The battle of Crécy (1346), alongside Agincourt (1415) has gone down in history as the triumph of the English foot soldier armed with the longbow over the French Knights. It has been known for a long time that Edward III had four cannons with his army, but their role on the battlefield has been dismissed, as having no effect beyond announcing that fire-power had arrived on the battlefield. However, in a speech to the Battlefields Trust, Professor Michael Prestwich argued that we should re-examine our interpretation of the Battle of Crécy and that Edward III’s cannons had a much bigger impact than as a mere gimmick of alchemy.
Edward III’s unexpected victory over the French at Crécy-en-Pontieu near Abbeville overturned the presumption that knights would ride down foot soldiers. This established the Longbow as an important weapon, the yeoman archers of England as heroes, and demonstrated the fighting power behind Edward III’s claim to the French throne which started the Hundred Years War.
King Edward III landed in Normandy in July. Having captured Caen he moved East to cross the Seine and then headed North along the coast, pursued by a larger French Army under King Philip VI of France. Edward crossed the Somme after winning the Battle of Blanchetaque on August 24. Tired from their marching and fighting the English army encamped near the Forest of Crécy. Philip raced towards Crécy with his men, keen to defeat the English and angry that he had failed to trap them between the Seine and Somme.
It is generally accepted that Edward deployed his men along a ridge between the villages of Crécy and Wadicourt and divided his army into three divisions. The right division was assigned to his sixteen-year old son Edward, the Black Prince. The left division was led by the Earl of Northampton, while Edward, commanding from a vantage point in a windmill, commanded the reserve. These divisions were comprised of dismounted men at arms supported by large numbers of archers equipped with the English longbow. The English improved their position by digging ditches and laying obstacles in front of their position. The baggage train was in the rear of the English position. Sometimes accounts mention that four cannons were positioned in the front line.
The leading parts of Philip’s army, advancing North from Abbeville arrived near the English around mid-day on August 26. The French started the battle before the whole French army had arrived on the battlefield. The French advance was led by several thousand mercenary Genoese crossbowmen, followed by thousands of French knights organised into divisions under the leading nobles, while King Philip commanded the rearguard.
When the Genoese crossbowmen approached close enough they fired a series of volleys at the English. These proved ineffective compared to the English response which was devastated the Genoese and forced them to retreat. This in turn provoked some French Knights to cut down the retreating Genoese as for their cowardice. The failure of the Genoese is attributed to several factors. A brief thunderstorm before the battle had wet their bowstrings. The decision to start the battle early, meant that they fought without their pavise’s wooden shields behind which they could shelter while reloading. Also, the rate of fire of a longbow was far in excess of a crossbow, with a longbow-man loosing thre or four arrows to each crosw-bow bolt.
The French knights fell into confusion as they collided with the retreating Genoese. Continuing the attack, the French knights were forced to negotiate the slope of the ridge and the man-made obstacles. Cut down in large numbers by the archers, the felled knights and their horses blocked the advance of those to the rear.
At some point in the battle Edward received a message from his son requesting assistance. This King Edward refused, stating “I am confident he will repel the enemy without my help,” and “Let the boy win his spurs.” As evening approached the English still held their position after repelling sixteen French charges, and felling their attackers with arrows. This was a huge English victory.
But, this interpretation is based on conflicting and fragmentary sources surviving from medieval records. Michael Prestwich pointed out the accepted interpretation is largely based on a selective choice about which sources to accept and which to reject. Even the location is uncertain. Geoffrey le Baker, refers to the field of Crecy, while Froissart writes that battle took place near a wood, somewhere between Crécy and La Broie, (five miles apart) and the king was on the mound of a windmill, at the rear of his army. While another source, Henry Knighton mentions another place name, Westglyse, identified as Watteglise, which is to the north-east.
Michael Prestwich also drew attention to Italian sources which give a very different version of the battle from the English and French, and for work done by Richard Barber in an as yet unpublished work on Crécy. These accounts are dismissed as being written at third hand and in a third country. But there were large number of Italian Genoese present at the start of the engagement. One of these accounts, by Giovanni Villani, who died in 1348, “stressed above all the English encampment of carts. The whole army, he said, in three battalions, was enclosed in a ring of carts, with a single entrance. Bombards were placed under the carts, and the archers shot from them, their arrows stacked in barrels.” The same account also includes a description of the effectiveness of the artillery “The English guns cast iron balls by means of fire…They made a noise like thunder and caused much loss in men and horses…The Genoese were continually hit by the archers and the gunners…[by the end of the battle] the whole plain was covered by men struck down by arrows and cannon balls.”
