London Places: The Blitz Before The Blitz – Part 2

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 Greater London, August 15th 1940.
This is part two, where he explains how and where the attack took place.


At about 6:30pm, on August 15th 1940, a huge formation of German bombers was detected heading over the Kent coast near Dungeness. Hurricanes and Spitfires scrambled from pockmarked airfields such as Manston to intercept, but the formation, when challenged, almost purposefully split into distinct groups.

One group made up of Dorniers headed north-east for Biggin Hill. The airfield’s 32 Squadron were scrambled and met this force about 12 miles to the south-east. The Dorniers diverted eastwards and attacked RAF West Malling instead, with 32 Squadron still hot on their tail.

Meanwhile, 15 Bf110’s and 8 Bf109’s of the Luftwaffe SKG210 group followed in on the Dorniers’ original path. Led by Commander Walter Rubensdörffer, they hugged the lowland between the High Weald and the Kent Downs before flying over Sevenoaks.

When they reached Orpington, they veered northwards towards Bexley with Rubensdörffer leading a climb to altitude. Suddenly, they turned sharply south-west, losing their main fighter escort in the process.

As the evening summer sun bathed the south London suburbs in an almost ethereal light, Rubensdörffer was heard to comment over the radio: “Are we over land or sea?” His next words were more ominous: “I’m going in”. But what was his target? Biggin Hill? Or Kenley?

At around 6:45pm, the answer was clear. From an altitude of about 9,000 feet, the force swept down to commence a bombing run over Croydon airport. They unleashed a mass of bombs on the undefended airfield and strafed the surrounding area with their cannon and machine guns.

Depiction of a Bf110 commencing bombing run on Croydon aerodrome. Copyright licence: London Borough of Sutton Museum and Heritage Service.

The Hurricanes of 32 Squadron were suddenly ordered to call off their hunt for the Dorniers and vectored back towards Biggin Hill. Against the setting sun in the western sky they could see huge plumes of black smoke not six miles distant. With a speed of 330mph, they were there in no time.

They were joined by nine Hurricanes of Croydon’s own Squadron 111. Only an hour earlier they had been in combat 50 miles away near Portsmouth. They had landed back at Croydon, refuelled, and been scrambled again to assist 32 Squadron over Kent. Luckily, they had taken off just minutes before the attack on their own base.

There was an initial affray, but without fighter escort the German bombers realised they were sitting ducks. They immediately formed a defensive ring. From above, the Hurricanes hungrily circled their prey. There would only be one winner.

This far from home, the Luftwaffe weren’t prepared to mix it, especially with fuel running low. The Germans decided to go hell-for-leather towards the coast. Rubensdörffer himself broke formation. It was the moment the RAF had been waiting for. They moved in for the kill, and pandemonium broke out. The two sides engaged, and a vicious aerial battle was fought over Croydon.

Hurricanes and Messerschmitt’s swooped high and low, at one point taking the tiles of a rooftop. It was reported that one RAF pilot plunged his aircraft into the evening traffic of south Croydon, but there is no confirmation of casualties here. You can imagine the town’s children watching dumbstruck from their front gardens. Then being reprimanded to come inside by the parents, who would then stand there themselves watching the scenes unfold. Meanwhile, the kids have bolted upstairs to watch from bedroom windows.

The nimbler Bf109s left the straggling Bf110s behind to the mercy of the marauding RAF squadrons. 111 squadron leader Johnny Thompson led four Hurricanes against a chain of three Bf110s escorted by a Bf109. In a burst of machine gun fire over Croydon, the central Bf110 was hit. Even though the chain split, the Bf110 continued to be escorted by the Bf109. One Hurricane remained focused and chased them into Kent. There seemed something significant about this pair.

Group Commander Rubensdörffer was fighting a desperate battle trying to shake off the Hurricane that had remained doggedly on his tail all the way from Croydon. It had hit him once already. Now, as his ailing Bf110 headed south, he was relying on a chaperone for protection, a Bf109 flown by Lieutenant Marx.

What Rubensdörffer hadn’t bargained for was an attack from another Hurricane, this time flown by pilot officer Ronnie Duckenfield of Gravesend’s 501 squadron. Coming out of nowhere, his bullets ripped into the Bf110. The fuel tanks ruptured and the fuselage caught fire just as it flew over Winston Churchill’s home at Chartwell. Over the radio, Rubensdörffer told Marx he was wounded and that his fellow crewman was either dead or unconscious. Having lost control, he would attempt a crash-landing. Marx pulled away leaving the commander to his fate.

Rubensdörffer’s Bf110 was attacked in the skies above Winston Churchill’s home of Chartwell in Kent.

On the balmy summer’s evening of August 15th, 1940, the villagers of Rotherfield in Sussex cocked their ears to the scream of an engine which seemed to coming from the direction of Crowborough. The sound increased in pitch and volume, and suddenly they watched in awe as a huge flaming chunk of metal roared in from the east and just cleared the spire of St Denys Church. A few moments later they heard a loud explosion. At Catts Hill, to the west of the village, a German Messerschmidt Bf110 fighter-bomber has just crashed headfirst into a line of trees. It had been in England for barely an hour.

