Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the winner of more than 20 literary accolades. For a complete list of her awards see: http://helenapschrader.com

Helena is represented by Laurie Blum Guest at the Re-Naissance Agency.

For readers tired of clich├ęs and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

Friday, June 18, 2021

"The Battle of France is Over..."

 On 18 June 1940, Winston Churchill told the House of Commons that the Battle of France was over, adding: "I expect the Battle of Britain is about to begin. ... The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned against us." 

Churchill's famous words still have the power to mesmerize, particularly when coupled with Churchill's earlier statement "we will never surrender." Yet was it truly inevitable that Germany would attack Great Britain? Was the Battle of Britain unavoidable?

 

In fact, Britain did have an alternative in June 1940 -- and it was not surrender. Britain also had the option of a negotiated peace. Furthermore, this "solution" was the preferred option not only of the Germans but of a significant portion of the British political class, including members of Churchill's own cabinet. The most powerful voice favoring a peaceful settlement with Germany after the fall of France was none other than the British Foreign Minister, Lord Halifax.

Edward Wood,  later 1st Earl of Halifax, was a leading member of the Conservative Party in Great Britain, with a distinguished career in government during interwar years. He had been Viceroy of India from 1925 to 1931, where he had successfully negotiated a de-escalation of the growing conflict with Gandhi. He was influential in shaping the 1935 Government of India Act, and in the same year became Secretary of State for War, where he demonstrated a marked reluctance to face the possibility of war by resisting pressure for re-armament. 

Despite Hitler's rise to power, Halifax was among the many in Britain, who saw German re-militarization of the Rhineland as a normalization of affairs on the Continent rather than an outrage. In November 1937 he was invited hunting by Goering and also met with Adolf Hitler. Although not an official spokesman of the British government at this time (the Foreign Minister was Anthony Eden), his close ties to the British government gave his words considerable weight. Evidently without consulting his Foreign or Prime Minister, Halifax conveyed to Germany's leaders the impression that Britain did not inherently object to adjustments to the map of Europe as drawn up at the Treaty of Versailles. Halifax acknowledged that German interests in "self-determination" had not been respected at the Peace Conference and that Germany had legitimate interests in Austria, Czechoslovakia and even Poland. However, he warned that any adjustments must be made by peaceful means. 

Above Lord Halifax in 1947

In February 1938, Halifax was appointed Foreign Secretary precisely because he had a more conciliatory attitude toward both Hitler and Mussolini, a position in line with that of the then Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Hitler's annexation of Austria in March 1938, however, induced him to favor rearmament as well. Pragmatically, Halifax hoped for peaceful de-escalation of tension, but recognized the need to be prepared for war. 

As the Munich Crisis approached, it was clear to both Halifax and Chamberlain that the British public (and certainly the Labour opposition) were vehemently opposed to war and an alternative had to be found. "Appeasement" appeared to be the best solution, defusing the immediate tensions and buying time for the democracies to re-arm. Halifax also recommended widening the government to include Churchill and Eden, but Chamberlain resisted. 

By the end of 1938, Halifax increasingly advocated resisting further aggression on the part of Hitler and Mussolini, including a guarantee to Poland. He had no hesitation standing by that guarantee in September 1939, beyond wanting the French to commit at the same time. Throughout the first eight months of the war Halifax rejected negotiations with Hitler, first refusing to talk as long as German troops were still on Polish soil, and later saying (via Swedish intermediaries) that there could be no negotiation with Germany as long as Hitler was in power. 

On May 8, despite narrowly surviving a vote of no-confidence in Parliament, Neville Chamberlain recognized it was time for him to step down and allow a new coalition government including Labour to be formed. The unanswered question, however, was who was to succeed him. The Labour leadership agreed to join a government, as long as it as not led by Chamberlain; they did not object to serving under Halifax, despite his position as a peer of the realm. King George VI favored Halifax as Chamberlain's replacement, and the Conservative Party as whole much preferred Halifax to Churchill, who was considered volatile, unpredictable and not entirely trustworthy. Yet in a meeting between Chamberlain, Churchill and Halifax on May 9, Halifax suggested that Churchill was the better man for the post of Prime Minister. Nevertheless, no decision had been taken by Chamberlain on who to recommend as his successor, when the Germans opened their offensive in the West, invading neutral Holland and Belgium.

That same evening, Chamberlain submitted his resignation to the king along with the recommendation that Winston Churchill be asked to form a government. Hours later, Churchill accepted the appointment, conscious both of how grave the situation was and of a sense of destiny. Yet while he proved capable of forming a coalition government, he remained an unpopular outsider, mistrusted by many in his own party and government and viewed with suspicious by the opposition as well. Meanwhile, Halifax remained Foreign Minister, and from this position he continued to command the loyalty and  support of the majority. In consequence, his influence was far beyond what his official position would suggest.  


