Was the Battle of Britain As Close As We’ve Been Brought up to Believe?

Was the Battle of Britain As Close As We’ve Been Brought up to Believe?

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This article is an edited transcript of World War Two: A Forgotten Narrative with James Holland, available on Our Site TV.

Dan sits down with renowned World War Two historian James Holland to discuss the forgotten, yet critically-important logistical and operational history of World War Two.

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Contrary to what we’ve been brought up to believe in the UK, the Battle of Britain wasn’t actually that close – the German Luftwaffe was pretty hopeless. It was very badly led at the highest level, its general staff was in a complete mess and its intelligence was woeful. Really unbelievably bad.

That’s one of the really interesting things about the whole Nazi regime – just how bad its international intelligence was. Secondly, the Nazis just didn’t have enough planes. You can pretty much count on one hand the number of times that 100 bombers went over and hit a specific target in the Battle of Britain.

The number of planes that the Nazis were sending over wasn’t enough because what they were trying to do was to target airfields.

In the summer of 1940, Britain battled for survival against Hitler’s war machine; the result would define the course of the Second World War. It is known simply as The Battle of Britain.

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Britain wasn’t France

Now, before the Battle of Britain started, the Luftwaffe assumed the clash was going to be just like the fight in France where there had been no defence system. There had been radar in France, but it was very, very basic radar that was not coordinated whatsoever. There had been no early warning system in France or anything.

So the Luftwaffe could completely choose as and when it attacked. Its Messerschmitts and Junkers 88s, and its Dorniers and stuff could scream in, fly over an Allied airfield, shoot it up and hit most of the Hurricanes or Marines on the ground.

All the Allies could do in France was sort of take off and hope for the best, hope that they bumped into some Luftwaffe planes.

Thus, the Luftwaffe held all the aces in France.

But it was completely different in Britain because we knew when the Luftwaffe planes were coming and so we could get off the ground get into the air and actually shoot some of them down. And, more importantly, make sure that we weren’t shot up on the ground and destroyed on the ground.

An aircraft spotter with the Royal Observer Corps scans the skies for Nazi aircraft from a rooftop during the Battle of Britain.

So for the Germans, all that was a problem because if the enemy’s aircraft wasn’t on the ground to be destroyed then all they could do was bomb the airfield. But the British airfields were all grass and about 100 acres in size, which is big.

If the Germans were only attacking with 20 Dorniers, the amount of tonnage they could drop in total was about 30 tonnes. And 30 tonnes is nothing.

It would only be enough to make a few pockmarks around the field, which the British could quickly fill in with pre-prepared scalpings and soil and be good to go again within a few hours.

Over the entire course of the Battle of Britain, only one airfield was knocked out for more than 24 hours, and that was Manston. Manston was deliberately kept out of action because it was right on the tip of Kent and not needed, so there was no point in getting it back up and running. So the Luftwaffe was never even close to victory.

He is a German Luftwaffe ace with 81 confirmed victories on the Eastern front. Now a 95-year-old veteran, Hugo Broch will soar into the skies in a Spitfire.

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The failing of British intelligence

British intelligence on the Luftwaffe was pretty good, but the one failing was that they overestimated the strength of the German air force. They thought that German squadrons were based on British squadrons, which had 12 planes in the air but double that on the ground – so 22 to 24 total pilots and 20 to 22 total planes for every 12 planes in the air.

When the British were down to 75 per cent strength at the end of August 1940 and the first week of September, they were worried and thinking, “God, you know, we’re 75 per cent strength, that’s not enough. We can’t sustain that”. But that capacity still meant that each British squadron had around 16 to 18 pilots and aircraft, though the number of pilots was more of a problem than the number of aircraft.

By contrast, German squadrons only had 12 planes at full capacity – though very often operated with nine. And by the first week of September, quite a lot of the squadrons had only four or three or even no planes on a particular day.

The German problem was a shortage of planes because they weren’t producing as many as the British were.

In reality, the German situation was much worse than our intelligence thought it was. But that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you’re on the defensive, it’s quite good to overestimate your enemy’s strength.

The “henpecking” tactic

Quite often, German planes would come over to Britain for a raid and, while initially a squadron of 12 British planes might be attacking a formation of 100 Luftwaffe aircraft, over the course of the entire raid, the total British fighters attacking would number more than the German planes.

The classic example of that is 15 September 1940, which is known as Battle of Britain Day.

Two major raids took place on that day, with the first one peaking at around midday over London when about 75 to 80 enemy aircraft were met by about 275 British Spitfires and Hurricanes. So the ratio was massively in favour of the British Royal Air Force.

But, again, at the point of impact, a 20-year-old British pilot might have been one of only 12 attacking a German formation of 80-plus and he wouldn’t have necessarily realised that there was another wave of British planes flying out after him, tag-teaming almost.

Because our airfields were dispersed all around southern England, British aircraft weren’t all going to take off at the same time and form one big wing.

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Instead, a squadron of 12 from Biggin Hill, say, would be sent up and would attack the German formation as they saw it coming in. But then another British squadron would also attack, and then another.

So the British would henpeck a German formation all the way as it came out, and the point would be to try and put the German planes off their aim and get them to get rid of their bombs early rather than drop them on London or whatever the target might be.

X Company

Could it really be possible that, all these decades later, after so many countless books, films, textbooks and TV documentaries, we’ve got the final days of World War Two all wrong? That the truth about the fall of Japan has been obscured by the smoke and fire and fallout of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Some historians certainly think so. And it is their contention that the consensus on the end of World War Two completely ignores what really happened in 1945.

The Battle of Trafalgar

The British people were anxious for peace, anxious to believe that a durable peace was possible. It accepted the Treaty of Amiens with satisfaction, willing to surrender very much for the sake of a general pacification. But Grenville and others of Pitt's former colleagues looked askance, mistrusting the First Consul, who, they believed, would merely make use of the peace in order to strengthen his own position and that of France, and then turn upon Great Britain.

The omens which had even preceded the ratification of the treaty were verified by the further consolidation of the French ascendency in the lately created republics out­side the French frontiers, and in the First Consul's assumption of authority in dealing with the minor German states.

The French ascendency was used to enforce the exclusion of British goods from the ports of the depen­dents of France. French agents for com­mercial purposes visited Ireland and made themselves familiar with British ports the commercial character of the agents was more than dubious. An official "commercial" report regarding Egypt was much more concerned with the facilities for reconquest than with its ostensible subject.

Protest on the part of Great Britain as to the actions of the Republic on the Continent were in effect met by saying that they were none of England's business and by angry complaints that the French Emigres were allowed scandalously to traduce the First Consul in the British Press, and that the British were abstaining from their obligation under the Treaty of Amiens to evacuate Malta. There was some technical warrant for Napoleon's attitude, but it was no less evident that he was violating the understandings upon which the treaty had been made.

In plain terms it was soon impossible to doubt that Napoleon was determined to rule Britain out of all voice in European affairs, to ruin her commerce by a policy of exclusion, and to enforce her submission by war if she refused it on any other terms. The price was more than she chose to pay. Reluctantly but with grim resolution the country made up its mind to a combat d'outrance, in which, it very soon felt itself to be fighting not only for its own existence but for the liberties of Europe dominated by the will of a military despot.

Fourteen months after the Treaty of Amiens war was once more declared between France and the British Empire, a war in which there was no longer any pretence that France was the champion of liberty, equality, and fraternity it was a war for the destruction of the British Empire, and its vindictive character was signalised at the outset by the First Consul's decree for the immediate arrest and detention as prisoners of war of all British subjects then travelling in France.

Now there was only one possible method by which Great Britain, single-handed, could strike at France, and that was by crippling her marine and destroying her seaborne commerce. The invasion of France by a British army was unthinkable.

There were two methods by which France with or without allies could seek to strike at Britain, invasion and the destruction of her commerce by its exclusion from Europe. For two years and a half both plans were in operation, until invasion was made once for all impossible by Nelson's last victory of Trafalgar, which therefore terminates the first phase of the war.

Napoleon's mistake
But Napoleon had not yet learnt, nor did he ever learn, the inherent futility of attempting to annihilate British commerce without destroying the British naval supremacy because that supremacy gave her in effect a complete monopoly of the seaborne trade of the world. Europe could not do without goods which could only be brought to her by British ships. Even if European governments were willing, European ports could not be closed so as to block the entry of commodities which Europe could not and would not do without.

The fact had been illustrated during the nine years of the first war, when, as in the Seven Years' War, British commerce had persistently expanded. It was to be proved by demonstration in the second war, when British commerce continued to expand and Europe continued to be flooded with British goods, even after there was scarcely a port on the whole European seaboard which was not theoretically closed to British merchandise.

The build-up
During the first phase of the war then, while the French control of ports outside the French dominion was limited, it was palpable that British commerce could at the worst be only hampered. The British fleets swept the seas with none to say them nay and they continued to assert the right of search and the inclusive doctrines as to contraband of war which had been protested against by the Armed Neutrality in 1780 and in 1801 as destructive of the legitimate trade of neutrals. Napoleon's grand object during this time was to effect an invasion of England, and for two years and a half that black shadow hung over the country.

Across the Channel troops were collected, and flotillas were gathered, to be in readiness to embark the troops at a moment's notice and hurl them upon the English shore. The project did not alarm the British Admiralty, which was satisfied that their own dispositions made invasion impossible. The mastery of the sea was secure.

Even if the incredible should occur and for a few days there should be no force in the Channel to repel invasion, so that the French flotillas might succeed in effecting a crossing unmolested, their communications would at once be cut and the invading force would soon find itself helpless.

Napoleon seems to have believed in the possibility of making the army of invasion live upon the invaded country. But England would not have been easily conquered at a blow for besides the regular troops who were within the four seas and the partly trained militia, vast numbers of the civil population were under arms drilling and training as volunteers, while it does not appear that Napoleon ever had more than a hundred thousand men, if so many, ready for embarkation.

So while there was no little popular alarm, and the coming of "Boney" was awaited with nervous anticipation, the Admiralty were under no appre­hensions. The fleet in home waters was a more than sufficient guard.

Napoleon's plan
It was Napoleon's dream that the rest of the British fleet might be enticed away, and that in its absence French fleets might be so combined as to secure the mastery of the Channel at least for a time but the dream was chimerical, as the event demonstrated. For two years French and British lay facing each other on the Channel watching and waiting before any further attempt could be made to carry out Napoleon's plan, and then it broke down utterly and ruinously.

Within a few months after the declaration of war, an abortive insurrection in Ireland stirred up by the enthusiast, Robert Emmet, was easily suppressed. But the Addington ministry was tottering, and Pitt's resumption of the leadership was imperatively called for. It was his own wish to emphasise the national character of the struggle by forming not a party but a national ministry, which should include both Fox, who had persistently opposed the first war, and Grenville, who had opposed the peace. Fox, although the king flatly refused to admit him to the ministry, urged his own followers to support the Government.

Grenville himself refused to take office, and after all the strength of Pitt's Cabinet lay entirely in Pitt himself. But if his leadership inspired the country with confidence it was nevertheless not to him but to the admirable strategical arrangements for which the chief credit at the finish was due to Lord Barham at the Admiralty, that Great Britain owed her security.

The French ports were blockaded not in the sense that an attempt was made to keep them sealed up, but in the sense that it was hardly possible for any squadron to put to sea without being detected and overpowered and at the same time there were complete arrangements for a concentration of forces in case any accident should render such a step necessary. Nelson was in charge in the Mediterranean, Admiral Cornwallis, the brother of the Marquess kept watch over Brest and it was unlikely that a fleet would get out from either Brest or Toulon without being forced to one of the decisive actions which were the constant desire of British admirals.

Napoleon becomes Emperor
Pitt, however, was not satisfied with watching and waiting. As before he bent his efforts to the formation of a new coalition. Almost at the moment of Pitt's return to office, Europe was standing aghast at the murder of the Duc d'Enghien, the representative of the junior branch of the Bourbons, who had been trapped on German soil, carried over the French frontier, and shot after a mock trial by a military commission. Two months after the murder Napoleon was proclaimed Emperor, and the French Republic was at an end, as it had been in fact if not in name ever since Napoleon became First Consul.

The crime excited the deep indignation of the Russian Tsar while the proclamation of the new Empire was alarming to the head of the historic Holy Roman Empire. The Powers began to arm, though Russia was the only one of them which as yet was thoroughly determined upon war. Napoleon's ambitions were emphasised when the North Italian Republic invited him to become its king and he accepted the invitation. The dependent republics were forced to re­organise themselves at his dictation.

But it was not till April of 1805 that Russia and Great Britain formed a definite league to which Austria was immediately added while Prussia, which hoped to get Hanover from Napoleon (who had taken possession of it) as a reward of neutrality, still held aloof. On the other hand, Napoleon forced upon Spain a new treaty which placed her fleet at his disposal. To all appearance he paid little attention to the new coalition, but was engaged upon preparing the stroke which was to clear the way for the invasion of England.

Early engagements
The plan was that Admiral Villeneuve should sail from Toulon, pick up Spanish reinforcements, decoy Nelson away to the West Indies and leave him there, and then return to co-operate with the Brest fleet in crushing Cornwallis and clearing the Channel. Villeneuve succeeded in carrying out a part of his programme. He slipped out of Toulon, evaded Nelson, attached a Spanish squadron at Cadiz, and made/ for the West Indies.

Nelson, after starting on a false scent, went in pursuit, leaving Collingwood behind to keep ward over Cadiz. The quarry escaped him, but a swift brig carried warning to England the Channel fleet was concentrated at the west of the Channel, and Calder was detached from Ferrol with thirteen ships of the line to deal with Villeneuve, who had twenty.

Nelson, mean­while, was on his way back to join Collingwood's squadron at Cadiz. Calder found Villeneuve off Cape Finisterre and engaged him. The battle itself was not of a decisive character, but was decisive in its effects, since Villeneuve ran for Corunna, and Calder returned to the main fleet, to be court-martialled for having been contented with the capture of two ships.

By this time Nelson had already joined Collingwood and Napoleon's great naval coup was completely brought to nought. Nelson himself returned home for a few weeks, while Villeneuve gave up all idea of raising the blockade of Brest, and turned his attentions towards Cadiz. Calder's action was fought on July 22nd. On August 15th, Villeneuve sailed from Corunna for Cadiz, and on September 29th Nelson rejoined Collingwood.

The Battle
Stirred by bitter taunts flung at him by the Emperor, Villeneuve put to sea with thirty-three ships of the line, French and Spanish, and five frigates. Nelson, with twenty-seven ships, caught him on October 21st off Trafalgar between Cadiz and Gibraltar. Kelson was to windward, with a north-west wind to carry him down on the enemy's line, which was heading from south to north.

As at the Nile, he resolved to use his opportunity to annihilate the Franco-Spanish fleet in spite of its superior numbers. The method of the attack was unusual but decisive. Nelson's fleet bore down in two parallel lines, headed by Nelson himself and by Collingwood, almost at right angles to the French line, which was pierced at two points.

The van was cut off and kept out of action, while the centre and rear were shattered by Nelson and Collingwood, every ship being taken or destroyed. Even the van could not escape completely, since four of them were taken besides the eighteen prizes secured in the main action. The victory was absolutely overwhelming. The British supremacy had never in fact been seriously endangered for a moment since the battle of Camperdown the work had been completed by Nelson in the bay of Aboukir.

Trafalgar made an end of all serious resistance to the British monopoly of the seas. It was the last real naval action of the war, because after it there was no navy to fight. Nevertheless the victory was dearly bought at the price of the death of him who by universal assent is accounted the greatest sea-captain that the world has known. Nelson's career of glory had reached its glorious close.

The triumph of Trafalgar dispersed once for all that shadow of invasion which had hung over England. But Napoleon, the world at large, even perhaps Britain herself, were made blind to its decisiveness by the crushing of the European coalition at Austerlitz. When Villeneuve sailed from Corunna for Cadiz instead of for Brest, the Emperor of the French saw that his dream of an invasion of England had melted into air.

With characteristic promptitude he turned upon the foes who were slowly gathering against him in the east. The Austrians had massed an advance army at Ulm. The Russian armies were still far away. The German principalities which lay between the French frontier and Ulm were already virtually under Napoleon's heel. He poured his armies through their territories, swooped upon Ulm, and compelled the whole Austrian force there to capitulate on the day before Trafalgar was fought.

The way lay open to Vienna, which was soon occupied but the Russians were now advancing, and the rest of the Austrian army, which had fallen back, moved to join them. On December 2nd, at Austerlitz, Napoleon won what was perhaps the most brilliant of all his victories over the combination of Russians and Austrians.

The Russians retreated the Austrian resistance was annihilated. Prussia, which had just resolved to join the coalition, returned to its attitude of neutrality, and Napoleon's triumph on the Continent was complete. "Roll up that map of Europe," said Pitt" it will not be wanted again for ten years."

Pitt's death
His own end was very near. On January 23, 1806, three months and two days after Trafalgar, the great English statesman, whose last years had been devoted to the struggle with France, followed to the grave the great English sailor who had struck for Britain the decisive blow in the struggle.

A History of Britain

This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's views may be controversial by modern standards, particularly his attitudes towards other cultures and races, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.

8 Things You Need To Know About The Battle Of Britain

The Battle of Britain was a major air campaign fought over southern England in the summer and autumn of 1940. After the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk and the Fall of France, Germany planned to gain air superiority in preparation for an invasion of Great Britain. The pilots of RAF Fighter Command, flying iconic aircraft including the Hurricane and Spitfire, were supported by a vast network of ground crew during the battle. Ultimately, the Luftwaffe was defeated by Fighter Command, forcing Adolf Hitler to abandon his invasion plans.

Here are 8 things you need to know about one of Britain’s most important victories of the Second World War.

Adolf Hitler had expected the British to seek a peace settlement after Germany’s defeat of France in June 1940, but Britain was determined to fight on.

Hitler explored military options that would bring the war to a quick end and ordered his armed forces to prepare for an invasion of Britain – codenamed Operation ‘Sealion’. But for the invasion to have any chance of success, the Germans needed to first secure control of the skies over southern England and remove the threat posed by the Royal Air Force (RAF). A sustained air assault on Britain would achieve the decisive victory needed to make ‘Sealion’ a possibility – or so the Germans thought.

The Battle of Britain was ultimately a test of strength between the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) and the RAF.

The RAF had become an independent branch of the British armed forces in 1918. Although it developed slowly in the years following the First World War, it went through a period of rapid expansion in the latter half of the 1930s – largely in response to the growing threat from Nazi Germany. In July 1936, RAF Fighter Command was established under the leadership of Air Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding.

Germany had been banned from having an air force after the First World War, but the Luftwaffe was re-established by the Nazi government and by 1940 it was the largest and most formidable air force in the world. It had suffered heavy losses in the Battle of France, but by August the three air fleets (Luftflotten) that would carry out the assault on Britain were at full readiness. The RAF met this challenge with some of the best fighter aircraft in the world – the Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire.

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The British developed an air defence network that would give them a critical advantage in the Battle of Britain. The Dowding System – named for Fighter Command’s Commander-in-Chief Sir Hugh Dowding – brought together technology such as radar, ground defences and fighter aircraft into a unified system of defence.

