Stories of the Battle of Britain 1940 – Black Thursday

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No. 72 Squadron on Spitfires was the first to make contact with the enemy. Sqn/Ldr E. Graham was shocked to see that instead of ...
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No. 72 Squadron on Spitfires was the first to make contact with the enemy. Sqn/Ldr E. Graham was shocked to see that instead of the announced 30-plus, they were flying right into a mass of 65 Heinkel He 111s and 34 Bf 110s – almost a hundred aircraft! P/O Deacon Elliott recorded his impression of the sight:

“There were at least 200 enemy aircraft at about forty miles out to sea, made up of every type we knew. Led by He 111 and Ju 88 bombers with a long-range escort of Me 110s well to the rear. None of us had ever seen so many aircraft in the sky at one time.”

Graham divided his small force in two sections, one attacking the fighters and the rest the bombers. The effect was devastating. The Messerschmitts formed defensive circles, abandoning the bomber formation, which in turn exploded in many directions. Some of the Heinkels jettisoned their bombs into sea, heading back to Norway. Others, chased by Spitfires, fell into the sea.

Elliott again:

“There was a gap between the lines of bombers and the Me 110s coming up in the rear, so there we went. I do not think they saw us to begin with. When they did, the number of bombs rapidly jettisoned was fantastic. You could see them falling away from the aircraft, and dropping into the sea, literally by the hundreds. The formation became a shambles.”

The two remaining groups of German bombers reached the coast, only to be intercepted by Nos. 79, 605 and 607 Squadrons on Hurricanes, plus No. 41 on Spitfires. P/O John Noble MacKenzie was with No. 41 Squadrons which intercepted the main attack against the Tynemouth area. His squadron encountered an arrowhead formation of fifty bombers flying at 18,000 feet, escorted by forty Bf 110s a little astern and above. These escort fighters retained their formation when attacked, and the combat resolved itself into a dogfight with the escort and a few loose bombers. MacKenzie singled out a Junkers Ju 88 for attack and closed to within 80 yards of the enemy aircraft before breaking away. He last saw the Junkers entering cloud with smoke pouring from one engine.

Bf 110 in a gun camera of a Spitfire, distance approximately 200 yards.
[Crown Copyright]

The raiders turned back to Norway, leaving their airfield targets unscathed, and loosing eight bombers and seven fighters, 15% of their force, without inflicting any losses on the defending British fighters. One unfortunate Staffel, III./KG26, lost five of its nine aircraft.

From Denmark

Meanwhile, an unescorted formation of 50 Junkers Ju 88s from Denmark was attacking the aerodrome at Driffield and munition dumps in Bridlington. This raid, too, received a full radar warning. Nos. 616 and 73 Squadrons engaged, shooting down five of the bombers. An additional one fell victim to antiaircraft fire. Driffield, a Bomber Command Station, was extensively cratered and many buildings and hangars destroyed.

In the South

In the afternoon, large formations of enemy aircraft again attacked fighter airfields in Manston and Martlesham Heath, plus four radar stations in the South-east. A Short Brothers aircraft factory in Rochester was also dive-bombed, sadly suffering several hits, which disrupted the production of four-engine Striling bombers. RAF squadrons in action included Nos. 1, 17, 32, 64, 111, 151 and 501.

Two more Luftwaffe attacks followed in the evening. The first was launched against Portsmouth and Plymouth and the Middle Wallop airfield by about thirty dive-bombers, escorted by approximately 100 fighters. Sqn/Ldr T. G. Lovell-Gregg led No. 87 Hurricane Squadron to intercept this raid and the ensuing combat was described as the fiercest the squadron had experienced. The enemy fighters on being attacked formed themselves into two main defensive circles while the squadron set about them with good results. Squadron Leader Lovell-Gregg was shot down during this hectic engagement, but his loss was avenged by F/O Ward and F/O Tait, who each claimed the destruction of a Bf 110.

This attack against the South coast was hardly over when the pilots were called upon to intercept yet another heavy raid directed against an airfield in Kent and against Croydon aerodrome. The enemy succeeded in making the Kent airfield unserviceable for four days and also caused minor damage at Croydon. This latter attack was noteworthy as the first occasion when bombs were dropped in the London area, and also because all the aircraft which actually bombed the aerodrome were shot down. In intercepting this attack F/Lt Al Deere claimed an enemy fighter destroyed before he was himself shot down over Kent. He baled out at 1500 feet and escaped with a sprained wrist. This was the famous occasion when Deere, sideslipping his parachute to miss a farmhouse, landed in the middle of a fully laden plum tree and brought the whole crop to the ground. This tree was the only one in the orchard which still bore fruit and had been specially saved, a point which the irate farmer was not slow to point out to the New Zealander.

In all, as a result of the day’s operations, the German Air Force lost 75 aircraft. Fighter Command losses that day were 34. At the time, the RAF claimed to have shot down 182 enemy aircraft, and the Germans 82.

In any way, 15 August was the day of the heaviest fighting which may be said to have changed the course of the battle. The Luftflotte 5 alone had lost one-eighth of its bomber force and one-fifth of its long-range fighters. Its defeat was so severe that it never made another daylight attack during the entire battle.

Scotland won its Battle of Britain in one day.

Portions of this article come from N. W. Faircloth: New Zealanders in the Battle of Britain. War Histroy Branch, Dept. of Internal Affairs, Wellington, 1950. Used by Crown Copyright of New Zealand

References
– Brett Holman: The Douhet dilemma. Airminded, 2007
– Marcel Julian: The Battle of Britain July-September 1940, Cedric Chivers, 1974
– Michael J. Eula: Giulio Douhet and Strategic Air Force Operations – A Study in the Limitations of Theoretical Warfare, Air University Review, September-October 1986
– Richard Hillary, The Last Enemy, Pimlico, 1997
– Derek Dempster, Derek Wood: The Narrow Margin – The Battle of Britain and the Rise of Air Power 1939-1940, Pen & Sword, 2010

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