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, April 16, 2021

The Battle of Britain through German Eyes -- Going for the Airfields

 After the intensive air battles of August 12 – 18, a spell of bad weather coincided with internal reorganization and redeployments of the Luftwaffe. A short lull in the Battle of Britain ensued.  On August 24, the Battle resumed. The next two weeks tested Fighter Command to the very limits of its endurance.

Photo Courtesy of Chris Goss 

At a conference of Luftwaffe commanders on August 19, the destruction of the RAF’s defensive capacity was recognized as the priority, short-term objective. To achieve this goal, the Luftwaffe employed a variety of tactics which it varied rapidly and unpredictably to keep the RAF guessing and try to catch it off guard when operations resumed in force on August 24.

Large and small bombing raids were interspersed with fighter sweeps. Diving bombing, high-altitude and low-altitude bombing were used separately or in combined attacks. Raids were launched in the early hours of the morning, mid-day and in the evening. Sometimes the Luftwaffe struck at widely separated times and on other occasions struck at short intervals in an attempt to saturate defenses. Often raids were made on the same target in quick succession — but not always. On the one hand, the Luftwaffe tried to catch fighters on the ground refueling and, on the other, to force the RAF into the air to fight with the Me109s. To achieve the latter, the Luftwaffe now and again deployed Me110s in formations to look like bombers protected by hundreds of their smaller comrades. The Luftwaffe tried cumbersome massive raids with, in one case, over 400 fighter escorts, and it tried small raids by fighter-bombers without escorts.  It experimented with large formations that then split into two, three or even four smaller raids attacking widely separated targets.                                                      

Although in retrospect, it is evident that many of these raids were far from effective, others were devastating. In general, the frequency and ferocity of these attacks and the much more focused targeting of RAF Fighter Command made them extremely dangerous to Britain’s air defences. Altogether 32 attacks against airfields were made in just 14 days.

On the very first day of the renewed offensive, the satellite field of RAF Manston was hit twice, taking out its communications. Bomb craters and unexploded bombs littered the field and the accommodations became unusable. Park made the decision, which pilots operating from Manston felt was belated, to write the field off except for emergencies. In short, the Luftwaffe scored a victory on its very first day of the renewed offensive.

But Manston was not a Sector Airfield with an all-important Sector Operations Room. Attacks on the Sector Stations were far more dangerous attacks, and there were 22 of these between August 24 and September 6. Of these, ten raids were directed at Biggin Hill. The second of these, a low-level attack by fighter-bombers, left the Sergeants’ and the WAAF quarters destroyed along with the NAAFI and cook-house, the stores, workshops and one of the hangers. A direct hit on an air-raid shelter killed 39 airmen and women and other bombs disabled the telephone lines and disrupted the gas, water and electricity supply. Although the Sector Operations Room was unscathed, without electricity and telecommunications the controllers could not direct their squadrons. Hornchurch had to temporarily take control of Biggin Hill’s squadrons. And that was only the beginning.

On the following day, Biggin Hill was again hit twice, first by a high-level raid that did little damage, and then, at six in the evening, by another low-level raid. This raid promptly destroyed two of the three remaining hangars and, more importantly, knocked out the Operations Room. Kenley had to assume control of the Biggin Hill squadrons. Yet the next morning (September 1,) Biggin Hill was again deemed fully operational — until it was bombed yet again that evening. This time teams worked through the night to set up an emergency control room in a shop in the near-by village, and one of Biggin Hill’s squadrons was moved to the satellite airfield of Croydon. The Station Commander also took the radical decision to blow-up his remaining hangar in an effort to discourage further raids. In short, the Luftwaffe had achieved a partial victory.

Meanwhile, Hornchurch had been hit four times, Debden three times, North Weald twice, and Kenley once. In addition, the Luftwaffe had devoted some raids to attacks on aircraft factories, twice targeting Hawker Hurricane production, albeit unsuccessfully. It had also undertaken a series of concentrated attacks on Portsmouth. British civilian casualties in this period rose to their highest of the war so far, causing Prime Minister Churchill increasing concern.

With the wisdom of hindsight, historians have argued that none of this was really so terrible. They point out that the Luftwaffe continued to waste much of its effort on airfields not associated with Fighter Command (14 raids altogether) and on satellite airfields (6 raids). There has also been much written about how bomb craters and unexploded bombs don’t really render an airfield inoperable (or not for long). Likewise, damage to hangars, workshops, accommodations and other facilities have also been disparaged as “insignificant” to fighting capacity. I beg to differ.

