Battle of Britain Day
Today is the 75th Anniversary of the day that historians regard as the climax of the Battle of Britain. To commemorate this, a huge flypast will take place across the South of England. Unfortunately, the weather isn’t too great today, and I don’t think it will be quite the spectacle that was intended, although Purple, Brown and Black sections are due to fly over Brighton from RAF Goodwood and perhaps the clouds will have broken up by the time they get here. Normally Battle of Britain Day is commemorated on a Sunday, as 15th September 1940 lay on a Sunday.
I had a friend – now long dead – who served as a fighter pilot in the RAF during the Battle of Britain and I once asked him about the tactics they used. He explained that they didn’t really have any tactics. When scrambled they were usually lucky if they managed to get to the right altitude before the enemy were on them. And if they did, they just flew head on at the incoming planes and tried to shoot them down. There was little point in attacking a big formation from behind with a handful of planes, which was the usual situation: you might pick off one or two but the bombers would carry on to their target. You had to attack from the front in order to scatter them. He added that on a good day, if you were feeling exceptionally brave, you might even keep your eyes open as you screamed straight into the enemy at getting on for 400 mph.
Another event of 15th September 1940 exemplifies the almost insane courage of the RAF pilots. A formation of Dornier bombers penetrated the British air defencesa as central London, where it was engaged by planes from a number of RAF squadrons, including the Hurricane of Flight Sergeant Ray Holmes. Holmes got into position to shoot down one Dornier, but when attempted to fire he discovered he had run out of ammunition. In an act of amazing bravery he decided to ram the Dornier. He succeeded ins slicing off the plane’s tail and it came down on Victoria Station. Somewhat improbably, Holmes managed to bale out and, though injured, survived to fight again. He died in 2005.
The other thing that this event reminded me of was the film Battle of Britain. The movie is a bit dated now, largely because some of the special effects don’t really stand up to modern comparisons: no cgi when it was made, for example. The best thing about it for me, though, is the wonderful music written for the film by William Walton, especially in the following sequence where the dogfights are shown with only the music as soundtrack. This turns the shots of terrifying close-range combat into a something a lot more than an action movie. It’s a work of art.
The context of this sequence is, as far as I know, historically accurate. Over the summer of 1940 the Luftwaffe had sent raid after raid over to attack Britain, these raids increasing in size as time went on. Hugh Dowding, Head of Fighter Command at that time, refused to let his planes be drawn into a huge battle against numerically superior forces and instead kept most of his planes in reserve, sending up only a squadron or half a squadron to meet the incoming planes. Thanks to the breaking of the German Air Force Enigma code, Dowding knew that the Luftwaffe pilots had been handing in grossly exaggerated reports of how many planes they had been shooting down. Convinced that the RAF was on the brink of collapse, the Germans launched an enormous air raid on September 15th 1940 intended to deliver the knockout blow and prepare the way for invasion.
Dowding knew that they were coming, and put every available plane at the RAFs disposal into the air. The survival of this country was at stake during this battle. There were no reserves. When the Luftwaffe arrived over Britain their pilots were aghast to find the air filled with Spitfires and Hurricanes whose pilots, having been consistently outnumbered in the battles so far, relished the chance to fight for once with something close to numerical equality with the enemy. The RAF scored a decisive victory, convincing Hitler to abandon his plans for an invasion in 1940.Follow @telescoper