19 June 1940
19 June was the day when, for the first time since the beginning of German offensive in the West, Luftwaffe bombers appeared in force over Britain.
During the Phoney War, the auxiliary Spitfire fighter squadrons based in Scotland saw more action than any other units within Fighter Command, either in the UK or on the continent. This was largely due to the Luftwaffe’s ongoing interest in Royal Navy establishment in the Firth of Forth, including its protected anchorage and the Rosyth Dockyard, which prompted repeated attacks by the Luftwaffe since the beginning of the war. In fact, the first RAF aerial victories of the war took place over Firth of Forth on 16 October 1939, when Nos. 602 and 603 Spitfire squadrons successfully attacked a raiding force of Heinkels He 111.
Spitfire Mk. I over the Firth of Forth
[602 Squadron Museum]
After a relatively quiet period during the Battle of France, on 19 June a large force was reported approaching the Firth of Forth again, ostensibly to attack the Forth Bridge and the naval targets. Several fighter squadrons were scrambled to intercept, among them No. 605 (County of Warwick) Spitfire Squadron based at Drem in East Lothian. RAF fighters engaged the leading aircraft and claimed seven bombers destroyed or disabled – a good day for the Scottish auxiliaries.
The preceding night saw even more action as the Luftwaffe mounted its first large-scale attack over England. About 70 Heinkels He 111 set out to attack the oil storage on Canvey Island, airfields at Leconfield and Mildenhall plus a range of other targets.
The bombers crossed the British coast in brilliant moonlight, approaching their targets at altitudes between 10,000 and 15,000 feet. Thanks to the radar, the defenders were given advance warning of the German approach, and a number of fighter squadrons were scrambled, including Nos. 19 and 74 on Spitfires, a Hurricane and a Blenheim unit.
Night fighting tactics at the time relied on individual patrols over a designated area. While ground control could direct the pilot to the general vicinity of enemy aircraft, the guidance was too imprecise to secure visual contact even by day. During the night, the pilot had to rely solely on his eyes – and sometimes sixth sense – if he was to locate any other aircraft at all, not to mention distinguishing between friend and foe. Fortunately, the night of 18-19 June was very clear, the full moon turning the night skies over England into a starry dark blue crystal ball with exceptional visibility.
Among the pursuing pilots of No. 74 Squadron was F/Lt Adolph ‘Sailor’ Malan, newly awarded with DFC for his exploits over Dunkirk. Vectored to the area of Felixstowe, Malan caught sight of a He 111 and promptly shot it down.
Resuming his patrol, a few minutes later Malan noted searchlight beams over Southend. He headed into the area, and soon noted another Heinkel caught in a cone of searchlights. He closed in for attack:
“I gave it to 5-second bursts and observed bullets entering all over the enemy aircraft, with slight deflection as he was turning to port. Enemy aircraft emitted heavy smoke and I observed one parachute open very close…”
Following down after the bomber, Malan saw it crash into the ground.
There were more victories that night. F/O John Petre of No. 19 Squadron closed on another Heinkel when he noted that he was accompanied in the pursuit by a RAF Blenheim, the two aircraft nearly avoiding collision. After regaining his composure, Petre mad another attempt, opening fire on enemy aircraft and seeing how one of its engines burst in flames. In the same moment, his Spitfire was caught by a searchlight, for an instant making him a clear target for the German rear gunner. An accurate burst thereof set alight the Spitfire’s fuel tank, and Petre had to bail out, escaping with severe burns. Floating down on his parachute, he saw both the Heinkel and another aircraft – presumably the Blenheim – spin down and crash in the night fields below.
Another combat among the searchlights over Southend involved F/O George Ball from No. 19 Squadron, who shot down another He 111 after a long pursuit; the bomber crashed near the Thames Estuary. Elsewhere, the Blenheims shot down another two Heinkels. The Hurricanes had no luck.
The action of that night brought considerable success to the RAF. A week later, on another clear night, Spitfires of No. 616, 603 and 602 Squadrons destroyed another three He 111s.
Ironically, the results of the week gave a misguided impression about the effectiveness of the Spitfire in the role of night fighter. In fact, all available RAF aircraft of the time were rather ill-suited for this type of duty, and the Spitfire was the least suitable of them all. Although initially envisioned and ordered as a “day and night interceptor”, the Supermarine fighter was particularly difficult to operate at night because of the poor visibility over the nose for landing and its narrow undercarriage, which further decreased the tolerance for error on landing. On darker nights, the blast from the Spitfire’s eight guns could blind the pilot for minutes in that most crucial moment of combat. Similarly, the exhaust glare interfered with pilot’s forward view at all times. On 19 June, these problems were not fully experienced only because the night was exceptionally clear and bright.
Although Spitfires and Hurricanes continued to be used on night patrols, the Luftwaffe bombers quickly learned to fly well above the altitudes at which they could be effectively picked up by searchlights and the single-seat fighters of the RAF were never to achieve the same success in night fighting, not even during the London Blitz when success would be most direly needed.
– Alfred Price: Spitfire Mk. I/II aces, 1939-41, Osprey, 1996
– Leslie Hunt: Twenty-One Squadrons – The History of Royal Auxiliary Air Force, 1925-1957, Crecy, 1992