July 24, 2013



Before his death in June (FH123: 33), William Manchester gave us permission to publish two excerpts from his uncompleted third Churchill volume, which first ran in Military History Quarterly. The first of these, on the Battle of France, appeared in FH 109. This excerpt, on the Battle of Britain, is published in his memory.

Winston Churchill’s words celebrated the resistance of the Royal Air Force against another seemingly invincible armada, Hitler’s Lurtwarre, in the Battle of Britain.

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In preparing England for what he called the “Battle of Britain,” Winston Churchill envisioned a mighty struggle on land between infantrymen, masterminded by generals and supported by mounted troops, armor, and sea power. Wars had always been waged that way. The world had never seen, or even imagined, a decisive conflict in the sky, fought in three dimensions by propeller-driven aircraft moving at 300 mph while awed civilians, standing below, watched the white vapor trails of dogfights, the small dancing yellow flames of machine gun bullets exploding against enemy fuselages, and, from time to time, the red flashes of exploding planes.

Scarcely anyone in responsible positions had even given serious thought to the challenges of aerial warfare. Professional airmen were an exception, of course, but all they knew for certain was that the aerial combat of 1914-18—the duels between individuals piloting wood and fabric biplanes while listening to the wind in the wires—had been rendered obsolete by advancing technology. Clearly, future combat would be far more complex. However, the most influential of the air-war prophets between the wars—Giulio Douhet in Rome, Lord Trenchard in London, Billy Mitchell in Washington, and Hermann Goering in Berlin—had made the wrong assumption. They believed that victory would belong to the air forces that launched the fastest, most powerful bombing offensives. Thus the Luftwaffe had leveled Spanish cities; the Italians Ethiopian villages; the Japanese Chinese cities; and the RAF mutinous hamlets in Iraq. There was, air ministries told their governments, no defense against a knock-out bombardment from the sky.

British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin voiced that assumption in November 1932 when, endorsing unilateral disarmament, he told Parliament that there was no defense against “the terror of the air.” In an uncharacteristically emotional speech he warned the House of Commons, and hence the country:

I think it is well…for the man in the street to realize that there is no power on earth that can protect him from being bombed. Whatever people may tell him, the bomber will always get through. The only defense is offense, which means that you have to kill more women and children more quickly than the enemy if you want to save yourselves.

That dogma still held after the fall of France. Even Churchill had come to believe that victory lay through offensive air power. On 8 July 1940, he told Lord Beaverbrook, the Canadian-born newspaper publisher and minister of aircraft production, that the “one sure path” to victory lay in bombing Germany into submission.

Air power had been crucial in the defeat of Poland, but little thought had been given to ways of countering it. During the phony war, RAF strategists, following the dogma Douhet had set forth in his futuristic novel, The War of 19—, had proposed sending fleets of bombers against industrial targets in the Ruhr. To their chagrin, His Majesty’s Government vetoed unprovoked daylight raids. Dropping propaganda leaflets over the Reich addressed from “EnglischeArbeiter an Ihre Deutschen Briider” (English workers to their German brothers) was approved, but even this went badly; none of the raiders found their targets and, unescorted by fighters, they suffered such heavy losses that the project was abandoned. Not until the night of May 16th, with Guderian’s panzers in Sedan, did the British send almost 100 bombers to pound industrial targets in the Ruhr. The RAF official history acknowledged that the bombardiers “achieved none of their objects.” Most of the crews had jettisoned their bomb loads and returned to England. That should have given the air marshals pause. It didn’t. In the words of the historian A.J.P. Taylor, they continued to believe that “bombing unsupported by land and sea forces could win a war.”

Their faith in air offensives was not without dissenters. In 1937 a cabinet minister, Sir Thomas Inskip, facing the hard fact that Nazi Germany was winning the bomber race, argued that it really didn’t matter. “The role of our air force,” he said, “is not an early knockout blow but to prevent the Germans from knocking us out.”

The RAF, in other words, didn’t have to win; it merely had to avoid defeat. The Air Ministry, appalled at this heresy, vehemently disagreed, but His Majesty’s Government accepted Inskip’s recommendation, and it was Britain’s great good luck that a senior member of the Royal Air Force agreed with it.

He was Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh “Stuffy” Dowding. In retrospect, Dowding is seen as the true hero of the Battle of Britain, though his colleagues and his countrymen were slow to recognize it. One reason lay in the nature of the man. He was difficult to like. Ever since Trafalgar, Britons had expected their military heroes to be men of action like Nelson, and Dowding was far from that. Tall, frail, and abstemious, he was a bird-watching widower whose career had suffered from tactlessness, unorthodox views, and a remarkable lack of social graces. In the mid-1950s his seniority entitled him to the RAF’s highest post, chief of air staff, but his fellow marshals denied him it. Instead they sidelined him, or so they thought, as head of Fighter Command. If the war was going to be won by aerial bombardment, the only outcome they foresaw, there would be little glory for fighter aircraft.

Ignoring them and their strategy, Dowding pursued his own goals with quiet tenacity. In his headquarters in Bentley Priory, an eighteenth-century mansion outside London, he organized Britain’s antiaircraft defenses, presided over the RAF’s change from biplane fighters to metal monoplanes powered by Rolls Royce Merlin engines, pressed for all-weather runways at fighter fields, and took the first, historic steps toward military use of Radio Directional Finding (RDF), or radar, as the Americans later called it.

Radar was destined to be England’s greatest shield in the critical months ahead. Hugh Dowding had . championed it from the beginning. Before his promotion to Fighter Command, he had commanded RAF research and development, and while there had studied the RDF experiments of Robert Watson Watt, a scientist at the National Physical Laboratories. Watson Watt convinced Dowding and those around him that airplanes could reflect radio beams. The Nazis knew something about radar technology, but, seeing it as a reconnaissance device, they had entrusted it to their navy, and there it had languished.