AVM Park writing on September 12, 1940 noted that:

There was a critical period between 28 August and 5 September when the damage to Sector Stations and our ground organization was having a serious effect on the fighting efficiency of the fighter squadrons, who could not be given the same good technical and administrative service as previous. [Source: Stephen Bungay, The Most Dangerous Enemy: A History of the Battle of Britain, London: Aurum Press, 2000. 290]

Park was employing the then-common “British understatement.” First-hand accounts of the conditions under which airmen were living and working and pilots fighting leave little doubt that the impact on “efficiency” and morale was becoming severe. Squadrons were being asked to fly three to four times a day. Instances of squadrons flying 50 hours in a day are recorded. Yet many pilots were no longer getting regular, hot meals or able to sleep in proper accommodations. Many were being forced to live off station, commuting substantial distances that thereby reduced the time available for sleep. A few more weeks of this treatment might have resulted in a different outcome. Men were reaching the breaking point as the increasing casualties underline.

Although the Luftwaffe was still losing more aircraft than the RAF, the margin had narrowed dramatically. In this two week period, 380 Luftwaffe machines were lost for 286 RAF fighters. The RAF was losing more than 140 fighters per week. At that rate, even Beaverbrook was hard pressed to keep pace, and one effective strike on a Hurricane or Spitfire factory would have wiped out the ability of the British aircraft industry to replace losses in a timely fashion.

More critical, of course, were the pilot losses that simply could not be replaced in a short space of time. By the end of August 1940, RAF Training Command was “producing” pilots with nominal training on operational fighter aircraft at a rate of 280 per month. Casualties in August, however, had been 348 pilots. The training infrastructure was not keeping up with demand.

That was not a situation that could be reversed by a change in policy or priorities. It took roughly one year to train a young man to fly monoplane fighter aircraft; there were no short-cuts or means of speeding up “production.” Furthermore, turning that pilot into an effective fighter pilot took more than time — it took experience. Inexperienced pilots had a six-times higher chance of being killed than an experienced pilot. Many replacement pilots did not survive their first sortie; many more did not survive their first week.

The same was true of inexperienced squadrons. In squadrons with experienced leaders, fledgling pilots got advice, guidance and support from their more-savvy comrades. When entire squadrons without recent front-line experience were rotated into 11 Group, there were no leaders who could warn, coach and protect their charges and slaughters occurred in which six or seven aircraft were shot down in a single engagement often with the loss of several pilots. Some squadrons all but ceased to exist within a week.

 But the Germans didn’t know any of this.

The Germans relied on aerial reconnaissance and the combat reports of their own pilots. As we have seen, Luftwaffe fighter pilots overestimated their victories by huge margins, while the Luftwaffe staff severely underestimated the capacity of the British industry to produce replacement aircraft. At the end of the first week of September, the Luftwaffe was again convinced that the British could have no more than 200 Spitfires and Hurricanes left.

Meanwhile, the quality of high-altitude photo reconnaissance was still quite low. It was not always possible to tell what kind of aircraft were on an airfield, let alone the extent of damage. Furthermore, the damage that threatened Fighter Command most severely — electricity and telecommunications cuts to the Operations Rooms and radar stations — were virtually impossible to detect from the recce photos. The destruction of buildings on the other hand was easily recorded and looked very impressive, even if the immediate impact was far less damaging to the RAF’s ability to keep fighting. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the Luftwaffe continued to believe that they were winning the air war against Britain.

What was starting to worry the Luftwaffe leadership, however, were their own losses. The Luftwaffe was starting to notice that it could not replace aircraft as fast as it as losing them. Some squadrons were down to 50% of official aircraft strength. Serviceability rates were also down, as low as 75% in fighter squadrons. As with the British, however, the bigger problem was pilots.

While the number of fighter pilots killed on both sides was roughly equal, RAF pilots who were wounded or simply had to bail out of damaged aircraft usually landed in Britain and found themselves either in hospital or back with their units in a short space of time. The wounded usually made their way back into a cockpit within a period of weeks or months. Even in the case of severe burns, many pilots returned to flying duties after dozens of operations and plastic surgery. For the Luftwaffe, the situation was different. Because the fighting was taking place in British airspace, pilots unable to nurse a damaged aircraft across the Channel put it down in England — and became prisoners of war. Likewise, pilots who had to bail out for one reason or another became prisoners. Thus, the RAF’s pilot losses amounted to the number of pilots killed, while the Luftwaffe’s pilot losses consisted of those killed and captured. 

