Relearning Old Lessons: RAF in France 1940 Part II

12 Squadron aircraft going in against the bridges over the Albert Canal.

The instruction to fly fighter sweeps in the Arras area does not appear to have been acted on. No. 151 Squadron had already been ordered to fly a morning patrol along the Arras front, but the nine fighters were flying at 20,000 feet and spotted nothing. More fighters flying at a lower altitude were needed to tackle the German observation planes that seemed to be permanently hovering above the battlefield. This, however, proved to be the last fighter patrol for some time at any altitude. Reports were coming in that the aerodromes at Calais and Boulogne were being bombed, so Park ordered his squadrons to try and include these areas in their patrols. Given that they were nearer to Fighter Command airfields, it is not surprising that it was here that British fighters were involved in combats. Pilots were not going to take their fighters to the edge of their endurance by flying another 60 miles inland when there were enemy planes to deal with nearer the coast. At 10.00 a.m., a frustrated Gort demanded an intensification of fighter activity in the Arras area, but no British fighters were in the region when the attack was launched at 2.30 p.m.

Initially, Martel’s force made good progress. The standard German anti-tank gun failed to make any impression on the heavily armoured Matildas, and the Germans were soon in retreat. Ominously, however, the advance was taking place under the watchful eye of Henschel HS 126 observation planes. After advancing for about 5 miles, the advance was brought to a halt by a combination of air attack and 88-mm anti-aircraft guns firing over open sites. The German Army had used the same emergency measure in the First World War to stop tanks. In 1918, the Tank Corps had been allocated army-cooperation planes specifically to spot the guns and fighter-bomber Camels to destroy them. In 1940, the tanks had neither. This did not bring any protest or complaint from Gort or Pownall; even Martel seemed to have forgotten such air support once existed. The textbook Army solution was to wait for the artillery to move up to support the next stage of the advance.

If the Air Component had still been in France, it might have been different. The ground controllers would have been able to direct fighters to the area to provide some protection from German bombing and keep the prying Henschel spotter planes away. It is even possible they would have ordered fighters to attack the German positions holding up the advance. Even without any air support, the counterattack startled the Germans. Rommel reported hundreds of tanks were striking his flank, and the German High Command temporarily halted the advance westwards. Just the day before, there had been enough air strength in France to ensure the attack would have made an even greater impression on the enemy.

Renewed requests for air cover brought no response until 6 p.m., when patrols from Nos 253, 229, 146, and 601 Squadrons were dispatched to the Arras area. It is not clear whether they actually reached their destination. A couple of He 111s were claimed over Calais, an Hs 126 was shot down near Abbeville, and another was claimed near Amiens. All these were 40–50 miles from the scene of the Arras counterattack. Meanwhile, Franklyn did not feel he could hold the gains made. As he pulled back, the Stukas provided a reminder of how lacking fighter cover had been and how valuable close air support could be. Given that so much was at stake, the 142 sorties flown by Fighter Command on all fronts that day was scarcely an adequate response.

As Martel pulled his forces back, 20 miles north of Arras, at the now abandoned Merville Airfield, the commander of the air forces that should have been supporting the counterattack was searching for a means of escape. Blount worked his way through the disabled aircraft scattered around until he found a Tiger Moth that had been missed. In the early hours of 22 May, the Air Chief Marshal set course for England. The commander of the Air Component could claim, like any good captain, that he had been the last to abandon ship. The next day, the RAF sheepishly returned to Merville. Ten aircraft fitters flew in to see if they could salvage any of the abandoned aircraft. It was not until a week later, with the Dunkirk evacuation in full swing, that the airfield fell into German hands.

On 22 May, it was be the turn of the French to attack southwards. As preparation, the French continued to use their worn-out Amiot 143s in the Arras–Cambrai area. Bomber Command, however, was back to attacking targets in Germany. If Portal could not attack oil targets, he would at least make sure that his bombs were falling on German soil. Bomber Command sent 124 Wellingtons, Hampdens, and Whitleys to the Aachen-Mönchengladbach region, more than 150 miles to the east of the French attack. Barratt switched his AASF squadrons from nocturnal attacks on the Meuse crossings to daylight armed reconnaissance missions in the Arras-Abbeville-Amiens region. This might help slow the German advance northwards, but it was too far west to help the French.

In the early hours of the 22nd, the Air Ministry warned Portal that escorted Blenheim missions would be required the following day to support the Allied armies. Dowding was told the protection of Calais and Boulogne was his priority. Where possible, however, fighter patrols should extend inland to support troops in the Arras-Cambrai area. A short while later, a revised, more strident message was passed on. Dowding was told that the future of the British armies in France depended on the success of the counterattack being prepared. German spotter planes were observing the Army all along the front, and troops were being exposed to fierce dive-bomber attacks. Dowding was informed that the Army was anxious to know what the Air Force could do about it. Newall was not demanding action, merely passing on the message.

