The Importance of September 15th 1940

Discussion in 'The War In The Air' started by CL1, Sep 15, 2018.

  1. CL1

    CL1 116th LAA and 92nd (Loyals) LAA,Royal Artillery Patron

    The Importance of September 15th 1940

    There were two contrasting extremes on Sunday September 15th 1940. The first was that, thanks to the change of tactics by Germany on September 7th to move its attacks away from Fighter Command airfields and bomb cities and factories, notably London as the principle target, gave Keith Park and Hugh Dowding the breathing space that they needed. Fighter Command aircrew were rested by September 15th, and many of the squadrons especially those that had been depleted by earlier actions, had received replacement aircraft that not only brought 11 Group up to strength, but 10 and 12 Groups as well.
    By contrast, the Luftwaffe, again concentrating its attacks on the British capital decided that an all out daylight series of raids should decimate Britain and bring them to their knees. The first mistake was that the Luftwaffe did not in any way attempt to destroy the radar stations along the south coast of England before the commencement of the raids. These were the eyes of Britain's war, so when the huge armada of bombers congregated in the Calais area, they were doing so in full view of Fighter Command. Then, once the raids commenced, they took the same flight paths that they had taken on just about every other occasion that they had on numerous times before. Hence, Fighter Command was waiting.
    Then they flew in a number of different formations, one behind the other like one huge column coming across the Channel between Dover and Dungeness. If they had placed these formations say, side by side, maybe staggered, then come across the Channel on a hundred mile front instead of a thirty mile front, then also have another formation as part of the armada than branch off towards Portland before reaching the coast, then this would have kept 10 Group busy in such a way that they could not have given support to 11 Group.

    In the lead up to the 15th, Wood and Dempster inform us:

    To the Luftwaffe the opposition appeared scrappy and uncoordinated, and they felt that in the last few days Fighter Command had begun to collapse. This news was, of course, conveyed to the Reichsmarschall, and via the situation reports to Hitler. Both felt that the hour of destiny was approaching.And so it was, to the Germans anyway. The day set down as this "hour of destiny" was to be September 15th. This was to be the prelude to the invasion, which was what the Battle of Britain was all about anyway. If the words of Wood and Dempster shown above are to be agreed upon, then we must also look at their opposition. Could it be said that the pilots of Fighter Command were scrappy and uncoordinated. Not taking any individual pilots perspective into account, but reading the general feeling of most pilots, was that squadron performance greatly depended on leadership. The station commanders and the squadron leaders, the men that guided them into battle.
    Hough and Richard's give two excellent accounts of this leadership:

    Some 200 of the surviving fighter pilots commented on the quality of leadership almost fifty years later. The answers varied widely, the great majority being satisfied and in most cases greatly admiring of their COs. Others experienced a bewildering succession of COs and there were undoubtedly exceptions to the general excellence. One Australian, with an exceptionally fine record, lost his first CO at Dunkirk, and there were five more before the end. One he described simply as ‘mad’; another who was posted away was not missed — ‘the best thing that ever happened to us’. Another was ‘a disaster’ and lasted two days. The final one ‘was completely without experience and took us to 15,000 feet on 15th September of all days when we had been ordered to 25,000. We had no real leaders from the time the squadron was formed until the end.’
    Another Australian commented unfavourably on the hierarchy. ‘Leigh-Mallory was a leader with no understanding of flying fast fighters and he was quite hopeless in his selection of squadron commanders.’ As for his own CO, ‘he should never have been given command of a fighter squadron. He had flown into a tree landing on his first and only night flight in a Spitfire.’
    Hough & Richard's The Battle of Britain - A Jubilee History 1989 p287

    With good leadership, squadrons did perform better, and, as described above, some squadrons had to perform under the most atrocious conditions, but they succeeded in the best way that they possibly could. On the other had, there was also a great deal of contentment, as Hough & Richard's describe the feelings and experiences of James Leathart, the 'professor' of 54 Squadron:

    Leathart recalled how the circumstances of the Battle obliged him to work from three bases, his assigned, regular base at Hornchurch, the satellite at Rochford and the forward base at Manston: ‘At Hornchurch I had an office, at Rochford a corner of the mess table, at Manston nothing. There was a great deal of admin. work, writing to the bereaved, fixing problems about, say, the maintenance of aircraft, trouble with the Merlin's and so on.
    ‘I was immensely helped at Hornchurch by the station CO “Daddy” Bouchier [Group Captain Cecil Arthur Bouchier OBE, DFC] — a marvellous man. Pat Shallard, our I.O [intelligence officer] was a great help, too. I had to compile squadron reports with Pat at least twice a week. Then all claims of victories had to be dealt with Pat, and then Group took about a week to confirm or otherwise.

