13 August 1940
Unternehmen Adlerangriff (Operation Eagle Attack), originally planned for 10 August, had to be postponed full three days because of the bad weather. Meanwhile, the German activity continued, resulting in a damage to several Chain Home radar stations, convoys and airfields in Kent.
Despite ever-progressing attrition and wear of aircraft and crews, the Luftwaffe mustered a formidable force for the planned operation. Together, Luftflotte 2 and Luftflotte 3 based in France, Holland and Belgium had 875 medium bombers, 316 dive bombers, 702 single-engined fighters and 227 twin-engined fighters. Some 200 more aircraft were based with Luftflotte 5 in Denmark and Norway, with a task of attacking Northern England and Scotland, thereby diverting some of the defending RAF fighters from the main battle in the South.
The expectations run high. The Luftwaffe targets for the Eagle Day included Bomber Command airfields, Fighter Command airfields, Coastal Command stations, channel shipping, aircraft factories and no fewer than nine manufacturing cities.
“We had been briefed the day previous to Adlertag that we would be going across the Channel in strong formations to attack England. At last, we would be concentrating in large bomber formations with a fighter escort. For so long, we had been flying our individual missions on simple operations like photographic reconnaissance or minelaying duties. Some, like us, had not even seen a British fighter or even fired a shot in anger and it hardly seemed as if a war was on at all. Now, our airfields had many bombers at the ready, many had been flown in from inland airfields, and I could see that now our great Luftwaffe would be at last attacking England.”
Feldwebel Karl Hoffmann 1/KG30
Unfortunately for the Germans, the surprise attack, aimed at crippling the RAF in one blow, ebbed out through a conjunction of blunders and bad luck.
Firstly, the weather forecast once again proved unreliable. Bad weather continued in the early morning of the 13 August forcing yet another cancellation at the last moment.
Unfortunately, this order failed to reach Oberst Fink’s KG 2 at Arras, the bomber unit assigned to spearhead the assault in the morning. Proceeding according to the plan, Fink’s entire force of 74 Dorniers Do 17 took off to attack the airfields at Sheerness and Eastchurch.
When the mistake was realised, frantic attempts followed to contact the runaway bombers through the radio to bring them back on the ground. But there was no response from either Fink’s or any other aircraft in his formation. Unknown to the operators, the Luftwaffe signals service had failed to provide the Dorniers with the correct crystals for the designated radio wavelengths.
Proceeding under the perceived radio silence, Fink reached the rendezvous point with their intended escort near the Channel coastline. It was 7:30 on Adlertag. Reassuringly, they spotted a small formation of Bf 110s climbing to meet the bomber formation. The fighters were the Messerschmitts Bf 110 from ZG 26. However, they were no escorts: led by Oberstleutnant Huth, the small flight was scrambled to signal Fink to abort the mission.
The problem was that there was no agreed signal to do just that. The surprised Fink watched from his cabin how the twin-engined Messerchmitts, instead of taking their position above the bombers, commenced strange aerobatics in front of his aircraft. They climbed up to his level, turned their noses down, then climbed again repeating the performance several times. Then they set on a series of turns, first overtaking the formation, then flying off to the side.
Fink, partly amused and irritated, attributed their actions to ‘high spirits’ and flew on. Soon, the Messerschmitts left the formation and disappeared among the clouds. The bombers were now half-way across the Channel.
By this time, Fighter Command had scrambled Nos 64 and 74 Squadrons on Spitfires and Nos 43, 87 and 601 on Hurricanes, dispersing them over the coast while attempting to predict the targets of the German raid.
Eventually, the Dorniers heading towards Eastchurch came within sight of No. 74 Squadron led by “Sailor” Malan, which immediately dived for attack on the aft section of the enemy formation. A number of Dorniers peeled off and tried to get back into the cloud cover. The forward section of the German formation pressed their bombing attack on Eastchurch. There was considerable destruction on the ground; two hangars were severely damaged and the operations room received a direct hit. A number of Blenheims of No. 35 Squadron Coastal Command were destroyed.
At the same time, the Spitfires were decimating Fink’s formation. Without fighter protection and caught in the middle of their bombing run, the Dorniers were sitting ducks. Malan’s squadron claimed a total of 6 bombers destroyed and 3 probables. As the bombers headed for home, the harassment continued by other RAF Squadrons. Fink’s own Staff Flight was badly mauled by the Hurricanes of No. 111 Squadron.
The actual German losses on this mission counted 5 bombers shot down and a further 3 written of on landing.
Fink was furious. Back at the base, he immediately telephoned Kesselring at Cap Blanc Nez, demanding an explanation why his bombers were left without fighter protection over the hostile territory. He was surprised and dismayed to learn about the whole story. Later, Kesselring made a journey to Arras to apologize to Fink in person.
Later during the day weather improved, allowing the Luftwaffe for at least half-day of Adlerangriff. Eventually, some 1,485 sorties were mounted, which the Fighter Command opposed with 727 defensive sorties.
In combat, the Germans lost 20 bombers with 14 badly damaged; 15 Bf 110s with six damaged plus 9 Bf 109s destroyed. Fighter Command lost 14 fighters and six damaged and no conclusive damage to airfields or command and control.
For its part, however, the Luftwaffe estimated 134 British aircraft destroyed. Their intelligence services also ticked off many of the attacked airfields as destroyed. Reporting on the four days of action on 8, 11, 12, and 13 August, the German Air Ministry wrote:
“The primary objective of reducing enemy fighter strength in southern England was meeting success: Ratio of own to enemy losses, 1:3 (…) lost three per cent of our first-class bombers and fighters, the enemy fifteen per cent. Fighters: Ratio of losses 1:5 in our favor British will probably not be able to replace losses. (…) Eight major air bases have been virtually destroyed.”
The course of the fighting on the 13th highlighted the overly optimism and serious error of judgment on the part of the Luftwaffe. Already the choice of targets indicated a lack of understanding of the enemy’s organisation. Exaggerating own results was another proof of over-confidence which verged on self-deception; a process which soon would prove decisive for the German conduct of the Battle.