Sunday September 15th 1940
Details of the mornings action
The "hour of destiny" was September 15th, a date thereafter commemorated as "Battle of Britain Day". The title has been disputed; Alfred Price, for one, says that September 15th "has singularly little to commend it.....the day when the British victory claim was furthest from the truth....." Yet, forgetting the "numbers game", it is hard to dispute Churchill's verdict that it was, in fact, "the crux of the Battle of Britain". He made that judgment in the light of his knowledge of what happened to Operation SEALION - which was, of course, from beginning to end, what the Battle of Britain was really about. The Official History sums up with clarity: "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." John Terraine The Right of the Line Hodder & Stoughton 1985 pp210-211
Sunday September 15th 1940, was not only the turning point of the Battle of Britain, it was the turning point of the whole war. Every Fighter Command aerodrome in 11 Group was in some way involved, every squadron within 11 Group participated as well as the Duxford Wing from 12 Group and a number of squadrons in 10 Group were called upon to protect areas in the south west. Ground crews at all 11 Group airfields had to make efficiency a top priority in getting aircraft refueled and rearmed in between sorties, while at 11 Group Headquarters Air Vice Marshal Keith Park busily controlled the situation drawing on all his experience and expertise under the watchful eye of visiting Winston Churchill who saw first hand the development of activities on this important day. Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding remained at Fighter Command Headquarters keeping silent vigil over the large map below indicating to him the events and the unfolding battle that was taking place over the south-east of England.
For Adolf Hitler and the German commanders, time was now running out. If an invasion was to take place on September 17th as planned, the lead-up would have to commence no later than today.....September 15th. The weather had shown, just how quickly it can turn at this time of year, and with winter not too far away, the German forces would have to take advantage of the better conditions that now seemed to prevail. Göring had sent out the instructions the day previous to all bomber and fighter bases that preparations for an all out assault on England was to be made on this day September 15th, bomber units were given times and flight paths of their attack. Over the last few weeks, the Luftwaffe had experimented with different flying formations, needless to say, none had really been successful, losses had still been high, but they had discovered that on the occasions that they had kept at high altitudes, they had on a number of occasions surprised Fighter Command.
This was mainly due to the fact that the British radar was ineffective above 20,000 feet, and by flying at a height above this level they could cross the Channel undetected, but, the Germans did not know this. All that they were aware of, was the fact that those formations that flew at higher altitudes were not intercepted until they were usually well over the English coast. The most logical reason for this, thought the Germans was due to the fact that it took the British fighters much longer to gain the required height to intercept.
The sending of advance Ju87 and Bf110 units to bomb the radar stations along the southern coastline was, in the opinion of the Luftwaffe, a waste of time. As fast as they seemed to be destroyed, they were back in operational use again, and mobile units too were brought in to replace any radar station damaged. Over the last few days, the Germans had practiced at electronic jamming, this, they believed was successful and plans were made to intensify the jamming procedure in an effort to further reduce detection.
The spirit of the German aircrew, was still far from high. Time and time again, they had been told that the 'Glorious Luftwaffe' is ready to strike the final blow. But they had been told that in July, and again in August when Adlerangriff had been announced, and it was to be repeated yet again this September 15th. Early in the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe aircrews were told that the Royal Air Force would be wiped out in two or three weeks, now, whenever they fly over the British countryside they are still met with masses of British fighters in the hands of pilots that were gaining in skill and techniques. Many firmly believed that they were no nearer victory than they were two months previous.
Failure to achieve any notable success, constantly changing orders betraying lack of purpose and obvious misjudgment of the situation by the Command, and unjustified accusation had a most demoralising effect on us fighter pilots, who were already overtaxed by physical and mental strain.
Adolph Galland Commander
In Britain, things were slightly different. Most of the pilots were relatively fresh unlike their German counterparts. Combat action had been very infrequent, with only one really heavy day. As mentioned previously, Fighter Command was now stronger than it had been for weeks, aerodromes repaired, planes and personnel had replaced many that had been shot down and the radar stations were all functioning at 100%.
