The struggle for air supremacy
After sweeping mainland victories in Poland, France , Norway and Denmark, Germany had turned its gaze across the steel-grey waters of the English Channel to the invasion of Britain.
The critical key to the invasion’s success would be the destruction of RAF Fighter Command both in the air and on the ground. Gaining quick air supremacy would then allow Luftwaffe bombers to target military infrastructure and industrial sites north of London, without their reliance on significant fighter escort. Once these goals had been achieved and British industry crippled, the German invasion forces could cross the Channel relatively unhindered.
While the Luftwaffe believed it would only take four days to neutralise RAF Fighter Command, followed by a four-week bomber offensive - it was no easy task they had set, with a number of significant challenges still in front of them.
The first was simply the sheer distances to the British targets from even the closest Luftwaffe bases in France, Belgium and Norway.
Whilst German bombers such as the twin-engined Dornier, Heinkel and single engined Stuka dive bomber were fitted with long-range fuel tanks, their primary fighter escort the Messerschmitt Bf 109 was not. The Bf 109 had a very limited fuel capacity, giving it a range of less than 410 miles. By the time the Bf 109s had arrived over the British target there was barely 10 minutes flying time left before they needed to turn for home.
As a stop-gap, the long-range, twin-engined fighter/bomber the Bf 110 suddenly found itself in the role of bomber escort in the 109’s absence. Although more heavily armed, it had nowhere near the manoeuvrability or climbing speed of the smaller German fighter and struggled to fend off the attacks from the Supermarine Spitfire and the Hawker Hurricane.
Another challenge was RAF Fighter Command’s extensive network of radar and observation posts covering both the South and East coasts of Britain. Divided into overlapping Sectors and each with their own allocated fighter squadrons, Fighter Command could have their aircraft in the air to intercept the approaching bombers before they had even crossed the coast.
A war of attrition...
Ultimately however it simply came down to a war of attrition and which side would run out of pilots and aircraft first. This was probably the greatest challenge the Luftwaffe faced.
If a British pilot was shot down over Britain and escaped injury, there was every chance he could be back in the air the following day. Damaged aircraft could also be repaired or parts salvaged for other aircraft within a few days.
For the Luftwaffe any aircraft shot down over Britain were gone for good and their crews if they survived, interned for the remainder of the war.
While the Luftwaffe had been conducting probing raids to test British defences from middle of July, it was not until the 12 of August 1940 that the first systematic raids on RAF Fighter Command’s forward airfields and radar installations commenced.
The Luftwaffe assaults continued to grow in both numbers and ferocity and on the 15th and 16th of August, they launched massive attacks concentrating on Fighter Command airfields across Southern England. While results were mixed, with substantial damage incurring for some base while others escaped relatively unscathed, a following attack on the 18th, achieved one of the Luftwaffe's best successes when, flying 750 sorties, they attacked airfields at Biggin Hill, Kenely, Croydon and West Malling.
A number of RAF aircraft were caught on the ground and destroyed, with one airfield, - RAF Kenely having all ten of its hangers and almost a 3rd of its Hurricanes destroyed. The Germans also attacked the Isle of White destroying a major RAF early warning radar station.
Despite their success, the raids were costly for the Germans with the loss of 87 Stuka dive bombers to British fighters. Slow and cumbersome, they were no match for the highly manoeuvrable Hurricanes and Spitfires and were retired from the campaign.
A relentless assault...
The Luftwaffe campaign ramped up further on the 30th August, when the Germans flew over 1345 sorties against RAF airfields across the South East.
The first raid began at 10.20 am, as the bombers and escorting fighters swept in across the Kent and Sussex coasts. Three hours later saw more waves of bombers darkening the horizon, as all twenty-two RAF fighter squadrons took to the air in response making it the heaviest day of fighter they had experienced so far.
One of RAF’s command bases, Biggin Hill suffered severe damage with the last of its hangers destroyed along with a number or aircraft still in the dispersal area. In all, It had been a disastrous day for the RAF with over 50 RAF personal killed and another 30 seriously injured. Many of these were at RAF Biggin Hill - but worse was to come…
The following day, the 31st, the Germans mounted their biggest raid on South East England sweeping over Kent and the Thames Estuary as they targeted the airfields at Croydon, Biggin Hill and Hornchurch.
All RAF fighter squadrons were scrambled to meet the onslaught, which turned out to be the worse result for Fighter Command with 39 aircraft and 14 pilots being lost in just the one day. Most days the Luftwaffe’s losses were even heavier than the RAF’s, but the production of Hurricanes and Spitfires were no longer keeping up with losses, and there were not enough replacements for the experienced pilots who had been lost.
Hawker Hurricane DT-E V6601 - 257 Squadron
One squadron scrambled to meet the massive raids of the 31st, was the Hurricane equipped, 257 Squadron based at Hendon.
Originally formed in 1918 as a coastal reconnaissance seaplane squadron, flying anti-submarine missions off the Scottish coast, 257 Sqn were reformed in May 1940 as a fighter Squadron equipped with Spitfires but due to the shortage of the new all aluminium fighters, converted to the more numerous wooden-framed Hawker Hurricane.
Like many other squadrons that made up No. 11 Group RAF, the pilots of 257 had been run ragged, flying two, three or sometimes four missions a day in response to the relentless attacks.
One the morning of the 31st, they took to the air once more, after radar stations reported a massive wave of inbound aircraft crossing the coast heading for London.