In 1937 Dowding had ordered work begun along the country’s eastern and southern coasts on a chain of twenty RDF stations, each with antennae that could detect the impulses of aircraft 150 miles away. At first the system relied entirely on 240-foot-tall towers. Two years later, technicians discovered that warplanes skimming the waves could slip under this net, so low-level beams were added. In addition, newly developed mobile radar stations blunted the risk from damage to fixed installations. By the spring of 1940, when the antennae had reached a height of 350 feet, Britain possessed a mesh of radio beams ranging from the tip of Scotland almost to Land’s End: they comprised, as one Englishman later said, an invisible bastion against hostile aircraft.

This meant that two battles of Britain would be fought: one by airmen in the sky and the other by radar crews on the ground. It was now possible to detect enemy aircraft while they were still as far as 150 miles away and flying at altitudes of up to 30,000 feet. Technicians studying monitoring screens would phone details on the range, direction, and size of advancing Nazi forces to the central operations room at Bentley Priory, where blue-shirted members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) plotted their progress on a huge table-map, using croupier rakes to move colored counters. Overhead, officers watching from a balcony radioed orders to the commanders of fighter squadrons, who then led their pilots aloft (“scrambling”) and, when the Germans were sighted, peeled off for the attack against the enemy planes, or “bandits,” as they were known in the RAF.

The commander of the Luftwaffe, Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, issued his first operational directive for the battle on June 30. It would begin with a struggle for mastery of the sky over the Channel (Kanalkampf). This was to be accomplished in July, setting the stage for the major assault on Britain, which would open with an intense week-long Adlerangriff (Eagle Attack) and climax, in early September, with triumphant assaults on RAF fighter bases in southeast Britain.

Dowding believed that England’s only hope of survival lay in radar and the RAF’s single-engine fighters. He knew it was impossible for the RAF to destroy the great air fleets of the Luftwaffe, but that was never his objective. The Germans could not invade England as long as Fighter Command remained intact. Therefore he would order his pilots to avoid direct combat with enemy fighters whenever possible, diverting them instead and then destroying enemy bombers stripped of their fighter escorts. The RAF would keep its Spitfires and Hurricanes in the sky until the autumn’s worsening weather ruled out any possibility of a seaborne
Nazi attack across the Channel.

The Kanalkampf opened on July 10th, when some twenty Nazi bombers, escorted by some forty Me-109s, attacked a convoy off Dover and were challenged by two squadrons of Hurricanes and one of Spitfires. A single ship was sunk. Heavy fighting continued for a full month, most of it over the Channel and the southern coast of England. It was a testing time for both air forces. The RDF operators, still learning their skills, were finding that aircraft at tremendous altitudes disappeared from their scopes. RAF problems were compounded by the fact that a Luftwaffe squadron based on the French coast could cross the Channel in five minutes, while British fighters, rising to challenge them, needed fifteen minutes to reach their height.

After a fierce day of aerial combat, the Luftwaffe had lost seventy-five aircraft, the RAF fifty. That ratio, or something close to it, was to favor the British throughout the battle. A German victory would be impossible if the British could provide enough pilots. That, however, was by no means certain; in just three weeks of July, 220 RAF airmen had been lost.

The Royal Navy had no intention of withdrawing from the Strait of Dover without a fight. Heavily convoyed, all merchantmen flying the red ensign entered the Channel hugging the coast of Kent. Four Royal Navy destroyer flotillas—approximately thirty-six vessels—were stationed in the threatened area, with cruisers and battleships from the Home Fleet in the immediate vicinity. Nevertheless, by the end of the first week in August the bombers of Oberst Johannes Fink, the commander of the
Kanalkampf, had sunk eight merchantmen and four Royal Navy destroyers. RAF coastal aircraft were vectoring the sky over the Channel. Dowding, less concerned about the loss of aircraft than pilot exhaustion—which led to pilot losses—took a hard line against daylight patrols. Grudgingly, the Admiralty barred the strait to destroyers in daylight. The merchantmen were given a choice: either they reached Dover at dusk, in which case they would be escorted at night, or they entered the Channel naked.

Twenty colliers took the risk. Because the Nazi navy was the one German arm with radar, one of their sets at Wissand, opposite Folkestone, identified the colliers off the Isle of Wight in the first moments of dawn on Thursday 8 August. A Luftwaffe strike followed. After the RDF station on the Isle of Wight picked up a strong blip, signaling the approach of a heavy raid, more than thirty Spitfires and Hurricanes formed an umbrella over the convoy. However, Fink, after luring the fighters away with decoys, sent in Stukas, which sank four ships and damaged several others in less than ten minutes. The survivors scattered, tried to reassemble, and were attacked again, by a strong force of eighty-two Junker-87s escorted by Me-109s. Only four ships in the original convoy reached safety.

RAF pilots, learning on the job, discovered that they would have to flout some regulations if they wanted to live. First to go were the vee formations, impressive in prewar air shows but suicidal when enemy fighters, attacking out of the sun, maneuvered their machines behind British tails. For the same reason, the expensive sheepskin collars on the RAF’s Irving flight jackets were cut off: if you wanted to survive, you had to be able to see over your shoulder. In addition, the best pilots scorned the regulation requiring their machine guns to be so adjusted that the bullets would converge 650 yards ahead of the aircraft. That was too far: pilots were spraying gunfire all over the sky. Veterans, knowing they had to get much closer, readjusted their Brownings.

During July the RAF lost seventy aircraft and the Luftwaffe more than twice that—180, more than half of them bombers. On neither side was the damage significant, but British spirits were high. RAF pilots knew they were fighting for the very existence of their country. All Britain was aroused by the RAF’s heroism. Thus the morale of flyers and civilians intermingled.

The German raids grew heavier and more frequent. Afterward, those who fought in the sky were haunted less by memories of fear—their engagements lasted no more than ten or fifteen minutes—than by the relentless tension and fatigue. After a third or fourth sortie, men would fall asleep in their cockpits as soon as they had landed. Two or even three more sorties would lie ahead of them, and although they might have brushed death more than once, their weariness was so great that when dusk fell and darkness gathered, they had no immediate recollection of that day’s fighting, not even of their kills. After the BBC’s report of the latest score they would recover with the miraculous power of youth and head for the village pub.

