12

Britain prepares

Shortly after the Dunkirk evacuation Dowding wrote to the Air Ministry outlining his thoughts on the future of the war. He stated that there were three major threats: invasion for which daylight air superiority was essential to the Luftwaffe; concentrated night bombing which might take months or even a year to achieve decisive results; and the submarine menace.

Of these the most serious immediate threat was invasion combined with the possible destruction of Fighter Command. The German Navy was too weak even to consider opposing the Royal Navy in the Channel or on the east coast without overwhelming air support. For the Royal Navy the prospect of intervening in strength in the narrow waters of the Channel without the support of Fighter Command could only mean the loss of most of the Fleet from air attack. The whole future of Britain therefore rested on Dowding’s ability to meet the Luftwaffe, inflict heavy losses on it, and still remain an effective force if invasion should take place.

Fighter Command had to reorganise after Dunkirk. Squadrons needed rest, new crews had to be trained and new units formed. It was necessary to assure maximum production of fighters as well as the imediate repair and salvage of all damaged machines. Mobile radar units had to be ready to take the place of any permanent sites put out of action while the provision of gun defence of all key fighter and radar stations was of paramount importance. The foundations laid by Dowding, Swinton, the Air Ministry and the scientists were now to be tested to the full.

The Government looked anxiously to the United States for support and supplies, especially to its main champion, President Roosevelt. The U.S.A. was divided in its attitude. Some promised maximum aid and others adopted the isolationist point of view. The German Embassy in Washington worked night and day to fan the flames of isolationism and to build up an image of Britain as a tottering country which was hardly worth propping up.

Charles A. Lindbergh openly campaigned on the German side as he was convinced of the Luftwaffe’s overwhelming might. He founded ‘The Citizens’ Committee to keep America out of the War’. Promptly pro-British elements and, in particular, William Allen White, a newspaper editor, set up ‘The Committee to Defend Europe by Aiding the Allies’.

In June–July the British Army’s position was chaotic with a desperate lack of equipment and most units in process of reorganisation.

The Dunkirk debacle had seen the loss of over 1,000 guns (including A.A.), 850 anti-tank guns and vast quantities of anti-tank rifles.

It was not until the second half of July that the army was able to make any sense of its artillery situation. Out of some 25 infantry divisions only one had its full complement of field guns and of these only a proportion were modern 25-pounders. Another division had 70 guns while the remainder varied between a handful and nil. Medium and heavy regiments were extremely short of guns of all kinds and 2-pounder anti-tank guns were like gold-dust. To add to the problem there was a chronic shortage of towing vehicles and even of guns with pneumatic tyres.

Nationwide searches were made for weapons of all types. The Navy produced (rumour had it from under a coal heap at a Dockyard) over 100 4-inch and 12-pounder guns, while the army unearthed several hundred 6-pounder Hotchkiss guns once mounted on World War I tanks.

All types of guns were mounted for anti-invasion defence including 5.5 in., 6 in., 8 in., 9.2 in., 12 in., 13.5 in., 14 in., 15 in. and even a giant 18 in. howitzer which had its home in a tunnel near Canterbury. Strange guns from long-forgotten wars found their way to operational units.

Apart from 25-pounder, production of which rose steadily, the biggest windfall was the American sale to Britain of 900 75 mm. field guns. Some of these dated from the 1890s, others were British 18-pounders firing 75 mm. ammunition and the remainder U.S. designed weapons.

With the guns (and 1000 rounds of ammunition apiece) came all-important rifles. In batches arrived half a million 1917 P. 17 Kennington rifles firing .300 ammunition. The Home Guard took large numbers of these and they also found their way into the three services and organisations such as the Observer Corps.

The British tank situation after Dunkirk was lamentable. Six hundred tanks had been lost and to this figure was later added 617 tanks of 1st Armoured Division wrecked on the Somme. Early in June there were in Britain a total of 963 tanks many of which were obsolete and 618 were thin-armoured light vehicles. Many of these tanks were scattered across the country in training and other second-line establishments.

In Washington Roosevelt was a true friend in need. The release of guns, rifles and ammunition from U.S. reserve stores made a tremendous difference to the British army situation.

In the air, there was nothing the President could do to help Fighter Command. Vast orders had been placed by Britain with American aircraft factories and these served to rebuild the impoverished U.S. industry in time for America’s entry into the war in December 1941.

In 1940, however, it was Coastal, and Flying Training commands which began to benefit from transatlantic purchases of aircraft like the Hudson, and Harvard. For Fighter Command there was little to be done. None of the fighter aircraft in service with the United States Army Air Corps or being delivered from the factories were suitable for use against the Luftwaffe. The machines, although widely advertised, were underpowered, undergunned, and lacked armour, speed and high-altitude performance. In addition many of the types had teething troubles which took months to sort out. To have pitted such aircraft as the Brewster Buffalo, the Curtiss Hawk 75 or the Bell Airacobra against the Me 109 would have been suicidal.

New and advanced interceptors were on their way including the famous North American Mustang, which was designed and built to British requirements, but there was nothing ready to take a place in British fighter squadrons in the Battle of Britain.

