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February 2015

Turning point: Battle of Britain Day, 15 September 1940

Battle-of-Britain-Day-Gary-Eason-sm

The Luftwaffe's afternoon attack on a day that changed the course of the war. Picture © Gary Eason. Licensing is via Alamy; for prints see www.flightartworks.com

High Wycombe, 16 Feb 2015

My latest picture portrays some 128 separate aircraft on what we now know was a decisive day: 15 September 1940.

The picture, which I have been working on for much of the past couple of weeks, was commissioned as a double-page spread for the Official Royal Air Force Memorial Flight Club Yearbook 2015 - currently in preparation - as part of a series of articles on the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain.

I was given pretty much a free rein on what to depict by the editor, and settled on the 15th almost inevitably. On that day the Luftwaffe mounted two major attacks on London - as Prime Minister Winston Churchill happened to be watching in RAF Fighter Command's 11 Group Operations Room at RAF Uxbridge. 

In the morning, a relatively small force of Dornier Do 17 bombers, with numerically greater fighter support, tested the defences. This was followed a few hours later by a much bigger operation, involving some 114 bombers, in three main columns, escorted by several hundred fighters. That is what became my focus.

Cloud cover

I have tried to give a realistic snapshot of a moment relatively early on when the afternoon's attackers are approaching London. They are beginning to run into the fighter defences brilliantly orchestrated by 11 Group's commander, Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park.

This involved a good deal of reading to try to get a 3D picture into my head of what was going on. The clouds had built up during the day to between 7/10ths and 9/10ths cumulus, from about 3,000ft base to 12,000ft tops in places. Wind was from the northwest.

The clouds were a factor in the Luftwaffe crews' subsequently failing to find their targets, hitting alternates where there was a gap in the cloud cover, scattering bombs indiscriminately - or giving up and running for home.

I then chose specific actions with enough documentation to be able to portray the actual aircraft involved, cross-referring sources to get as much accuracy as I could.

So the result is a composite, putting us in the thick of the action at roughly 1430 that Sunday afternoon as two dozen Heinkel He 111s of Kampfgeschwader 53 'Legion Condor', forming the central column of bombers, cross Kent heading for London.

Details

Fighter Command begins to break up the formation: Nine Spitfires from No 66 Squadron attack head-on from below. Hurricanes from No 1 (RCAF) Squadron swoop from above. They are being challenged by Messerschmitt Bf109 fighters from JG 3.

Where there are identifiable aircraft I have based them on squadron records and published accounts of the actions. So for example, 66 were led in their upward-sweeping attack on the Heinkels' most vulnerable aspect by Sqn. Ldr. Rupert "Lucky" Leigh in Spitfire R6800 LZ-N (lower right) - closing to point blank range before firing then rolling away for another attempt. 

The foreground Heinkel He 111 is an H-2 of 3/KG 53, coded A1+EL.  As an aside, this had two MG15 machine guns in the nose blister instead of the usual (for the type) single gun. The Luftwaffe progressively beefed up the armament on these aircraft in response to their Battle of Britain losses.

It did not help Ltn Hermann Boeckh and his crew much: after dropping their bombs they were attacked by eight Spitfires. With both engines on fire and the airframe riddled with bullet holes, Boeckh made a forced landing on a farm in Orsett, Essex.

The flight engineer, Friedrich Grotzki, was killed and three of the other four on board were wounded - the pilot reportedly by his own revolver, which discharged after being struck by a machine gun bullet. Nevertheless the crew stuck to military discipline, torching what remained of their aircraft and refusing to give any information when interrogated.

Below them in the picture, another 3/KG53 H-2, A1+GL, is going into a dive after being hit by Spitfire bullets. It will be shot to pieces by up to a dozen Spitfires. Two of its crew died and two were wounded when it crashed on farmland at Sandhurst Cross.

Wounded

The RAF's priority on the day was to knock down the bombers. To get at them they had to run the gauntlet of a fighter escort from the pilots of at least six gruppen, who put up a formidable defence but were rapidly at the limits of their cross-Channel fuel range.

In the forefront in my picture are some of the experienced pilots of Jagdschwader 3 'Udet': the most successful gruppe in the Battle of France and now veterans of the Battle of Britain. Among the yellow-nosed Messerschmitt Bf109s coming in above is an E-4 piloted by Hptm. Hans von Hahn, recently appointed Gruppenkommandeur of I./JG 3. Already an ace, he will account for another Spitfire this afternoon.

Above him in another E-4 from Stab I./JG 3, Ltn. Detlev Rohwer's shells are taking chunks out of Hawker Hurricane L1973 of No 1 (RCAF) Squadron and the left shoulder of its pilot, Fg. Off. Arthur Yuile, who later cursed his forgetfulness in not having maintained eyes in the sides and back of his head as he dived to attack the Heinkels. He managed to get the damaged aircraft back safely to RAF Northolt.

Off to the left in the distance, starting to attract 'ack ack' bursts from the anti-aircraft guns below, are the 19 Dorniers of II./KG3 followed by more Heinkels from I. and II./KG 26. They are about to be hit by the first of a string of fighter squadrons, Spitfires in line astern catching the sunlight as they dive from high above.

This pattern was to be repeated throughout the afternoon as wave after wave of RAF aircraft harried the attackers all the way in and all the way out, with increasingly devastating effect on the materiel and morale of Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering's Luftwaffe.

This was a time-consuming but fascinating picture to research and to make. I hope I have done justice to the events and to the bravery of those involved. In the process I have been learning a lot about Luftwaffe units and aircraft. As usual, please let me know if you spot any howling errors.

I heartily recommend membership of the BBMF Club. The Yearbook is due out at the beginning of April.

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