All England and all Germany—indeed, the entire world—anxiously awaited each day’s scores, upon . which the outcome of the battle—and the likelihood of invasion—seemed to hang. Number 10 Downing Street echoed with hurrahs after the Air Ministry reported, typically: “The final figures for today’s fighting are 86 certain, 34 probable, 33 damaged. We lost 37 aircraft, 12 pilots being killed and 14 wounded.” After dinner at Chequers on Saturday, 13 July, John Colville, Churchill’s private secretary, wrote in his diary: “Winston said the last four days have been the most glorious in the history of the R.A.F. Those days have been the test: the enemy had come and had lost five to one. We could now be confident of our superiority.”

He believed it. He was citing the figures he had been given, and no one had deliberately deceived him. No one was deliberately misleading the Fiihrer either, but the numbers sent to his Reichskanzlei were very different. According to them, those days had been among the most glorious days in Luftwaffe history, and therefore clear evidence of German superiority.

In retrospect it is clear that the communiques being issued by both sides were quite worthless. The trouble lay in pilots’ reports. It was unrealistic to expect accuracy from excited twenty-three-year-olds struggling to prevail in a battle upon which so much hung. Their senses were distorted by multiple fears—fear of engine failure, fear of fire, fear of blind spots, and the overriding fear of being pounced upon any moment by an unseen enemy. Few dogfights were simple. The skies were flecked with aircraft. Encounters frequently involved fighters and bombers, friendly and hostile, and sometimes it was impossible to tell which was which. Even when the air was free of the enemy, Dowding’s pilots had too much on their minds: jammed guns, feeble oxygen supply, wavering compass deflection, and the endless stream of fresh information, much of it alarming, which was arriving through their earphones from the voice of their RAF sector controller below.

The RAF accepted its pilots’ claims without question. However, British accounts of their own losses were always correct. That was not true of Luftwaffe reports. Announcing light casualties for the Luftwaffe and severe British losses was a mighty tonic for Reich morale, and Germans concluded that their airmen were winning the battle. After it was over, they assumed they had won it, just as, five years later, they assumed they were winning the war moments before they were warned that Allied troops were closing in on them.

One problem with deception is that the deceivers deceive themselves. That is what happened to the Luftwaffe’s high command. “The Germans,” as Churchill told Parliament, had “become victims of their own lies.” The enemy had lost control of the battle’s vital statistics, which, by the beginning of August, had become simply incredible. At one point William L. Shirer, who was reporting from Berlin, observed dryly: “German figures of British losses have been rising all evening. First [they] announced 73 British planes shot down against 14 German; then 79 to 14; finally at midnight 89 to 17. Actually, when I counted up the German figures as given out from time to time during the afternoon and evening, they totalled 111. The Luftwaffe is lying so fast it isn’t consistent even by its own account.”

At his Karinhall estate Goering studied these bogus figures, counted the number of British ships sunk—and declared that the Kanalkampf had been a stunning German victory. After the French capitulation he had been told that the Royal Air Force had been reduced to fewer than 2,000 front-line aircraft, of which between 500 and 600 were fighters. That was true—then. The Reichsmarschall had written the sum on a pad of paper and pocketed it. In the fighting that followed he subtracted that day’s losses, as reported to him, at the end of each day. In a Luftwaffe intelligence report dated August 16, he read that the British had lost 574 fighters since July, and that since their factories had provided them with no more than 300, they were left with about 430, of which perhaps 300 were serviceable.

As the remainder on Goering’s pad approached zero, he was confident that the invasion could soon begin. But he would have despaired had he been shown the latest figures from Ministry of Aircraft Production in London. In July alone British workers had produced 496 fighter planes—four times the monthly rate before Dunkirk. By the end of August, Beaverbrook would have 1,081 fighters available, with another 500 undergoing repair. Dowding, it seemed, would end the battle with more fighters than he had at the beginning.

Moreover, the wrecks of aircraft downed over Britain could be recovered by Beaverbrook’s Civilian Repair Organization (CRO). So efficient was “the Beaver’s” CRO that by the end of summer, one third of Dowding’s fighters had parts from crashed Hurricanes and Spitfires. Indeed, through CRO ingenuity, crashed German planes flew again as RAF aircraft. On 10 August, Colville noted in his diary: “Beaverbrook,” Churchill said, “had genius, and, what was more, brutal ruthlessness.” Never in his life, “at the Ministry of Munitions or anywhere else,” had he seen “such startling results as Beaverbrook has produced.” After studying the aircraft production charts, Gen. Sir Henry Pownall “agreed that there had never been such an achievement.” To be sure, it was a back-breaking job, and one from which the temperamental Canadian was forever resigning. Churchill wouldn’t allow it. On 2 September, at the end of one memorandum to the Prime Minister, Beaverbrook lamented, “Nobody knows the troubles I’ve seen.” Beneath it Churchill minuted, “I do.”

An elated Goering lay his statistics before Hitler, declaring that the RAF was helpless. The Reich, he said, had mastered the sky over the Bach—loosely, the brook, as he called the Channel. Now, he proposed preparations for the second phase of the battle: der Adlerangriff, the Eagle Attack—Germany’s all-out air assault on England. Yet Dowding was noting in his journal that he still believed time was on England’s side “if we can only hold on.” In one day his pilots had claimed to have destroyed sixty German planes, and though he may have thought that figure suspect, he was impressed by the skill with which the young Englishwomen at his radar stations had interpreted the direction and ranges of the attackers. In the long run, if the RAF were to prevail, the performance of the WAAF would be crucial.

Britain had regretted the Kanalkampf sinkings but could spare the ships. At Chequers on August 9, a Friday evening, Churchill dined with some of his advisers. Even under the threat of invasion Winston cherished plans for British offensives: after the ladies had retired, he spoke at length about Charles de Gaulle’s plan for an invasion of French North Africa, supported by the Royal Navy, at Dakar. His view of that day’s losses in the Strait was philosophical: England, he said, would have to continue using her coastal vessels as bait, though he acknowledged that “the surviving bait are getting a bit fed up.”

