BATTLE OF BRITAIN
‘- – Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.’ (Winston Churchill on the Battle of Britain September 1940)
Plans for the German invasion of Britain required the Luftwaffe to establish complete mastery of the air over the Channel and South-east England. Once their forces had captured the airfields of Northern France, their numerical operational superiority in the air made this seem almost inevitable to Hitler. At the start of the battle, apart from a 1,000 or so bombers and 350 Stuka dive bombers, the Germans could call on 933 fighters – many of which were Messerschmitt 109s – and in addition 375 Messerschmitt 110 fighter bombers.
Against them the British had 19 squadrons of Spitfires and 38 squadrons of Hurricanes making between 600 and 700 aircraft available to fight at any one time throughout the battle. British aircraft production had reached the point where new machines almost exactly equalled losses – an average of 62 Hurricanes and 33 Spitfires each week throughout the Battle of Britain. German industry only produced half that number of fighters. Experienced pilots were another matter, but many of those shot down were able to parachute to safety. 481 were killed or taken prisoner by the enemy.
The British also had the advantage of a secret weapon whose significance the Germans did not appreciate. We had in place along the south coast an effective radar system with a range of eighty miles – enough warning to get the fighters in the air. It also estimated the height of the incoming aircraft, but this aspect proved to be less reliable.
The German strategy from the 10th July to the 18th August 1940 was to harry convoys in the Channel and the south coast ports to draw our fighters into battle and then destroy them. They made a special effort in the week ending 17th August shooting down no less than 134 British fighters, though they believed their tally was materially greater and were unaware of the number of replacement planes entering service. On the other hand, the Germans lost 261 aircraft according to their own records (which may have been mollified to pacify Hitler) – the RAF claimed 496. This was the figure broadcast on the British news and believed by my mother.
15th August saw the heaviest fighting of the battle; all available British aircraft took part. In addition to major attacks on south east England, the Germans launched 100 heavy bombers escorted by 40 Me110 fighter bombers against Tyneside – believing it to be a soft target without fighter cover. They were detected before reaching the coast and met by elements of seven experienced British fighter squadrons which had been sent to the area to rest and regroup. Thirty German aircraft were shot down as they broke formation and fled, for a British loss of two pilots injured.
The Tyneside raid demonstrated that the Me110 was no match for either Hurricanes or Spitfires. It was too slow and lacked manoeuvrability – though it subsequently demonstrated its value as a night fighter. Equally, the dive bombers, whilst deadly as they screamed down on their targets, became sitting ducks for the fighters as they pulled out of the dive.
The Me109 was a more deadly foe, but limited in range and therefore in the time it could spend over Britain. It could out dive the Spitfires in service at the time, but lacked their manoeuvrability and the fire power of eight wing-mounted 0.303 machine guns. RAF tactics, when given the choice, was for Spitfires to attack the Messerschmitts, whilst Hurricanes took on the bombers.
The low point of the battle for the British came in the fortnight commencing 24th August, when 466 of our fighters were destroyed or seriously damaged with the loss of 231 pilots. On that day, Manston airfield was totally destroyed and never became operational again. True the Germans lost 380 planes and that over 250 new fighters rolled off the British production lines, but such a high rate of attrition could not have been maintained for long. Miraculously, Hitler believed that the RAF had been smashed beyond recovery and, as a reprisal for an RAF raid on Berlin, ordered his bombers to attack London instead of the fighter bases – one of his major strategic errors of the war.
London suffered heavily, particularly over the following ten days. The Luftwaffe made a final effort to establish supremacy and enable an invasion to be launched. In so doing, they suffered heavy losses – in excess of 600 aircraft in five weeks – double the British losses in the period. Even worse for Goering, on the night of 15th September, a heavy raid on London met an even stronger force of British fighters including squadrons from airfields north of the capital. 34 of the attacking bombers were shot down and a further 20 damaged. Then, British bombers counter-attacked and inflicted crippling damage on the invasion barges which the Germans had assembled. The invasion of Britain had to be postponed indefinitely.
The Germans switched to night raids where our fighters were much less effective, but the Thames – glinting in the moonlight – betrayed London and it suffered just as heavily as before. For fifty seven consecutive nights from the 7th September 1940, London shook under the pounding of high explosives and burned in fire storms which took decades to repair. Roughly fifty thousand people died in the blitz.
The air raid shelters – and in London the underground – saved many lives. However, two and a quarter million people were made homeless – many more than the Authorities had anticipated or acknowledged at the time. They needed food, clothing and shelter immediately, but the rescue services quickly became overwhelmed. That was part of the horror of the blitz – thousands lost everything they had, including much loved relatives. Fortunately, voluntary services such as the Canadian Red Cross stepped in to help. Local Authorities only became empowered to requisition empty properties in April 1941.
The Germans then set about attempting to destroy Britain’s war production. The centre of Coventry was destroyed on 14th November 1940, followed by Birmingham the next week and Liverpool at the end of the month. Surprisingly, machine tools in the factories were little damaged and production quickly resumed.
Just before Christmas, bombing switched to ports around the country, including Manchester with its ship canal. Then back to London on 29th December 1940 where the City of London suffered an awesome fire storm which burned for days. Somehow, St Paul’s Cathedral survived.
* * *
As for my family, we arrived in Bournemouth towards the end of June to find the resort still in holiday mode. Most families had decided to stay at home in the emergency, but our home had been bombed. The town was generally considered to be a safe refuge of no strategic importance. How could we know of Hitler’s plan to entice Britain’s fighters into the air by bombing the south coast? In any case, there had to be more important targets.
Father found us a pleasant hotel about a mile from the town centre – a short walk from the building his bank had selected for a division of its head office. We all shared a room facing away from the sea. He went off to work each morning. Mother and I walked down to sun ourselves on the beach in the company of a fair number of like-minded holidaymakers. The arrangement was of necessity temporary but nobody knew where father would be sent next.
