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18th August 1940 - The Hardest Day

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Original Squadron 64 Combat Report
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On this day a low level flight of Dorniers from the Luftwaffe's 9th Staffel and another force of Junkers 88's, combined with a higher level bombing group of more Dorniers to completely fox the defences and deal out severe damage to Kenley airfield. Such was the surprise achieved that the controller at Kenley shouted "Bandits overhead!", causing the leader of 64 Squadron (20,000 feet above the airfield) to search the sky above him for the enemy aircraft. His attention was then attracted to the bomb-bursts on the airfield and 64 dived to the attack.

Events that followed have fuelled the debate over kills and claims made by the RAF and are dealt with in detail in the book "The Hardest Day" by Alfred Price. According to Price the Dornier that Squadron Leader MacDonnell claimed as a kill was actually a Messerschmitt 110. Furthermore the pilot had simply played dead and let his aircraft drop crazily through the sky as MacDonnell pressed home the attack. His desperate measure worked and after spinning down for 6000 feet he was able to pull out and head for home. But in this case the damage sustained from MacDonnell's attack forced the pilot to crash land before crossing the English coast.

But the star of the day's drama for Price was surely a Junkers 88 that was shot out of formation by Pilot Officer Wlasnowolski of 32 Squadron. On its way down (according to Price) it attracted the attentions of a further five British fighters. Wlasnowolski claimed a Dornier as did Peter Brothers, who had recovered from a spin in time to have a pop at the Junkers. Sanders of 615 Squadron reported a Ju 88 destroyed with assistance from another Hurricane.

Pilot Officer O'Meara of 64 Squadron apparently had a broader vision of the scene and admitted joining four other planes in an attack on a Ju 88 which crashed at Biggin Hill. Adrian Laws and Flight Sergeant Gilbert seem to have administered the coup de grace to the unfortunate bomber and added insult to the injury by claiming an He 111.

It has been reckoned by Price that this single German loss was counted at least four and a half times in the British total for the day. Price, however, fails to explain Gilbert's description of the event in the squadron's combat report included at the top of this page. Here Gilbert describes "a number of No.1 and 2 attacks on one of a section of three He 111's." Further detail can be gleaned from the individual combat reports of Gilbert, Laws and O'Meara.

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O'Meara's Personal Combat Report - Click to enlarge

Gilbert's Personal Combat Report - Click to enlarge

Laws' Personal Combat Report - Click to enlarge

O'Meara correctly identifies the Ju 88 under attack by three Hurricanes and one Spitfire. Yet if this is the same bomber, then should not at least two of the attackers be Spitfires, piloted by Gilbert and Laws?

Gilbert is adamant that he began an attack on a section of three Heinkels at 12,000 feet. It is obvious from his description that as he began the attack the bomber was snugly in formation. Yet if Price's account is to be believed it was already a sieve on its way earthwards before Gilbert even set eyes on it.

Laws was assisting the attack and finished off the bomber when Gilbert had run out of ammunition. One has to assume that one or other of them had their eyes on the bomber from the moment they singled it out for attack from the formation to the moment it hit the ground, and remember that both pilots had close-up experience of the He 111 from their engagement on the 12th June.

Whatever the truth behind this incident, the bomber's crew were unable to enjoy their notoriety as they had become a part of the landscape that they had travelled so far to bomb.

Despite his sometimes stern "auditing" of the figures, Price's is an excellent book. It contains a startling series of pictures taken by a correspondent riding in one of the planes involved in the low level attack and, as a whole, is unmatched as a study of a single day of the battle.

Adrian Laws went on from the engagement with the mysterious Heinkel to save an unknown Hurricane pilot by removing a Me 110 from his tail and despatching it earthwards. It was the last time that Laws would kill. He himself had just six weeks left to live.

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Punch Ltd.

The very next day 64 Squadron move back to Leconfield and Ringway to become part of No.13 Group in the Church Fenton sector.

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