Less than six weeks later, Belgium, Holland and France had all surrendered. The British Expeditionary force had lost 50,000 men, most of their guns and armor and all their transport. Although through the evacuation at Dunkirk the bulk of the troops had been safely brought home, the British army was no longer in a position to influence military developments on the Continent. With the surrender of France on June 22, the continent of Europe was completely under the domination of Germany and its allies Italy and the Soviet Union. To a practical man like Lord Halifax, it was time to revisit the option of negotiation with Hitler. 

This was not because Halifax harbored illusions about Hitler being "decent" or trustworthy. By this point in time, Halifax appears to have genuinely detested Hitler. However, from Halifax's point of view, Britain had lost the war on the Continent -- not her army, thankfully, but the war. There was, he said bluntly, nothing to be gained by continuing the struggle when Britain had literally no means of doing so. It was impossible to economically strangle an entire continent, no matter how powerful one's navy is. It was impossible to wage war against a continental land power with ships alone. While Churchill spoke of fighting on the beaches, the landing grounds, the fields, streets, and hills, Halifax spoke of the duty of the British government to safeguard the nation's independence -- through negotiations. 

When the Italian ambassador suggested that Mussolini might be able to broker a deal with Hitler, Halifax welcomed the offer and responded that Britain would be happy to listen to reasonable terms. After France surrendered on June 22, Halifax sent one of his closest associates to the Swedish Embassy with the message that Britain was still open to a reasonable settlement with Germany. He denied that Britain was committed to a fight to the death. Halifax's interest in a negotiated peace appears to have been motivated largely by the desire to prevent an air offensive against Britain that would cause loss of life and do inestimable damage to British industry. There is nothing dishonorable about the desire to save civilian lives and livelihoods.

Had Lord Halifax been tasked with leading the government at this point and had he advocated making peace with Hitler, he might have well enjoyed the passive, if not the active, support of the majority of the British public. Given the fact that Hitler himself had not anticipated and did not particularly want to continue the war against Britain (see: German Objectives in the Battle of Britain.), had Halifax rather than Churchill had headed the British government in June 1940 a negotiated settlement would almost certainly have been possible.

Nor should it be forgotten that it was not only Halifax and his supporters in the cabinet and Conservative party who wanted to negotiate with Hitler. British public opinion was also divided. There had been a far right wing party (British Union of Fascists) under Oswald Mosley, which was unabashedly anti-Semetic and pro-Nazi. Although banned at the start of the war, its members and sympathizers would certainly have supported a truce with Hitler. More importantly, as a result of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, the Communist Party was at this point also "pro-Hitler." Significantly, the Communists had gained in popularity after the start of the war, evidently attracting many committed pacifists, who opposed to war on principle. In short, an unknown percent of the British population may have actively wanted an alliance with Hitler. The greater part of the public, however, was shocked, confused and frightened by the unexpected, indeed unfathomable, collapse of France in just six weeks. Still in a state of shock after this catastrophe, the majority of the British would probably have accepted a negotiated settlement with Nazi Germany if their government had told them was in their best interests.

In other words, the Battle of Britain as not really inevitable -- except that Winston Churchill had with his own unshakable determination, confidence, and his gift with words succeeded in awakening a sleeping lion.


“Where Eagles Never Flew” depicts an England that is far from unanimous in its support for Churchill's policies and still sharply divided by class. It also shows the Battle of Britain from both sides of the Channel by following the fate of German characters as well as British ones. The British characters are members of the fictional No. 606 (Hurricane) Squadron based at Tangmere. The German characters are the pilots and women auxiliaries of a Me109 Gruppe based in Northern France.  Find out more about “Where Eagles Never Flew” at:  https://crossseaspress.com/where-eagles-never-flew or watch a video teaser at:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SnAoMC0d6Mo

 

Friday, June 11, 2021

The RAF Over Dunkirk

Many British soldiers felt the RAF failed to provide sufficient protection from the German Luftwaffe during the evacuation at Dunkirk. Despite Churchill's vigorous defense of the RAF's performance, British Army hostility toward the RAF  for its alleged failure over Dunkirk continued to strain relations between the RAF and the army for years afterwards. With the benefit of hindsight, it is easier to see that Churchill’s assessment, while overly flamboyant, was closer to the mark. 

On 21 May, just eleven days after launching their offensive against France, units of the German Wehrmacht reached the channel coast. By 24 May, Boulogne fell to the Germans and Calais was surrounded and besieged. The entire British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was trapped in a pocket centered at the town of Dunkirk on the Normandy coast. It was immediately apparent to the BEF’s Commanding General, John Viscount Gort, that only an evacuation to England could save his army. Expecting the German panzers to break through the weak perimeter defenses within a couple of days, the British war cabinet estimated that at most 45,000 men might be evacuated before the Germans overran the Allied defenses and ended the operation.

