One of the biggest obstacles to the preservation of history is that the legend of an event tends to cover over the reality to the extent that for the vast majority the legend becomes the history. This is especially true when referring to passionate subjects that are in the public mind because of an anniversary and a classic example of this is the Battle of Britain. Throughout the summer of 1940 Britain stood on the verge of annihilation by the forces of Nazi Germany which seemed to sweep away all opposition on the continent. As the legend goes the Spitfires and Hurricanes of the RAF threw themselves against the juggernaut of Hitler’s Luftwaffe that sought to destroy them and pave the way for Operation Sealion – the Nazi invasion of Britain.
What this particular legend ignores however are the efforts of organizations such as the Royal Observer Corps who helped identify and track the attacking German formations. It also ignores the efforts of the British Army’s artillery units on land and the Royal Navy destroyers in the English Channel who turned their guns skyward to add to the defence. Perhaps one group’s contribution more than any other seems almost forgotten to history which is remarkable when you consider that they are an airborne force that fought just as hard a battle as the fighters in the sky – RAF Bomber Command.
History’s view on Bomber Command’s contribution to the battle is primarily focused in the retaliatory attacks on Berlin following the bombing of London’s docks by a flight of lost German bombers. The attacks on Berlin by British bombers forced Hitler’s hand and he ordered the Luftwaffe to turn their attention to London and other British cities thus sparing the RAF bases from attack and keeping Fighter Command operational. However this is only part of the story as Bomber Command, already bloodied and weakened from fighting in France and Norway, tried to take the fight to the Luftwaffe’s own bases in occupied Europe. It was a desperate effort to save the country from defeat for the Battle of France had proven just how vulnerable British bombers were to the German fighters such as the superlative Messerschmitt Bf 109E.
The Bristol Blenheim was a classic example of British thinking in bomber design during the years leading up to the Second World War. The Blenheim was conceived in a time when it was believed that bombers could fly higher and faster than any fighters sent up to intercept them. Consequently the Blenheim and its contemporaries like the Handley Page Hampden had quite light defensive armament. When the snub nosed Blenheim Mk.I first flew in 1935 it seemed like this view was justified since with its top speed of 266mph it was 60mph faster than the Heinkel He.51 biplane fighter which was then equipping the Luftwaffe. That lead however would be lost very quickly as by the time the Mk.I actually entered service in 1937 the first Messerschmitt Bf 109s were becoming operational with the first versions being able to fly at 285mph and that speed was due to rise in time. Operating over France in 1940 the Blenheims, now in the long nose Mk.IV form, couldn’t outrun or outfight the German fighters and they suffered accordingly.
With the Germans now amassing their forces for the invasion of Britain the only way that the RAF could hit back was to keep sending the Blenheim out on daylight raids to target the airfields where the Germans were basing their invasion aircraft such as the Junkers Ju 52 transports. One such base that was frequented by the Blenheims of RAF Bomber Command was Aalborg in northern Denmark. Aalborg had been vital to the German Luftwaffe during the invasion of Norway and now its strategic location made it just as vital in the coming invasion of Britain. During the Battle of Britain Aalborg served the dual purpose of housing a number of the Ju 52s to initially support the Luftwaffe’s logistics efforts for its forward bomber force before becoming a staging post of German paratroops when the actual invasion began. Secondly, Aalborg housed up to 50 Junkers Ju 88 medium bombers that were devastating the RAF’s bases. Aalborg therefore was a high priority target for Bomber Command and it was attacked several times leading up to mid-August 1940 albeit with very little success.
Nevertheless another raid was ordered and the date set for it to take place was August 13th 1940 now remembered as “Adlertag” or “Eagle Day” – the Luftwaffe’s all-out offensive to finally crush Fighter Command and allow the invasion to begin. Twelve Blenheim Mk.IVs of No.82 Squadron then under the command of Wing Commander Edward Collis de Virac Lart were selected for the mission. Lart had been in command of No.82 Squadron for a little over two months and was a competent and respected officer having flown with distinction on a similar raid to Leeuwarden in the Netherlands. Despite this however his new posting had been a difficult one for he had been brought in to replace the popular and charismatic Earl of Bandon who held the post previously before being transferred. Bandon left some big shoes to fill in that respect and while Lart was able to do the job the squadron felt the loss of their previous commander even if it wasn’t in action.
