Britain at Bay

When Prime Minister Chamberlain’s ultimatum to Germany expired on 3 September 1939, World War II found the home-based Royal Air Force established with a strength of:

55 Bomber Squadrons with Bristol Blenheim IVs

Vickers Wellington Is and IAs

Armstrong Whitworth Whitley IIIs and IVs

Handley Page Hampdens

35 fighter squadrons with


Hawker Hurricanes

Supermarine Spitfires

Gloster Gladiators

Seven army co-operation squadrons with Westland Lysanders
11 general reconnaissance squadrons, 10 flying Avro Ansons

One with Lockheed Hudson

Six flying boat squadrons with Short Sunderlands

Saro Londons

Supermarine Stranraers

Two torpedo bomber squadrons flying Vickers Vildebeests.

Spearhead of the service, Bomber Command represented the manifestations of the Trenchard doctrine – the means of imposing the nation’s will upon an enemy – yet as a result of Chamberlain government’s reluctance to drop bombs on enemy territory and appear to be guilty of invoking the horrors of modern warfare on a civilian population, the operational bomber squadrons were reduced to a first-line strength of 33 and the remainder relegated to a reserve status to provide operational training and making good wastage. The unit establishment of the 116 squadrons totalled 1466 aircraft of which roughly 1000 could be regarded as fairly modern, but the remainder (the biplanes, Ansons and Whitley IIIs) were in urgent need of replacement. Committing the Air Component and Advanced Air Striking Force (AASF) to France for support of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), with their complement of :

  • 10 Fairey Battle squadrons
  • 5 of Lysanders
  • 4 of Blenheims
  • 4 of Hurricanes
  • 2 of Gladiators

thus, reduced the first-line strength from 94 (after allowing the downgrading of the bomber units) to 69 home-based squadrons. If this force appeared puny compared with the Luftwaffe, each of whose three full strength and autonomous Luftflotten (air fleets) was equipped with modern aircraft, it should be recalled that every pilot and aircrew member of the RAF and Auxiliary Air Force (AAF) had been peacetime trained within a structure whose rapid expansion in the late 1930s had yet to provide the necessary stream of newly-trained airmen. Few members of the RAFVR were yet joining the front line squadrons while modern aircraft were only just beginning to complete their initial combat clearance.


Seen here are six Spitfires Mk1s of #19 Squadron with code letters ‘WZ’. This was changed to ‘QV’ on the outbreak of war

Early home-based operations Against this background of depleted air strength at home and limitations imposed on the bomber force, early operations by British and German air forces in the West were almost entirely confined to air attacks on the opposing maritime forces (apart from an extraordinarily naive campaign of leaflet dropping over German cities by the RAF’s night bombers which achieved little more than providing some navigation experience). From the first day of the war reconnaissance flights by the RAF to locate German warships were quickly followed by a series of daylight reconnaissance in force attacks on ships in the approaches to the German North Sea bases, formations of unescorted Blenheims and Wellingtons being involved in a number of courageous but largely ineffective strikes. These flights involved return distances of about 500 miles (800km), often in poor weather and without any navigational aids, were invariably spotted on radar by the Germans, who ordered up intercepting fighters (usually from JG-1) and alerted their flak defences. (Radar, already an established fact within the British home air defence system, remained quite unsuspected as being in use operationally by the Germans for some months after the outbreak of the war).


K9013 Whitley Mk III


Whitley Mk V just about to land at Driffield

Wholly untrained in attacks on warships at sea, the RAF crews pressed home their assaults with great gallantry but suffered crippling losses. Moreover their 500-lb (227-kg) bombs proved entirely useless against the armoured targets. These attacks which lasted until mid-December 1939 before being abandoned, and involved 861 bomber sorties and a mere 61 tons of bombs, achieved superficial damage to the Emden and Admiral Scheer, the destruction of a U-Boat, a trawler and 10 enemy fighters, yet cost Bomber Command the loss of 43 aircraft and well over 100 aircrew. The bitter lesson, which was allowed to overshadow future strategic planning for years to come, was that unescorted daylight attacks by relatively slow bombers (however well they might be armed) was suicidal in the face of an organised force of forewarned interceptors. Although attempted on a much smaller scale by the Luftwaffe, daylight attacks on the Royal Navy in its home ports were launched during the first months of the war. Most such raids were intercepted by home-based Spitfires, and half a dozen raiders were shot down. The principal activity by the Luftwaffe over the North Sea was a concerted effort to seal the British East Coast ports with air and sea-sown magnetic mines, a campaign undertaken almost entirely at night by aircraft allocated to the Kriegsmarine. Not only was the RAF impotent in meeting this threat, but the enemy weapon came close to achieving its object and certainly disrupted the movement of coastal shipping off the East Coast.


