The 'Hardest Day' - Kenley's Defenders

The Luftwaffe’s attack on RAF Kenley, 18th August, 1940, was a risky venture, depending on pin-point accuracy and timing.

The low-level raiders of the 9th Staffel inflicted considerable damage to Kenley, especially considering that they only carried 9 tons of bombs between them. By contrast, sixty Heinkel He.111’s dropped 80 tons of bombs on Biggin Hill the same day, from altitudes above 12,000ft, but achieved minimal results. However, the 9th Staffel paid a terrible price for the mis-timing of the high-altitude and dive-bombing attacks.

Spitfires of No.64 Squadron. Still from the film “Fighter Pilot” (©IWM UKY263)

Here is the story of how Fighter Command countered the raids.

Throughout the sunny morning of the 18th August, British fighters were being scrambled from time to time to drive away German reconnaissance aircraft over Southern England, but aerial activity was generally light. Shortly after midday, the radar station at Dover started to pick up increasing activity over the Pas-de-Calais area. By 12.45pm, they had plots on six separate concentrations of enemy aircraft. 11 Group’s controllers at Uxbridge began to order their squadrons into the air to intercept. No.501 Squadron, Gravesend, were already in the air and on their way back to base when they were ordered to climb to 20,000 ft and patrol near Canterbury. Eight further squadrons were scrambled: two from Kenley, two from Biggin Hill and one each from North Weald, Martlesham Heath, Manston and Rochford.

With the raiders approaching, air raid warnings were sounded across eastern Kent and thoughts of a peaceful Sunday lunch were abandoned as people headed for their shelters.

Four squadrons spiralled upwards to gain the advantage of height over Kenley and Biggin Hill: Nos. 32, 64, 610 and 615, a total of 23 Spitfires and 27 Hurricanes.

By luck more than judgement, the course followed by the attacking medium and high altitude German bombers took them 15 miles to the south of the British fighters lying in wait between Canterbury and Margate, so they were unopposed in the air until they had to face the fighters climbing to intercept them over Kenley and Biggin Hill.

Meanwhile, the low-level Dorniers of the 9th Staffel had been spotted by K3 Observer Corps post at Beachy Head and their Headquarters at Horsham had alerted the Fighter Command Sector stations, including Kenley, to their presence. However, it wasn’t clear where they were going at this point and Kenley’s squadrons continued to be guided onto the incoming high altitude raid.

The 9th Staffel Dorniers had been hedge-hopping north-westerly but swung northwards when Roth, their leader and navigator, skilfully picked up the London to Brighton railway line at Burgess Hill.

As reports continued to come in from the Observer Corps it became clear to Wing Commander Prickman and controller Anthony Norman that Kenley, or one of the other airfields nearby, was about to become the target of a co-ordinated attack. With their own squadrons already committed to countering the high-altitude raid, the low-level raid was approaching un-opposed. Only No.111 Squadron remained on the ground at Croydon. Normally squadrons could only be ordered into the air by the controllers at Group Headquarters, but given the gravity of the situation, Prickman ordered all flyable fighters into the air – those unable to fight were ordered to head north-west away from danger and No.111 took off in a ‘survival scramble’ to assemble over Kenley at 3000ft. Similar orders to get every flyable fighter airborne were issued by Group Captain Grice at Biggin Hill.

At 1.10pm, the BBC transmitter at Brookmans Park, Hatfield, was abruptly switched off to prevent German aircraft using the signal for direction-finding and the wireless suddenly went dead for those listening to the 1 o’clock news on the BBC Home Service.

Roth had succeeded in directing his Staffel precisely onto the target, at the correct time – they widened their formation as they prepared to attack, but it was already clear that the plan for the high-level raid to disable Kenley before they arrived had mis-fired somehow. Kenley was intact and all guns were trained in their direction. With a section of No.111’s Hurricanes curving in behind them, there was no choice but to press on with their bombing run.

As Kenley’s anti-aircraft guns opened fire on the raiders, it was apparent that they would be as deadly to the Hurricanes as the Dorniers. It is unclear whether Flight Lieutenant  Stanley Connors was hit by return fire from the Dorniers or friendly fire from Kenley. Despite the damage to his Hurricane, he headed towards Leaves Green, probably in pusuit of Lamberty’s Dornier, and lost his life when his crippled Hurricane crashed nearby. The rest of Connors’ section pulled up away from the anti-aircraft fire over Kenley and made for the other side of the airfield to intercept the enemy bombers at the end of their run. Even as the bombers approached Kenley, the last couple of flyable 615 Hurricanes were taking off, one flown by P/O Keith Lofts.

 Most accounts of this raid say that Connors crashed and died at The Oaks, south of Carshalton Beeches. However, post-war research suggests that he pursued Lamberty’s Dornier towards Leaves Green despite the fire consuming his Hurricane. His crash at Keston Fruit Farm (near Blackness Lane) was witnessed by members of the Home Guard at Layam’s Farm. Two of them were detailed with guarding the wrecked fighter, one of whom (‘Chip’ Manchip) remembered being given Connors identity discs to hold.