One particular morning towards the middle of July, we arrived a little later than usual to find the beach quite crowded with mothers and young children below school age. The calm sea looked blue and inviting so we went for a paddle before settling down to build a sandcastle against the incoming tide. The ripples began to wash it away; I struggled to shore it up.
A rustle of excitement from a group nearby caused me to look up. Mother lay half asleep in some shade nearby – it could not be important. But one of them kept pointing out to sea. I looked, but the sun in my eyes soon had me back to the ruins of the sandcastle.
‘It’s coming this way.’ I looked again. Out on the horizon, a tiny speck flew very low above the surface of the sea, laboriously making its way directly towards us. Everyone settled down to watch the mystery – a single seat aircraft flying slowly below the height of the cliffs. What was it doing? Was it looking for something floating in the sea? A mine perhaps.
Nearer and nearer. Two hundred yards – one hundred yards. A gasp: ‘It can’t be. The siren hasn’t gone.’ A woman behind me screamed. I turned to look and all the adults on the beach threw themselves flat, face down on the sand. Astonishing!
I looked up at the plane, now thirty yards away and no more than forty feet above the sea. The pilot was clearly visible in a black uniform and he grinned broadly at the panic below him. I waved happily; he waved back and flew on over my head. Then I saw for the first time the black cross on the side of the tiny plane and the small swastika on its tail. But this aircraft looked so harmless, too small to carry bombs and no sign of any weapon.
A man’s voice yelled: ‘Grab that child. He’s signalling to the enemy.’ I looked up to see an angry police sergeant heading towards me.
Mother launched herself out of nowhere and flattened me. ‘He’s only a child. He doesn’t know anything about the war. We’re only here because our house was bombed.’ It took her a good five minutes to satisfy the policeman of my innocence and the people around shrank away from us. She marched me firmly back to the hotel and made me promise never again to wave at any Germans. ‘That’s the last time we go to that particular beach, but I expect we’ll find another one.’
That evening, she told father. He looked grave. ‘That must have been a spotter plane taking photographs, but why here.’
‘Why did no one shoot it down? It was so low, they could hardly have missed.’
‘Nobody was on guard. Nobody expected it. This could be serious. And you young man, next time keep your head down like everyone else.’
* * *
Two nights later, we learned the reason for the spotter plane. My parents had just said goodnight to me when the sirens sounded the alarm. We all looked at one another and reached for the gas masks. Could it be a false alarm? A hotel porter made his way down the corridor banging on each door and shouting: ‘Air raid. Everyone down the staircase and into the cellar. Quick as you can.’
Father shook his head. ‘No. I’m not leaving this room. Damned uncomfortable spending the night in a cellar crowded with people shivering with fear. Anyway, remember the Anderson shelter I put up. If we’d used that, we’d have been done for.’
Mother pleaded with him to go. ‘Think of the child.’
‘I am. My view is that if a bomb has your name on it, you’re dead whatever you do; if it doesn’t, you’re OK.’ He stuck to this belief in predestination right through the London blitz and his army service. In time of real danger, it can be a great comfort to know that your fate is decided by God whatever you do.
Still no sign of enemy attack. Mother began to relax and I went back to bed. Then we heard the first explosions – a good way off – no need to panic, but time to pray. A pause. Then a second set of explosions decidedly louder – nearer this time. Things were getting exciting. I pulled the bedclothes over my head.
The third set was close – close enough not only to rattle the windows but to shake the building. Father put his hand on my shoulder. ‘Roll under the bed if it helps. We won’t mind.’ I shook my head – but mother did shelter under her bed. Father’s doctrine of predestination is no good unless you really believe in it.
No sooner had the rumble of the explosions died away than we heard the loud drone of dozens of low flying aircraft coming straight at us. No sign of any fighters intercepting them. No ack-ack guns. We were on our own, just us and the bombers overhead. The moment of truth.
They totally ignored us – just flew on and turned over the sea back to France without a shot being fired at them as far as we could tell. Bournemouth had indeed been a soft target. It had ceased to be a comfortable refuge. Would they load up with more bombs and come straight back? None of us slept much that night, though father insisted we stay in bed and try to sleep.
I don’t know what effect air raids had on other children, but that one had a peculiar impact on me. Mother had spent the previous afternoon teaching me how to read out of an illustrated book of fairy stories. One had a full page coloured picture depicting three witches circling over a small hamlet on broomsticks, each with a black cat sitting behind her. I had a nightmare that it was those witches which had caused the explosions around me.
Mother was not amused. But then she had her own problems. Father explained to us over breakfast that he had been summoned back to London. Some branches of the bank had been hit by bombs. His team was needed to go in and save what could be saved. He would do this until the bombing eased and then join the army. He preferred to face the enemy with a gun in his hand and hit back. We could not go with him to London. It would be time to say goodbye that evening.
They discussed what to do and decided that mother and I should go and live with grandfather in Yorkshire. We both qualified as evacuees as I had not yet started school but would need to do so in September. Bournemouth had now joined London and the other south coast towns as potential targets from which the Government strongly recommended all children to be evacuated.
In this period of great sadness, mother tried to cheer me up by a last visit to our favourite beach. Not a good idea. We arrived at the cliff top to find access to the sea was prohibited. Down below, we could see perhaps a thousand soldiers constructing tank traps, laying mines and unrolling miles of barbed wire. Lorries towing guns were arriving in convoys. Bournemouth had woken up to its new position in the front line. If the Germans returned, they would not find it a soft target next time.
This was no place for children. No more beach holiday. Time to move on.
This is an extract from BRITAIN AT WAR 1939 to 1945 what was life like during the war? by James Lingard