Wellington Mk1A about to be loaded with bombs

The Norwegian Campaign The winter of 1939-40 was accompanied by early and prolonged fog, frost and snow which effectively restricted air operations over most of North Western Europe, bringing atrocious conditions to the ill-prepared air fields of France and also reducing the flying effort, largely confined to training in Britain. With little air activity over the Siegfried and Maginot Lines, there existed a feeling of lethargy which was particularly evident among the British land and air forces. This was the period of the Phoney War.


Gladiator of #263 Squadron on Lake Lesjakog 



A modified into fighter,  Blenheim Mk for night flying




Gloster Gladiator in support British Expeditionary Force



Fairey Battle of 218 Squadron over France


The same lethargy had not existed elsewhere in Europe, however, and the tragic conclusion of the Polish campaign had been followed by the Soviet Union’s attack on Finland, whose extraordinary determination and ability to resist invasion won worldwide admiration. Several Western powers sent military aid to the Finns, and early in 1940 the British government laid plans to send a squadron of Gladiators (#263) to Finland. The Winter War in Finland ended, however, on 13 March 1940 before #263 Squadron could be embarked, but on 9 April the German attack on Denmark and Norway descended, thereby pre-empting British plans by a few hours to seal the northern iron-ore port of Narvik with mines. As the now familiar Blitzkrieg deluged upon southern Norway, the British set in train preparations to embark an expeditionary force to fight alongside their new allies and with it, embarked in the carrier Glorious, #263 (Fighter) Squadron-still to some extent equipped and prepared for Arctic operations.  The establishment of powerful German forces in southern Norway (and the complete subjugation of Denmark in a single day) forced the decision to land the British force in central Norway, to prevent a northward advance by the enemy. But this was an area particularly sparsely provided with airfields, and it transpired that the RAF Gladiators were left with no alternative but to operate from the frozen Lake Lesjaskog, a feat made possible by snow-clearing efforts of 200 civilians led by an RAF officer Squadron Leader W. Whitney Straight. No sooner had the 18 Gladiators landed on 24 April (after a hazardous flight from Glorious from which the pilots had made their first ever deck takeoff) than the Germans started bombing the ice runway. The attacks continued the following day and despite engine starting difficulties following a freezing Arctic night and a chronic lack of tools and spares, the pilots did all they could to maintain cover over the ground forces. By mid-day 10 of the Gladiators had been put out of action on the lake while the runway was fast becoming unusable. By 26 April only one Gladiator remained serviceable and fuel for this was exhausted. Leaving the twisted, burned-out hulks of their aircraft littering the melting ice, the pilots of #263 Squadron arrived back in Scapa Flow on 1 May. Such was the distance of central Norway from British bases that it proved impossible for Bomber Command  to give effective support to the Norwegians, and to give cover to the Allied forces now being disembarked far to the north at the port of Narvik (in an attempt to deny its use by the Germans) it was decided to send a Hurricane squadron (#46) as well as returning #263 with a new complement of Gladiators. Once more Glorious set sail for Norway and between 21 and 28 May the two squadrons  became established on a landing ground at Bardufoss, 50 miles (80 km) from Narvik, once again thanks to the efforts by an RAF officer, Wing Commander R.L.R. Atcherley, to coerce the local population into snow clearance. In spite of the difficulties inherent in such primitive operating conditions, the RAF pilots gave effective protection to the ground forces at Narvik, destroying a number of German bombers which owing to the distances involved in their flights, were operating without fighter escort. However, as the German forces with growing strength in the air and capable of overland reinforcement, advanced remorselessly northwards towards Narvik, the futility of maintaining a military force, dependent on exposed sea communications and only limited air cover, dawned upon the British command and on 1 June, covered by the Hurricanes and Gladiators of #46 and 263 Squadrons, the evacuation of British forces from northern Norway was ordered. At midnight on 7 June the last Hurricanes took off to land on HMS Glorious, following a call for volunteers among the posits to save their valuable fighters. The following afternoon, as if to underline the nakedness of the whole Norwegian venture, Glorious was intercepted by the German warships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and within two hours the carrier had disappeared beneath the Arctic wastes, taking with her all but two of the RAF pilots and all their precious fighters. Thus ended the first of the RAF’s wartime exploits, engendered entirely by a hopeless tactical situation, aggravated by inadequate planning and unsuitable aircraft, but garnished by tremendous courage and splendid adaptability. Alas, this was but a foretaste of events that now unfolded with terrifying ferocity upon the nations which had so reluctantly faced up to the reality of Germany’s ambitions throughout the previous seven years of continuing political aggrandisement.