Meanwhile, the Luftwaffe was feeling the exhaustion too. Because the Me 110 had proved ineffective, the Me109s were being asked to fly three to four sorties a day on average and as much as six or seven on some occasions. These were not short interceptions as in the case of the RAF. A Luftwaffe fighter sortie entailed a long flight across the lethal Channel — and back. Furthermore, the Luftwaffe had no system for rotating squadrons out of the front line as the RAF did. This meant that the Luftwaffe squadrons had all been engaged continuously since the start of the Battle of Britain, and often before that in the Battle of France.

In addition, in the fighter units the culture of rewarding kills resulted in the “experts” (the aces) winning medals and promotions — and receiving protection in the from of wingmen and “staff flights,” while everyone else took the casualties. This fact was increasingly resented.

Yet even more shattering to morale in fighter units was the tendency of the Luftwaffe leadership, including Goering himself, to blame the fighters for the continued attrition among the bombers. The fighter pilots knew they were giving their best, but it still wasn’t enough either to destroy those “last 200 Spitfires” or to get all the bombers safely home.

If morale was starting to crumble in the ranks of the Luftwaffe’s fighter pilots, the bomber crews faced the same slow but steady erosion of elan that British and American bomber crews would learn about in the years to come. A psychiatrist specialized in battle fatigue noted after studying soldiers in both world wars that courage was like having money in a bank account: the reserves of even the bravest men could be drawn down to nothing if demands were made upon it too often and too soon.  This was happening to the Luftwaffe in 1940. 

The final straw for Luftwaffe morale, however, was the absence of a powerful incentive. The men and women of RAF Fighter Command, whether flying or supporting those who did, understood that they were fighting (in the words of Winston Churchill) “a monstrous tyranny” and even more importantly (again in Churchill’s words) for “the survival of Christian civilization,” and “our own British life.” But the men in the Luftwaffe had no such powerful incentive.

Knew that no one had particularly wanted to fight Great Britain in the first place. Those that had read Mein Kampf even knew that Hitler admired the British and the British Empire. Why on earth were they being asked to die? 

Despite the successes the Luftwaffe believed they had achieved, the Luftwaffe leadership recognized that their crews were tired and did not want more of the same. Goering wanted something new, some trick, some clever new tactic that would at last “crack” the nut he firmly believed was ripe. More importantly, Goering needed to restore his standing in Hitler’s eyes. He had promised to defeat the RAF in a couple of weeks and after two months the British were still not begging for peace talks. He had also joked that if the RAF ever bombed Berlin, people could call him “Meyer.” On August 25, the RAF had retaliated for bombs dropped (accidentally) on London with a more-or-less harmless raid on Berlin. Goering was about to make the worst mistake of the Battle.

“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 attacks on RAF airfields naturally figures prominently. Find out more about “Where Eagles Never Flew” at:  https://crossseaspress.com/where-eagles-never-flew

 

Buy now!

 direct from Itasca or from Barnes and Noble

Buy on Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk

 

Friday, April 9, 2021

The Battle of Britain through German Eyes -- The Air Offensive Begins in Earnest - "Eagle Day"

On the morning of 13 August 1940, the German Luftwaffe opened its main offensive against British air defenses. The Nazis designated this “Eagle Day.” The objective of this phase of the Battle was to destroy the ability of the Royal Air Force to defend British air space. The targets of the offensive were first and foremost the RAF airfields themselves, but also the aircraft industry replacing RAF losses and the radar installations vital to command and control of Britain’s fighter forces.

German Bombers - Courtesy of Chris Goss

The Luftwaffe opened its main offensive against British air defenses with high morale. According to their calculations, during the Kanalkampf they had achieved a “kill ratio” (number of enemy aircraft shot down per friendly aircraft lost) of 5:1. That is, they believed that they had destroyed five RAF aircraft for every Luftwaffe loss. German intelligence, meanwhile, underestimated British aircraft production by 50% — that is they believed the British aircraft manufacturers were delivering only 250 fighters per month when, in fact, under Lord Beaverbrook’s management British aircraft factories were producing 500 Hurricanes and Spitfires every month.

