‘Even a Small Invasion might go a Long Way’ I

A flame fougasse demonstration somewhere in Britain. A car is surrounded in flames and a huge cloud of smoke. circa 1940.

Panzerkampfwagen III Ausf H(U) – Tauchfahig (U-Panzer / Submersible Tank)

‘I hear from Lancaster in the flats who has just been to Wickham Market in Suffolk, that on Saturday night and again on Tuesday invasion was attempted. Not one Nazi returned. Their bodies are still being washed up along our shores. That is the end of all Nazis who seek to molest our freedom – death.

Diary entry on 14 September 1940 by London schoolboy, Colin Perry. By a curious irony it was a quarter of a century before, on 8 September 1915 that Zeppelins had made their first big raid on London.

On Saturday, 7th September after a bath and a quick change into a respectable uniform a small party of fighter pilots of 242 Squadron at Coltishall in Norfolk were soon jammed into an ancient car and bounced along the narrow, winding road which leads to Norwich. Some hours later they were still wedged together in the crowded, stuffy bar of the ‘Bell’ when a posse of Service police stalked in and announced that all RAF personnel were to report back to their airfields at once. At Coltishall Pilot Officer ‘Johnnie’ Johnson and his fellow pilots found that Alert No. 1, ‘invasion imminent and probable within twelve hours’, had been declared by the responsible authorities and the defences were to be brought to the highest state of readiness. The scene in the mess could only be described as one of some confusion. Elderly officers, mobilized for the duration, darted about in various directions. Their CO was not to be seen and the pilots tried to get a coherent explanation of the situation. They soon heard half a dozen different versions, the most popular of which was that the invasion was under way and some enemy landings were expected on the east coast. Perhaps the CO and the flight commanders were already at dispersal and Johnson left the ante-room to make a telephone call from the hall. As he hastened along the corridor he almost collided with a squadron leader who stumped towards him with an awkward gait. His vital eyes gave Johnson a swift scrutiny, at his pilot’s brevet and the one thin ring of a pilot officer.

‘I say, old boy, what’s all the flap about?’ he exclaimed, legs apart and putting a match to his pipe.

‘I don’t really know, sir,’ Johnson replied. ‘But there are reports of enemy landings.’

The squadron leader pushed open the swing doors and stalked into the noisy, confused atmosphere of the ante-room. Fascinated, Johnson followed in close line-astern because he thought he knew who this was. He took in the scene and then demanded, in a loud voice and in choice, fruity language, what all the panic was about. Half a dozen voices started to explain and eventually he had some idea of the form. As he listened, his eyes swept round the room, lingered for a moment on his pilots and established a private bond of fellowship between them.

There was a moment’s silence whilst he digested the news. ‘So the bastards are coming. Bloody good show! Think of all those juicy targets on those nice flat beaches. What shooting!’ And he made a rude sound with his lips which was meant to resemble a ripple of machine-gun fire. The effect was immediate and extraordinary. Officers went about their various tasks and the complicated machinery of the airfield began to function smoothly again.

THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN 1940. Pattern of condensation trails left by British and German aircraft after a dogfight.

Vera Shaw, a plotter at 11 Group Headquarters, Uxbridge, wrote: ‘Early duty. Lovely day dawning, though trouble expected. Around 0800, warning from Command of a big raid. It came! 250-plus aircraft approaching Dover. Plots came thick and fast. Soon table covered with raids. Noise indescribable – why must everyone shout so? Squadron board shows all squadrons in combat. By midmorning the King and Mr. Churchill appear in the Controller’s room. At one stage, Mr. Churchill asked if we had any more squadrons to call on. ‘No,’ said the Controller.’