Professor Prestwich also quoted a second Italian account which dates from about 1360, and thanked Richard Barber for this. According to this account “Edward surrounded his army with iron chains, fixed to posts, in a horseshoe plan. Carts were then placed outside the chains, tipped up with their shafts in the air. Ditches were dug to reinforce the defences. Archers were hidden in the woods and cornfields – the author noted that as it was very cold in northern France, corn was not harvested until September, and in Crécy it was still standing (the battle was 26 August). The Genoese had to climb a slope to approach the English position. They could not shoot their crossbows and were mostly cut down. The English archers, advancing through the corn, shot at the French cavalry and did so much damage that the battle was lost. There is a telling detail in this account. The Genoese crossbowmen’s problem was not that their bowstrings were damp – this account explains that the difficulty was that the ground was so muddy and soft that they found it impossible to put the crossbows down and hold them there with the stirrup for reloading. “
These Italian accounts are usually discredited because it is hard to reconcile the accounts of the carts with known practices of the time.
But perhaps the Genoese were describing something they had not seen before and could not understand. What they may have been looking at is the vehicles needed to support a gun battery – the worlds first wagon lines. Guns need a lot of vehicles, to transport the pieces, protect the ready use ammunition from the elements, carry ammunition and all the services to support the men who serve the guns. Edwards battery may have needed the ability to cast or carve their own shot, carry and possibly manufacture gunpowder. Edward’s army was on the move. It had prepared to fight at Crecy and it may have made sense to retain the ammunition and stores needed for the guns close by rather than banishing them to the baggage train.
As artillery evolved all the vehicles were held in the wagon lines where they would be protected from enemy fire. But at Crecy there was no enemy artillery fire, and contrary to Hollywood, flaming arrows were not a normal medieval battlefield weapon. A separate wagon lines would be additional risks to an English army marching through hostile territory and faced with a superior mounted enemy. And the wagons and carts might also have provided cover for archers.
Edward’s army may have been accompanied by more than the four bombards. According to Michael Prestwich, Edward had ordered 100 small guns, known as ribalds, in October 1345. These had, it seems, wheeled carriages, and were probably multi-barrelled.
So maybe the battle of Crecy was the worlds first battle where artillery played a significant part in the battle. So far this is a bit of speculation based on an after dinner speech by an eminent historian and information sources hiding in plain sight on the Internet. But the early gunpowder era is interesting for lots of reasons, not least because modern archaeological techniques have been able to establish new facts about medieval battlefields from the evidence that gunpowder weapons leave. In the last couple of years Glenn Foard rediscovered the battlefield of Bosworth from the cannon balls. Perhaps it is time to start a project to search for cannon balls from Crecy that may have sunk in the wet soil.
CityLit, the London based centre for Adult Learning is offering a series of summer school one day courses on the battles of the Nineteenth Century. The story of 19th century battles is is a story of technology and tactics, culture and Clausewitz. For two hundred years from 1600 warfare was a matter of cannon, horse and musket, with either bayonet or pike. The industrial revolution brought rapid changes in technology, with dramatic changes affecting almost every aspect of warfare. Weapons became more accurate, with longer ranges and more lethal effects. The steam age revolutionised transport and logistics. The changes in communication and culture affected how wars were fought and perceived by the public. This inquisitive era saw an explosion in the study of warfare and of military history, by figures such as Clausewitz, Jomeni and du Picq,
The soldiers of this era probably experienced more change than at any time in history before or probably since. Some of the men who fought in the Waterloo campaign took part in the campaigns of 1793-4 alongside and against men who had served in the wars of Frederick the Great. Some of the men who fought in the Victorian Imperial small wars in South Africa and Afghanistan lived to contemplate the Great War in 1914-18, with its trenches, aeroplanes and tanks. Lt Smith-Dorrien, survived the Assegais of the Zulus at Isandlwana to command an Army Corps in the BEF in 1914-5 against the machine guns and poison gas of the Kaiser’s army. Lord Roberts of Kandahar, the British hero of the 1879-80 Afghan war, had been commissioned under the Duke of Wellington, was awarded the Victoria Cross in the Indian mutiny and died in the field in Flanders in 1914.
