Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The beginning of the bombing of London Part I

On September 2 Reichsmarschall Göring had received the Führer’s permission to begin large-scale day bombing of London (as well as continuing night bombing). He arrived at the Pas-de-Calais on September 7 in his luxurious private train to oversee the initial operation himself, and watch the big formations of both his air fleets’ bombers and their escorting fighters heading toward the white cliffs of Dover in the afternoon and on to London. There were more than 300 bombers and 600 fighters, and the spectacle left most people who saw it speechless; translated into electronic blips and squiggles on a radar screen, it dismayed the RAF radar operators and controllers. This immense raid—the largest so far in the history of air warfare—was far from being a military secret. It was watched by Göring and his staff as it flew overhead, in wave after wave, and was the subject of ecstatic reports on German radio at home as it took place. The radio reports were artfully orchestrated by Dr. Goebbels’s staff, with awe-inspiring music and sound effects. Göring himself announced on the radio to the German people, “I have taken over personal command of the Luftwaffe in its war against England.” Some people noted the strange implication that he had not hitherto been in command; others perhaps recalled that he had also promised that Berlin would never be bombed. But the tone of the day in the German media was not only optimistic but triumphalist, even orgiastic, in the tradition of Nazi propaganda. The British radar operators, who were not listening to Radio Berlin, were at first uncertain about what the Germans were planning to attack as they formed up in such large numbers over Calais, and jumped to the conclusion that Kenley and Biggin Hill would once again be the targets, as on previous days.

Fighter Command was, as a result, for once caught flat-footed. Some of the confusion was the result of Park’s instructions to his controllers two days earlier. Although his criticism of Leigh-Mallory was what most of those who read the document noticed first, a second, and more important subject was his dissatisfaction with the way controllers were positioning No. 11 Group’s fighter squadrons. To understand this, it is necessary to keep in mind that radar had originally been an unreliable indicator of height. Radar operators had therefore developed a habit of adding a few thousand feet to their estimate of height because their radar sets generally indicated a height they knew was too low. This technical problem had been largely corrected by August 1940, but many of the operators were still adding on a couple of thousand feet when they communicated their reading of the screen to the controllers. Unfortunately, the fighter pilots themselves usually added on another couple of thousand feet to the figure they were told, partly out of experience and habit and partly because fighter pilots always want to seek the advantage of height when attacking. The higher a pilot is, the better his view of the enemy, and, of course, for a pilot height also equals speed—diving at high speed on the enemy from above and behind was the best guarantee of making a kill and escaping alive. Since it took time for a Spitfire or a Hurricane to climb to a given altitude (about eleven minutes for the former to reach 25,000 feet), for obvious reasons the higher a squadron climbed, the longer it would take to get there. The result was that squadrons were often too late to attack the German bombers on their way in to their target and were attacking after the bombs had been dropped. One complaint about Dowding and Park was that however many German aircraft their pilots shot down, they were not doing enough to prevent the Germans from dropping bombs in the first place.

This was related to the second consequence of climbing to a higher altitude than was necessary—the higher British fighters climbed, the more likely they were to meet German fighter escorts, some of which, despite Göring’s order to stick close to the bombers, still flew well above them (which was, of course, the only sensible way to protect them). This had the effect of increasing fighter-to-fighter combat, and of decreasing attacks on the bombers, which usually flew at least 4,000 to 5,000 feet lower. In theory, the Spitfire squadrons should have been taking on the German fighters high up, the Hurricane squadrons should have taken on the bombers lower down, since the Spitfire was faster and could reach a higher altitude than the Hurricane. But in practice this neat division of tasks was not happening, and the pilots were therefore not taking full advantage of each plane’s particular characteristics—against the bombers, the Hurricane was a sturdy and rock solid “gun platform”; but the Spitfire was at its best at higher altitudes, where its speed, maneuverability, and tight turning circle allowed it to fight with the Bf 109 on equal terms, or better.

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