It began in the late afternoon of 7 September. No fewer than 348 bombers drawn from five Geschwader, escorted by 617 fighters (mainly Bf 109s), set off for the capital. Subtlety was thrown to the winds: this attack was a sledgehammer! The choice of London was also a surprise to the defenders: expecting the massive column of bombers to split up and attack individual targets, the defending fighters were positioned to cover the sector stations, and places like the Thameshaven oil refinery.
As a result, the juggernaut, headed by Johannes Fink with KG 2, reached the London dock area almost unopposed and bombed, causing heavy damage. By the time Fighter Command reacted, the bombers were on their way home, their losses negligible. Over the next few days further attacks were made on the metropolis, and while cloud hampered the bombing it hindered interception equally. Optimistic as ever, Luftwaffe Intelligence concluded from the lack of opposition that Fighter Command was on the verge of defeat-down to its ‘last 50 Spitfires’.
With this in mind, all that was needed now was to bring about a large fighter battle, in which numbers would count. Two raids on the capital were planned for 15 September. The first would arrive just before midday. It consisted of 27 Do 17s drawn from I and III/KG 76 and led by the Kommandeur of the latter, Slovenian-born Ritterkreuz holder Alois Lindmayr. He was an observer rather than a pilot, but this was the norm at the time.
Losses had prevented a single Gruppe from fielding a full formation of nine Ketten, and nineteen Dorniers of III/KG 76 had been supplemented by eight more from I/KG 76. The two units joined up over Amiens, but were then forced to penetrate thick cloud. As observer Theodor Rehm recalled:
. . . visibility was so bad that one could only see the leader’s plane a few metres away. In our bomber four pairs of eyes strained to keep the aircraft in sight as its ghostly shape disappeared and reappeared in the alternating darkness and light. One moment it was clearly visible, menacingly large and near; then suddenly it would disappear from view, in the same place but surrounded by billowing vapour . . .
When they emerged from the clag at 3,500m, Lindmayr’s aircraft orbited for ten minutes to allow the others to join up. But two aircraft had lost contact and returned to base. The remaining 25 Dorniers rumbled on towards the Pas de Calais, where they were scheduled to rendezvous with their fighter escort. This consisted of a Gruppe of Bf 109s as close escort, another as distant escort and a third freelancing ahead-about 120 fighters in all. The imbalance between bombers and fighters provided a vital clue: the Dorniers, not to put too fine a point on it, were bait!
As the Dorniers left the French coast at about 4,000m, two more formations of Bf 109s, each about twenty strong, took off. Both were from LG 1, and one of them had bombs slung under the fuselage. This was II/LG 2, led by Ritterkreuz holder and future Eichenlaub winner Otto Weiss, who had converted from the Hs 123 to the Bf 109 but who was fated to revert to the elderly biplane for the invasion of the Soviet Union in nine months’ time. They climbed to about 6,000m and set course along the same track as the Dorniers, overtaking them fast.
British fighters were soon on the scene, but many were quickly engaged with the escorting 109s. Then two squadrons of Hurricanes attacked the bombers from head-on. Dornier pilot Wilhelm Raab, a survivor of the low-level attack on Kenley less than a month earlier, commented:
They came in fast, getting bigger and bigger. As usual when under attack from fighters, we closed into tight formation to concentrate our defensive fire. It was very frightening: in the glass noses of our Dorniers there was not even a molehill to hide behind!
The Dorniers escaped serious damage and continued on their way. However, by the time they reached the London suburbs the 109 escort, low on fuel after fighting off the interceptors, had turned for home. Now the composite Gruppe of KG 76 was in real trouble. On the bombing run, with elements of at least three British squadrons already in the vicinity, it was suddenly faced with the five-squadron Duxford Wing-56 fighters in perfect formation. Someone in Wilhelm Raab’s Dornier-he was never quite sure who-quipped: ‘Here come those last 50 Spitfires!’ As an example of German gallows humour, this is hard to beat, yet it was less funny at the time. But twenty 50kg bombs from each aircraft were already going down, aimed at a complex of rail junctions south of Battersea power station. Whilst the railways were hard hit, inevitably some bombs went astray and struck houses in the vicinity. The modern term is ‘collateral damage’.