Bristol Blenheim Mk V, N6227, serving in France with #139 Squadron


Collapse in the West The defeat of Denmark and Norway had involved the employment of the equivalent of a single Luftflotte of the German air force with the temporary use of additional transport aircraft in the campaign’s early stages. Meanwhile the Wehrmacht had been putting the final touches to its preparations for an all-out attack in the West, an attack that would engulf the Low Countries in all the horrors of Blitzkrieg as a means of penetrating the unfortified northern flank of the supposedly impenetrable Maginot Line. As such a thrust would be levelled directly at the sector in which the BEF was deployed, the Luftwaffe anticipated a head on confrontation with the RAF, and none of its previous experience suggested that it would find it daunting.


Hurricane Mk1 serving in France



Hurricanes of #73 Squadron of the AASF (Advanced Air Striking Force)



BEF Air Component Hurricane Squadron


Since the first weeks of the war, the air elements of the RAF in France had been marginally strengthened, although little urgency had been apparent. The two gladiator squadrons were scheduled to be re-equipped with Hurricanes, and most of the Hurricanes previously fitted with fabric-covered wings and with wooden propellers had given place to newer versions with metal wings and variable pitch propellers. Perhaps one of the truly iconic features of the perceptible reinforcement process had been the deployment of a tactical reconnaissance unit (a photographic flight comprising a camera-equipped Spitfire and a Hudson) in France to provide warning of a German land attack. When such a warning was afforded some 24 hours in advance on 9 may, it was ignored by both British and French commands, who seemed simply to disregard the portents of massed enemy armour immediately behind the German frontier.


Westland Lysander MkII was the standard army cooperation aircraft 


Lysander Mk II of #13 Squadron at Mons-en-Chaussie


As it was, when the German air attacks fell upon the Netherlands and Belgium at dawn on 10 May, and the BEF was ordered forward into the latter country to cover the enemy thrusts, the RAF’s task was virtually confined to providing air cover over the battlefield. Moreover, the French, whose own air force was pathetically deficient in modern bombers, forbade the RAF to carry out bombing raids on German territory for fear of provoking reprisals on French towns. The Luftwaffe required no invitation.

