Under the Radar: The Hedge Hoppers and the Hardest Day

After early mist the morning of Sunday August 18 1940 was bright with clear skies. It came to be known as the hardest day in the Battle of Britain. The detail from Diana Gardner’s wood engraving makes it seem like night but there is a figure on the bottom left looking up and shielding his eyes from the sun. It was lunchtime in England.

Since August 13th the Luftwaffe had been targeting the airfields of Fighter Command and so far all they had done was to cause inconvenience rather than  destruction. The German plan to destroy the Royal Air Force on the ground had not worked as intended. Reichsmarschall Göring had already given up on trying to destroy the radar stations and now the plan was to destroy the RAF airfields.

The Luftwaffe knew that some of the larger airfields around London – notably Hornchurch, Biggin Hill and Kenley – were the key stations of Fighter Command. Their bold and imaginative plan for Sunday August 18th was to destroy both Kenley and Biggin Hill completely with a well planned, multi-pronged attack.

As part of the attack – and coming in from the south across the English Channel at barely 50 feet above the waves –  were nine Dornier 17s of 9/KG76 flying low to avoid radar detection. Fighter Command knew nothing of their presence. 

The Dorniers were literally under the radar but not invisible to the Observer Corps and people like Virginia Woolf and Diana Gardner who saw them roar in just overhead.

Charlie and Betty McNabb were walking along a country lane going towards Beachy Head:

It had been a beautiful morning, peaceful and quiet and as we strolled enjoying the tranquility of the morning, we both spoke and agreed that it was a shame that there had to be a war on, on such a tremendous day as this. I can remember the gentle breeze, so gentle it hardly rustled the leaves on the tree’s, and all the birds seemed to be singing quite oblivious to our presence, when suddenly we heard a heavy rumbling sound, almost the sound of a strong wind coming towards us. But we could see nothing, but the sound got louder it was so strange.

Then suddenly, and it gave us both a fright really, these huge dark shapes appeared over the cliffs almost as if they had come right out of the sea. The noise was now deafening as what must have been six or seven huge bombers disappeared as soon as they had appeared and all was peaceful again. My God it was scary.

Betty McNabb remembering August 18th 1940

Margaret Birch also remembers as she worked in the garden of her home near Lewes:
We just stood and looked down on the pencil-like planes, creeping along with the South Downs as a backdrop. They were in sight for about a minute, no markings were visible, but there was something sinister in both their appearance and behavior.

Margaret Birch on August 18th 1940 

Battle of Britain, Paul Nash 1941

The flight plan of the low flying Dorniers. was to go north-west after crossing the coast at Beachy Head, picking up the railway line at or near the town of Lewes. Then at the junction with the main Brighton to London railway line they were to turn due north keeping the railway line to their left. This would take them directly to RAF Kenley and the main buildings of the aerodrome.

Just after one o’clock they were lining up to make their final bombing approach. The duty controller at Kenley – Squadron Leader Norman – realizing his airfield was about to be attacked – requested assistance from nearby Croydon. They  sent the 111 Squadron of Hurricanes – the only squadron left that could possibly attack the Dorniers.

The 111 squadron was scrambled. Its Squadron Leader – John Thompson – was told to maintain only 100 feet over the airfield. “You’re bloody mad,” he said, “……I could prune trees at that height.”

“I repeat, yes repeat…….vector Kenley…..patrol at 100 feet……..30 plus low level bandits approaching,” came the voice over the R/T.

Minutes later Squadron Leader Thompson saw the nine Dorniers directly in front of him as they made their approach to Kenley from the south. He decided to place the main thrust of his attack from the rear as the Dorniers started to spread out in an arc to commence their approach. Coming in from behind, the Hurricanes opened with machine gun fire.

The rear gunners of the bombers responded. The ground defences of Kenley –  in their sandbagged gun emplacement circles – opened fire with their Bofors and machine guns. The AA guns could not be fired until the Dorniers were almost directly above them. Air Force personnel not involved in any of the ground defences were ordered to the nearest shelters. However, the surprise attack of the Dorniers was so quick that many were not able to reach shelters and scattered  to find cover the best way they could.

The specially fused bombs from the Dorniers fell with deadly accuracy. The hangars, mess rooms and other administrative buildings exploded in smoke and flame as each bomb found its mark. One of the Hurricanes was hit either by Dornier gunfire or friendly fire. It’s pilot  F/L S Connors was killed as his aircraft crashed to the ground at nearby Wallington.

Someone called out that the sick quarters had a direct hit, so I sped in that direction. I remember running over the hammocky grass . There were lots of people badly shaken sitting about. The doctor had been killed, and Mary Coulthard, one of the two WAAF sick-bay attendants, was badly injured. She had the most enormous cut in her thigh. I had never seen anything like it, she had been thrown on to a steel helmet which had sliced through her leg. She and the other attendant were smiling though, because they had applied a tourniquet which had worked; and I smiled too — I, who under normal circumstances, could faint at the sight of someone’s cut finger! We tied a label on to her before she was taken to hospital.

