Sunday, August 21, 2016

August 24, 1940: Slippery Slope Toward Armageddon

Saturday 24 August 1940

24 August 1940 Bf 109E crash landed
This Messerschmitt Bf 109E-4 (W.Nr. 5587) "Yellow 10" of 6./JG 51 "Molders" crash-lands at East Langdon in Kent on 24 August 1940. The pilot, Oberfeldwebel Beeck, becomes a POW.
European Air Operations: Saturday 24 August 1940 is one of the most significant dates of the 20th Century. It all has to do with the slippery slope of warfare.

Of course, you'll never see that in any of your textbooks. There, it's just another day in the seemingly endless conflict of World War II.

So, what happens on the 24th day of the 40th year of the 20th Century that makes it so darn important? Well, that takes a little explaining.

On the 22nd of August, a flight of Luftwaffe bombers had bombed a western suburb of London. It wasn't even London proper - but it was London as far as the British were concerned. It isn't clear if that flight meant to bomb that particular spot - probably not. But it did, and there weren't any apologies from the Germans about bombing a movie theater, other nearby businesses, and some flats within the London Civil Defense Zone.

The British noticed the attack, of course, but gave the Germans a pass that one time. Some accounts say that the RAF bombed Berlin immediately in retaliation, but there isn't any evidence of that. So far, everything remained as it was.

However, on the night of the 24th, another flight of Luftwaffe bombers ordered to attack a factory of the Short aircraft company at Rochester in Kent and the Thameshaven oil storage tanks uses the Knickebein ("Crooked Leg") radio guidance system to guide their way as usual. The British, also, as usual, employ countermeasures which throw the Luftwaffe navigator off. The Knickebein system already has been superseded within the Luftwaffe for being obsolete and easy to jam, but the more advanced system is only used within one special Luftwaffe squadron - and not this one.

Instead of bombing the proper industrial targets, the navigator relies on the false radio signals and instructs the pilots to release their bombs a bit early. It seems ok, as there is a built-up area below anyway, so the bombs won't be dropped to no purpose. It's not like they'll be dropped in the countryside or ocean.

Below lies central London and the East End. The bombs start numerous fires. In addition, perhaps coincidentally, separate Luftwaffe raids drop bombs on residential areas of Portsmouth and Ramsgate - also most likely in error. The British take note of this. There are "reports" that the London raid was actually the result of a sustained attempt to bomb the city which only succeeded in the second attempt. The RAF starts planning a little raid of its own.

This seemingly minor incident sets in motion the greatest wave of destruction of the century, the destruction of the major cities of Europe... which all begins on 24 August 1940.

24 August 1940 London girl refugee Blitz
London, 24 August 1940.
Battle of Britain: Hermann Goering today orders "ceaseless attacks" against the RAF, but the weather has not been permitting them. Overnight, however, the weather clears and the Luftwaffe really goes to work. The objective remains the airfields and the destruction of the RAF both in the air and on the ground. Since many of the most important RAF airfields are close to London, that creates opportunities for mistakes such as those described above.

Luftwaffe tactics change slightly, and it is an effective change. Since it has the numerical advantage, the Luftwaffe begins using massive feints to draw off the defenders and force them to refuel while other attacks are made. The Germans also begin sending formations across at different altitudes as they try to overwhelm the stretched RAF defenses. The idea is to disperse the defending fighters and get them out of position as they are drawn to the wrong altitudes, or forced to the ground to refuel, making them unable to meet fresh attacks.

The first big operation begins at 08:30, earlier than in recent days. About 100 planes, forty of them Dornier Do 17 and Junkers Ju 88 medium bombers, take the short route over the Channel at Calais. This operation, however, turns out to be a massive feint, and the RAF falls for it by sending a dozen fighter squadrons up before the Luftwaffe formation turns back to France without dropping a single bomb.

The next big operation is 11:30, coming from the same general direction as the previous one. With the other squadrons refueling and re-arming (as the Germans intended), the RAF sends up No. 264, which is composed of Bolton Paul Defiants. The Defiants are known to be sketchy, but they surge into the bomber stream after taking off from RAF Manston. The Junkers Ju 88s shoot down three of them and damage two others. The other intercepting RAF Squadrons have little luck and Oberst ‘Pips’ Priller of 6./JG 51 files claims for two Spitfires. The bombers get through to RAF Manston and add to the damage of recent days, making it useful for little more than refueling stops and emergency landings.

The afternoon raids target RAF Hornchurch, which is perhaps the most important airfield because it is closest to the London docks and the vital Thames estuary. North Weald to the northeast of Hornchurch and almost as important also comes under attack. At this point, RAF No. 11 Group which oversees southwest England is overstretched and a real problem develops over these vital airfields.

Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park requests assistance from Air Vice Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory, commander of 12 Group. Leigh-Mallory doesn't particularly like Park, because he resents Park being in charge of the more prestigious No. 11 Group, and he only sends one formation, RAF No. 19 Squadron. Meanwhile, Leigh-Mallory takes his time forming a "Big Wing," an especially large formation. By the time this "Big Wing" arrives over Hornchurch, the Luftwaffe is long gone. This creates a huge rift between Park and Leigh-Mallory and also, incidentally, allows the bombers to bomb the area around the Thames estuary and start massive fires.