Behind the controls of Hurricane DT-E V6601 was Pilot Officer, James Alan Henderson. Henderson had joined the RAF as a direct-entry commission, having learnt to fly in 1929 at the Brooklands School of Flying before going onto start his own air charter business, Brooklands Air Taxis Ltd.
At 29, he was already one of the oldest pilots in No. 11 Group - a stark contrast to the new and inexperienced pilots being rushed through RAF flight schools in a desperate effort to replenishing the ranks of ever-dwindling veterans.
Head on combat….
Directed by RAF ground control stations, the Hurricanes found themselves slightly above a formation of Bf 110s and Henderson’s section leader instructed his flight to drop back and fall on the Bf 110’s from astern.
Henderson’s Hurricane followed his leader’s diving aircraft but having lost speed in the turn, fell behind the two other Hurricanes as the Bf 110s began to scatter in all directions.
To his surprise, a couple of Bf 110’s had turned directly into the path of his Hurricane and were now heading directly for him at full throttle.
Rather than turning away and presenting an easy target, Henderson flew straight at them opening fire at 300 yards. Pieces of shattered canopy and fuselage started breaking off the lead Bf 110 and he gave another two bursts of fire — raking both bf 110’s as they filled his gunsights.
Just before they broke away, Henderson’s instrument shattered under a sustained burst from the lead Bf 110, with the second Bf 110 scoring another direct hit on the Hurricane.
‘A second or two after my instruments shattered, there was a great explosion in my aircraft as my petrol tank was hit’ wrote Henderson in his combat report.
With smoke and flames filling the cockpit, Henderson rolled the crippled Hurricane onto its back and pulling the canopy hood release, fell free of the doomed aircraft. Suffering burns to both hands and the side of his face plus a dislocated shoulder, Henderson’s parachute opened with a jolt as he watched two other parachutes also drifting down.
Convinced he had downed at least one of the bf 110s, Henderson added, ’One of the parachutes came down not far from me and a German sub-lieutenant was picked up with me by a HSL (High Speed Launch). In fact, officers at the nearby Naval Base at Brightlingsea had watched the entire encounter through telescopes and reported that while it took place at some distance behind the main engagement, ’there were only three aircraft in it and all of them crashed’.
After one Bf 110 crashed off the beach, the other straggled further out to sea trailing smoke before also crashing. Henderson’s Hurricane was then seen to plummet into the River Colne where it disintegrated on impact.
Flying Officer Henderson turned out to be one of the lucky ones to survive the biggest encounter of the Battle of Britain, with the RAF losing 39 aircraft that day together with the deaths of 14 pilots - the heaviest losses of the whole Battle of Britain.
An unexpected respite...
The Luftwaffe suffered equally having lost 28 aircraft that day - taking their total losses for the month of August to 772, but largely due to faulty intelligence and wildly exaggerated claims of success from senior Luftwaffe commanders, the German high Command were convinced the mission of destroying the RAF had been achieved.
In what is now seen as one of the biggest blunders of the Battle of Britain, they abandoned their campaign of targeting airfields and RAF fighters and switched their focus to night time bombing of key British cities. For the civilian population of Britain it was to herald a new period of terror and destruction but for the almost crippled RAF, it provided an unexpected break in hostilities allowing them enough time to regroup and replenish much needed pilots and aircraft.
After a few weeks recuperation Flying officer James Alan Henderson returned to 257 Squadron but a month later, a medical board decided he was no longer fit to fly combat operations. After a brief spell as an instructor at 5 Flight Training School Ternhil, Henderson was sent to Canada as an instructor as part of the Commonwealth Air Training Scheme.
In late 1942, now a Pilot Officer, Henderson joined Ferry Command at North Bay, Ontario flying US and Canadian built fighters and bombers on the North Atlantic and South Atlantic ferry runs. It was a role he was to continue until his permanent return to Britain in February 1944, where he spent the next two years on domestic ferry runs before being released from the RAF in March 1946 attaining the rank of Flight Lieutenant.
James Alan Henderson passed away on 26th July 1989 in Aberdeen - one of the last of Churchill’s much revered ‘precious few’.
Recovering Hawker Hurricane DT-E V6601...
In July 1979, the Essex Aviation Group began recovery operations on the banks of the River Colne to investigate the crash site of a downed Battle of Britain, Hawker Hurricane.
At low tide and wading through thick mud, the group were able to confirm they had uncovered Henderson’s Hurricane DT-E V660 and despite the location's difficulties, were able to recover a number of Hurricane crash site artefacts.
Pieces recovered included a large section of the main spar and undercarriage, as well as a machine gun and various cockpit and engine debris including the section of the aircraft’s lower engine cap bearing featured here.
Mounted on a 100yr old mango wood stand with engraved plaque, this original section of Battle of Britain Hawker Hurricane, Lower Engine Cap Bearing comes complete with a large, highly detailed, 1/48 scale hand crafted model of Henderson’s Hawker Hurricane with removable ‘bailing out’ pilot figure atop a magnetic arm plus a detailed printed and laminated Fact Sheet.
This original, one-of-a-kind, Hawker Hurricane, Battle of Britain Recovery Curios Aviation Collectable would make an amazing gift for any aviation enthusiast keen on owning an authentic piece of one of the most decisive air battles of WWII.
This Hawker Hurricane Collectable comes complete with a highly detailed 1/48 Scale Model, Mango Wood Stand & Plaque plus Printed Fact Sheet featuring photo of instrument in aircraft cockpit.
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