Stories of the Battle of Britain 1940 – Exhaustion

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5 September 1940 As the first week of September was nearing its end, Fighter Command, which had been constantly mauled for three weeks, reached ...

5 September 1940

As the first week of September was nearing its end, Fighter Command, which had been constantly mauled for three weeks, reached its all-time low. Since 24 August, the two German Luftflotten in France had focused their assault almost entirely upon No. 11 Group’s airfields. Even though the daily scores of destroyed aircraft most often pointed to the RAF’s favour, there was no sense of elation. By the beginning of September, Dowding had to stop rotating his squadrons: those away from the battle scene were almost as low on pilots as those on the front line. Several squadron in the South-East pleaded with Keith Park to be posted to a quieter sector for a week or two, to no avail.

Pushed against the wall, Fighter Command had no clear idea if victory was in sight, and if so, how close or far it would be.  Indeed, things seemed to be turning from bad to worse. In the week ending on 6 September, Fighter Command lost 161 aircraft in air combat, for only 181 German aircraft brought down.

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Fortunately for the defenders, the German command also lacked a clear picture of how well their tactics really worked. Their main problem was bringing the maximum-effort campaign to a rapid conclusion. Compared with all initial calculations, the Luftwaffe was already playing in extra time, and its force was rapidly wearing out. Combat losses, particularly in the bomber units, were too heavy to sustain for very much longer. Crew morale, which was at its peak by the time of the Adlertag, was now rapidly diminishing. In addition, the Germans could not hope to replace all their lost or written-off aircraft with new machines – the monthly rate of aircraft production in Germany was nowhere near the level required to replace the losses.

While the accumulated losses kept soaring to alarming proportions, many of these still fighting found themselves on a brink of emotional, and often physical, exhaustion. In Fighter Command, this phenomenon took a massive proportion. Often men sat down to eat and fell asleep before even picking up a knife and fork. Many were averaging four hours’ sleep a night for weeks. There were recorded cases when pilots dropped unconscious after a succesful landing.

“Two flight commanders had been killed and I arrived as one of two new flight commanders. The squadron morale was absolutely zilch because the CO was unpopular and having lost both flight commanders on the same day, obviously the young chaps thought (…) what chance do we have?”
F/Lt Peter Brothers, No. 257 Squadron

“Then we descended through this rather flimsy cloud right in the middle of a formation of 109s. They must have been quite surprised; everybody started firing at a great rate, and as I fired, I saw not just the smoke trails but also the bright lights of the tracer. I remember thinking ‘Look, isn’t that pretty?’ It was like fireworks display. The next thing, I had a ‘whoomph’ at the back and the 109 behind me had knocked part of my tail plane off.”
F/Lt Peter Hairs, No. 501 Squadron

“You always knew when they were dead when they took their names off the board. (…) There were so many. They mourned each other so simply and with no fuss and went off rushing into the air again. Now at last, we began to know and understand a little and now we knew war. Always there was a sound of weeping. Every day some girl was weeping.”
Sgt Ann Lowe, WAAF

“Fatigue broke into a chap’s mentality in the most peculiar ways. Some really got the jitters and facial twitches and stuff like that. Others, as I did, had nightmares.”
F/O Harold Bird-Wilson, No. 17 Squadron

“One chap was imagining all the worst things that could happen and burst out in perspiration. I thought he had a flu so I sent him to the sick quarters.  The doctor came and said ‘He’s had it.'”
F/Lt Peter Brothers, No. 257 Squadron

“I had cases of chaps coming up to me and saying ‘I can’t take it’. These were chaps who hadn’t been with us very long. I’d say, ‘Right! You’re going to do one more sortie and then I will post you.’ And you’d put him as your number two and you’d watch him the whole time but I made sure that he did one mission. (…) If I had said, ‘All right you can go off on rest’, he would never be a man again”
F/O Harold Bird-Wilson, No. 17 Squadron

“The fact that the Germans were always outnumbering us was starting to make things a bit desperate. 266 Squadron had started off with a full complement of pilots – about 20. But by the time we were sent back to Wittering on August 21, we were down to five. This meant that all five of us had to go on every patrol and it wasn’t much of a squadron, really.”
P/O Dennis Armitage, No. 266 Squadron

– Matthew Parker: The Battle of Britain July – October 1940, Headline, 2000
– Joshua Levine: Forgotten Viuces of the Blitz and the Battle of Britain, Ebury Press, 2007
– Len Deighton: Fighter, Triad, 1979

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