24 August 1940 Ramsgate bomb damage
Damage to Ramsgate on 24 August 1940.
This activity over the London docks and the estuary leads to massive dogfights. More Defiants go down, and both sides take several losses. North Weald and Hornchurch are bombed, but not put out of action (like Manston).

Another large raid then heads north from Cherbourg around 15:00. It targets the usual areas on the south coast such as Brighton and Portsmouth. The Luftwaffe fighters have an altitude advantage and make full use of it, getting a number of victories. The worst moment for the Germans is when two Bf 109s of 2,/JG 51 collide over Ramsgate. The bombing of Portsmouth is particularly vicious, with over 100 killed and 300 other casualties, the highest totals of the campaign to date. The damage is widespread, and destroyer HMS Acheron is damaged (2 deaths and 3 other casualties) as well as destroyer HMS Bulldog (one death, the CO) and French torpedo boat Flore. It is probably the most successful raid to date on the important port.

After dark, things get even worse for the British. Another large formation heads north from Cherbourg, and it heads straight for London. This KG 1 raid is the one discussed above which begins the "slippery slope" of European city destruction. About 170 Heinkel He 111s targeting the aircraft factory at Rochester and oil tanks at Thameshaven instead drop their loads too far to the west. Extensive damage to fashionable Oxford Street and the West End results. This especially large bombing raid is barely intercepted at all and causes immense fires all along the dockland area. Some of the bombs drop further north than the others, right in the heart of London.

24 August 1940 Felixstowe pillbox
A pillbox camouflaged as a car. Felixstowe, England, 24 August 1940.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill cannot know that the London attack was unintentional. He demands a quick reprisal raid, and one is prepared for the following night on Berlin. To say that this is playing with fire is a vast understatement. However, the Germans have left him no choice, and whether or not it was against standing Wehrmacht orders to bomb London (it was) and the attack was the result of a mistake in navigation (it was again) is beside the point. If nothing else pure politics demands retaliation, and even former Prime Minister Chamberlain launched similar retaliatory raids against nearer attacks during the Spring.

There are additional night raids during the night on Bristol, another very intense event that only increases the British desire for revenge. "The damage is done," so to speak. The Luftwaffe only loses two bombers during the night.

Two RAF Fleet Air Arm Fairey Fulmars of No. 806 Squadron collide over the Bay of Biscay, killing the pilots.

RAF Bomber Command attacks various industrial targets during the night, including an electrical station at Cologne, an oil installation at Frankfurt, a chemical plant at Ludwigshafen, and the Daimler-Benz factory at Stuttgart. In addition, 10 British bombers raid auto factories in Milan again.

24 August 1940 Horsesands Sea Fort Plymouth
Horse Sands Sea Fort, Plymouth Harbour (Eastern Solent), 24 August 1940.
The day has a lasting effect on the RAF aside from the attack on London. Even if losing the Defiants themselves is not important, the pilots flying them are invaluable. Losing talented pilots in inferior equipment is a poor choice. Fighter Command finally makes the painful decision to withdraw the Defiants completely from combat and relegate them to training purposes. When people point to the withdrawal of the Stukas and Bf 110s from most missions as evidence of the Luftwaffe's "defeat," they usually forget to mention that the RAF also had to withdraw some classes of planes.

As for the Luftwaffe, the attack on London has brought a noticeable result for a change, unlike the raids on airfields which are quickly repaired. The blazing fires can be seen for miles and act as a beacon. The new policy of close escorts for the bombers appears to be working.

Losses for the day are roughly equal when figuring in all losses such as planes destroyed on the ground and such. Combat losses are usually given as roughly 30 for the Luftwaffe and 25 for the RAF. Exact figures are difficult to pinpoint because some damaged planes are write-offs, others are out of action for long periods and so on.

The cross-Channel guns at Cap Gris Nez fire again today. This time, they focus exclusively on Dover and Folkestone but don't hit anything significant.

Hans-Joachim Marseille shoots down a Hurricane over Kent for his first victory but gets in trouble for flying off on his own - abandoning his wingman, a major no-no - to do it. James Lacey gets a victory for the RAF, shooting down a Dornier bomber.

24 August 1940 Rear Admiral Ghormley London England
US  Rear Admiral Ghormley during an inspection tour of the Western Approaches Command on 24 August 1940. © IWM (A 216).
Battle of the Atlantic: It is a bad day for the Atlantic convoys. U-37 (Kapitänleutnant Victor Oehrn), operating out of Lorient for the first time on her seventh patrol, has another big day as it stalks Convoy OB 202 and Convoy SC 1 west of Ireland/700 miles southwest of Iceland. U-37 isn't the only successful predator on the high seas today. One of the notable things about these attacks is that they are on larger cargo vessels than usual. U-boat captains, of course, are judged as much by their tonnage sunk as by the number of ships they sink.

U-37 torpedoes and sinks 5100-ton British cargo ship Brookwood at 03:14. There are 36 survivors and one crewman perishes.

