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As part of the 80th anniversary of The Battle of Britain, London historian Frank Molloy tells the incredible story of the first WWII bombing raid on Greater London, August 15th 1940. In part three, he notes the controversial nature of the attack, and challenges the received view of events.

“Pauke-Pauke” Oberleutnant Habisch’s Bf110D commences his bomb run on Croydon aerodrome. (c) London Borough of Sutton Museum.

Regarding the Croydon Airport attack on August 15th 1940 by the Luftwaffe SKG210 bomber group, most historic accounts seem to dismiss its strategic accomplishment and importance because somehow the group ‘mistook Croydon for Kenley’.

There are various reasons given. One is that as they approached Kenley, the group was suddenly dispersed when it was intercepted by RAF squadrons. Group Commander Rubensdörffer regrouped his forces for another attack. But it is claimed they lost their bearings, and the airfield that (handily) loomed into their view was Croydon. A case of ‘mistaken identity’.

But is it too much of a coincidence that West Malling attack by a formation of Dorniers at roughly the same time is also labelled a case of ‘mistaken identity’? This Dornier group flew in ahead of the SKG210 force on the same north-westerly path. Apparently, they were heading for Biggin Hill, but were forced north-east to West Malling by RAF 32 squadron. The Dorniers must have reasonably expected a ‘welcome party’ at some point, and pinpointed it south of Biggin Hill. On engagement, had the Dorniers turned north-east they would have brought the RAF squadrons right into the path of the incoming SKG210 group. But by turning north-west they drew the ire of Biggin Hill’s 32 squadron, while at the same time making for the legitimate target of West Malling without any sharp detour. Did the diversion mask what was their original target anyway?

There is also the claim that the reason the fighter escort left the bombing party was because it got ‘lost’ over Bexley. Fighter escorts were always ‘inexplicably’ leaving bombing parties. It was one of Goring’s main complaints to his fighter-commanders. Perhaps on that day, as the SKG210 group rose in altitude to begin their bombing run, the escort felt they had done their job.

Another theory is that the SKG210 group was flying into the low setting sun, and again, although their target was Kenley, they were blinded into attacking Croydon.  Even crew members buy into this one. Remembering Rubensdörffer’s comment “Are we over land or sea?” Lieutenant Koch said later he believed there may have been a ‘haze’, and Lieutenant Hinzte mentioned a ‘mist’ at high altitude. Was it all just a smokescreen? Had the Germans conjured up a story of scotch mist for the history books?

Hazy sunshine or not. There is just no way you could mistake Croydon for Kenley from the air in 1940. The pear-shaped Kenley airfield was keenly surrounded by wooded countryside. Croydon aerodrome was nearly twice the size in area and situated in open fields at the edge of a large conurbation in a continuous ring of south London suburbs. Aside from the control tower, hangars and other associated buildings that you would expect at London’s international airport, there was a large open-air swimming pool in the playing fields opposite. And enticingly, a huge industrial plant lay just to the north-west of the airport. It included the Croydon ‘A’ power station (with its soaring wooden cooling towers), Beddington water-treatment works, the gasworks, and hundreds of production plants along Factory Lane and Imperial Way. Snaking through this landscape as a guiding landmark was the four-lane wide A23 bypass, built in 1924.

The pilots of SKG210 didn’t just jump into the cockpit and fly blind over England. They would have spent hours poring over maps and reconnaissance photographs, studying topological models and examining landmarks. Göring revealed that his special crews made intensive studies of targets, planned suitable methods of attack, and examined navigational solutions. In short, they did their homework. It has also been suggested that many of the 210 crew members had been civil pilots who would easily recognise Croydon from when it had been London’s main peacetime airport.

Furthermore, the most direct route for the SKG210 from the Kent coast at Romney to Croydon was a straight line hugging the contours of the High Weald up to Sevenoaks and then slap-bang between RAF Biggin Hill and RAF Kenley. It was too obvious and too risky to fly such a direct route. And they couldn’t bank to the west as they would then have been squeezed between RAF Kenley and RAF Redhill. What they did was skirt around the issue, and attack unexpectedly from the north-east.

Having ‘mistakenly’ hit Croydon, it is hard to believe that they bombed it with such precision. The targeting of the surrounding aviation industry buildings was surely not random, but clearly calculated. And there is no doubt the Luftwaffe were targeting strategic inland sites with precision at this stage. The Vauxhall plant at Luton and Vickers-Armstrong factory in Weybridge are testament to that.

Another claim is that had Rubensdörffer survived, he may have been court-martialled for going against Hitler’s order forbidding the bombing of any London targets. However, strictly speaking, Croydon was not part of London. It was a town in Surrey with a London suburban boundary and did not have any municipal connections to the capital until 1965.

Hitler himself had issued a directive on August 1st, extending Luftwaffe operations to the RAF-related industries, and Croydon Airport would have definitely qualified as a legitimate target. Indeed, a mission by Luftwaffe bomber wing KG54 to attack Croydon was cancelled on the morning of August 13th as the weather was bad. And on the very morning of the 15th, Göring had issued a directive to all Luftwaffe commanders specifically referring to the enemy aircraft industry as an alternative and legitimate target of strategic importance. Finally, if Rubensdörffer was heading for a court-martial, why was he posthumously decorated so honourably?

In my opinion, SKG210 Group Commander Walter Rubensdörffer knew exactly what he was going for on that fateful day in August 1940: Croydon Airport. And he and his staff planned and executed the attack, diversionary tactics and all, with precision.

Of course, there is always the possibility that Rubensdörffer was a maverick pilot ace, breaking the rules in a desperate bid to prove the effectiveness of his beloved dive-bombing squad. And yes, he may have achieved that, but it cost him his life, and the lives of many others.


Read Part 1 here.
Read Part 2 here.


Sources and Further Reading.  

Bergström, Christer. Battle of Britain: An Epic Conflict Revisited
Collier, Richard. Eagle Day-Battle of Britain. Hodder & Staughton 1996
Goss, Chris; Cornwell, Peter; Rauchbach, Bernd. Luftwaffe Fighter-Bombers Over Britain.
Ch2 ‘Birth of the Jabo’; pp35.
Jackson, Robert. Hit & Run: Daring Air Attacks in World War II.
Kaplan. Philip. The Few.
Mason, F. K. Battle Over Britain.
Newton, Denis. A Few of the Few Australian War Memorial 1990.
Vasco, John. Erprobungsgruppe 210: ‘Bombsights Over England’. Schiffer

https://aviation-safety.net/wikibase/177240
https://www.battleofbritain1940.net
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kanalkampf
https://www.volksbund.de/
https://www.warstateandsociety.com (casualty figures).

Image Credit: (c) London Borough of Sutton Museum. “Pauke-Pauke” Oberleutnant Habisch’s Bf110D commences his bomb run on Croydon aerodrome.

 

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