The Battle of Britain is being fought in reverse. The RAF is doing to the Luftwaffe in Northwestern Europe what the Luftwaffe tried to do to the RAF in the 84 epoch-making days of 1940, and failed.
In order to clear a way for the invasion of Britain, the first aim of the German Air Force was to destroy as much of the RAF's small fighter force as possible. By plastering airfields on the coast and near the coast, the demoralized remnants of the RAF would be driven further inland, establishing an area in Southeastern England where German bombers could go as they pleased, bombing our defenseless towns, destroying our ports, power stations, munition factories and communications, unmolested by our Spitfires and Hurricanes which would be driven too far inland to interfere.
The tides of fortune changed; the Luftwaffe failed in its supreme mission. And now the RAF, assisted by the United States Army 8th Air Force, have done in northern France the very thing that three years ago the Hun was trying to do to us. Our bomber boys have plastered his airfields, and his power stations, his ports, factories and communications, and our fighter boys have chased his retreating Luftwaffe all over the skies above his own occupied territory, until he has had to go back, and back, and back; and until now many of the targets that are being attacked by our fighter-escorted bombers are nearer to the fighter airfields of the RAF than they are to the German fighter airfields. In order to intercept some of our raids, his fighters have further to come than ours, although he is supposed to be at home on the other side of the Channel.
The following instance will illustrate the progressive retreat of the Luftwaffe in northern France.
A short while back Spitfires of the RAF and RCAF escorted Marauder day bombers of the USAAF to bomb the German airfield at Evreux.
Now Evreux is nearly 150 miles from the nearest point on the English coast, which is the deuce of a long pull for Spitfires on an operation of that sort, and is, I believe, the furthest distance into France that they have as yet escorted the bombers. Six months ago Lille, which is only two-thirds of that distance, was considered to be about their extreme range when flying as fighter cover, and anyone venturing that far knew that they would have to fight their way in and out again, against strong German opposition.
But on that afternoon many of those hundreds of fighter boys ranged over northern France for the best part of an hour and a half without seeing a single Hun in the sky.
There were several skirmishes, and three Focke-Wulf 190s were shot down, but there was nothing comparable to the opposition and the sky battles of six months ago. And there were no Focke-Wulfs coming up freshly fueled from their coastal airfields to intercept our boys over the coast and the Channel on their way home as they used to do.
During the whole of last month the RAF shot down 200 German aircraft over northern France in the course of their fighter sweeps and escort duties. And while this amount of destruction to the enemy is most gratifying, it will be seen, when it is considered that flying took place on every day of the month and that as many as a thousand sorties a day were not unusual, that the fighter pilots' complaints that "the Hun won't play" are perfectly justified.
On the afternoon of the Evreux raid, which I have just mentioned, I was visiting one of the Canadian fighter wings, and while they were in action I listened, to what is oddly named "radio silence", to the development of the attack in the air.
The term radio silence, by the way, is indicative of the fact that the radio telephone may only be used to transmit orders and warnings of the presence of hostile aircraft. In the early days there was too much of what the RAF boys call "nattering" or chattering over the radio telephone. The danger in this was not only that some thoughtless remark might give information to the enemy, diligently making shorthand notes at his listening stations below, but that vital orders and calls for assistance might be missed because some thoughtless wisecracker was monopolizing the wavelength.
It was a curious feeling to lie sprawled on the grass in front of that little radio receiver, and listen to a major operation being fought out in the air more than 150 miles away. Sometimes the voices came over loud and sometimes they were weak as the battle ebbed and flowed; but we could pick up almost everything that was said. It was something like listening to a football game over the radio, except that the voices of the fighter pilots in action were much less excited than that of the usual radio commentator at a football game.
There was a whole bunch of us lying around the radio, including mechanics, their hands and blue overalls smeared with the oil and grease of their trade, the padre, and the doctor, all listening intently to the voices of their friends in battle.
I have said that this was not an eventful afternoon so far as shooting down Huns was concerned because the German fighters, as usual, avoided combat with the Spitfires; but there were quite a number of sightings of enemy formations which dived away when pursued. This is what it sounded like over the radio.
"Forty bandits on your port side flying west."
"There are friends between you and the bandits."
"OK" Pause. "Bandits now turning south." "OK"
"Now you, the bandits, and your friends are all together?"
"Keep your eyes skinned, boys."
