12th August 1940 marked the first major raid inland against RAF airfields by the Luftwaffe and Manston was to feel the full force of the offensive. By the end of the day, Manston was left unserviceable. This was in preparation for Adlertag, “Eagle Day” on the 13th August, part of an offensive by the Luftwaffe to wipe out the RAF in a few days.
The Luftwaffe began with attacks first detected at 8:40am on the high towers of the British radar stations by Messerschmitt Bf110s at Dover, Pevensey, Rye and Dunkirk near Canterbury. Dunkirk suffered only minor damage, but the other three were back on the air after just a few hours. Dover also sustained accurate long-range artillery fire from guns located on the coast of France, some 21 miles away.
In late morning, the attack turned to large formations of Stuka dive bombers against several small convoys in the Thames Estuary and attacks on other radar stations and naval bases.
65 Sqn scrambled in their Spitfires from Hornchurch to protect two small convoys passing North Foreland from reports of enemy dive bombers, but not before two ships had been sunk. Hurricanes from 501 Sqn were dispatched from Biggin Hill.
At 12:50 the airfield at Manston was the first to be hit by Bf110 bombers and ME109s. All but one of 65 Sqn’s Spitfires got into the air, hit just as they were taking off on a routine patrol, after returning to Manston at 11:15 to refuel and rearm. Pilot Officer K.G.Hart’s propellor was stopped by an explosion, with Hart injured.
Manston had become a key target, being the most easterly of all the airfields in the south and was, at the time, an all grass airfield, allowing entire squadrons to take off together, allowing them to be in the air and reaching the enemy quicker than if they had to take off in single file on a normal concrete runway.
Flight Officer Jeffrey Quill of 65 Squadron had this to say “We were just formed up on the ground and waiting Sam’s signal to start rolling. I was therefore looking out to my left towards the leading section when I became aware of, rather than actually hearing, a sort of reverberating “crump” behind and to my right. I looked quickly over my right shoulder to see one of the hangar roofs close behind us ascending heavenwards……I caught a glimpse through smoke of what looked like a Bf110 pulling sharply out of a dive and immediately concluded that it was high time for Quill to be airborne”
54 Sqn in Spitfires had taken off safely before the initial attack and witnessed the whole of the attack from the air. Flt Lt Al Deere saw plumes of white smoke spiralling upwards from the airfield, thinking the whole of it was on fire, by it turned out to be chalk dust from the many craters appearing all over the airfield.
No sooner had 54 and 65 squadrons pushed the attackers back over the channel when a formation of Dorniers came in over the Straits of Dover, then headed for Manston. Some historians describe one attack, rather than these two separate ones.
An estimated 150 high explosive bombs hit, destroying two hangers, the workshops where a civilian clerk was killed and damaged two Blenheims. Hawkinge suffered a similar fate and Lympne was also attacked. Air Chief Marshall Hugh Dowding remarked “…gentlemen, I think the battle has begun”.
There were over 100 bomb craters in the runways but they were only out of action for 24 hours before they were deemed useable again. Craters remained on the southern side of the airfield due to proximity of unexploded bombs. Hawkinge was out of action for three days.
The picture is a depiction by Gerald Coulson of 65 squadron taking off as the attack on Manston takes place.