The skies over the UK in WW2 air raids and dogfights
The skies over Britain in WW2 during air raids had to be seen to be believed. This page attempts to describe them, but it goes further by using personal recollections from people alive at the time to highlight the emotions felt by ordinary people watching from the ground.
By the webmaster based on personal recollections and contributions from others alive at the time
Sometimes when the houselights were off and I was supposed to be asleep, I would peep through the blackout curtains at the outside world. The searchlights flickered across the sky trying to seek out enemy bombers to shoot down. I just thought that the lights were pretty.
Yet years later when I saw laser lights as part of the Christmas decorations in London's Oxford Street, a shiver of recollection ran down my back. So perhaps I was more scared than I realised at the time, or maybe I had developed a better appreciation of the dreadfulness of war.
The meaning of 'Dogfight'
A feature of the skies in WW2 was what were called dogfights - another of those wartime terms that are probably unfamiliar to most people alive today. The following is a dictionary definition:
Dogfight: A close combat between military aircraft
I knew of them of course but, being so young, I was asleep when most of them happened. Fortunately what follows describes them well and comes from people a few years older than me.
Recollections of dog fights
Daytime dogfights in the Battle of Britain
Little did I appreciate the stress and strain of our Spitfire and Hurricane pilots in the sky above me, locked in deadly combat with their enemies. It would only be when there was a momentary burst of gunfire from one of the planes that my schoolboy friends and I would leap from our bikes and run. Then we did appreciate something of the terrible danger these great RAF heroes were in. The occasional vapour trail left by a plane in the clear blue skies above our heads, the flash of sunlight from some part of one of the many planes, twisting and turning in and away from one another. It was like some macabre aerial ballet. Quite beautiful, but totally deadly.
Where my family lived in Orpington, Kent, we were on the flight path from Germany to London. Biggin Hill Aerodrome was also nearby. So we were very much affected by air raids. I remember being fascinated by the dogfights between the fighter planes in the skies above us. I knew no fear and no appreciation of what our pilots were doing for us. That came later as I grew up.
Explosions and fires light up the sky
During an air raid, particularly the one on Coventry, the night sky glowed orange and red. Down below looked like a giant bubble bath from the shock waves from the bombs and shells exploding.
The barrage balloons were raised high during air raids so as to provide obstacles for the German bombers. Being filled with hydrogen, which is highly flammable, they burst into flames mid-air when hit, which looked very strange, although of course beautiful. Today's firework displays were nothing on this!
When a bomb went through the top of one of the gasometers in the gasworks along Angel Road, Edmonton, the flames shot several hundreds of feet up into the air. The pitch dark of the blackout was no longer, what with these flames, the searchlights and flashes, etc.
As I was born in 1937, I was still quite young during the worst of the air raids. Even so, I remember, one night my father holding me up to the windows during the blackout, and everywhere around, including the clouds, was a red glow where the bombs and aircraft had exploded.
Sometimes my father would 'take me up' - i.e. out of our Anderson shelter - to see what was going on above us. We often used to stand behind the shelter's blast wall, watching all the planes, the 'tracer' bullets, searchlights in the sky and general hubbub. I think that the 'tracer' bullets got their name because they somehow glowed enabling our gunners to see the trajectories and thus trace and refine their aim.
German planes overhead on their way to bomb Coventry
My father took me out into the garden to see great numbers of German planes flying overhead. This was in Great Shelford, near Cambridge and there was speculation that the planes were on their way to bomb Coventry. There must have been hundreds of them, in formation of fours as I seem to remember.
The skies in the Battle of Britain
The Battle of Britain began on 10 July 1940 with a series of co-ordinated German air raids on shipping convoys in the Channel. RAF Fighter Command shot down 14 enemy aircraft and severely damaged 23 more at the start of a pivotal fight for aerial supremacy that lasted more than three months. The 3000 RAF fighter pilots held off the enemy, forcing Hitler to cancel the German invasion of the UK. This prompted Sir Winston Churchill's famous words, "Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few".
I vividly remember passing days in 1940 in my grandmother's back garden, in glorious weather, watching the aeroplanes above, weaving, turning and fighting each other in the sustained air campaign known as the Battle of Britain. I seem to remember that our planes were silver and the enemy's were black, but that may have been childhood fantasy. Anyway, ours won - thank God!