The only air assistance available to the Dutch, who faced widespread airborne troop assaults on key bridges, airfields and road and rail key points, came from far-off British-based squadrons of Blenheims. Because of a lack of tactical communication these operated on ad hoc basis, and any minor success they achieved was entirely fortuitous. For instance, an attack by six Blenheims fighters of # 600 (City of London) Squadron, AAF, on Waalhaven, newly captured by the Germans cost all but one of the RAF aircraft. Likewise in Belgium with whom neither Britain nor France had negotiated any detailed plan to meet a German attack save that of a tacit understanding that Allied troops would swing forward after such an attack had been launched, the initial assault by German airborne forces met little resistance (other than near Fort Eben Emael), with the result that vital crossing points on the natural waterway barriers were quickly taken. By the end of that first day much of the Dutch and Belgian air forces lay scattered and burned on the ground and the British and French air forces had between them suffered the loss of almost 100 aircraft, a high proportion caught unawares on their airfields. By contrast, the Luftwaffe reported the loss of no fewer than 304 aircraft destroyed, 267 aircrew killed and 340 missing. But whereas the allied losses represented a substantial proportion of the available air strength on the continental mainland, those of the Luftwaffe were made good almost immediately. The next day, as the pattern of enemy intentions became clear in Belgium, the French appealed to Air Marshal A.S. Barratt, commanding the RAF in France, to attack German columns moving towards the Luxembourg border. Eight Battles of #88 and 218 (Bomber) Squadrons were sent out; only one returned. The next day nine Blenheims of #139 (Bomber) Squadron attacked an enemy column near Maastricht but ran into an entire Gruppe of Messerschmitt Bf109Es which shot down all but two of their number. The same day almost every Blenheim of #114(Bomber) Squadron was destroyed in an enemy attack on its airfield. It fell to five Battles of #12 (Bomber) Squadron to attempt to destroy the road bridges over the Albert Canal at Vroenhoven and Veldwezelt which had been taken intact by the Germans and over which enemy columns were now pouring. Manned exclusively by volunteers, the Battles carried low-level attacks in the face of murderous ground fire; all five aircraft were shot down, although the Veldwezelt bridge was hit. The leader of this attack Flying Officer D.E. Garland and his observer Sergeant T. Gray were posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, the first to be won by members of the Royal Air Force for 22 years. The catalogue of tragedies continued unchecked throughout the first week. Twenty four Blenheims attacked the bridge in Maastricht itself, losing 10 of their number and without damaging the target. Within three days the RAF bomber squadrons had lost 63 aircraft out of the 135 originally available. On the evening of 14 May all remaining Blenheims and Battles were thrown into an attack on enemy forces massing at Sedan; of the 71 aircraft which took off, 40 failed to return. No other enterprise of the same scale undertaken by the RAF ever suffered a comparable sacrifice. Henceforth, with scarcely any bombers left botfly offensive sorties, the task of the RAF fighters in France was confined to battlefield cover, a task made infinitely more difficult by the swift retreat of ground forces, and thus by an absence of raid warning. Occasionally formations of Hurricanes were fortunate to catch enemy bombers without escort and meted harsh punishment. Despite impassioned protests by Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, the commander-in-chief of Fighter Command, and responsible for home fighter defence, the German attack on 10 May had resulted in the despatch of four further Hurricane squadrons (#3, 79, 501 and 504) to France, joining the four already deployed (#s 1, 73, 85 and 87) and the Gladiator squadrons (#607 and 615) which were at that very moment re-equipping with Hurricanes. According to contemporary records, the Auxiliary Air Force  pilots of #501 (County of Gloucester) Squadron, for instance destroyed 18 German aircraft for the loss of two pilots in the first two days. But losses among these squadrons soon began to increase alarmingly and on 13 May, 32 Hurricanes and pilots were sent to France as replacements before Dowding could persuade the Cabinet to call a halt to further inevitable wastage of his vital resources. By 17 May losses among the Hurricanes caused the surviving pilots to amalgamate, thereby effectively creating three full squadrons. Such was th rate of retreat through Belgium and the Pas-de-Calais that as the BEF was isolated, following Guderian’s Panzer thrust to Abbeville, the remains of the Hurricane squadrons in the north were evacuated from France, while those further south made their westwards to evacuation ports such as Cherbourg, Brest and St Nazaire. At Merville, however, lack of fuel to evacuate the aircraft resulted in the deliberate destruction of 18 brand-new Hurricanes to prevent their falling into enemy hands.


Bristol Blenheim Mk IVs based at Poix


The Dunkirk evacuation With the departure of mainland-based fighter squadrons from the Pas-de-Calais, all air cover for the BEF, now making a desperate fighting withdrawal towards the port of Dunkirk, had to be provided by aircraft flying from airfields in Kent and Sussex. By 21 May the only aircraft left in Pas-de-Calais were a few Lysanders of #4 (Army Co-operation) Squadron. The cost of supporting the French nation had been a total of 323 RAF aircraft up to the point at which the BEF started its historic evacuation from Dunkirk. More significant was the loss of Hurricanes, of which 195 had already been lost out of 261 deployed, and of which 120 had been destroyed to prevent them from falling into enemy hands. From 22 May an average of 200 fighter sorties was flown each day from England over northern France, doing everything possible to prevent the Luftwaffe from interfering with the withdrawal to Dunkirk.