German tactics, when at their peak efficiency, were shocking. At Detling, near Maidstone, an RAF airfield was attacked just as the mess halls were filling. The operations tower was devastated, sixty-seven British airmen were killed, and twenty-two aircraft were destroyed on the ground. In another raid, near Oxford, two unescorted Ju-88 bombers arrived when the British fighters were on the ground, refueling and rearming. The Germans destroyed forty-six aircraft, damaged seven others, and knocked out the maintenance sheds.

Luftwaffe airmen were as dangerous as ever. The blunders and mismanagement were committed by officers with higher ranks. Goering’s intelligence was appalling. The Germans had only the vaguest understanding of the British defense system; indeed, at the outset they didn’t know where key British airfields were. Operational maps did not distinguish between fields used by Fighter and Bomber Commands. The two factories where Rolls-Royce built the Merlin engines that powered Hurricanes and Spitfires were never bombed, though their location was no secret. Vital orders miscarried. Weather reports were unreliable. Staff work was slow and sloppy. When Goering summoned his generals he left orders that under no circumstances should they be disturbed; in at least one instance that led to conflicting orders. Worst of all, he adopted no coherent strategy, no priority of targets. After the war Adolf Galland, the ace who was one of his officers, wrote that “Constantly changing orders [that betrayed] lack of purpose and obvious misjudgment of the situation by the Command and unjustified accusations had a most demoralizing effect on us fighter pilots.”

RAF radar baffled the enemy. Picking up its signals, German airmen reported British “Funkstationen mit Sonderanlagen“—radio stations with special installations. Nazi intelligence decided it was a communication system linking RAF pilots with ground controllers and concluded, on 7 August, that “As the British fighters are controlled from the ground by radio-telephone, their forces are tied to their respective ground stations and are therefore restricted in mobility”—which, had it been true, would have meant that resistance to mass German attacks would be limited to local fighters.

The commander of the Luftwaffe signals service who was among the few Germans who understood the role of radar, urged that an attack on the RDF stations be given priority. A limited attempt on them, made on the day before the first major assault on the British mainland, was ineffective. At Dover the Germans rocked a radar pylon, but the 350-foot-tall lattice masts were almost impossible to hit; returning after an attempt to destroy four stations, the pilots reported total failure. Goering assumed that the British electronic gear and crews were deep underground and hence safe. (In fact they were in flimsy shacks beneath the towers.) He issued the order—”It is doubtful whether there is any point in continuing the attacks on radar sites, in view of the fact that not one of those attacked has so far been put out of action.”

Nevertheless this was still the mighty Luftwaffe, its huge fleets (Lujiflotten) of superb aircraft outnumbering the defenders by two to one. After the Kanalkampf they completed plans for Eagle Day. The Fuhrer, unaware that Goering’s figures were inflated, gave him the green light for Adlerangriff. Depending on the weather and other imponderables, the Fuhrerordnung decreed, Eagle Day could begin as early as 5 August. British intelligence officers in the code-breaking center at Bletchley Park relayed the decision to Churchill, and Dowding issued an order of the day to his men: “The Battle of Britain is about to begin. Members of the Royal Air Force, the fate of generations lies in your hands.”

On 6 August, the Reichsmarschall set Eagle Day for the 10th, a Saturday. The weather forced him to reschedule it for Tuesday the 13th, when heavy skies were expected to clear. They did: seventy-four Dornier bombers and fifty Me-110s took off; the clouds returned; Goering issued a recall order; the clouds cleared, and the offensive was officially on, targeting a 150-mile arc of southern England from the Thames estuary to Southampton. Commanding Eagle Day was Goering’s ablest general, Feldmarschall Albert Kesselring, who would send out 1,486 sorties against targets ranging from Scotland to Devon. By daybreak every radar tower was sending urgent warnings to the WAAF operations below.

Among those awaiting the onslaught were a dozen American war correspondents on the cliffs of Dover, including H. R. Knickerbocker, Edward R. Murrow, Helen Kirkpatrick, Quentin Reynolds, Whitelaw Reid, Virginia Cowles, and Vincent Sheehan. Their mood was fatalistic. Among them, Sheehan wrote, a “sense of inevitable tragedy had grown heavy.” Some had been covering the spread of global conflict since the Japanese seizure of Manchuria in 1931. The Reich seemed invincible. Soon they heard the familiar hum of the desynchronized Messerschmitts, Heinkels and Dorniers, which grew to a roar as the glittering wings of the great Nazi armada emerged from the dazzling sun-drenched mist over the Channel and approached a coast that had not seen an invader in nine centuries: Experience had taught them to expect defeat for democracy.

And then, from RAF fields inland, they saw twenty-one squadrons of challenging Spitfires rising, Sheehan wrote “like larks, glittering against the sun,” maneuvering for position and attack. They heard the “zoom of one fighter diving over another…the rattle of machine-gun fire, the streak of smoke of a plane plummeting to earth, and the long seesaw descent of the wounded fighter falling from the clouds beneath his shining white parachute.”

The scenes were repeated all that day and all week along the southern coast. Sheehan wrote: “In every such battle I saw, the English had the best of it, and in every such battle they were greatly outnumbered.” Repeatedly “five or six fighters would engage twenty or thirty Germans….I saw it happen not once but many times.” He remembered the Spaniards and the Czechs and wrote: “At Dover the first sharp thrust of hope penetrated our gloom. The battles over the cliffs proved that the British could and would fight for their own freedom, if for nothing else, and that they would do so against colossal odds…. The flash of the Spitfire’s wing, then, through the mist glare of the summer sky, was the first flash of a sharpened sword; they would fight, they would hold out.”

