London Places: The Blitz Before The Blitz – Part 3

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.
Here in part three, he notes the controversial nature of the attack, and challenges the received historic interpretation of events.


As such a calamitous event, for both sides, the Croydon Airport attack by the Luftwaffe SKG210 bomber group on August 15th 1940 seems to have been somewhat airbrushed out of history. Especially when you consider its impact: the first major aerial bombing attack on Greater London, the significant loss of life, the serious casualty figures, the major damage and destruction it wrought on infrastructure, and the high ratio of German aircraft losses.

Very few history books or documentaries mention it, and if they do, it’s only in passing. For example, in 2020, Channel 5 ran a three-part series entitled: Battle of Britain – Three Days that Saved the Nation. Produced by Lion TV, it was fronted by the respected historians Kate Humble and Dan Snow. The first episode was all about August 15th, 1940. It was generally well presented with plenty of human angles. However, the day’s events rather abruptly conclude with the bombing raid on Portland at 6:20pm, with the inference that it was the last of the day. Sloppy, really, as it was precisely at that time that Luftwaffe SKG210 bomber group were about to launch August 15th’s final and most devastating attack.

Downed Messerschmitt Bf110 – image by Adelaide Archivist. CC license BY 2.0

Other historic accounts seem to dismiss the strategic accomplishment and importance of the raid because it is suggested that somehow SKG210 group ‘mistook Croydon for Kenley’. There are various reasons given. One is that as they approached Kenley, the group was suddenly dispersed when it was intercepted by RAF squadrons. Group Commander Rubensdörffer regrouped his forces for another attack. But it is claimed they lost their bearings, and the airfield that (handily) loomed into their view was Croydon. A case of ‘mistaken identity’.

Is it too much of a coincidence that the bombing raid on West Malling at roughly the same time is also labelled as ‘mistaken’? In this attack, a Dornier group flew in ahead of the SKG210 force. Apparently, they were heading for Biggin Hill, but were forced north-east to West Malling by RAF 32 squadron. The Dorniers must have reasonably expected a ‘welcome party’ at some point, and pinpointed it south of Biggin Hill. On engagement, had the Dorniers turned north-east they would have brought the RAF squadrons right into the path of the incoming SKG210 group. But by turning north-west they drew the ire of 32 squadron, while at the same time making for the legitimate target of West Malling without any sharp detour. Did the diversion mask what was to be their original target anyway?

There is also the claim that the reason the fighter escort left the SKG210 bombing party was because it got ‘lost’ over Bexley. Fighter escorts were always ‘inexplicably’ leaving bombing parties. It was one of Goring’s main complaints to his fighter-commanders. Perhaps on that day, as the SKG210 group rose in altitude to begin their bombing run, the escort felt they had done their job. They were already close to their 100-mile range.

Another theory is that the SKG210 group was flying into the low setting sun, and again, although their target was Kenley, they were blinded into attacking Croydon. Even crew members hint at this one. Remembering Rubensdörffer’s comment “Are we over land or sea?” Lieutenant Koch said later he believed there may have been a “haze“, and Lieutenant Hinzte mentioned a “mist” at high altitude. Was it all just a smokescreen? Had the Germans conjured up a scotch mist in south London for the history books?

Hurricane stain glass window at RAF Bentley Priory

Hazy sunshine or not. There is just no way you could mistake Croydon for Kenley from the air in 1940. The pear-shaped Kenley airfield was keenly surrounded by wooded countryside. Croydon aerodrome was nearly twice the size in area and situated in open fields at the edge of a large conurbation in a continuous ring of south London suburbs. Aside from the control tower, hangars and other associated buildings that you would expect at London’s international airport, there was a swimming lido in the playing fields opposite, closed but with high-diving boards visible. And more enticingly, a huge industrial plant lay just to the north-west of the airport. It included the Croydon ‘A’ power station (with its soaring wooden cooling towers), Beddington water-treatment works, the gasworks, and hundreds of production plants along Factory Lane and Imperial Way. Snaking through this landscape as a guiding landmark was the four-lane wide A23 bypass, built in 1924.

