80 years ago this week, Britain faced the most serious threat of invasion in 900 years of its history. The Luftwaffe for the first time had begun to mount mass daylight raids on London, providing much needed relief to the RAF's Fighter Command, but almost certainly as a prelude to landings on England's south coast.
Perhaps it is easy 80 years later to look back through the lens of academia and assume that Operation Sealion could never have occurred; or at least, would have been doomed to failure. The jury will probably always be out as there were so many variables at play, but what we know for certain is that the fear of invasion was very real, and very justified.
This is the signal as received at Bomber Command HQ on 7th September 1940 confirming 'Invasion Alert No 1'. These words meant that 'attack was regarded as imminent and likely to occur within the next 12 hours'.
For the RAF's commands (and indeed for the Fleet Air Arm), the meaning of this signal was plain. Hitler's Wehrmacht was coming, and before the end of the following day they could expect to be in action against them.
But the regulars were not the only forces available to defend the country. A secret network of auxiliary air attack options was already in place - Plan Banquet.
Banquet was nothing less than a contingency in which everything would be thrown into the fight. A memorandum attached to the plan (which is held these days in the vaults of the National Archives at Kew in London) reveals the ten 'sections' that were being considered for action. Some of these, as we shall see, were truly remarkable in terms of both ingenuity and perhaps desperation.
Banquet 6 Group
No 6 (Bomber) Group comprised aircrew and aircraft who had seen combat in the earliest months of the war, but were now concerned primarily with Operational Training Unit (OTU) duties. This is probably the most unsurprising aspect of the plan; later in the war, Arthur Harris was to use training crews to achieve the numbers needed for his 'thousand bomber raids'. At the time invasion was expected, No 6 Group could offer approximately 440 aircraft - importantly all 'operational types', including Whitleys, Battles, Ansons, Wellingtons, Herefords and Hampdens.
The memorandum interestingly notes that in the case of No 6 Group:
'A proportion of these aircraft will be without
essential operational equipment in the first instance'
One wonders what 'essential operational equipment' might be missing from your bomber on the eve of action. Sadly the file does not contain that detail...
Banquet Training Command
A further 247 'operational types' were to be drawn from the RAF's Training Command. The bulk of this force consisted of some 70 Avro Ansons and 67 Fairey Battles.
The Battle (shown here) had already seen action with the Advanced Air Striking Force during the Battle of France; losses there had sadly been nothing short of a catastrophe. Nevertheless, the Battle
and her crews were to be centre stage
should Plan Banquet be implemented. A sobering thought, given that the Battle would be facing the Bf109 and Bf110 fighters against which it had already proven itself to be so vulnerable.
The rundown of types to be drawn from Training Command also reveals the somewhat varying serviceability of the aircraft that various commands had declared as available to the organisers of Plan Banquet.
For instance, of the 67 Fairey Battles assigned to the plan, only 18 were 'available immediately'. 15 were 'available within 24 hours', 17 lacked 'essential equipment' (again the severity of this status is unclear), and a further 17 were classed as 'Part 4', with no explanation annotated giving their condition.
Banquet 22 Group
A small component of the plan, this 'section' comprised a humble contingent of 15 Bristol Blenheim aircraft that were, as you may by now not be surprised to discover, 'lacking certain equipment'.
The Miles Master had long been planned for use as an 'emergency fighter'. The narrative from the Banquet memorandum reveals that there may have been some issues however with preparing the Master for combat:
'Designs have been completed for fitting six Browning guns into the Master and it has been proposed that aircraft f this type coming off production should have the necessary fittings incorporated. BANQUET MASTER comprises a scheme for making these aeroplanes available to Fighter Command in an emergency in which the provision of normal fighter types fails to meet consumption.'
A tantalising plan. But then the ominous footnote:
'Certain difficulties have arisen which make it impracticable to impliment (sic) this scheme at the moment.'
No detail is given as to the nature of these 'difficulties', but one imagines that installing six Browning machine guns in a wing not originally designed to accommodate them no doubt had its challenges.