On the eve of Eagle Day, to pave the way for the main assault, the Luftwaffe targeted Britain’s “eyes” — the radar installations along the coast. In the early hours of the morning, the Luftwaffe’s Test Flying Wing (Erprobungsgruppe) 210 attacked the radar stations at Dover, Pevensey and Rye, putting all three out of action. Fighter Command was blind from East Kent to West Sussex. Notably, the Test Flying Wing consisted of Me110s and Me109s converted into fighter bombers. They came in fast and low — and all returned without encountering a single British fighter.

Later that same morning, a force of bombers larger than anything seen up to this point made a determined attack on both Portsmouth and the Ventor radar station on the Isle of Wight.  Last but not least, the Luftwaffe hammered RAF forward airfields at Manston, Lympne and Hawkinge, all three of which temporarily rendered unusable.

As the day ended, the Luftwaffe believed they had shut down four radar stations, rendered three airfields inoperable and destroyed (they claimed) forty-six Spitfires and twenty-three Hurricanes. In fact, by the end of the day, the airfields were all again operational. Of the radar stations, the three mainland radar stations were back on the air; only Ventor would remain inoperable for three more days. As for the RAF, “only” twenty aircraft had been destroyed in the air, although some aircraft were lost on the ground in the attacks on the airfields.

“Eagle Day,” August 13, dawned with uncertain weather and Goering ordered the great assault on Great Britain postponed until the afternoon. However, the postponement orders only reached some of the units designated to participate, resulting in these staying on the ground or turning back, while others proceeded — with inadequate fighter escort. The low cloud that had induced Goering to want to postpone the operation provided some protection, but eventually the bombers were found and five bombers were shot down for the loss of a single Spitfire.

Bizarrely, however, all the attacks carried out were against comparatively unimportant targets. The bombers went for Eastchurch, which was a Coastal Command station, and raided the airfields at Farnborough and Odiham, neither of which were used by Fighter Command. Me110s also undertook a free sweep that resulted in the loss of six of their number but claimed nine Spitfires. In fact, they had tangled with the Hurricanes of 601 Squadron, which suffered only one aircraft lost and two damaged in the engagement. (The claims of Spitfires shot down was “Spitfire snobbery,” i.e. the Luftwaffe’s perpetual refusal to recognize how deadly the Hurricane was and for pilots to dogmatically insist were dog-fighting with “Spitfires” even when they were facing Hurricanes.)

At 14:00 the units that had received the postponement orders took off at last and proceeded in large numbers to again assault airfields the Luftwaffe apparently considered vital: Boscombe Down, Worthy Down, Andover, Warmwell, Yeovil, Rochester, and Detling. Readers familiar with the Battle of Britain will note that none of these airfields were vital Fighter Command Sector Airfields.  From the latter, the RAF dispatched fighters to intercept the intruders, bringing down 47 aircraft altogether.

At the end of the day, the Luftwaffe leadership was acutely aware that the mix-up about timing had hurt them and cost them lives and aircraft, but they consoled themselves with the “fact” — unfortunately largely self-fabricated — that they had destroyed 84 RAF fighters. The correct figure for RAF losses were 13 aircraft lost in the air and one on the ground. RAF pilot losses amounted to just three. The RAF had handily won on Eagle Day — the Germans just didn’t know it yet.

August 14 was comparatively quiet as the Luftwaffe prepared for their next “big” day. This was to be a broad attack along the entire south coast of England and — exceptionally — including Luftwaffe units based in Norway and Denmark against targets in the North of England. The Luftwaffe assumed that the RAF had only been able to put up such a spirited defense in the southeast in recent days because it had denuding the rest of the country of fighters. The Luftwaffe remained confident that the Me110s, which had the range to carry out missions over the distances involved, would now prove their worth.

The targets were again predominantly airfields, although a factory producing Stirling bombers was also hit. The factory was so badly damaged that production was halted for three whole months, but the impact on the Battle of Britain was nil. Other attacks were more significant. Martlesham Heath was put out of action for 48 hours and bombs intended for Hawkinge severed the power cables to the radar stations at Rye, Foreness and Dover, again blinding Fighter Command in this vital sector for a whole day. Also, toward the end of the day, raids were sent against Kenley and Biggin Hill — the first time Sector Airfields essential to Fighter Command’s ability to defend the country were targeted.