The RAF organised the defence of Britain into four geographical areas, called ‘Groups’, which were further divided into sectors. The main fighter airfield in each sector – the ‘Sector Station’ – was equipped with an operations room from which the fighters were directed into combat.

Radar gave early warning of Luftwaffe raids, which were also tracked by the Observer Corps. Information on incoming raids was passed to the Filter Room at Fighter Command Headquarters at Bentley Priory. Once the direction of the raid was clearly established, the information was sent to the relevant Group’s headquarters. From there it was sent to the Sector Stations, which would ‘scramble’ fighters into action. The Sector Stations received updated information as it became available and further directed airborne fighters by radio. The operations rooms also directed other elements of the defence network, including anti-aircraft guns, searchlights and barrage balloons.

The Dowding System could process huge amounts of information in a short period of time. It allowed Fighter Command to manage its valuable – and relatively limited – resources, making sure they were not wasted.

The Battle of Britain took place between July and October 1940. The Germans began by attacking coastal targets and British shipping operating in the English Channel.

They launched their main offensive on 13 August. Attacks moved inland, concentrating on airfields and communications centres. Fighter Command offered stiff resistance, despite coming under enormous pressure. During the last week of August and the first week of September, in what would be the critical phase of the battle, the Germans intensified their efforts to destroy Fighter Command. Airfields, particularly those in the south-east, were significantly damaged but most remained operational. On 31 August, Fighter Command suffered its worst day of the entire battle. But the Luftwaffe was overestimating the damage it was inflicting and wrongly came to the conclusion that the RAF was on its last legs. Fighter Command was bruised but not broken.

On 7 September, the Germans shifted the weight of their attacks away from RAF targets and onto London. This would be an error of critical importance. The raids had devastating effects on London’s residents, but they also gave Britain’s defences time to recover. On 15 September Fighter Command repelled another massive Luftwaffe assault, inflicting severe losses that were becoming increasingly unsustainable for the Germans. Although fighting would continue for several more weeks, it had become clear that the Luftwaffe had failed to secure the air superiority needed for invasion. Hitler indefinitely postponed Operation ‘Sealion’.

Nearly 3,000 men of the RAF took part in the Battle of Britain – those who Winston Churchill called ‘The Few’. While most of the pilots were British, Fighter Command was an international force. Men came from all over the Commonwealth and occupied Europe – from New Zealand, Australia, Canada, South Africa, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Belgium, France, Poland and Czechoslovakia. There were even some pilots from the neutral United States and Ireland.

Two of the four Group Commanders, 11 Group’s Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park and 10 Group’s Air Vice-Marshal Sir Quintin Brand, came from New Zealand and South Africa respectively. The War Cabinet created two Polish fighter squadrons, Nos. 302 and 303, in the summer of 1940. These were followed by other national units, including two Czech fighter squadrons.

Many of the RAF’s aces were men from the Commonwealth and the highest scoring pilot of the Battle was Josef Frantisek, a Czech pilot flying with No. 303 (Polish) Fighter Squadron. No. 303 entered battle on 31 August, at the peak of the Battle of Britain, but quickly became Fighter Command’s highest claiming squadron with 126 kills.

Many people in addition to Churchill’s ‘Few’ worked to defend Britain. Ground crew – including riggers, fitters, armourers, and repair and maintenance engineers – looked after the aircraft. Factory workers helped keep aircraft production up. The Observer Corps tracked incoming raids – its tens of thousands of volunteers ensured that the 1,000 observation posts were continuously manned. Anti-aircraft gunners, searchlight operators and barrage balloon crews all played vital roles in Britain’s defence. Members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) served as radar operators and worked as plotters, tracking raids in the group and sector operations rooms. The Local Defence Volunteers (later the Home Guard) had been set up in May 1940 as a ‘last line of defence’ against German invasion. By July, nearly 1.5 million men had enrolled.

The RAF was organised into different ‘Commands’ based on function or role, including Fighter, Bomber and Coastal Commands. While victory in the Battle of Britain was decisively gained by Fighter Command, defence was carried out by the whole of the Royal Air Force. Britain’s most senior military personnel understood the importance of the bomber in air defence. They wrote on 25 May: ‘We cannot resist invasion by fighter aircraft alone. An air striking force is necessary not only to meet the sea-borne expedition, but also to bring direct pressure to bear upon Germany by attacking objectives in that country’.

In other words, RAF Bomber Command would attack German industry, carry out raids on ports where Germany was assembling its invasion fleet, and reduce the threat posed by the Luftwaffe by targeting airfields and aircraft production. RAF Coastal Command also had an important role. It carried out anti-invasion patrols, provided vital intelligence on German positions along the European coast and occasionally bombed German shipping and industrial targets.

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During the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe was dealt an almost lethal blow from which it never fully recovered.

Although Fighter Command suffered heavy losses and was often outnumbered during actual engagements, the British outproduced the Germans and maintained a level of aircraft production that helped them withstand their losses. The Luftwaffe, with its lack of heavy bombers and failure to fully identify critically important targets, never inflicted strategically significant damage. It suffered from constant supply problems, largely as a result of underachievement in aircraft production. Germany’s failure to defeat the RAF and secure control of the skies over southern England made invasion all but impossible. British victory in the Battle of Britain was decisive, but ultimately defensive in nature – in avoiding defeat, Britain secured one of its most significant victories of the Second World War. It was able to stay in the war and lived to fight another day.

So why was the Battle of Britain important? Victory in the Battle of Britain did not win the war, but it made winning a possibility in the longer term. Four years later, the Allies would launch their invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe – Operation ‘Overlord’ – from British shores, which would prove decisive in ultimately bringing the war against Germany to an end.

Geoffrey of Monmouth: the lost voice of ancient Britain

For centuries, Geoffrey of Monmouth's medieval history of the British Isles has been cast as a work of pure make-believe. Yet, says Miles Russell, look beyond the tales of wizards and giants and what you have is a priceless insight into what life was really like for the inhabitants of Celtic Britain

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Published: July 22, 2020 at 10:16 am

“Favourable winds brought the Trojan Brutus to the promised isle, which at that time was called Albion. It had no inhabitants save for a few giants. This pleasant land led Brutus and his companions to settle there and, after driving off to mountain caves any giants they encountered, they divided it up and portioned it out. Brutus named the island Britain after himself and called his followers Britons” – So the 12th-century writer Geoffrey of Monmouth described how Britain first came to be discovered, named and settled. Compiled in around 1136, Geoffrey’s Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) is an epic, which chronicles the rulers of Britain from earliest times until the seventh century AD. Containing characters such as Cole (the merry old soul), Lear and Cymbeline (both later immortalised by Shakespeare), as well as Arthur, Merlin and Mordred, the Historia was a medieval bestseller, and its influence upon European culture cannot be overstated.

Who was Geoffrey of Monmouth?

We know next to nothing about Geoffrey but it would appear that he was either born or spent a significant amount of time in Monmouthshire, at the borderlands between what is now England and Wales, in the early years of the 12th century. He was certainly familiar with the geography of the area – the Roman fortress town of Caerleon, near Monmouth, appears many times in the Historia Regum Britanniae.

Geoffrey spent most of his working life in Oxford, his name appearing on a number of charters there between 1129 and 1151, where he is referred to as magister or teacher. Geoffrey apparently conceived the Historia at the request of Walter, archdeacon of Oxford, in order to provide the British with their own heroic mythology: a national epic to rival any produced by the Saxons or Normans.

It is thanks to his Historia that Geoffrey is widely remembered as the man who, more than any other, created and popularised the myth of King Arthur. The Historia features, for the first time, the whole life of Arthur, from his conception at Tintagel in Cornwall, his battles across Britain and Europe with his sword Caliburn (Excalibur), his love for Ganhumara (Guinevere), his colleagues Gawain and Merlin, the treachery of Mordred and the final battle after which, mortally wounded, Arthur is carried to the Isle of Avalon.

Geoffrey’s work clearly contains numerous fictional stories – and so it’s hardly surprising that, within a few years of the Historia being published, serious doubt was being cast on the authenticity of his research. In 1190 William of Newburgh declared that “it is quite clear that everything this man wrote… was made up”, while 800 years later, Geoffrey Ashe insisted that “Monmouth is an entertaining and memorable companion, so long as one never believes anything he says”.

Geoffrey himself claimed that the inspiration for his work was an ancient book “in the British tongue”. Yet the fact that this source remains utterly elusive to us today has added weight to the conviction that it was nothing more than a figment of his imagination.

However, I think this view does Geoffrey a disservice. In fact, having examined the Historia in great detail over recent months, I’m convinced that there is sufficient evidence within its pages to suggest that it was no work of make-believe. On the contrary, I believe that it was compiled from a variety of genuine sources – most of them hailing from what is now the south-east of England – dating back at least to the first century BC.

For me, the key to unlocking Geoffrey’s text lies in the story of Julius Caesar’s invasion of Britain, the first ‘event’ in the book that can be independently verified from other historical sources.

Caesar stepped ashore on these islands on two separate occasions – in 55 and 54 BC – and recorded his exploits in a series of campaign diaries, known collectively as the Gallic Wars. In Caesar’s own account of his second invasion, there are three main protagonists: the hero (himself) the villain, a British king called Cassivellaunus whom Caesar defeats and the ally, a young British aristocrat called Mandubracius.

In the Historia, however, Geoffrey duplicates the events of 54 BC, and sets them down as if they are two discrete military operations. In the first, the aggressor, Ilkassar (Caesar), is defeated by the heroic Briton Cassibellaun (Cassivellaunus) at the “Battle of Dorobellum” and driven back into the sea.

In the second version, a few pages later, Cassibellaun, now the bad guy, is waging an unprovoked war upon his rival, Androgeus (Mandubracius), when he hears that Ilkassar has landed upon the south coast. At the battle of Durobernia, Ilkassar prevails, thanks to the timely intervention of Androgeus on the Roman side. Fearing the power of Androgeus, Ilkassar makes peace and departs.

It is clear that in describing this particular invasion, Geoffrey was using two versions of the same event, written from two very different perspectives. The first, with Cassivellaunus as the hero, appears to have been generated by supporters of the British king the second is written from the perspective of Cassivellaunus’s rival, Mandubracius.

It may therefore be wrong to search for a single primary source for Geoffrey’s account – after all, as he says in his foreword, in his day the lives of these early kings were “celebrated by many people by heart, as if they had been written”. As one might expect for a pre-Roman heroic society, these tales had survived to Geoffrey’s time not because they had been transcribed but because they had been transmitted from generation to generation by word of mouth.

Listen: Miles Russell offers a bold view on the historical King Arthur based on his reinterpretation of medieval sources, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:

How reliable is Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia?

Once you accept that the Historia does not represent a single epic but a mass of unrelated stories woven together to form a grand narrative, it’s easier to tease out individual tales. And these tales can radically reconfigure our understanding of the British past, producing new ways of seeing how the Britons dealt with the arrival of Rome, and what happened following the collapse of Roman authority in the fifth century AD.

The Historia matters because it is something that was set down by the ancient Britons themselves: it is their ‘lost voice’. This is, perhaps, best summed up by the description of the celebrations following the expulsion of Julius Caesar from Britain.

The Britons, we are told, “summoned all the nobility” to Colchester “in order to perform solemn sacrifices to the gods”, slaughtering “40,000 cows and 100,000 sheep and also fowls of every single kind without number, besides 30,000 wild beasts of several kinds” before “they feasted themselves… and spent the rest of the day and night in various plays and sports”.

This is no work of pure fiction but the remembrance of a real event from a period of the past we still mistakenly call prehistory.

8 insights that the Historia can give us into ancient Britain

Ancient Britons gloried in their Trojan ‘past’

Perhaps the most incredible claim contained within the pages of the Historia is that the British monarchy was descended from Trojan nobility. As far-fetched as this may seem, a chance comment by John Creighton in his book Coins and Power in Late Iron Age Britain (published in 2000) suggests that Geoffrey didn’t merely pluck this ‘fact’ from the ether.

Creighton noted that it “exemplifies precisely the genre of foundation myth that would have been created within the political context of Britain” in the early first century AD. In other words, British dynasts of late Iron Age Britain may have wanted to fabricate a semi-mythical lineage that closely linked them to the Romans, who themselves claimed descent from the Trojan refugee Aeneas. (The Britons were also, remember, keen to adopt Roman symbols and titles on their coins.)

This is something that Geoffrey has Julius Caesar himself articulate when, just prior to the invasion of Britain, he observes that “we Romans and the Britons share a common ancestry”.

Young British aristocrats were educated in Rome

Geoffrey says that many British kings travelled to, and grew up in, Rome. On the face of it, this seems preposterous, but the system of bringing up the children of allied kings in the imperial capital was an old and established one. Such children may have gone to Rome partly in order to ensure the loyalty of their parents, but also to be educated the Roman way and benefit from imperial patronage – a system of networking that proved vital to those determined to make it big.

Having the offspring of barbarian aristocrats growing up under close supervision in Rome is something that emperors such as Augustus positively encouraged, and it is difficult to see why the Britons would have been treated differently. A number of British kings are known to have been at court during the reigns of both Augustus and Claudius, while images reproduced on early British coins slavishly imitated Roman designs, confirming a strong Mediterranean influence.

Tenvantius fathered the ‘Great King of the Britons’

One of the many British kings that Geoffrey describes in the Historia is Tenvantius, Duke of Cornwall, a warlike man who, we’re told, “governed his realm diligently”, insisting on “the full rigour of the law”. Unfortunately, Tenvantius is conspicuous by his absence from the Roman sources – yet that doesn’t mean he’s a figment of Geoffrey’s imagination.

As Geoffrey tells us, after Tenvantius’s death the crown passed to his son Cymbeline (or Cunobelinos), who is recorded on coins and in contemporary historical accounts, as ‘Great King of the Britons’.

Interestingly, on Cymbeline’s coin series – minted from native power centres at both Colchester and St Albans – the monarch declares that his father had been ‘Tasciovanus’. It is clear from these coins, and those minted by Tasciovanus himself, that Tenvantius/Tasciovanus was very real – his name, like that of Cymbeline/Cunobelinos, being irrevocably garbled over time.

Britons helped quell Boudica’s rebellion

That the Historia was compiled from sources produced within the pro-Roman tribal kingdoms of south-eastern Britain is confirmed by the fact that those who fought against Rome, such as Caratacus or Boudica, barely merit a mention. And when they do, it’s hardly in glowing terms – Geoffrey casts the Boudican revolt of AD 60–61 as a wholly negative event.

Boudica herself appears as ‘Soderick’, while her tribe, the Iceni, are called ‘Scythians’. Geoffrey also gets his geography mixed up, moving the revolt from Norfolk to southern Scotland. Crucially, when the Iceni/Scythians start razing the region, it is not the Romans who march to attack them but the British king ‘Marius’, who “won several engagements and killed Soderick”.

In the Roman account there is no room for native allies. Yet the fact that the southern British kingdoms thrived in the revolt’s aftermath suggests that the Romans received significant support from indigenous groups.

There was method to the geographical madness

Geoffrey’s detractors have long used his appreciation of geography – or lack of it – as a stick with which to beat him. Not only, they point out, did he mistakenly claim that Boudica went on the rampage across southern Scotland, he also moved various towns, cities and battlefields from their rightful historical settings of Kent, Hertfordshire and Essex a hundred miles or so west to Wales and Cornwall.

Yet I believe that, far from simply sticking a pin in a map, Geoffrey genuinely based the settings of his history on Roman sources – it’s just that, on a number of notable occasions, he misinterpreted these sources.

Take the titles the ‘Duke of Cornwall’ and the ‘Duke of London’, both of which repeatedly crop up in the Historia. It seems that Geoffrey mistook ‘Catuvellauni’ for ‘Kerniw’ – or Cornwall – when in fact Catuvellauni was the name of a British tribe based around St Albans. Likewise, he took Trinovantes to mean ‘New Troy’ or ‘London’, when it referred to another British tribe, this one established around Colchester.

By AD 1136, both tribal names had lost any meaning and so Geoffrey equated them with geographical terms that made sense to his audience.

British grandees built big in southern England

According to Geoffrey, mid-first-century AD Britain was ruled by King Coilus, who “had been brought up from his infancy in Rome”. By paying what was required to the Roman government, Coilus “enjoyed his kingdom in peace and no king ever showed greater respect to his nobility… binding them to him through his continual bounty and munificence”.

There can be little doubt that of all the areas of early Roman Britain, the most bountiful and munificent was along the coast of central southern England. Here, the remains of at least eight palaces, of which Fishbourne is the most famous, have been found.

That extravagant new residences were being erected by native aristocrats such as Togidubnus, Catuarus and Lucullus is beyond doubt – the last of these could plausibly have been Geoffrey’s peace-loving ‘Coilus’.

The Romans may have added their own touches to Stonehenge

One of the most curious incidents in the Historia relates to Stonehenge which, we are told, was set up by the post-Roman King ‘Aurelius Ambrosius’ to commemorate those treacherously slaughtered by the Saxons. The stones in question were, on advice from the wizard Merlin, taken from a mountain in Ireland and transported to Salisbury Plain.

This story may read like it’s straight out of a fairy tale, yet it could be doing Geoffrey a disservice to dismiss it as a mere flight of fancy. For a start, we know that the bluestones at Stonehenge did indeed originate from a source in the west – albeit Pembrokeshire in Wales rather than Ireland.

What’s more, recent excavations at the monument hint at significant late or post Roman activity. Many of the bluestones that we see at Stonehenge today may actually have been reshaped, reset or otherwise significantly modified in the fourth or early fifth century AD, during the time that the historical Ambrosius Aurelianus is thought to have ruled.

A native elite ran south-east Roman Britain

The Historia presents an alternative late Iron Age Britain in which there is no military occupation by a foreign power. Rather than being part of a Roman province, Geoffrey describes Britain as a friendly, tribute-paying dependency whose monarchs retained a degree of autonomy beyond Rome’s invasion of AD 43.

At first glance, this may appear to be a hopelessly rose-tinted interpretation of the facts. But is it? After all, having invaded south-east England – the area from which most of Geoffrey’s sources hailed – the Roman army swiftly moved on to fight the recalcitrant tribes to the north and west. And, instead of leaving garrisons, they delegated day-to-day governance of the area to the native elite.

So, as far as the south-eastern corner of the island was concerned, Geoffrey was right: the transition from Britain to Roman Britain would have appeared relatively seamless.

Miles Russell is a senior lecturer in archaeology at Bournemouth University. He is co-author of UnRoman Britain: Exposing the Myth of Britannia (The History Press, 2011).

A Few Americans in the Battle of Britain

71 Squadron pilots run to their planes. These Americans are members of the RAF's first "Eagle" squadron. Running to their planes (L to R) Pete Provenzano, Eugene Tobin, Sam Maurillo, and Luke Allen.

Imperial War Museum/ CH 2401

I n the summer of 1940 the Second World War had been under way for nearly a year. Hitler’s Germany was triumphant. The United States was neutral. It was a time, Winston Churchill later observed, when “the British people held the fort alone till those who hitherto had been half blind were half ready.” Some Americans, however, did not remain on the sidelines.

That summer and fall, eight American pilots fought against the Nazis in the Battle of Britain. This remarkable bunch of rogue flyers included ex-barnstormers, a Minnesota farm boy, and the greatest bobsled champion in American Olympic history. All had defied strict neutrality laws—thereby risking loss of their citizenship and imprisonment if they dared return home—in order to join what they regarded as the best flying club in the world: Britain’s Royal Air Force.