The series of one day courses covers a range of battles from Waterloo in 1815 to Maiwand in 1880, including Waterloo, Gettysburg, Sadowa/Königgrätz, Sedan, Isandlwana and Maiwand. The courses last between two hours and six hours each at a modest cost. £11-21 full Senior £6-12 and Concession £3-7. I am the tutor for all apart from Sedan.
The Waterloo Campaign in mid June 1815 is the climax of the Napoleonic wars. Its a coda to Napoleon Bonaparte’s career. Its also the only occasion when Napoleon faced Wellington and has given rise to bridges, railway stations roads and Eurovision winning songs. This day will include a visit to the National Army Museum and draw on some of their unique resources, including the famous model by Captain Siborne. More details here
This July is the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, 1-3 July 1863. This is the iconic battle of the US Civil war. Not only was it the largest battle in the war and indeed, the Western hemisphere, and a turning point in the war. Abraham Lincoln’s address at a remembrance ceremony on the battlefield in 1863, is one of the greatest political speeches of all time. More details here
The Seven Weeks war of 1866 culminated in the battle of Sadowa, also known by Germans as Königgrätz, 3rd July 1866. This was one of the defining battles of the era, establishing the success of the Prussian military machine and the dominance of Prussia over Austria as the leading German state. It was the first campaign won by the genius of Von Moltke and the first battle fought with infantry armed with bolt action breech loading rifles. More details here
The battle of Sedan in 1870 marked the defeat of Napoleon III and the end of his Empire, and a decisive moment in the Franco-Prussian War. This war was the first in which both protagonists had breech loading bolt action rifles, rifled artillery and saw the first use of the machine gun on a European Battlefield. More details here
Isandlwana 22 January 1879 and Maiwand 27 July 1880 were two setbacks suffered by the British Empire in the last quarter of the the Nnineteenth century. Isandlwana, was the first battle of the Anglo-Zulu war and resulted in one of the biggest defeats for the British army for a generation. Maiwand was a dramatic episode in the Second Afghan War, a controversial part of Disraeli’s foreign policy. Both of these battles captured the public imagination and have been the subjects of art, literature and film. During this day we will visit the National Army Museum and look at some of their collections and archives relating to these battles. More details here
Details of how to visit these battlefields – to follow.
However, visitors specifically interested in the battlefield of Maiwand and other sites of the Second Afghan War are advised to contact their nearest Army Careers Office for details of their expeditionary packed tours which offer good value but rather inflexible terms and conditions.
The Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) scheme for small community projects for the First World War Centenary announced on 16th May 2013 can be used to support travel to battlefields and memorials outside the UK.
This was not highlighted in the launch announcement nor in the newspaper reports. However, it is clear from the Heritage Lottery Fund’s own website that projects which meet certain criteria will be eligible for for HLF funding. The HLF recognises the value of travel to battlefields and memorials in deepening people’s understanding of the war and its impacts. However, any visit must be linked to activities in the UK, must enhance peoples experience and learning, while not being the main focus of a project. HLF also expects a bidder to demonstrate that the cost of the activity abroad is as reasonable as possible, that there is a genuine need for the funding, and that travel will deliver outcomes in proportion to the funding requested.
Here are the relevant paragraphs from the HLF Q&A page . (Note this page has been replaced and briefing information is now here )
Can our application include costs for travel and activity outside the UK?
Yes, if your project is based in the UK.
We will fund the cost of travel and activity outside the UK (including the cost of bringing people to the UK) if there is a clear rationale for it in the project, it contributes to outcomes for heritage, people and communities in the UK and offers value for money.
What costs can you cover outside the UK?
We can consider any costs that are associated with your project activities – this could include for example, travel, accommodation, insurance, or activities in museums or heritage sites involving people from the UK.
We ask that you explore how you can make the cost of your activity abroad as reasonable as possible. For example, you could send a small group of people to explore the heritage on a research trip who could then come and feed back to the rest of the group, or you could pay to bring people to the UK to share their expertise and insights. In order to fund travel and activities abroad, you will need to demonstrate that there is a genuine need for the funding, and that the additional outcomes achieved are in proportion to the funding requested. Some questions we might ask are:
To what extent does the travel outside the UK enhance people’s understanding and learning, or broaden their perspectives of the war?
Could this level of understanding be achieved in a lower-cost way?
Will the travel and activity abroad enhance the long-term outcomes of the project? For example, will it result in long-term relationships which will result in new understandings of the war and its impacts?
Are you contributing any partnership funding?
