The assault continued unabated on 16 August, but on the following day there was little activity. So far the Adlerangriff had been a catalogue of missed opportunities leavened with the odd outright disaster. However, the Luftwaffe’s mood was buoyant: if it was not destroying Fighter Command on the ground, it was inflicting a great deal of damage in the air, according to the inflated victory claims.
On 18 August the Luftwaffe had its target priorities almost right. A morning raid was scheduled against the fighter sector stations at Biggin Hill and Kenley. At noon, a massive force of Stukas would be launched against airfields at Thorney Island (Coastal Command), Ford and Gosport (Fleet Air Arm) and the radar station at Poling. Late in the afternoon, large raids would be directed at the fighter sector stations at Hornchurch and North Weald. All would have massive fighter escort.
Sixty Heinkels of KG 1 were assigned to bomb Biggin Hill from high altitude in three waves, while 48 Dorniers and Junkers 88s of KG 76 would attack Kenley. The latter would, however, be a little more complicated. First, twelve Ju 88s of II Gruppe would carry out a dive bombing attack on the hangars and airfield buildings. They would be followed after five minutes by 27 Dorniers of I and III Gruppen, bombing from high altitude. With confusion on the ground at its height, nine Dorniers of 9 Staffel would sneak in at low level to demolish anything still left standing. But complex plans rarely survive contact with the executants, let alone the enemy! All depended on exact timing.
First off were the Heinkels of KG 1. They picked up their fighter escort at the coast and set course. KG 76 had more difficulty. Cloud over the Pas de Calais hampered their rendezvous with the fighters; the Ju 88s in particular were delayed. When they finally started out, the Dorniers were already six minutes behind schedule, and the 88s were astern instead of in front. The Heinkels, notwithstanding their early start, brought up the rear.
Meanwhile, far to the south-west, the Dorniers of 9/KG 76 were skimming the Channel to stay under the electronic eyes of the British radar. 9 Staffel was one of the few specialist low-level attack units, and the Dorniers were fitted with a 20mm cannon for strafing. Each carried twenty 50kg bombs, which could be dropped from as low as 15m.
As was often the case at this time, the Staffelkapitän was an observer, responsible for the tricky low-level navigation. But although they had evaded the radar, the aircraft had been spotted and tracked by the Observer Corps, and when they arrived at Kenley the defenders were ready and waiting. Worse still, the delayed main force had not yet arrived.
In the teeth of the defences, the attack was pressed home. Three hangars were hit, and bombs were seen bouncing down the runway ‘like rubber balls’. Five Dorniers were hit almost immediately; in one the pilot was mortally wounded, and the situation was only saved by the observer, Wilhelm-Friedrich Illg, who grabbed the control column and pulled the Dornier away from the ground. Having removed the pilot from his seat, Illg took over, jinked to evade ground fire and turned on course for France. He eventually reached St Omer, and on the fourth attempt made a wheels-down landing. He was awarded the Ritterkreuz for his feat, although this was surprising, considering that, like most observers of the period, Illg had been a pilot before becoming an observer, in which capacity he was of course the aircraft commander. He had little time in which to savour his moment of glory, for on 1 September, flying with Mathias Maassen, another survivor of the Kenley raid, his aircraft was shot down near Dungeness and he was taken prisoner.
At last the survivors were clear of the airfield and able to turn for home, only to find the fighters waiting. Two ditched in the Channel, two crash-landed in France, and Illg, as related, landed normally although away from base. Wilhelm Raab landed at Amiens with a wounded navigator and later became one of only two pilots of 9/KG 76 to return to Cormeilles-en-Vexin that day.
High above, the rest of the Dorniers were just arriving. Attacked head-on by Hurricanes, several of them jinked out of the line of fire. This spoiled their bomb run; some chose alternative targets, whilst others did not bomb at all. The Ju 88s of II Gruppe were unable to dive bomb as briefed-smoke from three burning hangars was masking much of the airfield. Instead they attacked their alternative target, West Mailing.