Park meanwhile, was prepared. He had learnt just a few days previous that there was to be a large scale attack prior to the impending invasion, only that he was unsure as to the exact date or time. Whatever attack that the Germans planned, he was sure, that 11 Group was ready even though the Luftwaffe commanders could not agree as to the actual strength of Fighter Command at the time.
I think one of the problems with German intelligence was, was that it simply did not help the Germans to fight the battle, partly because of the problems we've mentioned with their inability to tell the truth even when they knew it, but the results of this can be seen only in September when there is a conference for senior German commanders attended by Göring himself, and Bepo Schmidt. And you have the commander of one Luftwaffe unit giving his opinion that there are at least one thousand RAF fighters left in Fighter Command, and the commander of another Luftwaffe unit giving his opinion that Fighter Command is beaten.
So the degree of confusion in the German High Command as to what was actually happening is quite obvious whereas the British, at least they knew what they were trying to achieve. The British had a slightly simpler problem. Their main objective was survival. Both intelligence organizations seriously overestimated the number of enemy aircraft they shot down, the Germans by a factor of between three and four. The British right towards the end of the battle did get slightly puzzled by the fact that they could only find the wreckage of some eight hundred aircraft whereas the numbers claimed were far in excess of that. Instead of drawing the correct conclusion which was that the fighter pilots for quite understandable reasons were over claiming the number of enemy aircraft lost.
They tried to work out where the missing, in inverted commas, aircraft might be, and that is to why did they crash in France or in the English channel or wherever. They didn't correctly identify the problem which was that a German aircraft shot down was often claimed by more than one pilot in the confusion of the air fighting.
Sebastian Cox Air Historical Branch regarding the Battle of Britain
To survive any intense attack that may be instigated by the Luftwaffe, Keith Park had, in the last few days rearranged some of his squadrons, carefully placing them in the best strategic position to provide the best defence of London that he possibly could. Of course, we must remember, that the pilots of Fighter Command had no idea of any large scale attack being made by the Luftwaffe. This information was only known by a selected few in radio interception (the "Y" Force) and the Air Ministry and of course, Dowding and Park himself. To the pilots, any change they thought was the usual relieving of tired squadrons.
September 15th Order of Battle
It was not long after breakfast that Keith Park new that today was to different from all others, for the first time in a week, he had been notified that there was a build up of German formations along the enemy coast. 'This, I think is what we have been waiting for' he said, ' I think that it is about to happen.'
Heavy cloud and rain periods overnight was expected to clear and the forecast for the day was fine in most areas with patchy cloud. No rain was forecast but some areas could expect an odd shower to develop. The cloud was expected to clear during the afternoon giving way to a fine and clear evening.
OPERATIONS IN DETAIL:
0900hrs: Unaware of what was about to unfold within Fighter Command, the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his wife decided that he would call upon Air Vice Marshal Keith Park at 11 Group Headquarters at Uxbridge.
During the morning of 15 September Park received a visit from Churchill, accompanied by his wife and one of his private secretaries. He had no wish to disturb anyone, he said, but as he happened to be passing, he thought he would call in to see if anything was up. If not, 'I'll just sit in the car and do my homework.' Naturally, Park welcomed the Prime Minister and his companions and escorted them down to the bomb-proof operations room, fifty feet below ground level. Churchill sensed that something important might happen that day. (Park's wife had the same sense: when he apologized at breakfast for forgetting that 15 September was her birthday, she replied that a good bag of German aircraft would be an excellent present.)
Once they were in the operations room, Park tactfully explained to Churchill — not for the first time — that the air conditioning could not cope with cigar smoke. As the day's dramatic events unfolded, the Prime Minister was therefore obliged to observe them with no better consolation than a dead cigar between his teeth. He had met Park several times and regarded him highly, recognizing (as he wrote after the war) that his was the group: on which our fate largely depended. From the beginning of Dunkirk all the daylight actions in the South of England had already been conducted by him, and all his arrangements and apparatus had been brought to the highest perfection.