Fortunately for the British, on 23 May Generalfeldmarschall von Rundstedt ordered the panzers to stop pressing at the heels of the retreating British, French and Belgian forces pulling back towards Dunkirk. Some panzer divisions were down to 50% strength (more due to wear and tear on the vehicles than enemy action) and the German field marshal recognized the need to give the units time to rest and regroup before facing the main French army drawn up in defense of Paris. Furthermore, the terrain around Dunkirk was marked by marshes and canals, a combination viewed as unsuitable for armored vehicles. Hitler agreed with this tactical decision, while Goering eagerly offered to use air power to destroy the enemy troops crushed together in the Dunkirk pocket.

Between 24 and 26 May, the Allies forces used the lull in the ground fighting to establish a more robust, defensible perimeter around the port of Dunkirk. Thus, when the panzers received the order to advance again, they encountered organized and effective resistance. Furthermore, the German armored divisions were soon withdrawn from the fight for Dunkirk in order to engage in the assault on Paris. As a result, it would not be until June 5 that the German Wehrmacht seized the beaches of Dunkirk. By that date, an astonishing 338,226 Allied troops had been evacuated to safety in England.

The evacuation started slowly with the removal of just 7,700 men on 26 May, but by 27 May, the numbers had more than doubled to 17,300 men. On 28 May, although a similar number was evacuated, a flotilla of small ships arrived to aid in the operation. These had comparatively shallow draft, enabling them to move close enough to the beach for men to wade out to the boats rather than all having to file over the Eastern breakwater to board a ship moored at the end. 

 


Thereafter, the numbers taken off daily increased significantly, peaking on 31 May. The daily number evacuated daily was approximately:

·       47,300 on 29 May;

·       53,800 on 30 May;

·       68,000 May 31;

·       64,400 June 1.

·       26,200 June 2

·       26,700 June 3

·       26,100 June 4

On the night of 2 June, the last of the British troops at Dunkirk were evacuated. Yet the operation did not end until another 75,000 French troops had also been transported to England. When the Wehrmacht broke through the defenses on June 5 and captured Dunkirk, only roughly 40,000 French troops remained to surrender.

Of those evacuated, 198,000 were British, 140,000 French, Belgian or Dutch. Not to be forgotten, however, were roughly 50,000 British troops who had not made it to the pocket at Dunkirk. Many had sacrificed themselves to make the evacuation at Dunkirk possible, fighting at Boulogne, Calais and the defenses around Dunkirk. Eleven thousand gave their lives, while the remainder became prisoners of war for the duration.

A total of 861 allies ships took part in the evacuation code named “Dynamo.” Of these, 693 were British. A cruiser, 39 destroyers, 36 minesweepers and 13 torpedo boats of the Royal Navy were joined by 49 warships from allied navies, but the vast majority of the ships that took part in the operation were not warships. In addition to 8 hospital ships, 45 troop/passenger ships, 113 trawlers, and numerous merchant ships, tugboats, ferries, pleasure boats and yachts assisted with the evacuation. While the larger ships accounted for the bulk of the troops rescued at Dunkirk (ca. 240,000); the small ships accounted for the remainder or nearly 100,000 men. 

                                                   Royal Navy ships disembarking troops at Dover

The evacuation was an astonishing and unexpected success, yet it came at a cost. In the  course of Operation Dynamo, nine destroyers were sunk along with 200 smaller ships. Several of these ships sunk after taking troops aboard, resulting in the loss of thousands of lives — usually before the eyes of the troops still waiting to be rescued and the passengers and crews of other rescue vessels. Furthermore, starting 27 May, the troops awaiting their turn to board or already embarked were under frequent attack from the Luftwaffe. (On 25 and 26 May the Luftwaffe concentrated on bombing Calais, Lille and Amiens, and only thereafter started the offensive against Dunkirk.) 

In the nine days from 27 May to 4 June, the Luftwaffe flew thousands of sorties against the trapped Allied troops, deploying over 300 bombers from two Kampfgeschwader protected by roughly 550 fighter escorts. In addition, it hammered the town of Dunkirk killing roughly 1,000 civilians, destroying the docks, and setting petrol tanks on fire that could not be put out because the water system had been shattered. 

The Royal Air Force was tasked with preventing the Luftwaffe from slaughtering the Allied troops by establishing air superiority in the skies over Dunkirk. From Dowding downwards, no one was in doubt about what was at stake, and a maximum effort was made. When Operation Dynamo ended, 2,739 sorties had been flown in just nine days. Throughout, however, the RAF was fighting at a severe disadvantage.

First, it had just lost more than 300 front line fighters (Hurricanes) in the Battle of France. The squadrons that had fought in France were exhausted and no longer combat-ready. More importantly, only squadrons based in the Southeast of England, e.g. 11 Group, could be deployed over France because it was not possible to operate more squadrons from these airfields without overwhelming the command and control system. In short, the Air Officer Commanding 11 Group, Air Vice Marshal Sir Keith Park had just 32 squadrons and something close to 400 aircraft with which to stop the Luftwaffe.