Can we get a grant to take a group to visit the former battlefields and cemeteries in Europe?
We recognise the value of visiting a site, and that this can deepen people’s understanding of the war and its impacts. You should show that a visit is linked to activities in the UK, and that it will enhance people’s experience and learning. The visit should not be the main focus of a project.
If the main activity and cost in your project is visit abroad, then the project is unlikely to offer good value for money.
Can HLF provide funding for projects outside the UK?
No. Money raised through the National Lottery can only be invested in projects based in the UK.
This is very welcome news and should enable communities to draw on the battlefields themselves as a resource for the centenary commemorations. The Observation Post has been making the case for this funding ever since the Great War Commemorations were first discussed in 2011 and established the Men Behind the Memorial project to draw attention to the potential of the battlefields to develop our understanding of the War and its context.
Baldwin Battlefield Tours is developing a Centenary Advisory Service to support Community Groups with military historians and other resources to enable them to make the most of the Battlefields as part of their First World War Centenary Projects.
The London based adult education organisation CityLit are running 1 two day “Introduction to Battlefield Guiding” course as part of the 2013 Summer School. The course tutor is Frank Baldwin, owner of the weblog www.theobservationpost.com who put forward the course. It is aimed at anyone who is interested in becoming a battlefield guide.
What sort of people are interested in becoming battlefield guides? Historically battlefield guides have either been veterans, historians or a sub set of professional tour guides who specialised in military destinations. But this is no longer true. There are lots of people inspired by military historians such as Richard Holmes and Dan Snow. Since the 1980s military history has become a popular subject in Britain both with the public and as an academic subject. A lot of people are interested in military history. (About 35% of men and 10% of women if research commissioned in 2006 is to be believed)
Tourism is one of Britains’ largest export industries. We are good at this more and more travel is geared towards heritage and cultural tourism. In a life time of work which we now expect to extend to the full three score and ten this is an activity that allows someone to make money from a hobby. For most guides it is something that can be more than a hobby but less than a career. It fits well with a portfolio career.
We are also likely to need more guides too. There is a lot of potential interest generated by interest in the Great War, in particular from people and groups who will be seeking to know more about what happened to particular soldiers www.menbehindmemorials.com rather than a tour of the edited highlights of the Western Front. Britain’s own battlefield and military heritage is under developed. There hundreds of sites of battles, sieges , skirmishes and military installations with fascinating stories behind them , just waiting for a good story teller to bring them to life.
Heritage tourism is a serious industry and battlefield guides are expected to provide a professional service. Customers expect high standards from all aspects of the service they receive in an industry which is regulated to protect the public. Anyone delivering a service to the public has legal obligations, which could be painful in our litigious world. Anyone seeking to employ a guide needs to know that the guide knows their subject matter, can present information well and knows how to look after the customer, and by implication the interests of an employing tour operator.
Someone wishing to be a professional tour guide in the UK is advised to become a Blue Badge guide via the scheme managed by the Institute of Tour Guiding. This involves two years of study of the culture and heritage of particular regions through organised instruction, followed by examinations which qualify the guide to be listed as a Registered Guide, and costs around £5,000 in tuition and examination fees. While this is excellent preparation for taking visitors around the sights of Britain, it is less useful if the purpose of becoming a guide is to lead tours to the battlefields of the World Wars. It is also overkill for someone who just wants to be able to lead visitors to a local battlefield on behalf of the Battlefields Trust or a local battlefield society.
Ten years ago, in 2003, a group of battlefield guides, under the patronage of Richard Holmes and John Hughes Wilson, set up The Guild of Battlefields Guides (GBG). The aims of the Guild are to analyse, develop and raise the understanding and practice of battlefield guiding, provide an environment to meet fellow guides and share information, expertise and knowledge. Guild members seeking to demonstrate their competence as a guide undertake series of practical and written assignments that form a validation system developed by a team headed by educationalist and military historian Dr Chris Scott. Guides who pass the standard set are awarded a badge that shows that they have demonstrated their competences in military knowledge, presentation skills and customer care to their peers.
The GBG members have chosen not to seek accreditation for the GBG Validation programme by an academic body, in order to minimise the costs to members. The Guild does not provide training in the Guiding competences. It was established to validate the standard of working guides. Guides will be expected to undertake self study or develop their skills and knowledge through their work either as battlefield guides or through related skills derived from military service or academic research.