Lillias Barr ex WAAF officer stationed at Kenley August 18th 1940 
Taken from an interview with Ernie Burton.

One by one the Dorniers dropped their load of twenty 110 pound bombs, and there was little that the defences could do. The noise, smoke, fire and explosions was intense. One by one, they created a path of absolute destruction. Hangars, domestic blocks, administration buildings, the officers mess, the station headquarters building all suffered at the accurate bombing. Bombs that had been released by the bombers in the centre of the formation bounced along the runways like ping-pong balls on a table tennis table before exploding.

 In just 90 seconds, Kenley had been made a shambles Many thought that the raid was over and emerged from whatever shelter they could find, only to be told by someone yelling at the top of his voice to get back under cover as the raid was not over. The Dornier raid was just part of a larger attack the timing of which had gone out of sync.  

There was probably no more than a three minute interval between the departure of the surviving low-level Dorniers – hotly pursued by 111 and 615 Squadrons … and the intense, high-level bombing, although for many of those on the ground, half-stunned by the noise and fury of the first attack, it was much longer. By a merciful chance of fate the vulnerable, brick ops room controlling the entire sector was not hit. But inside the silence that succeeded the explosions and the gunfire seemed even more intense in this enclosed space because all the power and almost all the telephone lines had gone dead. The airmen and the WAAF plotters at the table, in their tin hats and with gas masks at the ready, looked up questioningly to the dias above where their officers were, for a few seconds, looking equally bemused.Then one of them yelled at them angrily, as if they were responsible. ‘Don’t just stand there – take cover! There’s nothing you can do now!’

Richard Hough and Denis Richards Battle of Britain – The Jubilee History p205

The nine Dorniers had each unleashed twenty bombs – a total of 180 bombs,  19,800 pounds of explosive. Three had been hit and crashed during the raid. The task of the remaining six was to return to home base across the channel in Northern France.

The attempt to destroy RAF Kenley failed although the damage was considerable:

All R/T communication with the aircraft had been severed when the attack commenced, but this was soon re-established by 1337hrs. Eight Hurricanes were destroyed on the ground, two hangars were totally destroyed while five others were severely damaged, the operations room suffered considerable damage and was put out of action, while many other buildings, including the hospitals were reduced to rubble. Had all the bombs exploded on impact, Kenley could have been totally destroyed, but many were released too low and hit the ground horizontally and failed to activate the warheads. A fireman at Kenley stated that the hangar fires were extremely difficult to extinguish. The roofs frames were made of timber, which was covered with asphalt and bitumen, most of the hangars had many drums of paint and thinners in them and most of the aircraft in them had petrol in their tanks. It was really an explosive situation.

Unexploded bombs were everywhere. But the most iminent danger was the fires, made worse because one of the bombs had exploded and fractured the aerodromes water mains. Three of the four aircraft hangars had been destroyed, the main sector operations room lost all electricity and telephone services and the main power cable had been severed rendering the mainframe useless. Many station buildings and the medical sick bays were destroyed as was both the officers’ and the sergeants’ messes. A hangar housing the stations motor transport was wrecked, and four Hurricanes and a Blenheim had been destroyed with three Hurricanes and a Spitfire badly damaged.

27. The hospital and reserve hospital had been destroyed. One of the medical officers had been killed in a shelter trench near hospital. The remaining medical staff, however, worked splendidly and with assistance of civil doctors the situation was soon in hand.

28. The ground defences were seriously hampered by firstly the approach of raid being screened so that the low raid could not be engaged before it had released its bombs and the fact that smoke from low raid prevented the high being seen easily. Effective action was, however taken by gun crews…

29. All ground defence crews remained at their posts and engaged the enemy under heavy fire.

Richard Hough and Denis Richards Battle of Britain – The Jubilee History p207 
Extract from Kenley Station Commander’s report to 11 Group

Of the nine bombers four were shot down, two ditched in the sea, two were damaged in crash landings in France and one returned relatively unscathed.

Plane Crash in Sussex, Summer 1940 Henry Moore

Moore witnessed this crash when on a visit to his former art teacher Alice Gostick, who had a house in High Salvington near Worthing in Sussex. A Heinkel –  He111P wk. nr. 1582 code G1 + FR from 7/KG55 – came down on Friday 16th August 1940. Uffz. Weber and Gefreiter Moorfeld were killed. Lt. Theobald, Uffz. Hornbostel and Gefr. Glaser were captured

References:

Alfred Price The Hardest Day Cassell 1998
The Battle of Britain Historical Society 
Wikipedia: The Hardest Day

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