Thursday, 15 September 2016

Battle of Britain Day

The 15th September marks Battle of Britain Day, the day the Germans launched a large-scale aerial assault on London. Hitler believed that the RAF were at breaking point and Germany's objective was simple. Throw everything they had at London, destroy the RAF and defeat Britain.

The day before, Hitler addressed his commanding officers, stressing that they must have complete air superiority. At the same time he set a new date for the invasion of Britain - September 17th, 1940.

September 15th, 1940 happened to fall on a Sunday. The Luftwaffe launched two large bombing raids on London, and smaller attacks were planned for Portland and Southampton. Since the 7th September, the Luftwaffe had moved away from bombing RAF bases and radar stations to focus on Britain's capital. This gave RAF Fighter Command the chance to recoup, and so by the 15th they were in a far stronger position, with rested, fresher pilots and aircraft.
German Heinkel HE 111s head to London. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
British Intelligence had already informed Sir Keith Park that a large Luftwaffe attack was imminent, and when he was informed that morning of large numbers of Luftwaffe forces gathering along the French coast near Dieppe and Calais, he realised that this was it.
Churchill at Fighter Command, Uxbridge. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
It was a coincidence that this was the day Churchill decided to make an impromptu visit to Fighter Command at 11 Group's headquarters in Uxbridge. Keith Park escorted Churchill and his wife down into the bombproof command centre fifty feet below ground. At 0930hrs, two large formations of Luftwaffe bombers approached the southeast coast but then turned back. It was thought this was done to gauge the RAF's reaction.

An hour later, Park was informed of a Luftwaffe force forming up between Calais and Boulogne. By 1100hrs, radar detected a large number of bombers with a fighter escort, and it was estimated that it would cross Dungeness around 1145hrs. Twelve fighter squadrons were scrambled. They were to fight in a range of sky stretching 80 miles long by around 38 miles wide.
London shows her battle scars. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Just before noon, a Hurricane from 609 Squadron crashed at the Staplehurst Railway Station in Kent and the pilot was killed along with the 18-year-old booking clerk, Charles Ashdown. Tragically, Charles was only working because he'd agreed to swap his shift that day with a colleague. The pilot was a Belgian, Georges Doutrepont.

Georges Doutrepont
At 1330hrs, another large Luftwaffe formation was detected;150 bombers with an escort of 400 fighters stretching across a ten-mile front.
Contrails in the skies over London from a dog fight. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
A Spitfire of 609 Squadron was shot down in flames and crashed near Kenley. Pilot Officer Geoff Gaunt was killed, but his body lay undiscovered for four days. His friend and fellow pilot said Geoff was "very gallant and a delightful friend."
Geoff is on the right here
Winston Churchill said this day was "the crux of the battle of Britain." It was a battle that Britain had seen off for one more day but one which would rage on into October. Germany had not achieved air supremity and Operation Sealion would not go ahead. This day showed the Luftwaffe that they would not win the skies. Pilot Officer Thomas Neil of 249 Squadron said later, "September 15th was a very special day."
Tom Neil on the right, pictured with his ground crew
We must not forget the efforts of the ground crew throughout the war. The RAF is a team and without its ground crew, the aircraft would not fly. A Spitfire is equipped with enough ammunition to give 16 seconds of continuous firing, and a Hurricane has slightly more. On this day, vast numbers of RAF fighter aircraft would have landed for rearmourement and refuelling and would have relied on their ground crew to see to this in record time so they might re-join the battle raging overhead. They did an important job and they did it extremely well.

The RAF shot down 61 German aircraft, but suffered only 31 losses themselves. Thousands of people stood out on the streets of London and in and around Kent, their faces turned to the sky as they watched the greatest dog fights between Fighter Command and the Luftwaffe. A Dornier fell on the forecourt of Victoria Station in London after numerous RAF attacks.

An extract from the poem For the Fallen by Robert Laurence Binyon (1869-1943)

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them.

Do watch this video clip - it also features the role of women during the war and life on the home-front.

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