Churchill had predicted the start of the Battle of Britain as early as June 18, but in the event it was August 12/13 before the Luftwaffe launched a serious assault. Throughout July it had held back its strength, probing RAF defences while anticipating a diplomatic end to hostilities. All that changed August 13, 1940.
The Luftwaffe opened its main offensive against British air defenses with high morale. According to their calculations, during the previous month (July 1940) 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.
An aircraft destroyed on the ground. Photo courtesy of Chris Goss.
“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 over the previous weeks because it had denuded 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 to 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 Airforce would endure at the height of the Allied bombing offensive, it was sobering to an air force that had believed it was handily 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 must 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 fighters 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 on their way to escort returning bombers. They caught 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 the 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.
The last raids 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.
Where Eagles Never Flew opens with the Battle of France and goes on to show the Battle of Britain, in all its phases, from both sides of the Channel. It does so 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. Where Eagles Never Flew is the winner of the Hemingway Award for 20th Century Wartime Fiction, a Maincrest Media Award for Historical Fiction, and more. 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