Today in 1940 the Luftwaffe made an all-out effort to severely damage Britain’s Fighter Command. The massive air battles which ensued resulted in the 18th of August 1940 becoming known as “The Hardest Day”.
After their major efforts on 15 and 16 August the Germans paused to recover before returning in force on 18 August. Flying 750 sorties, the Germans attacked airfields at Biggin Hill, Kenley, Croydon and West Malling. The raid on RAF Kenley caused severe damage. All ten of its hangars and several aircraft – mostly Hurricanes – were destroyed. The air battles that took place were amongst the largest aerial engagements in history at that time.
“Within minutes all the Dorniers had been hit. Feldwebel Johannes Petersen’s Do 17 was flying higher than the others. It was hit, and caught fire, but carried on. Günter Unger lined up his Do 17 in order to attack a hangar and released his 20 110-lb bombs before his starboard engine was knocked out. Unteroffizier Schumacher watched as three hangars were destroyed by Unger’s bombs. Unger’s Dornier was then was hit by something. It bled black smoke and lost speed. Unger was engaged by No. 111s Harry Newton. Newton was shot down by accurate return fire and bailed out. However, Newton fired a burst of machine gun fire at the Dornier in frustration before leaving the Hurricane. He damaged the Dornier, but Unger flew on. Oberleutnant Hermann Magin was lining up a hangar when he was hit and slumped over. The quick reactions of the navigator, 28 year old Wilhelm-Friedrich Illg, saved the crew. He took control and climbed out of the defensive fire before ordering the crew to abandon the aircraft…” ~ 9 Staffel KG 76 attacks Kenley.
The British outperformed the Luftwaffe in the air, achieving a favourable ratio of 2:1. However, both sides suffered heavy casualties.The RAF and the Luftwaffe lost more aircraft combined on this day than at any other point during the campaign, including Battle of Britain Day, generally considered the climax of the campaign.
“The 25-mile strip of coastline between Bognor and Gosport now became a mass of some 300 hundred aircraft, twisting and turning to bring guns to bear or to avoid guns being brought to bear. Flt Lt Derek Boitel-Gill ordered the 11 Spitfires of No 152 Squadron to move into line astern and then led them into the melee. He picked out a small bunch of dive-bombers heading south, aimed a four-second burst into one of them and saw it crash into the sea. He then shifted his attack to another Stuka but then had to break away when Messerschmitts swept in to protect their charges. The 12 Spitfires of No 602 Squadron caught up with the Stukas of II./StG 77 just after they left the coast near Middleton-on-Sea. Flt Lt Dunlop Urie in the lead fired bursts at five dive-bombers in turn before he ran out of ammunition. Sgt Basil Whall singled out one Ju 87 and made four deliberate attacks before it curved back towards the coast and force-landed near Rustington. Whall then sped out to sea for another go at the dive-bombers and engaged one from 50 yards. The fighter’s rounds raked the Stuka, which caught fire and crashed into the sea. In the course of these attacks, however, Whall appears to have fallen foul of the Germans’ “gaggle trap” tactic. His Spitfire took numerous hits and, his engine losing power, he made a forced landing on the beach near Middleton-on-Sea.” ~ StG 77 attacks Thorney Island.
Between 27 and 34 RAF fighters were destroyed. A specialist source of the battle indicated the figure to be 31 destroyed or beyond repair. Of these, 25 fell to German fighters, two to return fire from the bombers. One was shot down by British ground fire in error and the loss of the remainder cannot be established. Some 26 of the fighters lost were Hurricanes, and five were Spitfires. Personnel losses for the RAF amounted to 10 British fighter pilots killed on the day, and another who died of wounds. Around 19 pilots were wounded, 11 so seriously that they did not take part in the rest of the battle.
Altogether, the Luftwaffe lost between 69 and 71 aircraft destroyed or damaged beyond repair as a result of its operations over Britain on 18 August 1940. Of this total, 59 were lost to certain or probable action by fighters while two fell to ground fire, four to a combination of both and one collided with a British training aircraft. The remaining three crashed in German-held territory owing to technical failures. Altogether, the losses represented seven per cent of the force committed. Around 29 aircraft crashed in England. Personnel losses were 94 German crews killed, 40 captured and 25 returned with wounds. Some 27 to 31 German aircraft returned with damage.
Painting: Spitfire Country by Nicolas Trudgian Aviation Art Fan Page.
“A typical scene from a bright August morning in that momentous summer of 1940. Having climbed into the dawn sky at daybreak, the Spitfires of No 603 Squadron have already been in action, and with more heavy raids on the plotters table, they scurry back to Biggin Hill to re-arm and refuel. A Messerschmitt Me109, shot down during the previous days fighting, lies discarded in a hay field, its lucky pilot having escaped with his life. Meanwhile, the beautiful Kent countryside comes awake as it prepares for the toils of another glorious summers day.”