At 1554 hours the first track plotter at Bentley Priory reached forward to place an initial raid counter on the table map. Showing twenty-plus over Pas de Calais, it was quickly followed by others of growing size, until Dowding realised that this was the largest raid he had yet faced. As the full situation was flashed to Group and sector controllers, fighters of all three southern Groups were frantically brought to state. The first coastal Observer Corps report of the enemy formation reached the Maidstone centre at 1616 hours and told of many hundreds of aircraft approaching the coast between Deal and the North Foreland. Half an hour before, Hermann Göring, ridiculously bedecked in pale blue and gold had stood on the cliffs near Calais and watched wave upon wave of his bombers and fighters set course for London. Göring had launched 348 bombers and 617 single-and twin-engine fighters in the greatest aerial armada yet seen in the first of German ‘reprisal’ attacks on the capital following raids by RAF Bomber Command on Berlin. Hitler had seemingly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by diverting Luftflotten (Airfleet) 2 and 3 from their attacks on the RAF sector stations to attack London. He wanted retribution for the raids on Berlin and in the process changed the entire nature of the battle. The German Airfleet commanders, Generalfeldmarschall Hugo Sperrle and Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring were divided on how to defeat RAF Fighter Command. Against his wishes, Kesselring had been discharged from the army on 1st October 1933 and appointed head of the Department of Administration at the Reich Commissariat for Aviation (Reichskommissariat für die Luftfahrt), the forerunner of the Reich Air Ministry (Reichsluftfahrtministerium), with the rank of Oberst (colonel). Kesselring had become Chief of Staff of the Luftwaffe on 3rd June 1936 and he oversaw the expansion of the Luftwaffe, the acquisition of new aircraft types such as the Messerschmitt Bf 109 and Ju 87 and the development of paratroops. Like many ex-Army officers, he tended to see air power in the tactical role, providing support to land operations. On 1st October 1938 he was promoted to General der Flieger (air general) and became commander of Luftflotte 1, based in Berlin. While Sperrle wanted to continue the attacks on the fighter stations Kesselring argued that it was a waste of time as RAF Fighter Command could simply withdraw out of range to the north of London. ‘We have no chance of destroying the English fighters on the ground’ he said. ‘We must force their last reserves of Spitfires and Hurricanes into combat in the air.’ To do so he needed to attack London. An OKW Directive on 16 August had already said as much: ‘On D-1 day the Luftwaffe is to make a strong attack on London, which should cause the population to flee from the city and block the roads.’

It did nothing of the kind. Peter Wood, who was living in Tulse Hill in south London and working in the City for a shipping company was playing football near Crystal Palace when he heard some unseasonal thunder. He looked up to see the sky full of German bombers – but the game went on. ‘Literally dozens of Germans, accompanied by smaller aircraft which I took to be fighters, were going over at about 500 feet. There didn’t seem to be any gunfire from our defending forces at all. Fortunately for us, they overflew us, because they were obviously heading for the docks, for what was, as we know now, the first bombing of the docklands at that time. We shrugged our shoulders and carried on to finish our game of football. After that the bombing of London increased in volume and the routine was to sleep in a reinforced cellar where my wife’s family lived in Tulse Hill and when the all-clear went in the morning, you just got up, washed and dressed and went to work.’

This vast aerial armada, the greatest yet seen, had assembled 88 miles away over the Pas de Calais and headed towards the Thames Estuary on a twenty mile front stepped up from 14,000 feet to 23,000 feet. The more than a mile and a half high formation covered an astonishing 800 square miles, a sight which must have sent shock waves throughout Fighter Command when the radars first picked up the mass formation. At 1617 hours Air Vice-Marshal Park ordered eleven RAF fighter squadrons into the air and six minutes later all remaining Spitfires and Hurricanes were brought to Readiness. By 1630 all twenty-one squadrons stationed within seventy miles of London were in the air or under take-off orders. Take-off orders were passed to the pilots by the sector controller by telephone or loudspeaker. Flight Lieutenant Denis Robinson of 152 Squadron at Warmwell recalled: ‘The worst time was just waiting. When the phone rang the orderly would shout ‘Squadron Scramble – Angels 15 [15,000 feet].’ In an instant we were running to our aircraft, grabbing the parachute off the wing, buckling it on as you scrambled into the cockpit. Then pull on the helmet already attached to radio and oxygen supply, whilst somehow starting the engine. It was a grass field without runways, so it’s a matter of getting into the wind, keeping a sharp look-out for other aircraft, full throttle and away we go.’ Further instructions followed over the aircraft radio after take-off.

