Stories of the Battle of Britain 1940 – The Day That Turned the Tide

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Stories of the Battle of Britain 1940

The Day That Turned the Tide

15 September 1940. The weather was fine over south-eastern England on 15 September – commemorated annually ever since as the Battle of Britain Day.

15 September 1940

This article is a guest post quoted from the Journal of the South African Military History Society. Used here by publisher’s permission. All further contributions are accepted with gratitude. If you wish to add to this blog, please contact the editor via an email link at the bottom of this page. – (Ed.)

The weather was fine over south-eastern England on 15 September –  commemorated annually ever since as the Battle of Britain Day. Churchill chose that morning for one of his periodic visits to the 11 Group operations room at Uxbridge. As he sat watching the map table, the WAAF plotters were receiving radar reports that showed groups forming up by the score and assembling behind the French coast until the swarm was being counted in hundreds.

For once, Keith Park commanding 11 Group had time to bring all his squadrons to standby, with pilots waiting in their cockpits. He also asked 10 and 12 Groups for maximum support as required. The vast Luftwaffe armada approached England stepped up from 15 000 to 26 000 ft [4 500-8 000 m], making landfall at three main points – between Dover and Folkstone, near Ramsgate and slightly north of Dungeness. Just after 11:00 the Spitfires of 72 and 92 Squadrons from Biggin Hill were heading for Canterbury to intercept the German fighter escort. Behind them came the Hurricanes of 501, 253 and seven other squadrons from 11 Group, plus 609 from Middle Wallop in 10 Group. More units joined in and at last the Big Wing of five squadrons from 12 Group arrived.

The sheer weight of Fighter Command’s onslaught broke up the German formations, causing bombers to lose their escorts and jettison their loads before turning frantically to head for the safety of the French coast. Those Dorniers that did get through scattered their bombs over a wide area. One bomb hit Buckingham Palace.

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The fight was over by 12:30 and Londoners sat down to lunch with the enemy clear of their sky. At Uxbridge, Churchill had watched anxiously as the squadrons landed, one by one, to refuel and rearm. When all were down he asked Park what reserves he had. ‘None’, replied the Air Vice-Marshal.

Thanks to poor planning on the part of the Luftwaffe, 11 Group was allowed a precious hour and a half to bring its forces back to readiness. The second and bigger mass attack in the early afternoon developed in two waves. Park threw 23 squadrons into action, the 12 Group wing waded in again and 10 Group provided three squadrons. Anti-aircraft guns successfully shook out the formations of the first wave; then the second wave flew into a strong fire. Like their colleagues in the RAF, the gunners gave a good account of themselves.

A one-man operation was conducted by RFC veteran Stanley Vincent, station commander at Northolt (later AOC 221 Group in Burma). Flying a Hurricane, he met a large formation of German fighters and bombers. ‘There were no British fighters in sight, so I made a head-on attack on the first section of bombers, opening at 600 yds and closing to 200.’ He broke up the group and they retreated.

Portland was bombed later but little damage was done, and a group of Bf 11os attacked the Spitfire factory at Woolston – unsuccessfully, thanks to the AA guns at Southampton.

Post-war examination of the Luftwaffe Quartermaster General’s returns showed a total of 53 aircraft destroyed and 22 damaged; a total of 155 German aircrew had been killed or made POWs and another 23 returned wounded. RAF losses were 26 aircraft and 13 pilots.

September the fifteenth 1940 confirmed to Hitler that the RAF was stronger than ever, and that Göring had failed his Führer. His courageous aircrews could not control the skies over southern England for the intended invasion. The entry for 17 September in the diary of the German Armed Forces High Command reads:

“The enemy air force is still by no means defeated; on the contrary it shows increasing activity . . . the Führer, therefore, decides to postpone Sealion indefinitely.”

The battle was far from over. For many weeks to come, there was little let-up on the beleaguered Fighter Command. Strenuous daylight attacks were directed against centres of aircraft production . . . Supermarine at Woolston, making Spitfires, the Bristol works at Filton, the Westland factory at Yeovil, and at Hatfield where the De Havilland Mosquito was being built. Hundreds of their workers were killed or injured, while the nightly attacks on London and other cities continued to kill or maim civilians.

There was heavy fighting. For instance, on 27 September the Luftwaffe lost no fewer than 55, its third highest day-loss in the entire battle. Fighter Command lost thirty aircraft. And on the 30th, 41 planes were lost in combat by the Germans – 23 by the RAF. The Luftwaffe leaders needed no further convincing; mass bomber raids on Britain in daylight ceased.

Throughout October, while the main bomber forces pounded away at London by night, the fighter-bombers kept up a stream of harassing attacks by day to apply long-term pressure on the British air force, population and economy. By the end of October it had become clear to the British that although they were doing none too well in the night battle (the boffins were still busy with airborne radar), they had won the strategically vital daylight battle. Raids continued spasmodically into November, but the Luftwaffe had run out of ideas. It had exhausted every tactical means open to it to eliminate the RAF and it had completely failed in the task.

15 September made Göring the Great German Blunder.

– Peter R Fox et al, Historic Air Combat Over Great Britain, Military History Journal Vol 8 No 4, The South African Military History Society, 1990


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