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.
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