The results for the Luftwaffe were shockingly disappointing — and this time they knew it. The northern raids had been intercepted early, forcing many bombers to drop their loads into the sea, while the Me110 again proved completely incapable of providing an effective protection for the bombers. The raids on the south had provoked a savage response and many of the targets had been missed. Critically, instead of Biggin Hill, the Luftwaffe had bombed West Malling, a satellite airfield still under construction, and instead of Kenley they had hit the satellite airfield at Croydon. Altogether the Luftwaffe had flown 2,000 sorties and lost 75 aircraft, including some key senior officers.

While the Luftwaffe's loss rate of 3.75% was far below what RAF Bomber Command and the U.S. Eighth Air Force would endure at the height of the Allied bombing offensive, it was sobering to an air force that until this date had believed it was easily winning the air war against Britain. August 15 went down in Luftwaffe history as “Black Thursday.”

Goering drew some lessons from the disaster. The Stukas, he concluded, needed to be defended better — by three full Gruppe of fighters. He also ordered fresh fighters to meet the waves of bombers coming out, recognizing that the escort fighters would be nearly out of fuel and unable to engage on the return leg. Goering also stipulated that the focus of all future attacks much remain the RAF and the aircraft industry, but he made a serious error. Believing that successful attacks on airfields rendered them inoperable for at least 24 hours or more, he ordered that the same airfields should not be targeted in quick succession. In fact, even airfields that were badly hit were usually operational again within hours. By stopping attacks in quick succession, Goering gave the RAF fighter stations a breather. Overall, however, the pressure was to be maintained.

On August 16, the important Sector Airfield of Tangmere was badly hit and so was the Ventnor radar station. The former was only temporarily inoperable, but Ventnor was knocked off the air for seven days. Other targets that day were the Portsmouth docks, Manston, and the non-Fighter Command airfields at Lee-on-Solent and Brize Norton. At Tangmere, the Stukas were attacked by Tangmere based squadrons with such viciousness and effect that 70% of the Stuka unit engaged was wiped out. Nevertheless, based on the intelligence reports received and (false) assumptions about aircraft production, the Luftwaffe General Staff concluded that the RAF had at most 300 operable fighter aircraft left. In fact, there were 855 serviceable aircraft with front line squadrons alone, and another 363 fighter aircraft available at training units and maintenance units.

But ignorance is bliss and the Luftwaffe prepared for another “big” day: August 18. The Luftwaffe saw no need for an early start, and it was not until mid-day that the Luftwaffe assembled their air armadas. Large numbers of He 111s, Do 17s and Ju 88s were detailed to attack Kenley and Biggin Hill, protected by no less than 410 Me 109s and 73 Me 110s. The Luftwaffe’s plans also called for a three-stage attack composed of 1) an initial dive bombing attack to destroy ground infrastructure, followed by 2) a high-level attack to shoot down RAF fighters that came up to defend their airfield, and finally 3) a low-level raid to finish the station off with strafing as well as bombing.

Unfortunately, even the best-laid plans can go wrong. Cloud resulted in some confusion and the low-level raid without fighter escort reached the target first, only to encounter the full fury of the defenders. When the other bombing contingents put in their appearance, however, the RAF was soon stretched and fighting so hard that several fighters were lost to friendly ground fire. Furthermore, some of the German fighter commanders had figured out that Manston was used for refueling RAF fighters. They decided to strafe the field while going in to take over the escort of returning bombers, catching four RAF fighters on the ground.

Meanwhile, farther west, Luftflotte 3 sent Stukas against the non-Fighter Command airfields of Gosport, Ford and Thorney Island and the radar station at Poling. Fighter Command was able to muster six squadrons to oppose these raids and the Stukas were again slaughtered. Seventeen were destroyed and six damaged, while eight of the escorting Me 109s were also shot down. The RAF on the other hand had lost five aircraft but only two pilots. Although the Luftwaffe could not know that the RAF’s losses, they did know that one of their Stuka groups had sustained 50% casualties — and this after losses of 70% in the raid on Tangmere two days earlier. Such losses were not sustainable regardless of the successes.

Meanwhile, the last raid of the day targeting Hornchurch and North Weald took off at 17:00. The RAF went up in force to meet them and was understandably gratified when the bombers turned back. The reason for the retreat, however, was cloud cover over the targets rather than fear of the RAF. Only four bombers were lost, but ten of the Luftwaffe’s escorting fighters were shot down for a loss of nine RAF fighters.

