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August 15th 1940

Many thanks to Brian Pears for allowing us to reproduce his account of this momentous day.

See http://www.ne-diary.bpears.org.uk/index.html  for a fascinating North East War Diary.

Thursday, 15th August 1940  D348

Today was probably the most significant day in the Battle of Britain as far as the north-east is concerned. That is why different versions of the same air battles have been given, each one telling slightly more of the story as it unfolded, there are also differing versions, one version appears to show only 13 Groups battle, the others take in 12 Group as well, but its as accurate as its possible to get, 50 years after the event.

This was the day the Luftwaffe attempted to saturate the British Defences. One of the many areas of attack was Luftflotte 5’s flank attack on the east Coast, they met heavy opposition and suffered serious casualties, most of whom fell into the North Sea. Luftflotte 5 never attempted a flank attack again. The man to whom the North-East is indebted for the successful defence of this area has not had very much in the way of recognition, he was the Air Officer Commanding, 13 Group, Air Vice-Marshal Richard Ernest Saul, DFC.

Despite enthusiastic claims made by the RAF (182 shot down), the true total of German losses was still a crushing blow to them. Over the whole country, Seventy-five lost and a further fifteen returning to base damaged. They also lost a further three planes and damaged another five in accidents.

The majority of people living in the North-East on this August day did not really know much about the events of the day, they just knew about the happenings in their own little part of the world, Miss Flagg’s diary gives a true account of the day as the man or in this case, woman in the street saw it. The “Battle of Tyneside”, in a way the prototype for the “Battle of Britain”, did not affect the town (South Shields); indeed, many people had very little idea how momentous an occasion it was. The roar of planes and heavy gun-fire were heard; there were occasional glimpses of aircraft attacking or taking evasive action but bombs were only dropped in the harbour, on the cliffs and at sea. Four High Explosive bombs fell at Salmon’s Hall and Frenchman’s Bay. A Coast guard on duty had a narrow escape, one bomb falling on each side of his cabin which was seriously damaged. No casualties.

The following is an account of the North-East’s part in that day, as described in the book Narrow Margin by Derek Wood and Derek Dempster …. “Then followed an attack which was to be the most interesting of the whole day. Banking on tactical surprise and conveniently forgetting the radar chain, Luftflotte 5 launched two simultaneous thrusts in the north and the north-east. They expected little opposition and their reception came as a painful surprise.”

“At 8 minutes past 12 radar began to plot a formation of twenty plus opposite the Firth of Forth at a range of over 90 miles. As the raid drew closer the estimates went up to thirty in three sections flying SW towards Tynemouth.”

“At Watnall the approach of 13 Groups first daylight raid was watched on the operations table with particular interest. With an hours warning the controller was able to put squadrons in an excellent position to attack, with 72 Squadron Spitfires in the path of the enemy off the Farne Islands and 605 Squadron over Tyneside. Nos 79 and 607 were also put up, but while the latter was in the path of the raid, No 79 was too far north.”

“No 72 Squadron from Acklington was the first to make contact and it came as a distinct shock when the thirty materialised as I and III/KG 26 with sixty-five Heinkel 111s, and the entire I/ZG 76 from Stavanger with thirty-four Me 110s. After a brief pause in which to survey the two massive groups flying in vic formation, Squadron-Leader E. Graham led No 72 straight in from the flank, one section attacking the fighters, and the rest the bombers.”

“The Me 110s formed defensive circles, while the Heinkels split up. Some of them jettisoned their bombs and headed back to Norway, leaving several of their number in the sea. The separate parts of the formation finally reached the coast, one south of Sunderland and the other south of Acklington. No 79 intercepted the northern group over the water, while a flight from No 605 Squadron caught it over land. Most of the HEs fell harmlessly in the sea.”