With only minimal training, they dueled with some of the Luftwaffe’s finest aces in the greatest man-on-man contest in the history of aviation and, by October 1940, had helped save England from Nazi invasion. Dozens more Americans soon joined them, enough to fill three squadrons—all of this months before Pearl Harbor marked America’s belated entry into the Second World War.

T he first American to enlist in the RAF during World War II was no ordinary American. Twenty-nine-year-old Billy Fiske was one of the most remarkable sportsmen in Olympic history. He spent much of his adolescence in Europe, graduated from Cambridge University, and went on to work as a banker in London and New York. In his spare time, he completed the Le Mans 24-hour auto race when he was only 19 and earned the unofficial title “The King of Speed” by dominating bobsledding between the wars. In 1928, Fiske became, at age 16, the youngest-ever winner of a Winter Olympics gold medal for the bobsled. In 1932, at the Lake Placid Winter Games, he carried the Stars and Stripes for the Americans at the opening ceremonies, presided over by Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt of New York.

Fisk's passport contains the stamped note that "This passport is not valid for travel to or in any foreign state in connection with entrance into or service in foreign military or naval forces."

At the outbreak of war in September 1939, Fiske decided he would pretend to be a Canadian in order to circumvent American neutrality laws. Before an interview with an RAF recruiter, he played a round of golf to give himself a “healthy look.” In his diary he wrote, “Needless to say, for once, I had a quiet Saturday night—I didn’t want to have eyes looking like blood-stained oysters the next day.” Fiske’s interviewer was impressed and recommended he be sent to the RAF No. 10 Elementary Flying School. Fiske duly pledged his life and loyalty to the king, George VI, and was formally admitted into the RAF. In his diary, a joyous Fiske wrote, “I believe I can lay claim to being the first U.S. citizen to join the RAF in England after the outbreak of hostilities.”

Three other Americans were admitted into the RAF shortly after Fiske: Andy Mamedoff, Eugene Tobin, and Vernon Keough. The 23-year-old Tobin and 27-year-old Mamedoff had been flying friends at Mines Field in California, now Los Angeles International Airport, before the war. Tall, red-haired Tobin had paid for flying lessons in the late 1930s by working as a guide and messenger at the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film studio. Mamedoff had grown up in Thompson, Connecticut, where his White Russian family had settled in the early 1920s. Both were convinced that the war in Europe would come to America sooner or later, and they didn’t want to be drafted into the army as grunts when it did.

Above all, they were looking to fly the “sweetest little ship” in the world, the Supermarine Spitfire, designed by Englishman R. J. Mitchell, first flown in 1936, and now capable of over 350 mph, three times faster than any plane they had flown. “I just felt I wanted to fly some of these powerful machines,” Tobin recalled. But only by risking their necks in someone else’s war would they get that chance. The gamble seemed well worth it.

In May 1940, Tobin and Mamedoff had braved the U-boat threat and crossed the Atlantic in a convoy with the smallest man ever to fly in the RAF’s dark blue uniform: 4 foot 10 inch Vernon Keough, 28, who had introduced himself to his fellow American adventurers as “Shorty.” A stunt pilot, Keough was one of America’s first professional skydivers. At fairs and air shows around New York, he had jumped out of biplanes more than 500 times.

In early July 1940, the three pilots were assigned to 609 Squadron at Middle Wallop airfield in southern England, where they were quickly accepted as honorary Brits. To the young British pilots, the lanky and wisecracking “Red” Tobin seemed like a cowboy out of a Hollywood movie. The charming and roguish Andy Mamedoff loved to gamble and wagered small fortunes on games of bridge between scrambles, he also taught the Brits in the squadron how to play stud and Red Dog poker. Shorty earned plenty of laughs as he ran to his Spitfire on practice scrambles, a cushion under each arm he needed to sit on two to see out of the plane’s cockpit.

If it was action the Americans were looking for, they could not have arrived in England at a better time. Just days after the men reached their frontline squadron, on July 10, 1940, the Luftwaffe opened a daylight bombing campaign against Britain. The Battle of Britain was on.

Two days later, Billy Fiske was posted to 601 (County of London) Auxiliary Air Force Squadron at Tangmere, on England’s south coast. Also known as the Millionaires’ Squadron, it had been composed since the 1920s of mostly wealthy aristocrats, recruited at the elite gentleman’s club, White’s, by Lord Edward Grosvenor.

There was some apprehension in 601 about “the untried American adventurer,” according to the squadron’s official record book. But Fiske made no pretensions about his flying skill and was soon popular with the squadron’s other flamboyant and daring pilots. When not on duty, he invariably beat them in races to local golf courses and pubs in his 4.5 liter open Bentley, painted British racing green, complete with bonnet strap and projecting supercharger.

On July 20, Fiske flew for the first time in a 601 plane, making two patrols. Over the coming weeks, he would fly with the same exceptional skill that he guided bobsleds, pushing his plane to its operational limits without being reckless. When the call to scramble sounded, Fiske was often first to sprint to his “kite,” so eager was he to test himself in the ultimate thrill ride.

Aside from Fiske and the American trio in 609 Squadron, four other American citizens served in the RAF during the Battle of Britain. Twenty-eight-year-old Philip Leckrone, from Salem, Illinois, flew more than two dozen sorties over the English Channel as a “tail-end Charlie”—the rear plane in a formation—in 616 Squadron. Minnesotan Art Donahue, 27, was perhaps the most experienced of all the Americans who flew in the RAF during the summer of 1940, having logged over 1,000 hours in the air before joining. He was posted to 64 Squadron just six weeks after leaving his farm in St. Charles, Minnesota. The very next day he destroyed his first bandit: a Bf 109. But then, barely a week later, he was shot down, his face and hands severely burned. He would spend the rest of the Battle of Britain recuperating. (And was shot down over the English Channel two years later, his body never found.)

“Shorty” Keough, flanked by “Red” Tobin and Andy Mamedoff (right), model the insignia for the first all-American RAF unit.

Pilot Officer Hugh Reilley, who had been born in Detroit, Michigan, served with 66 Squadron. It was only after he had been shot down and killed by the legendary German ace, Werner Molders, that RAF personnel discovered that Reilley, who had passed himself off as a Canadian, was in fact an American citizen. His squadron leader recalled that when Reilley was buried, the families of dockhands in the riverside town where the squadron was based lined the streets and graveyard “in large numbers to pay their respects as the cortege went by.”

According to RAF rosters of the period, the only other American known to have served during the battle was 19-year-old John K. Haviland from Mount Kisco, New York, the son of an American navy officer and English mother. Haviland was one of many green pilots brought into decimated squadrons that summer pilots who had not even practiced deflection shooting and had less than 20 hours on fighters. Raw and scared, many crashed their planes and died or were wounded in accidents rather than combat. This was the case with Haviland, who collided with another Hurricane during formation practice the very day after he joined 151 Squadron. Thankfully, he was able to bring his Hurricane down in a paddock he would see no further significant action in the Battle of Britain.

O n August 13, 1940, the Luftwaffe launched its first all-out mass attack, codenamed Eagle Day. More than 50 Stuka dive-bombers attacked airdromes in the area of Portland naval base on England’s south coast. Spitfires of 609 Squadron shot down five enemy planes for a record haul. Above the English Channel, 601’s Billy Fiske shot up a German bandit’s underbelly but was unable to claim the kill because he did not see the German crash or burst into flames.

Three days later, on August 16, the Luftwaffe singled out Fiske’s base at Tangmere for attack. RAF Fighter Command ordered 601 to patrol over Tangmere at about 12,000 feet: Ju 87 dive-bombers had been detected as they crossed the English coast at nearby Selsey Bill. Soon, the Stukas started to dive on Tangmere, killing several ground staff and badly damaging the airfields. Fiske and his fellow 601 pilots chased the Germans out to sea just to the south around Pagham Harbor and downed several enemy planes.

Then someone spotted Fiske’s Hurricane returning to the base. It was badly damaged and was seen to “glide over the boundary and land on its belly.” Medical and fire crews rushed to the plane. The squadron’s operations record book recorded what happened next: “Pilot officer Fiske was seen to land on the aerodrome and his aircraft immediately caught fire. He was taken from the machine but sustained severe burns….”

Fiske was rushed to the Royal West Sussex Hospital in Chichester but died the following morning from shock. He was just 29, the first American pilot to be killed during the Battle of Britain.

There was no time to grieve. The battle grew more intense with each unusually hot summer day. On August 18, 1940, the Germans again attempted to finish off the RAF by launching a massive air attack that hammered British defensive installations, radar towers, and airfields. RAF Fighter Command flew nearly 1,000 sorties, sending all available squadrons into battle, including 609 Squadron. Mamedoff, Tobin, and Keough saw action for the first time.

Tobin fired 2,000 rounds and burned through 80 gallons of fuel but allowed his target, a Bf 110, to escape. Keough’s first round with the Germans was just as frustrating. He fired his Browning guns repeatedly at the enemy but could not take a bandit down, probably because like many novices he did not get close enough to his target. Mamedoff also returned empty-handed.

Two days later, on August 20, six members of Tangmere’s ground staff carried Billy Fiske to his final resting place. As his coffin, covered in the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes, was borne on a bier to Boxgrove Priory Church, the RAF’s Central Band played funeral marches. Buglers gave the “supreme artist of the run” a farewell, and then a rifle squad cracked the silence with a salute. Up above, Fiske’s English comrades fended off yet more Stuka attacks as the Battle of Britain raged on. By now, the RAF was fast running out of pilots. If the Luftwaffe continued bombing air bases and radar installations, the battle would soon be lost.

On the day of Fiske’s funeral, Red Tobin attacked a group of Bf 110 fighters escorting Junkers 88 bombers and badly damaged two of them. The following day, August 24, cannon shells and machine gun bullets of a German fighter smashed the tail wheel of Andy Mamedoff’s Spitfire and pierced the plane’s armor plating and seat. Mamedoff managed to land safely, miraculously uninjured except for bruising on his back. Like many other tail-end Charlies that summer, Mamedoff had been so busy watching out for his comrades flying ahead of him that he had neglected to watch his own back, and had been taken completely by surprise.

That evening, in a local pub, Tobin commiserated with him. “For a week after, Andy looked like the Hunchback of Notre Dame,” Tobin later wrote. “It was Andy’s birthday so we drank to the present he’d received from the Krupp [arms] factory.”

Day after day that late summer, the pilots fighting for Britain engaged in dogfights above England and the Channel, vapor trails crisscrossing the perfect blue skies. As more and more were shot down, the Americans—and pilots from other nations who’d joined the RAF—became indispensable. Indeed, every man in a cockpit counted. But how much longer could they hold out as Hitler threw the full might of the Luftwaffe against them?

A t dawn on September 7, 1940, the Germans sent aloft the largest grouping of attack aircraft in history. In the first major attack on London itself, 1,012 German aircraft struck at its heart, setting the city and its docks ablaze, killing more than 400 people, and injuring over a thousand. The Blitz had begun and would continue unabated for the next four months.

Ironically, the Luftwaffe’s shift of attack from airdromes and radar stations to London meant the RAF was saved from destruction. Had the Luftwaffe persisted in destroying the RAF’s infrastructure, victory would have been assured. In ordering his air force to strike at a civilian target, Hitler had made his first great strategic mistake of the war.

On September 15, the Germans again sent more than 1,000 planes across the Channel, again headed for London, aiming to terrorize the British into submission and deal a knockout blow to the RAF’s Fighter Command. The battle’s climax had arrived. The American pilots were in top form, playing their part in the most crucial day of air combat in history. Tobin shot down a Dornier bomber and probably destroyed a Bf 109. Fellow 609 pilots Mamedoff and Keough also fought with enormous courage and stamina, claiming kills of their own.

It was a black day for the Luftwaffe. The combined losses to Hitler’s air force were so punishing that the usual flocks of German bandits did not return the following day. The Germans could not sustain such losses and were no nearer, after three months of hard pounding, to controlling the air space above the English Channel and southern England—Hitler’s stated precondition for launching the amphibious invasion of England called Operation Sea Lion.

On September 17, Grand Admiral Raeder recorded in the official German war diary: “The enemy air force is by no means defeated. On the contrary, it shows increasing activity.” And then the all-important words: “The Führer therefore decides to postpone Operation Sea Lion indefinitely.” Britain would not be invaded. Instead it would be brought to its knees through terror bombing at night and slow starvation by day. What was left of the Luftwaffe’s bomber fleet and the now more-important Atlantic U-boat packs would sooner or later surely see to that. Besides, Hitler now nursed a greater design than the humiliation of Winston Churchill: the conquest of Soviet Russia. “I want colonies I can walk to without getting my feet wet,” he would soon tell one of his confidantes.

It was not yet clear to Churchill’s fighter boys that they had fought off the greatest threat to Britain’s survival in a millennium, and had done so by, in Churchill’s words, the “narrowest of margins.” On September 15 they had made possible a far greater victory. As an official RAF historian would write, “When the details of the fighting grow dim, and the names of its heroes are forgotten, men will still remember that civilization was saved by a thousand British boys.”

F our days after the climax of the Battle of Britain—on September 19, 1940—Red Tobin, Andy Mamedoff, and Shorty Keough became the first Americans to join the new 71 “Eagle” Squadron, the first all-American unit in RAF history. Five months earlier, an influential London-based American banker, Charles Sweeny, had contacted Lord Beaverbrook, the Minister of Aircraft Production, with the idea of an all-American squadron, whose shoulder patch would resemble the insignia of the eagle on his American passport. Beaverbrook, whose son, Max Aitken, had at the time been 601’s squadron leader, had liked the idea and had recommended that Sweeny contact Brendan Bracken, personal assistant to Winston Churchill. Bracken was an old friend of the Sweeny family and had quickly forwarded the idea to Churchill, who was immediately enthusiastic.

The potential for positive propaganda was unrivaled. Here were America’s finest young airmen, ready to lay their lives on the line for democracy while their own country slept. An all-American squadron flying in the RAF would powerfully and symbolically undermine the notion of American neutrality.

By the fall of 1940, dozens of Americans, inspired by the widely reported exploits of RAF pilots that summer, were defying American neutrality laws and making their way to Britain. (In 1941, as the first Eagle squadron garnered hugely favorable publicity in the United States, the State Department decided not to prosecute any of the American pilots in the RAF, no doubt for fear of a public outcry but also because isolationist sentiment in the United States was waning.)

The 71 Squadron first saw active duty on January 4, 1941. The following day, Shorty Keough was flying in close formation at 20,000 feet with two fellow 71 recruits, pilot officers Edwin Orbison and Philip Leckrone. Suddenly, Orbisonand Leckrone collided. Orbison was able to turn back toward their base. Leckrone went into a tail-spin and plunged toward the ground.

Keough followed Leckrone down, shouting at him over the radio telephone.

Leckrone did not reply and made no attempt to bail out. He died on impact. Orbison landed safely despite a damaged left wing. According to the squadron’s operations book, Leckrone had joined the RAF “for the highest of motives—not for the glamour, if any, or the thrills, but to defend our way of life.” He was buried the next day, the first fatality in 71 Squadron.

There would be many more. Indeed, sooner or later the odds caught up with all but a very fortunate few. During a patrol on February 15, 1941, Shorty Keough failed to return from a scramble. Several hours later, a coast guard unit found a pair of size five flying boots floating amid wreckage in the Channel. “Nobody but little Shorty could wear such small boots,” reported 71 Squadron’s operations record book. “There can be little doubt that Shorty’s plane dived into the sea at great speed and that he was killed instantly.”

The Intelligence Officer at the headquarters of the second Eagle Squdron (121 Squadron), Sir Michael Duff-Assheton-Smith, takes notes as pilots describe their most recent sortie. They are, (L to R) Sq. Ldr. Powell Pilot Officers W. James Daly, Hugh Kennard, Le Roy A. Skinner, Clarence Martin, and (standing on wing), R. Fuller Patterson.

Nonetheless, by the spring of 1941, so many American pilots had made it to Britain, eager to do their part, that the RAF was able to form a further two Eagle squadrons, 121 and 133. Later that summer, Andy Mamedoff was selected to lead a flight in 133 Squadron, the first American to be so honored.

Shortly before leaving for his new assignment, he also became the first of the Americans to take a war bride: Penny Craven, a member of the hugely wealthy Craven cigarette family. Fellow American pilot Vic Bono arranged for a flyby a few minutes after the wedding in Epping. Unfortunately, it was market day and the low-flying pilots sent pigs and cows scuttling in all directions, leaving the marketplace a wreck.

On September 7, 1941, Red Tobin joined 15 pilots from 71 Squadron in a sweep over northern France. Around 75 miles inland, radar announced the presence of bandits to their rear, between them and the Channel. The bandits turned out to be 100 Bf 109s that had waited for the RAF planes to fly inland. Squadron leader Stanley Meares suddenly shouted over the radio, “Every man for himself now, chaps.”

The 109s attacked the Spitfires from above, at 29,000 feet, and then returned to higher altitude and attacked again. Two 71 Squadron pilots were killed, including Tobin, and three had to bail out.

In early October, Andy Mamedoff learned that his new unit, 133 Squadron, would be posted to Northern Ireland. On October 8, in atrocious weather, he and his flight of 15 pilots left for their new posting. All reached their first refueling stop at Sealand, a sea fort off the coast of England. Then the weather closed in. Only six pilots made it to next refueling stop on the Isle of Man. Three landed elsewhere, two turned back to Sealand, and four died they included flight leader Andy Mamedoff, whose Hurricane had suddenly plummeted onto a field on the Isle.

In December 1941, two years after Mamedoff had left America, his countrymen finally joined the Second World War following the attack on Pearl Harbor. The following September, all three Eagle Squadrons were folded into the U.S. Army Air Forces, becoming the 4th Fighter Group. The group would eventually destroy more than 1,000 enemy aircraft. That success was based on tactics first learned in the RAF by the few Americans who, ironically, ended up helping the United States by breaking its laws in the summer of 1940.

Only one of the American pilots who flew in the Battle of Britain managed to survive the war. After flying Mosquito dive-bombers and Blenheims, John Haviland returned to Spitfires in late 1944 and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross as a flight lieutenant with 141 Squadron on February 16, 1945. At war’s end, he returned to the United States, went back to college on the GI Bill, and never left: he retired as a distinguished Professor of Aeronautics at the University of Virginia in the 1980s. Haviland raised five children and continued to fly almost to the day he died in July 2002. A scholarship foundation for aeronautics students has since been established in his name at the University of Virginia.

I n 1940, Winston Churchill famously said of the pilots who had fought for Britain, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” Today, fewer and fewer of the “few” remain. As a result, perhaps, the significance of the greatest air battle in history has been downplayed. Many Americans do not realize that had it not been for the few, the Second World War would have had a very different outcome.

And to this day, even in England, the role played by foreign-born pilots tends to be overlooked. Indeed, it is generally assumed that the British fought alone during the summer of 1940. But on the RAF’s Runnymede Memorial, and in many other corners of England, there are many tragic reminders that this was not, in fact, the case. A fifth of the few came from foreign shores, mainly Poland, New Zealand, Canada, and Czechoslovakia. Of these 510 pilots, more than a quarter never returned home.

