75th ANNIVERSARY OF THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN: August 18, 1940 – Kent remembers the Hardest Day
PUBLISHED: 10:13 18 August 2015 | UPDATED: 10:13 18 August 2015
It was the most intense day of fighting in the Battle of Britain with the skies over Kent the scene of what went on to become known as the Hardest Day. Nowhere saw more action than the fighter base at Biggin Hill and today (Tuesday) tributes will be paid to all those who fought, writes Chris Murphy...
SUNDAY, August 18, 1940, was the day when The Few of the RAF showed the German Luftwaffe once and for all who was boss.
It was the most intense day of fighting since the Luftwaffe had started trying to bomb Britain’s airfields into submission – when both forces lost more aircraft than on any other day during the Battle of Britain.
And today (Tuesday) Biggin Hill airport will re-enact that terrifying day on its 75th anniversary, with the largest flying formation of Hurricanes and Spitfires seen in years.
Starting at 12.45pm, 18 Spitfires and six Hurricanes will fly in various formations. There will then be a flight line walk where you can see the aircraft and meet the pilots.
“We want to honour the courageous pilots, engineers, armourers, operations staff and ground crews who faced constant attack from the Nazi Luftwaffe on that day and during that period,” the airport’s head of communications, Simon Ames, explained.
Aviation historian Robin Brooks, who helps run the Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar, where the Spitfires and Hurricanes are kept, said that August 18, 1940, was hell in the air.
He told us: “In August 1940, Britain was fighting for survival.
“In the air, a numerically superior German Air Force was being mauled by a band of airmen that Churchill called his Few.
“From July 10, the Luftwaffe had striven to destroy the airfields of Fighter Command in order to gain control of the skies above south-east England prior to a planned invasion. The culmination of the fighting came on August 18.”
Biggin Hill, which was one of the main fighter bases protecting London and the south east, played a pivotal role.
“At Biggin Hill – a key sector station controlling West Malling and Lympne, and flanked by sector D with Hawkinge, Gravesend and Manston and sector B, Kenley and Croydon – No 32 Squadron with Hurricanes and No 610 (County of Chester) Auxiliary Squadron with Spitfires were to experience a day like no other,” Mr Brooks said.
“From noon onward, apart from landing to refuel and rearm, they were airborne continuously to protect Biggin Hill from total annihilation.
“Their task carried on long into the evening, but despite the intense damage done to the airfield, at no time was it non-operational.”
Along with Kenley airfield in Croydon, the Luftwaffe were specifically aiming to destroy Biggin Hill.
“Orders were issued to the Luftwaffe from Kesselring’s headquarters in Brussels stating that the targets on the 18th were to be the fighter airfields of Kenley and Biggin Hill,” Mr Brooks said.
“Accordingly, 60 Heinkel 111s from Kampfgeschwader 1 were signalled to attack the former, while Kampfgeschwader 76, with 48 Dornier 17s and Junkers 88s, were allocated to attack Biggin Hill.
“Both units were part of Luftflotte 1, based in Brussels under the command of Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring. Both bomber formations were to be escorted by Messerschmitt 109s from Jagdeschwader 3, 26, 51, 52 and 54 and Messerschmitt 110s from Zerstorergeschwader 76. Lifting off from their airfields at approximately 12.45pm, they crossed the Channel to begin their attacks.”
What followed was an aerial conveyor belt of bullets, bombs and death.
“First to be hit was Kenley,” Mr Brooks said.
“As bombs rained down on the airfield, the enemy armada was attacked by Spitfires from No. 54 Squadron and from the Kenley-based squadron No. 64.
“Further squadrons from North Weald, Martlesham Heath, Manston and Rochford also came to the aid of the base.
“In what seemed like hours but was only minutes, Kenley was left devastated, with fires breaking out everywhere and buildings and hangars either demolished or badly damaged.”
The bombers then closed in on Biggin Hill, expecting similar success. But they didn’t find it.
“As the Dorniers and Junkers approached the airfield, twelve Hurricanes from No. 32 Squadron and fifteen Spitfires from No. 610 (County of Chester) Auxiliary Squadron rose up to protect the base,” Mr Brooks told us.
“Notice had been given of the impending raid by the Observer Corp in the valley near Brasted and the fighter control room at Stanmore, which allowed the home squadrons to get airborne to meet the attack.
“As the enemy aircraft came in low, bombs rained down on the airfield. Amid the explosions came the sound of machine guns as the fighters tore into the enemy.
“On the ground it was tin hats on, as many buildings essential to the running of the station were subject to attack.”
Even the Home Guard jumped at the chance to take on the airborne enemy.
Mr Brooks said: “They felt that they could not be left out and, using their rifles, fired at any enemy aircraft they could see.
“One Dornier 17 in particular was to receive their attention. Fatally wounded by earlier fire from the big guns, as it came in low over Leaves Green it felt the full force of rifle fire. The aircraft burst into flames and crashed short of the airfield.
“A newspaper report later stated that the aircraft had been brought down by the Home Guard, something that the local battalion were to bask in glory about for some time after.”
Before long, the enemy planes had turned and fled.
“Once again, what seemed like hours was in fact minutes as the enemy aircraft turned for home, only to be attacked by fighters on their way,” Mr Brooks said.
“At the final count, as dusk approached, 32 Squadron had lost seven Hurricanes but no pilots, although there were injuries, and 610 Squadron had lost two Spitfires, again with no loss of life.
“Overall the RAF had lost 136 aircraft, but for the Luftwaffe it had been a disastrous day both numerically and in terms of morale.”
Aviation historian Anthony Moor, the author of Detling Airfield 1915-1959, told us it was the over-confidence of one man that enabled the Allies to win the air.
He told us: “Oberst ‘Beppo’ Schmid’s 5th Directorate of the Luftwaffe High Command issued a document on August 17, 1940, stating that owing to the RAF losses in the previous six weeks, the RAF was now depleted to 430 Spitfires, Hurricanes and Defiants, of which he thought only 300 were serviceable.
“The Luftwaffe High Command assumed then that it was time to deliver the coup de theatre, thinking, incorrectly, that the RAF was on its last legs and that England’s total collapse would take place in a matter of weeks.
“The German High Command laid plans to launch powerful assaults on August 18 on RAF Kenley, Biggin Hill, Hornchurch and North Weald, the major airfields of the 11 Group in the south east, on which fighter defences in the area hinged.
“Airfields such as RAF Lympne, Hawkinge. Manston, Detling, West Malling, Martlesham Heath, Croydon and Tangmere had already suffered loss of life and severe damage during hard-fought action in the previous week.
“There were at least 32 Squadrons involved in operations to stop these planned attacks, and of course other units and airfields were involved. The radar stations at Dover, Rye, Pevensey, Dunkirk and Ventnor had also been attacked; Ventnor was out of action. However, RAF Tangmere sector control was still able to direct fighters, which was an important factor.”
August 17 was ominously quiet. Squadron Leader Michael Crossley, of No 32 Squadron based at Biggin Hill, made a note in his diary: “Not a single sausage, scare, flap or diversion of any description today. Amazing. Heavenly day too!”
Winston Churchill said at the time: “We should not have liked Hitler to come before we were ready to receive him, but we are quite ready to receive him now and we shall really be very disappointed if he does not turn up.
“We can assure him that he will meet with that welcome on our shores which no invader has ever missed. This was to have been a week of German victory: it has been a week of British victory instead.”
Mr Moor added: “A major effect of the August 18 raids on the outcome of the Battle of Britain was that the bulk of Ju87 Stuka units were withdrawn from action to be preserved to support the dropped German invasion known as Operation Sea Lion.
“That operation was thwarted by the sacrifice of our young pilots and airmen who bore the brunt of these events. Those who were directly involved in the actions of August 18 are now remembered as having taken part in the Hardest Day.
“Some 50 RAF airmen were lost, missing or killed, mostly in Hurricanes. In the Luftwaffe 96 airmen were killed, missing or lost, although these figures may not be totally accurate.
“Apart from heavy Stuka losses – at least 21 – the RAF fought the Dornier Do17, Heinkel He111, Junkers Ju88, Me110 and the Bf109.”
The news of the defeat was not well received by Luftwaffe commander-in-chief Hermann Goring.
“He summoned his Luftflotte commanders and expressed, in no uncertain terms, his displeasure and contempt for their failure to produce the spectacular results of previous campaigns,” Mr Moor said.
“It is true to say that neither by attacking the airfields, nor by attacking London, was the Luftwaffe likely to destroy Fighter Command.”
The base at RAF Manston luckily escaped any extreme damage on the Hardest Day.
Doug Cockle, from the RAF Manston Museum, told us: “We had a few Blenheim night fighters here and we were bombed, but not as hard as other Kent bases. We were a bit too frontline.
“We were hit harder a few days later and lost aircraft and buildings, including our swimming pool.
“After that, we had a few hit-and-run attacks with just a couple of aircraft, and then the bombers switched to attacking London, which gave us time to repair the runways – which were grass at the time, so didn’t take much work.”