Dowding ordered No. 11 Group to switch two fighter squadrons from the Calais-Boulogne area to Arras. It was hardly an all-out effort. It seems that most fighter sorties were still flown around the coast. In the afternoon and evening, flights from five squadrons were supposed to operate in the Arras-Cambrai region. The enemy planes the fighters claimed included seven of the troublesome Hs 126 observation planes, but it would seem none were lost around Cambrai. The Army continued to complain that the German observation planes were operating unhindered.

It was not easy for Fighter Command to do much about it. It was a very small sector of the front, a very long way from airfields in southern England, and patrols were likely to encounter enemy planes before they got anywhere near. Ironically, they had to fly over Merville and other abandoned airfields to reach their patrol lines. A much more focused effort would have been possible from airfields in France. With less than 200 sorties flown in the day, Fighter Command was still not committing sufficient resources either to protect the ports or defend the front line. For Dowding, this was not an oversight or misjudgement—it was policy.

The Blenheims were used throughout the day solely to slow down the German advance northwards along the Channel coast. Lysanders operating from Britain also attacked columns advancing towards Boulogne. This was perhaps the ultimate irony. The one plane the Air Ministry had designed to operate with the Army, under the control of the Army, was being used by the Air Ministry to supplement the efforts of Bomber Command. Twenty-four hours earlier, those Lysanders could have been supporting the Arras counterattack.

On the night before and day of the French counterattack, British bombers attacked nothing within 20 miles of Cambrai. There was little to support Peirse’s assurances to the British War cabinet that everything possible was being done by night and day to support the British and French counterattacks. Indeed, as Peirse spoke, Bomber Command was planning to reopen its offensive on oil targets by dispatching thirty-six Hampdens over 250 miles inside German territory to bomb the oil refinery at Merseburg, near Leipzig.

At 9 a.m. on 22 May, French tanks supported by motorised infantry began advancing towards Cambrai. The Germans were taken by surprise again, and their light defences were brushed aside. Anti-aircraft guns and repeated low-level strikes by Bf 109 fighters and 200-mph Henschel Hs 123 ground-attack biplanes eventually brought the advance to a halt just short of Cambrai. Despite Air Staff claims to the contrary, it seemed air support could help in defensive situations. Ironically, the Hs 123 was the sort of plane the War Office had been demanding during the winter of 1939–40.

By the 23rd, the British forces in the Arras region had been forced to withdraw northwards by Panzers swinging around to the north-west of the city. At this point, Blenheims were used against German columns in the Arras region. Not for the last time in the Second World War, RAF bombers were being called in to slow down an enemy advance when, just hours before, in support of a British advance, those same bombers might have been paving the way for a victory.

Weygand was still hoping to launch a major push southward from the Douai region. However, on the 25th, the British contribution to the attack had to be used to counter a German breakthrough further north on the Belgian front. On the 26th, Weygand’s plan was abandoned. Gort was already pulling back to the Channel by this time.

This did not necessarily mean evacuation. The pocket contained very substantial Belgian, French, and British forces; the initial plan was to fall back and hold a bridgehead from Calais to Ostend. This would tie down considerable German forces and give the French further south more time to establish a new defensive line along the Somme and Aisne. However, both wings were already in trouble. In the west, Boulogne had fallen on the 25th and Calais was already surrounded; in the east, the Belgians were struggling to hold the line. Gort was in no doubt that evacuation was the only option.

Preparations had been underway since Gort had first suggested the possibility of evacuation on 19 May. On the 23rd, Dowding was instructed to prepare a ‘strong covering operation’ for a possible evacuation of the BEF. Non-essential personnel were already leaving France. On the 26th, it became a full-scale evacuation. What exactly the Belgian and French armies were supposed to do was not clear, but from the British perspective they would serve the useful role of covering the British withdrawal. Dunkirk was the only major port in the British zone; if it fell, evacuation would not be an option. The Aa canal running to Gravelines, just 12 miles from Dunkirk, represented the best and last hope for establishing a defensive line to the west of Dunkirk.

It was a desperate race to man the line before the Panzers breached it. The Army needed the Air Force to buy them some more time. From the 24th, Fleet Air Arm Swordfish and army-cooperation Lysanders and Hectors joined No. 2 Group Blenheims in attacks on German columns advancing along the coast. It seemed that even the ‘heavies’ would finally be used by day. For the 25th, four Hampden squadrons were told to prepare for a low-level daylight strike on armoured forces west of Gravelines. A Hurricane escort would be provided.

