Monday, 22 August 2011

Messerschmitt Month - October 1940

The Messerschmitt 110 had proved to be something of a disappointment during the Battle of Britain. It had been designed as a long-range fighter to protect bombers on missions beyond the range of the Messerschmitt Bf109. In the event such missions had not proved necessary due to the sudden collapse of France. In any case, the Me110 had been outclassed in combat by the Spitfire and Hurricane. Despite the impressive hitting power of its two cannon and four machine guns, the Me110 was neither fast nor agile enough to match the RAF’s single-seat fighters.

The Me110 was, however, able to fly higher and faster than any bomber and its range was greater than that of the Bf109. Its use in decoy raids during the Battle of Britain had shown that it stood a good chance of out-running British fighters if they were seen in time. Ever since it had been designed, Messerschmitt had had a conversion kit to turn the long-range fighter into a light bomber by the addition of under-wing bombracks. Now the bulk of the Me110s were withdrawn from combat to be converted. By early in October 250 converted fighter-bombers were ready for action.

These fighter-bombers proved to be a real problem for Fighter Command. Used against targets near the coast they could fly in, bomb and get out again before the RAF had time to respond. Used in small groups, or even singly, they could penetrate quite a long way inland by flying at low level to deliver surprise assaults on all manner of targets. Carrying a maximum of 2,000lb of bombs, and considerably less on long raids, the Me110 was never able to inflict serious damage on its targets.

These raids did, however, put a serious strain on Fighter Command’s pilots and aircraft. Patrols had to be flown constantly from dawn until dusk, and other crews kept on standby for hour after hour. The overworked fighter aircraft began to break down with increased frequency, while pilots grew tired and often exhausted. So numerous did these raids become that Fighter Command pilots dubbed October 1940 “Messerschmitt Month”.

The month opened on 5 October at 10am when four waves of Messerschmitt 110 fighter-bombers came over, escorted by Bf109s. These came over Kent, one force reaching London. In the afternoon it was the turn of Sussex and Hampshire to be struck by the new tactic. Combats raged over Chichester and Southampton, with losses to both sides being about equal. The old cat and mouse game of decoy raids and dummy runs was continued by the Luftwaffe to try to catch Fighter Command out, while the British continued to misidentify Bf109s as the elusive wonder fighter, the Heinkel He113.

One Hurricane pilot from Tangmere got a nasty shock on 25 October. Aircraft were reported over Crawley when this pilot was already on patrol, so he was sent off to investigate while the rest of No.145 Squadron got airborne. The pilot got close enough to recognise the intruders as 50 Me110s and reported the fact back by radio. He was ordered to head back toward Tangmere, rendezvous with his squadron en route and then join them in the attack on the fighter-bombers over Crawley.

As he flew southwest, the pilot saw a force of six fighters flying straight and level toward Crawley. Taking these to be a flight of No.145 Squadron, he dropped down and took up position behind them. A few minutes later the formation made a turn to the southeast, heading for Hastings. The pilot was puzzled by the move, but assumed the flight leader had seen something worth investigating. Suddenly the earphones of the hapless pilot burst into life as his squadron comrades dived to attack the Me110s over Crawley. Their excited warnings and reports, so typical of air combat, came flooding through the pilot’s ears. And yet here he was flying serenely over Hastings.

And that was when he realised that he had joined a formation of Messerschmitt Bf109s. In his sudden shock the pilot pulled his aircraft’s nose up. This must have caused one of the German pilots to look at him, for the enemy formation suddenly broke up as the pilots turned around to attack their unwelcome colleague.

The Hurricane pilot opened fire as a 109 flew in front of him and saw pieces fly off the enemy aircraft. Then he barrel rolled left and dived. A Bf109 got on his tail, so he threw his aircraft around the sky until the enemy broke off. The hapless Hurricane pilot saw his rival climbing away to rejoin the now reformed Messerschmitt squadron, one of which was streaming glycol.

Turning for home, the Hurricane pilot was congratulating himself on a narrow escape when six more Bf109s came diving down on him. The British pilot pulled his nose up into a tight climbing turn to face the onslaught and opened fire. One of the Germans pulled up suddenly, usually a sign the pilot was hit, then flipped over and dived steeply. Once past the oncoming force of Germans, the Hurricane pilot himself went into a dive to gain speed as he headed towards the English coast. He saw no more of the enemy before landing back at Tangmere.

Heroes of Fighter Command in Sussex
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Heroes of Finger Command in Kent
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Heroes of Fighter Command in Surrey
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