Vincent Orange Sir Keith Park Methuen 1984 pp109-110
Keith Park took his visitors to the operations room, and as he began to explain some of the complexities of the operations, a radar report had come through that a number of enemy aircraft had been detected building up in the vicinity of Dieppe, another smaller formation had been detected over the the Channel off the coast near Dover. Park told the Prime Minister that he was lucky because it looked like that he could witness the activities of operations because a couple of German formations had been spotted. Winston Churchill replied that he would let the C-in-C carry on with his job and that he would just sit and watch.
The C-in-C called up some of his station commanders, mainly at Biggin Hill, Kenley and Hornchurch and ordered that they each place a couple of squadrons on 'Stand By' *. All eyes were concentrated on the large map table below. The smaller formation seemed content on staying out of reach in the centre of the Channel and made no move towards the English coastline. "Feelers," said Keith Park, "no doubt trying to entice our squadrons into the air." He knew that there was something strange about this morning. A small formation, possibly Bf109s flying parallel to the coast while a larger formation was gathering behind them. These tactics had not been employed since they used to make attacks on his airfields.
0930hrs: The two formations had spread themselves out and were detected near the coasts off Dover, Harwich and in the Thames Estuary. Squadrons were dispatched from Hornchurch, Gravesend and Croydon. But most of the German formations were ordered to turn back. The Fighter Command squadrons were recalled. The only other activity was just off the Devon coast were a lone reconnaissance aircraft was detected and a flight from 87 Squadron Exeter (Hurricanes) was "Scrambled". It turned out to be a He111 on weather reconnaissance and was shot down by P/O D.T.Jay.
1030hrs: New formations were detected positioned between the towns of Calais and Boulogne. The markers on the map table at 11 Group HQ indicated that the enemy strength was 100 plus, but within moments, another marker was placed just behind the first and indicated 150 plus. It appeared that the German formations were in no great hurry and were forming up very slowly, this worked to the advantage of Keith Park as it gave him the chance to organize his defence forces. "This, Mr. Prime Minister looks like the big one." said Park, eyes glued to the map. The C-in-C gave a few orders then asked for someone to get Observer Corps HQ on the telephone, then he ordered his assistants with him to get the various sector station controllers "on the blower" with the order for all squadrons to, "Stand By". During a lull in Parks orders, Winston Churchill, standing beside him said quietly, "There appear to be many aircraft coming in." Keith Park answered in the same low tone "And we are ready for them.......there'll be someone there to meet them."
1100hrs: The picture now of this morning attack was clearer. There was at least 200 plus bombers and an unknown number of Bf109 and Bf110 escorts just off the coast near Calais. They were flying in a nor' nor' west direction and in a straight line this would allow them to cross the English coast in the vicinity of Dungeness. The expected time over the English coast would be between 1145 and 1200hrs if they were carrying heavy bomb loads, which it was expected they were.
Park was expecting a heavy engagement, but the map showed no other detection of enemy aircraft, just this one coming towards Dungeness, and this was big enough. He asked his assistants to get the sector controllers on the phone again and in the next thirty minutes, the following squadrons were scrambled:
1130hrs: Just as the first Fighter Command squadrons approached the southern coast of Kent, the leaders of the German formation still had a few miles to go before they crossed the tall cliffs of the British coastline. The enemy bombers consisted of practically the whole of 1/KG76 flying Dornier Do17s, these had met up with the Do17s of 111/KG76 and KG3 behind Calais and now the combined force, escorted by Bf109 escorts formed a vast armada almost two miles wide crossing the coast. All the enemy aircraft were thought to have departed from bases in the Brussels and Antwerp areas. The heights of the enemy formations were between 15,000 and 26,000 feet and the Observer Corps reported that they were crossing the coast just north of Dungeness, to the south of Dover and at Ramsgate.
