Best Defense

Sept. 15, 1940: Churchill watches as the last of the RAF reserves are committed

After a week of this pounding, Churchill traveled to the headquarters of the 11th Fighter Group, the unit responsible for the defense of the air over London and southeastern England.


Best Defense is on summer hiatus. During this restful spell we offer reruns from the past 12 months. This item originally ran on May 25. 

Tom note: This is an excerpt from my new book, Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom. In this section, Churchill watches from a command bunker as the resources of the Royal Air Force are pushed to the edge by the Luftwaffe’s bombing of London.

If this doesn’t pull you in, please check your pulse.

After a week of this pounding, Churchill traveled to the headquarters of the 11th Fighter Group, the unit responsible for the defense of the air over London and southeastern England.

This was not a random call — he knew from “Ultra” intelligence intercepts that almost all the German bombers based in France were to fly against London that day, and he knew from previous visits that summer that 11th Group’s command post was the best location from which to monitor such a fight. Just two weeks earlier there had been a dogfight in the skies above it.

The day of Churchill’s visit, September 15, would prove to be one of the fiercest days of aerial combat in the entire campaign. He would later recall the day as “the culminating date” of the Battle of Britain.

It was a Sunday morning. At the 11th Group headquarters, located on the western fringe of London, he descended some fifty feet into the bunker containing the group’s operations room and watched Air Vice Marshal Keith Park, commander of the fighter group, pace the room and issue orders, sending squadrons into combat.

A giant display board, the width of the room, covered one wall, keeping track of each of the Fighter Group’s twenty-five squadrons. A series of lights recorded the state of each unit — those on standby, those aloft, those that had sighted the enemy, and finally, at the top, red lights for those “Engaged” — that is, in action.

Light after light turned red. Soon Park had thrown all his assigned aircraft into the fight. This meant that soon all the squadrons would start landing to refuel. That would be a moment of great concern, because of the risk of the aircraft bunched on the ground being hit by German planes, which could cause intolerable losses. Park contacted his commander to request that he be allowed to use the three squadrons still in reserve. Close to two hundred German warplanes were in the air over southeastern England.

Churchill, unable to contain himself any longer, asked Park, “How many more have you got?”

None, Park replied — “I am putting in my last.” Park later wrote that at hearing this, Churchill looked “quite grave.”

He was indeed, because he realized, as he put it later, that “the odds were great; our margins small; the stakes infinite.” For fifty minutes, there were no more British fighters available.

Just four months earlier, Churchill had winced when he heard French leaders use a similar phrase about their lack of a reserve force. Their defeat had come not long after. As the Battle of Britain got under way, he had mused, “What a slender thread the greatest of things can hang by.” Now he was seeing Britain’s thread stretched almost to the breaking point.

But the British, unlike the French, would hold. The Spitfires and Hurricanes had to refuel, but the Germans had to as well — and they had to go much farther to do it. So another wave of raiders did not come, and the British fighters were not caught flat-footed on the ground while refueling.

Yet thousands of German bombs dropped that day, including two that hit Buckingham Palace, likely by mistake. The RAF lost 28 aircraft in the day’s fighting but downed 56 German aircraft, for an impressive kill ratio of two to one.

As Churchill departed the bunker, the “All Clear“ sounded. Churchill went to the prime minister’s official country residence, Chequers, walked straight to his room, and lay down to sleep for about four hours. Such a long nap was so unusual for him that his doctor, Charles Wilson, was notified.

Excerpted from Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom (Penguin Press, 2017), by permission of me.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at @tomricks1
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