Sunday, 15 September 1940 saw the climax of the Battle of Britain when the Luftwaffe launched a massive series of attacks against London, flying over 1,000 sorties. Although the RAF claimed to have shot down 183 enemy aircraft, German losses numbered fifty-six bombers and fighters, albeit many enemy machines returned to Occupied Europe badly damaged. Chris Goss tells the story about two German bombers which only just made it back.
On Saturday, 14 September 1940, Gruppe I and Gruppe II of Kampfgeschwader 76 (KG 76) had a much needed day off from their assault upon the United Kingdom. This was but a brief respite from their persistent attacks designed to weaken Fighter Command to the point of collapse. The next day, though, was to see the two German bomber groups form part of the mightiest effort conducted by the Luftwaffe throughout the entire course of the Battle of Britain.
The first attack of the day manifested itself at about 11.00 hours when fighter-bombers of II Gruppe of Lehrgeschwader 2 (II/LG 2) attacked London. Twenty minutes later Dornier Do 17s of KG 76 appeared over the capital’s suburbs but due to the number of Spitfires and Hurricanes sent to intercept them, damage was slight.
Feldwebel Rolf Heitsch of 8/KG 76 recalled the events of that day clearly: «The attack height was about 6,000m, our target a factory to the east of London, close to the Thames. On the return flight as the right-hand Kettenhund [a Kette was a three aircraft tactical formation similar to a vic], I was the aircraft the enemy would target. Whilst in a left hand turn, we found ourselves at the rear of the formation and it was then that the fighters attacked.»
The fighters Heitsch refers to were probably those of 609 (West Riding) Squadron. «As the slowest Do 17, they attacked us from behind,» Heitsch continued. «Trying to take evasive action by flying up and down, they hit us with three bursts with the result that we only had 4/5ths power from the engines. The right engine was totally destroyed and the left engine was just idling. We managed to get between two cumulus clouds and had to force-land in a field which sloped uphill and was occupied by cows at their midday rest. When the ‘plane came to a halt, we could not get out because the exits had been so badly damaged by gunfire.»
It transpired that Heitsch’s Dornier, having been attacked by Flying Officer John Dundas and Pilot Officer Eugene «Red» Tobin of 609 Squadron, had crashed at Castle Farm, Shoreham. Soon the Home Guard arrived and Heitsch found himself a prisoner for the remainder of the war. It is believed that his crew’s target that day was actually the railway junction at Latchmere End.
The reason that some of the Dorniers had been so vulnerable was because, as Heitsch explained, the bombers had been delayed and taken off thirty minutes late but this information had not been passed onto the fighter escort. There was also a strong north-westerly wind blowing resulting in the fighters consuming more fuel. The combination of these two factors meant that the escort had to turn back home before the bombers reached London. The consequence of this was that when many of the bombers arrived over the target they were entirely alone.
Until this day, Fighter Command’s policy had always been to despatch a limited number of fighters to engage the enemy. Their objective was to preserve as many pilots and aircraft as possible whilst still opposing every enemy raid.
This strategy was challenged by the commander of 12 Group, Air ViceMarshal Leigh-Mallory. His view was that if Fighter Command put as many fighters into the air as possible they would be able to inflict very heavy casualties upon the enemy, thus quickly defeating the Luftwaffe.
On 15 September 1940, Air ViceMarshal Keith Park, who in command of 11 Group was a supporter of the limited numbers policy, decided to give Leigh-Mallory’s «Big Wing» theory a chance.
As it happened, that morning Winston Churchill dropped into the Operations Room at RAF Uxbridge and was able to witness the events ofthat day for himself.
As a result of Park’s decision, when more German aircraft, bombers and escorts, were detected moving across the Channel, Wing Commander Douglas Bader led a mass of no less than fifty-six fighters from 12 Group to support the squadrons of 11 Group. For once the escorting German fighters would be outnumbered.
The next attack was against the Royal Victoria, West India and Surrey Commercial docks in London’s East End.
The attackers this time were Dornier 17s of II and III/KG 2 and II/KG 3 together with Heinkel 111s of I and II/KG 53 and I and II/KG 26. This made a total of 114 bombers flying in three parallel columns three miles apart. Together with its large escort the whole formation stretched for some thirty miles.
Again, the Fighter Command fighters threw themselves at the bombers and their escorts with dogfights occurring over much of Kent, London, East Sussex and Essex. London was spared serious damage as when the Luftwaffe aircraft arrived over London, the German bomber crews found their targets obscured by cloud. Unable to find their primary targets, their bombs were dropped on the south-eastern outskirts of the capital as they turned for home, all the time being attacked mercilessly by Spitfires and Hurricanes.
