After the policy of “crashing through” with heavy bomber formations had been abandoned owing to the shattering losses incurred, large fighter formations were sent over, a proportion of the fighters being adapted to carry bombs, in order that the attacks might not be ignorable.
This last phase was perhaps the most difficult to deal with tactically. Although the actual damage caused by bombs was comparatively trivial, was aimed primarily at a further whittling down of our fighter strength, and, of all the methods adopted by the Germans, it was the most difficult to counter. Apart from the previous difficulty of determining which formations meant business, and which were feints, we had to discover which formations carried bombs and which did not.
To meet this difficulty, Air Vice-Marshal Park devised the plan of using single Spitfires, flying at maximum height, to act as reconnaissance aircraft and to report their observations immediately by R/T.
A special Flight was organised for this purpose, and. it was later recommended that the Spitfires should be employed in pairs, for reasons of security, and that the flight should become a Squadron. A special R/T receiving set was erected at Group Headquarters so that reports might be obtained without any delay in transmission from the Sector receiving station. There is reason to believe that the Germans also adopted a system of using high-flying He 113s as scouts. Their information concerning our movements was transmitted to the ground and relayed to their bombers in the air.
In the fourth phase, the apparent ratio of losses in our favour dropped appreciably. I say “apparent” because, in fighting at extreme altitudes, fighters often could not see their victims crash, and the percentage reported as Certainly Destroyed was unfairly depressed. Our own casualties, nevertheless, were such that the C-category squadrons, which I was hoping to build up to operational strength again, remained in their condition of semi-effectiveness.
Serious as were our difficulties, however, those of the enemy were worse, and by the end of October the Germans abandoned their attempts to wear down the Fighter Command, and the country was delivered from the threat of immediate invasion.
Battle of Britain – Conclusion
The indomitable courage of the fighter pilots and the skill of their leaders brought us through the crises, and the morale of the Germans eventually cracked because of the stupendous losses which they sustained.
Before beginning an account of the Battle, I must refer briefly to the publication entitled The Battle of Britain, issued by the Air Ministry. This, if I may say so, is an admirable account of the Battle for public consumption, and I am indebted to it, as well as to the book Fighter Command, by Wing Commander A. B: Austin, for help in the compilation of this despatch. There is very little which I should have wished to alter, even if circumstances had permitted my seeing it before publication (I was absent in America at the time), but there is a points to which I should like to draw attention. I quote from page 33: “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.” (The italics are mine.)
This statement, even if intended only for popular consumption, tends to lead to an attitude of complacency which may be very dangerous in the future. Whatever the study of paper returns may have shown, the fact is that the situation was critical in the extreme. Pilots had to be withdrawn from the Bomber and Coastal Commands and from the Fleet Air Arm and flung into the Battle after hasty preparation. The majority of the squadrons had been reduced to the status of training units, and were fit only for operations against unescorted bombers. The remainder were battling daily against heavy odds.