The summer of 2020 will mark 80 years since the British Royal Air Force (RAF) and Nazi Germany’s Luftwaffe fought the world’s first great air campaign.
The brown-green fighters swept down from altitude, pushing 300mph to attack the serried ranks of gray-green bombers. Within 1,000 feet of the enemy formation, the fighters opened fire, each with eight machine guns. Properly aimed, the effect could be devastating. Throughout the day, the Germans took a beating: 32 bombers destroyed and 18 damaged, plus nearly 30 fighters downed.
But behind the numbers lay blood, fear and suffering. Radio operator Horst Zander’s Dornier 17 was riddled with bullets from British fighters. “The cabin was full of blood. Our pilot was hit. In the intercom, I heard him say feebly, ‘Heinz Laube, you have to take us home.’ The flight mechanic put a dressing on the badly wounded pilot, and our observer with his B-2 pilot’s license took over our shot-up machine. Twenty minutes later, the aircraft was bucking like a horse, but he managed to land us safely.”
It was September 15, 1940, and the Royal Air Force claimed 185 kills. The actual toll was about one-third as much, and RAF Fighter Command lost 26 planes and 10 pilots.
Following the evacuation of the British army from Dunkirk in June, the RAF and the Luftwaffe both began to rebuild with a sense of urgency. Both had lost heavily in the Battle of France, but neither could afford to rest. From early July through October, Germany repeatedly attempted to achieve air superiority over southeastern England, presumably as a prelude to invasion.
Leaders and Heroes
The Battle of Britain was a clash between thoroughly professional air forces. Nearly all the senior commanders on both sides had flown in the Great War. Head of the RAF was Air Chief Marshal Cyril Newall, who soloed in 1911. He oversaw expansion of the RAF from 1937 but allowed his subordinates to conduct the battle.
Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding had worked on wireless telegraphy during WW I, and it was then that he developed his interest in radar technology. He took over Fighter Command in 1936, and his prewar prescience bore hugely upon the outcome.
A New Zealander, Air Vice Marshal Keith Park was a ranking “Bristol fighter ace” in 1917 and 1918. He worked with Dowding before the War and took over No. 11 Group in April 1940. His opposite number in nearby 12 Group was Trafford Leigh-Mallory, a WW I squadron commander. An astute service politician, Leigh-Mallory was considered by some airmen as a manipulator in the halls of power.
Hermann Goering, of course, had commanded the Richthofen wing in WW I. His 1940 subordinates included Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, commander of Luftflotte II in Brussels. The only senior commander who had not flown in WW I, “Smiling Albert” transferred to aviation in 1933. Later, he led ground forces that slowed the Allied advance in Italy.
Field Marshal Hugo Sperrle commanded Luftflotte III in Paris. An observer in WW I, he led the Condor Legion in Spain. Though a Nazi supporter, he opposed Goering’s decision to shift attacks from RAF airfields to London.
In July, Dowding commanded 55 squadrons with 750 Hurricanes and Spitfires plus 150 two-seat Defiants and three-seat Blenheim fighters.
Germany’s air fleets numbered 1,100 Bf 109s, 350 Bf 110s, 1,300 twin-engine bombers, and about 400 Stukas: some 3,150 planes in all. Dowding noted, “Our young men will have to shoot down their young men at four to one just to keep up.”
Some 2,900 RAF pilots (plus air crew) flew in the Battle. They counted nearly 600 from a dozen Commonwealth and foreign nations, including seven Americans. Known for their extreme aggressiveness, 145 Poles comprised the largest non-British contingent. One of them, Witold Urbanowicz, became a leading ace in the Battle.
The main difference between the top British and German aces was experience. Three of the top five German scorers in the Battle had been aces in Spain. Goering’s leading shooter was Oberleutnant Helmut Wick of JG.2, who had scored 13 kills over France. He was credited with 42 during the Battle. He was killed in November 1940.
Few British airmen had significant combat experience, including the top RAF shooter, Pilot Officer Eric Lock, who claimed 23 victories during the Battle. He perished in 1941, a relative unknown compared to Douglas Bader, James “Ginger” Lacey, or Robert Stanford Tuck. So, too, was J.B. Nicholson, who climbed back into his burning Hurricane to finish off a Messerschmitt. He received the only Victoria Cross of the battle but did not survive the War.
Knowing the disparity of experience, some RAF men admitted to an inferiority complex. One RAF tyro said, “With their yellow noses and square wingtips, the 109s looked deadly and professional while I felt very much the amateur.”
Nevertheless, the British “new boys” learned fast. About 880 Fighter Command pilots were credited with victories during the Battle (nearly one in three). Of those, perhaps 120 were credited with five or more victories, including eight aces in a day.
Richard Hillary was a fighter pilot who wrote a classic memoir while recovering from serious burns. In The Last Enemy (Pippin Publishing, 2003), he said, “In a Spitfire, we’re back to war as it ought to be—if you can talk about war as it ought to be. Back to individual combat, to self reliance, total responsibility for one’s own fate. One either kills or is killed, and it’s damned exciting.” After his first victory, he reflected on “the essential rightness of it all.” He writes, “He was dead, and I was alive; it could so easily have been the other way around, and that would somehow have been right, too.”