Losses were high with eight Do 17s destroyed and seven damaged with nineteen aircrew killed, nine captured and ten wounded in KG 2. KG 3 suffered six aircraft destroyed and four damaged with fifteen aircrew killed, ten captured and four wounded. The Heinkel 111s fared no better -seven destroyed, five damaged, with twelve aircrew killed, twenty-two captured and six wounded by both units.
Feldwebel Herbert Tzschoppe was with 1/JG 53 flying a Messerschmitt Bf 109 at the rear of the escort formation. «The Staffel Kapitaen, Oberleutnant Ohly, had to turn back with radio trouble and the lead was given to Oberfeldwebel Mueller. We were flying at about 3,500m and had to fly with our flaps down so that we could stay close to the slower bombers.
«During a turn we were attacked by Spitfires coming out of the sun — Mueller was hit in the arm and broke away and my ‘plane was hit in both wings. I wanted to get back to France … and tried to hide in the clouds which were at about 1,500m. However, when I came out of the clouds,
I was hit by a second burst so I threw off the cabin roof and undid my seat belt …
«A third burst hit home — from the instrument panel there came flames like an oxyacetylene torch and my hands and face were severely burned. An explosion followed and I found myself hanging on a parachute.»
Below him he could see the burning remains of his fighter hit the ground three miles south-east of Canterbury. As he looked up, he saw that he was being circled by two Spitfires. The pilot of one saluted him, to which Herbert returned the compliment.
Meanwhile, on the ground 18-year-old John Sampson, out shooting in his local woods with a friend, heard the sound of a dogfight and looked up to see Herbert hanging under his parachute. The German soon landed in a tree, and on releasing himself fell to the ground, hurting his knees. Looking up, Herbert could see John and his friend both armed with shotguns, standing close by and he immediately surrendered to them, handing over his flare pistol with great difficulty because of his burnt hands, just as locally-billeted New Zealanders arrived.
The Spitfires took a heavy toll on the German escorts, and, once again, the Dorniers were exposed to the machine-guns of the British fighters. One of the most spectacular losses suffered by the German bombers was a Dornier Do 17 flown by Oberleutnant Robert Zehbe of 1/KG 76. Attacked by swarms of RAF fighters, it was claimed shot down by at least six RAF pilots, one of whom, Sergeant Ray Homes of 504 Squadron, caused the ‘plane to break up, the majority of the wreckage falling on Victoria Railway Station.
The German crew (which, unusually, included two Observers), tried to bale out of the stricken bomber.
Two, Obergefreiter Ludwig Armbruster and Unteroffizier Leo Hammermeister, were captured. Robert Zehbe managed to land by parachute where he met a hostile reception and died of his injuries the day after, whilst Unteroffizier Gustav Hubel and Unteroffizier Hans Goschenhofer were both killed outright.
The Luftwaffe fought back and twenty-nine of Park’s and Leigh-Mallory’s aircraft were destroyed during the course of the day. Unteroffizier Heinrich Ruehl of 1/JG 53 was flying in a Schwarm escorting a formation of Do 17s:
«Short of London, the bomber formation was suddenly attacked from the front by two enemy squadrons. The front-most squadron attacked through the bomber formation and pulled up … During this, I saw a Spitfire [sic] which flew through the bomber formation pulled up and turned. At this moment, I took aim and opened fire and saw in between the wing and the fuselage a tongue of flame shoot out.»
The British fighter immediately caught fire and dived into the increasing cloud and, although the crash was not observed, both he and Unteroffizier Kopperschlaeger were each credited with a Spitfire. It is likely that they had pounced on the Hurricanes of 303 Squadron which lost two aircraft — one pilot baling out, the other never to be seen again. In general it was the Hurricanes which engaged the bombers, leaving the fighters to the Spitfire squadrons.
Flying a Messerschmitt Bf 109E-7 of 2/LG 2, Unteroffizier August Klik also encountered Hurricanes at 14.50 hours: «We were told good weather and not much opposition. However, things were very different.
«Before we reached Tonbridge, heavy AA fire welcomed us and the sky began to cloud over (seven tenths cloud cover). Suddenly, the sky was full of British fighters. The first group of bombers was torn apart and disappeared into a protective cloud bank. During the subsequent air battle we were pushed away to the east … The variable amounts of cloud and the tumult of battle made it difficult to tell the difference between friend and foe.