The bombers came across the coastline in a number of vic formations, some of these consisted of three aircraft, some in five while others were in vics of seven, but as they crossed the tall cliffs they looked something like a giant herringbone. The bombers, which consisted of Dorniers, Heinkels and Junkers were escorted by Bf110 aircraft flying in close support while the Bf109s flew top cover high above the bombers.
Keith Park reckoned that the advance squadrons should make the initial interception and slow the advancing formation down. He knew that it would be asking too much to turn such a large force around and it would be obvious that these squadrons would have to be replaced as fuel and ammunition became low. The relieving squadrons then would leave London defenseless so Park decided to bring in the 'Duxford Wing' from 12 Group and wanted to vector them to be over London just prior to the estimated ETA of the enemy formation should they manage to get through.
In the next fifteen minutes, the following squadrons were scrambled:
1200hrs: The German formation was making slow progress and 72 Squadron Biggin Hill (Spitfires) and 92 Squadron Biggin Hill (Spitfires) were vectored to intercept the enemy between Maidstone and Ashford. Some of the other squadrons that had been vectored further south were now re-vectored. These included the Hurricanes of 253 Squadron Kenley and 501 Squadron Kenley, with the Spitfires of 66 Squadron Gravesend, 603 Squadron Hornchurch and 609 Squadron Warmwell and within minutes reinforced 72 and 92 Squadrons. Soon after the initial interception, 229 Squadron Northolt (Hurricanes) and 303 Squadron Northolt (Hurricanes) met the raiders between Rochester and South London while 17 Squadron Debden and 73 Squadron Debden (Hurricanes) met the bombers over Maidstone. Fighter Command had eleven squadrons engaging the German armada. The heavy bomber formation was still stepped between 15,000 and 25,000 feet with a massive Bf109 fighter escort above and slightly to the rear of the main formation.
The combat action was exceptionally heavy, and most of the defending British fighters managed to keep the Messerschmitt escorts from providing the cover for the bombers. The using of paired squadrons as requested by Keith Park was working. The Spitfires harassed the Bf109s, criss-crossing them at every opportunity, and one by one they were sent spiraling towards earth trailing plumes of smoke. The Bf109s tried to continue to escort the bombers who now were being attacked by the Hurricane squadrons. The British fighter pilots were slowly breaking up the formation with a steady application of force causing the bombers to straggle out of formation. 
From the time that we had been over Maidstone until reaching the outskirts of London, we had been under extreme pressure. The British fighters had been with us since we had first crossed the English coast and had gathered in intensity all the time. Our escort had been doing a grand job with the Spitfires at keeping them away from us, and we thought that should things remain like this, then this bombing run would be made easy.
We saw the Hurricanes coming towards us and it seemed that the whole of the RAF was there, we had never seen so many British fighters coming at us at once. I saw a couple of our comrades go down, and we got hit once but it did no great damage. All around us were dogfights as the fighters went after each other, then as we were getting ready for our approach to the target, we saw what must have been a hundred RAF fighters coming at us. We thought that this must have been all the RAF planes were up at once, but where were they coming from, as we had been told that the RAF fighters were very close to extinction. We could not keep our present course, we turned to starboard and done all that we could to avoid the fighters and after a while I am sure we had lost our bearings, so we just dropped our bombs and made our retreat.
Luftwaffe Do 17 Front Gunner Hans Zonderlind
The hundreds of Bf109s covered a wide area and they too were having their successes. Two Hurricanes of 229 Squadron were shot down over the Sevenoaks area, with P/O G.Doutrepont aircraft being shot up badly and he was killed as the Hurricane went down and crashed on Staplehurst Railway Station. Another member of the squadron, P/O R.Smith managed to bale out of his bullet riddled aircraft also over Sevenoaks and he suffered severe leg injuries. Over Tunbridge Wells, F/O A.D.Nesbitt of 1 (RCAF) Squadron was swooped on by Bf109s and he baled out as his aircraft spiraled to earth. F/O R.Smither was not so lucky, as he went down with his aircraft also over Tunbridge Wells.