“The group off Sunderland found Nos 607 and 41 waiting for it and they too bombed to little effect, apart from wrecking houses. The raiders turned back to Norway, the Me 110s having already departed some minutes before. Of a total force of about 100, eight bombers and seven fighters were destroyed and several more damaged without British loss. The airfield targets such as Usworth, Linton on Ouse and Dishforth went unscathed. One Staffel of III/KG 26 lost five of its nine aircraft in the course of the fighting.”

“Farther south, an unescorted formation of 50 Ju 88s from I, II and III/KG 30, based on Aalborg, was heading in to No 12 Group off Flamborough Head. This group were detailed to wipe Driffield out as a bomber base. Full radar warning was given and 73 Squadron Hurricanes, 264 Squadron Defiants and 616 Squadron Spitfires were sent to patrol the area, the force being supplemented later by Blenheims from 219 Squadron in 13 Group.”
“Both 616 and a flight of No 73 engaged, but the enemy split into eight sections. Some turned north to bomb Bridlington where houses were hit and an ammunition dump blown up. The main force, however, flew to the No 4 Group Bomber Station at Driffield, Yorkshire, where 169 bombs of various calibres were dropped on the airfield, four hangars were damaged and many other buildings were either bombed or raked with cannon fire, twelve Whitleys were destroyed and seventeen personnel were killed. The damage to the airfield was such, that it was non-operational for the rest of the year.

Heavy anti-aircraft fire was directed against the bombers and one was brought down. Altogether, six of KG 30s Ju 88s were shot down, representing about 10% of the force sent over.”

“In all, the northern attackers lost sixteen bombers out of a serviceable Luftflotte 5 force of one hundred and twenty-three, and seven fighters of the thirty-four available”.

This account of the days events have been taken from the book ‘Action Stations. Vol. 7’. by David J. Smith, in the section that deals with Usworth airfield. “The airfield at Usworth near Boldon was a training station for most of its wartime career, despite this it was singled out for a major Luftwaffe attack during the Battle of Britain. On August 15th 1940, a large force of Heinkel He 111s of KG 26, inadequately escorted by Messerschmitt Bf 110s of ZG 76 were detected approaching the east coast. Spitfires of 72 Squadron, Acklington met them off the Farne Islands and although heavily outnumbered, claimed several destroyed.

The German formation then split into two, one portion making for Tyneside and the other turned south. The second Acklington Squadron, No 79, encountered the northern group just off the coast and a dogfight with the escort ensued. Reforming, the Hurricanes caught up with the bombers who were approaching Newcastle on their way to their primary target which appeared to be Usworth airfield.

Harried by the Tyne guns and more Hurricanes from Drem airfield near Edinburgh, the Heinkels made off scattering their bombs to little effect, leaving Usworth untouched. The southerly force, attacked by 14 and 607 Squadrons from Catterick and Usworth, jettisoned their bombs in the region of Seaham Harbour. The enemy lost eight bombers and seven fighters and since no military target was hit, it could be said to have been a highly successful action on the part of 13 Group and the AA guns”.

In the same book, the section that deals with Acklington airfield describes it thus “On August ?16th? 1940, believing that all our fighter squadrons had been committed to the struggle in the south, the Luftwaffe sent about one hundred bombers with an escort of forty Messerschmitt Bf 110s against Tyneside. Unfortunately for them, several Hurricane and Spitfire squadrons had been withdrawn from the battle to rest in, and simultaneously guard the north.”

“The pilots had protested that they were not at all tired and then this unexpected consolation came upon the scene. Nearly thirty enemy aircraft were shot down, many by Acklington based aircraft, for a British loss of two pilots injured. Never again was a daylight raid attempted, outside the range of the best fighter protection and henceforth everywhere north of the Wash was safe by day”.