The RAF pilots who were sent up to intercept became embroiled in melees and attacks that might begin and be pressed home at any height from 25,000 feet down to near the ground. One moment there could be as many as 140 separate fights going on at the same time, the next pilots were seemingly alone. It was a situation that must have frozen the blood of even the bravest of men, if they had time to dwell on it. The situation demanded the utmost alertness and once sighted, the RAF pilots opened fire at an average of 200 yards, closing sometimes to less than fifty yards. As the first four squadrons of RAF fighters attacked the southern flank of the huge formation it was soon apparent to Dowding and Park that the Luftwaffe was heading for London and not the precious Essex and Kentish fighter airfields. Breaking out of a layer of haze east of Sheppey, fighter pilots found themselves on the edge of a tidal wave of aircraft, towering above them rank upon rank, more than a mile and a half high and covering 800 square miles, all heading for the capital. The full force of the raid was destined to fall on the east end of the city and the docks at Rotherhithe, Limehouse and Millwall and the Surrey Docks and those hard by Tower Bridge. The vast gasworks at Beckton and the West Ham Power Station shook and erupted under the storm of explosive. Two hours later fires were raging for almost ten miles down the banks of the River Thames. By 17:45 hours the German formations had turned south and east for home, scattered and disordered but still largely intact.

From 2010 hours until 0430 hours on Sunday morning a second wave of bombers – 318 Heinkels and Dorniers, their bomb loads composed of a high proportion of incendiaries streamed in from the east, stoking the fires which now raged scarcely checked along nine miles of waterfront, turning the already blazing fires into a raging inferno. Fire crews struggled to subdue firestorms. The devastating attack left 306 killed and 1,337 seriously injured in the capital itself and a further 142 killed in the suburbs. Despite the spirited and strong resistance put up by the fighter squadrons, not least the Poles of 303 Squadron, many of the bombers had a clear run over the capital, which was heavily bombed. Nineteen Fighter Command pilots were lost from the 28 fighters shot down and 41 German aircraft were destroyed.

At the height of the raid and in the belief that the large scale air attack on the nation’s capital heralded the invasion, GHQ Command Home forces issued the invasion imminent alert, code word ‘Cromwell’ to all army units in southern and eastern areas. The warning signified that an invasion attempt was expected at any time within the next 48 hours. Army units from Division down to Battalion level recorded receipt of ‘Cromwell’ between 2100 to 2130 hours. Throughout the following hours all units took up positions ready for immediate action, essential telephone and telegraph lines were taken over and in coastal areas, harbour authorities stood by ready to immobilise dockside facilities on receipt of more definite orders. The Home Guard were called out in parts of southern and eastern England and in many cinemas feature films were interrupted by onscreen notices advising military personnel in the audience to return to their barracks. Corporal Bunty Walmsley, a locally recruited WAAF who worked in the Operations Room at Stratton Strawless Hall on the Norwich to Aylsham road not far from RAF Coltishall on a six on-twelve off shift pattern in three watches, recalled that she with other members of her watch were suddenly roused from their beds and told to immediately assemble outside to be addressed by the WAAF Commanding Officer. Garbed in various forms of night attire, they all staggered outside looking the worse for wear. The next moment their Commanding Officer appeared, dressed in full uniform and, to their amazement, proceeded to inform them that the Germans had invaded the south coast and that further landings were likely. She went on to say that if Coltishall should be involved, she expected each one of them to defend the station by any means possible. Bunty’s only weapon was a poker allocated to her billet! In the morning, they were all due to report for their watch at 0800 hours. On meeting up with some of the RAF section of her watch, the WAAFs discovered that none of them had been disturbed and were equally unaware of an invasion.

242 Squadron had spent another frustrating day at readiness at Coltishall waiting for 11 Group’s call. To them 7th September must have seemed like another opportunity missed as the squadron spent most of the day kicking its heels as reports filtered through of waves of German bombers attacking London. Finally, at 0445 hours, Operations rang and Bader and his pilots, straining at the leash, at last got the order to scramble. Once airborne ‘Woody’ Woodhall the sector controller at Duxford calmly told Bader that there was some ‘trade’ heading in over the coast. Wing Commander Alfred Basil ‘Woody’ Woodhall was a South African who in 1914 had been a lance corporal in the Witwatersrand Rifles before joining the Royal Marines. During the early 1920s, he had flown biplane torpedo bombers before transferring to the RAF in 1929. When war came, Woodhall had a desk job at the Air Ministry and he was posted to Duxford on 12 March 1940 as senior controller. When the sector controller directed his fighters to intercept a hostile raid a simple code was used between them: ‘Scramble’, take-off; ‘Angels (ten)’, height (10,000 feet); ‘Orbit’, circle (a given point); ‘Vector’ (one-eight-zero), steer (course of 180 degrees); ‘Buster’, full throttle; ‘Tally-ho!’, enemy sighted; ‘Pancake’, land. The South African asked Bader to ‘Orbit North Weald. Angels ten’ and added, ‘If they come your way you can go for them.’