On July 4 of most years, in a corner of Boxgrove graveyard in Sussex, fresh flowers lie on the grave of one of these foreigners: Pilot Officer Billy Fiske, the first American to die in the Battle of Britain. “The King of Speed” lies between two British soldiers, a sapper in the Royal Engineers and a corporal in the East Lancashire Regiment. A small American flag sometimes snaps in the wind above his final resting place. On his headstone the following words are inscribed for all to see:

Alex Kershaw is the bestselling author of six acclaimed books, five of them about World War II. His grandfather served in Egypt in the RAF during the war. His 2006 book, The Few, was selected as the Military Book Club’s first-ever book of the year. His 2008 book, Escape from the Deep, is currently being adapted for the screen.

Embattled Banner: The True History of the Confederate Flag

If you are a regular reader of Civil War Times, the Confederate battle flag is a familiar part of your world. The symbolism of the flag is simple and straightforward: It represents the Confederate side in the war that you enjoy studying. More than likely, your knowledge of the flag has expanded and become more sophisticated over the years. At some point, you learned that the Confederate battle flag was not, in fact, “the Confederate flag” and was not known as the “Stars and Bars.” That name properly belongs to the first national flag of the Confederacy. If you studied the war in the Western and Trans-Mississippi theaters, you learned that “Confederate battle flag” is a misnomer. Many Confederate units served under battle flags that looked nothing like the red flag with the star-studded blue cross. You may have grown up with more than just an idle knowledge of the flag’s association with the Confederacy and its armies, but also with a reverence for the flag because of its association with Confederate ancestors. If you didn’t, your interest in the war likely brought you into contact with people who have a strong emotional connection with the flag. And, at some point in your life, you became aware that not everyone shared your perception of the Confederate flag. If you weren’t aware of this before, the unprecedented flurry of events and of public reaction to them that occurred in June 2015 have raised obvious questions that all students of Civil War history must confront: Why do people have such different and often conflicting perceptions of what the Confederate flag means, and how did those different meanings evolve?

(Larry Sherer/High Impact Photography)

The flag as we know it was born not as a symbol, but as a very practical banner. The commanders of the Confederate army in Virginia (then known at the Army of the Potomac) sought a distinctive emblem as an alternative to the Confederacy’s first national flag—the Stars and Bars—to serve as a battle flag. The Stars and Bars, which the Confederate Congress had adopted in March 1861 because it resembled the once-beloved Stars and Stripes, proved impractical and even dangerous on the battlefield because of that resemblance. (That problem was what compelled Confederate commanders to design and employ the vast array of other battle flags used among Confederate forces throughout the war.)Battle flags become totems for the men who serve under them, for their esprit de corps, for their sacrifices. They assume emotional significance for soldiers’ families and their descendants. Anyone today hoping to understand why so many Americans consider the flag an object of veneration must understand its status as a memorial to the Confederate soldier.

It is, however, impossible to carve out a kind of symbolic safe zone for the Confederate battle flag as the flag of the soldier because it did not remain exclusively the flag of the soldier. By the act of the Confederate government, the battle flag’s meaning is inextricably intertwined with the Confederacy itself and, thus, with the issues of slavery and states’ rights—over which readers of Civil War Times and the American public as a whole engage in spirited and endless debate. By 1862, many Southern leaders scorned the Stars and Bars for the same reason that had prompted the flag’s adoption the year before: it too closely resembled the Stars and Stripes. As the war intensified and Southerners became Confederates, they weaned themselves from symbols of the old Union and sought a new symbol that spoke to the Confederacy’s “confirmed independence.” That symbol was the Confederate battle flag. Historian Gary Gallagher has written persuasively that it was Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, not the Confederate government, that best embodied Confederate nationalism. Lee’s stunning victories in 1862–63 made his army’s battle flag the popular choice as the new national flag. On May 1, 1863, the Confederacy adopted a flag—known colloquially as the Stainless Banner—featuring the ANV battle flag emblazoned on a white field. For the remainder of the Confederacy’s life, the soldiers’ flag was also, in effect, the national flag.

If all Confederate flags had been furled once and for all in 1865, they would still be contentious symbols as long as people still argue about the Civil War, its causes and its conduct. But the Confederate flag did not pass once and for all into the realm of history in 1865. And for that reason, we must examine how it has been used and perceived since then if we wish to understand the reactions that it evokes today. The flag never ceased being the flag of the Confederate soldier and still today commands wide respect as a memorial to the Confederate soldier. The history of the flag since 1865 is marked by the accumulation of additional meanings based on additional uses. Within a decade of the end of the war (even before the end of Reconstruction in 1877), white Southerners began using the Confederate flag as a memorial symbol for fallen heroes. By the turn of the 20th century, during the so-called “Lost Cause” movement in which white Southerners formed organizations, erected and dedicated monuments, and propagated a Confederate history of the “War Between the States,” Confederate flags proliferated in the South’s public life.

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Far from being suppressed, the Confederate version of history and Confederate symbols became mainstream in the postwar South. The Confederate national flags were part of that mainstream, but the battle flag was clearly preeminent. The United Confederate Veterans (UCV) issued a report in 1904 defining the square ANV pattern flag as the Confederate battle flag, effectively writing out of the historical record the wide variety of battle flags under which Confederate soldiers had served. The efforts of the UCV and the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) to promote that “correct” battle flag pattern over the “incorrect” rectangular pattern (the Army of Tennessee’s or the naval jack) were frustrated by the public’s demand for rectangular versions that could serve as the Confederate equivalent of the Stars and Stripes. What is remarkable looking back from the 21st century is that, from the 1870s and into the 1940s, Confederate heritage organizations used the flag widely in their rituals memorializing and celebrating the Confederacy and its heroes, yet managed to maintain effective ownership of the flag and its meaning. The flag was a familiar part of the South’s symbolic landscape, but how and where it was used was controlled. Hints of change were evident by the early 20th century. The battle flag had emerged not only as the most popular symbol of the Confederacy, but also of the South more generally. By the 1940s, as Southern men mingled more frequently with non-Southerners in the U.S. Armed Forces and met them on the gridiron, they expressed their identity as Southerners with Confederate battle flags.

The flag’s appearance in conjunction with Southern collegiate football was auspicious. College campuses are often incubators of cultural change, and they apparently were for the battle flag. This probably is owed to the Kappa Alpha Order, a Southern fraternity founded at Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) in 1865, when R.E. Lee was its president. A Confederate memorial organization in its own right, Kappa Alpha was also a fraternity and introduced Confederate symbols into collegiate life. It was in the hands of students that the flag burst onto the political scene in 1948. Student delegates from Southern colleges and universities waved battle flags on the floor of the Southern States Rights Party convention in July 1948.

The so-called “Dixiecrat” Party formed in protest to the Democratic Party convention’s adoption of a civil rights plank. The Confederate flag became a symbol of protest against civil rights and in support of Jim Crow

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segregation. It also became the object of a high-profile, youth-driven nationwide phenomenon that the media dubbed the “flag fad.” Many pundits suspected that underlying the fad was a lingering “Dixiecrat” sentiment. African-American news-papers decried the flag’s unprecedented popularity within the Armed Forces as a source of dangerous division at a time when America needed to be united against Communism. But most observers concluded that the flag fad was another manifestation of youth-driven material culture. Confederate heritage organizations correctly perceived the Dixiecrat movement and the flag fad as a profound threat to their ownership of the Confederate flag. The UDC in November 1948 condemned use of the flag “in certain demonstrations of college groups and some political groups” and launched a formal effort to protect the flag from “misuse.” Several Southern states subsequently passed laws to punish “desecration” of the Confederate flag. All those efforts proved futile. In the decades after the flag fad, the Confederate flag became, as one Southern editor wrote, “confetti in careless hands.” Instead of being used almost exclusively for memorializing the Confederacy and its soldiers, the flag became fodder for beach towels, t-shirts, bikinis, diapers and baubles of every description. While the UDC continued to condemn the proliferation of such kitsch, it became so commonplace that, over time, others subtly changed their definition of “protecting” the flag to defending the right to wear and display the very items that they once defined as desecration. As the dam burst on Confederate flag material culture and heritage groups lost control of the flag, it acquired a new identity as a symbol of “rebellion” divorced from the historical context of the Confederacy. Truckers, motorcycle riders and “good ol’ boys” (most famously depicted in the popular television show The Dukes of Hazzard) gave the flag a new meaning that transcends the South and even the United States.

Meanwhile, as the civil rights movement gathered force, especially in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, defenders of segregation increasingly employed the use of the battle flag as a symbol of their cause. Most damaging to the flag’s reputation was its use in the hands of the Ku Klux Klan. Although founded by Confederate veterans almost immediately after the Civil War, the KKK did not use the Confederate flag widely or at all in its ritual in the 1860s and 1870s or during its rebirth and nationwide popularity from 1915 to the late 1920s. Only with a second rebirth in the late 1930s and 1940s did the battle flag take hold in the Klan.

Anyone today hoping to understand why so many African Americans and others perceive the Confederate flag as a symbol of hate must recognize the impact of the flag’s historical use by white supremacists. The Civil

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Rights Era has profoundly affected the history of the Confederate flag in several ways. The flag’s use as a symbol of white supremacy has framed the debate over the flag ever since. Just as important, the triumph of civil rights restored African Americans to full citizenship and restored their role in the ongoing process of deciding what does and does not belong on America’s public symbolic landscape. Americans 50 or older came of age when a symbolic landscape dotted with Confederate flags, monuments and street names was the status quo. That status quo was of course the result of a prolonged period in which African Americans were effectively excluded from the process of shaping the symbolic landscape. As African Americans gained political power, they challenged—and disrupted— that status quo. The history of the flag over the last half-century has involved a seemingly endless series of controversies at the local, state and national levels. Over time, the trend has been to reduce the flag’s profile on the symbolic landscape, especially on anyplace that could be construed as public property. As students of history, we tend to think of it as something that happens in the past and forget that history is happening now and that we are actors on the historical stage. Because the Confederate battle flag did not fade into history in 1865, it was kept alive to take on new uses and new meanings and to continue to be part of an ever-changing history. As much as students of Civil War history may wish that we could freeze the battle flag in its Civil War context, we know that we must study the flag’s entire history if we wish to understand the history that is happening around us today. Studying the flag’s full history also allows us to engage in a more constructive dialogue about its proper place in the present and in the future.

My own ancestry is a combination of people of African and European descent. My mother and her parents attended segregated schools in Southside Virginia. My great-great-great-grandmother and her children were free blacks before the war, but they lived in constant fear of slave patrollers—and were unable to obtain a legal education or vote.

My great-great-great-grand-father, however, was a white slaveholder and the father of my third great-grandmother’s children. Through that branch of my family I am also connected with many Confederate soldiers and two members of Virginia’s 1861 Secession Convention.

It is true that many Confederate troops did not own black people. But the Confederate leaders did not stutter when it came to their support of slavery and white supremacy.

The battle flag represents a gamble by 11 states (and another two states with representation in the Confederate Congress) to create a separate slaveholding republic. It symbolizes the struggles of men on well-known battlefields like Manassas, Shiloh, Chickamauga and Gettysburg. But there is no denying the role the battle flag played during the war’s bitter aftermath and Reconstruction and its use by 20th-century white supremacist groups. That same banner, in addition to images of Robert E. Lee and the American flag, was hoisted high during the 1948 “Dixiecrats” convention in Birmingham, Ala., held be-cause of opposition to Harry Truman’s advocacy of a civil rights plank in the Democratic Party platform.
Then there’s the viewpoint of all those people who marched for access to the ballot. Some of those same individuals were spit on for trying to order a sandwich at a lunch counter, or were called “Niggers” because they sought access to a truly equal education. They view the flag, and variations thereof, with understandable contempt.

We cannot ignore America’s long history of prejudice. Because the Confederate battle flag is seen as a symbol of that prejudice, the call to remove it from public display is warranted in government spaces such as the grounds of the South Carolina Capitol. Original flags should be preserved and exhibited in museums.

Yet removing the flag from public display in South Carolina or Mississippi does not resolve issues such as equal access to the ballot box. It does not change the fact that this nation still jails disproportionate numbers of minorities, or mitigate the unfairness of the justice system for those people, or improve the way they are treated after they have served their time.

Confederate flag that was displayed with other Civil War memorabilia. I now feel as though I’ve hidden away my lineage in a dresser drawer. It’s a battle I can’t win. I’m sorry, all you Prillaman boys in the 57th Virginia Infantry, who laid it all on the line so many times, captured at the Angle at Gettysburg with your proud colors and returned to service because you had conviction. I believe you were wrong in your cause. But I believe you fought for that cause with your every fiber, because at heart you were Americans. Rest in peace. You will not be forgotten, and I won’t allow anyone to tarnish you or shove shame down my throat. I will lay this flag at your graves, alongside an American flag. You were both. You can claim both.

As William Faulkner famously wrote in Intruder in the Dust, “For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863,the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Long-street to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet…”

There is an internalized and inherited sense of loss in us Southerners. Shelby Foote spoke of this in several inter-views. Some things, perhaps, we shouldn’t have held on to, but I think even those of us who wish to be sensitive to others’ feelings on those symbols just get tired of the sense of losing. Even in our own living rooms.

My ancestors in the 57th Virginia Infantry served under the battle flag. Prillamans were captured, killed and wounded following that banner. I hate the cause that they stood for, but I am fiercely proud that they stood.

John M. Coski is the author of The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem (Harvard University Press, 2005).

The sinking of the Bismarck: a cat and mouse chase across the Atlantic

The battleship Bismarck was one of the gems of the Kriegsmarine, bristling with fearsome weaponry. Nick Hewitt explains how Britain sank this behemoth, and how its brutal loss would undermine Hitler's confidence in German sea power

This competition is now closed

Published: April 23, 2021 at 10:37 am

On 27 May 1941, HMS Dorsetshire sent the following signal to the commander-in-chief of the Home Fleet: “Torpedoed Bismarck both sides before she sank. She had ceased ring, but her colours were still flying.”

So ended the German battleship Bismarck’s only operational sortie, which had begun from the Polish coastal city of Gotenhafen (modern-day Gdynia) just over a week before. The dramatic story has been told and retold in books, documentaries, a feature film – and even a country and western song. But the truth remains, perhaps, the most compelling account of all.

Bismarck was launched in February 1939. Weighing in at over 50,000 tons when fully loaded, she displaced more than any other European battleship in service she was fast, well-protected and heavily armed. When Burkard von Müllenheim-Rechberg joined Bismarck in June 1940 as fourth gunnery officer and personal adjutant officer to the ship’s captain, Ernest Lindemann, he was fully trusting of her capabilities. “I had supreme confidence in this ship,” he wrote in his memoirs. “How could it be otherwise?”

Commissioned on 24 August 1940, by March 1941 she was ready for her first mission, Operation Rheinübung: a raid on the Atlantic convoy routes which merchant ships used to transport vital supplies to Britain from North America. Accompanied by the new heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen and under the overall command of Admiral Günther Lütjens, Bismarck departed Gotenhafen early on 19 May.

The British watched Bismarck’s progress apprehensively. Between January and May in that year, 277 British and Allied merchant ships totalling almost 1.5 million tons had been sunk, mostly by German U-boats in the Atlantic. Putting merchant ships into convoys was the answer, but a powerful German surface force could spell disaster, as Bismarck could overwhelm any convoy escort, forcing the merchant ships to scatter and leaving them vulnerable to submarines.

Bismarck: the feared German battleship

Builders | Blohm & Voss, Hamburg

Laid down | 1 July 1936

Launched | 14 February 1939

Commissioned | 24 August 1940

Ships in class | Two (including Tirpitz)

Displacement | 53,000 tons (max)

Length | 251m

Maximum speed | 30 knots (35 mph) during trials

Armaments | Eight x 380mm, 12 x 150mm, 16 x 105mm (anti-aircraft), 16 x 370mm (anti-aircraft), 18 x 20mm (anti-aircraft)

Armour thickness | Belt 320mm, turrets 360mm, main deck 120mm (maximum)

Aircraft | Four Arado Ar 196 floatplanes

Crew | 2,065 (though more than 2,200 were on board during the Atlantic sortie due to the inclusion of the Admiral’s staff, prize crews and war correspondents)

Lütjens’ route took him through the Kattegat (a sea area between Denmark, Norway and Sweden) and along the Norwegian coast to Bergen. His squadron was spotted twice, once by a Swedish cruiser and once by members of the Norwegian resistance, and by 20 May, London knew that Bismarck was at sea. On 21 May RAF reconnaissance pilot Michael ‘Babe’ Suckling photographed the two ships refuelling in the fjords near Bergen. He hand-delivered the developed prints from his base at Wick, in northern Scotland, to London.

In response, Admiral Sir John Tovey, commander-in-chief of the Royal Navy’s Home Fleet, sent cruisers to patrol the Denmark Strait between Iceland and Greenland, and the Iceland-Faroe Gap to the south-east. The battlecruiser HMS Hood and the brand-new battleship HMS Prince of Wales raced to Iceland, while the rest of the fleet waited at Scapa Flow, its Orkney base, ready to depart at short notice. For now, there was nothing else to do but wait. Winston Churchill cabled US president Franklin D Roosevelt a worrying message: “Tonight they [Bismarck and Prinz Eugen] have sailed. We have reason to believe a formidable Atlantic raid is intended.”

The chase begins

Early in the morning of 23 May, while dodging ice floes and battling through rain, fog and occasional snowfall, Lütjens began his dash through the Denmark Strait. Despite the foul weather and Lütjens’ efforts to stay concealed, at 7.22pm Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were sighted by the British cruisers HMS Norfolk and HMS Suffolk.

Neither side sought a battle. The outgunned British wanted to ‘shadow’ the Germans, reporting their position until more powerful reinforcements arrived, while Lütjens wanted to shake off his pursuers and vanish. Twice, the admiral turned towards the enemy vessels to try and drive them away (and once Bismarck even opened fire, narrowly missing Norfolk), but the British cruisers hung on until reinforcements arrived at dawn the following day.

“It must have been around 5.45am, the rising sun having already lit up the horizon, when the smoke plumes of two ships and then the tips of their masts came into view on our port beam,” recalled Burkard von Müllenheim-Rechberg. “The silhouettes of the ships below them became visible… I heard Albrecht [Bismarck’s second gunnery officer] shout, ‘The Hood!’”

Vice Admiral Lancelot Holland – second-in-command of the home fleet, who was sailing on Hood – faced significant challenges. Hood had a formidable reputation, but she was old, and to ensure that she could reach high speeds and boast big guns, her designers had sacrificed deck armour. Conversely, Prince of Wales was so new that she had left port with civilian technicians aboard to work on her unreliable four gun turrets. Trying to close the range and overcome these serious handicaps, Holland drove his formation towards the enemy, which meant the British ships could only fire their forward guns against the Germans’ full broadsides when the action began at 5.52am.

Bismarck sinks the Hood

Within minutes, Holland realised his mistake and started to turn his ships to bring their aft (rear) turrets into action, as shells from both German ships began to drop around Hood and smash into her superstructure. But it was already too late.