For people seeking to become a battlefield guide this presents a Catch 22 problem. How is a guide expected to gain experience? – Through work. How does a guide obtain work – though demonstrating their experience. Many prospective guides will already have a lot of the relevant knowledge and competences. However, even with good knowledge of military history, good communication skills and customer services experience, it helps to understand the terminology and the nuances of the trade.
The City Lit Course is intended as an introduction to becoming a battlefield guide. It takes far longer than two days to learn the professional knowledge or develop the practical skills expected of a competent guide. It will give prospective guides an idea of the standards expected and an opportunity to assess their own training needs and prepare a plan to aquire the skills they need, through personal study or by undertaking some further training.
The course does not form part of the Guild of Battlefield Guides Professional Development Programme. Please direct any questions about the course to CityLit via the details on the course programme here
If asked to name some famous aircraft from the Battle of Britain, most people would think of Sptifires, Hurricanes, Messerschmits, Heinkels and Stukas The announcement of the plans to raise Dornier Do 17Z Werke nr. 1160 from the bottom of the English Channel has thrown the spotlight on a duel between a pair of aircraft. This duel touches on the controversy within the RAF about the best way to fight the battle of Britain. It also illustrates the link between the Battle of Britain and the night bombing of Germany. Hidden in the landscape too are the places that tell this story.
The Dornier 17Z being recovered by the RAF Museum is the only example of its type in the world. This aircraft is also a particularly significant part of our battlefield heritage. It is not simply an example of a mediocre military aircraft from the mid 20th Century. This is a German bomber shot down by the RAF on 26th August during the Battle of Britain; a dramatic episode in our history, ranking alongside 1066, 1588 and 1805. This is on a par with say, a suit of armour worn by a French noble at Agincourt or by one of Richard III’s followers at Bosworth. The project needs support from donors and you can donate here https://support.rafmuseum.org/dornier-17-appeal
According to the information sheet written by Andrew Simpson and provided by the RAF Museum,
Dornier Werke nr. 1160 was 7/KG3 (7 Staffel (Squadron), III Gruppe of KG.3 with fuselage codes 5K+AR, which was based at St Trond in Belgium on 26th August 1940. This source says that this aircraft was part of a combined formation of Dorniers from KG2/3 despatched to bomb Debden and Hornchurch airfields. Seven aircraft of the 7 Staffel started to bomb an aerodrome, probably Debden, causing some damage.
Accounts of its loss vary from source to source; The original PoW Interrogation Report states that before reaching the target, when flying above clouds this aircraft seemingly became separated from the rest of the formation and lost its bearings. It was attacked by fighters, probably one of the RAF Hornchurch, Essex based Boulton Paul Defiants of No.264 Squadron RAF led by Flt Lt Banham, from their forward base at RAF Manston, Kent, which hit both engines and the cockpit as one, of between one and six, as again published accounts vary – Dorniers brought down by the Defiants, who lost three of their number to defending Bf109s. At around 13.40 hours the aircraft force landed on Goodwin Sands off the eastern Kentish coast at low tide. Of the four crew, two (Wounded Pilot Feldwebel Willi Effmert, and Bomb Aimer Uffz Hermann Ritzel) became Prisoners-of-War in Canada and two (27-year old Wireless Operator Unteroffizier Helmut Reinhardt and 21-year old Bomb aimer Gefreiter Heinz Huhn) were killed, their bodies being recovered later and buried in Holland and the UK (Cannock Chase German cemetery) respectively.
This air battle has some important consequences for the Battle of Britain,and is part of a
controversy which has continued ever since. 26th August is roughly half way through the Battle of Britain, at the height of the Luftwaffe attacks on the RAF Fighter Command Airfields. On this day the Germans would lure the RAF forwards to fight in an air battle over Kent and then send in a bomber force to try to knock out Fighter Command Airfields at Debden and North Weald and North of the Thames in Essex. These airfields were beyond the range where the bombers could be escorted by the singe seat Me109 fighters.
No 11 Group RAF, under the command of Keith Park was responsible for defending London and the South East and bore the brunt of the Battle of Britain. Their squadrons were directed towards incoming raids using the sophisticated integrated air defence system developed under Hugh Dowding. Their own airfields would be defended by squadrons from the neighbouring No 12 Group under Trafford Leigh-Mallory. On 26th August this did not work. The cloudy conditions of the day helped the Germans to remain hidden from the RAF, and Debden airfield was bombed at 15.20 hrs killing several servicemen and causing damage. This was one of the incidents which triggered the conflict between Keith Park and Leigh Mallory, the respective commanders of No 11 and No 12 Groups, the debate over the “Big Wings”, and the side-lining of both Dowding, the Commander of Fighter Command and Park. This is a controversial episode in the story of the RAF which still makes ripples today, and is a fascinating case study of leadership and management which still offers lessons.
