“I believe that, if an adequate fighter force is kept in this country, if the fleet remains in being, and if Home Forces are suitably organised to resist invasion, we should be able to carry on the war for some time, if not indefinitely”.
Air Chief Marshal, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Sir Hugh Dowding. May 15th, 1940
Weather: Heavy overnight cloud and rain clearing. Fine with patchy cloud in the morning giving way to strata-cumulus clouds at 5,000 feet providing 8/10ths cover.
September 15th, 1940:
0900 hours: Prime Minister Winston Churchill arrives at HQ Royal Air Force 11 Group, Fighter Command at Uxbridge and is greeted by Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park, Air Officer Commanding.
1030 hours: Radar (radio direction finding or RDF) stations of Chain Home at Beachy Head, Dover, Dunkirk (Kent), Pevensey, St Lawrence, Ventnor, and Westcliffe situated along the Kent coast and on the Isle of Wight, the personnel of which were mainly women of the Woman’s Royal Air Force (WRAF), detect two formations of 150 plus Luftwaffe aircraft forming up between Boulogne and Calais. 11 Group RAF fighter squadrons are placed on standby.
1100 hours: 200 plus Heinkel 111 and Dornier Do-17 and Do-215 bombers from 111/Kampfgruppe76 and KG73, escorted by Me-Bf109 and Me-110 fighters, are tracked flying NNW towards the English coast at Dungeness at heights of between 15,000 and 26,000 feet (‘Angels’ 15 and 26 in the parlance of the RAF ground controllers of the day).
1105-1120 hours: 144 RAF Hurricanes and Spitfires of (in sequence) 72, 92, 229, 303, 253, 501, 17, 73, 504, 257, 603 and 609 Squadrons ‘scramble’ and are ‘vectored’ by their Sector Controllers to meet the incoming Luftwaffe attack.
1130-1145 hours: RAF commanders confirm the target is London. AVM Park calls upon 12 Group (AVM Trafford Leigh Mallory) based to the north of London to cover the capital. These include the so-called ‘Duxford Wing’ of massed Hurricanes and Spitfires. 12 Group scrambles some 100 fighters of (in sequence) 41, 242, 302, 310, 19, 611, 249, 46, 1(RCAF), 605 and 66 Squadrons.
1200 hours: The first massed RAF attack of the day begins. The slow progress of the Luftwaffe bomber formation enables 12 Group fighters to join 11 Group and intercept the enemy with 11 squadrons above Maidstone and Ashford. The RAF’s strength comes as a shock to Luftwaffe aircrew and, whilst the Spitfire squadrons engage the fighter escort, the Hurricanes attack the bomber formation which begins to break up. Stragglers are attacked and several are shot down.
1215 hours: The Spitfires succeed in separating the Bf109 fighters from the bombers. The longer-range, twin-engined Me-110s are no match for the British fighters and are effectively forced out of much of the battle, in spite of courageous efforts by many of their crews to protect the bombers. Under intense RAF pressure the bomber force begins to drop its bombs randomly, whilst many turn prematurely short of London and seek to make their escape. Many of those that have survived are damaged, whilst those German pilots who bravely press on towards London are then confronted by 12 Group’s Spitfires and Hurricanes which ambush the bombers from a height of between 25,000 and 26,000 feet, some 3000 feet above the upper most layer of the bomber force. The weight of the attack is decisive and the Luftwaffe force is quickly broken up. There is no respite for the hard-pressed Luftwaffe crews. The RAF maintains the pressure on the enemy by continuously and repeatedly attacking the bomber force from all sides as it makes its now disorganised way back towards the English coast. Many of the survivors head first west of London before turning for home over Weybridge, whilst some 80 bombers take a more direct route, first down the Thames Estuary and then over Kent, harassed all the way by the RAF.
1230 hours: The first massed battle of what would eventually prove to be the decisive day of the Battle of Britain is over. The RAF has gained a vital victory. What was meant to be the Luftwaffe’s final destruction of Fighter Command is decisively defeated. However, September 15th, 1940 is far from over. As RAF squadrons land, re-fuel and re-arm the Luftwaffe prepares to launch the second major attack of the day.
1300 hours: Radar stations along the Kent coast again begin to detect another massed Luftwaffe force forming west of the Boulogne-Calais area, many of the aircraft involved have taken off from airfields in the Antwerp and Brussels region. AVM Park confirms the available strength of 11 Group’s fighters, but orders no action to be taken…yet.