The New English Library edition of The Battle of Britain gives the following account of today’s events … Fine and warm anticyclonic weather. All three Luftflotten in maximum effort against airfields, radar stations and factories including heavy attack by KG 26 and ZG 76 (Luftflotte 5) in the Newcastle area. RAF air station at Driffield bombed and ten Whitley bombers destroyed on ground. Other attacks leave Dishforth, Linton on Ouse and Usworth undamaged. Bridlington ammunition dump blown up. ….. This day a turning point: its losses convince the Luftwaffe that air superiority is essential before all-out bombing can be successful. It also marks the virtual end of Luftflotte 5’s offensive usefulness, so sparing the north such heavy attacks in future; and the beginning of the end of the Ju 87’s usefulness as a dive-bomber and that of the Bf 110 as an escort fighter. Losses: Luftwaffe: seventy-five, Fighter Command: thirty-four. It must be pointed out that the final remarks and figures appertain to the whole country.

This account of the days happenings, are extracts that come from Basil Collier’s book ‘The Battle of Britain’. The book also gives an inkling of the flair and boldness of Air Vice-Marshal Saul’s tactics, plus a little praise for the outcome which saved the North-East from a lot of attention in the days of war, yet to come.

“The main feature of the second days (August 15) programme was that, for the first time, fairly weighty attacks across the North Sea were to be made by General Stumpff’s Luftflotte 5 in concert with further attacks in the south by Kesselring and Sperrle. This was an extremely risky innovation …. but he could scarcely refuse the part assigned to him. His orders were attack aerodromes near Newcastle and in Yorkshire, and he had roughly sixty-five Heinkel 111s, fifty Junkers 88s and thirty-five Messerschmitt 110s with which to do it. The 110s were far too few to escort a hundred and fifteen bombers, and had barely the endurance to cross the North Sea in both directions. Making the best of a bad job, he fitted them with supplementary fuel-tanks; ordered them to fly without rear-gunners to compensate for the added weight; sent them to Newcastle with the Heinkels; and ordered the faster and more modern Junkers 88s to fly to Yorkshire unescorted. It was a desperate gamble, but it might conceivably come off.

The RDF stations on the east coast picked up the Heinkels and their escort when they were still far out to sea. Their first estimate was that more than twenty aircraft were approaching, but later they raised the figure to more than thirty, and finally to more than fifty. The stations said, correctly, that the aircraft were flying in three distinct formations.

Air Vice-Marshal R.E. Saul DFC commanding No 13 Group, was less well known to the public than his colleagues to the south, whose forces were in the thick of the fighting throughout the battle. August 15 gave him his first chance of countering a big attack in daylight. In spite of the enormous area he had to cover, he made such good use of it that it also proved to be his last, for the Germans never repeated the experiment.
Saul’s position at noon, when the Heinkels of Kampfgeschwader 26 and the Messerschmitt 110s of Zerstorergeschwader 76 were first detected miles away over the North Sea, was that he had three squadrons of Spitfires, one of Hurricanes and one of Blenheims in the two sectors which covered the north of England. Of the remaining eight squadrons which made up the resources of his group, four and a half were far away in Northern Ireland, Shetland and the north of Scotland. To supplement the five squadrons he had immediately at hand, he could count only on two and a half squadrons of Hurricanes near the Firth of Forth and a squadron of Defiants near the Clyde. The Blenheims were no match even for long-range fighters, while the Defiants had suffered crippling losses in their last encounter with the Germans and were at least a hundred miles from any objective which Stumpff was likely to attack.

Saul began by sending one of the four single-seater squadrons close at hand to meet the enemy well off the coast. At the same time he brought down a squadron of Hurricanes from the Firth of Forth to patrol the Tyneside – an almost unprecedented step. As the threat became more imminent he added the remaining three single-seater squadrons immediately available, keeping back only the Blenheims, the Defiants, and a squadron and a half of Hurricanes near the Forth. By this time correctly appreciating that he had the greater part of Stumpff’s resources on his front, he nevertheless responded to a call for reinforcement from No 12 Group, on his southern flank, by parting with the Blenheims, his only uncommitted squadron within reach. Like Brand (Air Vice-Marshal Sir Q. Brand AOC of 10 Group) in face of Sperrle’s threat on the 13th, at least he ran little risk of being caught by Stumpff with his aircraft on the ground.