The RAF Museum information sheet leaves some questions about the relationship between Dornier Do 17Z Werke nr. 1160 and the raid on Debden. This aircraft appears to have crash landed two hours before the raid on Debden took place and may have been the result of some other engagement. According to the RAF Official History,(1) there were two major day raids on Monday 26th August 1940, not one raid as is the impression given by the information sheet. The first raids took place between 11.35-13.40 and took the form of a series of air raids on towns and airfields in Kent. The raiders included aircraft from III/KG3, and were intercepted by aircraft from, five squadrons including 264 Squadron. 264 Squadron, equipped with Defiant fighters and No 56 Squadron with Hurricanes sighted a formation of twelve Do17s near Deal before noon. The German bombers were flying at 13,000 ft and protected by thirty to fifty Me109s. The seven Defiants succeeded in getting at the bombers and claimed to have shot down six of them. However, the Me109s harassed them continuously shooting down three Defiants. This is the action which appears to fit the circumstances of the loss of the Dornier of No 7 Staffel of III/KG3 as it took place close to the Godwin Sands, a gliding distance from East Kent. The timings don’t quite fit either, but might make sense if the time of the crash was reported by the Germans using French/German time an hour ahead of the local UK time.
The loss of this Dornier to a Boulton and Paul Defiant has a certain historical irony. The connection between these aircraft is an interesting case study in the development of military technology.
The 1930s was a period of technological change in military aviation. New engine designs and the potential of aluminium stressed skinned air-frames offered the potential to fly much faster than possible with fabric and braced struts and stronger structures than could be destroyed by the twin machine guns of contemporary fighter aircraft. The Dornier 17 was specified in 1932 as a “mail carrying aeroplane” but intended for reconnaissance. The resulting aircraft was faster than most biplane fighters and won an speed award in a 1937 air show in Switzerland, its top speed of 255mph was faster than French or Czech fighters. But by 1940 Do 17Z Werke nr. 1160 was already obsolescent. Fighter design had caught up and the Do 17 was slower than the RAF single seat fighters. Its bomb load was much smaller than the Ju88 and He 111 and new versions of the aircraft had already been commissioned. Although KG3 continued to fly this type of aircraft through the Blitz of 1940-41, from May 1941 the Wing converted to the Ju88. III/KG3 was the last to convert, in the following winter returning from the east front to Guetersloh in Germany.
The Bolton and Paul Defiant is often ignored completely in popular accounts of the Battle of Britain, and when mentioned it is usually as an example of a failed aircraft design. Any internet search of “ten worst aircraft of WW2” will find the Defiant high on the list. Yet the idea behind the aircraft had a lot of merit.
No one knew how aerial warfare might be possible with the 1930-40s generation of aircraft. The aircraft of the Great War flew at the same sorts of speeds achievable by a fast sports car, and needed to close to within 50m to achieve a kill. Twenty years later aircraft could fly two to three times faster, raising questions about whether aerial combat would possible at all. In the 1930s the major threat as perceived by the RAF was of German bombers attacking Britain from Germany. The thinking of the time envisaged aerial bombardment by explosive and chemical weapons which might cause thousands of casualties. This was the era when it was believed that the bomber would always get through. To its credit the British Government and the RAF invested in developing technology to defeat bombers, which paid dividends in 1940. One of the major problems was overcoming the difficulty of deflection shooting with the high speeds of WW2 era aircraft. One solution was to develop a large battery of guns in the wings of a single seat fighter, as adopted with the Hurricane and the Spitfire.
Another solution was for the fighter to fly a parallel course and eliminate the need for deflection shooting. The Boulton and Paul Defiant, like the Hurricane and Spitfire was a monoplane fighter powered by a Rolls Royce Merlin engine. However, the Defiant had a crew of two with a gunner in a Fraser Nash power operated turret to provide a battery of four 303 calibre machine guns which could shoot down a bomber by engaging it from any angle, ideally from some blind spot where the bombers could not engage. The RAF hedged their bets in defensive technology. Alone of all combatants in 1939, it had developed aircraft like the Defiant and the similar Blackburn Roc to use this method of fighting, as well as single seat fighters like the Spitfire and Hurricane.