Altogether on August 18, the Luftwaffe lost 69 aircraft destroyed and 31 damaged in order to knock out 34 RAF fighters and damage 39. Furthermore, since the opening of the offensive, the Luftwaffe had lost roughly 300 aircraft, thirty percent more than in the entire previous month. Yet Goering’s response to the situation was essentially “more of the same.”

To be sure he promoted his top-scoring aces to “Kommodores,” reorganized the units, changing who was responsible for what, and also moved them around a bit geographically, but Goering made few changes in tactics. RAF Fighter Command remained the principal target, with the aircraft industry, other RAF bases and the Royal Navy as secondary targets to be attacked when circumstances were “right.” He pulled back his Stukas and allowed his fighters a little more leeway for free hunting rather than insisting on specific escort ratios, but he also made it abundantly clear that he wanted his bombers protected and the escorts would be blamed for unacceptable losses.  A spell of bad weather then set in that gave both sides a breather before the battle continued again. Same song, second verse, doesn’t get better ….


“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 attacks on the RAF airfields and radar naturally figure prominently. Find out more about “Where Eagles Never Flew” at:  https://crossseaspress.com/where-eagles-never-flew

 

Buy now!

 direct from Itasca or from Barnes and Noble

Buy on Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk

 

Thursday, April 1, 2021

The Battle of Britain through German Eyes - The Battle for the Channel (Kanalkampf)

 From the German perspective, the main objective of the air offensive against England in the summer of 1940 was to force the British to the negotiating table. While the Navy and Army produced dilettantish plans that would have stood little chance of success in the short-term, the Luftwaffe was tasked with putting the fear of God (or Hitler as the case may be) into the hearts of the stubborn British. The Luftwaffe leadership was delighted with the opportunity to show what they could do. Herman Goering appears to have sincerely believed that the task would be complete within weeks. Yet, in line with the goal of bringing the British to sue for peace, the Luftwaffe did not at once launch an all-out offensive. The Luftwaffe followed a strategy that can be divided into clear phases, the first of which was the “Kanalkampf” or “Channel Battle.”

 

Photo Courtesy of Chris Goss 

In preparation for a proper air offensive, on 30 June 1940 Herman Goering ordered the Luftwaffe to start pin-prick attacks on Great Britain. The primary objective of these attacks, which were explicitly kept at a small scale, was to conduct reconnaissance and test the air defenses of the opponent. However, the secondary objective was to close the English Channel to British shipping.  The reasoning was: if the British government proved obstinate and refused to negotiate, then the Channel would have to be cleared of British shipping (read warships) to facilitate the German seaborne invasion of the British Isles.  

In accordance with these orders, the Luftwaffe initiated operations on a small scale. Initially, the Luftwaffe sought to draw the RAF up and into combat by conducting fighter sweeps over British airspace. The Luftwaffe was confident that if the RAF engaged the German fighters, the British fighters would be destroyed in the ensuing dogfights. Unfortunately for the Luftwaffe, AVM Park did not take the bait and to the extent possible avoided launching his squadrons when the Luftwaffe sent only fighters across the Channel.

 So, the Luftwaffe was forced to lure the RAF off the ground by other means. This took the form of attacks on “targets of opportunity” with small numbers of bombers. These targets included docks and ships, railway stations and airfields, oil installations and the like. While all were legitimate military targets, the scale of the attacks was too small to destroy them. These were “nuisance raids” — and rarely provoked more response from the RAF than the fighter sweeps.

On July 10, Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft spotted a juice “target of opportunity” in the form of a large convoy making for the Straits of Dover and ordered an assault on it. The RAF sent a flight of Spitfires to defend the convoy — a moderate and measured response.  Yet both sides called in reinforcements and the largest single dogfight of the war so far ensued — causing many historians to date the start of the Battle of Britain from this day.

Both sides claimed victory. The RAF had successfully broken up the bomber formations and prevented their effectiveness; only one ship was lost. In addition, they had destroyed six Luftwaffe aircraft (three bombers and three of the escorting Me110s) for the loss of only one aircraft and pilot, although four additional Hurricanes had sustained damage. Significantly, however, the Luftwaffe was convinced they had just attained a stunning victory. They believed they had shot down thirty RAF fighters! The German Army High Command (OKW) was told that the RAF would be “neutralized” in between two to four weeks.