The United States also suffered from a lack of high-powered engines, especially of the liquid-cooled variety, which hampered the designers from the outset. Britain desperately needed more production facilities for the Merlin engine and the patent rights were released for licensed production in America. In the summer of 1940 Henry Ford I was asked if he would build the Merlin. To his great discredit he refused, stating: ‘I want to keep America out of the war’. The British Purchasing Commission turned to the Packard Motor Co. and successfully negotiated for the mass production of the Merlin at Detroit, the plan anticipating 6,000 engines. This and other arrangements could only benefit the R.A.F. many months later. Fighter Command was thus entirely reliant on British production in 1940 and on the ability to put back into the air as many damaged machines as possible.

After the Munich crisis in August 1938 the Air Ministry foresaw the creation of a large-scale repair and salvage organisation staffed entirely with service men and women. When war broke out it became clear that uniformed manpower would not be available and that time was lacking for the creation of a new body of such size and complexity. The Air Ministry therefore requested Lord Nuffeld to set up a civilian organisation to run all repair work for the R.A.F. Nuffield was appointed Director-General of Maintenance, Air Ministry, with the managing directors of Morris Motors as Deputy Directors-General.

Morris Motors took control of what became the Civilian Repair Organization, C.R.O. They had to start completely from scratch with motor-car engineers and they created a chain of repair depots from civil airfields, training schools, civil airline bases, garages and a variety of manufacturers whose peacetime production lines now lay idle. Working parties from hundreds of contractors were established to carry out repairs at R.A.F. airfields and three Repairable Equipment Depots were set up to salvage material of all kinds.

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Many emergency conversions were made to cope with the dangers of 1940. To provide an aircraft for ground strafing beach landing areas Westland devised a tandem wing version of the ubiquitous Lysander army-co-op aircraft with provision in the rear fuselage for a four-gun Boulton Paul turret. The prototype was flown successfully but development was not proceeded with

To avoid the possibility of the headquarters of C.R.O. being knocked out by air attack it was rehoused, in May 1940, at Merton College, Oxford. When the Ministry of Aircraft Production was created in the same month C.R.O. was transferred to it from the Air Ministry and Lord Nuffield resigned as Director-General of Maintenance.

C.R.O. under the press of events and of its new energetic head, Lord Beaverbrook, began to show remarkable results. From an output in February 1940 of twenty repaired military aircraft per week, the figure by mid-July rose to 160 per week. Strenuous efforts were made to see that every usable piece of material or equipment was salvaged from wrecks by special teams. Aircraft were broken down in the open or at one of a number of special depots.

Within the C.R.O. were Civilian Repair Units such as No. 1 C.R.U. at the Morris works at Cowley, Oxford. Miracles of repair were worked in 1940. Aircraft apparently beyond repair were returned to the Battle in new condition. The C.R.U.s were more often than not built up with men who had no previous experience of aircraft work and whose only mentors were a handful of aircraft technicians. Tools were made by hand at first and spares were produced straight from unfamiliar aircraft works drawings. The combination of civil contractors and R.A.F. depots worked well.

With the possibility of heavy attacks on airfields and consequent damage to aircraft under repair a new scheme for categorising damaged machines was devised. From May 27th aircraft were divided as follows:

4 Those capable of rapid repair at the station and with station facilities.

5 Those beyond station repair but fit to be flown to an R.A.F. or civil repair depot.

6 Those unfit to be flown.

This superseded the old categories 1, 2 and 3: repairable by unit, repairable by contractor or depot and recommended for reduction and salvage. The scheme was found unworkable in France where airfields became cluttered with unserviceable machines. Repairs under category 4 were limited to those that could be carried out within thirty-six hours. Any repairs taking longer were treated as class 6 and were, removed by road. Class 5 consisted of aircraft safe to fly lightly loaded. They became known as ‘fly-in’ repairs. If an aircraft after delivery at a repair depot was found to be repairable within twenty-four hours the pilot could wait for it and fly it back. In many cases from July onwards pilots brought in machines straight from the Battle and waited while repairs were done in the ‘out-patients’ department.

Most of the Hurricanes were repaired at R.A.F. Henlow. During the intense periods that station carried out up to twenty fly-in repairs a week, while pilots waited, in addition to major repairs of twelve machines a week. The record for changing both main planes, fitting eight guns and loading with ammunition was 1 hr. 55 min. At Henlow the conversion of Browning guns from Mark II to Mark II Star was undertaken, the Mark II Star giving an increased rate of fire. On an average 300 of these guns were converted each week from May to November 1940.

The salvage organisation was also a vital factor. Eight salvage units were organised before the Battle started. All crashes were reported to headquarters of the group controlling these units and the salvage units’ engineer officer decided on the spot the category to which the aircraft were allotted. Salvage units cleared operational airfields of wrecked aircraft, and dealt with crashed German machines after they had been examined by one of the officers from air intelligence.

To assist the Civilian Repair Organisation, No. 50 Maintenance Unit was created responsible to No. 43 Group R.A.F. No. 50 conveyed crashed machines from all over the country to repair depots. Staffed almost entirely by civilians, its home was at Cowley. Control was divided between a civilian superintendent from Morris’s and an R.A.F. squadron-leader.

The contribution that C.R.O., the C.R.U.s, R.A.F. repair depots and the salvage teams made to the winning of the Battle cannot be over-emphasised. Between July and December 1940 C.R.O. put back into the line 4,196 damaged planes. Of the total number of aircraft issued to fighter squadrons during the Battle of Britain excluding the fly-in repairs, 35 per cent were repaired and only 65 per cent were new. Of those struck off the strength of the squadrons, excluding the missing aircraft, 61 per cent were repaired and 39 per cent reduced for spares.

