Stories of the Battle of Britain 1940 – Has it Started Yet?

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10-11 July 1940 10 July 1940 is today recognized as the date when the Battle of Britain officially began. Or did it? Looking through ...

10-11 July 1940

10 July 1940 is today recognized as the date when the Battle of Britain officially began. Or did it? Looking through yesterday’s press news commemorating its 70th Anniversary, I was amused to see the variety of interpretations of what actually happened on that day.

“On this day in 1940, the Germans begin the first in a long series of bombing raids against Great Britain, as the Battle of Britain, which will last three and a half months, begins.”
[History Channel]

“On 10 July 1940, the German Luftwaffe bombed London and south east England”
[BBC News]

“[10 July..] is the first major assault by the Luftwaffe and is being seen as what the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, dubbed in a speech three weeks ago as the beginning of the ‘Battle of Britain’.”
[BBC On This Day]

“Over Britain… The Germans send 70 planes to raid dock targets in South Wales. In the British reckoning this is the first day of the battle of Britain.”

Each of these statements – hand-picked for the occasion, but authentic – is wanting in some respect.  The Luftwaffe bombing raid on 10 July wasn’t the first, wasn’t sent against London (which the BBC should have known) or the South Wales.

So what happened, really? Let’s have a closer look on a day which became the “official” starting date of the Battle of Britain.

An urban myth surrounding the beginning of the Battle is that after the momentous events of Dunkirk evacuation, June constituted a relative lull for the Royal Air Force – a much-needed month for rest and recuperation of losses. Such assertion does not withstand closer analysis.  As we have demonstrated before in this article series, attrition of the RAF fighter squadrons, so dreaded by Dowding, continued in Norway until 8 June, in France – until 18 June 1940. German forays in force over Britain commenced almost immediately thereafter – on 18 and 19 June.

Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding was unequivocal in his assessment of the “lull”:

“After the evacuation from Dunkerque the pressure on the Fighter Command became less intense, but it by no means disappeared. Hard fighting took place along the coast from Calais to Le Havre to cover the successive evacuations from that coast. Then the centre of gravity shifted to Cherbourg and its neighbourhood, and the Battle of Britain followed on without any appreciable opportunity to rest and re-form the units which had borne the brunt of the fighting.

The fall of Belgium and France had increased the danger to the South and West of England, and had necessitated a considerable modification of the original arrangements when bombing attacks could start only from German soil.

As has been explained above, few squadrons were fresh and intact when the Battle began. No sufficient respite has been granted since the conclusion of the Dunkerque fighting to rest the squadrons which had not left the Fighter Command, and to rebuild those which had undergone the ordeal of fighting from aerodromes in northern France. These last had been driven from aerodrome to aerodrome, able only to aim at self-preservation from almost continuous attack by bombers and fighters; they were desperately weary and had lost the greater part of their equipment, since aircraft which were unserviceable only from slight defects had to be abandoned.”

It is true that the Luftwaffe had to regroup to deploy its two Luftflotten, 2 and 3, along the Channel coast, plus Luftflotte 5 in Norway. The relocation in France, according to Adolph Galland, was completed rather quickly – he recalls in his memoirs that the fighter units became operational at their new bases around the midsummer week. While establishment of the units at their new bases and resolving all the supply logistics took some additional time, the Luftwaffe reports show that by 1 July, the collective strength of the air fleets in France and Norway was 2,186 serviceable aircraft including 898 bombers, 708 single-engined fighters and 202 twin-engined fighters. These numbers indicate a high degree of readiness for the forthcoming assault.

By end of June, many Luftwaffe units were ready to commence operations agains Britain.  This photograph was taken on 21 June.

Since around 1 July, the Germans were in position of mounting subsequently larger raids over Britain at will.  This is also exactly what they did, as shown by their record of operations. 1 July saw a prelude to daylight strategic bombing of British industrial cities: Hull in Northeast England and Wick in Scotland were attacked by two separate bombing raids. On 3 July, Luftwaffe followed up by bombing Cardiff in South Wales. 4 July saw the first large-scale convoy attack. German dive-bombers and torpedo boats attacked a merchant convoy in the Channel between Cherbourg and Bournemouth. Five ships were sunk and additional vessels damaged – an unqualified success for the attackers. Later on the same day, Luftwaffe also bombed Portland harbour.

On 8 July, Spitfires of No. 54 Squadron from Rochford intercepted a formation of Bf 110s escorted by Bf 109s. There was a rapid engagement with short bursts of fire, and two Spitfires had been lost.  On the next day, the Luftwaffe was over the Channel again, bombing more shipping near the British coast. Hurricanes of No 43 Squadron were scrambled, intercepting six Bf 110s among low, scattered clouds for a non-conclusive clash.

Attack on a channel convoy, July 1940.
[Crown Copyright]

So what really made the quoted “first day” different from these engagements? In fact, it might only be the weather.  It remained consistently and unusually bad during the first days of July, with heavy, low hanging clouds with continuous rain and thunderstorms precluding any large-scale operations by the RAF;  these ten rainy days of July were perhaps Dowding’s only “respite”.

Wednesday, 10 July dawned with similarly dense cloud, but before noon the weather over the South of England and the Channel cleared. This is where the Luftwaffe put their main effort during the day, concentrating on a merchant convoy which was just crossing the straits between Dover and Dungeness. The main German force was about 120 aircraft. The RAF sent up five fighter squadrons to aid a standing patrol of six Hurricanes. An air battle ensued. German bomber pilot Leutnant Bechtle, observing the swirling fighters from the elusive safety of his Dornier, described it as:

“A magnificent dogfight! From a distance, the aircraft looked like bunches of grapes…”

Despite the impression which the air battle made on everyone involved, the British remained unaware that their big battle had started. In fact, they would remain so for many more weeks. It must be remembered that when Churchill said “I expect that the battle of Britain is about to begin” in his famous speech of 18 June, he was not referring to an aerial battle, but the “fight on the beaches” – the invasion of German land forces.  A mere clash of substantial aircraft formations over the Channel did not indicate the beginning of that battle. Even a month later, on 8 August 1940, order of the day read aloud at all units of the RAF stated:

“The Battle of Britain is about to begin [emphasis added – Ed.]. Members of the Royal Air Force, the fate of generations lies in your hands.”

By the end of 1940, when British Air Ministry issued a pamphlet aiming to familiarize the general public with RAF exploits during the battle, it followed the meaning of that order.  The book was entitled: “The Battle of Britain – An account of the great days from 8th August to 31st October 1940”.  It defined the public understanding of the Battle for years.

Back on 10 July, the only person who recognized that something had actually started seemed to be Oberst Johannes Fink. Fink was recently appointed Kanalkampfführer, commander of the air campaign to clear the Channel for invasion, with a moderate force of 60 Stukas and 75 twin-engine bombers at his disposal.  Fink had his command post at Cap Blanc Nez – improvised from an old bus parked so that it offered a great view of the blue waters of the Channel all the way to the White Cliffs of Dover.

That evening, he called upon his young officers for a celebration in a nearby garden to feast over the day’s results, even though no enemy ships were sunk.  There were glasses of champagne served al fresco. The mood was that of self-confidence and apprehension: they were young, they were in France and they were the victors. But more importantly, they were finally succeeding in pulling Fighter Command into battle.

– Marcel Jullian: The Battle of Britain, July-September 1940, Cedric Chivers, 1974
– Hugh Dowding:  Despatch on the Conduct of the Battle of Britain, HMSO, 1941

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By Airminded · Post-blogging 1940  |  2010-07-12 at 22:27  |  permalink

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