Still stalking the convoy throughout the day, U-37 sinks the only armed escort of Convoy SC 1, the British sloop HMS Penzance (L 28) at 20:38. A torpedo on the starboard side sets some of her depth charges off, and the ship sinks within minutes - leaving the convoy defenseless. There are 90 deaths and seven survivors.

U-57 (Oblt.z.S. Erich Topp), also operating out of Lorient now on her 11th patrol, starts off its own big day by damaging British freighter Havildar just after midnight in the Northwest Approaches about 25 miles northeast of Malin Head. The freighter survives.

U-57 then torpedoes 10,939-ton British freighter Cumberland. The large ship stays afloat for a couple of days and tries to make it to Ireland, but ultimately sinks within sight of land. There are 54 survivors and four crew perish.

U-57 also torpedoes 5681-ton British freighter Saint Dunstan. There are 49 survivors and 14 crew perish. Saint Dunstan also takes her time sinking, and also gets within sight of land, but down she goes about 9 km east of Ireland. U-57's big day leads to an attack by British escorts which she survives.

U-48 (K.Kapt. Hans-Rudolf Rösing) is operating west of the Outer Hebrides as Convoy HX 65 passes by. It spots straggling British tanker La Brea and sinks it with a torpedo. There are 31 survivors and 2 crew perish.

Convoy MT 149 departs from Methil, Convoy FS 261 departs from the Tyne, Convoy OB 203 departs from Liverpool, Convoy HX 68 departs from Halifax, Convoy BN 3A departs from Aden.

German battleship Bismarck is commissioned. However, no operations are scheduled for her as her crew trains and the outcome of the Battle of Britain remains uncertain.

British ASW trawler HMS Gavotte (T 115, Lt. Cyril S. Tennent) is commissioned.

24 August 1940 Bismarck commissioning
The commissioning of the Bismarck, 24 August 1940.
Battle of the Mediterranean: A small flotilla departs from Alexandria to cover some freighters coming from Athens (Piraeus). War tensions are high and rising in the Aegean, which should be quiet since Greece is not at war with anyone.

A small British force bombards Bardia again, led by gunboat HMS Ladybird.

At Malta, there this an air raid around noontime on Hal Far airfield and nearby areas, which damages a Swordfish torpedo bomber. The Italians definitely lose one CR.42 fighter in the attack and perhaps others.

24 August 1940 destroyers at sea
View from destroyer Kelvin, 24 August 1940.  © IWM (A 240).
Battle of the Indian Ocean: German raider Atlantis, disguised as Dutch cargo ship Tarifa, finds 4744-ton British coal freighter King City about 900 miles east of Madagascar in rough seas and sinks it with its deck guns. There are six deaths, but at least the Atlantis sticks around to pick up the survivors - who would have had big problems stuck in the middle of the Indian Ocean in bad weather.

Applied Science: Oxford University scientists publish an article in The Lancet about penicillin which is considered one of the most revolutionary in medical history. This, in fact, might be the day's most farthest-reaching event. The study authors are Howard Florey, Ernst Chain, and Norman Heatley.

Hungarian/Romanian Relations: Border negotiations fail.

US Military: Former minesweeper USS Peacock collides with Norwegian freighter Hindanger off of Columbia and sinks. Hindanger has been operating in the Caribbean since the German invasion. The Peacock has been operating as a salvage tug under charter to the Shipping Board, but technically remains on the naval rolls.

German Homefront: Paul Julius Gottlieb Nipkow, inventor of the "Nipkow Disk" and honorary president of the "television council" of the Reich Broadcasting Chamber, passes away at the age of 80. He is considered one of the giants in the development of television.

24 August 1940 Bismarck
The Bismarck in Kiel Harbor.

August 1940

August 1, 1940: Two RN Subs Lost
August 2, 1940: Operation Hurry
August 3, 1940: Italians Attack British Somaliland
August 4, 1940: Dueling Legends in the US
August 5, 1940: First Plan for Barbarossa
August 6, 1940: Wipe Out The RAF
August 7, 1940: Burning Oil Plants
August 8, 1940: True Start of Battle of Britain
August 9, 1940: Aufbau Ost
August 10, 1940: Romania Clamps Down On Jews
August 11, 1940: Huge Aerial Losses
August 12, 1940: Attacks on Radar
August 13, 1940: Adler Tag
August 14, 1940: Sir Henry's Mission
August 15, 1940: Luftwaffe's Black Thursday
August 16, 1940: Wolfpack Time
August 17, 1940: Blockade of Britain
August 18, 1940: The Hardest Day
August 19, 1940: Enter The Zero
August 20, 1940: So Much Owed By So Many
August 21, 1940: Anglo Saxon Incident
August 22, 1940: Hellfire Corner
August 23, 1940: Seaplanes Attack
August 24, 1940: Slippery Slope
August 25, 1940: RAF Bombs Berlin
August 26, 1940: Troops Moved for Barbarossa
August 27, 1940: Air Base in Iceland
August 28, 1940: Call Me Meyer
August 29, 1940: Schepke's Big Day
August 30, 1940: RAF's Bad Day
August 31, 1940: Texel Disaster


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