Late in the summer British Railways and London Transport were asked to help with repairs and spares. The Great Western Railway turned out 171,000 Hurricane components while London Transport supplied some 400 men for aircraft repairs at an R.A.F. Maintenance Unit.

Without the vast ‘spider’s web’ of C.R.O. there would have been an acute shortage of Spitfires and Hurricanes in 1940. On September 26th, for instance, the Vickers Supermarine works at Woolston, Southampton, was heavily attacked and for a short time production stopped altogether. The flow of Spitfires to squadrons could only be maintained by repair while alternative production facilities round Southampton were organised. As a result of the combined efforts of the aircraft industry, C.R.O. and the R.A.F. mechanics on the airfields, between July and the end of October 1940 fighters were always immediately available to replace losses. No squadrons had to be grounded for lack of aircraft.

Contrary to popular belief, the R.A.F. was never down to its last half-dozen Spitfires and Hurricanes in reserve during the Battle of Britain. The lowest point in the Battle was reached in the week ending September 13th, when there were 127 fighters ready for delivery in storage units. Of these 80 were Hurricanes, and 47 Spitfires.

The aircraft industry made tremendous efforts during the summer of 1940 and production rates were kept up despite bombing and extreme fatigue among the workers. The average day shifts were 63.6 hours a week in July 1940, and the night shifts were even higher. Beaverbrook knew that while the threat of invasion and mass air attack existed, precedence should be given to certain R.A.F. aircraft and their equipment and to anti-aircraft defence. Accordingly, on May 31st, the Priority of Production Direction was issued which gave first priority to fighters and bombers, A.A. guns, particularly Bofors, to small arms and ammunition and to bombs. Two weeks later trainers were included on this list. Several types of aircraft under development including four-engined bombers were given low priority gradings which delayed their coming into service. Maximum concentration on the operational types then in full production was however essential. As a result production of fighters rose from 157 in January 1940, to 446 in June, and 496 in July. Output of medium bombers such as the Wellington rose from 96 in January to 239 in June and 242 in July.

One of the greatest disappointments, however, was the Castle Bromwich shadow factory for Spitfire production at Birmingham. Lord Swinton originally intended the works to be run by Vickers-Armstrongs, builders of the Spitfire. In 1938 the new Air Minister, Sir Kingsley Wood, decided instead that it should be controlled by Lord Nuffield and a contract was signed on September 16th of that year.

Continuous delays occurred in the building of the factory under government control and in its operation by Nuffields. Spitfires should have been rolling off the lines in quantity by the beginning of 1940 to meet orders for 1,500 machines. When Beaverbrook came into office in May not one aircraft had been completed.

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Soon after Dunkirk German aircraft began to appear over Britain in steadily increasing numbers. On the night of June 19th a Heinkel 111 of 4./KG4 from Merville fought a running battle with Blenheim fighters from No. 23 Squadron. The German gunners succeeded in shooting down one Blenheim and damaging another, but their Heinkel was wrecked and it is seen here in the sea at Blakeney Creek, Clay, Norfolk

The whole of Spitfire production was still centred on the very vulnerable Supermarine factory at Woolston, Southampton. This alone could not possibly meet all R.A.F. requirements. It was for this very reason that Dowding kept the Spitfire out of France and why more squadrons could not be equipped with the type during the Battle of Britain.

Beaverbrook’s reaction to the crisis was to telephone Vickers and order them to take over Castle Bromwich immediately. Six days later a belated letter was sent from the Air Ministry at Harrogate regarding the future take-over with an injunction ‘to proceed with all speed with the orders which have been allotted to the factory’.

Vickers’ reply on the 30th was amusing and indicative of the rising tempo of events with the ‘new broom’ in the Ministry: ‘In accordance with the verbal instructions received from the Minister of Aircraft Production, we took over control of the Castle Bromwich aeroplane factory from Lord Nuffield on the 20th inst., and since that date we have been actively engaged in hastening work on the orders allotted to that factory.’

The new Vickers management cleaned up the line and started to put Spitfires together from the scattered assemblies available. On June 6th the first Spitfire (a Mark II) was flown from the northern factory and by the end of the month nine more had been delivered, with a number of wing sets for fuselages waiting at Woolston.

Plans had been made for building Wellington and Halifax bombers at Castle Bromwich, but these were cancelled by Beaverbrook in favour of producing Spitfires only.

By dint of tremendous effort Vickers succeeded in turning out 125 Spitfire Us between the date of takeover and September 30th and this despite air raid damage in August.

The task of meeting the Luftwaffe devolved upon the Spitfire and Hurricane alone because they were the only suitable machines operationally available at the time. Much was expected of the twin-engined Westland Whirlwind but it had continual teething troubles and showed poor performance at height. The Bristol Beaufighter was to make a great name for itself in later years but in 1940 it was only coming off the line in penny numbers, five in July and twenty-three in August. It was also beset with minor snags.

The Boulton Paul Defiant was delivered at the rate of around a dozen a week but with its heavy rear turret and no forward armament it was completely unsuited to daylight operations where the Me 109 was involved.