Park was further handicapped by the lack of forward radar. This meant that, unlike during the Battle of Britain, he had no means of seeing the build-up and approach of German aircraft before they reached their targets. Without that information, it was not possible for Park to deploy his fighter aircraft economically by sending them on targeted interceptions.  Instead, the RAF was forced to establish patrols, i.e. send aircraft to fly back and forth over airspace over Dunkirk and in the approaches to it. Pilots reported the frustration of flying patrol after patrol without ever encountering the enemy. 

This was a very inefficient use of resources because the fighter aircraft of this period had limited fuel capacity. It took roughly 20 minutes to reach Dunkirk from Fighter Command airfields in Southwest England, and they needed another 20 minutes to return. That left the RAF fighters with fuel for a maximum of fifty minutes flying over Dunkirk and surroundings. If, however, German aircraft were spotted and engaged, the fuel consumption increased dramatically. In short, if the RAF fighters did what they were sent to do, the amount of time they could remain in French airspace fell to 30 minutes or less.

The combination of limited numbers of aircraft and limited patrol duration per aircraft meant for the RAF to  patrol the air over Dunkirk continuously, the number of aircraft at anyone time would be no more than a handful. Initially, this was exactly what Park attempted to do; he deploying his fighters in flights of six or eight aircraft. The Luftwaffe, on the other hand, sent in bombers formations of 40 or more aircraft. As a result, that no matter how successful the six to eight RAF pilots were, most of the bombers still got passed them to drop their cargoes of high explosives on the troops and ships at Dunkirk.

 

Within days, Park changed his tactics, sending his fighters across in formations of two or three squadrons. This ensured that when they encountered the enemy, there were enough RAF fighters to effectively break-up a bomber formation and prevent it from delivering its cargo of death and destruction. However, the larger RAF formations could only be created by concentrating the limited forces Park had. This, in turn, meant that there were periods when, indeed, there was not one RAF aircraft in the skies over Dunkirk.

 

The perception of RAF absence was compounded by other factors. Many of the aerial interceptions and dog-fighting took place at altitudes invisible to the troops on the ground. This was not so much a function of absolute altitude as the fact that throughout the evacuation, the air over the beaches was dirty with the smoke from burning oil tanks and ships. Low cloud and fog was also reported on some days. Furthermore, much of the aerial fighting took place farther inland, as the RAF tried to intercept the bombers before they reached Dunkirk.

While the troops felt abandoned, the RAF pilots were flying five or six sorties a day — an extremely stressful burden that could not be sustained for long. Pilots were getting very little sleep, often woken at 3:30 am to be off at dawn and not released until after dark at 9 pm or later. First-hand accounts speak of eating little and having no time to bathe or shave. Some pilots also took to carrying pistols in their flying boats in case they were shot down behind enemy lines. The stress ate at each man differently, but there was no question in the eyes of the RAF leadership that the pilots were giving their best to the very limits of their endurance. 


Although some sorties were futile, when the RAF did intercept the resulting clashes were bitter and deadly. In unlucky engagements, RAF squadrons could be gutted. Particularly damaging for morale was that in several recorded incidents, after being shot down in combat, RAF pilots were treated with disdain or anger by the troops they were trying to protect. In one case, an Army officer tried to prevent an RAF pilot from being taken off the beach so he could rejoin his squadron. The Royal Navy, fortunately, was more sympathetic and cooperative.

On the very first day of the operation, May 27, the RAF lost 14 aircraft and it lost another 13 on the following day. By the end of the evacuation, Fighter Command had lost 106 aircraft, including a number of precious Spitfires. Fifty-six pilots had been killed, and eight had bailed out over France and been taken prisoner. Coming on the heels of the losses in the Battle of France, these were significant numbers.

Officially, based on German statistics, the RAF succeeded in shooting down only marginally more aircraft than they had lost, namely 132. It must be remembered, however, that because the Germans were operating close to their bases, a large number of damaged German aircraft were repaired, rather than written off. These damaged aircraft do not appear in the German statistics. Yet in the battle over Dunkirk, damaged aircraft which were forced to turn back to base were almost as important as aircraft completely destroyed. RAF claims of destroying 390 German aircraft, while certainly inflated, may nevertheless give a better impression of the damage done to German effectiveness.

Ultimately, the success of Operation Dynamo speaks for the RAF. The Royal Navy deserves the lion’s share of the credit for organizing and implementing an improvised evacuation on this scale without a functioning harbor. The civilian volunteers that braved the mine-fields, the shore artillery and the Luftwaffe to make trip after trip in fragile, unarmed craft will always inspire awe, admiration and affection. Yet without doubt, RAF fighters played an important role in reducing the casualties on the beaches by hampering the Luftwaffe’s efforts to destroy the Allied troops from the air.