Meanwhile, to seaward of the Farne Islands, the Spitfires of No 72 Squadron from Acklington were closing with Stumpff’s escorted bombers at the rate of something like eight miles per minute. In the absence of a squadron-leader, they were led by Flight-Lieutenant Edward Graham, who thus stepped into the place of honour in one of the most spectacularly successful air combats of the war.

Thirty miles off the coast, the squadron sighted the enemy – a hundred aircraft to their eleven. As the RDF stations had predicted, the Germans were flying in three formations – the bombers ahead and the fighters in two waves stepped up to the rear. Misled by the supplementary fuel tanks slung below the fighters, which looked like bombs, Graham and his pilots took the nearer wave for Junkers 88s.

Stumpff’s armada was so vast in comparison with Graham’s little force that he hesitated for a moment, uncertain at what point and from what direction to attack it. Apparently unable to bear the suspense, one of his pilots asked whether he had seen the enemy. With a slight stutter which was habitual, he replied ” Of course I’ve seen the b-b-b-bastards, I’m trying to w-w-w-work out what to do.” The reply became famous through-out Fighter Command.

He did not hesitate for long, The Spitfires had had plenty of time to gain height during their long flight from the coast, and were about three thousand feet above the enemy’s mean height. Making the most of his advantage and of what corresponded to the weather-gauge, he decided to lead the squadron in a diving attack from up-sun, leaving each pilot free to choose his own target. Two-thirds attacked bombers or supposed bombers, the remaining third the second wave of fighters, correctly identified as 110s.

The results were startling. Jettisoning their external tanks, some of the 110s formed the usual defensive circle, while others dived almost to sea level and were last seen heading east. The bombers, less an indeterminate number destroyed by Graham’s squadron, then split into two formations, each accompanied by some of the remaining fighters. One formation headed for Tyneside, apparently with the intention of bombing Saul’s sector station at Usworth; the rest turned south-east towards two aerodromes at Linton on Ouse and Dishforth which they had been ordered to attack.

The first formation, engaged successively by the remaining squadron from Acklington, the Tyne guns and some of the Hurricanes which had come south from Scotland, dropped most of their bombs in the sea. The second, engaged by a squadron of Spitfires from Catterick, a Hurricane squadron from Usworth and the Tees guns, dropped theirs almost as ineffectively near Sunderland and Seaham Harbour. From first to last Saul’s fighters, backed by the guns of the 7th Anti-Aircraft Division under Major-General R.B. Pargiter, destroyed eight Heinkels and seven 110s without suffering a single casualty. It is known that in addition to the enemy losses reported in this diary during this period, many German aircraft got back to their bases with battle damage varying from a few bullet holes to a total write-off on crash landing.

While these excitements were at their height, the fifty Junkers 88s which made up the rest of Stumpff’s bomber force were speeding across the North Sea towards their objective in South Yorkshire, a bomber aerodrome at Great Driffield. About a quarter of an hour before the first shot was fired off the Farne Islands, warning was received in the operations room of No 12 Group at Watnall that German aircraft were approaching the front of the group’s Church Fenton sector, but were still a long way out to sea.” …. Here the direct quotes from the story end, but a resume of the rest of the action in the north, is that …. Air Vice-Marshal Saul was even able to lend No 12 Groups AOC – Air Vice-Marshal Leigh-Mallory – his squadron of Blenheims to help in the defence of the airfield at Driffield which was bombed, as was Bridlington. The Blenheims were lent even though Air Vice-Marshal Leigh-Mallory had squadrons nearer to him available to fight, than Air Vice-Marshal Saul had at the beginning of the action.

Luftflotte 5 was finished in the daylight battle, apart from reconnaissance, and most of its bomber strength and some of its fighters were transferred to Luftflotte 2, based in France, towards the end of August.

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