Finally, there were many expedients on offer in the hour of need. These included advanced trainers with machine-guns installed in the wings and the Miles M.20, a Merlin-powered wooden single-seater. The M.20 was faster than the Hurricane. The time taken to develop the prototype from drawing-board to the first flight was only nine weeks and two days. It was intended for very rapid production using many trainer parts and eliminating hydraulics. Fortunately the R.A.F. had no shortage of Spitfires and Hurricanes and the type was never produced.

Fighter, Bomber and Coastal Commands made detailed preparations for the use of all available forces in the event of invasion and joint service discussions were held as early as May.

Apart from these efforts, Training Command (late in May becoming Flying Training and Technical Commands) on May 15th sent out operational Order No. 1 for the ‘Reinforcement of Bomber Command with Training Command aircraft in the event of an invasion of the United Kingdom’.

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When invasion first threatened at the time of Dunkirk the British Isles were almost defenceless from an army point of view. Parachute and glider landings were feared and every effort was made to obstruct potential air landing areas. Here, at Hatfield, dozens of scrap heap cars were pushed on to the airfield every night and removed in the morning so that flying could start again

Originally known as ‘ZZ’ this scheme was, on May 27th, code-named ‘Banquet’. It was intended that as many suitable training aircraft as possible, with experienced pilots should fly to Bomber Command stations and from there undertake bombing and machine gunning sorties.

Aircraft were to move in sections as part of a four-stage transfer and all aircraft in Stage I were to be despatched within four hours of receipt of the code-word ‘Banquet’. Training Command personnel were told to bring their own bedding, two days’ iron rations and ‘be prepared to rough it’.

Fourteen bomber stations were to receive a total of 169 aircraft—1 Hampden, 3 Wellingtons, 27 Blenheims, 33 Battles, 48 Ansons, 33 Audax, 12 Harts and 12 Hinds, the last three types being open cockpit biplanes. Armament consisted of fixed and free machine guns and 112 lb. or 20 lb. bombs.

In addition No. 6 (Training) Group was ordered to prepare all its aircraft (Whitleys, Hampdens, Wellingtons, Blenheims, Battles and Ansons) for operations and report its exact state to Bomber Command every 48 hours.

Finally, it was decided to use as many Tiger Moth and Magister basic training aircraft as possible to help repel invasion. In June de Havillands sorted out mid 1930 plans they had made for fitting bombs on Tiger Moths for a Middle East Government. With modifications these drawings were put out to the shops and in a very short time 1,500 conversion sets for racks with eight 20 lb. bombs had been produced.

On August 9th an order was issued by the Air Ministry for the use of light trainers as part of the Banquet scheme. Approximately 350 Tiger Moths and Magisters in 70 flights of five each were to be deployed under the code name ‘Banquet Light’.

The aircraft, manned by flying instructors, were to be under the operational control of Army Co-operation squadron commanders and they were to undertake ‘dive and level bombing against enemy troops attempting a landing’.

An extraordinary private venture conversion of June 1940 was the ‘paraslasher’. George Reid of Reid and Sigrist conceived the idea of killing parachutists by removing their means of normal descent to earth with a scythe attached to a Tiger Moth. Flight tests proved promising but the idea was not officially adopted.

The fighter production industry in 1940 relied on one engine for its Spitfires and Hurricanes, the Rolls-Royce Merlin. Any breakdown in Merlin deliveries during the Battle of Britain would have been catastrophic. The need for expansion had been foreseen in 1938 when the Rolls-Royce factory at Derby was already stretched to the limit. Rather than have Merlins built by motor manufacturers as was the case with Bristol radial aero engines, Rolls-Royce suggested the building of a shadow factory to be run by themselves. The new works was erected at Crewe. Within eleven months of starting the first Merlin was completed there, on May 20th, 1939.

A second Rolls-Royce shadow factory was put in hand in 1939, at Hillington near Glasgow. Work started in June 1939 but it was not finished until October 1940 when the Battle of Britain was almost over. The British Ford Company’s plant for Rolls engines at Trafford Park, Manchester, was also still under construction in the summer of 1940. The whole of the output of Merlins therefore devolved on Derby and Crewe. There were ninety dispersed workshops and factories around Derby which Rolls-Royce took over to ensure continued production of key items in the event of damage to the main works. Fortunately the Luftwaffe did no damage at Merlin factories during the period July to October. With an all-out effort the R.A.F. had all the power plants it needed. Rolls-Royce built up to the amazing production rate of 400 Merlins per month and held it for the vital period. A full 7-shift week put a great strain on all personnel. One worker in the Merlin assembly shop at Nightingale Road (known as the ‘Glasshouse’) recalls being finally given a half day off a month and falling asleep within 10 seconds of sitting down in a cinema.

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To meet the invasion threat plans were made for using every type of aircraft even down to Tiger Moth biplane elementary trainers. In record time de Havillands produced 1,500 conversion sets for Tiger Moths to carry eight 20 lb. bombs. Here bombs are being fitted on the racks under the rear cockpit

Between September 1939 and September 1940 the Derby and Crewe works produced no less than 2000 Merlins.

While Beaverbrook applied Blitzkrieg techniques to the problems of production bottlenecks, manpower and materials, Dowding was wrestling with a host of operational questions. High and low radar cover was being extended as fast as equipment could be built and operators trained but there were still gaps, mainly in the West Country. The same applied to the Observer Corps network. To aid in picking up aircraft taking off in the area behind Calais two of the new Gun Laying (G.L.) radars were installed on Dover cliffs. These gave five minutes’ earlier warning to No. 11 Group than the C.H. station nearby.