“[She] disappeared into a big orange ash and a huge pall of smoke,” Leading Sick Berth Attendant Sam Wood recalled. “Time seemed to stand still. I just watched in horror… the Hood had gone.” 1,415 men died there were only three survivors. The entire battle lasted just nine minutes.

Bismarck and Prinz Eugen now turned their fire on Prince of Wales, and the ship’s commander, Captain John Leach, narrowly escaped death after a large shell from Bismarck smashed into the battleship’s bridge, killing or wounding everyone else there. He wisely withdrew under cover of a smoke screen, and for the rest of the day, Prince of Wales and the two cruisers, now under the command of Rear Admiral Frederic Wake-Walker in Norfolk, continued to shadow from a distance.

Lütjens had his victory, but Prince of Wales had hit Bismarck twice. One exploding shell flooded a boiler room, reducing her speed, while the other penetrated an oil tank, contaminating her fuel and causing it to leak into the sea. Lütjens signalled Berlin, stating that he intended to detach Prinz Eugen to continue the raid and take Bismarck to the French port of Saint-Nazaire for repairs. To cover the cruiser’s escape, at 6.14pm Lütjens traded salvoes with Prince of Wales.

In London, Winston Churchill spent an anxious night considering the consequences of the day’s action. He later wrote in his 1950 book, The Grand Alliance: “What if we lost touch in the night? Which way would she go? She had a wide choice, and we were vulnerable almost everywhere.”

And if Bismarck did manage to escape, the damage to British prestige would be incalculable, particularly in the still-neutral United States. Admiral Tovey’s fleet was already on the way, but now every ship that could be mobilised rushed to the Atlantic. More cruiser patrols were ordered out, extra battleships were detached from convoy escort duties, and Vice Admiral Sir James Somerville’s Force H raced north from Gibraltar with the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and battlecruiser HMS Renown.

Desperate to slow Bismarck, Admiral Tovey, moving south from Scapa Flow but still about 330 miles away, pushed his aircraft carrier HMS Victorious ahead at high speed to launch an air strike. Victorious flew off her aircraft just after 10pm, when she was 100 miles from Bismarck. After a nightmarish journey though darkness, low cloud and rain, the Swordfish torpedo bombers attacked into a storm of shell fire Lindemann even red his ship’s 380mm main guns into the water to create huge splashes ahead of the attacking biplanes. Bismarck dodged eight torpedoes, but the ninth struck the centre of the vessel. Violent manoeuvring worsened the German battleship’s flooding and eventually cost her another boiler, further slowing her speed. All the Swordfish returned safely.

British celebrations were short-lived, however. At 3am, Wake-Walker, concerned about U-boat attacks, ordered his shadowing warships to zigzag. As the British ships temporarily turned away from him, Lütjens increased speed, broke radar contact and slipped away. “The day,” wrote Churchill, “which had begun so full of promise, ended in disappointment and frustration.”

Hunting the Bismarck

By dawn on 26 May, the situation was bleak. Bismarck had vanished, and although the navy’s best guess was that she was making for the French port city of Brest, nobody was sure. The frantically searching warships were running out of fuel when, at 10.30am, a patrolling Catalina flying boat piloted by a US Navy pilot on secondment to the RAF picked up Bismarck steaming east.

She was just under 750 miles – less than a day’s steaming – from safety. The only hope of stopping her lay with Somerville’s Force H, which was under 70 miles away.

Somerville pushed his only cruiser, HMS Sheffield, up ahead to shadow the wounded German behemoth and launched an air strike. In the confusion, the Swordfish pilots accidentally attacked Sheffield, fortunately missing her, but the mistake cost time, as the aircraft had to return to Ark Royal and rearm. With every minute lost, Bismarck drew nearer to Luftwaffe air cover. The second strike launched at 7.10pm and attacked at 8.47pm. John Moffat, who flew one of the Swordfish during the attack, recalled: “I felt that every gun on the ship was aiming at me… I do not know how I managed to keep flying into it every instinct was screaming at me to duck, turn away, do anything.” However, Moffat didn’t succumb to his nerves. “I held on, and we got closer and closer… I pressed the button on the throttle. Dusty [Miller, Moffat’s observer] yelled, ‘I think we’ve got a runner!’”

Then, two torpedoes – possibly including Moffat’s – hit Bismarck. Catastrophically, one ripped a hole in her stern and flooded the steering gear compartment, jamming her rudder in a 12-degree turn to port and leaving her unmanoeuvrable. All night, German sailors tried to repair the damage while fending o torpedo attacks by pursuing British destroyers, but at dawn she was still steaming in a circle.

Bismarck’s last battle

Bismarck’s last battle began just before 9am on 27 May, when Admiral Tovey approached the slowly circling giant with the battleships HMS King George V and HMS Rodney, as well as the cruisers Norfolk and Dorsetshire.

Tovey’s four ships pummelled Bismarck at a progressively closer range for over an hour, ring nearly 3,000 shells and scoring hundreds of hits. Unable to manoeuvre, Bismarck could barely land a blow in return, and by 10am the German battleship was a wreck. Allied sailor Eric Flory was watching from King George V. “There was the Bismarck away to starboard,” he remembered, “listing to port, guns pointing in all directions… Fires were raging, and the steel plates were showing red hot.”

The Scottish writer and broadcaster Ludovic Kennedy was serving in the destroyer HMS Tartar, and he recalled how he “had never seen a more magnificent warship, and she sat squarely in the water taking terrible, terrible punishment”.

At about 10.20am, Tovey sent Dorsetshire in to finish Bismarck off with torpedoes. Unchallenged, the cruiser manoeuvred around the crippled giant, methodically putting a torpedo into each of her sides. Following these hits, Bismarck rolled over to port and sank by the stern. Subsequent examination of the wreck indicates that the crew may have been flooding the ship at the same time to keep her from the British.

From the original crew of over 2,200, 110 survivors were rescued by HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Maori they then left the scene and abandoned hundreds of survivors following a U-boat warning. Five more survivors were subsequently found by German warships searching the scene after the British had left. Lütjens had died earlier in the battle, but Lindemann seemingly chose to go down with his ship and was last seen standing on deck, his arm raised in a salute. Burkard von Müllenheim-Rechberg was one of the few that were rescued, and he recalled rousing his fellows to action: “‘A salute to our fallen comrades,’ I called. We all snapped our hands to our caps, glanced at the flag, and jumped.”

The fate of Bismarck cast a long shadow. Hitler, never confident about his navy, “radically restricted the movements of these major units”, recalled Kriegsmarine chief Grand Admiral Erich Raeder. “The success we had had, even with our inferior forces, through bold initiative and the taking of calculated risk, was to be a thing of the past.”

The British remained haunted by the huge effort and considerable luck required to catch Bismarck, and they expended enormous resources ensuring her sister ship, Tirpitz, never broke out. In June 1942, a brief sortie by Tirpitz led to the scattering of Arctic Convoy PQ 17, and its wholesale slaughter by U-boats and the Luftwaffe.

However, Britain’s battle against Bismarck had ultimately proved a success. It fell to Churchill to announce the news to the House of Commons. “A slip of paper was passed to me,” he recalled. “I asked the indulgence of the House and said, ‘I have just received news that the Bismarck is sunk.’ They seemed content.”

Nick Hewitt is an author and naval historian. He is head of collections and research at the National Museum of the Royal Navy

This content first appeared in BBC History Magazine‘s Great Battles of World War Two, Volume Two: War at Sea special edition

Remarkable condition

"What we're trying to track down at the moment is an inner tube. We've got a flat tyre," laughed conservation manager Mr Knapp, who has been conserving planes at Duxford for 23 years.

"Because it's an early mark Spitfire we just can't get that inner tube at the moment. The trials and tribulations of being a conservator."

But apart from the minor niggles, Mr Knapp said the Mark IA is in fantastic condition and is the best preserved early model of the fighter plane he has ever seen.

Built in Supermarine Aviation in Southampton in 1940, the Spitfire was used by No. 609 West Riding Squadron, stationed at Middle Wallop in Hampshire.

It was flown by 13 different pilots on 57 operations during the Battle of Britain and it successfully brought down a number of aircraft.

At least four of the German casualties came from pilot Noel Agazarian, who survived the Battle of Britain, but was shot down in his Hurricane in Libya in 1941.

After circulating around a number of RAF bases, it was eventually transferred to London's Imperial War Museum in 1946, where it has been suspended from the ceiling ever since.

Mr Knapp said its remarkable condition was not just down to pilot skill, but also a lot of luck.

THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN A German Perspective


History, Concepts, and Doctrine

To examine the events leading to the failure of the Luftwaffe to gain control of the skies over southeastern England, one must first understand the thinking of the men involved in its development and who were responsible for its employment in war. It is relatively easy, with the benefit of hindsight, to point out specific decisions, or specific failings of one aircraft type versus another. But, it is only through a balanced understanding of why things were, as they were, in late 1940 that a true appreciation of the Battle of Britain can be obtained.

Genesis. Some authors credit Hitler and Goering with the rebirth of the German Air Force between 1933 and 1935. There is an element of truth in the notion that many air force officers commonly saw in Hitler and the Nazi party an opportunity to achieve their ambition for building a stronger air force. But, the roots can be traced far deeper, probably to Gen Hans von Seekt, chief of the Army Command, Defense Ministry. It was von Seekt who in 1920, "was convinced that military aviation would some day be revived in Germany." 1 It was von Seekt who had handpicked the few key officers to man the aviation positions within his command. Those key officers--Sperrle, Wever, Kesselring, and Stumpff--would one day form the nucleus of the Luftwaffe leadership. It was also von Seekt who indicated in a 1923 memorandum "that a future air force must be an independent part of the Armed Forces." 2 And it was von Seekt who in 1924 ensured that a former officer of the old German Flying Corps was named head of the new Civil Aviation Department of the Ministry of Transport. This appointment would virtually guarantee that "the development and control of civil aviation [would continue] under military direction." 3

Following World War I, Germany was prohibited by the Treaty of Versailles from maintaining a standing air force. The treaty banned the manufacture of aircraft, aircraft engines, and key components for six months following the war and most military aircraft and aircraft engines were turned over to the allies to be destroyed.

A loophole in the treaty permitted the manufacture of civil aircraft. By 1926, "Germany was left with complete freedom in the sphere of civil aviation." 4 Thus, a core of trained aviators could be maintained under the civilian umbrella of what would become the premier airline in Europe: the Deutsche Lufthansa. Lufthansa's chief executive, Erhard Milch, in 1933, agreed to accept the position of state secretary (under Goering) of

the newly established Air Ministry. There were other, sometimes secret, liaisons in the period before 1933 these included technical assistance projects with Sweden and even with Russia, glider sport-flying clubs, and so forth, but the details are not necessary here.

Concepts. It seems clear from writings, lectures and actions, that the collective military opinion of airmen within the Luftwaffe placed considerable trust in not only the classical military theorists but also in modern theorists, including Giulio Douhet. Hitler voiced an understanding of current air theories during a 1932 meeting with Milch, speaking "at length on the ideas of General Douhet. . . . [He] was principally interested in bombing warfare as the best means of deterring an aggressor." 5

Certainly Milch fully understood the capabilities of airpower. When he selected an army officer, Gen (then Colonel) Max Wever, to be the first chief of the Air Staff he immediately encouraged him "to learn to fly, and gave him Douhet's book to read." 6 In selecting Wever, Milch had harnessed a brilliant, highly respected and motivated assistant. Both were proponents of airpower as an independent force--to be constructed along Douhetian lines. They agreed that the immediate priority for the Luftwaffe was to develop a heavy bomber. Erhard Milch even looked forward to "a bomber that could fly around Britain from its base in Germany." 7 Together Milch and Wever established the basic foundations of the new Luftwaffe.

Doctrine. The Luftkriegfuhrung or 'Air Conduct of War', contained the Luftwaffe's basic doctrine. The commander of the Air War Academy prepared it under the supervision of Wever. For its day, the doctrine was sound, advocating strong airpower roles with wide-ranging capabilities far beyond mere deterrence as previously described by Hitler. First issued in 1936, the Luftkriegfuhrung based the air force strategy "on offense rather than defense, as exemplified by the fact that, of 280 paragraphs in the regulations, only thirty-five were devoted to the latter." 8 The Luftkriegfuhrung further specified that "the mission of the Wehrmacht [the Armed Forces] in war is to break the will of the enemy. The will of a nation finds its strongest expression in that nation's armed forces. Defeat of the enemy armed forces is the primary objective in war . . . the mission of the Luftwaffe is to serve this purpose." 9 In many respects the emerging Luftwaffe followed a developmental course not unlike that of the US Army Air Corps.

The Luftkriegfuhrung reflected the influence of Douhet by stating "that air power carries the war right to the heart of the enemy country from the moment war breaks out," and ". . . strikes at the very root of the enemy's fighting power and the people's will to resist." 10 Civilian populations were provided specific protection since the doctrine also stated "attacks on cities for the purpose of terrorizing the civilian population are absolutely forbidden." 11

The influence that General Wever had on the development of German air doctrine is perhaps best supported by his 1935 address during the opening ceremonies of the Air War Academy. General Wever expounded upon much of the classical theory of the day. He stated that "the realms of the air are not restricted to the fronts of the Army they are above and behind the army, over the coasts and seas, over the whole nation and over the whole of the enemy's territory." Wever went on to advocate the doctrine of attack, stressing the offensive. He asserted that "the bomber is the decisive factor in aerial warfare." He warned that it was not sufficient to establish defense with only defensive weapons, instead the initiative must be taken and this meant that "the enemy bomber formations should be attacked at their most vulnerable moment when they are on the ground taking on fresh fuel and ammunition and reservicing."

In terms of established air policy, emphasis was first on the surprise attack of enemy air forces followed by attacks upon other vital enemy centers of gravity. "An initial assault by the Luftwaffe was to be directed against the enemy air force, including its supporting aircraft and aero-engine factories and ground installations, in order to gain air superiority from the

  • destroy the enemy air force by attacking it with our bomber formations,

  • prevent the movement of large enemy ground forces to decisive areas,

  • support the operations of the army,

  • support our naval operations,

  • paralyze the enemy armed forces by stopping production in armaments factories.

Aircraft Development: Why the Luftwaffe Was What It Was in 1939

active preparation for war until the beginning of August 1939." 17

Political. The guidance received from Hitler (within the Luftwaffe from Goering) consistently led the senior military leaders to believe that war was not imminent. As late as July 1939 Hitler informed Adm Erich Raeder "no war was at hand," and Hitler further reinforced this thought in a separate discussion with Milch when he confided "that recently in Rome, Mussolini had stated, 'War is inevitable, but we shall try to postpone it until 1942'." Hitler reassured Milch that the "Duce's fear of war breaking out even then was quite mistaken." 18 Thus, in many respects, the overall path towards aircraft development appears to have been one of casual complacency.

Organization. There were two agencies with primary responsibility for the development and selection of aircraft: the General Staff and the Technical Office. The General Staff provided "tactical and technical specifications" and the Technical Office then passed on those specifications to industry in the form of research and development contracts. Extensive pre-production testing often resulted in many modifications to original plans (typically between five and twenty thousand changes), but these tests could cause up to 70,000 further alterations to an original design. Very often the whole process could take four to five years to complete.

Early plans for developing a bomber force had to overcome many obstacles. "This was virgin territory, for, apart from some minor efforts in the years 1914-1918, no bomber force had been tried and tested in war according to the precepts of either Douhet or the Luftkriegfuhrung." 19 This situation was not helped by the rapid advances occurring in aircraft technology. For example, the speed, range, and bomb load of the typical bomber had more than doubled in the period between 1919 and 1929. As a result there was a significant time constraint under which all aircraft development must operate to be ready for war by 1943. "From 1933, there was enough time to develop and produce only two or, with luck, three generations of aircraft." 20

In 1934 the Technical Office issued the first requirements for a medium bomber. The specifications called for an aircraft with a speed of 215 miles per hour (mph), a radius of at least 600 miles, and a bomb load of 2,200 pounds. As an example of the external constraints under which the Germans had to operate, in addition to meeting the military specifications the aircraft had to be suitable as a civilian transport to satisfy the treaty requirements of 1918. Three aircraft were selected for further development: the He111, the Do17, and the Ju86. Two of these, the He111 and the Do17, would see extensive service during the Battle of Britain one, the He111, would continue to serve for most of the war.

The Luftwaffe subscribed to much of the same basic thinking that was being taught by the "bomber advocates" of the US Air Corps Tactical School: the bomber will always get through and the bomber can outpace the fighter’s speed, range, and altitude. For a time the Germans gave serious consideration to eliminating all defensive armament on the Do17! Just as the B-17 entered service with the US Army Air Corps as an aircraft ahead of its time, so too had the Do17M-1 entered the Luftwaffe in early 1937, "at a time when it was twenty-five miles an hour faster than the most advanced enemy fighter." 21

Still, the senior leadership within the Luftwaffe was not satisfied with the bombers at hand. "None was considered to possess all the attributes required of a standard attack aircraft." 22 While in some categories these three aircraft met or exceeded the original specifications laid down by the Technical Office, none met all of the requirements. The most significant deficiency was range, especially with maximum payload. For example, the Ju86 had the greatest range of the three aircraft, but it was still limited to a somewhat less than impressive 350 miles. (Note: The Ju86 was phased out in 1938.)

The Technical Office had a peculiar tendency to issue requirements and specifications that in many cases might negate the opportunity to take full advantage of the technical capabilities of the day. For

example, in May 1934, "the Technical Office issued specifications for a multi-purpose, high-altitude, long-range reconnaissance aircraft that could adopt the role of bomber." At the same time they realized "that to combine the functions of fast bomber, heavy fighter, and reconnaissance aircraft was impracticable." 23 More sound reasoning eventually prevailed, however, and in 1935 new specifications were issued calling for three separate aircraft to fill the roles of heavy fighter (the Me110), fast reconnaissance (a modification of the Do17), and the Schnell or 'fast bomber' (the Ju88).

Practical Considerations. Dive-bombing was an additional interest deeply rooted in the convictions of both the Technical Office and the Air Ministry. Ernst Udet, director of the Technical Office, is cited by most historians as the major advocate of dive-bombing. Indeed, he had flown a US Curtis Hawk in the 1931 Cleveland Air Races and later he convinced Goering and Milch to buy two Hawks for dive-bombing evaluations. There are two good reasons for his position on the issue: munitions shortages and bombing accuracy.