The pilots of SKG210 didn’t just jump into the cockpit and fly blind over England. They would have spent hours poring over maps and reconnaissance photographs, studying topological models and examining landmarks. Göring revealed that his special crews made intensive studies of targets, planned suitable methods of attack, and examined navigational solutions. In short, they did their homework. It has also been suggested that many of the SKG210 team had been civil aviation crew members before the war, and who could easily recognise Croydon from when it had been London’s main peacetime airport.

Furthermore, the most direct route for the SKG210 group from Romney on the Kent coast to Croydon was a straight line hugging the contours of the High Weald and over Sevenoaks, which would take you slap-bang between RAF Biggin Hill and RAF Kenley. It was too obvious and too risky to fly such a direct route. And they couldn’t bank to the west as they would then have been squeezed between RAF Kenley and RAF Redhill. What they did was skirt around the issue, and launch their attack unexpectedly from the north-east.

In addition, having ‘mistakenly’ hit Croydon, it is hard to believe that they bombed it with such precision. The targeting of the surrounding aviation industry buildings was surely not random, but clearly calculated. And there is no doubt the Luftwaffe were targeting strategic inland sites with precision at this stage. The Vauxhall plant at Luton and Vickers-Armstrong factory in Weybridge are testament to that.

Another claim is that Rubensdörffer himself was covering his tracks in ‘mistakenly’ hitting Croydon, because had he survived, he would have been court-martialled for going against Hitler’s express orders forbidding the bombing of London targets. However, strictly speaking, Croydon was not part of London. It was a town in Surrey with a London suburban boundary and did not have any municipal connections to the capital until 1965.

Croydon Airport plaque – image by sleepymyf. CC license BY-NC-ND 2.0

Moreover, Hitler himself had issued a directive on August 1st, extending Luftwaffe operations to the RAF-related industries, and Croydon Airport would have definitely fitted the bill. Indeed, a mission by Luftwaffe bomber wing KG54 to attack Croydon was cancelled on the morning of August 13th as the weather was bad. And on the very morning of August 15th, Göring had issued a directive to all Luftwaffe commanders specifically referring to the enemy aircraft industry as an alternative and legitimate target of strategic importance. Finally, if Rubensdörffer was heading for a court-martial, why was he posthumously decorated so honourably?

In my opinion, SKG210 Group Commander Walter Rubensdörffer knew exactly what he was going for on that fateful day in August 1940: Croydon Airport. And he and his staff with Luftwaffe High Command backing, planned and executed the attack, diversionary tactics and all, with absolute precision.

Of course, there is always the possibility that Rubensdörffer was a something of a maverick, breaking the rules in a desperate bid to prove the effectiveness of his beloved dive-bombing squad.

Either way, it cost him his life, and the lives of many innocent others.


Sources

Bergström, Christer. Battle of Britain: An Epic Conflict Revisited. Casemate, 2015.
Collier, Richard. Eagle Day-Battle of Britain. Hodder & Staughton. 1996.
Goss, Chris; Cornwell, Peter; Rauchbach, Bernd. Luftwaffe Fighter-Bombers Over Britain. Stackpole, 2010.
Jackson, Robert. Hit & Run: Daring Air Attacks in World War II. Leo Cooper, 2015.
Kaplan, Philip, & Collier, Richard. The Few. Greenwich Editions, 1998.
Mason, F. K. Battle Over Britain. McWhirter Twins, 1969.
Newton, Denis. A Few of the Few. Australian War Memorial. 1990.
Vasco, John. Bombsights Over England: Erprobungsgruppe 210. JAC Publications, 1990.

https://aviation-safety.net/wikibase/177240
https://www.battleofbritain1940.net
https://keepituryens.wordpress.com/2016/08/15/
https://www.volksbund.de/
https://www.warstateandsociety.com (casualty figures).
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kanalkampf


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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