It was noon and the next raid was building up over Calais again. Bainbridge started to suspect that the Germans had concentrated their forces over the Pas de Calais. Otherwise, they couldn’t mount so many raids in one place in such quick succession. Park would have to ask Tangmere Sector to support soon. Bainbridge’s eyes wandered nervously between the boards below and the telephone connecting him directly to Park’s HQ at Uxbridge. The raid moved inland. Manston again. This time communication to and from that airfield was knocked out.
Bainbridge stood and went to the railing of the gallery to stare at the map below. He tried to picture the coastline from Hastings to Ramsgate. That, apparently, was where the German Army intended to force its way ashore. Hastings would undoubtedly appeal to the superstitious dictator, Bainbridge thought flippantly – but without real levity. Someone had brought him a tray with lunch and he had not eaten a single bite. “Aren’t you going to eat, sir?” ACW Roberts asked.
“No, you can take it away.”
She seemed to do so reluctantly.
Hastings was too far west, Bainbridge decided on second thought. If they were going to land at Hastings, they would be concentrating more in the Kenley and Tangmere Sectors. They must be planning to land nearer Dover. Land below chalk cliffs? Were there cliffs all along the coast? Bainbridge was from Somerset and didn’t know the south coast well. He was so lost in his reflections about the impending invasion that he was taken by surprise when a plot went on the board at Cherbourg.
That would be for them. He glanced at the clock; it was 3.40 pm. OK. Watch that carefully. Park wouldn’t want them to scramble too soon. It was still building up. 100+ already, but the escorts were no doubt still joining up with the circling bomber squadrons.
Farther east, another raid was moving out of Calais again. Communication, meanwhile, had been restored to Manston. All accommodation had been levelled, and the airfield was so littered with unexploded bombs (aircrew error, an indication of declining German industrial efficiency, or an intentional new tactic?) that it was no longer usable. The order went out to the Manston squadrons to withdraw to Hornchurch.
Bainbridge noted: 15:45, August 24, 1940: the Germans achieve their second clear victory in the air war: they deny RAF Fighter Command one of its forward airfields.
The German raid from Cherbourg started to move north. Bainbridge licked his lips, and noticed they were raw already. He must have been licking them all day without noticing. The plot read 200+ now, and it was making straight for them. Park would wait a little. He had issued explicit instructions to avoid interceptions over the water. Too many pilots had been lost after successfully getting out of their damaged machines. For Stations like Kenley and Biggin Hill that presented little challenge, but for Tangmere it meant holding the squadrons back longer and that meant shorter interceptions, which meant that they had less time to gain altitude, which meant they were at a disadvantage. So, don’t wait too long, Bridges begged Park mentally, gripping the rail of the gallery.
His assistant answered the phone that Bainbridge had heard and ignored. “Hornchurch is under attack, sir.”
The airfields. They were definitely going for the airfields. But his raid seemed to be veering west. Ventor again? Or Portmouth? If the invasion was planned for the Pas de Calais, then perhaps Tangmere frightened Jerry less than the Royal Navy? Maybe Jerry even believed Tangmere was out of action already. It might look pretty useless from the air with all but one hangar collapsed. No, all recce photos would show the aircraft of four fighter squadrons still concentrated here. Perhaps the resources available in the Cherbourg area limited? This raid was clearly being thrown at Portsmouth.
At last the call from Uxbridge came. Seconds later, Bainbridge reached for the phone and rang 43 Squadron dispersal.
“Got something for us, sir?” the dispersal orderly asked.
“Yes, we’ve got a 200+ apparently making for Portsmouth. Take the whole squadron to stand-by, will you?”
“Will do, sir.”
“Observer Corps on the Isle of Wight, sir,” W/O Robinson called out, in a voice that betrayed that he too was getting the wind up a bit. “They’re reporting close to 400 aircraft, sir. They say it’s not more than 50 bombers, with about 100 110s and twice that number of 109s.”
Park ordered Tangmere to scramble two squadrons. Bainbridge grabbed the phone to 43 Squadron again. “Scramble!” Then he called 17, putting them on readiness with a nervous glance at the clock. It was 3.55 and they couldn’t be in the air for 15 more minutes. Still Bainbridge hesitated for a second, but he had no choice. He grabbed the telephone that connected him to 606 dispersal.
Priestman himself answered. “606 Squadron Dispersal.” Cranwell to the end.
“Robin, we’ve got a 400+ over the Isle of Wight and apparently making for Portsmouth. That’s 50 Junkers and 350 snappers of both varieties. Scramble at once.”
Park asked him to scramble another squadron. That gave them 3 squadrons, something less than 36 aircraft (because 17 was not up to strength) against 350 German fighters. Not enough. Park told him to see if 602 could scramble. They had been released, of course, and it was hard to know how many pilots were even within reach, but he asked them to get ready to put whatever they had available in the air shortly.
“How many aircraft will that be?”
“Twelve, what else?”
Bainbridge turned to his assistant, Warrant Officer Robinson. “I’ll handle 43 and 606. You’re responsible for 17 and 602.”
43 Squadron came in over the R/T, demanding vector and altitude.
Bainbridge broke the bad news. The Germans were flying very high, estimated 25,000 feet, just 50 bombers and mostly fighter escort.