"What are those aircraft down below at 10 o'clock?"
"Red 2 and Red 3 go down and investigate."
"The bombers are on your port side below."
"Unidentified aircraft behind us up in the sun."
"OK boys, keep your eyes skinned."
"They're Spitfires, skipper."
"The bandits have dived away."
"The bombers have bombed."
"A bunch of bandits is flying toward Havre."
And so on, the voices very deliberate and undramatic, as the battle ebbed and flowed, criss-crossing a large area of northern France.
To the casual layman the conversation can mean very little.
What it meant was that the Marauders were safely escorted to their targets, which they bombed successfully, and returned not only without loss, but without having seen a Hun in the sky.
There were Huns about; but they avoided combat with the strong escorts. A few were caught and brought to combat; but not in the part of the sky in which were operating the Wing to whose conversation we have just been listening.
The boys landed a few minutes later with the same old story that "the Hun wouldn't play."
There are various contributory reasons why the Germans have withdrawn their fighter force so far inland, apart from the fact, of course, that it would be extremely uncomfortable to stay, with the choice of being bombed on the ground or shot out of the sky. They may be trying to husband their fighter forces for their final defensive air battle of the war; and undoubtedly they are having to concentrate big fighter forces in their attempt to stop the long distance heavy day bombing by the American Flying Fortresses, attacking them only when they are beyond the range of their fighter escorts.
The fighter boys told me that when they are acting as escort to the Fortresses the Germans never attack. They lie in wait for the Fortresses just beyond the operational range of the Spitfires, and as the Spits turn for home they can often see the German fighters all lined up in a reception committee for the Forts. But once the Spits pick them up again, on their way home, all German fighter opposition ceases again.
A couple of American boys flying with this Canadian Wing were telling me how much they admired the amazing precision of the formation flying of their countrymen on the Forts, and of how proud they were to act as escort to them, but, they added, as fighter boys always do, they would not care to have their job. One of those boys, Flying Officer Browne of Florham Park, New Jersey, has been flying with the RAF and RCAF for the last two years, first in Persia and Iraq, and now in England where since May he has flown on fifty fighter sweeps, having two damaged German aircraft to his credit. The other is Flying Officer H P Zary, a New Yorker from the Bronx, who has also been operating on Spitfires with the Canadians since May.
Whatever the specific reason, or combination of reasons for this German air retreat, it is certainly not for lack of a good defensive fighter.
For both the FW-190 and the Me-109G are excellent defensive fighters, very fast, and with phenomenal rates of both climb and dive. Their pilot material, too, employed on this front appears to have been picked from among their best. These Spitfire boys were telling me of a Focke-Wulf pilot who deliberately flew ahead of a whole squadron, the Spitfires following in full cry like a pack of hounds after a fox. Gradually gaining on him they pushed their engines until they reached his height. Then, ramming his nose down vertically, he dived away into a cloud like a hawk with his wings folded.
Meanwhile our night bomber offensive over Germany increases in intensity and concentration, in spite of every tactic of the German night fighters, searchlights and flak to beat off the attacks.
Essen, the largest industrial city in the Ruhr, had its first two-thousand-ton attack, though it has, of course, been visited with lesser loads many times before.
Another embarrassment to the Luftwaffe's fighter situation is the necessity in which it now finds itself to use FW-190 and Me-109 short range fighters to supplement his general purposes Ju-88s as night fighters. For it is not easy to land these light, fast-landing single-engined aircraft at night; and they are bound to have a great number of landing crashes in the dark.
In spite of the German air retreat, therefore, it is clear that he still has some first class material both in pilots and in machines, It is also clear that with demands on him for these pilots and aircraft on the Russian front, in Italy and the Mediterranean, in France, in the Lowlands, and Scandinavia, and at home in the Reich itself, the Luftwaffe must be stretched to the most uncomfortable limits.
There was clear evidence of this the other day when seven out of a squadron of twelve twin-engined Me-110s were shot down by Spitfires escorting Mitchell bombers of the RAF raiding the airfield at Lanveoc, near Brest. For such an encounter was bound to be suicidal to the long-distance fighter; and can only be accounted for by the fact that the Germans had insufficient single-engined fighters near enough to handle the situation.
This column was originally published in the December, 1943 - January, 1944, issue of Air News magazine, vol 5, no 6, pp 37, 52.