Roof over Britain - the official story of the A.A Defences, 1939 - 1942

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PORTSMOUTH FIGHTS BACK 55 September 15th it is possible, perhaps, to detect yet another change in objectives. Instead of attacking categories of things, such as ships, docks or airfields, the enemy tended to attack places, orin the phrase which the Russians have made famous, “inhabited localities,” and to attack them by night instead of by day. These concentrated blitzes led to the coining of anew verb, to coventrate, from the spectacular night blitz on Coventry. All such attacks are very similar in character. When one has been described, all have been described. We hope, therefore, that nobody’s feelings will be hurt if we select as a specimen one of the so far lesser-known of these attacks, and tell the story of Portsmouth. The late winter and early spring of 1940-41 had been fairly quiet. After a big raid on Southampton on December 1st there was a tailing-off in enemy activity. By day the Luftwaffe concentrated on reconnaissance and attacks on shipping. By night his efforts were sporadic. This quiet spell continued throughout January and February, and it was not until the night of March 8th that big-scale air attack flared up. This attack was directed against Portsmouth, and the enem y’s objective was the destruction of certain battleships as they inlay port. Some days before the attack a single scouting ’plane had overcome regularly to keep an eye on the battleships. Then, at 7 p.m. on March 8th, the bombers came. Passing Portsmouth to the east, they flew north to Portsdown Hill, where, using the white gash of a quarry as their turning point, they swooped south to the attack. Six separate raids were made before the enemy gave up. The next night they returned in greater force. Flying in formations of three or four ’planes, they came half an hour later and kept up the attack for four hours. Naval as well as Ack-Ack guns were inaction, and their fire was so fierce—the Solent heavy guns alone put up 1,421 rounds—that the bombers gave up diving and had to content themselves with high-level bombing. They attacked again the next night, for six hours, and received such a pounding from the Solent guns that, although they returned on the following night, the edge had been taken from their determina­tion. Four enemy ’planes were shot down by the guns. The raiders came in from Dieppe at heights varying from 9,000 to 22,000 feet. The night was clear, and the larger bombers could easily be seen silhouetted in the brilliant moonlight. Searchlights had previously been grouped round Portsmouth in pairs in an attempt to put bomb-aimers off their marks by dazzling them. But, although there were four short illuminations, the smoke which was soon rising from many fires hampered this tactic. From 8.47 p.m. fighters
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