One of the assumptions made at the time the Defiant was specified was that a German attack would be launched from Germany, outside the range of any single seat fighters. No one predicted that France would fall and the air attack would be from France and within range of single seat fighter escorts, which would find the slow and heavy Defiant easy prey. Although the Defiant could spring a nasty surprise on a German fighter which misidentified it as a Hurricane, the limitations and vulnerability of their aircraft had been identified before the Battle of Britain started. 264 Squadron had taken heavy losses in May over Dunkirk and had been withdrawn to the Midlands beyond the range of German single seat fighters. The fact that this squadron was in the air over Deal on 26th August 1940 shows the limits to which Fighter Command had been stretched.
This air battle on 26th August is one of the few occasions where the Defiants were used against a bomber formation. According to the 264 Squadron records the Squadron shot down seven Do17s for the loss of three Defiants.
The Commonwealth War Grave Commission records show that on that day two sergeants from 264 Squadron died. 26th August was a relatively good day for the Defiants as a total of fourteen men died between 24-28th August 1940, just under half the number of aircrew established for the Squadron, and more than lost by single seat fighter unit in the battle. One of the advantages the RAF had over the Germans in the Battle of Britain was that many RAF aircrew could bail out of a stricken aircraft and return to the fight, while any Germans shot down would be a prisoner of war. The RAF reported 324 single seat fighter lost in August for the loss of 126 of the pilots killed. Just under two thirds of the pilots parachuted to safety. That isn’t the case with the Defiants of 264 Squadron who appear to have lost two aircrew for each aircraft. There are enough first hand accounts of the experiences of “The Few”, to know of the fearful experience of being attacked by a German fighter with only the armoured seat for protection and then bailing out from a crippled and burning machine falling from the sky. How much harder was it for a Defiant gunner, unprotected by armour to survive an attack, or to bail out of a Fraser Nash Turret if the power failed or the mechanism was damaged by cannon splinters? RAF losses for August. I wonder too, whether the presence of a crewman inhibited Defiant pilots from jumping rather than stay with their stricken machine to try to maintain control for as long as possible?
Two days after the action on 26th August, 264 Squadron were withdrawn from No 11 Group to No 12 Group and were tasked with operating as night fighters. The although the Defiant was heavier and less manoeuvrable aircraft to fly than either the Spitfire and had a landing speed over 100mph, it was a stable aircraft which made it more suitable as a night fighter. In Autumn 1940 the RAF had no means of finding the enemy other than the Mk1 eyeball and 264 Sqn struggled in this role through the Blitz. In 1941 they received Mk II Defiants which included a Mk VI Airborne interception radar operated by the pilot This seems less efficient than an arrangement allowing the pilot to concentrate on flying the aircraft and keeping visual look out while a second person on board operated the radar, as in the Beaufighter and Mosquito night-fighters. 264 Sqadron soldiered on with the Defiant until 1942 when the Squadron was converted to the Mosquito, a much better night fighter and the air gunners were posted out and replaced by navigator radar operators.
This isn’t quite the end of the story. In the mean time the Germans had found themselves
considering the defence of the Reich from nocturnal air attacks. An interest sharpened by the raid on Berlin on the night of 25-26th August and whose raiders would be tucking into their breakfast about the same time that 7./KG3 would be waking up to theirs. Night air defence was low on Luftwaffe priorities and the night fighter force used the aircraft they could. Given that the Do 17 was becoming obsolete as a day bomber, the German night fighter force started using the Dornier as the basis for a night fighter. It had a sufficient margin of speed over the RAF’s Hampden,Wellington and Whitley bombers. Replacing the perspex nose with a fairing with a 20mm cannon and three machine guns and, or a gun pack under the nose gave the Do 17 as much fire-power as a day fighter. On 2nd October 1940 a Do17Z of NJG 1 (Night Fighter Wing 1) command by Lt Ludwig Becker made the first successful German radar controlled interception on 2nd October 1940, shooting down a Wellington Bomber. The Germans too were developing airborne radar, and in August 1941 the same Lt Becker using the prototype Lichtenstein BC (FuG 202) airborne interception radar shot down five British bombers. Over the next two and a half years the Do17 and its redeveloped versions the Do 215 and Do217 were one of the mainstays of the German night fighter force, until replaced by better machines, such as the Ju88 R1, a faster machine.