The combat area now covered a wide area, and as the minutes ticked by, the intensity of the battle increased as more fighters of Fighter Command arrived on the scene. 501 Squadron Kenley (Hurricanes) was one of them. They intercepted the enemy over northern Kent and mixed it with both bombers and fighter escort.
'The bombers were coming in towards London from the south-east and at first we could not tell how many there were. We opened our throttles and started to climb up towards them, aiming for a point well ahead, where we expected to contact them at their own height. As we converged, I saw that there were about twenty of them, and it looked as though it was going to be a nice party, for the other squadrons of Hurricanes and Spitfires also turned to join in. By the time we reached a position near the bombers, we were over London — central London, I should say. We had gained a little height on them, too, so when I gave the order to attack we were able to dive on them from their right.
'Each of us selected his own target. Our first attack broke them up pretty nicely. The Dornier I attacked with a burst lasting several seconds began to turn to the left away from his friends. I gave him five seconds, and he went away with white smoke streaming behind him. As I broke away and started to make a steep climbing turn, I looked over the side. I recognised the river immediately below me through a hole in the clouds. I saw the bends and the bridges and idly wondered where I was. Then I saw Kennington Oval, and I thought to myself, "That is where they play cricket".
Squadron Leader John Sample 501 Squadron September 15th 1940
Squadron Leader John Sample went on to say, that soon after this, he came across another Do17 that had been hit by a Spitfire and a Hurricane who were following closely and was trailing white smoke. Not that one could really get bored up there, but he had nothing else to attack, so he climbed up above the Dornier and then made a diving attack. As the distance between himself and the bomber narrowed, he noticed a red light in the rear-gunners cockpit, but as he got even closer, he saw that he was looking through the whole length of the inside of the Dornier to the pilot and observers cockpit. The red light that he saw, was in fact the red glow of fire. He gave another short burst, and as he turned and went past the aircraft, the inside was nothing but a red hot furnace inside. He then saw it go into a spin after the tail section broke away, followed by the wing sections beyond the engines. The narrow fuselage with short stubbs of wing roots fell though the cloud to oblivion, John never saw it crash.
Another pilot of 504 Squadron, Sergeant R.T.Holmes, decided that he would take on no less than three Dorniers at the same time. The first, after a short burst bellowed smoke, but as he flew past he got a spray of black oil on his windscreen. But that did not deter him from going in on a second Dornier ahead. Another short burst as the Do17 was lined up in his sights, and smoke and flames came from the stricken bomber and it dived away. He then took on a third, but soon afterwards, his Hurricane banked sharply and he lost all control, he started to go into a wild spin. It is not known as to whether he collided with the third Dornier, or was hit by enemy gunfire but he found it difficult to extract himself from the doomed fighter. Suddenly, he managed to free himself and jumped, the parachute breaking his fall just twenty feet or so above the rooftops of some houses in fashionable Chelsea. His backside hit the sloping roof of one of the houses, and he began to slide down the roofless, fall off over the guttering and straight down into the garden below, and into a garbage bin. The Dornier came down about a mile away crashing into the forecourt of Victoria Station, practically demolishing a small tobacconist's shop. 
1215hrs: The Bf109s were being held over the northern area of Kent with only a few managing to escape the onslaught by the Spitfires. The bombers which consisted of He111, Do17s and Do215s were being harassed by the Hurricanes, and one by one they began to turn away smoke trailing from engines and desperately trying to evade any further attack by the British fighters. Others dropped their bombs at random. Some of the more courageous tried in vain to make it to their target, riddled with bullets, crewmen either dead or injured at their posts. But more was in store for them as they approached London. Keith Parks timing of requesting the Duxford Wing to cover the airfields of Hornchurch and North Weald was to perfection, as was everything else that was taking place. It seemed that Fighter Command could do no wrong.