Given Portal’s attitude, it is surprising that the plan got as far as this. The attack did not take place. Instead, the Hampdens bombed communication targets in western Germany under cover of darkness. Only Portal knew how this was going to help save the BEF. It seems extraordinary that the crisis should see Naval biplanes used by day while so many of the RAF’s specialist day bombers were only used by night. The Swordfish, Lysanders, and Hectors did their best; the Swordfish attack on the 25th ran into sixteen Bf 109s and Bf 110s, but the escort fought them off and no planes were lost. With fighter escort, daylight bombing was perfectly possible.

It will never be known whether these efforts would have been enough to halt the Panzers. The German advance was halted not by air attack or the defences on the ground, but by the German High Command, who feared the tanks might get bogged down in the marshy terrain; the Panzer divisions would soon be needed to strike at the main body of the French Army, along the Somme and Aisne. After two weeks of continuous advance, units were at 50 per cent strength and in need of rest. The Panzers were ordered to halt on the Aa Canal. Hermann Göring assured Hitler his bombers could finish the job. It would be two days before the order was rescinded and the Panzers tried to resume their advance; by that time, the defences were ready. Göring would have to deliver on his promise.

As the battle shifted to the Channel coast, encounters between the Luftwaffe and Spitfires (still under orders not to cross the coast) became more frequent. The British pilots seemed to have learned something from their earlier unsuccessful encounters off the Dutch coast. JG 27 lost five Bf 109s over Calais on the 23rd in clashes with Spitfires, and the next day another four were lost and two more damaged. The Spitfire was by no means superior to the Bf 109E—most were still handicapped by their fixed-pitch wooden propellers—but it was superior to anything most German pilots had encountered before. As soon as they could break free from their restrictively tight ‘vic’ formation, the Spitfires were formidable opponents.

German bomber losses were on the rise again, with at least four Ju 87s shot down over Calais by Hurricanes on the 25th. The RAF’s own attacks on Wehrmacht columns were now only suffering light losses. For the first time, RAF bomber efforts could be sustained day after day. On the 24th, General von Kleist, the overall commander of the Panzer forces closing in on Dunkirk, reported—perhaps rather melodramatically—that for the first time in the campaign, the enemy had air superiority. On the same day, Guderian reported that enemy fighter activity had become so strong that reconnaissance was practically impossible once again. Two days later, he was complaining that RAF fighter activity was intense and friendly fighter cover was completely lacking. The German commanders were perhaps exaggerating the extent of the problem, as commanders of all armies are inclined to do, but the RAF was making its presence felt. It was unfortunate that the Spitfires had not been able to do this sooner.

The BEF had secured Dunkirk, but the situation was still desperate. It was challenging enough to evacuate an entire army from a single port without any interference from the enemy; under air attack, it might be impossible. With the future of the entire British Army at stake, it seemed there could now be no excuse for Fighter Command holding back. Newall understood this. He gave Dowding very clear instructions that his command must provide continuous and powerful protection throughout the long, late-May hours of daylight. This would have been difficult enough if Calais was being used. Dunkirk was well within range of Fighter Command, but the distance fighters would have to fly to reach Dunkirk reduced the amount time that they could patrol for. Maintaining continuous, powerful protection would require a lot of fighters. It was more frustration for Dowding; his fighters were being misused yet again.

The Germans also had problems. The fighting had been tough, operations continuous, and losses heavy. Fighter units were, on average, down to 50 per cent serviceability rates, and the pilots were weary. German fighter units would be operating from captured and sometimes basic French and Belgian airstrips. These were not necessarily any closer to Dunkirk than RAF airfields. Accepting second-rate airfields, with pilots living rough, ground crews working in the open air, and supplies being brought in by transport plane, was all part of being a mobile tactical air force. It was what the German Air Force was used to. Even so, with their permanent bases and more secure lines of communication, RAF fighters seemed to have an advantage.

However, over-reliance on well-equipped permanent bases is also a disadvantage. There was no shortage of airfields in Kent that Dowding could use, if Fighter Command had been willing to match the flexibility of the German fighter force. Most of them were not part of the Fighter Command system, but being wired into the radar air defence system was not needed for operations over Dunkirk. If Fighter Command was going to put enough fighters over Dunkirk, it would need to improvise.

The Admiralty was showing the way; it was willing to risk its priceless destroyers to rescue the Army. More stirringly, Admiral Ramsay, in charge of the evacuation, assembled an improvised fleet of fishing boats, pleasure cruisers, and other privately owned craft to help lift the troops from the beaches to the larger ships offshore. Many of these would be piloted by their civilian owners. It perhaps behoved Fighter Command to match this courageous enterprise by throwing all it had into defending this band of civilian volunteers, not to mention the precious Royal Navy warships and soldiers trapped on the beaches.

