History, Military History, The Battle of Britain, The War in Europe,

On This Day in 1940

The Battle of Britain intensifies. Some cloud remained at dawn but it was expected to be a clear day, warmer in the south. For northern England, cloud persists and rain showers expected.

Since August 18th, a lull had began, allowing both sides to regroup, rest, and prepare. The Luftwaffe have still not achieved what they set out to do – destroy the RAF. Goring’s original plan was for the destruction of the RAF within two weeks. The battle has now been raging for two months.

August 24th was the first day of a campaign of sustained bombing. The Luftwaffe flew over the Channel in vast numbers, more than the RAF could cope with. At 0830hrs, an enemy formation is spotted off the coast of Calais. The Observer Corps are ordered to keep a look out while Fighter Command HQ is alerted. The formation comprised of more than forty Dornier’s and Ju88s, with a fighter escort of over sixty Bf109s.

Image courtesy of wikimedia commons

610 Squadron Biggin Hill intercepted. Their Spitfires dived into the middle of the formation, scattering the bombers. There is no account of any damage at this time and it’s presumed the enemy turned back.

Enemy bombers were detected that afternoon heading to London, but then changed course, heading towards the Sector Stations of North Weald and Hornchurch. By the time the RAF reached the area, the German bombers were already heading home, a trail of fire and destruction blazing in and around the Thames Estuary.

Combat action persisted over the Thames Estuary and around the coastal towns of Kent. Manston was heavily bombed. Fortunately, despite heavy bombing at Hornchurch and North Weald, operations were not affected. The RAF lose twenty aircraft, eighteen of which are repairable. Thirty-nine enemy aircraft destroyed.

Enemy bombers hit Portsmouth that afternoon, dropping over 200 bombs. This caused the largest number of casualties in a single raid so far in the battle. More than 100 civilians died, and 300 were injured. Homes, shops, factories and the Navy barracks all seriously damaged.

The seaside town of Ramsgate also suffered, with 1200 homes destroyed, and 24 people killed.

On this night, more than 200 heavy bombers raided the Dunlop Fort rubber works in Birmingham, severely hampering the production of tyres.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

It was an understanding within the Luftwaffe, that London was not to be bombed unless by direct order of Goring. Up until now, people living in and around London had heard gunfire, gazed in awe at the dogfights in the skies above, and read about the war in the news. Tonight, all that was to change. Up until now, aside from a slight mishap when enemy aircraft mistook Croydon for Kenley and unleashed a couple of bombs, London remained untouched. Another time was a daytime raid when bombs were dropped on the docks and the outskirts of London. This time, it was a night raid, the first ever, and terrifying.

2300hrs: So far for the period of the war, Londoners although often hearing local gunfire, seeing vapour trails of dogfights in the sky and hearing about the war in newspapers and on the radio, and the only experience of bombing was when Croydon was mistakenly identified as Kenley and just a couple of bombs dropped on nearby Croydon and Purley, the target hear was naturally the aerodrome at Croydon. The other instance was earlier in the morning when bombs were dropped on the docks and outskirts of East London. But that was in daylight. This was to be a new experience, a frightful experience, for this was the first time that London would be bombed at night. Bombs dropped over Aldgate, Bloomsbury, Hackney, Finsbury, Stepney, Shoreditch, West Ham and Bethnal Green. The entire East End blazed, infusing the night sky red as shards of flame billowed from factory windows. Buildings crumbled.

Eight RAF pilots listed as missing. Two killed (1 died of wounds).

History, Military History, The Battle of Britain, The War in Europe,

The Guinea Pig Club – An RAF Club Like No Other

On this day in 1941, a group of RAF men, all patients at the Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead, founded The Guinea Pig Club. Bored, frustrated by their hospitalisation and numerous surgeries, the club was initially to be a drinking club, a way of passing time. The men named the ward at the hospital, “The Beauty Shop.”

Initially it was named something else, but then one of the men remarked how they were all simply “bloody guinea pigs” to the Maestro. The “Maestro” of course was Archie McIndoe. And, whenever a serious case arrived on the ward, or if Archie was doing the rounds of other hospitals in neighbouring regions, scouting for patients who might require his expertise, his famous words would ignite a spark of hope when he said, “Don’t worry. We’ll fix you up.” And that he did.

Archibald McIndoe at the piano. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Maverick Kiwi Surgeon, McIndoe was a pioneer, taught by his cousin, Sir Harold Delf Gillies who himself pioneered techniques in plastic surgery during and after WW1. Mcindoe treated and cared for burned airmen during WW2. He and his incredible team rebuilt bodies and souls, making the effort to also address the psychological effects of war and injury. Mcindoe gave the men hope, often when they felt all was lost. He invited the entire town of East Grinstead to play their part too, and to invite the men into their homes for tea, to dances, to welcome them into society. The town later became known as “The town that didn’t stare”.

This year, 2021, the club celebrates its 80th anniversary. The club has provided support to its members over the years since its inception. Many of the members from the war years are now deceased and the club no longer holds annual meetings, known to the members as the “lost weekend.” A weekend of much fun and socialising.

This evening, will you raise your glass and remember those brave boys who fought so valiantly for our freedom today? They shall not be forgotten.

Sir Archibald McIndoe image courtesy of wikimedia commons

Below, a selection of images, from real life to reenactors, all reminiscent of the distant past of WW2, 1939-1945. We will remember them, their sacrifice, their courage, their heroism, all for our freedom.

Barry Henderson Photography
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Barry Henderson Photography
Images from the Battle of Britain. Lower right: Richard Hillary, a fighter pilot and one of Archie McIndoe’s “Guinea Pigs.”
Geoffrey Wellum DFC top left, and top right, second on right. On his left, Flight Commander Brian Kingcombe.

Geoffrey Wellum DFC, known as “Boy” when he joined 92 Squadron in the autumn of 1939.One of the youngest to fly during the summer of 1940, he had an extraordinary career with the RAF and was one of the nation’s beloved veterans for years afterwards.

Squadron Leader Wellum, speaking in 2013, said: “Somebody said, “Here’s a Spitfire. Fly it, and if you break it there will be bloody hell to pay.”

“Looking at my life now, I had peaked at about 21 or 22. It was just lovely blokes, all together in Fighter Squadron.”

Born 4 August 1921, died 18 July 2018. I’m sorry I never got to meet him. A remarkable man. Many may have seen the film, “First Light,’ based on the book with the same title which was written by Geoff. It’s a beautiful book about his account of his war and I can highly recommend it. I treasure my copy.