Calibration and maintenance of Chain Home and Chain Home Low radars presented a continual problem. While the Observer Corps established a new group centre (No. 21) at Exeter in July 1940 many of the Observer posts there were still in process of formation. Throughout the summer new radar stations, airfields, communications, Observer posts and operations rooms were being built in the north-west, the west and in Wales, while the air fighting was at its height.

No. 10 Fighter Group with headquarters at Box, near Bath, Wiltshire, was brought into operation in July. It controlled three sectors. A fourth, Middle Wallop, was transferred from No. 11 Group in August. The group, however, lacked suitable airfields for modern fighters in its western area. Especially vulnerable was Plymouth with its naval dockyard. The only expedient open to Dowding was to station No. 247 Squadron with Gladiators and six pilots at a small ex-civil airfield called Roborough. These, with the Sea Gladiators of No. 804 Squadron, Fleet Air Arm, were the only British biplane fighters to take part in the Battle of Britain.

An expanding Fighter Command and the network of factories called for greatly increased anti-aircraft defence but only about a quarter of the guns required were available for the defence of the whole island. Every effort was made to give maximum fire power to sector stations and satellites in the south, to radar and other sites. Nevertheless many more guns were needed to give really adequate protection. A number of 20 mm. cannon intended for aircraft, but not yet installed, were released for airfield defence, but were mainly ineffective due to lack of ammunition.

Balloon barrages were set up round certain aircraft factories. In some cases works and fighter airfields were fitted with the Parachute and Cable (P.A.C.) device which consisted of a steel cable and parachutes fired into the air by rockets. The cable then descended slowly attached to the parachutes. With luck the cable could seriously damage an aircraft which crossed its path.

For the fighter pilots and their aircraft there were lessons to be learned speedily, and urgent modifications to be made if losses in combat with the Me 109 were not to be severe.

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With the German Army ranged along the Channel coast, defence preparations of every kind were put in hand. Road blocks of every size and shape were erected, including steam rollers and farm carts; poles and wire hoops appeared in the fields to stop gliders; pill-boxes sprouted from roadsides and long anti-tank ditches were dug. Pictured here is a road block outside the Running Horse Inn on the Maidstone–Chatham Road in June 1940

In France and at Dunkirk the R.A.F. learned that the copybook tactics of ‘Fighting Area Attacks’ were quite useless against the loose formations of the Luftwaffe which had been trained from experience of modern warfare in Spain. Gradually the R.A.F. squadrons which had been in the line learned new tactics by sheer necessity. They also began to keep a continuous watch on their rear mirrors.

When the eight-gun fighter appeared the policy was to disperse the lines of fire so that a comparatively wide area was sprayed with bullets when the guns were fired. But air combat, notably over Dunkirk, showed conclusively that with the short time the target was in line in the gun sight dispersed fire was insufficiently concentrated. Squadrons harmonised their guns on a point 250 yards ahead, which gave them a range of concentration of about 500 yards, the bullets diverging outwards from the point of intersection. Despite the proved lethal effect of 250 yards harmonisation an armament officer from the recesses of Whitehall visited stations in August and demanded to know why the original instructions had not been adhered to. He received short shrift from the battle-weary pilots.

To combat the two main Luftwaffe fighters, the Me 109 and Me no, Fighter Command needed comparative trials with the Spitfire and the Hurricane. It was not until May, however, that the Aircraft and Armaments Experimental Establishment was able to procure an intact 109 from France where two such machines had been forced down. The initial flight trials by Messrs. Stanford Tuck and Stainforth showed that the Me 109 was as fast as the Spitfire and climbed at a higher rate, but generally the Spitfire was more manoeuvrable. One great advantage possessed by the 109 was its direct fuel injection pump in place of a carburettor. This item was standard. In the design of the Daimler Benz DB601 engine the supercharger as mounted on the side requiring a pressure carburettor underneath and between the cylinder banks. Rather than waste time on carburettor development the Germans chose to use the Bosch injector pump with which they had much experience.

The Merlin engine on the Spitfire had a normal float carburettor. In a sudden transition from level to diving flight the negative ‘G’ interrupted the fuel supply. This was a distinct handicap but modifications to overcome it were not forthcoming until some time after the Battle of Britain. In the meantime R.A.F. pilots could not dive sharply away from a pursuer and often lost their own quarry when he dived. The only solution was to turn the Spitfires or Hurricanes on their backs and dive. This was a difficult task under combat conditions. It seems extraordinary that this problem was not tackled earlier or that Rolls-Royce did not fit an injection pump in place of a carburettor.

While the Me 109 was a formidable opponent, the Me 110 was something of an unknown quantity until July 11th, 1940, when a 110 in good condition belly-landed near Wareham, Dorsetshire. The crew endeavoured to set fire to the machine but were shot at by troops from a searchlight battery and captured before doing any harm. A 60 ft. ‘Queen Mary’ vehicle was despatched from Cowley, Oxford, to collect the aircraft. While the salvage gang removed the wings and loaded the aircraft they received the unwelcome attentions of another Me 110 which circled above. Apparently it had run out of ammunition for no attack was made. With police escort the aircraft was driven to Farnborough, although a concrete tank-trap en route and part of a gateway at the destination had to be removed.