Apart from 9 Staffel, which was nearly wiped out, KG 76 lost two Dorniers from the high-level force and three damaged. II/KG 76 lost two Ju 88s plus one damaged. All the victims fell to fighters.
Meanwhile KG 1 had bombed Biggin Hill, but the aim was inaccurate and little damage was done. They encountered little opposition: KG 76 had attracted almost all the fighters and lost just one Heinkel while another was damaged. Six fighters had been destroyed on the ground at Kenley, but none at Biggin Hill. It was a poor return.
To the west, a massive force of Stukas had assembled. It crossed the Channel en masse with its fighter escort before splitting into its component parts to attack individual targets. I/StG 77, comprising 28 Stukas, was assigned to Thorney Island, II/StG 77, with 28 Stukas, was to raid Ford, while Ill/StG 77, with 31 Stukas, was to attack Poling radar. The fourth unit involved, I/StG 3 with 22 Stukas, headed for Gosport. Of the unit leaders, Walter Sigel was already a Ritterkreuz holder; others who would soon join him were Helmut Bode and Alfons Orthofer. Each Ju 87 carried a single 250kg and four 50kg bombs. Off Selsey Bill, the formation split into its component Gruppen, each of which headed for its target.
Most Stuka outfits the aircraft dived in line astern, all down the same ‘chute’, which made the task of the anti-aircraft gunners easier. Helmut Bode’s I/StG 3 attacked in Ketten to divide the defensive fire. Once established in the dive, Bode sprayed the target with his two fixed machine guns to distract the gunners; after he had pulled out, his radio operator fired also, to protect the following aircraft.
While diving, the Stukas were relatively immune from attack, as the fighters built up so much speed in the dive that they almost invariably overshot without being able to bring their guns to bear. The most dangerous moments were before the dive or after the pull-out. Caught then, Stukas were easy targets.
Kurt Scheffel, who was destined to survive several hundred sorties on the Russian Front with I/StG 77, was soon in trouble. Stuka radio operators joked that they were living protection for their pilots. The joke turned grim just before the dive, when Scheffel’s aircraft was hit by fighters, killing the radio operator and wounding him. His reflector sight smashed, he dived, aiming with his auxiliary ring-and-bead sight.
The aircraft having pulled out, all formation cohesion was lost. At full throttle Scheffel worked his way to the front of the gaggle where other aircraft could cover his undefended rear. With his left arm numb and his right hand dripping blood, he managed to nurse his Stuka back to base, but on arrival he was too weak from loss of blood to leave the cockpit. His aircraft had survived 84 hits!
He was lucky: his Gruppe lost ten aircraft, including that of the Kommandeur, Herbert Meisel. One returned damaged beyond repair with a dead radio operator; four more returned damaged, two with dead radio operators. The luckiest man of the day was radio operator Karl Maier, who received no fewer than eight bullet wounds, none of which was fatal. Or perhaps his pilot was even luckier!
The other Gruppen fared better. II/StG 77 lost five Stukas and II/StG 77 just two and two damaged. Helmut Bode’s I/StG 3, well to the east of the main action, escaped without loss. But the overall losses were unsustainable, and from this day the Stukas were out of the battle.
The final raid of the day was mounted against Hornchurch and North Weald by 57 Dorniers of KG 2 and 51 Heinkels of KG 53. Intercepted short of the target, the Heinkels lost four aircraft, including that of Reinhold Tamm, the Kommandeur II/KG 53, and one damaged. KG 2 fared better, with one damaged. At this point the British weather intervened. Solid cloud cover at low altitude socked in both fighter stations, and the raiders, unable to see their targets, turned back. By now Luftwaffe combat losses were averaging an unacceptable 49 aircraft a day, not counting 17 August, on which there was no real action. The German High Command insisted that the bombers be given close escort. While the Jadgflieger did not like this, the fact remains that in the final two weeks of August combat attrition fell by 60 per cent. Bf 109 losses remained constant at an average of eleven per day, but bomber and Bf 110 losses fell to ten, rather than 38 per day as previously. Interestingly, RAF fighter losses remained constant at nineteen.