As the German bomber formation, with about only one third of its Bf109 escorts, approached the outskirts of London the enemy was in disarray. The Bf109s peeled away one by one, some had sustained damage but most were now low on fuel. With the city now in their sights, they were confronted by the most awesome sight of the four squadrons of the Duxford Wing. Three squadrons of Hurricanes with the two Spitfire squadrons about 5,000 feet higher. As the Duxford Wing closed in, they were joined by 41 Squadron Hornchurch (Spitfires), 46 Squadron North Weald (Hurricanes), 504 Squadron Hendon (Hurricanes) and 609 Squadron Warmwell (Spitfires). The Bombers were confronted by British fighters on all sides, and one of the biggest combat actions ever seen over London developed. Sergeant D. Cox of 19 Squadron wrote in his combat report:
There was not much for the bombers to do, the pressure on them was intense. They would be attacked by a couple of squadrons of RAF fighters, then as soon as they broke off the engagement, another couple of squadrons were ready to pounce at an already decimated enemy force. The bombers began to drop their bomb loads at random hoping that this would lighten their load and they could make as hasty retreat as possible without any further damage to their aircraft. South London was the worst affected, with Lewisham, Lambeth, Camberwell and a couple of the bridges across the River Thames all recording bomb damage. One high explosive bomb fell in the grounds of Buckingham Palace causing slight structural damage to the building but a bigger hole in the lawns at the rear as it failed to explode. A power station in Beckenham was also hit.
For the Germans, after about ten minutes over London, there was now no such thing as the formation. German bombers were at all levels of altitude and most were scattered over an area fifteen miles wide. To give an example of the intensity of this morning battle, the combat area was approximately 80 miles long by 38 miles wide, and up to six miles high. Total combat actions numbered as many as 200, one third of these were settled within the combat area with one of the aircraft submitting either by being destroyed by his enemy or a disabled aircraft managing to break away and head for safer pastures. The other third was with German aircraft being chased away from the combat area by British fighters and often crashing on English soil or going down into the watery graveyard of the English Channel.
Because of the intensity and aggression shown by the pilots of Fighter Command, the bombers dropped most of their bombs randomly over a wide area. Damage was done, but not as much as was intended by the Luftwaffe commanders. For the Luftwaffe, the raid was doomed to failure the moment that the first formations had crossed the Channel. This time, everything had gone right for Fighter Command and 11 Group. Timing, position and height was all on the side of the RAF. Keith Park and his pilots had won the first round of the day.
1230hrs: As the clocks in Britain showed 12.30pm, the first battle of the day had finished. Most of the German bombers who had intentions of again dropping hundreds of tons of bombs on the city had been fought off by Fighter Command. In scattered areas of Kent and Sussex the odd skirmish still took place as patrolling squadrons observed a few Dorniers and Heinkels desperately trying to make their way back to their bases in northern France and Belgium. The pilots of the Hurricanes and Spitfires showed no mercy. It made no difference whether the bombers were crippled or not, some, which it was obvious that they would never make it back, were shot down, the broken hulks of German aircraft could be seen from the outskirts of London to the Channel coast.
To many Londoners, many were out and about on this fine day in September, and went about their business as usual, the dog- fighting high above being little more than entertainment value.
A partial List of some known damaged and lucky aircraft to escape back to France
Fighter Command Order of Battle
September 15th 1940
11 Group / Air Vice Marshal Keith Park / Uxbridge Middlesex
* 303 Squadron was the famous and very successful Polish squadron
10 Group / Air Vice Marshal Sir Christopher Brand / Box, Wiltshire
12 Group / Air Vice Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory / Watnall, Nottinghamshire
* 306 Squadron flew only one squadron that was operational.
13 Group / Air Vice Marshal Richard Saul / Newcastle, Northumberland
*This squadron later converted over to Whirlwind aircraft.
The Luftwaffe Order of Battle at 7th September 1940
Messerschmitt Bf 109 single engined fighter
Messerschmitt Bf 110 twin engined fighters
Long Range Reconnaissance Aircraft
Luftwaffe Bomber Units
Luftwaffe over Claims almost twice as many claimed as in reality
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