What was described as the R.A.F.'s finest triumph was won over. Dover Harbour on July 29, when an attack by wave after wave of Junkers and Messerschmitts was blown to pieces without being able to cause damage of the slightest importance to ship or harbour. Here is an impression of the principal incidents in that day of glorious battle.
Dover on a sunny morning in late July. White cliffs crowned by the old castle's massive keep, crescent of houses with a long arm of buildings reaching out into the harbour, quays and breakwaters, and the basins of placid water disturbed by the tireless scurry of many ships, great and small.
First above the town a solitary Nazi plane appeared on a reconnaissance flight. Then shortly afterwards there dived from out of the sun a horde of German warplanes – 30 or more Junkers 87 dive-bombers, protected by some 50 Messerschmitt fighters. In wave after wave the bombers swooped down on the harbour and the flotilla of varied craft, while above them the German fighters endeavoured to form a series of protective layers in the sky.
But the defences were alert, and in a moment they blazed into action. A terrific anti-aircraft barrage was flung aloft; and two of the leading bombers received direct hits. The others came on, however, in their almost vertical dives. Those who watched on shore could see the bombs being released from the racks, could watch them as they fell; spouts of water rose high into the air and the boats in the harbour bobbed up and down like corks. On shore the houses shook with the reverberations of the bursting bombs and the crash of gunfire.
The Germans, we are given to understand, believed that there must be a time-lag between the moment of the bombers assault and the arrival of the defending squadrons of fighters, but even before the dive-bombers had time to pull out of their dives, their escort was being attacked on every side by British Hurricanes and Spitfires. The sky became one vast battlefield in which the planes of friend and foe dived and twisted and somersaulted in the frenzy of battle. Eye-witnesses said the German machines seemed to fall like autumn leaves. One squadron of Spitfires sent four Messerschmitts and a bomber crashing into the sea, and a squad roll of Hurricanes made a score of four Junkers and a fighter. One Spitfire pilot attacked three Junkers in succession; the first fell into the water after his opening burst of fire, the second went down in flames, and the third flew away crippled. In another battle two German machines followed each other in flames into the sea, while the British fighter responsible for their destruction flew along the sea-front just above the roofs on its way back to its base; its fuselage was riddled by bullets, but those who glimpsed it from below said they saw someone waving as if in triumph from the cockpit.
"For a time," said an onlooker, " there was a violent scrap up there. Machines were diving, machine-guns blazing away, and engines roaring as dogfights went on in different parts of the sky. "Then after half an-hour of this fierce fighting the Nazis, despite a pronounced numerical superiority at the outset, had had enough. In those 30 minutes eight of the dive-bombing Junkers had been destroyed and nine of the escorting Messerschmitts-17 out of a possible total of 80 enemy planes engaged, a 2 to 1 per cent loss. Their formations shattered, the survivors flew away across the Channel, closely pursued by the Hurricanes and Spitfires.
Shortly afterwards several more of the Nazi planes which had taken part in the battle came to a sudden end. One raider was shot down over the Channel just as he had dropped three whistling bombs near some small fishing boats. "We were trawling," said the skipper of one of the boats when he arrived safe back in harbour, "then suddenly a big black plane came out of the clouds not more than 500 feet above and dropped three bombs. The bombs exploded some distance away and almost lifted our small boats out of the sea." The boats made for the shore, but as they turned they heard machine-gun firing, and looking up they saw three British fighters tackling the German machine. That Junkers did not get back to Germany.
So closed the fiercest air battle to date that the war has seen. A massed onslaught on one of. Britain's most important naval strongholds had been delivered and had been beaten off with heavy loss to the enemy, while not a single bomb fell on shore and the defenders losses amounted to but one plane down and two damaged.
It all happened in less than an hour. Then the sky was clear again save for the British fighters cavorting in triumph above the coast they had so well defended. And Dover Castle, which from the days the Romans came has lived through so many turbulent centuries, weathered so many storms of war, withstood so many threats of invasion, looked out to sea as the enduring symbol of England's indomitable might.