Inevitably Dowding’s carefully husbanded Spitfire squadrons now entered the battle over France. A new headquarters was created at Hawkinge in Kent to administer air operations over France and apart from coordinating the fighter sorties, this also ordered up tactical night bombing sorties by the surviving Battles and liaison with the British Army by Lysanders (as well as some obsolete Hawker Hector biplanes). On 26 May Operation Dynamo, the evacuation itself started in earnest.

From the outset some bitter criticism was levelled at the RAF by the shell-shocked and exhausted troops who seldom witnessed their battles fought by the fighter pilots against approaching German bombers. The fact was that many attacks were beaten off before reaching the port and its crowded environs. On the other hand many other raids broke through to deluge bombs on the docks, beaches and streets of Dunkirk reducing much of the town to rubble.

Dowding, and more particularly Air Vice Marshal Keith Park, commanding the vital #11 Group, Fighter Command, in south east England, were constrained to balance the need to protect the BEF’s evacuation from the German air onslaught with the risk of permanent losses to Britain’s metropolitan defences. Operating at fairly long distances from their home bases and without the benefit of accurate radar warning (British coastal CH radar could see over the Pas-de-Calais but not clearly below about 10,000 ft/3050 metres). Notwithstanding these difficulties, the Hurricane and Spitfire squadrons provided a remarkable degree of cover over the evacuation during the hours of  daylight between 26 May and 3 June, when some 340,000 Allied troops were brought off by the armada of small ship’. In the course of the hectic battles over Dunkirk, one squadron (#264) of the new two-seat Boulton Paul Defiant fighters was involved for a short time and, although thought to have  inflicted numerous casualties on enemy bomber formations at the time (since shown to have been exaggerated), the unwieldy turret and the tactics it imposed showed the aircraft to be unsuited for daylight air combat.

During the nine days of the great evacuation RAF fighter pilots flew a total of 2739 sorties in the immediate area of Dunkirk; a total of 166 German aircraft are now said to have been destroyed at a cost of 131 RAF aircraft, of which 44 pilots were saved. In addition, 171 reconnaissance and 651 bombing sorties were flown by the RAF. The importance of these losses lay not solely in their numbers but in the fact that they represented the professional hard core of Fighter Command. Some 87 pilots killed or taken prisoner represented the loss of an equivalent of five squadrons; moreover, a high proportion of the pilots lost were squadron or flight commanders-just the men on whom so much would have depended in the coming months. The Battle of France which continued until mid-June as isolated units continued to struggle back to other evacuation ports, cost the RAF a total of 959 aircraft 477 of them fighters.

  • The Air Component and AASF had lost 508 aircraft
  • Bomber Command 166
  • Fighter Command 219
  • Coastal Command 66

To these must be added more than 50 fighters lost in Norway. How critical these losses were, particularly in fighters, was to be realised all too clearly in the approaching crisis.

Early home-based operations Defeat in France and Norway left Britain without any foothold on the mainland of northern Europe. Moreover, as the German forces consolidated their positions in the newly-conquered territories, Britain now faced an enemy entrenched from the North Cape to the Spanish border. Three hostile air fleets were deployed against her, awaiting the word to launch an all-out attack to destroy the remains of Fighter Command as a necessary preliminary to a cross-Channel invasion by the Wehrmacht. Whether the means (the airmen and aircraft of the Luftwaffe) of achieving this victory were adequate remained to be seen. Apart from some misgivings about the Spitfire, now seen to be at least a match for the best German fighters, recent experience in France and Norway showed the Luftwaffe to be capable of soundly defeating the RAF, or so thought the German High Command. Moreover, exaggerated victory claims by German airmen suggested that Fighter Command had already been fatally weakened.  Had the Luftwaffe been able to open its all- out assault on Britain immediately after Dunkirk there is little doubt that Fighter Command would have been crushed within four or five weeks.

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