This 'section' of Plan Banquet intended to equip Tiger Moth and Miles Magister aircraft from Elementary Flying Training Schools with bomb racks, creating an improvised striking force to augment the units of Bomber Command.
No less than 485 aircraft were encompassed by this part of the plan, of which 120 were Magisters (seen here at right). Some 350 Tiger Moths are included; a huge contingent of the venerable but old biplane! Furthermore, the plan called for 'Flights of the most advanced pupils, led by instructors'...
The author of the memorandum makes some observations about this 'section' of the plan suggesting that several points remained to be worked out:
'Plan Banquet Light has yet to be completed in respect of the following particulars:
(a) Method of manning the aircraft
(b) Method of administering the striking force
(c) War deployment of the force
(d) Method of operational control'
So some minor details were outstanding in 1940, to say the least. Certainly in the event of invasion it is hard to imagine nearly 500 aircraft piloted mostly by EFTS students attacking an amphibious landing force; herein lies my own fascination with the Banquet plan.
The smallest 'section' of the overall plan, this proposal will likely draw a smile from anyone in the Service today. As if Banquet Light was not a bold enough proposal in its plan to use EFTS students, Banquet 'Comm' called for an additional nine Magisters of No 24 Communication Squadron, equipped with bomb racks, and manned by 'staff officers from the Air Ministry'. Desperate times indeed...
Banquet 'C. B.'
In June of 1940, there were some 270
'Hawker Hart variants' languishing at
Aircraft Servicing Units, such as the
'Demon' shown at right, a fighter variant of the Hawker Hart...
And the 'Hind' shown at left, which was in fact intended to replace the Hart.
These ancestors of the Hawker Hurricane represented a pool of obsolete types that could be pressed into combat while the other 'sections' of Plan Banquet were being organised.
Some 10 squadrons were planned in this fashion, manned by 'over 40s', ''A' Licence pilots' and 'volunteer Belgian, Dutch, Czech and French pilots who cannot be immediately absorbed'.
The memorandum notes that 'this scheme has been pressed several times but no decision to put it into effect has yet been taken'.
This 'section' of Plan Banquet is as surprising as it sounds. Behind the air fleets of Masters, Magisters and Hart variants would come the civil transport aircraft, fitted with bomb racks and employed as heavy night bombers. The memorandum somewhat cheerfully observes that:
'Provided the racks are available there should be no difficulty in organising a force of this kind'.
The types of aircraft intended to be used are not identified, but likely would have included the Armstrong Whitworth Ensign (below), which was in use at the time with Imperial Airways.
Use of such a force only at night seems a sensible concession to the reality that these aircraft would have presented nothing more than target practise for any fighter opposition.
Under the auspices of Plan Banquet, but in actual fact a separate arrangement, was the agreement for the Fleet Air Arm to provide aircraft for an improvised striking force. The Admiralty would decide when the situation was grave enough for Operation 'ALERT' to be called, at which time some 163 FAA aircraft could be called upon.
The majority of this force comprised some 59 Blackburn Shark torpedo bombers (shown at right), and included a range of types such as the Fairey Swordfish, of which six '1st line' and six 'reserve' aircraft were available.
The capacity in which the FAA contribution was to be used is not specifically outlined, but given the number of torpedo bomber types in the roster one suspects the intention would be to directly attack the amphibious German forces. Again, a brave proposition in the face of Luftwaffe fighter opponents.
FAA Northern Ireland
The final of the ten 'sections' under Banquet is the second-smallest; 14 Fleet Air Arm aircraft that were identified as available in Northern Ireland to be used as a striking force in the event of invasion.
Plan Banquet was wide-ranging to say the least, encompassing every type of aircraft and pilot from Bristol Blenheim crews with experience of flying bombing sorties over Germany, to civilian airline pilots of four-engined lumbering behemoths who would otherwise be plying the routes to India. The fact that such plans were drawn up and seriously considered is a testament to how seriously the country viewed the very real threat of invasion in 1940. Thanks to the heroism of 'The Few', Plan Banquet was never required, but to know the planned extent of the British 'airborne resistance' is a remarkable and impressive thing indeed.
Hawker Hind: By TSRL - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28684405