The Jabos were not engaged. Fighter Command standing orders were to ignore fighters if possible and concentrate on bombers. It was not spotted that the 109s were carrying bombs, and they were able to line up on their targets unimpeded. Aiming through their reflector sights in a 45-degree dive, they released their bombs at about 5,000m. Accuracy with this mode of delivery, from this altitude, was poor, and virtually no military damage was caused. But they suffered no losses.
The same could not be said for KG 76. After bombing it reversed course by turning to port, but some of its aircraft were already in trouble. Hopelessly outnumbered, it should have been annihilated, but fifteen Dorniers-all that remained in formation-managed to beat a fighting retreat, although almost all suffered some degree of damage. Six of the 25-or 24 per cent-were down, including Wilhelm Raab’s, and another four, damaged and separated, managed to limp home. It was a tremendous achievement by Alois Lindmayr.
Even as the last Dorniers crossed out, the next attack was airborne over France. Having made rendezvous with their escorts, this fresh force, consisting of elements of four Kampfgeschwader, formed up and set course for London. On crossing the coast at Dungeness, the aircraft took up a formation of three columns on a 10km frontage. In the centre were 24 Heinkels of I and III KG 53, whose target was the Royal Victoria Dock. The port column consisted of 25 Dorniers of HI/KG 2, with a further eighteen Dorniers of II/KG 2 some five kilometres astern. Their target was the Surrey Commercial Dock. The starboard column comprised nineteen Dorniers of II/KG 3, bound for the Royal Victoria Dock, while five kilometres astern came 28 Heinkels of I and II/KG 26, briefed to attack the West India Dock. These carried 1,000kg bombs. It was a far more destructive force than the first raid, and its fighter escort was huge-no fewer than 361 fighters. If all went as planned, Fighter Command was in for a rough afternoon.
Matters did not go as planned. Unlike the noon action, in which the defending fighters were largely prevented from getting at the bombers, the three columns on a wide frontage proved vulnerable. Still on the approach, four bombers went down while seven were damaged, dropped out of formation and turned back. They arrived only to find the assigned objectives hidden under cloud, and bombed targets of opportunity. Virtually no military damage was caused. The bombers were harried all the way back to the coast, but losses were sustainable. KG 2 lost eight Dorniers destroyed and five damaged, while KG 3 lost six Dorniers and four damaged. KG 26 got away more lightly, losing one Heinkel and three damaged while KG 53 lost six Heinkels and four damaged. For the damage inflicted on the target, this was a poor return.
Two small raids were mounted on Portland and Southampton, the latter by EprGr 210, which missed the Spitfire factory at Woolston completely. Given that the landmarks for this were clear-the Itchen estuary and the floating bridge-Jabo bombing inaccuracy while using 45-degree diving attacks is the only excuse.
If there was one thing that the actions on 15 September proved, it was that Fighter Command was far from a spent force. This being the case, a seaborne invasion, never more than barely credible, moved into the realm of impossibility and was postponed indefinitely just days later. Even so, the daylight bombing campaign was not yet over. Once again Luftwaffe attention was turned to RAF airfields and aircraft factories. On 27 September Bf 110 Jabos of V/ LG 1 and II/ZG 76 swanned about over Kent and Sussex with no apparent objective other than to distract Fighter Command. They lost eight of their number. This demonstration was followed by the Ju 88s of I and II/KG 77 which, unescorted owing to a failure to rendezvous with the 109s, lost twelve aircraft shot down.
Further west, the indefatigable EprGr 210 Jabos headed for an aircraft factory north of Bristol. Intercepted, they lost four Bf 110s, including that of Kommandeur Martin Lütz and Staffelkapitän Wilhelm-Friedrich Rössiger, both of whom were posthumously awarded the Ritterkreuz four days later. Promotion prospects with EprGr 210 were always good! Acting Kommandeur (the fourth) Werner Weimann was lost on 5 October, while Otto Hintze, Staffelkapitän 3/EprGr 210, was shot down and taken prisoner on 29 October. Hintze received the Ritterkreuz while in captivity.
Massed daylight bomber raids virtually ceased in October as the autumn weather set in. Most attacks were flown by Bf 109 Jabos, which, whilst they largely evaded interception, caused little damage. The Luftwaffe, despite the ‘lightning speed and undreamed-of might’ promised by Hermann Goering, had met its first defeat.