On August 13th the squadron’s aircraft were dispersed at RAF Bodney (designated “B” Flight) and RAF Watton (designated “A” Flight) in Norfolk. It was not uncommon for squadrons to disperse their aircraft among nearby bases during the Battle of Britain as this limited the possibility of the entire squadron’s inventory being destroyed in a single raid by the Luftwaffe. As the sun began its ascent in to a largely overcast English summer sky the two airfields began to drone with the sound of 920hp Bristol Mercury radial engines. Many of the crews were inexperienced replacements brought in after the loss of more experienced men over France including Lart’s navigator and this would have tragic consequences later in the flight. Just as the aircraft were about to start taxiing on to their respective runways one aircraft (believed to be flying from Watton) was ordered to cut its engines and its place to be taken by a spare crew who were on stand-by. The reason the aircraft was pulled from the mission was because the pilot had recently received news that he was to become an instructor and with experienced instructors in short supply it was decided not to risk him on another operation.
At 0830hrs the two flights of aircraft took off from their bases and headed out over the North Sea towards Denmark. The aircraft flew in four groups of three Blenheims flying in the then standard “vic” formation at 6,500ft. Each aircraft was armed with four 250lb bombs and eight 25lb splinter bombs that would spread over a large area to destroy or disable parked German aircraft. The flight out was unspectacular despite the intense air activity that was about to hit mainland Britain but the more pressing issue for the crews was that the Blenheim was operating at the very extreme of its range in reaching Aalborg. As the Danish coast neared for one aircraft this was about to prove a problem as the pilot of Blenheim R3915, Sergeant Norman Baron, calculated that his aircraft was burning fuel excessively and that if he continued then he would most likely have to ditch in the North Sea on the way back. He therefore signalled to his squadron mates that he had to return to base and turned his aircraft back to Britain.
Little could Baron know that he would never see any of those aircraft or their crews again.
Keeping their altitude low the aircraft passed over the Danish coast but when Lart’s inexperienced navigator, Pilot Officer Maurice Gillingham, identified their position as being Søndervig he realised that they were 55 miles off course due to strong winds. Operating in radio silence other navigators in the formation had realised the mistake and tried to signal the lead aircraft with their Aldis lamps but somehow the gunner in the upper turret of Lart’s Blenheim failed to spot the signals and therefore Lart and Gillingham remained oblivious to the fact. Lart’s decision to have the inexperienced Gillingham in his aircraft leading the mission was later brought in to question and many in No.82 Squadron believed that Lart chose him over other navigators that were available purely because he was the only one with a commission even though some of the other non-commissioned choices were more experienced.
Nevertheless the formation altered course and continued on to their target unaware that the navigational error had done more than put them off course. They had inadvertently alerted a German observation post at Søndervig who in turn alerted the local Luftwaffe fighter headquarters who began to organize an interception but a last chance to abort the mission presented itself when protective cloud cover began to disperse. Lart had instructions that if the cloud cover went below 50% then he was cleared to abort the mission and return to base; better have the aircraft available to fight another day then risk them unnecessarily. As the formation closed on Aalborg the cloud cover was now falling well below 50% and the increasingly nervous crews waited for Lart to give the order to turn around. That order never came.
It is difficult to understand why Lart never followed the instructions of his superiors. He was known to be an ambitious officer and perhaps he was concerned that if he had made it all the way to Denmark and not dropped a single bomb it might put a stain on his record. It is also possible that still living in the shadow of the Earl of Bandon he wanted to prove himself to his men that he was either the match or even superior to his predecessor. Either way the 33 men in the eleven aircraft with no cloud cover began to feel like their father’s did walking across no-man’s land on the Western Front of World War One; totally exposed to enemy fire.
The Germans were frenziedly hurrying to get fighters in to the air to meet the British. A formation of nine Bf 109s that was returning to Jever airfield from escort duty were refuelled and launched to protect Aalborg. Meanwhile, the British formation blundered in to a flak battery as a result of crossing the Danish coast off target and having to alter their approach. Puffs of red and black smoke filled the skies around the six Blenheims of “A” Flight as they made their way to Aalborg but the Germans failed to bring down any of the British planes which now pressed on to attack their target oblivious to the nine Messerschmitt fighters speeding to their location.
