Battle of Britain Day

15 September 2013

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Although Fighter Command would not realise it at the time, 15th September 1940 would later be identified by historians as the day on which they effectively won the Battle of Britain. Hitler had identified the date as the Luftwaffe’s last opportunity to gain air superiority in order to make an invasion viable. Intent on not letting his Führer down, Hermann Göring, the Luftwaffe’s Commander-in-Chief, ordered two huge raids against the south-east of England. They would not go according to plan.

The first raid of the day began around 11.00, when the RAF’s radar system picked up the first formations of incoming enemy aircraft. As the plots became more and more numerous on Fighter Command’s various operations room map tables, the Prime Minister Winston Churchill arrived unannounced at No.11 Group’s operations room at Uxbridge. Over the following hour he would witness the plotting of several engagements. 17 of No.11 Group’s Spitfire and Hurricane squadrons harried the enemy bombers as they crossed the coast and headed for London. Then, once over the capital city, the Luftwaffe aircraft were attacked again, this time by No.12 Group’s “Big Wing”. Neither were able to stop bombs from falling on London, one of which even caused damage to the Queen’s private apartments in Buckingham Palace.Holmes and Ground Crew

One pilot in particular had an eventful morning on 15th September 1940. Sergeant Ray Holmes of No.504 squadron was scrambled with colleagues not long after 11.00, and intercepted a formation of Dornier 17 bombers over Fulham. Sgt Holmes shot down one of the bombers, then turned to attack another before realising that his machines guns were out of ammunition. Determined to bring the enemy plane down, Sgt Holmes rammed it, using his wing to detach the bomber’s tail. It crashed outside Victoria station, but Sgt Holmes’ Hurricane lost its wing too and he was forced to bail out, landing on a roof in Chelsea before slipping over the edge and into a bin. He was only saved from serious injury when his parachute caught on a drain pipe!

The second raid of the day began around 13.00 and was in full swing by 14.00. Three waves of enemy bombers were intercepted as they approached London, one of which was scattered by a single head-on attack by RAF Northolt’s

Vincent

Station Commander, Group Captain Stanley Vincent. Vincent had set up the RAF Northolt Station Defence Flight during the Battle, borrowing six Hurricanes from No.1 (Canadian) Sqn to defend his airfield. On the afternoon of 15th September he had scrambled alone when the call came from No.11 Group’s headquarters, and managed to shoot down two enemy aircraft and scatter the rest of the formation in the process. Vincent became the founding member of a very exclusive club that afternoon; he is the only man to have shot down enemy aircraft in both the First and Second World Wars.

Again, by the time the enemy bombers had reached London their numbers had already been depleted by the attentions of No.11 Group’s squadrons. But again they would be intercepted once more by No.12 Group’s Big Wing. The Luftwaffe’s aircrews had been told constantly by their commanders that Fighter Command was almost defeated and that their aircraft numbers were dwindling. On 15th September, the two appearances of the Big Wing were enough to convince many of the German aircrews otherwise, especially as they had already faced fierce opposition from No.11 Group. Many of them returned to base to tell their colleagues that contrary to previous reports, Fighter Command was alive and well.

The Luftwaffe lost 56 aircraft on 15th September 1940; Fighter Command lost 26. But it was the damage done to morale that was most costly for the Luftwaffe. Bomber crews returned to their bases to complain bitterly about having been misled by their commanders and the complaints were loud enough to reach the Führer. Convinced that the Luftwaffe had failed to gain the air superiority required for an invasion, Hitler abandoned his plans. Hermann Göring would not be so easily perturbed however, and he ordered attacks against London and other cities to continue. But the Battle of Britain effectively ceased to be a contest. The last daylight raid against the United Kingdom by the Luftwaffe occurred on 31st October 1940; from then on the conflict would not be known as the Battle of Britain, but as the Blitz.

Editor: Daniel Stirland
Images: Flt Lt Stanford Tuck (second from left) and colleagues
Middle: Sgt Ray Holmes and Ground Crew
Lower: Group Captain Stanley Vincent

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