Munitions Shortages. The limitations of the German munitions industry during the mid- to late 1930s were indeed a serious problem. In 1938 the total capacity for munitions production was less than 30 percent of the production capacity available during World War I. Clearly, such limited resources had to be used conservatively and improvements in bombing accuracy "would cut down munitions wastage and thus mitigate possible ammunition shortages." 24 The demand for bombs would be so great during the Polish campaign that for a while concrete bombs filled with shrapnel were produced to cover shortages. 25

Ju87B Stuka

Bombing Accuracy. Dive-bombing offered several advantages over level bombing. The limited bomb loads and the relative inaccuracy of the level bombers currently available required large numbers of aircraft to achieve the same level of results as dive-bombing could provide. As an example, the Ju87B-1 (the model in service in 1939-1940), "was to prove effective in the hands of expert pilots, who, in dives of eighty degrees to within 2,300 feet from the ground, could deliver a bomb with an accuracy of less than thirty yards. Even average pilots could achieve a twenty-five percent success rate in hitting their targets, a far higher proportion than that attained in conventional, horizontal attack bombers." 26 By comparison, US Army air forces typically designated a radius of 1,000 feet as the "target area" aim point for the "pickle-barrel" bombing conducted in Europe. "While accuracy improved during the war, [US Strategic Bombing] Survey studies show that, in the over-all, only about 20% of the bombs aimed at precision targets fell within this target area." 27

Generaloberst Hans Jeschonnek, chief of the General Staff of the Air Force from 1939-1943, and at the time head of the operations staff of the General Staff, saw dive-bombing as "the ideal solution to the bomber problem of 1937." That bomber problem was primarily the lack of an effective bomb sight for use with the level bombers. The standard sight was inaccurate and would require considerable practice to achieve acceptable results even for area bombardment. In 1938, "even well-qualified bomber crews could achieve only a two percent bombing accuracy in high-level, horizontal attacks (up to 13,500 feet), and twelve to twenty-five percent accuracy in low level attacks against targets of between 165 to 330 feet in radius, and to make matters worse, the bomb load of the German bombers was very low only four 550 lb. bombs were carried by the Do17 and six by the He111. Thus, if the target were to be completely destroyed, the only way to compensate for inaccuracy would be to employ large numbers of aircraft." 28 The Luftwaffe General Staff announced that, "the emphasis in offensive bombardment has

clearly shifted from area to pin-point bombardment." 29 The best solution to inaccurate bomb sights, limited bomber payload, and economics was to adopt a dive-bomber doctrine.

Eventually the twin-engine Ju88 "wonder bomber" (as the propaganda of the day called it), and even the He177 "heavy bomber" were to fall victim to the momentum of the dive-bomber craze. The original specifications and indeed the early prototypes of the Ju88 were quite good when compared to the fighters actually available during the Battle of Britain. "In March 1939, one of the first prototypes established a new 621 miles closed-circuit record by carrying a 4,409 lb. payload at an average speed of 321.25 m.p.h.." 30 (The maximum speed for the Spitfire Mk 1: 355 mph, and that of the Hurricane Mk 1: 328 mph.) But, following extensive (about 25,000) modifications to meet the "dive-bomber" specifications and to provide for additional armament as well as a fourth crew member, the performance of the final production models of the Ju88 were disappointing. As an example, when the production version, Ju88A-1, arrived in September 1939 it had a maximum speed of only 258 mph, and a range of 550 miles with a 2,000-pound bomb load. With a maximum bomb load of 3,800 pounds performance was further reduced to 190 mph with a radius of just 250 miles! However, and this is significant in light of the reasons for the modifications to the original design: a production model, when properly flown under test conditions, could deliver 50 percent of its bomb load within a 50-meter circle. 31

The German Air Staff would remain divided on the subject of dive-bombing and the concepts for employing the Ju87. The general consensus was that the Ju87 could be used both for strategic operations and for support operations with the Army. From a functional standpoint the Luftwaffe leadership believed, "the employment of the dive bomber was in German Air Staff opinion not to be very different from that of the long-range bomber." 32

THE HEAVY BOMBER. In the prewar years, all four major German aircraft manufacturers--Dornier, Junkers, Heinkel and Focke-Wulf--had designed and built successful four-engine aircraft. Only small numbers were ever produced and they were used almost exclusively in transport roles by Lufthansa. In October 1935 Hermann Goering stated, "There is no ceiling on the credit for the financing of rearmament." 33 Indeed, from 1933 through 1936 the German aircraft industry grew from nothing to become the fourteenth largest industrial sector within the Reich. Of the approximately sixty-four billion Reichsmarks spent on rearmament prior to the invasion of Poland, roughly 40 percent went to the Luftwaffe. By the end of 1936 the Luftwaffe had taken delivery of almost 9,000 aircraft of all types. As a comparison, the United States devoted 35 percent of her wartime production to the development of air forces. 34 At the end of 1937, however, the Luftwaffe's growth had slowed considerably for several reasons.

The chief reason for the slowed growth was the state of the German economy. Additional production delays occurred due to the retooling time and costs for the newer design models. Unforeseen technical delays (some of these were self-imposed such as the dive-bombing specifications), and the intense competition for raw materials (between both the military services and the civilian sectors) caused problems. Certainly there was significant interest within the Luftwaffe hierarchy to recognize the potential for strategic bombardment, and "despite the Army's rejection of [the concept of . . .] a heavy bomber, the senior officers of the Air Ministry remained firm in their advocacy." 35

It is relevant here to mention three additional factors that also weighed heavily on the decision not to establish a "strategic" air force, and hence a heavy bomber, from the outset. First, shortages of petroleum products, especially aviation fuel, virtually mandated this decision. The procurement of adequate supplies of petroleum products was a problem before the war as it was during the war. Investments in the synthetic fuel industry relieved some of the strain, but demand simply outpaced supply throughout the 1930s. For example, in June 1938, the

supplies of aviation lubricants "were as low as 6 percent of mobilization requirements," and reflected Germany's inability to meet petroleum requirements from internal sources. 36 These shortages take on even greater importance when considering the Luftwaffe's own estimates that a planned force of 500 heavy bombers would consume 24,000 tons of aviation fuel per month. This represented one-third of Germany's total production rate in 1940! 37

The second was the lack of suitable engines to power a heavy bomber. The "difficulties experienced by German engine manufacturers in producing engines that met comparable performance standards of American and British industry," limited the design and performance of their aircraft. 38 This was partly due to the late start German engineers had in designing high-performance engine types and partly due to the low octane fuels on hand to operate them. The Germans entered the war using 87-89 octane fuels. This octane rating, however, could only be achieved "by adding 15-18 percent aromatics with tetraethyl lead to the synthetic fuel." 39 In contrast, during the Battle of Britain the British used 100 octane fuels supplied by the United States.

The third, and most important factor, stems from the strategic reality of Hitler's decision to rearm the Wehrmacht. Germany was a continental power and certain to enter into land warfare from the outset of hostilities. It can therefore be concluded that, no matter what "theoretical advantages might accrue to Germany through the possession of a 'strategic' bombing force in the late 1930's, the Third Reich faced the possibility of an imminent war. Future 'strategic' bombing capabilities would do nothing for present military difficulties, while the tactical potential of a less sophisticated, more conventional air force would be more quickly realized." 40 There would be little solace in an effective strategic bombing campaign against London, Paris or Warsaw, if the Allied armies were already dictating peace terms in Berlin!

In spite of all these reasons, several general officers, including Wever, Wimmer and Felmy, continued to emphasize the importance of an independent air mission in addition to that of air support for the Army. In June 1936 the replacement of two key Luftwaffe leaders brought about some decisive changes in thinking on the issue of the heavy strategic bomber versus the dive bomber changes that ultimately, and perhaps irreversibly, set the course for future production. Following his death, Wever was replaced by Albert Kesselring and Goering would also replace Wimmer, chief of the Technical Office, with Ernst Udet.

As previously mentioned, Udet is often cited as the main reason for Luftwaffe failure to develop a heavy bomber. He often voiced a preference for lighter, faster, twin-engine aircraft. There was also another constraint: time. They had only six years (1933-1939) to develop the Luftwaffe before the actual start of the war--only ten years based on the planned 1943 "target date" for the beginning of hostilities. Therefore, Kesselring and Udet "advocated the continuance and extension of the Air Force's ground-support role, and argued against the creation of a bomber force along Douhetian lines." 41 The two had reasoned that for the Luftwaffe to support a major continental war in 1943 (given the constraints under which Germany had to orchestrate its rearmament plans) that a heavy bomber was simply not feasible, nor was it required.

A "continental war" is the key point, because Hitler had assured Goering in the summer of 1938 that "a war against England is quite out of the question!" 42 Therefore, it could be viewed as prudent that the needs of the Luftwaffe could be more adequately met by emphasis on the Ju88. Udet reviewed the early plans for the He177 with Professor Heinkel and told him that, "we don't need this expensive heavy bomber any more. It eats up far too much material. Our twin-engine dive bombers will fly far enough and hit much more accurately. And we can build two or three of them for one of the four-engine types. The thing is to be able to build the number of bombers the Fuhrer wants!" 43


Much of the Luftwaffe strategy for the conduct of air warfare as formulated during the mid- to late 1930s was "confirmed" by the events and experiences of the Spanish Civil War--confirmed, at least, in the minds of the Germans. Varying capabilities existed on both sides (Nationalist and Republican) during the Spanish conflict, but in general the aircraft of the Condor Legion and the Nationalist forces were decidedly inferior to the Russian-built aircraft that served the Republicans. In actuality, "the poor reports sent back to Berlin by the newly established special combat reporting team and by Sperrle's Chief of Staff, Freiherr von Richtofen," helped to ensure the Legion was supplied with all of the latest German equipment. 44

Publicity on the use of airpower in civil war focused on the bombing of the city of Guernica (the center of the city was destroyed, killing at least 1,600 civilians) in the spring of 1937. For many observers, the US Air Corps Tactical School included, this situation helped to reinforce the evolving theories on "Douhetian"-style bombing. However, what influenced the Luftwaffe most was an "air support" attack which took place a few days before Guernica. On that occasion, nine He51 fighters, each armed with six 10-kilogram bombs, made low-level attacks (at about 500 feet) on fortified enemy positions. This action helped achieve considerable success for the Nationalist ground forces. The defending soldiers were so terrified by the German aircraft that they fled in panic. 45

These types of tactical successes on the battlefield, in the German view, tended to confirm the doctrine already established in the early 1930s the doctrine to support the army in the field. Thus, if the Spanish experiences confirmed anything for the Luftwaffe, it had confirmed that the concepts for strategy and tactics developed earlier from theory and maneuvers in Germany were basically sound. The lessons also served to prove that bombers were extremely effective in the close-air-support role and could be used with great effect against enemy troop concentrations and strong points. In essence then, the Spanish experience helped solidify the bonds already established between the Army and the Luftwaffe.

The bombers had also carved their niche within the hierarchy of Luftwaffe priorities. In particular "the efficacy of dive-bombing by the Ju87's as compared with the far more inaccurate He111's, was revealed. The success of the Heinkel bomber was found to lie more in low-level, high speed runs against targets, and this vindicated the view that a 'wonder-bomber' along the lines of the Ju88 was required, even more so because it would have the capacity to dive-bomb." 46

With regards to the performance of the fighter aircraft, the Air Ministry concluded that the Me109s were "excellent weapons against enemy bombers and good defense for friendly formations." 47 This conclusion was reached in spite of the fact that the Me109C/Ds were technically inferior to the Russian-made I-16! It was also recognized that bombers were resistant to damage and this led to heavier armament for the fighters to include 20-millimeter (mm) cannon. The short range of the Me109 was also seen as a tactical disadvantage and resulted in greater emphasis being placed on long-range fighters and the continued development of the Me110. Note: Experimental use of external fuel tanks occurred during the Spanish conflict, but serious further development was not continued. 48


While several previous changes had been made, the structure of the Luftwaffe at the beginning of the Battle of Britain was essentially what emerged from the reorganizations that occurred during 1938 and 1939. Significant emphasis was being placed on mobility, flexibility of operations, and close identity with the Army operational commands. A final reorganization on 1 April 1939 resulted in the establishment of four area commands each called a Luftflotte or 'Air Fleet'.

The strategic policy of the Luftwaffe--close ties to the Wehrmacht--drove the

evolution of its organization. And, because "the support of ground troops was the primary consideration, support which entailed the concerted action of bombers, dive-bombers, fighters, transports and reconnaissance aircraft, territorially-based, mixed commands were needed, to be both flexible and mobile, so that they could be adapted to the activities of the army groups or armies to whose support they were assigned." 49

The German Luftflotten or 'Air Fleets', were therefore organized territorially, not functionally as were their Royal Air Force (RAF) counterparts. Each luftflotte was a balanced self-contained force (consisting of bomber, fighter, ground attack, reconnaissance and associated support units). In essence it was a "composite wing" on a much larger scale. The territorial organization was established to align the major air units, the luftflotten, to the territorial areas associated with the Army units they were designed to support.

Within each luftflotten a clear separation existed between operational and administrative matters. The luftgau (air district) handled all logistic, training, and medical matters as well as exercising the operational command of airfields. The fliegerdivision (air division), later named fliegerkorps were the operational 'fighting forces'. A fliegerdivision consisted of the gruppen and staffeln (groups and squadrons). Within both the luftgau and the fliegerdivision normal departments (quartermaster, administrative, legal, etc.,) existed for day-to-day matters. The luftflotte commanded normal operations. The luftflotte issued orders and directed the luftgau handled maintenance and supply, and the fliegerdivisions conducted the operations. (See Appendix 5, 6, and 7.)


Early Planning. Before the beginning of 1938 there had been no planning for the conduct of air warfare against Britain. In February of that year, the Reich Luftwaffe Ministry had "instructed General Felmy's Luftwaffen-gruppenkommando 2, whose territory covered the Reich's North Sea coast, to draw up proposals for action in the event of Britain's intervention in a war in the West." 50 The emphasis for these contingency air operations would be actions "against the ports and armament factories of London, and against the English Channel ports and air bases in Norfolk, Suffolk and Sussex." 51

After the war, General Felmy indicated that planning for this contingency fell to his command because the General Staff of the Luftwaffe was already overburdened developing the new air force and planning for operations in Czechoslovakia--"Studie Grun." In the event, two memoranda were produced by Felmy's staff. General Felmy identified the Royal Navy as the most important target. He also pointed out that this would be a fleeting objective because the Navy could easily sail north, out of range of the Luftwaffe bombers. Thus, the major emphasis could be placed on "Kingston-upon-Hull, London, and the ground service installations of the Royal Air Force. . . ." 52 Overall, the memoranda made very clear that an air war against Britain (under the conditions of 1938) could have nuisance value only. There was no possibility that the Luftwaffe could act with any decisive effect. One limiting factor identified was the short range of Germany's existing bombers--this would prohibit effective action against Britain from their bases in northwestern Germany--and, therefore, additional airfields in Holland and Belgium would be essential.

The Operations Staff of the Luftwaffe General Staff, on the basis of its own evaluations, arrived at similar conclusions and believed that "in existing circumstances there could be no hope whatever of securing a decisive victory in a combined attack on the British war economy by the Luftwaffe and the Navy. The essential task of the Luftwaffe was to guarantee freedom of action for the ground forces." 53 Another study by Felmy's staff was conducted in May 1939, and "held out little hope of success in an onslaught against Britain's fighter force as a preliminary to a general attack at a later date." 54 Presumably, an offensive against the British fighter forces would be unsuccessful because the German bombers would operate without fighter escort if they were forced to operate only from bases within Germany.

On the basis of map exercises conducted by Felmy's staff at Luftflotte Two--the only such exercises (against Britain) held prior to the war--General Felmy concluded "neither the strength nor the training or equipment of Second Air Fleet forces were adequate to insure a quick victory over Britain in 1939." 55 The "target date" established for these map exercises had been set at 1942. Based on these staff estimates, it would appear that both Goering and his chief of staff were fully cognizant of the dangers in entering into a war against England before the Luftwaffe was adequately prepared. After an official visit to England in 1938, Milch warned Hitler against Ribbentropp (the German ambassador in London) whom he believed "was damaging relations between the two countries." 56 Milch also conveyed an additional warning England was prepared to go to war over the Danzig and Polish corridor question. Goering would express his foreboding when, upon receiving final confirmation of the attack upon Poland, he called Herr Ribbentropp (then the foreign secretary) and shouted at him, "Now you have your war. You alone are to blame." Two days later (3 September 1939), when England declared war on Germany, he is quoted as saying, "May Heaven have mercy on us if we should lose this war." 57

A study prepared by Oberst (Colonel) "Beppo" Schmid, chief of intelligence of the Luftwaffe Operations Staff, further determined that the RAF could reach strengths equal to those of the Luftwaffe by 1940. Therefore, the priorities established for the forced submission of England were the "(1) defeat of the Royal Air Force, (2) incapacitation of the British air armament industry, and (3) elimination of the British Navy." 58 Subsequent actions could then be directed against port, shipping, and other industries, but strong air forces would still be required to accomplish this. Schmid stated after the war that he briefed the commanders that because of the "high morale of the British people and the improvising skill of British leaders, Great Britain could not be forced to capitulate through air attack alone, but only through actual occupation of the island." 59

Political Guidance. Hitler's opinion, on the other hand, was that Britain could be defeated through a combination of air and sea blockades. Hitler insisted that, "the moment England's food supply routes are cut, she is forced to capitulate." 60 If this could be achieved, there would be no need for invasion. Hitler then outlined his strategy in Directive No. 1 for the Conduct of War. The directive called for the invasion of Poland and a strategic defensive in the west against England and France.

According to Directive No. 1, the Luftwaffe was to "take measures to dislocate English imports, the armaments industry, and the transport of troops to France." 61 While planning for the contingency was allowed, no attacks were to be made on the mainland of Britain itself. Hitler would, however, issue a memorandum on 10 October detailing his intentions in the West if Britain failed to come to an agreement for peace. Specifically, Hitler identified "Germany's unfavorable geographic location for air warfare, which forced aircraft to fly long distances to reach their targets." 62 In recognition of this limitation, War Directive No. 6 (dated 9 October 1939), mandated the occupation of "as large an area as possible in Holland, Belgium and northern France as a basis for conducting a promising air and sea war against England." 63 Subsequently, Directive No. 9, issued on the 29th of November 1939, identified Britain as "the driving force behind the Western Powers' will to make war. The defeat of Britain . . . was the prime condition for final victory, and the most effective means to bring about this defeat was to paralyze the British economy." 64

The precedence established for target selection was 1) ports (either by mining approaches or bombing installations), 2) attacks on merchant shipping and associated naval escorts, 3) storage depots followed by transport conveying British troops to the continent, and 4) vital military industries including aircraft and munitions factories. The intention, however, was not total war against England, or an invasion, or even an all out air war. What the Germans did desire was an economic strangulation of the British Isles to the point that a negotiated

peace could be had. Political attitudes against continued German aggression had stiffened and the peace proposals Hitler presented in the Reichstag on 6 October were soundly rejected by the British. 65 The fact remains that neither the Luftwaffe nor the German Navy was in a position to blockade England to the extent required by Hitler's memorandums and directives. A factor that Hitler had not yet grasped but also a factor the British seemed to have been quite willing to exploit to their best advantage. Therefore, the "German command had to devise new plans to conquer Great Britain." 66

Early Operations. Initial German air operations against England in the fall of 1939 met with limited success with the notable exception of those conducted against merchant shipping. The intention was to delay full scale air operations against Britain until suitable air bases were available and sufficient time was allowed to build up strength. Hitler announced in War Directive No. 13, dated 24 May 1940, that "as soon as enough units become available, the Air Force should embark upon its independent mission against the British homeland." The targets remained those as outlined in War Directive No. 9, and further stipulated that operations would begin "with a crushing attack in retaliation for British raids on the Ruhr area." The German Air Staff apparently took a somewhat different view, however, and issued an amendment to War Directive No. 9 directing "the primary target should be the British aircraft industry," as the "last potent weapon which could be employed directly against us." Thus, the first attacks against the British homeland began on the night of 5 June 1940. Over the next few months some 13 airfields, 16 industrial plants and 14 ports, as well as commercial shipping were attacked, apparently with no clear aim or objective in mind. Attacks against shipping were generally quite effective, but for the industrial targets, "the disruption of output caused by men going to their shelters was far greater than that resulting from German bombing itself, and few lives were lost." 67

Much of the German air planning for the Battle of Britain was based on the considerable successes of earlier campaigns. But, "no uniformly accepted concept existed concerning the operational conduct of air warfare against England." 68 The prerequisite for successful land operations was recognized as security, through control of the air. The task for the Luftwaffe, however, was viewed in simplistic terms and approached rather casually the only difference between the coming battle and others previously fought was "that the R.A.F., being the most powerful single air force yet encountered, would necessarily require for its destruction some time longer than the 12 to 48 hours previously allotted to other air forces." 69 As an example of the complacency, Erhard Milch, in his capacity as the inspector general, reported (in June 1940) that as a result of his visits to the various captured airfields and the field headquarters, "no preparations at all were being made for air war with Britain." 70 This is somewhat amazing considering the tremendous logistical problems associated with sustained operations from those airfields. Runways had to be improved, and depots established. Munitions, fuel, and supplies had to be transported hundreds of miles from their sources within Germany. 71 The Germans continued to view the English Channel as little more than a large river. The air force was to support the land forces in another "river-crossing" exercise--an operation not unlike those previously conducted on the Meuse, Maas and Vistulla rivers--without regard to the strategic consequences.