    ‘The adjutant was a great support through all this, too. But the heaviest duty of all was dealing with new pilots. These varied widely. Some showed immediate promise, others couldn't even fly properly.........Squadron loyalty was not something that usually had to be cultivated, though to a degree it depended on the quality of the CO. Leathart recalled: ‘We all lived in our tight little squadron worlds and hardly ever saw anyone outside, not even our chums. We were totally dedicated to what we were doing, and at the time it is true to say that we were more loyal to the reputation of the squadron than we felt loyalty to our country. Of course that narrow view changed later, but it was how we felt at the time.’
    Hough & Richard's The Battle of Britain - A Jubilee History 1989 pp285-6

    In view of all this, Fighter Command had to contend with bomber formations with their close escorts plus the fact that almost twice as many enemy fighters may have been flying as top cover. The Luftwaffe on the other hand, all they had to do was to contend with the British fighters. And the odds; in most cases it was between three and five to one in favour of the Luftwaffe. Then, if we take a look at the total of daily victories, up until the 15th, there was only four occasions where British casualties exceeded the British.
    So it is hard to believe that the pilots of Fighter Command were disorganized, scrappy and uncoordinated. If there was any disorganization or lack of coordination, it was within the ranks of the German hierarchy, where it has been said that there were too many chiefs and a lot more bewildered Indians. The Luftwaffe could not win this air war by using the same flight paths, the same tactics, and on many occasions forgetting to send escorts to cover bombers on many of the raids.

    So, by September 15th, Fighter Command was in fact a far stronger force than the German High Command was to appreciate. Keith Park had fresh pilots, squadrons now at almost full strength and all of them well positioned at Sector Stations, satellite stations and at forward airfields. They lay in waiting for a Luftwaffe that was still at sixes and sevens. Hitler wanted London bombed once and for all, and ordered Goring to mass the largest contingent of bombers ever assembled to participate in the first daylight raid for a week, to flatten London in preparation to the invasion (Operation Sealion) which it was planned would take place two days later. Goring on the other hand still wanted to attack Fighter Command airfields, factories and anything else that would destroy the RAF. What happened on this important day is summed up by John Terraine:

    If 15th August showed the German High Command that air supremacy was not to be won within a brief space, 15th September went far to convince them that it would not be won at all.
    Official History (Collier) op. cit. p242
    It was a day in marked contrast to September 7. For Fighter Command, on the 15th, just about everything went right. Despite ominous signs, a few days earlier, of successful German jamming, the radar screen gave full warning of the coming attacks:

    The stupidity of large formations sorting themselves out in full view of British radar was not yet realized by the Luftwaffe.
    Wood & Dempster op. cit. p231

    Astonishing — but, on this day at least, apparently true; better still, on the 15th there were no feints to distract the operators and worry the filter rooms. Park was able to alert his squadrons to give the enemy a warm reception the moment they crossed the coast. With 17 squadrons (11 of No. 11 Group, one of No. 10, and the five of the “Duxford Wing”) opposing it, the first German formation was harried all the way to London, causing many bombers simply to unload at random — which did not, of course, prevent much damage being done, including two bombs on Buckingham Palace. Göring promptly ordered a second attack, to be pressed home with all energy.

    His signal was duly picked up and this was an occasion when the speed of the Ultra operation and the direct line to Dowding made history.
    Winterbotham op. cit. pp 58-9
    John Terraine The Right Of The Line Hodder & Stoughton 1985 p211

    The War Cabinet as well as the British Government had known for a long time that it was Hitler's intention to make an invasion of Great Britain. It was also a well known fact, that for any such invasion to take place, the Luftwaffe had to clear the air of Royal Air Force fighter aircraft that would endanger the crossing of the Channel by German troops and hundreds of naval barges, as well as tanks, military vehicles and other hardware. This was what the Battle of Britain was all about.
    Contrary to the claim that the British placed their faith in decoded messages intercepted from the Germans by the captured German 'Enigma' machine, nothing could be farther from the truth. True, messages were decoded, the first being during the Dunkirk operations, but normally, by the time the messages had been decoded, the event in question had passed and was really of little value. In 1940, Ultra was in its infancy, it really did not come into its own until about 1943. It must be realised that important messages and orders were generally sent by land line by teleprinter. One of the messages of importance that was valuable, was the decoding of Hitler's directive where it made mention of "Seelowe" or Sealion. British Intelligence took no time in working out what Sealion was. "Sea" meaning water or a sea, and "lion" could mean nothing else but Britain. The Operation Sealion was 'across the sea to Britain'. The question was......when. But the message did not come from Hitler, it was actually accidentally sent by Goring himself:

    The Directive was so secret that it was sent only to the Commanders in Chief. But Goring passed it on to his Air Fleet commanders, and did so by radio. To put such a important message on the air was an unnecessary risk but the Germans had great confidence in their coding machines. At all levels of command, the Luftwaffe used the Enigma coding machine, at this time changing keys two or three times each day. The Enigma was a small battery-powered machine not unlike a portable typewriter. Rotors changed the cipher, and the receiving machine lit up each letter. This was then written down by one of the code clerks.
    .........Only rarely, as with this foolish risk taken with Directive No.16, did the Enigma intelligence pay such a dividend. It gave the British the German code word "Sea-lion" and was a shot in the arm for the code breakers.
    Len Deighton Fighter Pimlico 1977 p28
    As early as August, "Ultra" began to mention Adlertag and Adlerangriff, but these meant little at that stage, except that some new development was being planned. On many occasions, it was only when the Royal Air Force "Y" Service picked up German R/T transmissions, that they knew that something was building. Employed at these intelligence stations at Cheadle in Cheshire and at Kingsdown in Kent (it was moved back from Hawkinge) were men who could speak and understand German. They listened for vital words or sentences that would give the RAF a clue as to what may be happening in the next twenty-four hours. In some cases, they were even given dates!!
    Dowding and Park knew that, as the battle moved into September, if Germany was to carry out an invasion, they would have to do it soon. Summer was now past, the weather conditions would soon deteriorate and the days were to become shorter. Intercepted messages that had been picked up indicated that September 12th was the most likely date, but this came and went. But it caused Park to make preparations anyway. He moved his squadrons to where they could best be utilised, and whatever date that would be chosen, Fighter Command was ready.

    Now, it was believed that September 14th would be the date of the last all out bombing raid that would precede the invasion. But again, there was no sign that this was to take place. When word got through to Fighter Command that a huge build up was forming over Calais on the morning of September 15th, they knew then, that this was the day that the messages were trying to tell them, and really, they had been caught by surprise. But the German bomber crews took considerable time to form up over the French coast, and this gave Keith Park the time he needed to prepare for the defence of what was to become the last opportunity for the Luftwaffe to destroy as much of Britain, the Royal Air Force and the peoples morale before the commencement of an invasion planned for two days later.

    Dowding and Park, Churchill, the War Cabinet and the Government knew that this was going to be the most decisive point in the battle. Should Fighter Command lose this vital round, they way would be open for invasion. It has been stated, so it will not be said again, that Germany and its decision maker were their own worst enemy in the lead up to September 15th. The decision to turn attentions to London, was the biggest mistake of the war and cost Germany victory in the Battle of Britain. Fighter Command, was ready and waiting.

    Pages 41 and 42 tells us the great fight that was put up by all areas of Fighter Command, from ground crews to pilots, from radar and observers to the intelligence units. But the determination and courage of the pilots of Fighter Command must have had the greatest impact on this decisive victory. So important was victory on September 15th, was that if the result had gone the other way, Britain would have opened the door to Germany, and Adolf Hitler would have been able to walk down the paved sidewalk of Whitehall.

    John Terraine sums up the conclusion to the purpose of September 15th perfectly:

    Two days later, on September 17, Ultra spoke with perfect clarity: a signal was intercepted from the German General Staff to the officer responsible for the loading and turn-round of supply and troop-carrying aircraft in Holland. It authorized the dismantling of the air-loading equipment on the Dutch aerodromes; and without the air-loading equipment there could be no invasion. The signal, with appropriate gloss, was sent to the Prime Minister immediately, and it was discussed at the Chiefs of Staff Committee that evening. Churchill asked the Chief of the Air Staff to explain it:
    Cyril Newall had been well briefed; he gave it as his considered opinion that this marked the end of SEALION, at least for this year ... There was a very broad smile on Churchill's face now as he lit up his massive cigar and suggested that we should all take a little fresh air.
    John Terraine The Right Of The Line Hodder & Stoughton 1985 p212

    Document-51: The importance of September 15th
  2. HA96

    HA96 Member

    Thank you for this fantastic summary.
    Reichsmarschall Goering up to today has a pretty rotton reputation in this country.
    But, what do I know, what he told the Fuehrer and what he did't dare. to tell him.
    Some of the Luftwaffe pilots were pretty pro Brtitsh at the time believe. Also, bombing civillians was not their call.

  3. Harry Ree

    Harry Ree Very Senior Member

    The end of August saw the slaughter of the Stuka by the RAF complete and it was withdrawn from the air battle.

    On the day, the air battles raged from London to Maidstone,Canterbury,the Medway and the Thames estuary,south to Hastings and Beachy Head,then westwards to Southampton and Portland.

    During the day,the RAF accounted for 178 Luftwaffe aircraft with 7 more brought down by ground defence losing 25 fighters with 14 pilots saved.The balance on aircrew was 11 pilots lost but 500 Luftwaffe aircrew were put out of the war.To put this statistic in perspective,during the Great War the greatest number of enemy aircraft destroyed in a single day was 68 on October 30 1918.

    Civilians paid a price for the Luftwaffe assault on Britain with London having the highest concentration of casualties.

    From August at its lowest in the selected period, to December when the casualty list was over three times the number of the listed August casualties, the return was as follows.

    Killed Injured
    August 1075 1261
    September 6965 10615
    October 6334 8691
    November 4588 6202
    December 3793 5044

    Stefan.Some might not be able to accept your assessment of Luftwaffe pilots.
    Last edited: Sep 15, 2018
    CL1 likes this.

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