1330 hours: Radar confirms the massing German force is larger than the morning attack and as yet the Luftwaffe’s targets are not clear to the RAF. 11 Group and 12 Group fighters are placed at ‘readiness’, together with squadrons from 10 Group (AVM Quintin Brand) which covers the West of England.
1400 hours: The Luftwaffe force approaches the Kent coast ((KG2, KG53, KG76 plus some elements of KG1, KG4 and KG26). This time the Luftwaffe gains a tactical edge by reducing the time it takes to mass the attacking formation. Moreover, the sheer intensity of the morning’s action has disrupted Fighter Command’s battle rhythm. Some RAF squadrons are still refuelling and re-arming whilst many of the pilots who had survived being shot down in the morning are not yet back with their squadrons.
1410 hours: RAF Sector Controllers place all 11 Group squadrons on standby and request ‘maximum assistance’ from 10 and 12 Groups. Five squadrons of the Duxford Wing (49 aircraft) from 16, 242, 302, 310 and 611 squadrons are scrambled. Crucially, AVM Park adjusts his tactics from the morning. He orders the bulk of the squadrons to hold back and patrol east, south and west of London. However, he also orders his forward deployed squadrons at Hawkinge, Lympne, Manston and Tangmere and Manston to engage the Luftwaffe fighter escort early in an attempt to force the Bf-109s to ‘dogfight’ and use up much of their limited reserves of fuel. This renders the bomber fleet exceptionally vulnerable to massed RAF attack.
1415 hours: The first bomber formations cross the Kent coast. Two other formations follow at 1430 and 1445 hours. The bomber fleet is again made up of He111, Do-17 and D-215 aircraft. The British estimate the strength to be between 150 and 200 bombers plus some 400 Bf109s and Me-110s as escorts. In fact, the strength is 170 bombers and some 300 plus fighters.
1415 hours: The first engagement takes place south of Canterbury. Other formations are attacked south of Maidstone and west of Dartford as RAF squadrons begin to harass the attacking force. The closer the Luftwaffe gets to London the more Spitfires and Hurricanes attack them. Bereft of an effective fighter escort the bomber force is quickly and badly mauled by 11 Group as (in sequence) 73, 66, 72, 249, 504, 253, 213 and 607 Squadrons repeatedly attack.
1450 hours: AVM Park’s decision to hold squadrons back, most notably the Duxford Wing, now proves decisive, even if many of the RAF fighters had been scrambled too slowly. 150 RAF Hurricanes and Spitfires attack the bomber fleet over the south and south-west of London. As in the morning the Spitfires attack the Bf109s and Me-110 fighters, whilst the Hurricanes attack the bomber force. Critically, the Bf109s are now at the limits of their range.
1500 hours: 303 (Polish) Squadron returns to its base at Northholt. In just over an hour of action they destroy 3 Do-17s, 2 Me-110’s and 1 Bf109 for a cost of 2 Hurricanes lost and 1 pilot killed. By the time Luftwaffe bombers reach London they are out-numbered by defending Hurricanes and Spitfires. They break off the attack and turn for the Channel and escape.
1600 hours: The last of the Luftwaffe bomber force is attacked as it makes its way across the English coast. Another small incoming raid of 10 He-111s is detected heading towards Portland for an attack on the Supermarine Spitfire factory at Woolston. It is engaged by 10 Group’s 152 (Spitfires), 607 (Hurricanes) and 609 (Spitfires) Squadrons. Several aircraft of the attacking force are destroyed and not one bomb is dropped on the factory.
September 15th, 1940, Battle of Britain Day, is over.
September 15th, 1940 was a turning point not just of the Battle of Britain, but of World War Two and the fight against Nazism. The RAF had won a decisive victory over the Luftwaffe and whilst they did not know it at the time, the victory effectively ended any chance Britain could be invaded. Without complete control of the air Operation Sea Lion, the planned invasion of Britain, was effectively dead in the water. At least it would have been. Any attempt to cross the Channel with two Army Groups comprised of the best Wehrmacht units would have been suicide in the face of constant attacks by the RAF and the Royal Navy, which in 1940 was still the world’s largest. Britain would fight on and the RAF would begin the long and slow shift from the defensive to the offensive and the regular 1000 heavy bomber attacks on German cities. These attacks were hugely popular with a British people determined to ‘give it back to em’, but came at an appalling cost to RAF aircrew, German and other civilians.