“Where Eagles Never Flew” opens in the Battle of France. It shows the Battle of Britain from both sides of the Channel by following the fate of German characters as well as British ones. The British characters are members of the fictional No. 606 (Hurricane) Squadron based at Tangmere. The German characters are the pilots and women auxiliaries of a Me109 Gruppe based in Northern France.   https://crossseaspress.com/where-eagles-never-flew or watch a video teaser at: Eagles Video Teaser

 

 

Friday, June 4, 2021

The RAF in the Battle of France 1939-1940

 While the Battle of Britain represented the first time that the RAF and the Luftwaffe faced one another one-to-one, it was not the first encounter between the adversaries. RAF units had been involved in the Battle of France. While these had no chance of altering the outcome of that campaign, the British units and pilots engaged in the war on the Continent learned valuable lessons that contributed to the successful outcome of the Battle of Britain.


At the outbreak of WWII, the British almost immediately sent a “Expeditionary Force” to France. This included the Advanced Air Striking Force which consisted of ten squadrons of light bombers and four (later six) fighter squadrons. The bombers made up No 1 Group RAF Bomber Command, and this group was equipped entirely with Fairey Battles. Initially, the fighter squadrons deployed to France were Nos 1, 73, 85 and 87 squadrons, all Hurricane squadrons. However, in response to a French request for more fighter support, the RAF sent Nos 607 and 617 squadrons across to France on November 15. These auxiliary squadrons were at the time still equipped with bi-plane Gladiators, although they received their Hurricanes just as the German offensive opened in May 1940.

British strategy throughout this period called for both the bombers and fighters to serve in support of ground forces. Despite the appellation “Advanced Striking Force,” the RAF in France was a tactical air force intended to support the army. Thus, during the period of the so-called “Phony War,” the bombers were deployed primarily for reconnaissance and dropping leaflets in Germany, while the fighters were tasked with destroying German reconnaissance and weather aircraft that regularly crossed into French airspace.

For much of this period, there was little to do. The RAF fighters practiced intercepting their own bombers and they did routine patrols in the tradition of WWI — only rarely seeing, much less intercepting, the enemy. Now and again, however, there were brief, violent encounters with the Luftwaffe. Surprisingly, at this period the Luftwaffe was still sending its reconnaissance bombers over without noticeable escort. In consequence the illusion of doing very well was widespread. For example, on a single day, November 23, Nos 1 and 73 squadrons shot down six enemy bombers, five Dorniers 17 and one Heinkel 111. These were not inflated claims. The wrecks landed on French territory and the pilots went to see them and cut off a cross or swastika from the fuselage for the squadron mess. In one instance the pilot of a downed aircraft was royally entertained in the No 1 squadron’s mess.

Yet despite the apparent calm and the sense of readiness, the RAF learnt several valuable lessons in this pregnant calm before the storm. The commander of No 1 Squadron, “Bull” Halahan, convinced the RAF establishment of the advantage of painting the underside of aircraft sky blue, an innovation inspired by German standard operating procedures. Halahan was also the catalyst for an even more important change. When one pilot of No 1 squadron had a very narrow escape from being shot to death by the forward guns of a Dornier after overshooting following his own attack, Halahan decided that the Hurricanes needed armor plating behind the pilot’s seat. The request for such protection was denied by the Air Ministry on the grounds that the extra weight would alter the center of gravity and impair the aerodynamics of the aircraft. Halahan was not convinced. He took armor plating from a wrecked Battle, fitted it behind the seat of one of his squadron’s Hurricanes and sent one of his pilots back to London to perform aerobatics in the modified Hurricane before the Royal Aircraft Establishment. The performance must have been impressive because the Air Ministry caved in and ordered armor plating not only for No 1 Squadron but also made it standard equipment in all Hurricanes henceforth.

It was not a moment too soon. A notable increase in activity on the part of the Luftwaffe was recorded in March,1940. This led to the RAF’s first encounters with Me109s and Me110s. In the first exchange on 2 March 1940 both the RAF pilot (“Cobber” Kain of 73 Squadron) and Luftwaffe pilot (Werner Moelders) had to abandon their aircraft due to combat damage. On March 29, an engagement between a section of No 1 Squadron and three Me110s resulted in all three Me110s destroyed. The following assessment was entered in the squadron log: “As a result of this combat it may be stated that the Me110, although very fast and manoeuverable for a twin-engined aircraft, can easily be out manoeuvered by a Hurricane.” [Patrick Bishop, Fighter Boys: Saving Britain 1940, Harper Collins, 2003, 138.] The Germans, however, were provocatively sending larger and larger formations of bombers into French airspace — and they were now escorted by as many as forty Me109s.