The battle reached a peak between 24 August and 6 September, which became known to Fighter Command as the “critical period.” In the first six weeks of fighting, Luftwaffe tactics had been tested by Dowding’s strategy. He had ordered his pilots to avoid Messerschmitts—to flee from them if necessary—and go after the German bombers. Nazi fighters flying escort had been at a disadvantage: enemy bomber losses continued to be high: and, far more important, the RAF continued to be a force-in-being, warding off the threat of invasion.

In August this pattern changed. Kesselring massed a great concentration of Messerschmitts in the Pas de Calais. He meant to wipe out the sector airfields of Sir Keith Park’s 11 Group—London’s air defense—leaving the capital naked. During this time Churchill repeatedly visited RAF bases at Stanmore, Uxbridge, Dover, and Ramsgate. Colville noted that the Prime Minister was “full of admiration of the pilots” but thought it “terrible, terrible that the British Empire should have gambled on this.”

On Thursday, 15 August, the Germans had decided to test RAF Fighter Command’s strength by attacking from all sides simultaneously. For the first time Luftflotte 5, in Norway and Denmark, was assigned a major role. That was a mistake. Twelve RAF fighters, flying 3,000 feet above the raid, attacked out of the sun. The Germans lost sixteen Heinkels and six Ju-88s—a fifth of Luftflotte 5’s bombers—and seven Me-110s. There were no British losses. Throughout the Luftwaffe that day became known as der schwarze Donnerstag: black Thursday.

In the south, however, that day’s fighting was very different. Here the fields of 11 Group were the target. In Essex and Kent, fields at Martlesham, Eastchurch, and Hawkinge were hit: then the Germans attacked two aircraft factories near Rochester and fighter fields at Portland, Middle Wallop, West Mailing, and Croydon. Before dusk the Germans had flown an unprecedented 1,786 sorties, and the total losses for both sides—109 aircraft—were the highest for any day of the battle. Each side suffered its highest losses for any single day. Churchill followed the fighting from the group headquarters, and he left, clearly affected. Climbing into his limousine with his closest military confidant, Gen. Sir Hastings Ismay, he said, “Don’t speak to me. I’m too moved.” His lips were trembling— he was, in Colville’s phrase, “fertilizing a phrase.”

Five days later, when the most difficult and dangerous period in the battle was about to begin, he delivered his tribute to the RAF in the House of Commons:

The gratitude of every home in our island,
in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world,
except in the abodes of the guilty,
goes out to the British airmen who,
undaunted by odds,
Unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger,
are turning the tide of the World War
by their prowess and their devotion.
Never in the field of human conflict
was so much owed by so many to so few.

On Friday 16 August, Kesselring continued to press the attack. Luftflotte 5 was grounded—grounded, indeed, for the remainder of the battle—but the Germans put up over 1,700 sorties, raiding fields almost at will. That Sunday the Germans lost seventy-one aircraft, nearly ten percent of those committed. Nevertheless, after a day’s lull they again arrived in force, undiscouraged by the costs of the offensive. Goring summoned his Lufiflotten commanders to Karinhall and ordered them to go after aircraft factories and rolling mills as “bottleneck” targets. Four days later he summoned them again to announce: “We have reached the decisive period of the air war against England.” As in past conferences he was astonishingly ill-informed. He grossly underestimated the significance of Dowding’s radar chain, thus assuring its continued immunity, and his summation of Luftwaffe accomplishments in the battle was wildly unrealistic.

Nevertheless Fighter Command’s situation was critical. Unlike the enemy, Britain had no bottomless reserve of trained pilots. RAF bomber pilots were now being retrained to fly Spitfires and Hurricanes. In just a single week Dowding had lost eighty percent of his squadron commanders; one of their replacements had never even flown a Hurricane; after three landings and three takeoffs, he led his men into battle- often pilots had logged no more than ten hours of flight before sighting an enemy fighter. In August 1940, Fighter Command’s “operations training period” was cut from six weeks to two. Some new pilots had never fired their guns. Some were boys in their teens.

Despite the Germans’ losses, the ferocity of their attacks was unabated. Anthony Eden, Churchill’s war minister, later recalled that on 15 August he saw how “squadron after squadron of the Royal Air Force went up to engage the enemy and still the Luftwaffe kept coming….As we listened and conjectured, things looked very stern, with the odds heavy against us.”

But RAF gallantry was almost unbelievable. In peacetime exercises the RAF had established a hair-raising custom: they would attack enemy aircraft no matter how greatly they were outnumbered, defying five-to-one, even ten-to-one odds, and all England thrilled to this “Tallyho!” tradition. Confronted by massive Luftwaffe fleets determined to force them to break formation, the seasoned Hurricane pilots of one squadron adopted a new, terrifying tactic. They simply pointed their propellers for France and flew straight through the enemy’s bomber fleets—head-on, line abreast in a sawtooth line, deliberately adopting collision course, challenging the enemy’s courage by closing to fifty yards before sheering away.

The consequent closing speeds of well over 500 mph left no time to aim. Accurate marksmanship was impossible anyway; the vision of each RAF pilot was obscured by streaks of tracer bullets, cordite clouds, onrushing contrails, and the fuselages of other crisscrossing aircraft. If he did register a kill at that range, his own plane would be scarred by the debris of an exploding German plane, smeared by its white coolant. But that was rare. More often the enemy pilots’ nerves broke first. The spectacle of Hurricanes slashing diagonally across their noses, hurtling under their cockpits, or streaking past their wingtip was too much for all but the steadiest Luftwaffe airmen. They veered away and lurched out of formation, exposed to the machine gun bursts of other British fighters.

The RAF pushed the limits of human endurance. Pilots slept in their cockpits between sorties, “undaunted by odds,” in Churchill’s words, “unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger.” One Saturday, accompanied by his wife Clementine, his daughter-in-law Pamela, and Colville, he drove to Uxbridge, the frenzied headquarters of Dowding’s No. 11 Group, controlling all the fighter squadrons in southeastern England. The rest of his party took a series of walks in the countryside, but he wanted to look into the faces of the airmen, talk to them, and hear their stories. That evening Colville wrote: “The P. M. was deeply moved by what he saw this afternoon at Uxbridge: he said what he saw brought the war home to him.”