Bader climbed to ‘Angels 15’. Nearing North Weald Woodhall called Bader again. ‘Hallo, Douglas. Seventy-plus crossing the Thames east of London, heading north.’ In the distance Bader saw black dots staining the sky. They were not aircraft. They were anti-aircraft bursts. This could mean only one thing. Over the radio Willie McKnight called out, ‘Bandits. 10 o’clock.’ Bader recalled, ‘We had been greatly looking forward to our first formation of 36 fighters going into action together, but we were unlucky. We were alerted late and were underneath the bombers and their fighter escorts when we met fifteen miles north of the Thames.’ All Bader could do was attack the formation of about seventy Dorniers of KG 76 and Bf 110s of ZG 2 heading for North Weald as best they could while eight Spitfires of 19 Squadron tried to hold off assaults from the Bf 109s flying high cover. When the claims were totted up they totalled eleven enemy aircraft and two probables; all for the loss of two Hurricanes and one pilot killed. On landing Bader rang the Operations Room in a fury to be told that they had been sent off as soon as 11 Group had called for them from Duxford. This was one of the recurring problems during this heavy last period of the battle. Next morning, 242 Squadron flew to Duxford where Bader and his pilots again spent a frustrating day waiting in vain to be summoned by 11 Group as the German bombers returned to bomb London.

When the belief that the large scale air attack on London heralded a German invasion, GHQ Command Home forces issued the invasion imminent alert, code word ‘Cromwell’ to all army units in southern and eastern areas. The warning signified that an invasion attempt was expected at any time within the next 48 hours. The war diary of the 2nd Liverpool Scots for Sunday, 8th September, records: ‘10:20 hours Code word ‘Cromwell’ called off, just another jittery flap. In some parts of the country they even rang the church bells.’ The ringing of church bells was the signal for an airborne invasion, causing several instances of mild panic. Very quickly the alarm was relayed to other counties and, before it could be countermanded, in various places actions began to be taken. In Lincolnshire, possibly owing to faulty communications, the local defence forces believed that the signal had been given because an unidentified boat had been seen off the coast and a motor-cycle dispatch rider raced from church to church in the city of Lincoln. While the bells of five of the churches began to ring out across Lincolnshire, warning the outlying villages that the Germans were coming, two Royal Engineer officers arrived at Lincoln railway station, reported to Mr L. J. Stephens, the District Superintendent and told him that the Germans had landed and therefore they had brought along explosives with which to destroy his railway yard. Stephens, a cautious man, insisted on telephoning the London and North Eastern Railway’s Southern Area Central Control. He found out the true situation and so Lincoln’s railway station was saved. But before the ‘Cromwell’ order was countermanded, several small bridges in Lincolnshire were destroyed by zealous sapper officers.

Although the invasion imminent warning should have remained operative for two days, it was called off by 1000 hours on the Sunday morning and virtually all units had been stood down. The diary of the 5th Battalion Kings Regiment at Felixstowe reported that all troops had ‘stood-to’ until 0915 and that there had been ‘no activity during the night’. The following entry also notes that officers met later in the morning to, ‘discuss [the] previous nights happenings.’ Army units along the east coast generally reported a quiet night, at least quieter than the previous Saturday night. Though the invasion alert was a false alarm, curious rumours of a real invasion attempt were already spreading through the eastern counties. The 165th Infantry Brigade received a letter from Divisional command saying that ‘the troops must be persuaded to think that the invasion threat is not over’. This directive was passed to all the Brigade’s subordinate Battalions, including the men of the 2nd Battalion Liverpool Scottish at Shingle Street. Why senior army officers were insistent that the ordinary soldiers defending the Suffolk coast needed to be told that the threat of invasion was not over (or needed reminding that it still existed) is difficult to understand especially given what happened later that same evening. And curiously, just weeks later these denials were being contradicted by Air Ministry bulletins suggesting an invasion attempt had been broken up by the RAF sometime during September. It was also reported that the RAF had bombed a large scale enemy invasion practice causing huge losses and it was claimed that the bodies of German soldiers had been washed up on shores from France to Norway – but there was no official mention of any on English beaches, at least not at first.