In the following days, fate favored first one and then the other side, and both air forces learned valuable lessons. The Germans learned that the British would shoot down their air ambulances mercilessly, despite the fact that they were unarmed and marked by the Red Cross — something the Germans considered barbaric right to the end of the war. The Germans also gradually came to recognize that the Me 110 was not a match for the British Hurricanes and Spitfires. The British, however, learned that their own two-seater fighter was a disaster. On July 19, the Luftwaffe annihilated the RAF’s only Defiant squadron in just 30 minutes.

Perhaps it was this victory that encouraged  Goering to make a dramatic appeal to  the British public in a speech before the Reichstag that same evening. Goering argued that the British were already defeated and there was no need to senselessly prolong the destruction and casualties. Recognizing that Churchill was not receptive to peace overtures, Goering’s speech was aimed not at the British government per se, but rather at presumably reasonable and peace-loving elements inside Britain, who were thereby encouraged to bring down Churchill’s government. Goering is said to have been astonished that his words did not fall on fertile ground. The BBC sent a rejection within an hour, while the official rejection was broadcast by Lord Halifax — the leader of the British peace faction — two days later. 

In consequence, on July 21, Goering met with his senior commanders to discuss tactics for an upcoming offensive, which now appeared inevitable. Except for adding British warships to the favored targets, the tactics remained largely unchanged. Goering still favored using small numbers of bombers to lure up the RAF where large and free-roving swarms of Luftwaffe fighter could shoot them down, but he moved top-scoring “aces” into senior command positions, apparently on the assumption that they would produce better results.

Whatever the reason, the results were satisfying. On July 25, a westbound convoy was all but wiped out, only two merchantmen remaining afloat at the end of the day, and two Royal Navy destroyers sent to their assistance were so badly damaged that they were withdrawn from the fight. The Admiralty concluded that the advantages of sending shipping through the Straits of Dover did not justify the risks and cancelled all merchant shipping in the confined waters of the Channel by daylight starting July 26. Two days later, because RAF reconnaissance showed that long-range guns were being installed at Calais the Admiralty went one step farther and abandoned Dover as a base for the Royal Navy. Thus by July 29, the English Channel was effectively closed to all British shipping during the hours of daylight. The Germans had every reason to think they were winning the Kanalkampf.

On 1 August 1940, Hitler issued a new directive ordering the Luftwaffe to start the destruction of the Royal Air Force. The warm-up phase of probing and luring was over. It was time to knock-out the opponent — as soon as the weather permitted. What this meant was the days of the pin-prick nuisance raids and free-roaming fighter sweeps were over. In their place large scale attacks involving much larger numbers of bombers were to take place, and the German fighters were to provide much closer protection for the bombers. The date of the offensive was set for August 10 and then postponed due to weather conditions until the 13th.

Meanwhile, however, the Kanalkampf continued. On 7 August, a British attempt to slip a convoy through the Straits of Dover under cover of darkness resulted in a massacre of British merchantmen. Of 20 ships, only four came through unscathed, while seven were sunk outright, six rendered temporarily unseaworthy, and the remainder damaged. The RAF had, furthermore, lost thirteen fighters while another five were shot up while bringing down ten Stukas, four Me 110s and two Me 109s. The Germans claimed 20 British fighters, reinforcing their sense of superiority and victory.

August 11 saw three separate air battles, two over convoys off the Essex coast and the Thames Estuary and a third over the naval base of Portland on the Dorset coast. The later was a taste of things to come with 165 German aircraft deployed on the raid, the largest raid against British targets up to that time. British and German aircraft losses were almost identical. Nineteen Luftwaffe aircraft (five bombers, eight Me 109s and six Me 110s) were shot down and an additional six sustained damage. The RAF lost sixteen fighters and an additional seven aircraft were damaged.

However, the Luftwaffe claimed fifty-seven kills, including aircraft types never deployed by the RAF at all. Only the loss of three senior officers, two Gruppenkommandeure and one Staffelkapitaen among the bomber crews dampened the Luftwaffe’s sense of winning as they prepared for what they expected to be “the final assault” on the RAF.

“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 "Kanalkampf" naturally figures prominently. Find out more about “Where Eagles Never Flew” at:  https://crossseaspress.com/where-eagles-never-flew

 

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