Group 11, Fighter Command, played the most decisive part in the Battle of Britain. Group 11 bore the brunt of the Luftwaffe attacks and as a result suffered the highest number of casualties. Group 11 was commanded by Air Vice-Marshal Sir Keith Park and had its headquarters at Uxbridge. Group 11 covered southeast England, which included the protection of London.
The main sector stations for Group 11 were at Biggin Hill (Kent), Kenley (Surrey), Hornchurch (Essex), North Weald (Essex), Debden (Essex), Northolt (Middlesex), Tangmere (West Sussex).
The main satellite bases were at Croydon, Hawkinge, Gravesend, Manston, Lympne, Rochford, Stapleford Tawney, Martlesham Heath, Castle Camps and Westhampnett.
The main aircraft used by Group 11 pilots were Spitfires and Hurricanes but some squadrons were equipped with Defiants though they played a minimal part in the actual battle but became useful night-fighters.
The Battle of Britain started with Luftwaffe raids on convoys using the English Channel. To give these vital convoys as much protection as was possible, squadrons from Group 11 would fly to Hawkinge, Kent, at first light and would stay at the ready until midday when other squadrons would fly in and relieve those already there. With Hawkinge being so near to the Channel convoys could get almost immediate protection if they were anywhere near to the Dover Straits – a favoured point of attack by the Luftwaffe.
These raids developed into raids on the actual airbases of Fighter Command with Group 11 being specifically targeted. The first attack on Kenley was as early as July 3rd 1940 – seven days before the date put forward by Sir Hugh Dowding, head of Fighter Command, as the start of the Battle of Britain (July 10th). Minimal damage was done. However, a major attack on Kenley occurred on August 18th. Three out of four hangers were destroyed and the base suffered damage throughout. Ten RAF and Army personnel were killed along with some civilians who died when bombs fell on their homes near to Kenley airbase. However, the base was fully operational the next day once Royal Engineer bomb disposal experts had removed numerous unexploded bombs. Kenley was attacked again on September 1st but all the bombs dropped by the Luftwaffe fell outside of the base.
Biggin Hill was officially opened on February 14th 1917 as a Royal Flying Corps Radio Signals Unit. While many Fighter Command bases had grass runways, Biggin Hill had three new hard runways built in June 1940. The Luftwaffe attacked the base on numerous occasions, the first time on August 18th 1940. The biggest attack on Biggin Hill was on August 30th when a great deal of damage was done to the base and 39 RAF personnel were killed and 26 were wounded. The Luftwaffe continued its attack on Biggin Hill over the next two days and by August 1st few of the buildings at the base were left standing. Along with Hornchurch, Biggin Hill was the most attacked Fighter Command base during World War Two.
Hornchurch was a sector station during the battle and opened as a RAF base in 1928 when its first squadron, 111, was commanded by Keith Park, who later commanded 11 Group. Hornchurch in Essex was bombed on twenty occasions during the Battle of Britain. The most damaging raid was on August 31st 1940 when over 60 bombs fell on the base but the runway remained operational throughout and after.
Hawkinge was an advanced satellite base and flights into it started to arrive as early as 05.00 during the months of the Battle of Britain and rarely ended before 20.30 if the weather was normal for the summer. It was not unusual for pilots to land there, re-fuel and re-arm, take off on a sortie and to return to Hawkinge once fuel/armaments were low. Some pilots were known to have done four sorties in a day flying out of Hawkinge. As the air base nearest to occupied France, it would have been expected that the Luftwaffe would have targeted Hawkinge, near to Folkestone. The first attack on Hawkinge was on August 12th and resulted in a great deal of damage being done to the base’s buildings. However, because the runway was grass, repairs were quickly in place and the runway was fully operational the next day – ‘Eagle Day’. Hawkinge was a very busy base on August 13th – the day targeted by Goering as the day Fighter Command would be destroyed. Numerous squadrons used the base to re-fuel and re-arm. Hawkinge was attacked again on September 7th and 15th with RAF personnel and civilians being killed. However, there was little further damage to the buildings at the base.
Manston was an advanced satellite base for Hornchurch. Manston, near Ramsgate, was another base vulnerable to attack. Three miles from the port, Luftwaffe attacks would have taken just minutes to arrive after crossing the coast. If coastal radar stations were down, the base had to rely on the Observer Corps. The first major attack against the base was on August 12th. Further attacks occurred throughout the month. Damage was done to hangers and repair workshops and nine people were killed in total. Manston suffered a major raid on August 24th. The damage to the base was so bad that non-essential personnel were evacuated. However, repairs to the grass runway were quick and it was rarely out of use for any length of time – even if the buildings that should have served it were destroyed. The Luftwaffe never returned to Manston. It is believed that their intelligence had concluded that the damage done to the base was so great that it had ceased to be an effective unit.
Other satellite bases such as Rochford and sector stations such as North Weald were attacked but the most vital ingredient of these bases – the runways – were rarely put out of action for any length of time. This meant that pilots from 11 Group could land, rearm and refuel at any number of bases that served 11 Group. This was an option that the Me-109’s of the Luftwaffe did not have. The lack of time they had supporting bomber forces approaching the Kent/Sussex coast was critical to the failure of the Luftwaffe to defeat Fighter Command.
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- Biggin Hill Fighter Base played a decisive part in the Battle of Britain. Biggin Hill gained the nickname “The Strongest Link”, which was later…
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