The Oberstleutnant briefing them this morning did not wear wings, but he came direct from the intelligence department of the Luftwaffe General Staff. “The English,” he announced confidently, “use radio to control their fighters. Each squadron is tied to a base, which directs it in the air. The bases in turn rely on information they receive from these special radio stations located along the coast.” With a pointer he indicated the appropriate places on the map. “In preparation for the main assault tomorrow, raids will be flown against these radio stations and key RAF bases.” With the pointer he indicated Manston, Lympne and Hawkinge.
“Bombers of KG2 will cross the Channel at Dover and then split up for their respective targets – Manston, Dover, Hawkinge, Lympne, Rye and Pevensey – taking the latter two targets from the east rather than the south. Since these radio stations can only transmit in one direction, they are blind in the flanks and the rear.” He sounded very pleased about this, although, as far as Ernst knew, their own Freya system was also only capable of transmitting and receiving in one direction.
“II Gruppe, JG 23, will be escorting Junkers 88 of KG 51 as they fly from Cherbourg to make landfall here at Brighton, turn west and divide into two raids at Spithead. Half the raid will proceed to bomb Portsmouth harbour, in which the British prestige liner-turned-troop-transport Queen Elizabeth is currently lurking, and the remainder will turn south and take the radio station at Ventnor on the Isle of Wight from the rear. Any questions?”
There were none. Ju 88s were the fastest of the Luftwaffe’s bombers. If the fighters were forced to do escort duty, then the fighter pilots preferred escorting these fast, elegant bombers with both high-altitude and dive-bombing capabilities. The pilots were dismissed to go to their aircraft.
As always, Ernst fell in beside Christian. Dieter and Busso, the other two pilots of the Schwarm, were on Christian’s other side – just as they would be in the air. “Satisfied?” Dieter asked Christian with an amused expression.
“Absolutely. We should have done this four weeks ago. Mother of God! We’ve lost 5 pilots in the Gruppe since the French surrendered – and all for the sake of beating up a handful of ancient coal-ships that had probably been written off by their insurers years ago.”
“Come on, Christian. We’ve been giving at least as good as we get – if not better,” Busso argued, tossing his long hair out of his lean face and lighting up a last cigarette before take-off.
“So what?” Christian insisted. “What with illnesses and injuries, we’re down to 80% strength, and that must be true of all the front-line Geschwader. An utter waste for the sake of ‘closing the channel to British shipping’ – pure propaganda rot! If they can’t use the Straits of Dover, then the English just put the coal on trains or send it around the tip of Scotland. Do you think giving Goebbels a propaganda victory was worth Hans or Uwe’s lives?”
As usual, Ernst squirmed uncomfortably when Christian challenged authority, but Busso protested outright. “That’s not what it was about,” he declared, frowning. “The point was to defeat the RAF in the air. And we would have beaten them, if only they hadn’t shirked the fight most of the time.”
“Who shirked what when?” Christian asked, stopping in his tracks to stare hard at Dieter’s wingman. “The RAF isn’t shirking anything. They just refuse to play the game by our rules. We want them to come up and fight with us, and they aren’t that stupid. They go for the bombers and then get out. JG 53 tried some pure fighter sweeps the other day. They flew all over the island as if they were on a sightseeing tour, while the RAF thumbed their noses at them. They won’t be able to ignore attacks on their own bases and infrastructure, however. We may get away with it today, because they won’t be expecting it, but the next couple of days are going to be the toughest we’ve seen yet.”
They had reached Dieter’s aircraft, and Dieter ground out his cigarette in the moist, dew-covered grass. “Well then, break a leg.”
Ernst made for his own aircraft, uncomfortably aware of his usual pre-flight urge to urinate, but he also knew it would pass soon enough. He scrambled up the wing, and then lowered himself carefully into the cockpit, which was almost too narrow for him. At meals the Staffelkapitän often called out to him to stop eating or he wouldn’t be able to fit into it at all. That always brought gales of laughter from the CO’s table, and newcomers often laughed along, too. The first time it happened, Ernst had been shocked and hurt by the public humiliation – until Christian had hissed under his breath, “Stupid, tactless arse!” After that Ernst didn’t mind as much. Still, his shoulders did brush the sides. Narrower than a coffin, an instructor had joked. Ernst was relieved when his mechanic started the pre-flight drill, distracting him from his morbid thoughts.
They rendezvoused with the bombers over Cherbourg. KG 51 had apparently sent up every machine that could fly – very nearly a hundred of them. And they were escorted by at least that many Me110s as well. It was the largest formation of aircraft Ernst had ever seen. The huge gaggle, with the Me109s flying top cover at 10,000 metres, flew first to the northeast, straight for the holiday town of Brighton. They then curved around elegantly and swept west along the channel coast, passing Hayling Island on the right and the Isle of Wight on the left.
As they approached Spithead, a small group of Ju 88s banked left and started back across the Isle of Wight to take the radio station at Ventnor in the rear, but 5 Staffel of II Gruppe stayed with the larger flock of Junkers. The latter was easing down to bomb Portsmouth dockyards, careful to keep above the barrage balloons. The escorts also shaved a couple thousand metres from their own altitude, and Ernst could clearly see a long white pier sticking out into the Solent. Beyond it rose a line of smoke thrown up by flak as the Royal Navy opened up with everything they had.
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