The crew were dead. In the pocket of the pilot’s tattered uniform was found a telegram from Luftwaffe General Kesselring, congratulating the pilot Walter Rubensdörffer on his Iron Cross, which he had received for courageous leadership. Four days later, he would be awarded another medal posthumously, the German Knight’s Cross.

Rubensdörffer and his co-flying corporal Ludwig Kretzer were buried at Tunbridge Wells before being reinterred at the German Military Cemetery at Cannock Chase, Staffordshire.

Group Commander Walter Rubensdörffer’s gravestone, Cannock Chase, Staffordshire.

Meanwhile, four miles away in Frant, Lieutenant Marx was brought down by a Hurricane. It was the first Messerschmitt 109 to crash on British soil. Marx managed to bale out and parachute down into the arms of the local police.

Five more Bf110s of the SKG210 group were brought down, at Hawkhurst, Hooe, Horley, Ightham and Nutfield. The surviving aircraft were still being hounded by RAF 151 Squadron as they made their way across the channel. In all, a quarter of the entire SKG210 wing were lost in this one mission. It was a major disaster for the group, made more acute by the loss of its founding commander.

Rubensdörffer’s legacy back at Croydon airport was a scene of utter carnage. Hangars, workshops and terminal buildings were ablaze. The armoury was destroyed, the officer’s mess was wrecked, and about forty training aircraft went up in flames. The airfield was heavily pockmarked and the station was effectively put out of action. There were 280 RAF personnel casualties, including six dead.

But it was on the outskirts of the airfield where the death toll was highest. 62 civilians were killed and 185 were injured, mainly in the factories and engineering works near the aerodrome.

The suburb’s houses shook from the impact of the explosions. Walls were blasted, roofs were lifted and windows were shattered. It caused panic among the civilian population. The air-raid sirens were not sounded until fully 17 minutes after the attack had started. The blasts were felt as far away as Westminster and Woolwich. Londoners were shocked. Up to this point they escaped relatively unscathed. Croydon was the first major bombing raid on the metropolitan area, and it suddenly brought home the seriousness of the situation.

Over the following days, Croydon and the surrounding areas took the brunt of the Luftwaffe attacks, with subsequent toll on civilian life. On August 16th, the adjacent boroughs of Sutton and Merton were bombed with Beddington, Carshalton, Mitcham and Wimbledon suffering in particular. Why these areas were targeted were unclear. There were of no strategic value. The likely logistical answer is that a formation of German bombers heading for Croydon from the south-east was forced to overfly the airport by defending RAF squadrons, then ditched their fuel-sapping payload a couple of miles north-west before turning south to return to base,

Before the end of August, a further six raids on the borough of Croydon would see 311 casualties, including 40 dead. Indeed, before the Blitz on London had officially started on September 7th 1940, Croydon suffered more civilian casualties (514) than any other city or town in the UK. Only Portsmouth and Gosport suffered worse in terms of the number of deaths.

Winston Churchill spent August 15th 1940 at Fighter Command Headquarters, RAF Bentley Priory.

Nevertheless, August 15th turned out to be major success for the RAF in the Battle of Britain. The Germans lost 76 aircraft to the British 34. The Luftwaffe refer to it as ‘Black Thursday’. The RAF call it ‘The Greatest Day’. They had (just) managed to hang on.

Winston Churchill did not see the dramatic dogfight in the skies above his beloved Chartwell home that evening. Much as he would have surely enjoyed the spectacle. Instead, he had spent the day in Fighter Command Headquarters at RAF Bentley Priory. The following day, as he was being driven to Chequers, he uttered for the first time the phrase: “Never was so much owed by so many to so few.”

In Croydon, ‘so many’ would never hear those famous stirring words.

German aerial attacks Jun 18-Sep 7 1940 (pre-‘Blitz’).
Top 10 UK civilian casualty sites: city/town (+strategic target)
CasualtiesDeaths
Croydon (airport and aviation industry)514107
Portsmouth & Gosport (Navy and submarine bases)479127
Weybridge (Vickers-Armstrong factory)34147
Luton (Vauxhall plant)33266
Merton32872
Liverpool/Merseyside (docks)31755
Birmingham (industrial plants)21966
Swansea (docks)18156
Chatham & Gillingham (docks)12030
Aberdeen (docks)10727
Entire Greater London area (not inc Croydon or Merton)71655
Note: Newcastle, Norwich, Plymouth and Ramsgate recorded
casualties just below Aberdeen.
  
Top ten casualty sites in Britain from German aerial attacks before the ‘Blitz’ (Jun 18-Sep 7, 1940).

In part three on Monday, Soul City Wanderer notes the controversial nature of the attack, and challenges the received historical interpretation of events.


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.

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