The Day the War came to Tyneside

We’re now approaching the 70th anniversary of August 15th 1940, the day that most historians regard as the start of the Battle of Britain. There had been a great deal of aerial combat, especially over the English Channel, in the weeks following the fall of France and the evacuation from Dunkirk in 1940, but August 15th was the day when the German Luftwaffe initiated a series massive daytime raids aimed at knocking out Britain’s air defences. Over the following weeks they nearly succeeded. It was only an erroneous change of tactics by the Luftwaffe, away from targetting the airfields and towards the terror bombing of cities, that gave the Royal Air Force time to recover from the punishment it had been taking. Eventually, by late September 1940, the threat of invasion, which at one point appeared imminent, had finally subsided.

I’m sure there will be many commemorations of the Battle of Britain over the next week or so, in which tributes will be paid to the few of The Few that survive to this day and, of course, those that gave their lives in the momentous struggle which happened all those years ago. There will be much talk of famous places such as Kenley, Northolt and Biggin Hill,  key sector airfields for 11 Group, responsible for defending London and the South East, which were under massive attack on August 15th and over the following days and weeks.

But it wasn’t just the South-East that was attacked on August 15th 1940. An enormous incoming raid from the North of France was met by Spitfires and Hurricanes of 10 Group and a terrifying dogfight involving about 200 aircraft brewed up over Portland. Further North, 12 Group’s defences were probed by bombers flying from Denmark intent on destroying airfields in Yorkshire.

And then there was 13 Group, which was charged with the task of defending Scotland and the North-East of England. The map below (courtesy of the RAF website) shows the location of their principal airfields and radar installations in 1940. The Operations HQ for 13 Group, RAF Newcastle,  was in Kenton, not far from the location of what is now Newcastle Airport. In fact I cycled past the place countless times when I used to work at Cramlington without knowing what it was. Then it was opened to the public for a time and all the maps, charts and telephones were still there. I felt a distinct shudder when I saw it.

I’ve always been fascinated by history. I read a lot of books about it and in Britain you’re never very far from the site of some historical event, perhaps a castle or the site of a bloody battle. Whenever I travel I also try to visit places of historical interest. Reading is fine, but there’s no subsitute for being there and seeing it for yourself.

It’s quite a different matter when history comes after you rather than you going to find it. The idea that such a familiar place (to me) as Kenton could have been so central to the epic struggle that was the Battle of Britain brings it home that the things we take for granted haven’t always been so secure. When I was a kid growing up in Newcastle, Biggin Hill seemed to me as distant as Dunkirk or El Alamein, but the idea of German planes flying over such places as the Farne Islands and Tynemouth is something that still gives me the shivers. I’m sure the people of Iraq felt the same way about the American and British planes that bombed their country during the two Gulf Wars…

I’ve therefore decided to post the following short account of some of what happened on August 15th 1940 in my own neck of the woods, partly because of what I said in the previous paragraph and partly because the numerical facts are are pretty representative of the situation all around the country on that day seventy years ago. I got the details from a book called The Narrow Margin by Derek Wood and Derek Dempster, and you can find a more complete report here where there is a full account of every day’s action during the Battle of Britain.

For a start it appears that the Luftwaffe thought that most of Britain’s fighter defences were committed to the South. They were probably aware of the effectiveness of the long-range Radio Direction Finding (RDF, now known as radar) network known as Chain Home, but disregarded it because they thought there would not be many planes around to intercept them even if they were detected. The raid over Tyneside was despatched from Stavanger in Norway and flew in a roughly south-westerly direction across the North Sea.

At 12.08, RDF trackers began to plot the path of a formation of “twenty plus” incoming aircraft opposite the Firth of Forth at a range of over 90 miles. As the raid drew closer, the estimated number was revised up to thirty, in three sections, approaching from the North-East and heading SW towards Tynemouth.

The radar operators of 13 Group hadn’t had as much practice as their colleagues further south in 11 Group, which probably accounts for the difficulty they had in estimating the number of incoming planes. Nevertheless, with a full hour’s warning, the controller was able to put squadrons in excellent positions to attack, with 72 Squadron Spitfires in the path of the enemy off the Farne Islands and 605 Squadron over Tyneside. Nos 79 and 607 were also put up, but while the latter was in the path of the raid, No. 79 was initially too far north.

No. 72 Squadron from Acklington was the first to make contact, seaward of the Farne Islands. Closing rapidly with the incoming aircraft, it came as a distinct shock when the “thirty” materialised as sixty-five Heinkel 111s and thirty-four Messerschmidt-110s (or ME110s for short), i.e. almost a hundred aircraft. The RAF squadron facing them comprised a mere 11 Spitfires.

When I first read the numbers involved I could hardly believe them. Imagine being outnumbered almost ten to one, but knowing that you had no choice but to attack. Reading through the RAF daily reports makes it clear that these odds were by no means unusual. Time and time again during August 1940, a squadron or half a squadron would be scrambled to meet inbound formations of 100-plus aircraft. Although the RAF pilots were both brave and skillful, facing such an overwhelming weight of numbers against them it was inevitable that the attrition rate would be high. It was the steady loss of pilots, rather than planes shot down, that almost brought the RAF to its knees.

The only chance of an effective defence a small group of fighters could offer was to scatter the massed formation by attacking from the front, trying to disrupt them so much that they would not find their targets inland. That was the plan anyway; it didn’t always work. In the absence of a Squadron-Leader, 72 Squadron was led by Flight-Lieutenant Edward Graham, who, as it turned out that day, led one of the most spectacularly successful air combats of the War.

Thirty miles off the coast, the squadron sighted the enemy.  As the RDF stations had predicted, the Germans were flying in three formations – the bombers ahead and the fighters in two waves stepped up to the rear. Misled by the supplementary fuel tanks slung below their wings, which looked like bombs, Graham and his pilots took the closer wave for Junkers 88 bombers whereas they were in fact (twin-engined) ME110s of the fighter escort.

The incoming formation was so vast in comparison with Graham’s small force that he hesitated for a moment, uncertain at what point and from what direction to attack.  Apparently unable to bear the suspense, one of his pilots asked him whether he had seen the enemy aircraft. With a stutter which was habitual, but which deteriorated in times of stress, he replied

Of course I’ve seen the b-b-b-bastards, I’m trying to w-w-w-work out what to do.

The reply was to became famous throughout Fighter Command. I don’t blame him for stuttering. If it had been me I would have been filling my pants.

But he didn’t hesitate for long. The Spitfires had had plenty of time to gain height during their long flight from the coast, and were about three thousand feet above the enemy’s mean height.  Making the most of his advantage, he decided to lead the squadron in a deliberate frontal attack, diving out of the Sun to achieve maximum surprise. Each pilot was free to choose his own target.  Two-thirds attacked bombers or supposed bombers, the remaining third the second wave of fighters, correctly identified as ME110s.

The attack was startlingly effective and caused widespread panic among the German planes whose pilots had been told not to expect that much opposition.  Jettisoning their external tanks, some of the ME110s formed a defensive circle, while others dived almost to sea level and were last seen heading East.  The bombers, less an indeterminate number destroyed by Graham’s squadron, then split into two formations, each accompanied by some of the remaining fighters. One formation headed for Tyneside, apparently with the intention of bombing the sector station at Usworth; the rest turned South-East towards two aerodromes at Linton on Ouse and Dishforth which they had been ordered to attack. Some of them jettisoned their bombs and headed back to Norway, leaving several of their number in the sea.

The separate parts of the remaining formation finally reached the coast, one near Acklington and the other south of Sunderland. The first formation, engaged successively by the remaining (No. 79) squadron from Acklington, the triple-A batteries defending the Tyne area, and some Hurricanes of 605 Squadron which had come south from Scotland, dropped most of their bombs in the sea. The second, engaged by a squadron of Spitfires from Catterick, a Hurricane squadron from Usworth and the anti-aircraft artillery from the Tees batteries, dropped theirs almost as ineffectively near Sunderland and Seaham Harbour.

Overall, backed by the guns of the 7th Anti-Aircraft Division under Major-General R.B. Pargiter, 13 Group’s aircraft destroyed at least eight Heinkels and seven 110s without suffering a single casualty themselves, although several civilians were killed by bombs and there was considerable damage on the ground, including a few airfields. It is known that, in addition to the enemy losses reported during this period, many German aircraft struggled back to their bases with battle damage and some were written off after crash-landings.

This was one of the most successful actions fought during the entire Battle of Britain and its effect was that that 13 Group met no further daylight raids for the duration. However, it was just one episode in a struggle that became increasingly desperate as the summer of 1940 dragged on. As I said at the start, the defences of 11 Group came particularly close to breaking point, but eventually recovered and the expected invasion never materialised.

