London Places: The Blitz Before The Blitz – Part 1

As part of the 80th anniversary of The Battle of Britain, Soul City Wanderer tells the incredible story of the first WWII bombing raid on Croydon, August 15th 1940.

In part 1, he reveals the elite German bombing squadron that were behind the attack. In part 2, the story of the raid itself. In part 3, the controversial nature of the attack, while challenging the received historical interpretation of events.

80 years ago, over a number of days in the middle of August, the south London suburb of Croydon and its surrounding area found itself at mercy of the German airforce.

Croydon would have been a key target for the Luftwaffe: the world’s first purpose-built civilian aerodrome had opened there in 1920. Indeed, by WWII it was London’s main international airport (Heathrow took over after the war). Several aviation factories and engineering works were based on the outskirts. In addition, it was home to an RAF fighter station, with two other key RAF stations in its vicinity: Kenley, three miles away and Biggin Hill, six.

Croydon Airport control tower 1935 ~by afvintage. CC license BY-NC-ND 20

Thus, Croydon had a front-line role in the defence of Britain, and on August 15th 1940, it had a baptism of fire, being the victim of the first major WWII bombing raid on Greater London.

Luftwaffe Group Commander Walter Rubensdörffer was approaching 30 years of age. Born in Switzerland, he was an experienced pilot who had learned how to fly bi-planes as a teenager. He was respected in the Luftwaffe as a decorated veteran of the Spanish Civil War, where he flew with the German Condor Legion.

210 Group Commander Walter Rubensdörffer

On July 1st, 1940, he was put in command of Erprobungsgruppe 210. This was a crack wing of hand-picked pilots originally formed as the operational test unit for the new Messerschmitt Me210 bomber. However, trial results were not positive. Instead, the group was switched to practice precision dive-bombing attacks using the existing Messerschmitt Bf110, and develop live ground-attack combat strategies for the fighter-bomber in general. Rubensdörffer himself devised the tactics. His prescribed method was a low-level sea and terrain-hugging technique, as radar was ineffective below 1,000 ft; next, a climb to altitude of at least 3,000ft for a bombing run; then, a fast but shallow 45-degree dive, pulling out at 1,000ft and releasing the payload.

A Luftwaffe wing was typically made up as follows: three squadrons of nine to twelve aircraft, divided into ‘swarms’ of four to six aircraft, and sometimes divided into ‘chains’ of three aircraft. 210 wing was 28-strong with 18 Bf110s divided into two squadrons, and one squadron of 10 Bf109s.

The Bf110 was a twin-engine, two-seater heavy fighter-bomber with a speed of up to 350mph. Most were equipped with two 550lb bombs, two cannon and four machine guns. A new version trialled by 210 carried a single more powerful 30mm cannon. The Bf109 was single-engine, single-seater fighter with a speed of up to 340mph. Most were equipped with variable combinations of cannon and machine guns. A new fighter-bomber version trialled by 210 was equipped with a high-altitude engine and a rack carrying one 550lb bomb or four 110lb bombs.

Luftwaffe General Albert Kesselring cherished 210 above all other units, but he was sceptical of their accuracy. Rubensdörffer was determined to prove him wrong.

From July 19th to Aug 11th, Rubensdörffer’s fledgling force practised their techniques on the sea traffic in the English Channel. They claimed remarkable results of sinking around 90,000 tons of shipping including four warships. Kesselring personally congratulated them.

Then, on August 12th, they were honoured with the task of knocking out England’s south coast radar system as a prelude to an invasion. The mission took off from Calais with 20 aircraft broken into four squadrons. Flight Lieutenant Hintze’s Bf109s hit Dover, Captain Lutz’s Bf110s targeted Pevensey, and Flight Lieutenant Roessiger Bf110’s was given Rye. Rubensdörffer’s own Bf110 flight took the inland station at Dunkirk near Canterbury.

Although the raids were pin-point accurate, and the stations were structurally damaged, the radar system itself was only temporarily disrupted. Based on Rubensdörffer’s report, Kesselring made the mistake of thinking the RAF was now blind. The heavy toll of German pilots over the next three days convinced Field Marshal Goering otherwise, and he issued a directive banning any further radar missions as they were proving futile.

“Cosford” by Nigel Renny. CC license BY-SA 2.0.
Depiction of a dogfight: RAF and Luftwaffe fighters battle it out in the skies above Britain.

Later that day, another flight of 20 bombers from 210 mercilessly pounded RAF Manston, the first major attack on a British airfield. They put such a fear of god into the ground crew that they barricaded themselves within underground bunkers. Shamefully, RAF pilots had to refuel and rearm their planes themselves. When 210’s Messerschmitts left, a load of Dorniers turned up to give it another going over.

The official start date for the German air attack on Britain was codenamed ‘Adlertag‘ (Eagle Day). After several false starts, August 13th, 1940 took the title. The Luftwaffe mounted 1,485 sorties on the airfields of Essex, Kent, Sussex and Hampshire, however, the effectiveness of the raids was hampered by low cloud.

Attacks on the 14th were also disrupted by the weather pattern and the Luftwaffe was reduced to less than 500 sorties, mainly confined to coastal areas. However, at about midday, there was ‘a hell of a donny’ over Dover. There were numerous dogfights at high altitude involving some 200 aircraft, including half of 54 and 65 Squadrons who were using Manston.

Using the melee as cover, Rubensdorffer’s crack force came in low and unnoticed to hit Manston once again. With the ground crew still cowering below ground, the pilots of 600 Squadron were drafted in to man defensive guns. Under weaker protection than usual, many grounded Spitfires and Hurricanes were lost, and the station was once again put out of action. Poor Manston. Known as ‘Charlie 3’, it was the most easterly and exposed of all the airfields in the south east. Unloved except for the Luftwaffe’s infatuation.

On the morning of August 15th, the RAF were no longer favoured by the ‘typical’ British summer. The clouds dispersed to reveal empty blue skies. The real Adlertag had arrived. On this day the Luftwaffe would launch nearly 1,800 sorties in a massive wave of attacks to try to overwhelm the RAF.

At about 3pm, 210 went out hunting as part of a larger formation, this time in Suffolk. Part of the group distracted the Hurricanes of Martlesham Heath’s 17 Squadron 20 miles out to sea. Meanwhile, 16 Bf110s of the 210 team slipped through the net and spent five minutes bombing and strafing Martlesham in a low-level attack. They got away without loss, leaving the airfield out of action.

In the early evening, the fighter-destroyers and fighter-bombers of 210 once again headed out. This time towards Biggin Hill and Kenley airfields. They were about to mount the final raid of the day.

Rubensdörffer’s Raiders were doing their best to seize back the finest hour from Churchill’s grasp.

Tomorrow in part two, Soul City Wanderer explains how the first WWII bombing raid on Greater London took place.

Published by Soul City Wanderer

Soul City Wanderer is the alias of London journalist and author Frank Molloy, a writer on the city’s history and culture. Born south of the river, he has an MA in London history (Birkbeck) and lectures at various institutions including the Museum of London and the National Portrait Gallery. He is also a fully-qualified Blue Badge Guide (MITG), Westminster Guide and City of London Guide.

One thought on “London Places: The Blitz Before The Blitz – Part 1

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: