September 15th: Battle of Britain Day

A little after 11am on Sunday 15th September 1940, as church services were beginning across south-east England, approximately 150 German bombers were detected crossing the French coast at Pas-de-Calais. Their target: London.

The man in charge of British fighter command at that moment, Wing Commander Lord Willoughby de Broke, his resources and his pilots almost exhausted from continuous action, had to make a vital decision. Should he commit his precious fighters straight away, and risk them in what could be a deception, a swarm of German fighters? Or should he wait until he knew for certain they were, indeed, bombers.

He gambled and scrambled his fighters, at 11.15 nine squadrons of Spitfires and Hurricanes took to the air. He had made the right decision.

The German aircraft were facing a strong headwind that was slowing the bombers down, and rapidly depleted the fighters fuel reserves. Meanwhile the British fighters, racing in from the North-West, benefitted from the tailwind and engaged the enemy over the fields of Kent. At 1pm with the enemy in retreat, the British squadrons returned to base to refuel and rearm.

The fighter pilots had little time for rest: at 1.45pm a second wave was picked up by British radar. At 2pm the squadrons began to scramble. 

Bo B2

This was a much heavier attack. The German groups split into three groups, spreading out over some distance. At the same time, five separate formations of German fighters were picked up, also heading for London.

As the enormity of the threat became apparent, the RAF committed every fighter to the battle. Supported by Canadian, Commonwealth, Polish and Czech manned aircraft gave valuable support, just as they had throughout the Battle of Britain. By 2.20pm there were 276 British Spitfires and Hurricanes in the air. 11 Group, responsible for the air defence of London and the South-East, had no more reserves to send up.

Despite being heavily outnumbered, the RAF pilots inflicted devastating losses on the Luftwaffe. Those bombers that were able to get past the fighters were then engaged by ground defences (to this day, pieces of German bombers are occasionally dredged up in the Thames estuary).

The bombers, a mix of Dornier 17s and Heinkel 111s found that low cloud cover that had afforded them some protection earlier severely hampered their bomb aiming efforts. Whilst civilian casualties were inflicted, the main targets were missed. All in all, from the point of view of the Luftwaffe nowhere near justified the cost in aircrew and aircraft.

One smaller raid was carried out later in the day, inflicting some damage on Southampton Docks, but completely missing the nearby Spitfire factory.

The day was seen as a decisive victory, and it marked the end of the Battle of Britain, and with it Adolf Hitler's plans for Operation Sea Lion, the invasion of Great Britain.

79 years on, of the RAF fighter pilots who fought in the Battle, only six remain.

Flight Lieutenant Maurice Mounsdon (56 Squadron)

Flight Lieutenant William Clark (219 Squadron)

Flying Officer John Hemingway (85 Squadron)

Pilot Officer Archie McInnes (601 Squadron)

Squadron Leader John Hart (602 Squadron)

Wing Commander Paul Farnes (501 Squadron)

Wing Commander Farnes has the distinction of being the last surviving "Ace" of the Battle of Britain, signifying that he shot down five or more enemy aircraft during the battle.

The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the world war by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.

Winston Churchill

Read also: 

All our Yesterdays: September 3rd 1939

All Our Yesterdays: Warsaw Uprising 74 Years On

All Our Yesterdays: The Great Escape

D Day in Colour

All Our Yesterdays: August 15th 1945 - Japan Surrenders! 

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Gary Cartwright

Gary Cartwright

Gary Cartwright is publishing editor of EU Today.

An experienced journalist and published author, he specialises in environment, energy, and defence.

He also has more than 10 years experience of working as a staff member in the EU institutions, working with political groups and MEPs in various policy areas.

Gary's latest book WANTED MAN: THE STORY OF MUKHTAR ABLYAZOV: A Manual for Criminals on How to Avoid Punishment in the EU is currently available from Amazon

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