The casual approach to the war with Britain was certainly a reflection of the overconfidence resulting from the highly successful campaigns recently concluded in Poland, Norway and especially in France. All, however, were campaigns where the bomber forces functioned almost exclusively as extensions of the tactical air arm. But the near exclusive use of the bomber arm for tactical support of the Army inevitably led "to confusion and misconceptions as to the employment of the bomber which lasted throughout the war." 72 And, in addition to the task of defeating the RAF, the German Combined Staffs issued a directive in July from Field Marshal Keitel stipulating "the

German lack of command of the sea could be substituted by supremacy in the air." 73

Some of the Luftwaffe's airmen were more skeptical, and Werner Baumbach, a future General of Bombers wrote, "we know that England is the hardest nut to be cracked in this war. Our experience at the front has shown us that final victory against England can only be attained by the systematic cooperation of all arms of the service and ruthless application of the elementary principle of concentrating all one's strength and effort at the vital strategic point. Even if the air arm is the most important weapon in total war, it cannot by itself ensure the decisive, final and total victory." 74

Hitler's Directive No. 16, dated 6 July 1940, identified the role of the Air Force in the invasion (code-named Seelowe or "Sea Lion") as prevention of "interference by hostile air forces." (See Appendix 1 for the complete text.) In addition, the Luftwaffe was to mount attacks against British strong points, especially those in the landing areas, against troop concentrations and reinforcements, as well as naval units operating in the area of operations. In essence then, the Luftwaffe would provide an "air umbrella" beneath which the invasion could take place. There was little difference in this directive from those used to form the operational basis for the campaigns in Poland, Norway and France. But, there was one significant flaw, and that flaw was a total failure to provide "a special joint command staff to control all three branches of the Wehrmacht--such as the Joint Command organized as Group XXI for the operations in Norway--to assume responsibility for the planning, preparation, and execution of Operation Sea Lion." 75 Instead, the responsibility for operational planning rested with the three high commands of the Wehrmacht. The Air Force Operations Staff (OKL) translated Hitler's guidance into two main aims, and these were subsequently issued to the luftflotten. First, eliminate the RAF as a fighting force, including its ground organization. Second, cut external supplies by attacking ports and shipping. 76

Released on 30 June 1940, Goering's General Directive for the Operation of the Luftwaffe Against England closely paralleled the intentions of Hitler's directives. (Note: This precedes Directive No. 16, but it seems logical that Goering was privy to Hitler's intentions before the directive was issued.) A discrepancy exists between some authors concerning the intent of Goering's directive. Author Matthew Cooper claims, "the prime mission of the Luftwaffe was, in cooperation with the Navy, to attack merchant shipping . . . in order to cut Britain off from her overseas supplies." 77 Cajus Bekker, on the other hand, states "the primary target was the Royal Air Force, its ground organization and the industry that fed it." 78 Karl Klee agrees with Bekker and probably provides the most reliable translation of the original document. According to Klee, "the Royal Air Force was designated as the chief opponent. Independently of the incidental mission of attacking hostile import traffic and hostile naval forces, the paramount mission of the Luftwaffe was to seize every possible opportunity by day and by night for attacks on hostile air units while airborne or on missions." 79 The three authors do agree that after 11 July, with the release of the Directive for the Intensified Air War Against England, operations against British naval and merchant shipping were approved.

Goering also called for the assembly of air forces in their operational areas (Luftflotten 2, 3 and 5), the stockpiling of supplies and munitions, air defense measures and the setup of signal communications. Timing and the selection of targets Goering intended to "closely integrate" with the Luftflotten involved. 80 During the preparation period, only harassing raids were conducted. On 21 July, Goering conferred with the chiefs of staff of the three Air Fleets concerning the conduct of air operations prior to the intensified air war with England. Goering specified small-scale attacks except against convoys, and expressly ordered, "that installations needed by the German armed forces in later operations were not to be attacked. As an example he quoted the dock installations in south coast ports." 81

Planning. Much of the planning for the "intensified" air operations was apparently conducted by the Air Fleets and then submitted for approval by the Luftwaffe Operations Staff and ultimately by Goering. What is unclear, however, is how this planning was coordinated. Klee writes that "by 25 July 1940 the air fleets formulated their initial intentions for the conduct of air warfare against Britain, basing their work on appropriate studies submitted by their air corps. On 29 July the Luftwaffe Operations Staff provided comments on the plans submitted. On 1 August the air fleet submitted their revised plans. Again Goering disapproved certain specific points." 82 Finally, on 2 August 1940, the Preparations and Directives for Operation Adler was released.

British Perceptions. Because the British felt that the Luftwaffe efforts through the beginning of August lacked real aim--the air attacks largely were being viewed as harassment in nature (as they in fact were)--the RAF Fighter Command did not conduct the exhaustive counter operations that the Luftwaffe had hoped for. Instead, Fighter Command chose a more conservative approach they opposed German raids only when targets on the mainland or major convoys were threatened, and even then "its pilots took care only to engage enemy bombers, and to avoid the fighters whenever possible . . . the material damage inflicted by the Luftwaffe during this phase of operations, known as KanalKampf or 'Channel Fight', was not inconsiderable. In the six weeks beginning 1 July, it mounted some 7,000 bomber sorties, dropped some 1,900 tons of high explosives, and attacked numerous ships, ports and industries. Roughly 70,000 tons of shipping was sunk." 83 The RAF suffered 142 aircraft losses against 85 for the Luftwaffe.

Intelligence. It is important to note that it was at about this point in the conflict--as the result of intercepted radio transmissions--that the Germans began to realize the RAF fighters were being controlled from ground facilities. It is equally important to note that the Germans correctly interpreted the purpose of these new ground control procedures, but assessed them as rigid and ineffectual. The existence of a British radar system was well known to the Luftwaffe from intelligence gathered before the war, but "the secret of the highly developed plotting system linked with fighter control had been well kept by the British." 84 (See Addendum for more detail.)

On 7 August an intelligence analysis of the RAF control procedures concluded that: "as the British fighters are controlled from the ground by R/T their forces are tied to their respective ground stations and are thereby restricted in mobility, even taking into consideration the probability that the ground stations are partly mobile. Consequently, the assembly of strong fighter forces at determined points and at short notice is not to be expected. A massed German attack on a target area can therefore count on the same conditions of light fighter opposition as in attacks on widely scattered targets. It can, indeed, be assumed that considerable confusion in the defensive networks will be unavoidable during mass attacks, and that the effectiveness of the defenses may thereby be reduced." 85 (See German Intelligence Appreciation of the RAF and Comparison with Current Luftwaffe Strength, in Appendix 4.)

To be fair, however, the British did have some problems coordinating their efforts. An example would be the disagreements between Air Vice Marshals Park and Leigh-Mallory over the concept of Mallory's "Big Wing" and Park's (and also Dowding's) approach to attack with only as much force as is readily available (generally at squadron level). Other examples would be the inaccuracies in the radar system, especially height finding, and the lack of radar coverage once an attacking formation crossed the coastline.

Competing Priorities. It was not until 1 August 1940 that Hitler issued his first clear, guidance for the conduct of the air war through Directive No. 17. (See Appendix 2 for complete text.) But before examining the directive, however, it would perhaps be beneficial to examine some ambiguities that were developing within the High Command

concerning the overall plans for the conduct of war in the West.

Army Chief of Staff Generaloberst Franz Halder--writing in his diary--recorded statements made by Hitler in the Berghof on the previous day, 31 July 1940. Halder quotes Hitler as saying, "Russia is the factor by which England sets the greatest store . . . If Russia is beaten, England's last hope is gone. Germany is then master of Europe and the Balkans . . . Decision: As a result of this argument, Russia must be dealt with. Spring 1941." 86 (Emphasis added.) Earlier in the month, Halder also recorded a similar thought of the Fuhrer's indicating that Hitler was obviously concerned with the unwillingness of Britain to make peace. Clearly, there were competing priorities, at the highest levels, over what the true national objectives were, and what the strategy to attain those objectives would be. There is also some room for conjecture that the entire focus for Operation Sea Lion was actually a great deception aimed at tying down British forces while the Germans prepared for operations elsewhere.

As an example, after the outcome of the air battle over Britain had already been determined, Hitler would write to Mussolini (20 January 1941), "An attack on the British Isles remains the ultimate aim. In this case however, Germany is like someone who has only one shot in his gun if he misses, the situation will be worse than before. We could never attempt a second landing since failure would mean the loss of so much equipment. England would then not have to bother further about a landing and could employ the bulk of her forces where she wanted on the periphery. So long as the attack has not taken place however, the British must always take into account the possibility of it." 87

General Warlimont further records a 1943 conversation where Hitler stated "every memorandum I sent to the Duce was immediately transmitted to England. So I put in things which I wished definitely should get to England. That was the best way to get something through to England quickly." 88 Whether Sea Lion was a deception plan or not, given the levels of preparation that were taken by the individual branches of the Wehrmacht, especially by the German Navy, it is quite reasonable to assume that if the Luftwaffe had been successful that the invasion would have taken place.

The German Navy, however, was not satisfied with the mission assigned to the Luftwaffe by Directive No. 17 and the Naval Operations Staff war diary reflected that "in view of the counteraction to be expected with certainty from the British Navy during the amphibious operation, the Naval Operations Staff holds the opinion that operations against naval ships should be required as part of the intensified air offensive . . ." but, also recognized that, "it will be necessary to wait until the first phase of the air operation is over." 89 Certain naval records also indicate that Hitler had agreed, during a July conference, that if the Luftwaffe had failed to seriously damage the Royal Air Force within the first eight days that the operation would "be postponed until May 1941." 90


  • Employ all forces available to eliminate the British air force as soon as possible

  • Once temporary or local air superiority is achieved, operations will continue against ports

  • Air operations against hostile naval and merchant ships will be considered a secondary mission

  • The intensified air offensive will be conducted so that adequately strong air forces can be made available whenever required to support naval operations against favorable fleeting targets. (Note:

    For the complete text of Directive No. 17, see Appendix 2.)

    First 5 days: Attacks made in a semicircle starting in the west and

    proceeding south and then east, within a 90- to 60-mile radius of London.
    Next 3 days: Radius from London reduced to between 60 and 30 miles.

    Final 5 days: Attacks concentrated within a 30-mile radius centered on London.

    138 He111 and Ju88 (123 operational)
    37 Me110 (34)
    406 Ju87 (316)
    282 Me110 (227)
    813 Me109 (702)

    (8) .303 Browning machine guns, wing mounted.
    (2) 7.9-mm machine guns, nose mounted.
    (2) 20-mm cannon, wing mounted.
bombers and fighters, the enemy fifteen per cent. Fighters: Ratio of losses 1:5 in our favor British will probably not be able to replace losses. . . . Eight major air bases have been virtually destroyed." 96 Actual losses for the period were 136:96 in the Luftwaffe's favor. The fighter ratio was actually 1:2 (46 Me109s to 98 Spitfire and Hurricane) and even lower still if the loss of 35 Me110s is added!

An interesting sidelight to these events occurred on 13 August when Generaloberst Alfred Jodl, chief of Wehrmacht Operations Staff, would argue against an invasion in his "Appreciation of the Situation," communiqué to Hitler. Jodl expressed the view that "under no circumstances must the landing operation fail. The political consequences of a fiasco might be much more far reaching than the military . . . the landing must be considered a desperate venture, something which might have to be undertaken in a desperate situation but on which we have no necessity to embark at the moment." Jodl also indicated that "England can be brought to her knees by other methods. . . ." 97 These "other methods" were later described as combined operations with Italy, operations in Egypt or possibly Gibraltar, and the use of Italian air forces and submarines in the current operations (i.e., the air and sea blockade against the British Isles).

Also on the 13th, Goering ordered "operations are to be directed exclusively against the enemy air force, including the targets of the enemy aircraft industry." 98 Basing his decision on results of early radar installation attacks, Goering further decided that it was doubtful any additional effort was worthwhile. Only two minor attacks later occurred on radar sites.

Activities through the 18th--marking the end of the first phase--followed essentially the same pattern. While attacks were directed against Fighter Command sector airfields and supporting bases, generally only limited damage was inflicted with most facilities back in service within a few hours. Luftwaffe sortie rates remained high, reaching 2,000 on the 15th when forces of Luftflotte 5 joined in the battle for the first and only time. For the most part, considering the identified objective to reduce the effectiveness of Fighter Command, only limited effort was directed against Fighter Command bases, facilities, and command and control capabilities.

The Germans believed it was sufficient to draw up the fighter forces and kill them in the air. They were willing to believe that the strategy was working, but losses proved otherwise. By the 18th, Luftwaffe losses from all causes stood at 350 versus 171 for Fighter Command. Fighter Command’s ability to generate defensive sorties remained essentially unchanged. An intelligence report on the 18th "estimated that the British had lost 770 fighters in the period from 1st July to 16th August and that only 300 were still operational, whereas in reality 214 had been destroyed and seventy-one damaged in combat, and more than 600 were still operational." 99

The highest total losses of the battle occurred on the 18th 68 British and 69 German. On the 19th Goering, during a meeting at Karinhall, declared: "we have reached the decisive period of the air war against England. The vital task is to turn all means at our disposal to the defeat of the enemy air force. Our first aim is the destruction of the enemy's fighters. If they no longer take to the air, we shall attack them on the ground, or force them into battle by directing bomber attacks against targets within range of air fighters." 100 But, Goering also insisted that in addition to the destruction of the RAF fighters, "at the same time, and on a growing scale, we must continue our activities against the ground organization of the bomber units. Surprise attacks on the enemy aircraft industry must be made by day and by night." 101

The main effort was planned against 11 Group's airfields, mostly around London. Luftflotte 2 conducted day raids and Luftflotte 3 flew at night. The theory was that Luftflotte's bombers could lure the Fighter Command aircraft into decisive battle within range of the Me109s. Therefore, daytime

forces were deployed with a protective ratio of three or four fighters for every bomber.

Additional decisions made during the meeting on the 19th resulted in the Ju87 Stuka's withdrawal because of excessive losses. This decision was also justified as a measure to conserve them for support of the invasion forces. Despite a similar high loss rate, Goering refused to allow withdrawal of the Me110s. Instead, he directed that Me109s would be tasked to escort the Me110s as well as the bombers. Additionally, and in spite of the fact that the Me109 accounted for the majority of the RAF kills, Goering would persistently blame the Me109 pilots for lack of aggression throughout the campaign. This even led to the replacement of several senior fighter unit commanders. Finally, the decision not to press attacks against the radar facilities was reaffirmed.

Phase two. Phase two did not immediately follow the first because of reorganization (concentration into the Pas de Calais) of additional fighter forces and because of bad weather. Thus, after a five-day delay the offensive resumed on 24 August with 1,030 daytime sorties. The Luftwaffe concentrated efforts on airfields with major attacks on Manston, Hornchurch and North Weald.

Fighter Command lost 23 aircraft destroyed and six damaged compared with a loss for the Luftwaffe of 35 destroyed and four damaged. New tactics were recognized by both sides fewer bombers and more fighters in the German formations, and a continued reluctance by the British to do battle with the German fighters. AVM Park had ordered his pilots to accept combat with German fighters only if Fighter Command's sector airfields were threatened. However, over the next several days, continued focus by the Luftwaffe on 11 Group Sector airfields began to take a toll both in air and ground losses and resulted in reduced operations from these critical fields. "On the 31st, Luftflotte 2 launched its heaviest attack of phase two 1,450 daylight sorties aimed primarily at five aerodromes, Biggin Hill, Debden, Hornchurch, Croydon and Eastchurch." 102

Persistence in the campaign was paying off--Biggin Hill was attacked six times in three days--and by early September it was becoming clear that the RAF was losing the attrition battle. For the duration of phase two, 24 August to 6 September, the RAF lost 273 fighters in combat plus 49 damaged. The Germans lost 308 fighters and bombers with 62 damaged. The German concentration on Fighter Command airfields was, as the Luftwaffe had hoped, forcing the RAF fighters into combat. The resultant war of attrition was one that Fighter Command could not hope to win. The higher concentration of fighters in the German raids reduced the edge that Fighter Command had previously enjoyed: the Germans could afford to trade Me109s, one for one, with Spitfires and Hurricanes! "It is no coincidence that Fighter Command came closest to defeat in this period. Six of the seven sector airfields were extensively damaged, the telecommunication links to and from the operations blocks proving especially vulnerable." 103

(At the end of Phase 2)

September stood to be the culminating point for Fighter Command. Air Marshal Dowding wrote, "the rate of loss was so heavy that fresh squadrons became worn out before convalescing squadrons were ready to take their place." 104 By the end of the first week in September, Fighter Command was in a desperate situation.

Between 8 August and 6 September, 657 fighters had been lost. By using replacement aircraft (from repairs and storage) Fighter Command managed, until 1 September, to keep frontline strength at about the same levels as were available at the end of July. But, those reserves had dwindled from 518 Spitfires and Hurricanes (in maintenance and storage) on 6 July, to only 292 by 7 September.

British production figures were no more encouraging. In the last week of August, for example, only 91 Spitfire and Hurricanes were produced while losses reached 137 destroyed and 11 seriously damaged. With losses at these rates,

Fighter Command estimated that reserves would be exhausted in three weeks followed by steady depletion of the frontline squadrons. This, of course, would be accelerated if the Luftwaffe could successfully knock out critical production facilities.

Pilots. The critical problem faced by Fighter Command was the loss of trained fighter pilots. In phase one of the campaign (8 to 18 August), the RAF lost 154 pilots (killed, seriously wounded or missing). Only 63 new fighter pilots were available from the training schools for the same period. During phase two, 24 August to 1 September, the figures were even worse as losses reached 231 pilots, or about 20 percent of the total combat strength of the command! Combat strength in the month of August decreased by almost one-third, from 1,434 to 1,023. The squadron average fell from 26 to 16 operational pilots. Naturally, combat experience was similarly reduced.