As soon as it was generally reassembled the Me 110 was inspected by Sir Archibald Sinclair and Air Ministry experts. Thorough analysis and eventual flight testing revealed that the Me 110 was to be no match for the Hurricane or the Spitfire. It was unwieldy, vulnerable and slower than the latter.

In the trials of the Me 109 one vital aspect of performance testing was omitted, general handling and speed above 20,000 feet. The R.A.F. presumed that air fighting would take place at medium and low altitudes, whereas a great part of it was to be at 25,000 feet and above. In addition, oxygen was not available for the 109 on test which limited the ceiling at which the pilot could operate.

At height the Me 109 with its VDM three-bladed constant speed propeller showed marked superiority even to the Spitfire, which had only a two-pitch propeller, the supplies of constant speed unit having been allocated to the bomber lines.

At the beginning of June all Spitfires, Hurricanes and Defiants were fitted with two-pitch propellers, but on June 9th, 1940, Flight Lieutenant McGrath, an engineer officer at Hornchurch, telephoned the de Havilland propeller division at Hatfield, Herts., to inquire whether a Spitfire could be fitted with a constant speed propeller ‘without a lot of paperwork and fuss’. Having answered in the affirmative, de Havillands sent half a dozen picked engineers and a test pilot, Mr. E. Lane-Burslem, to Hornchurch with appropriate equipment to carry out a trial conversion. This was carried out on the night of June 14th, while the Germans were rejoicing over their entry into Paris.

On June 20th Lane-Burslem reported that he had successfully test flown the plane, which was from No. 65 Squadron, and that other pilots, including the commanding officer, Squadron Leader Cooke, had tried it. The results were startling. An extra 7,000 feet was added to the service ceiling and the machine had a better manoeuvrability at height and improved take-off and landing performance. Squadron Leader Cooke was able to give only a brief demonstration in battle of his modified mount. On his second sortie in it he was killed.

Two days after the report, on June 22nd, de Havilland received verbal orders to convert all R.A.F. Merlin-powered fighters in the field with top priority.

The senior technical staff officer at Fighter Command and the company agreed that conversions would start on June 25th and that Spitfires would be done first. Work was to begin simultaneously at twelve stations with a de Havilland supervisory engineer at each. It was estimated that ten days would be required to convert a squadron and that all Spitfire modifications would be completed by July 20th.

Although there was no written contract, de Havillands immediately started to produce 500 conversion sets. These came out at the rate of twenty per day from June 24th onwards. While field conversions went on Supermarines were sent twenty sets a week so that two-thirds of the Spitfires produced rolled off the line with constant-speed propellers.

To start the programme de Havillands used a number of constant-speed units originally ordered by the French Air Force, while the de Havilland engine factory hurriedly set about producing 1,000 sets of engine pipes and quill shafts to drive the hydraulically operated constant-speed units.

As soon as the de Havilland engineer arrived at each station with his precious cargo he was given a picked team of R.A.F. N.C.O.s and fitters who watched him make the first conversion. The R.A.F. ground crew converted the second with his help and the third under supervision. Then, if all was in order, the engineer departed to repeat the sequence at the next station. Lane-Burslem followed, flight testing the first aircraft at each base.

Some Spitfire squadrons in more remote parts of Britain flew their aircraft to the south in ones and twos for conversion. Some even arrived at the Hatfield works.

Averaging fifteen to sixteen hours a day the de Havilland engineers went steadily from station to station. By August 15th 1,051 Spitfires and Hurricanes had been converted, making an average of 20.2 aircraft a day over fifty-two days. This remarkable achievement was of the utmost benefit to Fighter Command when dealing with the Me 109 at high altitude.

Transcending all material problems, however, was the shortage of fighter pilots. This, and not aircraft, could have lost the R.A.F. the Battle of Britain.

Immediately following the Battle of France, Winston Churchill, realising Dowding’s predicament, issued an instruction to the air and naval staffs to search for any trained pilots suitable for transfer to fighters.

The Admiralty, which could supply only two squadrons,* due to the obsolescence of its aircraft, rose to the occasion. On June 6th forty-five partially trained and semi-trained naval pilots, including seven ex-R.A.F.V.R. men with the Fleet Air Arm, were transferred to the R.A.F. for completion of training and conversion to eight-gun interceptors. Thirty more were found before the end of June, making a total of sixty-eight, discounting the R.A.F.V.R. crews who were absorbed into the Air Force. Ten of the naval pilots were recalled for service in the Mediterranean in July, leaving a total of fifty-eight first-class naval aircrew who fought through the Battle of Britain with great distinction and heavy loss. Eighteen of the fifty-eight were killed in the summer and autumn.

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On May 14, four days after the German continental invasion started, the mustering of the Local Defence Volunteers was announced. Alternately railed at and derided by the German radio, the L.D.V. (later in the Summer renamed the Home Guard) had vital tasks to perform including observation and reporting of enemy movements and general harassing operations. Their most important job in the summer of 1940, however, was to relieve the hard-pressed British Army of guard duties—on railways, at road blocks, on river bridges, by crashed aircraft and at a multitude of other points. A large proportion of the L.D.V. were ‘old sweats’ from World War I who had no small knowledge of the Germans and infantry fighting. On the right Reproductions from a typical L.D.V. handbook on sale in 1940 where it is made quite clear what this amateur army was intended to do.

