Text: Serge Van Heertum - Pictures: Serge Van
Heertum, Marc Arys & Royal Air Force archives - Translations: Marc Arys
Speech: Sir Winston Churchill Prime Minister - Music: Sir William Walton (Battle of Britain March)
© sbap 2015
|75 years ago a fierce battle was fought which challenged the Luftwaffe of Field Marshal Göring and radically changed the course of this war, the Battle of Britain. It is evident that for the British people such an exploit can not be forgotten and needs to be commemorated with dignity, remembering those who fought and sometimes gave their live for the freedom of the United Kingdom and the world. September 2015 saw numerous commemorations as it was on September 15, when 44 Spitfires, 10 Hurricanes and 1 Bristol Blenheim were gathered at RAF Westhampnett, starting point of various commemorative flight passes. On September 19 and 20, the Imperial War Museum organised the Battle of Britain airshow at Duxford, an event which could not be missed. Sunday's airshow was honoured by a Royal visitor, Prince Edward, Duke of Kent. Before the start of the airshow on Sunday as well, 6 fighters of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (BBMF) took off bound for London to make a flight pass overhead Westminster Abbey, where a commemoration mass was held in presence of Prince Charles and the last survivors of the Battle of Britain. Once back at Duxford, the airshow would begin to the greatest delight of the 18.000 visitors on site each day. A hefty silence on the airfield, tension could be felt then suddenly the alarm goes off… An airfield attack by Luftwaffe fighters… The scramble bell clincked… Scramble Scramble Scramble… pilots rushes to their airplanes… Already taxying… Take offs and very rapidly the battle pounds into the airfield zone.||
This was the first scenario made up by the organisers to commemorate
this historical event. Followed by various demonstrations including a
fly-by of two F-15E from Lakenheath in formation with two Spitfires
remembering the commitment of the American pilots within the Eagle
Squadron and a specially decorated RAF Typhoon together with a Spitfire
of the BBMF. Noteworthy was the flight of a foursome of trainer aircraft
(a Boeing PT-17 Stearmann, a Bücker Bü 131, a SV-4c and a De Havilland
DH-82A Tiger Moth), T-6 Harvard and the unescapable B-17G "Sally
B", the Bristol Blenheim in flight with three Hurricanes, the
aerobatic team "Aerostar", the Boeing Chinook HC4 of tghe 27
Squadron of Odinham, a strange Autogiro Europe Calindus, the De
Havilland DH-87B Hornet Moth, the Gloster Gladiator, Curtiss Hawks 75, a
P-40F Warhawk and the Hawker Demon duo.
organisers also came up with a superb finale by putting 17 Spitfire and
Seafire of various kinds in the air. A multitude of mythical fighters
taking off just in front of us… A magnificent sight… Awaiting the
aircraft getting into the formation, a Hurricane flew a solo-display in
ideal lighting circumstances. 17 Spitfires on approach… Several passes
overhead the airfield… Simply fantastic, unbelievable… Goose bumbs
for sure !
We owe them our freedom, let us preserve it, it is irreplaceable !
The SBAP-team whishes the thank cheerfully the organisers and in particular Mss Esther Blaine, Public Relations Manager of the Imperial War Museum, and her staff for their warm welcome and facilities granted during our stay.
|The 2015 commemorating coins|
|The Royal visit at Duxford of Prince Edward, Duke of Kent (Serge Van Heertum)|
|The last Battle of Britain veteran at Westminster Abbey for the 75 years commemorations (Courtesy Royal Air Force)|
In May 1940, after 9 months of "phoney war", Germany attacked the Netherlands, Belgium and France. From May 20th the situation of the French Army became catastrophic : the Germans reached the Channel, cutting the French Army in two parts. The British expeditionary corps in France managed to escape a great deal of this devastation during the "battle of Dunkirk" (end of May - beginning of June) following a first strategic error by Hitler. After five weeks of combat in retreat of the French Army, Marchal Pétain, chairman, of the Council since June 16th, signed the cease-fire with Germany on June 22th, leaving the United Kingdom to battle on its own supported by some exiled governments. The United Kingdom, recently led by Winston Churchill, refused to follow France, forcing Hitler into an attempt to invade England. As a landing seemed to be impossible from the summer of 1940 on, Hitler launched one of the biggest aerial operations in History. One has to know that during the "Battle of Britain" the determination to invade England not always present was in Hitler's mind. It appeared that Herman Göring proponent was to this strategy. The German Navy as well as the German Army was puzzled and even within the Luftwaffe did the optimism of Göring regarding the chances to destroy the Royal Air Force (condition sine qua non for the succes of the invasion) encounter some disbelief. The Aviation General Felmy had precedently estimated that it was impossible to bring such a venture to a good end.
Globally we can find three phases within the Battle of Britain :
- the bombing of British convoy in the Channel (beginning of July till beginning of August 1940), called the "Kanalkampf" by the Germans
- the attempt to destroy the RAF (beginning of August till October, 1940)
- the bombing of London and other major cities known as the "Blitz" (Lightning) till the Spring of 1941
During the first
phase, the German air force attacked British supplying convoys trying to
isolate the United Kingdom and to force the RAF into combat. After a
month of inefficient bombing (only 1% of tonnage under British flag sunk)
the German Staff Headquarters decided to attack directly the RAF on the
ground and ordered the attack on British military airfields and on the
factories of the aeronautical industry. Due to bad weather the operation
"Adlertag" (Day of the Eagle) was postponed for one day and
started effectively on August 13th, 1940.
