Battle of Britain The Hardest Day

The Hardest Day[3] is a Second World War air battle fought on 18 August 1940 during the Battle of Britain between the German Luftwaffe and British Royal Air Force (RAF). On that day, the Luftwaffe made an all-out effort to destroy RAF Fighter Command.

The air battles that took place on that day were amongst the largest aerial engagements in history to that time. Both sides suffered heavy losses. In the air, the British shot down twice as many Luftwaffe aircraft as they lost.[3] However, many RAF aircraft were destroyed on the ground, equalising the total losses of both sides. Further large and costly aerial battles took place after 18 August, but both sides lost more aircraft combined on this day than at any other point during the campaign, including 15 September, the Battle of Britain Day, generally considered the climax of the fighting. For this reason, Sunday 18 August 1940 became known as “the Hardest Day” in Britain.

By June 1940, the Allies had been defeated in Western Europe and Scandinavia. After Britain rejected peace overtures, Adolf Hitler issued Directive No. 16, ordering the invasion of the United Kingdom.[7] The invasion of the United Kingdom was codenamed Operation Sea Lion (Unternehmen Seelöwe). However, before this could be carried out, air supremacy or air superiority was required to prevent the RAF from attacking the invasion fleet or providing protection for any attempt by the Royal Navy‘s Home Fleet to intercept a landing by sea. Hitler ordered the Luftwaffe’s commander-in-chief, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, and the Oberkommando der Luftwaffe (High Command of the Air Force) to prepare for this task.

The primary target was RAF Fighter Command. In July 1940, the Luftwaffe began military operations to destroy the RAF. Throughout July and early August, the Germans targeted convoys in the English Channel and occasionally RAF airfields. On 13 August, a major German effort, known as Adlertag (Eagle Day), was made against RAF airfields but failed. The failure did not deter the Germans from persisting with air raids against the RAF or its infrastructure. Five days later came the Hardest Day.

Background

The Luftwaffe was detailed to destroy Fighter Command before the planned invasion of Britain could take place. The OKL hoped that the destruction of the British fighter defence would force the British to come to terms by air power alone and the very risky Operation Sea Lion would not be needed. The enormous numerical superiority of British naval forces over their German opponents made a crossing of the Channel very dangerous, even with air superiority. Furthermore, the aircraft losses of the spring campaign had weakened the Luftwaffe before the Battle of Britain, and it could not begin its campaign against Fighter Command immediately. It was forced to wait until it had reached acceptable levels before a main assault against the RAF could be made in August 1940.[8]

Until the Luftwaffe was ready to begin operations over the mainland, the first phase of the German air offensive targeted British shipping in the Channel. The raids rarely involved attacks against RAF airfields inland but enticed RAF units to engage in battle by attacking British Channel convoys. These operations lasted from 10 July to 8 August 1940.[9] The attacks against shipping were not very successful, and only 24,500 GRT was sunk. Minelaying from aircraft had proved more profitable, sinking 38,000 tons.[10] The impact on Fighter Command was minimal. It had lost 74 fighter pilots killed or missing and 48 wounded in July, but British strength rose to 1,429 by 3 August, leaving it short of just 124 pilots.[11] Still, the attacks succeeded in forcing the British to abandon the Channel convoy route and to redirect shipping to ports in north-eastern Britain. With this achieved the Luftwaffe began the second phase of its air offensive, attacking RAF airfields and support structures in Britain.[12]

The month of August witnessed an escalation in air combat, as the Germans made a concentrated effort against Fighter Command.[13] The first major raid inland and against RAF airfields came on 12 August, and the Luftwaffe quickly escalated its offensive.[14] The Germans did not achieve a degree of success commensurate with their exertions on this date. Nevertheless, in the belief they were having a considerable effect on Fighter Command, they prepared to launch their all-out assault on the RAF the following day.[15] By 13 August, German air strength had reached acceptable levels. After bringing its serviceable rates up, the Luftwaffe carried out heavy attacks under the codename Adlertag (or Eagle Day), with 71 per cent of its bomber force, 85 per cent of its Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter units, and 83 per cent of its Messerschmitt Bf 110 heavy fighter/fighter-bomber units operational.[16] The day went badly for the Germans, who failed to impair Fighter Command and its bases or command and control system. This was due in large part to poor intelligence, which failed to identify Fighter Command airfields and distinguish them from those of Bomber and Coastal Commands.[17] Still, the Germans pursued their strategy against Fighter Command on 15 August, suffering 76 losses.[18] Undeterred, they prepared to make another large-scale attack on RAF bases on 18 August.

Uftwaffe plan!

Albert Kesselring, commander of Luftflotte 2

German intelligence suggested that the RAF was down to just 300 serviceable fighters on 17 August 1940, taking into consideration German pilots’ claims and estimates of British production capabilities. In fact, there were 855 machines serviceable, with another 289 at storage units and 84 at training units. These resources were included in a total of 1,438 fighters, twice as many as at the beginning of July 1940. Expecting weakening opposition, the Luftwaffe prepared for a major action against RAF Sector Stations on 18 August.[19]

The Luftwaffe’s plan of attack was simple. German bombers were to strike at the RAF airfields in the southeast corner of England. The most important airfields in this region, under the command of AOC (Air Officer Commanding) Keith Park and his No. 11 Group RAF, were the Sector Stations at RAF KenleyBiggin HillHornchurchNorth WealdNortholtTangmere and Debden. The first five were on the periphery of Greater London. Tangmere was in the south near the coast at Chichester, while Debden was north of London near Saffron Walden. Each of these airfields housed two to three squadrons and had its own sector operations room. From there, its fighters were directed from its satellite airfields into combat. There were six satellite airfields at WesthampnettCroydonGravesendManstonRochford and RAF Martlesham Heath; Manston and Martlesham Heath each housed two squadrons, the remainder each housed one. Finally, there was RAF Hawkinge, just inland from Folkestone. Not all of these airfields were targeted on 18 August.[20]

Despite the failure of Adlertag and considerable loss rates on 15, 16 and 17 August, Kesselring convinced Göring that the only sound strategy was to continue to send heavily escorted bombers to destroy British airfields. Kesselring also advocated the use of Jagdgeschwader (fighter wings) in free-chase tactics. Messerschmitt Bf 109 single-engine fighters were to be sent out in advance of the main raids to force the British fighters into large-scale air battles which, in theory, would destroy RAF aircraft in combat and deplete the British defences. However, this time, Kesselring changed his operational methods. In consultation with Hugo Sperrle, commanding Luftflotte 3 (Air Fleet 3), he chose not to scatter his effort against a large number of targets. Instead, he narrowed down the targets to a shortlist in order to concentrate his strength and striking power. Sector stations RAF Kenley, North Weald, Hornchurch and Biggin Hill were chosen as the prime targets.[21][22]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.