Battle of Britain - The Hardest Day

PUBLISHED: 16:21 19 July 2010 | UPDATED: 17:33 20 February 2013

Battle of Britain -  The Hardest Day

Battle of Britain - The Hardest Day

It was the greatest aerial battle ever, as 'The Few' battled a numerically superior enemy in the skies above Kent. We look back at one day in August that became known as the Battle of Britain

Battle of Britain - The Hardest Day

It was the greatest aerial battle ever, as a band of airmen known as The Few together with their groundcrews battled a numerically superior enemy in the skies above Kent. As we commemorate the 70th anniversary of this period in our history, we recall just one day in August that became known as the Battle of Britain: The Hardest Day

During a speech in the House of Commons on 18 June 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill made the famous announcement: What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. I expect the Battle of Britain is about to begin. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us.

It was a grim situation for Great Britain. In April, Denmark and Norway had been overrun by Germany. In May, Holland and Belgium had been invaded and conquered and our own British Expeditionary Force sent to aid France had only succeeded avoiding capture or destruction by the miracle rescue of Dunkirk. This was the position when the Battle of Britain began.

After Dunkirk, the enemy took to attacking Channel convoys. From their newly acquired bases in Belgium and France it was all too easy to take off from a coastal airfield, attack a convoy and return to base. They did not, however, have it all their own way as Fighter Command got into its war footing and from airfields in the south east they were scrambled to attack these enemy formations.

With a huge dogfight developing over Kent, the two squadrons battled until every enemy aircraft was forced to turn away and return across the Channel

With the Battle of Britain deemed to have fully started on 10 July 1940, the attacks on convoys were slowly replaced by attacks on RAF airfields in Kent, Sussex and Hampshire. From July until 1 August, Fighter Command were in daily contact with the enemy, but it was as dawn broke on Sunday 18 August that the RAF and Biggin Hill in particular came near to losing the fight.

Dawn saw it fine with a ridge of high pressure over the UK heralding another hot summers day. After the intense fighting of the previous days, the groundcrews on all the Kent airfields had worked long into the night preparing the Hurricanes and Spitfires for the next day.

Similar scenes were taking place across the Channel, where the German groundcrews were bombing and arming the aircraft that once again would carry the fight back to the Kent radar stations and airfields. The morning was to prove quiet and at most of the airfields the fighter pilots sat around in the sunshine outside their dispersal huts either reading, sleeping or playing football.

In the Chain Home and Chain Home Low radar stations along the coast in Kent and Sussex, the early morning shift were at their consoles watching for the all-important and obvious blips to appear on the Cathode Ray tube. Any blip would indicate a hostile enemy aircraft build-up, notice of which would be relayed directly to the No. 11 Group headquarters at Uxbridge.

This operations room was housed in an underground bunker and was home to the fighter controllers and plotters. In the centre of the room a large table would be marked out as a map showing the south east corner of the country. Various grid markings indicating distances, etc and counters with squadron numbers and enemy formations would be at different positions around the table.

As reports came in from the radar stations the controllers would direct the squadrons to attack; this was marked by moving the counters around the table to be representative of the state of the battle. On the morning of 18 August, nothing would move until midday.

Across the Channel, Air Fleet 2 was ready to commence the first attacks of the day. On their list of targets that morning was the controlling airfield of Biggin Hill together with the satellite airfield of Gravesend and the forward airfield at Hawkinge, near Folkestone.

Sixty Heinkel IIIs were detailed to attack Biggin Hill with 48 Dornier 17s and Heinkel IIIs detailed to attack the sector airfield of Kenley in Surrey. Although the first enemy bomber force had taken off from their base at Amien shortly around 9am, the deteriorating weather in France forced a recall and it was not until 12.40pm that it had cleared sufficiently to allow the armada to cross the Channel.

As they did so the radar operators on the coast at Fairlight near Hastings and at Rye reported that 350 aircraft were crossing the French Coast. In Kent, the sirens began to wail just as people were leaving church.

At Biggin Hill the two resident squadrons, No. 32 with Hurricanes and 610 (County of Chester) Auxiliary Squadron with Spitfires, were scrambled to meet the incoming enemy formation. On the ground the order went out tin hats everybody, please. It was none too soon, as bombs began to fall on the airfield. Stick after stick rained down with the resultant explosions and overwhelming damage.

In the trenches and shelters, non-essential personnel could only listen in terror as the ground above was torn apart. In the air both squadrons battled valiantly to fight off the attack and 32 Squadron met the formation over Sevenoaks and broke it up, scoring several victories in the process.

Though outnumbered five to one by Dorniers, Junkers and Messerschmitts, the Hurricanes feared nothing. While they took on the bombers, 610 Squadron with Spitfires took on the escorting fighters. Climbing fast to 31,000 ft where the enemy fighters were waiting, the squadron downed five in as many minutes before the others turned and fled back to France. The Spitfires dropped altitude to come and assist the Hurricanes of 32 Squadron.

With a huge dogfight developing over Kent, the two squadrons battled until every enemy aircraft, now low on fuel, was forced to turn away and return across the Channel. In what seemed hours was only about 10 minutes with many of the enemy deemed not to return home. Of the two Biggin Hill squadrons, just two aircraft were damaged with the pilots safe.

Back on the ground, during the intense bombing one Dornier had ventured low over the airfield and, mortally wounded, crashlanded close to the perimeter. Reputed to have been shot down by the local Home Guard unit, the actual damage was done by a 610 Squadron Spitfire attacking it, although the men on the ground did receive recognition for their part in firing their rifles at the enemy.

Biggin Hill was a mess. Large craters littered the landing area and fierce fires were still burning. Similar had happened to Kenley, just a few miles away. The returning fighters had difficulty in missing the holes, but once they were back in their dispersals, the groundcrews swarmed over them to refuel and re-arm them before the next scramble.

Then came the process of administering aid to the injured. Although two personnel died in the raid, it might have been far worse. Those who were injured were either treated in the station sick quarters or taken to the local hospital according to their injuries. For many those were severe.

In among the chaos, however, were moments of courage. Waaf Sgt Joan Mortimer was on duty in the armoury, the worst place to be in a raid. Although a hit by a bomb would have been catastrophic and undoubtedly killed her, she remained at her post to relay messages to the airfield defence posts. Her courage was recognised by the award of the Military Medal, the first of three that would be awarded to Waafs at Biggin Hill.

For the squadrons, there was no rest. Early that evening a strong enemy force headed once again for the airfields of Kent. 32 Squadron was scrambled to intercept them. Meeting them off Herne Bay, they managed to shoot down five. By sunset Biggin Hill was littered with flags marking unexploded bombs.

It was the same on many of the fighter airfields in the south and south east. As a third major attack developed when an enemy formation approached the Thames Estuary, this time it was Manston and Croydon that were to suffer similar consequences to what had taken place at Biggin Hill.

By nightfall on this decisive day, Fighter Command had flown 766 sorties and together with aircraft shot down by the ack-ack guns, could claim 71 enemy aircraft shot down for a loss of 27 British fighters with 10 pilots sadly killed.

So ended a week-long effort to destroy Fighter Command and its airfields which culminated in the final attempt on 18 August 1940. The rest of August, September and October were to see further attacks on the Kent airfields, until bad weather and the onset of winter forced the German High Command to change tactics and begin the night bombing of cities and towns. The Blitz proper had begun.

Winston Churchill was the first to recognise what the pilots of Fighter Command had achieved when he gave his famous speech in the House of Commons on 20 August 1940: Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few As we commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain this year, let us commit ourselves to never forget that epic battle.

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