Then on May 10, the German offensive in the West opened with a series of attacks on Allied airfields and other strategic, infrastructure targets. The Luftwaffe Order of Battle included 1,062 bombers, 356 ground attack aircraft (e.g. Stukas) and just short of 1,200 fighters of which roughly 1,000 were Me109 and 200 were Me110s. Facing them were the French Armee de la Air composed of 140 bombers, 518 single-engined fighters and 67 twin-engined fighters supported by 40 RAF Hurricanes and 20 RAF Gladiators. But the French figures are deceptive. In fact, only 36 French fighters were aircraft with an airspeed anywhere near that of their opponents; the rest were hopelessly obsolete. 


 

One of France's 36 Dewoitine Fighters with a max. speed of 336 mph

Even more disastrous was the absence of an early warning system. The French had been shown radar and the British fighter control system, but they disdained to follow the British example. In consequence, from the first day of the offensive to the surrender of France, there was no effective means of directing operations or guiding interceptions. There was also no cooperation or meaningful communication between the British and French air forces. All communications on the ground, whether between the British and the French, and within the British Advanced Striking Force were conducted over the civilian telephone lines. These were subject to German interdiction and not secure.  Communication in the air was even worse, as the aircraft operating in France had very primitive radio telephone equipment with an effective range of just three miles from the airfield.

The Luftwaffe opened the campaign in the West with a text-book attempt to neutralize the air defenses of the enemy and secure air superiority over the battlefield. This meant that on the first day of the offensive, all the airfields from which RAF squadrons were operating were attacked. The RAF response was prompt and fierce. The pilots of No 1, 73, 85 and 87 squadron were in the air by 5 am and the day’s fighting did not finish until nine pm. Because the Germans had sent their bombers without fighter escorts, the RAF was able deliver a sharp rebuke. In 208 sorties, the RAF struck down 33 German aircraft for the loss of just seven Hurricanes destroyed, and eight damaged. More importantly, only one RAF pilot was killed, and three wounded.  

But the Luftwaffe had the reserves to continue at the same pace; the RAF did not. In the following ten days, RAF pilots were asked to fly as many as five sorties a day, each lasting  roughly an hour and a half. They did so while being forced to retreat almost daily to new, usually improvised, airfields, which nevertheless continued to be bombed and strafed regularly. Increasingly, RAF personnel were billeted with civilians, then sleeping in tents, later in abandoned barns and finally under the wings of their aircraft. Meals were erratic and sleep almost non-existent. If they weren’t flying, they were being bombed, strafed or moving to a new airfield.

All the while, the French government cried for more RAF squadrons. Their appeal fell on the sympathetic ears of the newly appointed British PM, Winston Churchill. Initially, squadrons stationed in southeast England were tasked to fly over and “help out.” Without early warning systems or functional command-and-control, however, these were doomed to arriving (often in the wrong place) to face utter chaos without a clue about what to do. Many ended up doing nothing or getting slaughtered without a single victory to show for it. Individual squadron replacements faced the same fate. Sending green pilots up to fight was more likely to result in the loss of a British than a German aircraft. Meanwhile, the RAF Fairey Battles were being systematically shot down as they attempted — usually without fighter escort — to stop the German panzer divisions pouring into France by destroying bridges or bombing them at choke points. 

 One of the RAF's Fairey Battles

 On May 12, 501 Squadron was sent to France. On May 15, despite acknowledging that the Battle of France was lost, the French PM nevertheless requested of Churchill that ten additional fighter squadrons be sent across the channel. Although this request was denied, on the following day the Air Ministry decided that the fatigue both physical and mental sustained by the squadrons in France was not sustainable, and took the decision to send eight flights of fresh pilots over to relieve the exhausted veterans. The problem with that idea was that pilots without combat experience or understanding of the situation were cold meat for the Messerschitts. Meanwhile, on May 17 the RAF squadrons were retreating yet again, destroying any unserviceable aircraft on the ground as they pulled out. In some cases, the German bombers arrived while the last serviceable Hurricane was still struggling to get into the air.

The Air Ministry again tried sending UK-based squadrons across the channel to assist in the fighting. The idea was that three squadrons would fly over in the morning, do whatever fighting had to be done, and then get replaced by three other squadrons in the afternoon. All six squadrons theoretically remained stationed in the UK, but pilots were making forced landings and bailing out over France and then had to find their own way back. No 242 and 17 were two of the squadrons assigned this unenviable task. Furthermore, the issue of inexperience was the same with these squadrons, and the lack of communications prevented their coordinated and targeted deployment.

Inevitably, RAF losses mounted. While on May 10, only eight Hurricanes were destroyed and one pilot killed, on the 14th it was already 27 Hurricanes and 17 pilots killed. Two days later No 85 Squadron had six Hurricanes shot down in a single day, from which only one pilot walked away, the remaining five being killed or severely injured.