Less than a minute or so later “B” Flight ran the gauntlet of flak. Unfortunately they had not altered their height and so by now the German gunners had corrected their aim. At approximately 1217hrs the first aircraft was hit when Blenheim R1933 took a direct hit in the tail causing the whole rear fuselage to catch fire. The aircraft’s pilot, Pilot Officer D. Parfitt, lost control and the aircraft crashed at Restrup Enge killing Parfitt and his crew. Barely two minutes later and the flak gunners inflicted a second loss on “B” Flight bringing down Blenheim R3800 although this time all three crewmembers managed to escape their doomed aircraft. Between two to three minutes later another two of “B” Flight’s Blenheims were brought down in quick succession; one crew managed to bail out while the other were all lost. The last aircraft of “B” Flight made it all the way through the flak and despite being badly damaged attempted to attack Aalborg before the aircraft succumb to its damage and crashed on the outskirts of the airfield.
Despite “B” Flight’s annihilation, “A” Flight had succeeded in bombing the target and was now running for the coast when the Messerschmitt’s pounced upon them. The Bf 109s cut in to the British formation and Blenheim R3904 was quickly shot down with only its pilot, Pilot Officer B. Newland, escaping by parachute. At the same time two more Blenheims were attacked and shot down with three aircrew bailing out between them while the remaining three were killed. Of the eleven aircraft that crossed the Danish coast there were now only three remaining including the lead aircraft flown by Lart.
The Messerschmitts repeatedly made attack after attack on the aircraft as they flew south away from Aalborg in an attempt to shake off their pursuers. All three aircraft had taken heavy damage before finally Lart’s Blenheim was mortally wounded and crashed killing him, Gillingham and their gunner. At almost the same time another Blenheim went down but short on fuel and ammunition the Messerschmitt fighters had to return to base leaving the last Blenheim, T1889, to turn west back towards the coast. Its pilot, Sergeant J. Oates, could feel that his aircraft had been heavily damaged and had to wrestle with the decision of whether to press on over the North Sea and hope to reach Britain or bail out and be taken prisoner. As the aircraft reached the coast it became obvious that the aircraft would never make it to Blighty and with a heavy heart he turned his aircraft around. In one final twist however his route back across the Danish coast took the Blenheim directly in to the path of more pursuing Bf 109s which swooped down on the stricken aircraft unaware that the crew were surrendering. The aircraft crash landed near the town of Vust and Oates himself was seriously injured and would have probably suffered worse had the Germans and Danish not given him excellent medical care at Fjerritslev Hospital.
Back in Britain the magnitude of the disaster was becoming apparent as the hours ticked by and none of the attacking aircraft were returning. By the late evening it was confirmed that the entire attacking force had been annihilated and in the heated emotion of the tragedy Sergeant Norman Baron, the pilot of the Blenheim that had to turn back before reaching Denmark, came under intense scrutiny with some claiming he was a coward who left his comrades to die. These accusations became so serious that Baron found himself facing a court martial on the charge of being Lacking in Moral Fibre. Investigation showed that his aircraft was mechanically sound and the ground crew speculated that Baron had ran the fuel/air mixture at higher than normal levels which accounted for the very high fuel consumption.
When tempers had relaxed the charges against Baron were dropped on the grounds of his inexperience but the stigma of the accusation still loomed over him. Nevertheless, perhaps spurred on by the experience, Baron went on to have an exemplary combat flying career eventually earning the Distinguished Flying Medal for an attack on a large German merchant vessel in 1941. Less than two weeks after his medal was awarded Baron was killed attacking enemy shipping around Le Touquet. He was just 20 years old.
For the thirteen survivors of the attack on Aalborg all but one were forced to endure nearly four and a half years of captivity. Sergeant William Magarth whose aircraft was shot down by flak on approach to Alborg effected an incredible escape from his PoW camp in November 1941 and for the next five months worked his way to Gibraltar through France and then Spain arriving in March 1941 exhausted but alive and was soon repatriated. From the same aircraft as Magarth, Sergeant Bill Greenwood became endeared by his captive comrades when he fashioned together a makeshift radio from scrap laying around the camp so that they could listen in on the progress of the war.
These are two small positive stories that were born out of the tragedy of the Aalborg attack on August 13th 1940. As is too often the case the sacrifice of those who never came back has been overlooked by events elsewhere in this case in the skies over Britain as “Eagle Day” raged.