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.)
Describing the events of 15 September 1940, this letter by Sergeant Pilot G. D. Bushell of No. 213 Squadron, RAF provides a first-hand account of the grand air battle of that day.
No. 213 Squadron was equipped with Hurricanes, having been relocated to Tangmere from Exter on 7 September. The raid referred to by Sgt Bushell consisted of three waves of more than 150 Dorniers and Heinkels from Oberst Fink’s KG2, together with Oberstleutnant Frölich’s KG 76. It was escorted by Messerschmitt Bf 109s of Adolf Galland’s veteran JG JG 26 ‘Schlageter’ and Hannes Trautloft’s JG 54 — The ‘Green Hearts’.
This great formation approached London shortly after 2 pm (Bushell’s ‘early afternoon’) on a broad – about 15 km – front over northern Kent, and was met by 170 Hurricanes and Spitfires.
Sgt Bushell was not credited with the aircraft referred to in the letter, but he had previously been credited with two Messerschmitt Bf 110s on 12 August 1940, and another on 15th. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal but was killed in action later in the war.
The day referred to in the letter represents the climax of the whole Battle and is regarded as the day on which it was won and lost. Whatever reservations one may have about the degree of damage done to Germany’s air force, the nature of the defeat was clear cut. The date is therefore celebrated annually as Battle of Britain Day, for Sunday 15 September saw the defeat of Germany’s daylight bombing offensive. The tide had turned.
Dear Mr Yeoman,
I must write you in some detail of the most spectacular engagement I have ever seen, which took place yesterday with such success for the R.A.F. and particularly for our group — a sector of S.E. area containing several squadrons — which altogether accounted for 116 aircraft shot down and 13 seriously damaged with 30 more probables.
It was early afternoon when the ‘phone rang and the squadron was ordered to patrol a point about 50 miles south of London at 20 000 feet. We took off and climbed through a layer of cloud 10/10 thick (this means it was so complete that no part of the earth could be seen at all, once we had passed through and got above it).
We were just reaching the patrol area and were being ordered by wireless to keep a sharp look out to the South, when we first saw the object of our journey — a black mass approaching from the South, at our height, and about nine miles away. We turned due South, and fingering our gun buttons, flew straight at them head on, at our maximum speed; as we rapidly closed, one could see the nature of this huge formation — they were flying twelve abreast, each twelve stepped up a few feet higher than the one preceding it, and there were about ten steps of them, so that looking from the front, the whole looked like one massive box, rather longer than it was wide, coming straight at us and growing larger and larger every second. They were in perfect and compact formation, and it was an awe-inspiring if terrifying sight.
Suddenly, the front of this box lit up with flame after flame as if someone were flashing mirrors in the sun, and an instant later we were in a hail of shells and machine-gun bullets. We persisted on our course, and half a second later, we were ploughing through them like a hot knife through butter, firing as we went. Never have I seen or imagined the resultant confusion.
In that second the whole formation was so routed and ruined that no two German aircraft were left in the company of one another; Dornier 17s fell away to the left and right like so many skittles, the first three steps jettisoned their bombs and scattered in all directions, the steps of the formation split up, wheeled round and flew back on their tracks dropping their bombs and twisting and turning in a vain effort to avoid our fighters who were after them like greyhounds.
Having passed clean through the centre of this formation now routed, I turned about and observed a few stragglers going in varied directions, some were engaged by Hurricanes and were dropping out of the sky in flames. I saw one going on by itself in the direction of London, and chased it at full speed, the rear gunner opened fire on me, which I at once returned, this was the signal for the release of all bombs immediately, and a turn back for home. I beat him on the inside of the turn and silenced the rear gunner with a broadside burst, the enemy aircraft then dropped out of sight into the thick cloud layer at 10 000 feet; with no bombs he was harmless, and must have flown off home in the cloud layer for I did not see him again.
I pulled the nose of my machine up, and found myself almost beneath another straggler (heading for London), the rear gunner opened fire on me and I saw his tracer bullets miss my starboard wing by several feet. I returned the fire, and instantly the bomb hatches opened and a load of bombs fell just in front of my aircraft. I closed the range to 50 yards and silenced the rear gunner. I raked the machine from nose to tail with my fire and suddenly it plunged into the clouds in a vertical dive.
I looked around and observed German fighters high above being engaged by Spitfires. I wondered why they had not pounced down on our tails when we engaged the bombers; the answer was being enacted in front of my eyes. My ammunition was all gone, so I dived down through the clouds and saw the Do 17 I had hit crash into a wood, explode and catch fire — and something else I saw which gratified me more than I can say; I was flying over open country, and every field for miles around was plastered with bursting bombs and the smoke of same — bombs that had been meant for London.
Even as I watched, half a dozen landed in a wood and some more in a pond, clouds of smoke were coming from every place, and burning wreckage everywhere indicated the fate of what had a few minutes earlier been a crack formation of the German Air Force. The way these aircraft, over a hundred of them, were scattered by our head-on attack, is something I shall never forget. If only Londoners could have seen that spectacle. If only it could have been filmed. But I think a film would have failed — people would have said it was a fake — impossible. I believe the numbers in the papers speak for themselves of the success of September 15th.
We lost a number of Hurricanes, but numbers I may not mention. This, however, is beyond censorship— ALL the pilots of those machines are alive to-day ; some in hospital I grant you, but only one, through the loss of an arm, will never fly again.
You must forgive me for ‘blowing our own trumpet’ but I should be criminally guilty to hide from my friends all of this wonderful engagement, this spectacle which was so sadly hidden from the ground by the layer of cloud.
Trusting that you are in good health and high spirits.
– Military History Journal, Vol 8 No 4, South African National Museum Of Military History, 1990