The following day, May 17, the Chief of Air Staff finally saw the light: British fighters were being destroyed at an alarming rate without the slightest hope of altering the military situation. The Germans were winning the war on the ground regardless of how good a fight the RAF put up in the air. The sacrifice of more British fighters and pilots could only weaken Britain’s capacity to defend itself when the time came. He announced in the war cabinet that it would be “criminal” to send more RAF squadrons to France. Two days later, Churchill also conceded defeat and ordered that no more RAF fighter squadrons were to be sent to France.

Slowly a withdrawal of the forces already there began. In many cases, individual pilots had to be left behind because they were in French hospitals. Around them, France was in a state of collapse with refugees clogging the roads, villages burning, panic and defeatism widespread. Many RAF pilots reported French fliers refusing to take to the air and French officers deserting their posts to rescue their families and possessions from the approaching Germans. First-hand accounts are also filled with horror stories of German bombing and strafing of civilians. The fact that German fighter aircraft also engaged in these atrocities did much to harden British attitudes toward the Luftwaffe at this crucial time.

Altogether, the RAF brought down 299 Luftwaffe aircraft in the course of this battle for the price of 208 Hurricanes lost in aerial combat. Not a bad score, although the claims were much higher, namely 599. Furthermore, another 176 Hurricanes were destroyed on the ground, often by the RAF ground crews to prevent them from falling into German hands. As a result, only 66 of the 450  fighters sent to France flew back to England. 

More difficult to replace were the 56 pilots killed, 36 severely wounded and 18 taken prisoner. Many of these men were some of the best the RAF then had. Yet one casualty of the Battle of France has been all too often overlooked: RAF “Fighter Area Attacks”. These infamously inflexible tactics devised in the interwar years and so assiduously practiced right until the onslaught became an early casualty of the clash with reality. It was one casualty that did the RAF more good than harm.

“Where Eagles Never Flew” opens with the Battle of France. It goes on to show the Battle of Britain from both sides of the Channel, following the fate of German characters as well as British ones. The British characters are members of the fictional No. 606 (Hurricane) Squadron based at Tangmere. The German characters are the pilots and women auxiliaries of a Me109 Gruppe based in Northern France.  Find out more about “Where Eagles Never Flew” at:  https://crossseaspress.com/where-eagles-never-flew or watch a video teaser at: Eagles Video Teaser

 

Friday, May 28, 2021

Fighter Aircraft of the Battle of Britain - the Hurricane

 While the Spitfire was the "glamor girl" of the RAF, the Hurricane was the unsung heroine of the Battle of Britain. Hurricanes destroyed more enemy aircraft than Spitfires and were flown by more RAF pilots on more squadrons. The Hurricane might not have captured the hearts of the nation nor intimidated the pilots of the Luftwaffe, but the men who flew her swore by her, and pilots familiar with both the Hurricane and Spitfire found much to praise about her.


The Hurricane was a less radical design than the Spitfire. It evolved from earlier generations of fighter aircraft, and was still partially a wood and canvass construction; although the cockpit, engine and wings were metal, the tail and rudder remained wood and canvas. Antiquated as this sounds, some aviation experts argue that it was actually an advantage because cannon shells that exploded on impact with the metal casing of a Spitfire, simply passed straight through the canvas without exploding or impairing the Hurricane's flying abilities. Furthermore, RAF riggers were familiar with this kind of construction and adept at making repairs -- something they often could not manage on the more sophisticated Spitfires. Indeed, Hurricanes could be packed in crates, shipped to distant theaters of war and re-assembled with equipment available in the field. Industrial manufacturing of the Hurricane was also easier and cheaper than for the Spitfire, requiring just 10,300 man-hours for the Hurricane compared to 15,200 man-hours to produce a Spitfire.
 
Unlike both the Spitfire and Me109, its wings were strong enough to support not only eight guns but the aircraft itself. Then meant that the retractable undercarriage could fold inwards from positions under the wings giving the aircraft a stable base which made it easy to taxi, land and take off. Its cockpit was designed to sit high on the distinctive "hunchback" giving the pilot unparalleled, all-round vision -- better than that of any other fighter in service at this time.  Furthermore, as many pilots testified, it was an incredibly stable gun platform. In addition, the Hurricanes guns were better concentrated and could do greater damage to the well-armored bombers. These three factors help explain why Hurricanes accounted for 60% of all German aircraft shot down during the Battle of Britain.
 
RAF test pilots soon determined that the Hurricane was "simple and easy to fly and ha[d] no apparent vices." [McKinstry, Leo. Hurricane: Victor of the Battle of Britain. London: John Murray, 2010.] With a top speed of 340 mph it was slower than both the Me109 and the Spitfire. On the other hand, it had a faster rate of climb (2780 ft/min vs 2,600 ft/min) and a service ceiling just 500ft lower than the Spitfire and identical to the Me109.  Significantly, it had a tighter turning radius than any of its contemporaries. It could turn inside both the Spitfire and the Me109. All-in-all this aircraft was highly competitive and, as it proved, could well hold its own in the company of the Spitfire and Me109.
 