Mostly he had seen exhaustion. During the first three weeks of the battle one Uxbridge squadron had flown 504 sorties, spending more than 800 hours in the air. On a single day the squadron had scrambled seven times and flown fifty-three sorties. The enemy raids had been growing larger and more frequent, until by the weekend of Churchill’s visit the pilots’ time was almost completely occupied with flying, fighting, and sleeping. Awaking between 3:00 and 3:30 A.M. each July morning—it was about an hour later in August—they rolled out of bed unrefreshed, still tense and were immediately put on twenty-minute standby. At the ring of the squadron bell or the bray of its klaxon they would pull on their flying boots and run to their aircraft in the gray, dank morning while struggling into their flight jackets.

The field would already be fully operational, with fire trucks, fuel wagons, ambulances, tents, a cookhouse, deckchairs for pilots waiting between sorties, and portable workshops for ground crews in position. On the landing strip each pilot began the final part of his hasty scramble ritual by slipping on his Mae West. His parachute came next, with ground crewmen kneeling to bring the straps together. Trotting heavily to the plane, the parachute slung beneath him like a cushion, he heaved himself up on the wing, swinging his legs with a loping effort to reach the cockpit and shoving the parachute beneath him on the bucket seat as he settled into a sitting position under the Perspex hood. On either side, ground crewmen were helping him with his safety harness. He wriggled his shoulders to loosen his shirt, already sticky with cold sweat. Whether he locked the cockpit open or shut was a matter of individual preference. Helmet on with built-in earphones in place, he checked his oxygen and radio leads, yanked on his flight gloves, and quickly scanned the bank of dials and gauges on the panel, making certain that the gun-sight was on, the gun-safety off, the oxygen available.

By now the cloud base would have risen to 5,000 feet and begun to fragment, promising a clear sky, a warm sun, and a slight breeze. In the control tower the base commander could see France; with binoculars he could even watch Luftwaffe aircraft circling on the far side of the Dover Strait. Here—and over there—the dry summer air reeked with the stench of high octane fuel. The pilot thrust his control lever forward to awaken the 1,175 horsepower in his Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. It was like flicking a baton to bring on the bass trombones; the tremendous surge of power shoved him in the back. (In emergencies override power was also available, a brutal abuse of the engine and a hammering racket, but worth another 20 mph.) The needles on his panel began to jump and quiver, and the Merlin, beginning its idle, popped and belched. He slipped on his goggles, ready to go, though he didn’t look up. There, he knew, over the thumb of Ramsgate, the sky would be huge and full of peril.

Sir Keith Park couldn’t move his airfields. If the Germans could knock them out by bombing and strafing, British fighters could neither take off nor land; the Nazis would command the air over southeast England, and Hitler’s invasion could begin.

To protect his fields, he told his pilots to engage the enemy as far out as possible; the Germans responded by increasing the proportion of fighters to bombers. Spitfires and Hurricanes had to stay behind to provide air cover, and there weren’t enough of them. The enemy onslaught was too great. Kesselring was putting up over a thousand sorties a day. Among the Luftwaffe aircraft was a new machine: the Messerschmitt-110. Though a disappointment in combat, the Me-110 possessed tremendous firepower; a flight of six 110s was armed with thirty machine guns firing armor-piercing and incendiary rounds, and twelve cannon armed with explosive shells. Charging in from the sea each morning at an altitude too low for British anti-aircraft guns, they would sweep the RAF fields in strafing attacks, wrecking repair shops, destroying hangars, ripping apart grounded planes, leveling operations buildings, and leaving airstrips unfit for landine. RAF ground crews worked heroically, but before new craters could be filled in, a second flight of raiders would arrive. By dusk all British communications were paralyzed, and once the operations rooms were in ruins, the whole ground control system failed, leaving a shambles. One by one the advanced fighting fields were abandoned. And on the tenth day of the new Nazi offensive, 4 September, a dozen Ju-88s slipped through Britain’s fighter protection and hit the Vickers factory near Weybridge, destroying the works and inflicting 700 casualties. The output of Wellington bombers dropped from ninety a week to four, and normal production was not restored until the following year.

Duff Cooper reported to Churchill that British morale was “extremely high,” but the public did not know what its leaders knew. Fighter Command was in crisis. Under Beaverbrook, British factories were producing 125 new fighters each week—twice as many as the Germans—but the Nazis were shooting down more than that. Dowding’s aircraft reserve was shrinking. On the last two days of August the Nazi attacks reached a crescendo with 2,795 sorties. Their primary targets continued to be No 11 Group’s vital sector stations at Biggin Hill and Kenley. By September 1 both were virtually useless. Hangars, aircraft repair shops, operations buildings, communications facilities—all were leveled. Of 11 Group’s seven major sector airfields, six had been demolished, and the five advanced airfields were hors de combat.

Meantime Enigma decrypts admitted to only one interpretation: the Nazis were ready to invade England. British intelligence had identified fifteen German supply dumps along the French coast between Dunkirk and the mouth of the Somme. Churchill told Parliament that the enemy could land almost anywhere: “Even the most likely sector of invasion, i.e., the sector in which fighter support is available for their bomber and dive bombers, extending from the Wash to the Isle of Wight, is nearly as long as the whole front in France from the Alps to the sea, and despite the dangers of fog or artificial fog one must expect many lodgments or artificial lodgments to be made on our island simultaneously.”

Incredibly, the German high command didn’t grasp the implications of the Luftwaffe’s successes. Even the demolition of Britain’s oil installations at Thameshaven provoked little comment. An exception was Generalfeldmarschall Feodor von Bock, one of the Wehrmacht’s highest-ranking officers. Von Bock realized that the tide of battle had shifted; while preparing to move his army group headquarters from France to Poland, he tried to impress its importance upon his commander in chief, Manfred von Brauchitsch. Finding von Brauchitsch uncommunicative, Bock insisted that for the first time in the battle the Luftwaffe was making some real headway.

