September was the decisive month of the Battle of Britain. The Luftwaffe had been given five weeks, from 8 August to 15 September, to achieve air superiority by destroying Fighter Command in the air and on the ground so that Operation Sealion, the invasion of Britain, could go ahead. Here is how the Battle unfolded in 1940.
1 to 6 September
Eighty years ago, the Luftwaffe was continuing its assault on Fighter Command airfields. Having been pounded since 8 August, Fighter Command was battered, its pilots suffering from fatigue and strain and new pilots flying into a lethal environment where inexperience equalled death. All 11 Group airfields and the command and control infrastructure had suffered.
Following a high-level meeting of Luftwaffe chiefs on 3 September the target was changed to Loge, the German codeword for London. Göring’s decision for this radical change in tactics was driven more by impatience than rational calculation. German intelligence had underestimated the strength of Fighter Command and chose to regard each robust response as its last gasps.
On this day in 1940, the Luftwaffe’s focus switched to London and attacks on fighter airfields eased. Göring viewed the assault with his entourage at Cap Gris Nez. In the late afternoon, an air armada of 1,000 Luftwaffe aircraft was building over the French coast and it soon became clear that East London was the target. By 5pm, Fighter Command forces were arriving over London. By 5.45pm the Luftwaffe turned south and the ‘all clear’ was sounded in London. The East End and the Thames docklands were in flames. Guided by the flames, Luftflotte 3 continued to pound London throughout the night, stirring up more fires. Fighter Command flew 820 sorties and inflicted 38 losses on the Luftwaffe, losing 28 aircraft and 19 pilots in return.
Back in 1940, yesterday’s maximum effort forced the Luftwaffe to pause before it could attack again. Meanwhile the morale of Londoners held up. In response to sporadic attacks on London and the south east during the day, Fighter Command flew 305 sorties, losing one pilot and two aircraft. Luftflotte 3 continued to pound London throughout the night.
Luftwaffe attacks did not develop until the afternoon on this day 80 years ago. 11 Group had anticipated attacks on London, the Thames estuary and Brooklands aircraft factory and had ensured nine squadrons were in position, while squadrons from 10 and 12 Group were deployed to defend targets north and west of London. The fighter interceptions were so successful that most Luftwaffe formations were broken up before they reached their targets. Twenty-eight German aircraft were destroyed for the loss 19 RAF fighters and 13 pilots. Night raids on London continued.
The defence that had been put up by Fighter Command on 9 September 1940 showed the RAF was undefeated, forcing Hitler to delay the invasion warning order from 11 to 14 September, together with the planned start of the invasion, Operation Sealion, on 24 September. He hoped that the day and night offensive on London would force the British to sue for peace and prevent the need for a hazardous landing operation. Widespread Luftwaffe attacks were met by 678 sorties by Fighter Command, which lost 29 aircraft and 17 pilots compared with 25 losses by the Luftwaffe. The balance sheet was not in Fighter Command’s favour.
The weather in 1940 precluded large scale raids today. Fighter Command flew 247 stories with no losses while the Luftwaffe lost four aircraft.
After another relatively quiet day under cloudy and unsettled skies, the night Blitz on London was stepped up to encourage Britain to ask for peace, although the destruction of Fighter Command remained key to the invasion going ahead.
Hitler met his senior military commanders in Berlin on this day in 1940, the day he had hoped to issue the warning order for Sea Lion. Accepting that daylight superiority had not been achieved, the decision was delayed to 17 September. Bad weather was blamed for slow progress by the Luftwaffe and Hitler was told all that was needed was five days’ good flying weather. With the RAF losing 14 fighters to the Luftwaffe’s seven today, the Germans felt Fighter Command’s defences were scrappy and disorganised. The message passed up the line that Fighter Command was close to defeat.
15 September Battle of Britain Day
Today in 1940, Göring gave the green light for two of the biggest raids ever, aimed at finally annihilating the RAF after German intelligence reported that Fighter Command had no Hurricane squadrons left and a few Spitfire squadrons. The first wave of some 250 aircraft crossed the English coast at 11.30am heading for London. Ten squadrons were scrambled by 11 Group and, for the first time, Douglas Bader’s big Duxford wing joined the fray over London. By 12.30pm the first Luftwaffe wave returned home, having suffered a severe mauling over London and being chased all the way back to the Channel without their fighter escort. Shortly after 2pm around 500 fighters and bombers of the Luftwaffe’s second wave approached London. Squadrons from 10, 11, 12 and 13 Groups were scrambled. In the 11 Group operations room that afternoon, Winston Churchill asked Sir Keith Park: “How many reserves have you?”, to be told: “None”. At one stage all his squadrons were airborne. Once again, the German bombers were severely mauled. So ended what was to become Battle of Britain Day.
Next morning the British press claimed 187 German aircraft were destroyed. The effect on British morale was immense, although the real figure was 67 for the loss of 27 RAF aircraft. What was more critical was the Luftwaffe had already suffered heavy losses over the previous two months. Besides the 67, numerous aircraft limped back home to France with dead gunners, burned engines and broken undercarriages. The adverse effect on morale of crews that had been told by their intelligence that the RAF was defeated was significant. The effect of that day’s battle showed Hitler that the Luftwaffe had lost the battle for air supremacy.
On this day in 1940, the adverse weather report for the coming week and the continued strength of Fighter Command led Hitler to issue a directive to postpone Operation Sealion until further notice. The Luftwaffe had failed to achieve air superiority and the Battle of Britain was won and nearing its end.