Sunday, 11 September 2016

On This Day In 1940: The Battle of Britain

The 11th September 1940 was in the midst of the Battle Of Britain. Luftwaffe raids had been ongoing for some days, with raids taking place during daylight hours and at night.

The country languished beneath an air of uncertainty and fear, as they waited day after day for the news or sightings of a German invasion. However, the RAF had bombed the ports from Calais to Boulogne, and all along the Dutch coast, causing damage and destruction to the barges there waiting to be used for the invasion. The RAF had not been put out of action as Hitler had hoped, and he had no choice but to postpone his plans for Operation Sealion until the 24th September. As for Britain, her coastal defences were strong; her seaports stood firm, and her forces were ready and waiting for action.

Of course, Churchill did not know at this time of Hitler's decision to postpone his plans for the invasion. The Luftwaffe had raised their game and now launched mass raids, with 300-400 aircraft sailing across the Channel in two waves in quick succession. RAF Fighter Squadrons were told to fly in pairs when possible. 

That morning was quiet. Squadrons waited around, reading, writing, snoozing. After lunch, radar detected a large number of aircraft stretching from Calais to Ostend. At 1515hrs, the Observer Corps at Dover, Folkestone, and Bognor spotted large formations out over the Channel, escorted by Bf109s and Bf110s, headed directly for the Thames Estuary and the River Thames.

There were around three hundred aircraft in two separate formations. It was later noted that the Luftwaffe had made no attempt to bomb military targets. They dropped their bombs at random, on civilian areas. 

At around 4 pm, 36 people were killed when their shelter was bombed in Lewisham and more died when the Methodist Hall in Creek Road, Deptford was hit.

Pilot Officer Arthur Clarke of No 504 Squadron was killed when his Hurricane crashed on Romney Marsh. His remains lay undiscovered until found many years later. At the request of his family, his remains were left where he had crashed. Arthur was twenty years old. A small memorial stands by the roadside.

Pilot Officer Harry Edwards, 92 Squadron, of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, died when he crashed in woods at Evegate Manor Farm, Smeeth near Ashford. The wreckage lay undiscovered until the 7th October. Edwards is buried in Hawkinge Cemetery. His headstone contains the following words, as decided by his family. “Nobly he lived. Gloriously he died. We will remember him.”

London was again targeted later that night, from 2100hrs until 0430hrs. London's dockland area was hit along with parts of Central London, and Buckingham Palace was also hit, sustaining damage. The Queen later announced, "Now the palace has been bombed, I feel I can look the people of the East End in the eye." They were all in this together. The Palace was hit on sixteen separate occasions during the war, the first time being the 8th September 1940 when a bomb dropped harmlessly on the grounds. On the 9th, another bomb fell close to the swimming pool and had to be detonated, destroying the pool, and the North Wing while many windows were shattered.

For the Luftwaffe, this mission was to prove disastrous. Hurricanes and Spitfires from 249 Squadron, 606 Squadron, and 41 Squadron intercepted a formation of Heinkel He 111s over London, breaking them up, keeping the German fighters busy while shooting 7 German bombers down. The rest sustained damage and turned for home.

Other targets this day included Merseyside, South Wales, Bristol, Norfolk, Lincolnshire, and Yorkshire. RAF Fighter Command flew a reported 672 sorties, and sadly sustained a number of losses before seeing off the last of the Luftwaffe that night. A number of RAF fighter pilots were missing. Sgt M Sprague of 602 Squadron was washed ashore at Brighton on the 10th October. Sgt F Shepherd of 611 Squadron bailed out of his aircraft, but his parachute was on fire, and he fell to his death. Eight pilots were wounded, and some had burns.

A total of 29 RAF fighter aircraft were shot down. Bomber Command lost three aircraft, with fourteen airmen killed.

Britain suffered fatal casualties, with a total of 462 dead, of whom 297 were civilians.
92 Squadron with Group Captain Brian Kingcombe 4th from left
In the film, "First Light," we are introduced to veteran and fighter pilot, Geoffrey Whellum. He narrates throughout this film and it's brilliant, poignant, beautiful, a rollercoaster ride of emotion. And yes, if you're wondering, it focusses on the Battle of Britain. Geoff was but 18 years old when he turned up for his first posting to 92 Squadron in May 1940. On this day in the battle, he claimed a Heinkel He 111. Watch the film if you can, or better still, buy his book, "First Light." It's a fabulous read and beautifully written by Geoff. He's marvelous and I long to meet him. I believe he's recently celebrated his 95th birthday. As he once famously said, "You didn't fly the Spitfire, she flew you." Here's a link to an interview with Geoff in 2010:

On this day in 1940, Churchill delivered this speech:

Those brave few. We will remember them.