Every day now the Germans were coming in larger numbers, and they were threatening Britain’s inner defenses. When, after a visit to Fighter Command headquarters at Stanmore, Churchill dined at Chequers with a group of military advisers, the enemy bombed Great Misenden, just four miles away.

By the first week in September the RAF was in desperate straits. Dowding’s pilots were no longer permitted to pursue enemy aircraft out over the Channel. Because he lacked rested and refitted squadrons, he could no longer rotate them. In just two weeks he had lost 25 percent of his pilots, 60 percent of them experienced men. At that rate, Fighter Command would cease to be a disciplined fighting force in another week. The entire air-defense system of southeast England would have been destroyed.

Already the Luftwaffe could very nearly do what it pleased over the area Sea Lion had targeted for invasion. If what Goering wanted was air superiority over southeast England for the invasion,” Len Deighton writes, “then by 1 September it was almost his.” Park wrote that “an almost complete disorganization made the control of our fighter squadrons completely difficult….Had the enemy continued his heavy attacks [against fields and the control system]…the fighter defenses of London would have been in a perilous state.” Group Captain Peter Townsend believed that “on 6 September victory was in the Luftwaffe’s grasp.” On 7 September, he said, Wehrmacht divisions, panzers, and artillery “could have begun massive landings on British soil.”

Describing the crisis to a secret session of the House of Commons, Churchill said that German “shipping available and now assembled is sufficient to carry in one voyage nearly half a million men.” He told his listeners that

These next few weeks are grave and anxious. I just said in the Public Session that the deployment of the enemy’s invasion preparations and the assembly of his ships and barges are steadily proceeding, and that any moment a major assault may be launched upon this island. I now say in secret that upwards of seventeen hundred self-propelled barges and more than two hundred seagoing ships, some very large ships, are already gathered at the many invasion ports in German occupation.

In a BBC broadcast he prepared the British people for the worst. If the invasion was coming, he told them, “it does not seem that it can be long delayed. The weather may break at any time.”

Therefore we must regard the next week or so as a very important period in our history. It ranks with the days when the Spanish Armada was approaching the Channel and Drake was finishing his game of bowls; or when Nelson stood between us and Napoleon’s Grand Army at Boulogne. We have read all about this in the history books: but what is happening now is on a far greater scale and of far more consequence to the life and future of the World and its civilization than these brave old days of the past.

That first Saturday in September, the 7th, the Joint Intelligence Committee pored over a sheaf of reports, Enigma decrypts, aerial photographs, and accounts from agents on the Continent. Although they came from different sources, none known to the others, all agreed that the Nazi invasion could be expected to begin within twenty-four hours. Photographs revealed “a striking increase”—94 percent—in invasion barges. The Germans had ordered all Wehrmacht leaves cancelled in twenty-four hours. Forty-eight hours after that, moon and tide conditions would be “particularly favorable” for enemy landings, the reports concluded. Warning of the “large-scale and disciplined” movement of troop transports toward forward bases on the Channel, the committee concluded that the last enemy preparations were complete.

In London the director of military intelligence told the chiefs of staff that the invasion was imminent. At Bletchley the Naval Intelligence Section concluded that the landings might begin the following day. The chiefs therefore ordered all defense forces in the United Kingdom “to stand by at immediate notice.” The Air Ministry issued an “Invasion Alert No. 1” to all RAF commands. signaling the expectation that the Germans could be expected within the next twenty-four hours.

Yet to those who knew the Fiihrer and his Byzantine court, there was an air of uncertainty about the Reich’s intentions. After listening to a recording of Hitler’s most recent speech, Count Galeazzo Ciano, the Italian foreign minister, was baffled. Something about it was not quite right. He wrote in his diary that Hitler seemed unaccountably “nervous.”

He was in fact furious. He was not accustomed to insubordination, but that is what it amounted to. The issue was Luftwaffe bombing. He had sent a directive to the Luftwaffe: “Attacks against the London area and terror attacks are reserved for the Fuhrer’s decision.” He was still hoping to bring Churchill to the conference table, and he was worried about reprisals against German cities. Confident that the Reich would never be subject to air raids, he had neglected the Fatherland’s anti-aircraft defenses.

Bombing cities was still an issue in 1940. Both the Hague and the Geneva Conventions—which the Reich was pledged to support—outlawed indiscriminate assaults on peaceful civilians. In May, when a flight of Heinkels had mistakenly killed nearly a hundred German women and children in the old university city of Freiburg-im-Breisgau, the Germans had blamed it on the RAF. A Nazi communique had reported it as an enemy attack, Goebbels had condemned it as the “Kindermord [massacre of the innocents] in Freiburg,” and the British traitor Lord Haw Haw had denounced it as a “perfectly substantiated atrocity.”

Granting London immunity had never been popular in the Luftwaffe. As the autumn of 1940 approached with no victor in the skies over England, Goering repeatedly asked Hitler to reconsider. Discontent was particularly keen among German fighter pilots. In his postwar memoirs Adolf Galland described London as a target “of exceptional military importance, as the brain and nerve center of the British High Command, as a port, and as a center for armament and distribution.” He wrote: “We fighter pilots, discouraged by a task which was beyond our strength, were looking forward impatiently and excitedly to the start of the bomber attacks.”

Although the Luftwaffe was approaching air superiority, time was on the RAF’s side. September 15th had been fixed as the target date for Sea Lion, but already the weather was worsening; if England were to be invaded, the movement of barges and tugs could not be delayed.

The key event determining the outcome of the battle was a matter of chance. On the night of 24 August some 170 German Heinkels, ordered to bomb oil installations at Thameshaven and an aircraft factory at Rochester, had become lost. Before turning for home they jettisoned their bombs, and as it happened they were above London. Fleeing homeward, they left raging fires in several London boroughs.