To some extent ‘The Day’ has become shrouded in myth. The RAF claimed to have shot down some 185 Luftwaffe aircraft on September 15th. In fact, the number was 61, with twenty aircraft badly-damaged, whilst the RAF lost 32 fighters. By the standards of contemporary warfare the casualties were relatively light. The RAF lost 16 pilots killed in action and 14 wounded, whilst the Luftwaffe lost 81 aircrew killed with 31 wounded, although 63 aircrew were also captured by the British. Many were experienced men. Moreover, by September 1940 Britain was out-producing Germany in the construction of advanced fighters. Therefore, whilst the Luftwaffe was by no means a spent force on the evening of September 15th, 1940, the defeat came at the end of what had been a gruelling summer for the Luftwaffe. However, perhaps the greatest impact of the RAF’s decisive victory was psychological. For the first time in World War Two the Luftwaffe had faced a force equipped with advanced technology, excellent air defence fighters and very capable pilots and had been badly beaten.
The Battle of Britain had effectively begun on June 18th, 1940 when Churchill said to the House of Commons, “What General Weygand called the Battle of France is now over, I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin”. The RAF’s total strength at the outset of the Battle of Britain was 1,963 aircraft whilst the Luftwaffe had some 2,550 aircraft. Not all British aircraft, of course, were front-line fighters. However, by the end of the campaign the RAF had lost 1,744 aircraft destroyed to the Luftwaffe’s 1,977 aircraft destroyed. Crucially, the Luftwaffe’s head of intelligence, Oberst Joseph Beppo Schmidt, repeatedly over-estimated Luftwaffe strength whilst chronically under-estimating both the fighting power of the RAF and the remarkable capability of the world’s first advanced air defence system. Indeed, Luftwaffe aircrew, who were repeatedly briefed that the RAF were down to their last few fighters, shared a grim standing joke each time they saw British fighters moving to attack: “Here come those last 50 British fighters…again”.
On the morning of September 15th Air Chief Marshal Dowding had 726 fighters at readiness, whilst the Luftwaffe had 620 fighters and 500 light-to-medium bombers, the bomb capacity of which was simply too ‘light’ given the strategic objectives. By comparison, in June 1942 RAF Bomber Command attacked Cologne with 1000 far heavier bombers, such as the Stirling, Halifax, Lancaster and Wellington types. The Germans also had no organised espionage network in Britain so they could not accurately know what damage they were doing, the state of either the RAF or the morale of the British people. They thought they had but most German spies were quickly captured by the British and forced to work for British Intelligence.
Luftwaffe High Command’s over-confidence also led them to make catastrophic mistakes. On August 15th, 1940, dubbed “Black Thursday” (Schwarzer Donnerstag) by Luftwaffe aircrew, Luftflotte V based in Norway was ordered to attack the north of England. The assumption was that all the RAF’s reserves had been moved south to cover Kent and London. They had not. Chain Home picked up a force of some 200 attacking aircraft early in its mission which was then badly-mauled by Spitfires from 13 Group (AVM Richard Maul) which covered the north of England. It was forced to turn and flee over the sea losing 23 aircraft for no downed RAF fighters. The escorting Me-110s even abandoned the bombers and formed so-called ‘wagon wheels’ for self-protection. The so-called Dowding System had prevailed again.
The Dowding System was critical to Britain’s victory. It used the ‘eyes’ of radar to rapidly inform a robust command chain of the strength, speed, direction and height of an attacking force. This enabled HQ Fighter Command based at Bentley Priory to quickly assess the size and likely targets of the force before giving each Group the information they needed to deploy its squadrons efficiently and effectively. Group HQ then passed on the information to Sector Controllers who scrambled the various squadrons. Crucially, the entire system was ‘hardened’ when it was built in 1937 to ensure it was both resilient and enjoyed redundancy of communications and was thus very hard to knock-out. That the system existed at all was due to decisions taken in the 1930s by the oft-berated Baldwin and Chamberlain governments. Such was its success that the Dowding System was to form the basis of many of the world’s ground-controlled air defence systems up until, and in some case even beyond, the year 2000.
