By July 1940 France had been over-run and the British Expeditionary Force had been evacuated from Dunkirk. Germany now held most of NW Europe. The German High Command was preparing to invade Britain (Operation Seelöwe [Sealion]). The Germans knew that to successfully invade would require elimination of the RAF. On 10 July, Reich Marshall Herman Goering ordered a series of attacks which are now known as the Battle of Britain.
At the start of the battle, RAF Fighter Command had 53 squadrons, each with an establishment of 12 aircraft, in total around 630 aircraft. The Luftwaffe’s strength was about 2,250 combat ready aircraft, of which no fewer than 1,000 were fighters. At Tangmere, the Hurricanes of No 43 and 601 squadrons, with No 145 dispersed at newly completed RAF Westhampnett, provided the day fighter force.
The first phase of the battle was a period of heavy German attacks on coastal convoys designed to bring RAF fighters into battle with the numerically superior Luftwaffe. The Tangmere squadrons were fully employed during this period in defence of the convoys and lost a number of pilots but claimed many victories. RAF losses were minimised by Dowding’s wise refusal to commit large numbers of fighters to action over the Channel, where warning time was shorter and German fighters gained from reduced range to target. As a result of this careful management of resources, RAF fighter strength increased to about 740 aircraft available for the next phase of the battle.
On 1 August, Hitler issued a directive to the Luftwaffe “to overpower the English Air Force with all forces at its command in the shortest possible time”. Goering translated this into a strategy known as “Adlerangriff” (Eagle Attack), a progressive campaign to destroy the RAF in the air and on the ground.
The second phase of the battle began with continued heavy raids on Channel convoys and also saw the introduction of intensive attacks on RAF stations in southern England and the Radio Direction Finding (RDF) Chain Home stations. From 8 to 12 August, the Tangmere squadrons lost 16 aircraft (30%) in the defence of Operation ‘Peewit’, a westbound Channel convoy off the Isle of Wight and Portland. August 13 (Eagle Day) was a day of more mass raids with many successful interceptions by Tangmere squadrons, including a Ju88 shot down in Swanbourne Lake, near Arundel.
On Friday 16 August at 1300 hours, Tangmere was bombed by a large force of Ju87 ‘Stuka’ dive-bombers inflicting severe damage on the airfield. All the hangars were completely destroyed or badly damaged.
The station workshops, sick quarters, water pumping station and Officer’s Mess were wrecked and the power, water and sanitation systems were put out of action. Despite the damage the airfield remained operational. Tragically, ten servicemen and three civilians were killed and another twenty injured.
However, the Luftwaffe did not have it all their own way; Hurricanes and Spitfires destroyed nine enemy dive-bombers and badly damaged seven more. Following this raid, the Sector Operations Room was moved to St James’ School in Chichester and the Officers Mess to nearby Shopwyke House.
On 18 August both sides sustained heavy losses. Tangmere squadrons achieved more Stuka ‘kills’ in the defence of RAF Thorney Island, Ford and the Poling RDF Station. The heavy Stuka losses forced the Luftwaffe to withdraw the type from operations over England. A comparative lull followed until 24 August, the beginning of the next phase of the battle.
The third phase began with heavy daily raids on RAF airfields in southern England and major attacks on aircraft factories including Vickers at Brooklands, Short Brothers at Rochester and Supermarine at Southampton.
Tangmere’s Hurricanes and Spitfires were involved in intercepting most of these raids. Losses of experienced aircrew were now causing concern to both sides but fortunately for RAF Fighter Command the Luftwaffe changed its tactics. At the start of the Battle of Britain, Hitler had forbidden direct attacks on London and the civil population, hoping to persuade Britain to accept a “Peace Treaty”. Now things were different.
The start of the fourth phase saw the Luftwaffe commence heavy daylight raids on London believing the Bf109 fighters could safely escort the Do17, He111 and Ju88 bombers. However, the Bf109s had insufficient endurance and were unable to provide adequate support, leading to great losses in bomber aircrew. September 15 saw the climax of this phase of the battle, with both sides suffering the heaviest losses of the whole campaign.
In October, the heavy daylight raids were discontinued and enemy effort was concentrated on massive night attacks on London – the ‘Blitz’. Daylight enemy activity was limited to nuisance raids by Bf109 fighter bombers. The RAF’s fighter strength held steady (about 730 aircraft) but the Luftwaffe’s strength both in aircraft and pilots was beginning to fail. It is argued that switching the attacks to UK cities, particularly London ensured a British victory. The intensity of the Luftwaffe attacks slowly waned, although the Blitz continued into 1941. Britain’s freedom had been saved by Sir Hugh Dowding and the ‘Few’.
The Battle of Britain lasted from 10 July until 31 October, 114 days. Over the whole campaign, Fighter Command lost 537 aircrew killed and as many again badly injured out some 3,000 aircrew who took part in the battle. The Luftwaffe lost almost five times as many men (2,662) and more than 6,000 wounded or captured. The British lost ten fighters for every nineteen German aircraft destroyed. The eight squadrons based at Tangmere and Westhampnett from time to time during the battle (seven equipped with Hurricanes) claimed over 300 enemy aircraft destroyed.