"Soon the red lights showed that the majority of our squadrons were engaged into the battle… Within a short period of time all our squadrons were in operation and some were already returning to refuel. All were airborne. The lowest part of the lights were completely out. We did not have any spare squadron left. At that time, Park called Dowding at Stanmore to ask him to give him three squadron of the 12th Fighter Group in case that another massive attack would occur when the squadrons were refueling and re-arming. So it was done. Till there I observed silently, but than I asked "Which other spares have we left ?" - "None" answered Air Vice-Marchal Park" - Winston Chruchill, Memoirs of the Second World War.
At that time more than 370 British aircraft defended London. At the end of the day the British lost 40 aircraft, the Germans 56. This result explains why September 15 stayed in the memories as the "Battle of Britain Day". This second phase of the battle ended during the month October.
The operation to conquer Great-Britain, called "Seelöwe" was postponed sine die and the German effort against the United Kingdom dwindled little by little. Bombing of British cities continued, although to a lower intensity, untill Spring of 1941 when Hitler decided the gather the major part of the Luftwaffe to the East in anticipation of the invasion of the Soviet Union. However, some major bombardments took place on British cities, at the beginning of November on the cities of Coventry, Birmingham and Wolverhampton. German bomber aircraft inflicted London the biggest damages the British capital city had known since the great fire of 1666.
But the Battle of Britain was won by the British and radically changed the course of the Second World War.
The Royal Air Force and the Luftwaffe :
On the British side, the Battle of Britain relied almost exclusively on two type of fighters : the Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire. Both powerd by the same Rolls Royce Merlin engine and an identical armament - eight Browning 7,7mm machine guns. Solid and sturdy, the Hurricane was a better weapon platform but slower and less modern than the Spitfire. The Hurricane as well as the Spitfire was easier to handle than the German Messerschmitt Bf 109. Due to their properties, the less powerfull Hurricanes were in the first place assigned to the destrtuction of bombers whereas the Spitfires mainly dealt with the German fighters.
On the German side the main fighter aircraft was the Me 109 E "Emil", equipped with a straigth injection Daimler Benz engine which did not encounter power cuts during violent manœuvres to the contrary of the British carburettor operated Rolls Royce Merlin. Another difference existed in the armament of two 20mm canons and two 7,92mm machine guns, but these assets were counterpoised by the handling qualities and lack of range which curbed the German pilots and left them less efficient. The heavy twin engine Me 110 fighter had a greater range, but despite its heavier armament, two canons and four machine guns in the nose, its was outranged by the more agile British fighters.
Three types of twin engined bombers : the Heinkel He 111, the Junkers Ju 88 and the Dornier Do 17 of which the first two were quite modern, were in use with the Luftwaffe. They lacked however defensive armament. Finally, the dive-bomber Ju 87 Stuka, although quite efficient against terrestrial targets, was highly vulnerable due to its sluggishness and lack of defensive armament.
At the beginning of the Battle of Britain, about 600 Hurricane and Spitfires were confronted to 2.500 German aircraft and particularly to 1.200 Me 109 and Me 110. Subsequently, the losses of the Luftwaffe and the increase in the capacity of British manufacturing steadily improved the ratio in favour of the British, together with the progressive reversal of the human factor in favour of the British and allied pilots which in the end led to the German defeat.
The Italian intervention :
Mussolini declared war to France and England on June 10, 1940. The next day bombers from the Royal Air Force attacked Milan and Torino. The war started badly for the Italians : on June 14 aircraft and battle ships from the French Navy bombed Genoa, Vado Ligure and Savona during operation "Vado". The French Air Force in Northern Africa nagged the naval bases in Sicily and Sardinia. Moreover, the French infantry, fighting on a ratio of 1 to 5, won the battle in the Alps stopping the Italian offensive. Consequently Mussolini needed to polish up his blazon and offered his help the Luftwaffe in the battle for England. But the Germans had no intentions to share the victory with the Italians so delayed the negocations. The Italian aid was not accepted untill September when the battle was already lost. The Italian corps of 200 aircraft, including only 80 BR20 "Cigogna" bombers, was sent to occupied Belgium to be based over there in order to attack the United Kingdom. Due to multiple coordination problems with the Germans the Corpo Aereo Italiano was only able to launch its first operation on October 24th, 1940. Sadly they were equipped with dated aircraft such as the Fiat CR42 or the BR20 "Cigogna", less efficient than the Hurricanes and Spitfires, highly manoeuvrable and fast. The attacks from the Regia Aeronautica against the English coastal villages were deadly in view of the civilian casualties but finally not very effective.
On November 11th, 1940, the Italians threw 10 bombers and 42 fighter aircraft into the battle… The British only lost two aircraft against 15 for the Italians. This battle was nicknamed the "Spaghetti Party" by the British having found supplies and bottles of wine in the downed Italian airplanes as if the forces of the "Duce" were off for a picnic. From then on, the Italian focused on nightly attacks backing out progressively from the battle at the end of 1940 - beginning of 1941. This Italian intervention did not allow the Luftwaffe to be saved, but uncovered serious discrepancies between the partners of the Axe : the Italians feeling (evidence based) they had been used as a "stop-gap" solution ; the Germans understanding that their ally had not the resources nor the willingness to provide an effective support.
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