Pilots of No.111 Squadron, 1938. Sgt. Dymond, 3rd left, P/O Connors, far right.

The port wing of Rudolf Lamberty’s Dornier was ablaze as he tried to escape the pursuing fighters of 111 Squadron. He was attacked by Sergeants Dymond and Brown and, realising the situation was hopeless picked out a large field and prepared for a crash landing. He didn’t realise that three members of the crew were baling out, but they were already dangerously low. Gustav Peters and Valentin Geier suffered multiple injuries because they hit the ground before their parachutes had time to open fully. Hugo Eberhart wisely pulled his ripcord as he exited the bomber and only suffered minor injuries to his hand. As the stricken bomber passed over, the Addington Home Guards who were taking part in their Sunday training session, opened fire with their newly-issued rifles. Eventually, they were credited with delivering the coup-de-grace to Lamberty’s Dornier, giving a much needed boost to the morale of Home Guard units all over Britain.

It is possible that Flight Lieutenant Connors’ bravery in pressing home his attack, was ‘hushed up’ in favour of crediting the Home Guard with shooting down the bomber. 

The Dornier crash-landed at Milking Lane Farm, Leaves Green and Lamberty and Roth escaped the blazing wreck, suffering burns. They were taken prisoner by a group of Home Guardsmen.

The home guardsmen who claimed to have brought down a Dornier on 18th August, 1940. Photographed at their post the following day, (War Illustrated)

Back at Kenley, “The Crest” a house in Golf Rd, on the north-western side of the airfield was being used by a detachment of Scots Guardsmen as their headquarters for airfield defence. They had a Lewis gun mounted on the roof, possibly manned by Lance Corporal Miller, who kept his gun in action as the Dornier approached. A well-timed bomb destroyed the house as the Dornier skimmed overhead. Second Lieutenant J. Hague was buried in the debris and injured, but managed to extricate himself and direct his men to safety under fire. Lance Corporal Gale managed to rescue another injured soldier, despite having sustained two broken ribs himself. Hague received the Military Cross, while Gale and Miller were awarded the Military Medal.

Meanwhile Aircraftman D. Roberts and AC2 Knowles were waiting with their Parachute and Cable launchers, along the northern boundary of the airfield. As the leader of a section of three Dorniers came into range, Roberts and Knowles  fired their weapons, each sending nine rockets skyward trailing their deadly steel cables at intervals of 10-15 metres. The pilots of the Dorniers had never seen anything like this before – Wilhelm Raab tried to bank between the rockets fired by Knowles, causing the cable to slide off his wing, and thus avoided being brought down by it. Petersen wasn’t so lucky, the Dornier, already aflame, was caught squarely by the parachute and cable trap and plummeted into ‘Sunnycroft’ a cottage on Golf Rd, killing all on board. AC Roberts was awarded the Military Medal for his actions and went on to achieve high rank in the RAF regiment. 

In Raab’s Dornier, the radio operator, Erich Malter was firing at the pursuing Hurricanes of 111 squadron, possibly hitting and injuring Pilot Officer Peter Simpson. He no longer had complete control of his aircraft and made a forced landing on the RAC golf course at Woodcote Park, near Epsom.

P/O Peter James Simpson, No.111 Squadron, Croydon (Battle of Britain London Monument)

Sergeant Harry Newton had spotted Guenther Unger’s damaged Dornier and went in to attack, pulling the hood of the Hurricane back, so he could escape easily if he was hit. He fired one burst before Unger’s rear gunner, Franz Bergmann, fired back, hitting the Hurricane, which burst into flames. With the hood back, the slipstream caused the flames to blow back into the cockpit setting the oxygen in Newton’s mask on fire and burning it to his face. He kept his eyes tight shut, put the aircraft into a climb to try to gain enough altitude to bale out. When the engine cut, he pushed the stick forward, threw himself left and pulled the ripcord. He made a perfect landing near Tatsfield Beacon and was met by a group of soldiers with bayonets fixed and their rifles pointed at him. Newton was taken to hospital in Oxted, where the process of saving his burnt face and hands began.

111 Squadron’s Hurricanes broke off the pursuit and turned for home as their ammunition ran out.

Sgt. Harry Snow Newton, No.111 Squadron, (Battle of Britain London Monument)

In Kenley’s vulnerable operations room, a single storey building with only an earth revetment for protection, the roar of aircraft engines, explosions and gunfire had ceased, leaving an unearthly silence in it’s wake – their vital phone lines were dead, and they were rendered helpless.

The original Operations Room, c.1975 (Anthony Yeoell)

At 25,000ft, 615 squadron’s ‘A’ flight had been taken by surprise by Messerschmitt 109’s attacking from out of the sun. Sgt. Walley was hit from the starboard side and went down in flames in Hurricane P2766, crashing in Morden Park.