Next Priestman asked for vector and altitude. It was 16.02. 17 Squadron reported “at readiness.” Jolly good. Just seven minutes of the fifteen allowed. They must have been expecting it. They would have seen the other squadrons scramble and gone on unofficial readiness. Bridges knew what the waiting around was like.
W/O Robinson took up the second microphone and ordered, “Scramble at once. 400+ approaching Portsmouth with more than 300 snappers at 25,000.”
“Nice. The more the merrier, what?” The sarcasm was pretty thick.
That was everything Bainbridge had. Less than 50 fighters. He hesitated again, but then he called Uxbridge and asked for support from 10 Group. He was promised a Spitfire squadron from Middle Wallop. He glanced at the clock again. 16.10.
“Beetle, Lampshade leader, here. Tally ho! Right, chaps, ignore the snappers. Go for the bombers. Now!”
Half of Bainbridge’s job was done. Now all he had to do was ensure the interception by 606. After that it was up to them. He looked down at the tables, but every nerve in his body was straining instead to hear the conversations coming in over the R/T.
The WAAFs, too, stood with faces turned towards the speakers affixed to the wall. Some, Bainbridge noticed, had pushed one earphone off an ear to be able to hear the transmissions from the loud-speakers better. Behind him, Bainbridge’s assistant controller, the liaison officers to the balloon and observer corps, and the WAAF clerks sat absolutely still.
“Come on, Red Two, don’t be such a lame arse. Green One, take your finger out.”
Bainbridge smiled at that. The pilots forgot – or maybe they didn’t realise – that they were being listened to by the WAAFs.
“Bomb bays are opening! Stupid bastards! They can’t aim at anything—”
“Break! Break! Break!”
“Chriiiiiiiiist!!!” It was a long, drawn-out scream that ended abruptly with an explosion that seemed to blow the entire Operations Room apart. Bainbridge was gripping the railing so hard his hands were cramping. The upturned faces of the WAAFs seemed whiter than ever. The air was suddenly oppressive.
“Jesus! Blue Three’s just collided with an 88!”
“Dan! Break right NOW!”
“Redcap Leader to Beetle. Tally ho!”
Bainbridge jumped back to take up his microphone. “Good luck, Redcap.”
“Redcap Squadron, turn left now! Blue Leader, take the left-hand flight. Red Section will take the right-hand flight. Try to skim over them and keep going for the bombers. Yellow Section, just keep making for the bombers.”
Interminable seconds. Bainbridge’s hands were wet. Sweat was trickling down his armpits. His eye patch was starting to itch and chafe.
“They’re coming after us, Redcap Leader!” That was the unmistakable high-pitched accent of the youngster Herriman – already nicknamed “Eton” by the others because he had dropped out of this esteemed establishment to join the RAF.
“That’s their job, Blue Four,” his Squadron Leader reminded him. Adding to all of them, “Redcap Squadron buster.”
17 Squadron gave the Tally-ho. Robinson wished them luck.
“I’ve been hit! Christ, I’ve been hit! There’s blood all over the place.”
“Got it! Look at that! It’s going down in an inverted spin! Completely out of control!” The transmissions of the three engaged squadrons were mixing, impossible to keep apart.
“They must have hit a petrol tank down there. Look at the smoke!”
“Yellow Four, break right! Now, for Christ’s sake!”
“Blue Leader, this is Blue Two; I’m being fired upon.”
Bainbridge all but moaned out loud. The fool! If he took time to report it, it was too late. Who was flying Blue Two? And in which squadron?
The accent was odd. Might be the new pilot, Goldman.
A more experienced pilot was trying to sort him out. “Then turn until she stalls!”
“I’ve been hit. The rudder isn’t responding!”
“Red Four, ye’rrre on firrre! Get ooot nu.” That was MacLeod at his most Scottish – it always seemed to come out when he was under stress.
“They’re bombing housing down there! Look at that. Just houses! Nothing but houses!” By the accent it was 606’s new pilot from Newcastle, already known simply as “Jordy.”
“Don’t look down, Jordy! Look behind you! That’s where the 109s are!”
“Gingerrr, yer bloody fool! Get ooot nu!”
“Bloody hell! There are more snappers! Where do they all come from!?”
“Tally ho!” That was 602 at last.
“Take that, you bastard! And that, and that!” Bainbridge started slightly as he recognised Priestman’s voice.
“My leg! I’ve been hit in the leg! I can’t move it!”
“Eton! Break off! That’s a Spitfire, you bloody fool!!”
One of 602’s, or had 10 Group’s squadron engaged as well? Good work if they had. Must remember to thank them, Bainbridge thought.
“Christ, what was that?!” The astonished voice of the New Zealander.
“We’re being fired on by the Navy!”
“Damn sailors! Afrrraid of any foocking thing that flies!” MacLeod again, and his remark brought a ripple of embarrassed laughter from the WAAFs.
“Skipper! We’re getting too low. Pull up, for Christ’s sake!”
“Not until I nail this bastard!”
“Blue Leader from Blue Four. Where are we?”
“Over the Isle of Wight!”
“Are you sure, sir?”
The answer was very rude.
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