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An identity card issued to a platoon commander in the West Sussex Local Defence Volunteers in August 1940 This particular platoon was based on a remote hamlet called Madehurst high on the Sussex downsIts volunteers included farmers, gamekeepers, woodsmen and gardeners, several of whom were first-class shotsBy September 1940 the unit’s armoury consisted of a number of American P.17 Enfield .300 rifles, various shotguns and .22 sporting rifles and one revolverGrenades were in short supply, while for anti-tank work the platoon was limited to one crate of sticky bombs home-made from champagne and wine bottles and, adorned with a strip of sandpaper and a couple of matches. When the L.D. V. was fully established, platoon commanders were commissioned as Lieutenants. On the identity card note of this subsequent appointment has been countersigned at the top by Major General E. B. Ashmore, Commander of the London Air Defence Area (L.A.D.A.) in 1918 and founder, in the mid-twenties, of the Observer Corps.

THE LAST WORD

It is suggested that the substance of this brief postscript be got by heart.

The main duties of the Home Guard are:

  1.Guarding important points.

  2.Observation and reporting—prompt and precise.

  3.Immediate attack against small, lightly armed parties of the enemy.

  4.The defence of roads, villages, factories and vital points in towns to block enemy movements.

Every L.D. V. should know:

  1.The whole of the ground in his own district.

  2.The personnel of his own detachment.

  3.The Headquarters of the detachment and where he is to report for duty in the event of an alarm.

  4.What the alarm signal is.

  5.The form of reports concerning enemy landings or approaches, what the reports should contain, and to whom they should be sent.

HOME GUARD

  6.The personnel of the civil defence services, police, wardens, A.F.S., etc., in his own district.

  7.The uniforms and badges of any units of the regular army stationed near at hand, in order to be able to spot enemy agents in disguise.

In the event of an alarm, the L.D. V. might use this check list before he leaves his home or his work. He should take with him:

  1.Full uniform, including steel helmet and warm underclothing.

  2.His arms and ammunition.

  3.His gas-mask.

  4.Rations for twenty-four hours.

  5.A filled water-bottle.

  6.Identity cards.

  7.(If a smoker) pipe and tobacco or cigarettes and matches.

  8.Two handkerchiefs.

  9.A supply of money.

10.Bicycle (or other, means of transport as ordered) in good working order, including front and rear lamps.

All these should habitually be kept handy, ready for an emergency.

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Volunteers from the Southern Railway drilling with newly delivered American P.17 rifles in August 1940. The shortage of weapons is evident from the rear rank, patiently waiting their turn

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Lord Swinton, far-sighted Secretary of State for Air in the crucial years 1935–8

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Air Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, commander of No. 12 Group in 1940 and leading offensive tactician

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Air Marshal Sir Keith Park, the brilliant defensive commander of No. 11 Group in 1940

Coastal Command transferred some of its best fighter pilots while numbers for training at O.T.U.s were swelled by picked pilots from Bomber Command. Many aircrew under training for Army co-operation were temporarily earmarked for fighters, and a small number from Army co-operation squadrons were brought into Fighter Command in August.

Most welcome additions to the fighting ranks, apart from those from the Dominions, some Belgians and 12 French pilots, came with the fall of France when Czechs and Poles began to arrive. These men did not understand the meaning of the word surrender. They escaped from their respective countries when the Germans marched in. Most joined the French Air Force, but when France too had collapsed, undaunted they cross the Channel to continue the fight.

In the Armée de l’Air they were given poor machines to fly. Their delight on finding themselves in light blue as part of a highly efficient service knew no bounds. To be given Spitfires and Hurricanes was the answer to their dreams. Their enthusiasm had to be tempered somewhat in the early stages as they were often unused to luxuries like variable pitch propellers, retractable undercarriages and H.F. radio. There was a tendency to omit details such as the cockpit check before take-off or following exuberant aerobatics to land with the wheels up. This phase soon passed and the men of the Polish and Czech air forces proved themselves deadly opponents of the Luftwaffe as the summer months went by. By the later stages of the Battle there were five Polish and one complete Czech squadrons in Fighter Command.

In all, Poland and Czechoslovakia contributed more than 200 pilots—defeated nations that never were defeated. Belgium had capitulated, but despite this Belgian pilots in twos and threes began to arrive in Britain by various means. Some came out with the British troops at Dunkirk while others came via Gibraltar, North Africa and the Congo.

In all 29 Belgian pilots fought in the Battle of Britain and many more were under training with the R.A.F. Nearly all the Belgians spoke English and their flying training had been good with the result that they fitted easily into Fighter Command squadrons.

America was a neutral country, but despite this there were several U.S. citizens who felt the cause strongly enough to leave homes and jobs to fight over England. They were the antithesis of the isolationists.

The U.S. Embassy in London did not look too kindly on its subjects’ warlike activities, but undeterred they came in ones and twos to enlist. One such American was Pilot Officer William Fiske of No. 601 Squadron who met his death on August 18th while flying from Tangmere. An amazing trio were Pilot Officers E. G. Tobin, V. C. Keough and A. B. Maimedoff, who, after trying unsuccessfully to join the French Air Force, hitchhiked to the coast in May and caught the last ship to England from St. Jean de Luz. Having sidetracked the American Embassy’s efforts to send them back across the Atlantic, the three enlisted in the R.A.F. through the good offices of a member of Parliament. ‘Shorty’ Keough almost failed his medical board because he was only 4 ft. 10 in. in height. He was, however, prepared for this and with the aid of two cushions showed that he could see over the edge of the cockpit although with only his eyes and helmet showing. All three were qualified pilots and after brief training they were posted to No. 609 Squadron at Warmwell, Dorset, where they participated in the tough summer fighting. In September 1940 the trio travelled to Drem, Scotland, with the honour of being the first three pilots of No. 71 Eagle Squadron. Within a year all were killed.