The rest, as they say, is history…

6 Responses to “The Day the War came to Tyneside”

  1. Garret Cotter Says:

    Peter that is a thrilling account of that action! Have you missed your vocation?

    I must say, though, that it’s a long held and simplistic view that Goering and Hitler’s switch to bombing civilian targets saved the UK. Central to the early successes were the effectiveness of the “internet” of radar _plus_ ground observers and fighter controllers, along with the frankly ruthless attitude of the RAF and allied pilots (especially the Poles) versus the “knights of the air”
    attitude taken by many Bf 109 pilots at the very limits of their range. But I’ve also seen it claimed (Bungay) that the RAF could still have kept up the fight almost indefinitely if the forward bases were still being hit, so long as the fighter control centres were relatively undamaged; the chain home and chain home low stations were very difficult to disable for more than 12 hours. We (and I say this as an ethnically Irish Norn Iron man) shouldn’t sell ourselves short – the Luftwaffe was never going to beat the RAF.

  2. telescoper Says:

    Garret,

    My comment was just based on the facts as I understand them. The RDF stations were put out of action on occasions but were quickly repaired (in fact most of 11 Group’s radars were not working on 15th August). Also the operations centres were pretty much unscathed. If you look at the statistics of the actual combat, although the RAF had good days and bad days, the average was a 2-1 margin in terms of planes downed for planes lost. However, many of the planes lost early on were obsolete Blenheims and the like and these were replaced by Spitfires and Hurricanes at a greater rate than they were being lost. Logistically, then, the RAF was coping.

    However, as I said in the post, the real problem was a shortage of pilots. They were generally flying over their own country so if they got into trouble they had a reasonable chance of safety on baling out. However, the loss of life was such that pilots were not being replaced sufficiently quickly. You can have all the radar masts, controllers, airfields and planes you like, but if you haven’t got anyone to fly the aircraft you’ve had it.

    That gives me an opportunity to acknowledge that many from the Commonwealth and elsewhere also came to Britain’s aid during that momentous struggle, including Canadians, Indians, Australians and Poles.

    Peter

    • Garret Cotter Says:

      Hi Peter,

      OK; my own understanding is that the shortage of pilots was not the problem it is usually made out to be. Bungay claims both that the attacks on the sector airfields in late Aug/early Sep were not dangerously destructive (with only Biggin Hill being shut down, and that only briefly) and also that the RAF’s pilot roll _increased_ steadily from July to November. Now, it may have come to the situation that you were putting every newly-trained pilot into a brand new Spitfire for one or two sorties before he was shot down, but the the UK was prepared logistically and morally to do that, and Germany was not.

      Still, such are benefits of hindsight and I didn’t at all mean to detract from your superb piece. Finest hour, absolutely.

    • telescoper Says:

      Garret,

      You may well be right. I don’t know much except what I’ve read in a few books. Let’s at least agree that the change of tactics made Fighter Command’s task a bit easier..

      One thing that also deserves mention is the intelligence situation. The german pilots were reporting wildly exaggerated successes when they got home which meant the Luftwaffe didn’t have an accurate view of what was going on at all. That’s probably why they thought 13 Group wouldn’t put up much of a fight and why they didn’t bother to attack Acklington or any of the fighter airfields.

      Further South 50 enescorted Jumkers 88 bombers flew in from Denmark also expecting little opposition and intent of attacking a bomber base at Driffield in South Yorkshire, a strange choice of target.
      Here is a bit from the end of a report from one of the German pilots involved in the raid on Driffield

      The sun shone into our cabin. The enemy fighters had been got rid of. Below us lay the wide sea. How beautiful the Earth can be. Hands loosened their grip on the machine guns. What happened just a few minutes ago lay behind us and we relaxed. The engines were running evenly, we were flying home. The airfield didn’t exist any more; that was the result.

      In fact the base was only slightly damaged – and an ammunition dump had exploded – and none of 12 Group’s aircraft had been lost while 17 of the 50 German planes were downed.

      Peter

  3. […] In the Dark A blog about the Universe, and all that surrounds it « The Day the War came to Tyneside […]

  4. telescoper Says:

    I should also have mentioned that my Dad did his National Service in the RAF during the late 50s. He was for a time stationed at Biggin Hill and also at Acklington. Incidentally, RAF Acklington closed in 1972 and the site is now used as a Prison.

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