THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN - FIVE KEY DATES
BLACK SATURDAY 7th September
After a quiet start to the day, the Luftwaffe launched its first mass attack on London and thus began “the Blitz”.
With the RAF controllers not realising immediately that the capital was the target, many bombers got through and the East End was hit very badly. The oil tanks at Cliffe and Thameshaven, Beckton gasworks and the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich were all bombed. The fire service found itself faced with a number of conflagrations (enormous fires out of control) and crews from a wide area of the country raced to help.
The Luftwaffe suffered too with German radio referring to “heavy sacrifices”. Highly successful were the Poles of No 303 Squadron who dived into a large, heavily escorted, bomber formation, already under attack, and opened fire, “only breaking away when we could see the enemy completely filling the gunsight,” according to one participant'
At this point Fighter Command was desperately short of experienced pilots, with plenty of those who remained nearing exhaustion. Replacements, lacking combat expertise, were vulnerable. Nonetheless, in the days ahead, the Luftwaffe would still find Hurricanes and Spitfires diving to attack.
Extracts from The Battle of Britain Memorial Trust Day by Day Diary
Some historians feel that today – “Black Saturday” in the East End – was the day the Germans lost the Battle of Britain. The pressure was taken off the RAF airfields and a vast attack on London was launched.
To attribute this change of plan solely to a Nazi wish for revenge after Bomber Command had attacked Berlin is simplistic. There were clearly additional reasons, including the flawed German intelligence that led the High Command to believe that the state of Fighter Command was even more parlous than it was. The Germans reasoned that if London were attacked, Dowding would have to throw all his remaining reserves into the fight to save the capital. Pride was a major factor, but it was not the only consideration.
There was fine weather, which caused puzzlement on the British side that things were so quiet. In the Observer Corps operations room at Maidstone, the quiet ended at 4.16pm with a report that “many hundreds” of enemy aircraft were approaching the Kent coast between Deal and North Foreland. The first inkling of great events came to the Sergeant pilots of No 501 Squadron in a cinema in Gravesend, when the manager passed on an urgent message to return to the airfield. Squadron Leader Hogan had previously sent them off to relax.
The Hurricanes and Spitfires fought to defend London, with a major confrontation taking place over the Isle of Sheppey, but that night enormous fires (the worst of them “conflagrations” out of control in fire service terminology) burned north and south of the Thames.
Auxiliary fire fighters had over the previous year sometimes been treated with contempt by the public, with accusations that they were "war dodgers” or taking part in the “Sitzkrieg”.Now these auxiliaries were in the front line, fighting the fires amongst boxes of live ammunition and explosives at the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich, molten tar flowing through the docks, blazing stacks of timber in the Surrey Docks and flaming streams of rum and other products flooding out of warehouses. The superstructures of ships burned and barrels exploded like the bombs that kept on falling.
From as far away as Birmingham fire crews were racing to help.