The cause of Dowding’s desperate shortage of pilots lay in the inflexible set-up of Flying Training Command. This has been outlined in chapter three. The assessments of fighter pilot requirements on the outbreak of war were too low and were largely based on intakes in peacetime. The effect of heavy losses was not fully considered. Because the training of a pilot took about one year, the crucial time for expansion in this respect was September 1939. Once the numbers were decided, the essential system of flying training schools and operational training units could not suddenly expand and produce trained air crew at short notice. In addition the training programme was handicapped by the severe winter of 1939–40.

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Outwardly this was a typical factory with an Oxford trainer outside. In fact both the factory and the aircraft were made of wood and canvas. This was the ‘Q’ or dummy site for the de Havilland factory at Hatfield, in open countryside about three miles east of the main works. There were ‘Q’ sites dotted all over the country for R.A.F. stations, factories, etc. Apart from imitation aircraft and hangars many had dummy runway lights to attract German night raiders

Dowding fired a barrage of letters on the subject of Fighter Command strength to the Air Ministry in September and October 1939. He deprecated the policy of sending Hurricane squadrons to France and reminded the Ministry that their own estimate for home defence was fifty-two squadrons, of which only thirty-four in all states of efficiency were then available.

If the squadrons for France had been written off as a separate overseas commitment with special reserves built up and Fighter Command had been expanded to fifty-two squadrons solely for the defence of the United Kingdom, it would have had the effect of raising the flow through Training Command for the future. In this case it would have been the crisis period August-October 1940.

On May 27th, 1940, Training Command was split into Flying and Technical Training Commands. Within the former there were the additional problems of having only three Operational Training Units and a poor serviceability rate of not more than 50 per cent.* The handling of some partially trained aircrew also left much to be desired, and some peacetime pilots were made to go through the whole of their primary flying syllabus again—although for no very good reason.

In July 1940 Dowding could see where the shortcomings lay but there was nothing he could do about it. Apart from scraping the barrel and cutting operational training unit courses from six to three weeks he had to fight with what he possessed and no more.

The tactics of the Battle of Britain were therefore decided before it began. At all costs the force had to be kept in being. The minimum of wastage must be incurred even if it meant some raids getting through and causing damage. As long as Fighter Command was undefeated, invasion could not take place.

In May Dowding showed the Cabinet that if the losses in France were continued Fighter Command would cease to exist by the end of July. The operational research staff at Fighter Command and, in particular, Mr. H. Larnder and Dr. E. C. Williams, from then on maintained special graphs showing current state and future trends. On one side were shown strength in aircrew and aircraft and pilot and aircraft production. This represented the ‘Input’. On the other side were the losses in aircraft and pilots which was the ‘Output’.

These graphs showed Fighter Command’s balance, the most important entries being the numbers of pilots. Throughout the Battle Dowding worked to ensure that the output did not get beyond a minimum. Whenever it was perilously close he and Park changed tactics, as occurred on August 19th when the Luftwaffe was striking at the heart of the fighter defence system and losses were rising.

Apart from the lack of pilots another factor worried Dowding continually. It was clear that pilots would be involved in combat over the sea and that they might be shot down into it. The whole question of air-sea rescue had been sadly neglected.

In August 1936 the first experimental R.A.F. highspeed rescue launch was completed and a further fifteen ordered. Before the war emphasis on the provision of dinghies and other life-saving equipment favoured Bomber and Coastal commands.

On February 28th, 1939, six months before the outbreak of war, the Assistant Chief of Air Staff, Air Vice-Marshal Sholto Douglas (later Marshal of the Royal Air Force Lord Douglas), presided over a conference which decided to place air-sea rescue under Coastal Command and acquire a further thirteen launches. The operation of rescue services in wartime was not discussed.

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Thus when the Battle of Britain began in July only a skeleton rescue organisation existed with completely inadequate facilities. Fighter pilots did not have dinghies. Many were to lose their lives through drowning in the Channel and the North Sea before an expansion programme was put in hand in December 1940.

At the back of his mind Dowding kept one card in reserve about which he said little. If the losses went over the danger line and stayed there and if invasion was imminent he determined to withdraw his forces north and re-group. Much suffering and damage would undoubtedly have been caused in south England during the course of a few days by the unopposed formations of the Luftwaffe. When, however, the invasion forces struck, Fighter Command would have returned with all its force and air superiority might have been regained although at high cost to both sides. The circumstances did not arise.

As July 1940 opened, Fighter Command and the country as a whole entered on a battle for which there was no precedent in the annals of warfare. The fate of a nation and its Empire depended entirely on the outcome of a strategic conflict in the sky, with the Armies and Navies as onlookers. All the years of planning and preparation were now to be put to the test.

* No. 804 Squadron (Sea Gladiators) and No. 808 Squadron (Fulmars) which for some time were under the operational control of No. 13 Group R.A.F.

* Memorandum by Winston Churchill to Secretary of State for Air, December 14th, 1940

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