Churchill saw his opportunity. He minuted the Air Staff: “Now that they have begun to molest the capital, I want you to hit them hard, and Berlin is the place to hit them.” That night—Sunday, August 25th—eighty one twin-engine Wellingtons and Hampdens carried the war to the heart of the Reich. The city was covered with dense cloud; only half the bombers found it. Damage was slight. Ten men were killed by a bomb and Siemens electrical works suffered a temporary loss of production.

However, no bomb had fallen on the capital of the Reich before. Shirer wrote in his diary: “The Berliners are stunned. They did not think it could ever happen. When the war began, Goering had assured them that it couldn’t. …They believed him. Their disillusionment today is all the greater. You have to see their faces to believe it…. For the first time the war has been brought home to them.”

Goebbels ordered German newspapers to carry the headline: “Feiger Englischer Angriff” (“Cowardly British Attack”). The bombers came again on 28 August and again the following night, and after the third raid the headlines in the Nazi press read: “Englische Luftpiraten Uber Berlin.” (“English Air Pirates Over Berlin!”)

Hitler delivered a withering attack on the British leadership in Berlin’s Sportpalast. Addressing an audience of social workers and nurses, he said, “The babbling of Mr. Churchill or Mr. Eden—reverence for old age forbids the mention of Mr. Chamberlain—doesn’t mean a thing to the German people. At best, it makes them laugh.” He then took up the bombings. “Mr. Churchill,” he said, “is demonstrating his new brainchild, the “night air raid.” He had believed that such madness would be stopped, but “Herr Churchill took this for a sign of weakness.” Now he would learn better: “We will raze their cities to the ground!” He shouted: “The hour will come when one of us will break, and it will not be National Socialist Germany!” The women leaped to their feet, joyfully shouting, “Never! Never!”

He knew, he said, that the British were wondering when his invasion would begin, and added: “In England they’re filled with curiosity and keep asking: ‘Why doesn’t he come?’ Be calm, he’s coming! Be calm, he’s coming!”

Luftwaffe intelligence continued to be wildly inaccurate. Hitler was told that, although “the prerequisites for Seelowe [Sea Lion] have not been completely realized,” in the past five weeks German airmen had shot down 1,800 British planes, which would have been double Dowding’s total strength. However, the Fuhrer mused out loud at a working lunch, destruction of the RAF might be unnecessary; if their capital were subjected to terror bombing, the British might be seized by “mass hysteria,” and the invasion could be cancelled.

In lifting his ban and shifting the focus of the German air offensive, Hitler gave permission, wrote Alfred Jodl, the chief of the operations staff, “for the use of strong air forces in reprisal attacks against London.” It meant monumental suffering for British civilians. It also meant defeat for Kesselring’s strategy, for London’s martyrdom would be England’s salvation.

On the clear afternoon of Saturday, 7 September, Goering and Kesselring stood with their staffs on the cliffs of Cap Blanc Nez and watched their enormous formation of three Luftflotten—1,000 aircraft, a third of them bombers—cross the Channel and head for London, then the largest city in the world. It was an awesome spectacle. The enormous armada, covering 800 square miles and shutting out the sun, rose nearly two miles high.

The RAF had no warning that London was the target. At 4:00 P.M., Dowding was at his desk in Bentley Priory when radar picked up the huge formation coming from Calais. In the past, Luftwaffe raids had split up upon reaching the coast, and British fighters were hovering at 20,000 feet, waiting for that moment to pounce. It never came. The armada, armed with huge new 6,500-pound bombs, crossed the east coast of Kent, near Deal, and headed straight for London, hitting Woolwich Arsenal first, then the Victoria and Albert Docks, the West India Dock, the Commercial Dock, and the Surrey Docks.

Behind them they left a flaming vision of apocalypse. Ships were sunk, catwalks mangled, cranes toppled, and great fires set that covered 250 acres and served as a beacon for a second heavy raid that night. More than 1,000 Londoners were killed. Because of a report that enemy parachutists were landing, the Home Guard issued the codeword “Cromwell,” signaling the beginning of an invasion, and church bells were rung all over England.

Luftwaffe raids on the capital continued on subsequent nights, but now the RAF was ready. The fighting in the air reached a climax on Sunday, 15 September, which became known as Battle of Britain Day. Churchill witnessed it; because “the weather on this day seemed suitable to the enemy,” he wrote, he and his wife drove to Park’s headquarters at Uxbridge. They were taken to the bombproof operations room fifty feet below ground, which he compared to “a small theater,” adding, “We took
our seats in the dress circle.”

There a gigantic map table and rows of light bulbs made the chaos overhead comprehensible. The defenders’ commitment was total. When his visitor asked about reserves, Park looked grave and replied, “There are none.” In Churchill’s words, “The odds were great, our margins small; the stakes infinite.” Like the battle of Waterloo, also fought on a Sunday, this was what Wellington had called “a close-run thing,” but it ended in a great British triumph. At the end of the afternoon Churchill was told that 183 German planes had been shot down at a cost of twenty-six RAF aircraft, and though those figures were exaggerated, the significance of the day’s fighting could not be. That evening, in a message to Dowding meant for enemy consumption, Churchill declared the British, “using only a small proportion of their total strength,” had “cut to rags and tatters separate waves of murderous assault upon the civil population of their native land.” Two days later he told Parliament, “Sunday’s action was the most brilliant and fruitful of any fought up to that date by the fighters of the Royal Air Force.”

The Germans had been badly stung, and they knew it. The high command of the Wehrmacht reported “large air battles and great losses for the German formations due to lack of fighter protection.” The day’s operations, involving over 300 bomber and 1,000 fighter sorties, were called “unusually disadvantageous,” with the heaviest losses when the raiders were homeward bound. In addition, the invasion forces could not be kept at the ready because the RAF, hitting the Channel ports, was
taking a mounting toll of German ships.

It was the death of Sea Lion. On 17 September, Hitler postponed the invasion indefinitely on the ground that winter was approaching and the RAF was “by no means defeated.” The German bombers would return to London for seventy-six consecutive nights, except 2 November, but the Fuhrer had turned to maps of Russia. A German staff officer expressed relief at the prospect of “real war”. 


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