Memorial plaque to Sgt. Walley at Morden College, near his crash site, (Linda Duffield).

South African Pilot Officer Petrus “Dutch” Hugo turned to engage the attacker but was hit himself, feeling sickening pain in his left leg, as petrol shot into the cockpit from the main fuel tank. He continued to be hit as his Hurricane (R4221) went into a spin. He turned off the fuel and opened the throttle to prevent a fire – the engine sputtered to a halt, but as he pulled out of the spin cannon shells began to rip through the Hurricane again. An explosion to one side of his head knocked him out and when he came to he was at 10,000ft in a spin, with blood sprayed all over the cockpit and his oxygen mask and microphone blown off of his helmet. As the Me109 came around for a third attack Hugo rolled the Hurricane onto its back and released his harness to bale out, only to find that he was stuck in the cockpit! In the rush to get airborne he had looped one of his leg straps around the lever used to raise and lower the seat! He finally crash landed in a meadow near Orpington and was rushed to hospital.

P/O “Dutch” Hugo, 615 Squadron, (Gerry Burke)

Canadian Flight Lieutenant Gaunce, of 615 squadron, also had to bale out of his flaming Hurricane. He landed safely with slight injuries to his eyes and was admitted to Holmesdale Hospital. His Hurricane (P2966) crashed at Robsacks Wood, Sevenoaks, Kent.

F/Lt. Lionel Manley Gaunce, No. 615 Squadron (Carol Brown)

Pilot Officer Looker was hit, but managed to spin out of the formation, straightened out and made it to Croydon, where he made an emergency landing under fire from the stations ground defences. Luckily, their aim was off and he skidded to a halt with the aircraft on its nose. This Hurricane (L1592) is now on display in the Science Museum, London.

P/O David John Looker, No.615 Squadron, (Battle of Britain London Monument). 

The victorious German pilots were Oberleutnant Keller and Leutnants Meckel and Landry of Fighter Geshwader 3, flying top cover for the high level raiders on their approach to Kenley. While they were attacking No.615 Squadron, “A” Flight of No.32 Squadron from Biggin Hill, led by Mike Crossley, were free to approach the bombers head-on, destroying one Dornier and damaging others while “B” Flight, led by Pete Brothers, dealt with the escorting Me110’s. The daring frontal attack disrupted the course of their bombing run putting the raiders off course for Kenley. Instead, some dropped their bombs near the railway lines to the north and east, damaging housing in Whyteleafe, Caterham, Coulsdon and Purley, while others headed for Croydon airfield or turned straight for home.

S/Ldr Donald MacDonell, No.64 Squadron. Still from the film “Fighter Pilot” (©IWM UKY263)

Squadron Leader Don MacDonell, leading the Spitfires of Kenley’s 64 squadron, was at 20,000ft when he spotted the action far below. They descended in a wide spiral at high speed, but kept alert for the danger of the inevitable fighter escort. Meanwhile the Me110’s escorting the high-level Dorniers were under attack from 32 Squadron. F/Lt. ‘Humph’ Russell succeeded in hitting one, but was caught in the return fire from several of the Me110’s and wounded in the left arm and right leg. He baled out successfully, but was alarmed to see that his leg was bleeding profusely. His attempts to stem the flow using the ripcord from his parachute proved unsuccessful.

64 Squadron entered the fray, diving through the dogfight and climbing to attack from underneath the enemy aircraft. MacDonell hit one of the Me110’s and saw smoke begin to belch from the starboard engine. The aircraft appeared to stall and spin away convincing MacDonell that the Me110 was finished. However, its pilot, Ruediger Proske had opted to ‘play dead’, allowing his aircraft to enter an uncontrolled spin for 6000ft, before pulling out and heading for home with both engines damaged.

The Junkers 88’s of IInd Gruppe, KG76, ended up being the last of the bomber formations to reach Kenley, instead of the first. The massive clouds of dense smoke rising from the burning hangars made a precision dive-bombing attack impossible and probably unnecessary. Consequently, they switched course and headed for their alternative target – West Malling. As they flew past Biggin Hill, one of the Junkers 88’s was hit by anti-aircraft fire, and then pursued by at least five RAF fighters. It crashed in woods beside the church at Ide Hill, killing all on board.

Squadron Leader Anthony Norman, Fighter Controller at Kenley summed up the day’s action, saying,

We felt we had won a great victory….we had survived. And by late afternoon, we were back in business again. So long as the people and the system survived, that was all that mattered. Equipment could be replaced and buildings could be repaired.

You can read about the fates of the 9th Staffel Dorniers here and Kenley’s casualties here.

Sources: RAF Kenley by Peter Flint.
The Hardest Day by Alfred Price.
Many thanks to Colin Lee.

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