With pulsing excitement came bone-weary fatigue bordering on numbness with jangled nerves. Spitfire ace Bob Doe recalled “abject tiredness. You sat down and you were asleep.” One pilot slept through a bombing raid with antiaircraft fire.
Despite shortcomings, the RAF possessed the invaluable advantage of a working air defense system. Radar information on altitude and aircraft numbers remained erratic throughout the battle, but with a nominal 120-mile detection range, the defenders could deploy to meet incoming raids. Inland was the Observer Corps, civilians who visually tracked aircraft when radar lost them inland.
Additionally, Great Britain possessed about 1,800 antiaircraft guns, but they were woefully inefficient, requiring over 18,000 rounds per kill. Barrage balloons completed the defenses.
Eagle Day and Beyond
August 15 was “The Greatest Day”of Adlertag, presumably the beginning of the end for the RAF. Three German air fleets launched heavy missions, including Luftflotte V in Norway. The long flight across the North Sea required the 50 Ju 88s to do without fighter escorts. In all, the Luftwaffe lofted about 2,000 sorties, damaging some British fields, but none fatally. Fighter Command put up nearly 1,000 sorties to down 75 Germans, less than half the 182 claimed; 34 Hurricanes and Spitfires were lost, maintaining a two-to-one kill ratio over the invaders.
Three days later, what some analysts call “The Hardest Day” occurred: 70 Germans downed to 43 British. It remained the greatest one-day loss for Fighter Command.
On the night of August 24, some wayward Heinkels accidentally bombed metropolitan London—a decision strictly reserved for Hitler and Goering. When the RAF retaliated against Berlin, Hitler vowed even greater revenge. The result was September 7 attacks on London, easing the pressure on British bases. It was a turning point in the campaign.
September’s attrition continued to plague the Germans, even though they dropped increasing bomb tonnage. The losses were unsustainable, especially since the Luftwaffe’s aircraft availability figures steadily declined. On September 15, the British gleefully announced a bag of 185 Huns, prompting the date to be observed as “Battle of Britain Day.”
Despite growing attrition, the Luftwaffe generated ever-growing sorties, from 4,700 in August to nearly 10,000 in October; however, the tonnage was inadequate to dent British industry or to force a political capitulation.
A third player came late to the contest. Italy’s Regia Aeronautica participated briefly from October 1940. But the Fiat BR.30 bombers with CR.42 biplanes and Fiat G.50 monoplane fighters were a poor match for the RAF. In retrospect, the British determined that the battle ended October 31, and Hitler began looking eastward.
Conservatively estimated, there are more than 500 books in English about the Battle of Britain. At least seven movies have been made on the subject, including the lavish 1969 film featuring much of the Spanish Air Force with postwar Heinkels and “Messerspits.”
However, fewer and fewer British citizens know about the Battle, or even care. Once-honored names such as Dowding, Park and Bader are unknown to a generation attuned to the escapades of U2 or Fergie. In a 2004 study, only one-third of the British population knew that the Battle occurred during WW II—including merely half of those under 35.
Could Germany have Invaded?
Whether Adolf Hitler actually wanted to invade is uncertain, but Germany would have been sorely tested to conduct “D-Day in reverse.” The Wehrmacht lacked both experience and equipment for a major amphibious invasion, as demonstrated by the near-disastrous landings in Norway in April 1940.
Additionally, the Germans possessed almost no purpose-built landing craft. The main vehicle of invasion would have been barges to transport troops. But through 1940, the Wehrmacht lacked the types of landing craft essential to an opposed landing, especially those capable of delivering tanks and trucks.
Assuming the Luftwaffe achieved air superiority over South East England, the rest of the country remained largely immune to air attack. And the Royal Navy’s base at Scapa Flow lay beyond the range of effective bombing. Three or four days steaming from Scapa to the invasion beaches had to remain a major German concern, if not deterring initial landings, then certainly in sustaining sealift. The powerful Royal Navy could have avoided nearly all the German defenses by taking the western route, entering the invasion area from the Atlantic approaches.
Geopolitically, defeating England would have forced a delay in tackling Stalin, and troops used to occupy Britain could not be assigned to Russia the next year. Strategically, however, it would have made sense to seize Britain, shutting the U.S. out of Europe permanently and building a major defense against Stalin’s inevitable move westward.
Radar – the REAL Secret Weapon
Britain’s “secret weapon” in the battle was hard to miss: a line of radar transmitters on 350-foot towers along the southeast coast.
Chain Home radars usually operated at 20 to 30 MHz in the high-frequency band. They provided warning of inbound aircraft from 120 miles or more, while Chain Home Low was a VHF radar better suited to detecting aircraft at closer ranges. Receivers on 220-foot towers took the return echo of the transmitters and yielded a range and bearing, though altitude often was indistinct. Radar operators passed their data to Fighter Command headquarters, which alerted the appropriate group for action by individual stations and squadrons. Luftwaffe attacks on radar stations were mostly ineffective, and Goering halted the raids.
by Barrett Tillman