It was also popular with the pilots who flew it -- and particularly the squadron and flight commanders who had go into combat with young pilots with very little flying experience. As already noted, it was a responsive aircraft that was easy to learn to fly and could be flown effectively without many hours of practice. Because it could take direct hits without necessarily falling apart, fledgling fighter pilots stood a better chance of surviving an unlucky encounter with the enemy than had they been flying a Spitfire or Me109. This is the reason Battle of Britain Ace Bob Doe, who flew both Hurricanes and Spitfires in the course of the war, said the Hurricane was the better machine for the "average" pilot, although an expert pilot could get more out of a Spitfire. (Photo below courtesy of Chris Goss.)

 Although Stephen Bungay in his excellent analysis of the Battle of Britain [The Most Dangerous Enemy, Aurum Press, 2000, p.83] claimed the reserve fuel tank was insufficiently protected by the Linatex, a substance that was self-sealing and helped prevent fire, there is no evidence that fires occurred more frequently in Hurricanes than Spitfires or Me109s. Not one of the pilots who flew Hurricanes makes any mention of this and there was clearly no reluctance on the part of squadrons to fly Hurricanes, which should have been the case if the pilots thought they were more likely to be incinerated in a Hurricane than a Spitfire. Nor would a particularly dangerous aircraft have continued in production for so long nor found so many roles as was the case of the Hurricane. So any disadvantage caused by this arrangement must have been comparatively marginal.

Over 14,000 Hurricanes were produced altogether and the aircraft saw service in every theater of the war. Hurricanes served as night as well as day fighters. It was catapulted from Armed Merchant escorts, and flown from carrier decks. It was used as a close-support fighter-bomber and fitted with skis to serve in Russia. 
 
The Hurricane flew against the Luftwaffe in Norway, the Battle of France, over Dunkirk, in the Battle of Britain, and in North Africa -- where it was a particularly effective "tank buster." The RAF's highest scoring ace, Squadron Leader "Pat" Pattle, flew Hurricanes in defense of Greece against both the Italians and the Germans. Hurricanes also confronted the Imperial Japanese Air Force, seeing successful service in Burma, Ceylon, Singapore and the Dutch East Indies.  Hurricanes flew in the defense of Malta, and also engaged on the Eastern Front. Hurricanes were initially sent to the Soviet Union to help protect convoys coming from the West to Murmansk and two RAF squadrons were detailed to operate them. During their deployment in August and September 1941, they accounted for 25% of the Luftwaffe aircraft shot. After the RAF withdrew, however, the Soviets tried to mount heavier guns which made the Hurricane slower and less maneuverable, so the "Soviet" Hurricane cannot be compared to its British counterpart. Likewise, Soviet "assessments" of the Hurricane are utterly irrelevant as they refer to the mucked-up machine they themselves mangled not the real Hurricane.

If there had never been a Spitfire, the Hurricane probably would have been the mechanical heroine of the Battle of Britain. The beauty and glamor of the Spitfire, however, cast a shadow over the image of the Hurricane. That shadow was darkened by the  "Spitfire snobbery" of the Luftwaffe pilots (who frequently refused to admit they had fought -- and lost -- to Hurricanes) and the equally bigoted attitude of the Soviets, who mucked up a perfectly good fighter to no purpose at all. Yet, there can be no doubt that the Hurricane played a vital role in the Battle of Britain. 
 
Park's preferred tactic was to send Spitfire squadrons, with their faster aircraft, to divert and engage the Me109s while Hurricane squadrons, with their more stable gun-platforms and concentrated fire, sought to claw the bombers out of the sky. The standing orders to controllers to operate the different squadrons in this manner show the extent to which the Hurricane and Spitfire complimented each other during the Battle of Britain. Neither aircraft would have been as effective alone. In the remaining years of the war, both aircraft likewise went on to play different yet equally valuable roles in all theaters of war.

It was in part to give greater credit and visibility to this under-appreciated fighter that I chose a Hurricane squadron as the focus of my novel Where Eagles Never Flew: A Battle of Britain Novel.

“Where Eagles Never Flew” shows the Battle of Britain from both sides of the Channel by following the fate of German characters as well as British ones. The British characters are members of the fictional No. 606 (Hurricane) Squadron based at Tangmere. The German characters are the pilots and women auxiliaries of a Me109 Gruppe based in Northern France.  Find out more about “Where Eagles Never Flew” at:  https://crossseaspress.com/where-eagles-never-flew or watch a video teaser at:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SnAoMC0d6Mo

 

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