Fighter-bomber Bf.109E-4/B prototype.
From 8 October 1940, the RAF began intercepting Bf 109s which had been hastily adapted* as fighter-bombers by carrying a single SC250 250kg (550Ib) bomb on the centreline. Often the Bf 109Es slipped through unopposed, either at very low level (giving the defences little warning time in which to react) or very high (leaving defending fighters insufficient time to climb up to them). Even carrying a 250kg (550Ib) bomb the Bf 109E could fly at 9144m (30,000ft), well above the ceiling of the Hurricane, though within reach of the Spitfire. Yet the Jabos actually achieved little. During their initial, rather predictable, Staffel-strength attacks on London, the German perception was that they suffered unacceptably heavy losses, and some of their pilots felt that the role offended their professional pride and didn't even attempt to deliver weapons accurately on a particular target. Over London, for instance, German Jabo pilots dropped their weapons when the section leader did, and specific pinpoint targets, were often not briefed. Osterkamp, the German fighter commander was furious, and complained bitterly to Jeschonnek, who absolved himself from blame by claiming that the orders had come directly from the Führer.
Osterkamp's response was bitter and sarcastic, and cost him further promotion. 'Until proven otherwise,' he said 'I take our Führer to be a man who would not order such an idiocy, if he knew what effect it was having. I suggest the following. By God's Grace I still have about 384 fighters left at the moment, that makes 96 sections. Out of these I will send a section off twice a day at different times, with bombs under their bellies. They will reach their targets, because such small formations can slip through anywhere. Above their targets, they will dive down to 400 metres, bailout with their parachutes and let the aircraft with its bomb crash into the docks. The pilots will go into captivity. Result NO.1: the bombs will land in the docks, which you all consider "decisive for the war". Result NO.2: You will at least know exactly when the fighter weapon will have been completely destroyed - namely in 48 days. On the 49th day I will go the same way with my adjutant. Then you will all have peace. But one thing at least will have been accomplished: my boys will not have sacrificed their lives for a daydream.'
Osterkamp's concerns about vulnerability and losses were addressed by sending fighter Bf 109Es to escort the fighter-bombers, the fighters flying in at 9754m (32,000ft). The fighter-bombers were also increasingly tasked with pinpoint attacks on more important targets, and this helped improve morale.
The increasing emphasis placed on fighter-bomber operations did not go unnoticed by the British. Sandy Johnstone of NO.602 Squadron summed up the RAF attitude to the new form of warfare quite well. 'I may be wrong, but things seem to be easing off a bit these days... we only spot 109s cruising around at heights well above 30,000ft. These occasionally make furtive darts at us before soaring up again to their superior position... Could it be that the Germans have had enough?'
*A drop-fuel tank would have been better…