Last year I talked about J. M. Spaight's The Sky's the Limit (here, here and here), and how its account of the then-developing Battle of Britain was somewhat surprising to anyone familiar with the standard narrative of the summer of 1940. Which is not at all to say that the standard narrative is wrong, just that things quite naturally looked different while the Battle was still in progress.
Now I'm looking at press accounts of the beginning of the Blitz, September and early October 1940, and again I'm finding things which don't seem to have made it into the received picture. One very striking one is the apparently near-universal opinion that the Me 109 fighter was inferior to British fighters: not just a little bit, but greatly; not just to the Spitfire, but to the Hurricane as well.1 So for example, the Manchester Guardian's air correspondent confidently reported that
That Göring's air force has had no single-seat fighter that could compare with the Spitfire or the Hurricane is a fact that has been obvious since the very start of the war in the air against Britain and the replacement of the Messerschmitt 109, that has suffered so heavily at the hands of R.A.F. fighter squadrons, by something better was to be expected.2
Nearly seventy years later, reasonable people still can and do disagree over the relative merits of these fighters. But I think you would be hard-pressed these days to find anyone who would claim that the Me 109 was not comparable in air combat to the Spitfire, and substantially (though certainly not overwhelmingly) superior to the Hurricane. The reason for the underrating of the Me 109 is not hard to find, when British claims for German losses were routinely too high by a factor of two or three. But I suspect Fighter Command pilots wouldn't have been so sanguine, regardless of the numbers!
The second story was put out by official German sources: that Hermann Goering personally flew a bomber on a raid over London on the evening of 15 September!
Government quarters said that Göring piloted a Junkers 88 bomber, escorted by two Messerschmitt destroyer 'planes3 on either side of his 'plane. After returning to his headquarters at a small village in Normandy, Göring, according to these spokesmen, declared that he was most impressed by the effect of the German bombing of London.4
I don't think I've ever heard this story before, and I don't think it's actually true. Goering was of course a pilot during the First World War, a fighter ace in fact, and flew as a commercial pilot in the early 1920s, but he didn't take a lot of interest in flying thereafter. This is despite his becoming head of the Luftwaffe in 1933; at that point he hadn't flown since 19225 and it seems unlikely that he would have found time to get much practice in, what with all his hunting, gourmandising, and whatnot. Presumably, then, this story was concocted to show Goering as a vital man of action, willing and able to lead his troops into action.
The third story -- actually a pair of stories -- was about the German invasion. Not just the one which, it was feared, was about to take place, but the one which had already taken place and been repulsed! These stories originated from Americans who had recently been in France or who had received letters from there.
The invading German fleet is said to have started from St. Malo, Brittany, with the expectation of landing on the West Coast of England. Reports received, it is said, indicate that the result was "nothing short of suicide."6
A couple of days later, a different source (an American surgeon, late of Paris) claimed that 'The Germans have already attempted to invade England several times at different points and each time have failed'.7 He also 'told of seeing "hundreds of German bodies in the water near Cherbourg"'8 (presumably something to do with invasion exercises, rather than the real thing, though he said these were not being conducted near there). Of course, none of this actually happened: Operation Sealion was never attempted. I have actually heard these stories before, as James Hayward discusses them in a fascinating little book, The Bodies on the Beach: Sealion, Shingle Street and the Burning Sea Myth of 1940 (Dereham: CD41, 2001).9 These rumours and others, such as ones regarding the charred bodies of German soldiers washing up on the English coast, came at the height of the invasion danger period in mid-September, when high tides at dawn provided optimal conditions for an amphibious landing. So it's hardly surprising that people would fixate on every little scrap of information, no matter how dubious (and to its credit, the Manchester Guardian made no great play of the failed invasion stories, burying them way down the page). What's more surprising is that some people still believe such things, such as the claim that a German invasion was turned back at Shingle Street, Suffolk, in late August 1940. I don't think so.
Here's a final tidbit. In 1940, at least, it seems that it wasn't "Fighter Command" or "Bomber Command" -- they were nearly always "the Fighter Command" and "the Bomber Command". For example, in Churchill's tribute to Fighter Command, which began: 'Yesterday eclipses all previous records of the Fighter Command'.10 At some point during the war the definite article was dropped. It's jarring at first, but soon makes sense.
So there it is: in September 1940 the Fighter Command was thrashing those useless Me 109s all over the sky, although unfortunately not doing much to stop old Hermann earn his combat pay; while below the Navy and the Home Guard were busy beating back invasion after invasion. That's if you believe everything you read in the papers, of course!
Since we're talking day fighters, technically this probably should be classified as the Battle of Britain, not the Blitz, but in some ways this is is an artificial and unhelpful distinction. ↩
I.e., Me 110s. ↩
Manchester Guardian, 17 September 1940, p. 5. ↩
According to James S. Corum, The Luftwaffe: Creating the Operational Air War, 1918-1940 (Lawrence: University of Kansas, 1987, 124-5. ↩
Manchester Guardian, 12 September 1940, p. 2. ↩
Manchester Guardian, 14 September 1940, p. 10. ↩
The Times, 17 September 1940, p. 4. ↩
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