The RAF Museums JU88R-1 W/Nr 360043, served with IV/NJG.3, coded D5 + EV is anachronistically displayed in the Battle of Britain Hall, as it is part of the story of the air offensive on Germany told alongside the RAF Bombers it once stalked in the Bomber Hall. While this aircraft is a version of the Ju88 which flew in the Battle of Britain, it is the sleek fighter version without the bulbous crew crew compartment or the glazed “beetle Eye” nose of the bomber version, and antennae sprout from its nose. This is also a very special aircraft with a provenance which gives the same significance as, say a machine flown on the dams Raid. This is an aeroplane which made an individual difference to the war, and saved many allied lives. The Ju88 R1 is not the bomber version which flew over Britain in 1940. but a night fighter variant with a sleek shallower fuselage and a crew of three rather than four, equipped with a battery of 20mm cannon, an average of ten shells from which would destroy a heavy bomber like a Lancaster or Halifax. Most important this version has a fairing covered in radar aerials of the production version tested by Lt Becker. This particular aircraft was obtained by the RAF when a Luftwaffe night-fighter crew defected to England, on 9th May 1943 bringing with it the secrets of the Lichtenstein SN2 airborne interception radar, enabling the British to develop counter-measures.
The Germans too thought about the problems of deflection shooting at night. British heavy bombers like the Wellington, Sterling Halifax and Lancaster all had a power operated Fraser
Nash rear turret mounting four machine guns, and manned by a gunner whose warning could initiate evasive manoeuvres which could throw off an attacker. Some Germans thought about the idea of oblique fire, approaching a bomber from underneath. Ober Leutentant Schoenert, a 23 kill “experten” from from NJG 1 had a Do 217 modified to include two upward pointing 20mm cannons. With this machine he achieved the first German kill using this technique in May 1943. The technique was widely adopted by the German night fighter force. So the technique which the RAF dropped, was adopted by the Luftwaffe and became a great success under different operational circumstances. Thus the Do17 became the hunter rather than the prey. 264 Sqn’s Air gunners left the squadron in mid 1942. I do not know what happened to them, but it would be an unfortunate irony if the RAF had posted these experienced air gunners as rear gunners in the Bomber squadrons,
There is a lot to see relating to the events of the Battle of Britain and the battle on 26th August. Of course the RAF museum has a lot of the aircraft involved, including the only surviving Bolton and Paul Defiant and at some point in the future, Dornier 17z. Here are some other places associated with the stories in the battle:-This could be the focus for people with an interest in wider aviation heritage.
Bentley Priory Museum (Currently being redeveloped) where the information from different sources was filtered and passed to Groups as plots of raids.
No 11 Group Command Bunker Uxbridge, where the Group Controller made the decision to commit No 264 and 56 Sqns to intercept 7./KG3.
RAF Northolt Restored Sector Control Room, the only No 11 Group Control Room in existance.
The reconstructed Sector Control room at the Imperial War Museum Duxford IMW, is where the No 12 Group aircraft were scrambled to intercept the raiders at Debden – but arrived too late.
The underground control room at Dover Castle, where the AA defences on that day were controlled.
RAF Debden, the target for the raids in the afternoon is a very well preserved Battle of Britain airfield, but is now Carver Barracks and home to No 33 Regiment Royal Engineers.
RAF Manston, the airfield where 264 Sqn used as a forward base on 26th August 1940 is now Kent International Airport, and there an RAF Manston History museum next to the Spitfire and Hurricane museum at Kent International Airport.
RAF Hornchurch, where 264 Squadron were based for their costly week in No 11 Group is now Hornchurch Country park. Most of the administration and technical areas of the airfield are now a housing estate. It was the subject of a Tv archaeology programme in the “Two men in a Trench” series. Some buildings have been preserved, includign the Offciers Mess, now a medical centre. The local pub, the Good Intent, which served airmen from the base has in recent times had a collection of photographs.
St Trond Airfield became a Belgian Airforce Base after the Second World War. It is now Limburg Regional Airport.
Gefreiter Heinz Huhn is buried in Cannock Chase German Military Cemetery alongside about 5,000 other German and Austrian war dead from the World Wars.
The names of the eight of the fourteen men killed flying for No 264 Squadron whose bodies have never been recovered are commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial for the missing, overlooking London. A fitting place to remember and reflect.
Contact Air Power tours if you would like to find out more about visiting the sites associated with this air battle.
Military history, Battlefield heritage and Touring