In July and August, roughly one-fourth of the squadron leaders and one-third of the flight leaders had been killed or removed from flying due to injuries. Experienced pilots numbered no more than 500--less than one-half of Fighter Command's strength--with the remainder often having less than 20 hours flying time on fighters. Daily sortie rates were high and it was not uncommon for pilots to fly three and four sorties a day. Stress was also high. "One squadron, No. 85, based at Croydon, had fourteen of its eighteen pilots shot down in two weeks, two of them twice." 105

On the ground the persistence of the German attacks was beginning to take effect. The RAF was faced with the real possibility of withdrawing 11 Group to bases north of London. "Air superiority over Kent and Essex, at least for a week or two, was in the Luftwaffe's grasp the aim of Adlerangrif was near to being realized." 106

(At the end of Phase 2)

The Luftwaffe, too, was experiencing difficulties at this point in the campaign. Crew fatigue was evident because the Luftwaffe did not establish a system of pilot rotation as had the RAF. Because of the requirement for extensive escort duties most fighter pilots flew two sorties a day for weeks at a time. Aircrew losses were high, reaching five losses for each British loss. This problem became so serious Goering ordered that only one officer be allowed to fly per aircraft, severely reducing the experience level "airborne" within the bomber forces. Only 97 percent of the pilot requirement could be met for the serviceable Me109s. Material losses were also high in the two week period beginning 24 August some 545 aircraft of all types were lost--200 more than British losses for the same period. By 7 September, Luftflotten 2 and 3 fielded 623 operational Me 109s. This was a reduction of about one-eighth the available strength at the beginning of phase one.

Production of the Me109 (190 per month) was about one-half the British production rate for the Spitfire and Hurricane. Reserves were sufficient to keep most fighter units at 80 percent strength and bombers at 86 percent. While losses of the bombers and Me110s should be considered high, this too was changing. "As the inexperience of the R.A.F. squadrons increased, so also would the success of the German bombers and twin-engined fighters, whose crews were, thus far at least, more easily replaced with experienced personnel." 107 Therefore, the Luftwaffe ended Phase two with a capability to field 623 operational Me109s against a force of only 350 RAF fighters.

Fighter Escort. Fighter escort presented an interesting dilemma for the Germans. On the one hand, the bombers were extremely slow (190 mph) and operated at medium altitudes of 13,000 to 15,000 feet, while the optimum fighting speed for the fighters was about 300 mph at altitudes above 20,000 feet (Me109). So, in close escort the fighters assumed a position of relative disadvantage to intercepting RAF fighters. On the other hand, if the bombers proceeded in daylight without fighter protection, the losses would be unacceptably high. By mid-August a compromise was reached between

the bomber and fighter commanders. One gruppe (48-64 aircraft) of fighters would provide close escort for each geschwader (144-256 aircraft) of bombers. Another gruppe of fighters would arrive over British defenses ahead of the bombers and with optimal positioning, hopefully, could intercept the enemy fighters before they could reach the bombers.

Changing Strategy. As might be expected, there was much dissatisfaction as to the results of Phases One and Two. Not only were losses of men and materials high but also there was significant displeasure generated within the fighter forces because of the inability to draw the British fighters into a decisive conflict. Adolf Galland wrote, "we fighter pilots, discouraged by a task which was beyond our strength, were looking forward impatiently and excitedly to the start of the bomber attacks [on London]. We believed that only then would the English fighters leave their bases and be forced to give us open battle." 108

The bombing of London, as a strategic target to draw Fighter Command into battle, was an idea now growing in favor. In fact, prior to Adlertag, Fliegerkorps II had proposed just such an approach. The chief of the Air Staff Generaloberst Jeschonnek also favored the idea and the original general staff plan for Adlerangrif reflected this. But Hitler had forbidden attacks on London and reserved to himself the decision to allow such an attack. Now, however, the Luftwaffe was up against a familiar, pressing priority: time.

The High Command (OKW) initially set 15 September as the date for the invasion. The Naval Operations Staff informed OKW on 30 August that it was not possible to complete the necessary naval preparations by that date. The German Navy argued that insofar as "air operations had not succeeded in eliminating the ability of the British naval and air forces to take effective action in the English Channel and against the jump-off coastline, and that in view of the objectives set in the current German air attacks these conditions could not be created soon." 109 Thus, a postponement until 21 September was made.

However, because gaining air superiority was still the necessary prerequisite for the invasion, on 3 September, Goering told Kesselring and Sperrle, "We have no chance of destroying the English fighters on the ground. We must force their last reserves . . . into combat in the air." This, it should be recalled, runs exactly counter to the doctrine of the Luftkriegfuhrung and to General Wever's assertions to the Air War Academy students during the 1936 opening ceremonies!

It was true that the British were heavily defending their sector air stations, but now the Luftwaffe felt compelled to press the RAF into a final, decisive encounter. The argument ran that if the British would defend their airfields, then they would defend even more vigorously their capital. Since London was within the range of the Me109, and since this was also a geographically limited area, the Luftwaffe could more easily concentrate their fighter forces for the kill.

Intelligence Analysis. Chief of Intelligence "Beppo" Schmid had reported British aircraft serviceability for the end of August "as low as 100 fighters," when in fact operational strength stood at 672 on 23 August. 110 A more significant intelligence failure, however, was the fact that the German analysis never considered the main problem then facing Fighter Command: pilots. "The shortage of trained pilots was Dowding's Achilles' heel," yet German analysts continued to believe their original conclusion made on 16 July. 111 (See Appendix 4.) This was "in spite of the fact that intelligence had established that bomber pilots were being called in to replace losses." 112

The Switch to London. Sperrle strongly disagreed with Goering's plan, believing correctly that the British forces were still too strong and could likewise concentrate too strongly their own fighter forces for the defense. He favored continued attacks on the airfields. But, Goering's intent was to force the British to make just such a concentrated defense. This time, Kesselring sided with Goering and the decision was made to destroy both the enemy fighter defense and a vital economic center the London docks.

Considering Hitler's earlier directives against the bombing of London, such a decision would have been academic had not the British launched several night raids upon Berlin in response to an accidental bombing on parts of London on 24 August. Hitler, fearful for his own popularity at home, and also angered by the British attacks, agreed, on 31 August, to reprisal attacks on London. On 4 September Hitler publicly announced "when they declare that they will attack our cities in great strength, then we will erase theirs." 113 Goering, however, did not believe that reprisal attacks on London would achieve the desired results, insisting that the British will was too strong. But, Jeschonnek, supported by much of the air staff argued in favor of the new policy. 114 Thus, on the night of 5-6 September, the "Blitz" began.

It is probable that Hitler would have agreed to the London bombing even without the excuse of retaliation for the British raids. He retained serious doubts about the feasibility of the invasion doubts shared by many within the military leadership. The plan for Sea Lion was initially to encompass a 150-mile front along the British coastline, but this scheme had already been significantly reduced in scope because of concerns that the Navy could not fulfill the transport and supply the requirements. Still, Hitler hoped that the Luftwaffe could inflict sufficient economic hardships upon the British to force their capitulation. Also, it has never been convincingly shown (even his military commanders later wrote of their doubts in this regard) that he was ever fully committed to the invasion. He was, after all, already establishing the groundwork for Operation Barbarossa in the east! "By the beginning of September, therefore, both the Fuhrer and the Luftwaffe high command believed that the time was ripe for the adoption of a 'Douhetian' policy of bombing designed to bring about victory independently of the other two services." 115

The main area of disagreement at this point in the campaign was that of targeting. The majority of the air leaders wanted large scale attacks on residential areas. But Hitler, perhaps already aware of the dangers in such provocation--as evidenced by the retaliatory bombing of Berlin by the British following the accidental bombing of London on 24 August--initially refused. However, by 7 September, the industrial areas in and around London and especially the docks area, did become the prime targets for the Luftwaffe bombers.

Phase Three. On 7 September, Goering assumed temporary, direct command of the air operations. The third phase would begin with a daylight attack on the London docks by 650 bombers and over 1,000 fighters. Substantial damage was achieved on the docks, the Woolwich arsenal and oil installations and factories east along the river. Air losses were 28 RAF with 11 damaged and, 36 Luftwaffe with 11 damaged. The Me109s performed their mission quite well, accounting for 25 of the Hurricane and Spitfire kills and damage on ten more for an exchange of 14 Me109s with two damaged.

The Germans' change of strategy was working well because their main aim--draw Fighter Command forces up for the final kill--was apparently being achieved. But, from the British viewpoint, and as Churchill was to later write, "If the enemy had persisted in heavy attacks against the adjacent sectors (airfields) and damaged their operations rooms or telephone communications, the whole intricate organization of Fighter Command might have been broken down. . . . It was, therefore, with a sense of relief that Fighter Command felt the German attack turn on to London on September 7th, and concluded that the enemy had changed his plan. Goering should certainly have persevered against the airfields . . . [By departing from the classic principles of war] . . . he made a foolish mistake." 116

At this point (7 September and onwards), Fighter Command had indeed been saved from defeat on the ground, but the German strategy was actually working and the RAF could still be defeated in the air. Subsequently, OKW would issue "new instructions for the attack, calling for a systematic destruction of London." 117 The tasks were divided between Luftflotte 2, conducting daylight raids against key military and commercial targets, and Luftflotte 3,

bombing the areas of government and the docks. Once again, the Luftwaffe failed to apply sufficient mass and persistence to their attacks on London. This is not to say that large raids did not occur.

From 11 to 14 September, London was attacked by two major (over 200 bombers) daylight raids and two minor ones, as well as attacks every night. Additional day raids were also carried out on Southhampton (twice), Portland, Brighton, Eastbourne, Canterbury, Great Yarmouth and Norwich. All raids that could have focused on the sector airfields around London. If the intent was, in fact, to draw fighters into combat then feints were unnecessary and secondary targets inconsequential. Furthermore, not only were some of these targets outside the range of the Me109 (Norwich for example), but also such attacks could only force Fighter Command to remain somewhat dispersed to protect these areas!

The 12 September war diary entry of the Naval Operations Staff would reflect--"the air campaign is being conducted specifically as an air offensive without regard for the current requirements of naval warfare . . . the fact therefore remains that chances for the execution of the landing operations have remained uninfluenced by the effects of the intensified air offensive. . . ." 118 But it was the belief of Admiral Raeder, and expressed in a 14 September conference with Hitler, that the air attacks against England, and in particular those against London, must continue without interruption. And, provided suitable weather conditions existed he also believed that those attacks should continue at the expense of the preparations for Operation Sea Lion. Raeder also advocated an increase in the "intensity of the attacks without regard for Operation Sea Lion, because they might bring about a decision of the war." 119 It is not clear here, however, whether Admiral Raeder truly believed this, or if he was merely expressing what he expected Hitler wanted to hear. Certainly, at the time, Hitler would have been most receptive to any proposal that would have reduced the risks involved in the planned invasion. But, in regard to the cancellation of Sea Lion, he thought the invasion "should not be canceled, since cancellation would considerably relieve pressure on Britain." 120

Escort Problems Again. It was at this point in the campaign that Goering, as the "temporary operational commander," would make a fateful tactical decision. Losses due to the daylight operations, both bomber and fighter, had been increasing. The fighter commanders complained that close escort of the slow bomber formations was too rigid and precluded early engagement of the RAF fighters. The high altitudes necessary to avoid antiaircraft fire and slow speeds forced the fighters to weave continuously to maintain position with the formations, thus "giving the R.A.F. fighters the advantage of surprise, initiative, altitude, speed, and above all, fighting spirit." 121

The bomber commanders insisted on additional close escort due to increased losses. Ultimately, Goering sided with the bomber camp. It would appear that to Goering, at least, the bombing of London was becoming more important than the objective of destroying Fighter Command as the prelude to invasion. On 9 September it was "ordered that the first duty of the fighters was to protect the bombers, not to attack the enemy, and that if substantial enemy opposition was met, the German aircraft should disengage rather than risk loss." 122

During the nine days of Phase three the RAF lost 131 fighters with 37 damaged. This amounted to a daily loss rate of 14 compared to loss rates averaging 19.5 during Phases one and two. Most importantly, however, the loss rate experienced during Phase three could be made up by the output of new aircraft! Total combat losses for the Luftwaffe in Phase three stood at 174 destroyed and 69 damaged. The total losses from all causes saw the Luftwaffe with 321 aircraft destroyed or damaged compared to losses of 178 for RAF Fighter Command.

Additionally, the respite experienced by the RAF airfields allowed the first break in over ten days for the pilots of 11 Group to stand down from conditions of constant readiness during the daylight hours and in many cases also allowed units to enjoy day-

long rests (a pleasure not experienced since mid-July). So great was the effect on Fighter Command that from a state of near exhaustion there would emerge a new vigor within the squadrons a new vigor that was to prove decisive in the air battles on 15 September, the day that is celebrated as Battle of Britain Day.

The Final Effort. The Luftwaffe High Command fully expected the missions scheduled for 15 September to be the decisive blow. It seems that the leadership, from Hitler on down, optimistically believed that Fighter Command had been broken in spirit, if not materially. RAF resistance to the attacks on 11 and 14 September had been slight owing, in fact, to errors in coordinating intercepts. Also, a significant number of RAF fighters was being destroyed in air combat in return for acceptable Luftwaffe losses.

Goering had stated on 5 September, "an invasion was probably not necessary," while on the following day Hitler voiced himself of the opinion that "Britain's defeat will be achieved even without the landing." 123 Additional inputs through German intelligence operating in the United States indicated that the British morale was low, that Luftwaffe attacks were having devastating effects and that, in the opinion of US military authorities, the British would not be able to hold out. Hitler was further quoted on the 14th, in discussions with his military chiefs, "There is a great chance of totally defeating the British." 124 Needless to say, there was considerable optimism within parts of the German command.

The attacks on 15 September involved almost 1,300 sorties against London (300 bomber and 1,000 fighters) and another raid of 30 aircraft against Portland and the Southampton aircraft works. Diversionary maneuvers scheduled by Luftflotte 2 failed for unknown reasons and as a result 11 Group was able to commit all of its squadrons with precision. Additionally, the resources of 12 Group were called on for support. Thus, the London raid was met by a force of at least 170 Spitfires and Hurricanes, with the luxury of operating from bases close to London and which were not under attack.

Fighter Command downed 58 and damaged 25 German aircraft including 26 fighters lost and 8 damaged. Psychologically, the blow to the Luftwaffe was devastat-ing. The Luftwaffe could cope with the material loss, but the clear ascendancy on this day of the "beaten" RAF was a bitter lesson indeed.

In the Aftermath. The Luftwaffe fell immediately into a period of intensive blame laying but initiated little inward critical analysis of the factors leading to the defeat. The bomber crews blamed the fighters for lack of protection. The fighter units reiterated the disadvantages under which they were forced to operate. On the 6th Goering again openly blamed the fighter forces: "The fighters have let us down." 125 But no blame was placed where it belonged--on the leadership. The fighters were simply identified as "lacking in aggression." In fact, the Me109 and its pilots had proven superior in most one-on-one air combats with the British fighters. The difficulties in escorting the slow bombers, thus giving up the fighter's tactical advantages of speed and altitude, operating at the very edge of their operational range, and the difficulties of scheduling, and airborne assembly seemed of limited importance in the German self-analysis.

It had long been recognized (since the days of the Condor Legion) that lack of suitable range was a critical limitation of the Me109. No mention of this is apparent in German self-criticism of the time, even though Erhard Milch had recommended months before the battle that cheap drop tanks should be developed. Milch's proposal "had been followed up too late, with the result that the crews were untrained in their use and reluctant to employ them." 126 In fact, a month earlier on 15 August at a meeting with the three luftflotten generals, Goering had criticized the fact that the fighters were "refusing to use drop tanks unless they were armor-plated." 127 Both Milch and Jeschonnek were present at the meeting.

British "superiority" on the 15th was probably due to the proximity of the RAF airfields to the battle, the freshness of the crews (the airfields were not attacked for the

two days previous) and to the fact that, because there was no effective diversionary raid, 11 Group and parts of 12 Group could also be assembled for maximum effect.

German attacks continued throughout the month with sporadic effectiveness in attempts to "wear down the enemy," but with none of the strength launched on 15 September. Major raids were flown on 18 (on London), 25, 26, and 27 September and the last major daylight raid of the war, on 30 September. The 30 September mission saw 173 bomber and 1,000 fighter sorties flown against targets in the London area. Luftwaffe losses were 43 aircraft with 11 damaged while the RAF lost only 16 with an additional 17 damaged marking the first day of the campaign where RAF fighters significantly outperformed their Luftwaffe adversaries. Spitfires and Hurricanes accounted for the loss of no less than 27 Me109s, and an additional four damaged while losing just seven RAF aircraft destroyed! Adolf Galland, following his 40th British kill, told Goering on 27 September, "in spite of the heavy losses we are inflicting on the enemy fighters, no decisive decrease in their number or fighting efficiency was noticeable. . . ." 128

Bombing raids after the debacle of 30 September steadily decreased and massed formations virtually disappeared. By early October, the Luftwaffe "was glad of the excuse of a deterioration in weather conditions to call off daylight operations it was Goering himself who made the decision. The Battle of Britain had been lost to the Luftwaffe." 129 There followed a brief period where the Luftwaffe employed fighter bombers, Me110s and a new version Me109E4, capable of carrying up to a 500-pound bomb load in high altitude bombing operations. Experiments with this tactic had begun in mid-August. While little more than an annoyance factor, the fighter bombers, operating between 25,000 feet and 32,000 feet (above the altitude capability of the Hurricane and at the very limits for the Spitfire), were on the verge of virtual immunity in the air.

These high altitude operations had the added benefits of evading both the radar and observer corps. Even if detected the British had just 20 minutes to intercept. The great inaccuracy of the bombing, however, coupled with the low payloads made such bombing operations inconsequential. But, because the Spitfires were operating outside their optimum envelope, the Germans were actually inflicting more air losses than they themselves experienced.

On 27 September, for example, Fighter Command had to fly 1,007 sorties to score 9 kills. This compared to 974 sorties to kill 67 German aircraft on 15 August. 130 As time progressed, however, losses began to mount, reaching 103 Me109s for the month of October. The efficacy of the missions grew suspect as the opposition from the RAF fighters steadily increased, and by December the high-altitude missions were ceased altogether.


Certainly the leadership and the valiant efforts of the men and women, and especially the skill and heroism of the pilots of Fighter Command cannot go without mention. They were defending their homeland, from their homeland and over their homeland. The effectiveness of British tactics the Big Wing formations (Leigh-Mallory) or squadron formations (Park), and the decision by Park to go "for bombers only" can be debated.

Clearly the British operated at a disadvantage in terms of aircraft performance, and the numbers of aircraft available (frontline fighter on fighter). Also, an additional disadvantage for the British was actually the location of London itself--within range of the Me109--which forced Fighter Command to defend forward using airfields that might otherwise have been abandoned for safer havens outside the range of the Luftwaffe fighters. But these problems could be offset somewhat with early warning through radar, and to a lesser extent through inputs from British intelligence and ULTRA. Thus the British could, within reason, choose the timing and tempo of their defensive


  1. Jumah

    This only conditionality

  2. Wachiru

    Pindyk, I'm just crying))

  3. Jim


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