It was not just Dowding who was reluctant to do this. Even at this moment of extreme peril, with Britain in danger of losing its entire Army, the bomber threat still dominated. Churchill had already asked his Chiefs of Staff to consider the worst-case scenario of a French collapse. Even with good fortune, it was estimated that Britain would do well to evacuate 45,000 troops of the 300,000 British troops in France. The generals saw no way for what was left of the British Army to be able to drive out an invading German Army. The Navy did not believe it could prevent it from getting ashore unless the RAF had control of the skies. Fighters would also be needed to protect ports and secure the supply of food and raw materials. The civilian population would only be willing to carry on the struggle if enemy bombing could be reduced to an acceptable level. The aircraft factories that supplied Fighter Command also had to be protected. All these responsibilities rested on the shoulders of Dowding’s fighters. Britain could only survive if Fighter Command remained intact.

Churchill agreed; he saw air attack as at least a great a danger as losing the British Army. It was a line of thinking that came very close to arguing Britain could afford to lose her Army, but it could not afford to lose Fighter Command. There was a genuine fear that if left unguarded, even for the briefest period, Britain (and particularly its aircraft industry) might suffer an instant and fatal blow. Given recent events in Rotterdam, this did not seem like an extravagant claim. It was, after all, what everyone believed British bombers were already doing to German industry. If Dowding did not overexpose his Command defending the troops at Dunkirk, there would not be too many objections from the politicians.

Bomber Command

Similarly, Bomber Command did not want to be distracted by the plight of the British Army. Portal believed that his bombers were already winning the war, even though there was no concrete evidence of this. Photo-reconnaissance Spitfires had been dispatched to photograph the extent of the damage inflicted; unlike the low-level reconnaissance after the Sylt raid, the Spitfires were flying at 25,000 feet, and nobody was sure what could be seen from this altitude. When no damage was discernible, it was assumed that it must be technically impossible to see any damage at that altitude. It was better to believe the bomber crews.38 ‘We have already made progress in the systematic elimination of the key objectives’, the Air Staff claimed. ‘Shortage of lubricating oils and petrol may have a very important effect on the intensity of the air offensive against this country in the ensuing months’. On 26 May, the day the full evacuation started, Portal was trying to get the Blenheim effort reduced. He could not afford to lose the bomber crews that would one day fly the next generation of heavy bomber. If the trapped Army needed bomber support, they would have to rely on Fleet Air Arm Skuas, Albacores, and Swordfish, or Air Component Hectors and Lysanders—not his bombers.

Despite Portal’s protests, Blenheims continued to fly around fifty sorties each day. He was also forced to use his precious ‘heavies’ to ease the pressure on the Dunkirk defences, although he still insisted that this could be best done by bombing communication targets in Germany. On the night of 25–26 May, a Whitley impressed the residents of Cologne by defying the cloud to bomb a bridge and ignite a gasworks below. The bridge was closed for one and a half hours. Troops falling back on Dunkirk might be forgiven for wondering how closing a bridge in Cologne was going to help them.

The heavies did also provide some closer support. On the same night as the Cologne attack, Wellingtons bombed German positions in the battlezone. Once the Dunkirk perimeter defences were established and the fighting more static, it became easier to define targets. Results were inevitably mixed, but any bombs dropped in the battle area at least had a chance of making a contribution and it was certainly encouraging for the trapped troops. The total effort against battlefield targets and communications in Germany was still only around fifty sorties per night. Raids on oil targets continued. On the night of 27–28 May, twenty-four Hampdens tried to hit oil refineries in Hamburg. The bombers managed to get seven bombs and a few incendiaries to fall within the city limits, starting one small fire.

As the bombers were returning from their attack, news was breaking that Belgium had surrendered. Sir Roger Keys and Lt-Col. Davy, who had both been liaising with the Belgian forces, made it clear to the cabinet that the principal reason for the collapse of the Belgian Army had been Luftwaffe dominance in the air, not weakness on the ground. The message was the same from every sector of the front—there were not enough fighters. Keys presented a heroic picture of Hurricanes trying and failing to break through the German escorts, but there had been no major RAF fighter support for the Belgian Army since the Air Component pulled out of France. In other circumstances, it might have seemed strange that Britain did not just give the Belgian Air Force replacements for the Hurricanes and Gladiators that had been destroyed on the ground, instead of leaving the pilots without aircraft. It would not have turned the tide, but it would have shown a willingness to help and given the Belgians some hope. Given the attitude of Dowding and the Air Staff, it is not at all surprising that such a move was not even considered.

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