The Luftwaffe was defeated because it failed to secure either of its primary strategic aims: to force the British to the negotiating table on German terms; or secure uncontested air superiority over the English Channel as a prelude to invasion. It also suffered a massive materiel loss over the three month course of the battle from which it never fully recovered, undermining its future effectiveness in Russia. The fault lay not with the mainly young Luftwaffe aircrews who showed great bravery, but with their commanders, most notably Luftwaffe Chief Reichmarschall Hermann Goering. He failed to understand the importance of radar to the British and also failed to exploit the RAF’s greatest vulnerability – 11 Group’s vital front-line air bases. They were often attacked but then allowed to recover because the Luftwaffe never fully understood the battle rhythm of the RAF and thus failed to exploit its vulnerabilities. Luftwaffe high command also failed to understand that the true test for the RAF was not the number of fighters it could shoot down, Britain was replacing them at a faster rate, but the attrition rate of the pilots who flew them. Dowding’s main concern was the rate of loss of his 2,353 British pilots. Thankfully, Britain had a golden reserve in some 574 foreign pilots from Poland (141 pilots), New Zealand (135), Canada (112), Czechoslovakia (88). Australia (36), South Africa (25), Free French (14) US (11), Ireland 10, and some 10 pilots from what is today Zimbabwe, the Caribbean and Israel.
One of the most important consequences of the RAF’s victory was the damage it did to both the prestige of Goering and the trust Adolf Hitler had in him. The first seeds of doubt that Nazism would prevail were sown in the mind of Hitler and his Nazi cronies by the RAF’s brave pilots. As dawn broke on September 15th, 1940 Goering and his Luftwaffe commanders had confidently expected they would, indeed, inflict the final, fatal blow on what they really believed to be the RAF’s few remaining Spitfires and Hurricanes. The sight of massed RAF air power waiting to ambush the attacks rapidly disabused already cynical Luftwaffe aircrews of their commanders’ folly. As Hans Zonderlind, an air gunner on a Luftwaffe Do-17 said of September 15th, “We saw the Hurricanes coming towards us and it seemed the whole of the RAF was there. We had never seen so many British fighters coming at us at once”.
Much of this complacency was driven by Nazi ideology and the German superiority it espoused. During the Polish campaign of September 1939, and the attacks on the Low Countries and France in May and June 1940, such arrogance was reinforced by success. The RAF punctured this arrogance. Much of it was down to one aircraft, R.J. Mitchell’s superb Mark V Spitfire and its Rolls Royce Merlin engine. There is no question the Spitfire got into the heads of Luftwaffe aircrew. The aerial scourge, and in many ways signature sound of the Wehrmacht’s Blitzkrieg campaigns had been the ‘flying artillery’ that was the Juncker Ju-87 ‘Stuka’ dive bomber. However, between August 15th (Adler Tag) and August 18th the Stuka’s suffered such heavy losses to both Spitfires and Hurricanes that they had to be withdrawn from the fight. As battle fatigue set in Luftwaffe aircrew constantly reported being attacked by ‘Spitfires’, when in fact the RAF had more Hurricanes.
It is still a matter of conjecture whether or not Luftwaffe ace Adolf Galland asked Goering for a squadron (staffeln) of Spitfires. In some respects, the Me Bf-109 was a superior fighter. It could climb faster and due to its fuel-injected engine also climb higher than a Spitfire. The mix of cannon and machine guns also gave it more devastating firepower than the eight Browning 303 calibre machines guns with which both Hurricanes and Spitfires were equipped. However, the Spitfire enjoyed two critical advantages in air combat both of which were due to its two elliptical wings which could bear far more weight than the Me Bf-109. This enabled the Spitfire to dive and turn faster, as well as turn very tightly at lower speeds. And, of course, both Hurricanes and Spitfires were operating close to their own bases, whereas the Me Bf-109 was not, which negated many of its advantages as a hunter. Interestingly, by the time the last Spitfire was built in 1948 some 22,000 had been manufactured in 22 variants, including a navalised version, the Seafire. 12,129 of them were produced at the enormous Castle Bromwich Aircraft Factory near Birmingham which began production in May 1940, albeit mired in very British managerial and industrial relations challenges. Critically, preparations had been made to massively increase British military aircraft production in the event of war with the 1936 Shadow Factory Plan.
The lessons for today? First, whilst the building of modern free Europe did not begin that day, it took a great stride forward. Democracy fought back and won. Second, even if distracted by as deep an economic crisis as faced by the Baldwin and Chamberlain governments during the 1930s a democracy must never abandon a sound defence or properly prepare to mount it. Third, that equivalency of military materiel and personnel is vital. Preparedness, readiness and robustness.
In tribute to the RAF pilots of many nations who defended Britain and a free Europe on a fateful day, and the many young women who made that defence work. In respectful memory of ALL the brave young men who lost their lives on September 15th, 1940, Battle of Britain Day. As Churchill famously said on August 20th, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”.
Requiesce in Pace. Per Ardua ad Astra!
(With thanks to the Battle of Britain Historical Society)
Julian Lindley-French, September 15th, 2020