«The cloud cover then broke up and just in front of me, a Hurricane approached from the right, in a steep turn. It was fifty metres and firing a broadside — nothing could go wrong for me! I was therefore so surprised that I made the mistake — like a beginner. I put my aircraft into a steep climb to see if my burst had hit home when there were hits in my starboard wing.
Two ‘planes were heading straight for me but the hits in my ‘plane’s wing must have come from another ‘plane from behind and the left because the two aircraft did not show any muzzle flashes (perhaps they were as surprised as I was!).
«500m below me on my right, there was a long cloud bank. It was the only protection against half a dozen British fighters.»
Klik was followed down by Flying Officer Leonard Haines of 19 Squadron.
«I had dived after it,» Haines later reported, «and as it finished its dive, I recommenced my attack. I was going faster than the enemy aircraft and I continued firing until I had to pull away to avoid collision. The enemy aircraft half-rolled and dived vertically with black smoke coming from underneath the pilot’s seat, it seemed.»
Klik quickly assessed the situation. All his instruments showed normal readings except for the radiator temperature gauge which was alarmingly high. It was getting hot in the cockpit and Klik tried to push back the hood to its second notch, but the hood suddenly blew off. The fuel gauge also began to flicker. He now had a decision to make. He was faced with three options. The first was that of baling out, the second was to attempt a forced landing, and the third option was to fly back over the Channel in the hope of being rescued from the sea when his fuel finally ran out.
«Point number three was not worth the risk,» Klik considered. «Point number one only in an emergency as a few days earlier we had been warned not to bale out as Polish pilots shot at every parachute over the coastal area!» This left Klik with a forced landing to make. This he achieved, landing at Shellness Point on the Isle of Sheppy. «After five minutes he concluded some Home Guards came and took away my sunglasses, watch and pistol. In return for these, they offered me a bottle of beer!»
Of the bomber groups KG 76 lost six bombers with another two badly damaged, whilst twelve of its aircrew were killed, ten captured and three wounded. One of the damaged aircraft was coded F1+JK of 2/KG 76. Flown by Unteroffizier Hans Figge, the crippled Do 17 managed to get as far as five miles north of the French city of Poix. With one engine stopped due to a fighter attack, he successfully crash landed and the crew clambered out. His aircraft was later assessed as being 60% damaged.
Another of the Dornier Do 17s that managed to just about make it back was coded 5K+AM of 4/KG 3. With its starboard engine stopped and port engine struggling, Leutnant Sieghard Schopper managed to crash-land on the sand dunes at Mardyck to the east of Calais. Schopper had been lightly wounded on 31 August 1940 whilst attacking Hornchurch but this time he was unscathed as was his observer, and Staffel Kapitan, Oberleutnant Bernhard Granicky. However, Feldwebel Felix Gwidziel (radio operator) and Feldwebel Heinz Kirch (engineer) were lightly wounded.
For all their efforts, the Luftwaffe, which mounted more than 1,000 sorties during the course of the day, achieved little. The bombers did cause damage to railway lines but rail traffic was only disrupted for three days. London Docks were untouched. Deteriorating weather conditions put an end to operations on that fateful day.
The significance of Schopper’s and Figge’s escape back across the Channel lies in the enemy losses claimed by Fighter Command that day. The total claimed by the RAF was 185. This was the most victories claimed on any day during the Battle of Britain. As a result 15 September 1940, has become known as «Battle of Britain Day». These figures, however, proved to be wildly inaccurate. The actual number of aircraft lost by the Luftwaffe was just sixty-one. Whilst this is still a very large number of fighters and bombers to lose in a single day, it was in fact only the third worst day for the Germans during the Battle of Britain.
Over-claiming of victories was common throughout not just 15 September or even the Battle of Britain, and all sides were guilty. The reasons for this are understandable. In the heat of battle with fighters swarming across the sky it is not always easy to determine which particular pilot fired the fatal shot. Many, of course, were therefore counted as ‘shared’ kills. Others, though, were claimed by a number of pilots as individual ‘kills’ and sometimes enemy aircraft believed to have been shot down in fact made their way back to base. The result was inflated victory figures.
The reporting of high enemy casualties was good for morale, both for the pilots themselves and the wider public.
There were also political reasons for exaggerating success. Typical of this was the battle between Park and Leigh-Mallory over the «Big Wing» principle. The successes of the Big Wing were inflated in an effort to demonstrate that this policy was the one that should be adopted by Fighter Command.
If Schopper and Figge had been claimed by any of the men of 11 or 12 Group, the most that could have been recorded was that they were «probables». In fact both were genuine «kills». Exaggerated though Fighter Command’s claims were, the Do 17s of Schopper and Figge may have been two victims of «The Few» that were never recorded.