July 10, 2011

Battle of Britain: Part I - This Was Their Finest Hour

Heinkel over London 1940
 "Where Napoleon failed I shall succeed. I shall land on the shores of Britain"

These chilling words were declared by Hitler as he envisaged the conquest of the British Isles in his next step towards world domination. One by one the nations of central and western Europe had toppled - Poland, Czechoslovakia, Norway, Holland, Denmark, Belgium, Austria, and France.

The evacuation at Dunkirk which followed was an ominous portend. England now stood alone - a mere 34 kilometers separating the shores of the British Isles from Hitlers Third Reich.

Hitler planned the invasion of England to proceed in two stages, beginning with an all-out attack by the Luftwaffes dive bombers and torpedo bombers on British airfields. The Oberkommando der Luftwaffe (OKL) that is, the Luftwaffe High Command was confident that they could easily achieve air superiority and follow through with the second stage, Operation Sealion in which amphibious assaults would take place along the southern coast of England. Success depended on their ability to neutralize the RAF first. However, the Grand Admiral of the Kriegsmarine, Karl Donitz held an opposing view. He believed that air superiority alone was insufficient, stating "we possessed neither control of the air or the sea; nor were we in any position to gain it." Irregardless, Hitler went ahead with preparations and expected that the news of the impending invasion would frighten Great Britain into "peace negotiations".

Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax and a sector of British political and public opinion supported the option for a negotiated peace with Hitler, but such sentiments were fiercely quashed by the new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. He adamantly refused to consider an armistice with Hitler and applied his skill as orator to inspire and compel a nation with the resolute will to fight the enemy.

Winston Churchill "finest hour" (00:02:01m)

British airspace was divided into four groups: Group 10, under the command of Air Vice-Marshal Sir Quintin Brand, defended Wales and the West Country; Group 11 was commanded by Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park (a New Zealander) and defended the southeast of England as well as critical approaches to London; Group 12 was under the command of Air Vice-Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory, and defended the Midlands and East Anglia; and Group 13, commanded by Air Vice-Marshal Richard Saul, covered the north of England.

The weight of the battle fell on Group 11 whose squadrons were dispatched to intercept German air raids. British tactics employed only a small number of fighters at a time, making continual attacks in an attempt to break up tight German formations. Having accomplished this, stragglers could then easily be picked off one by one. In the event that multiple German squadrons reached a raid, British procedure called for the dispatch of the slower Hurricanes to attack the bombers, while the agile Spitfires dealt with the fighter escorts. However, it became evident that objectives were better achieved when the Hurricanes and Spitfires reversed their roles. Another of Parks instructions called for frontal attacks against the bombers, but few RAF fighter units were able to accomplish this in a fast-moving, three-dimensional battle.

Spitfires based in southern England, 1940
Hawker Hurricanes Battle of Britain 1940

The first phase of the battle, known as "the Channel Battles" (Kanalkampf) took place between July 10 and August 11, 1940 during which Stuka dive bombers attacked British convoys in the English Channel. The decision by Kesselring and Sperrle to launch the offensive was partly due to the fact that they did not know what else to do. However, it gave German pilots the opportunity to probe British defences as well as use the raids to train their pilots. During the battle about 30,000 tons of British merchant shippping were sunk, however the Royal Navy was virtually unscathed. Because of the heavy losses, the British Admiralty cancelled all further convoys.

Luftwaffe attack ships in Dover Harbour 11th day

RAF casualties were 70 pilots and 148 aircraft, while Luftwaffe casualties were about 180 aircrew and 286 aircraft. (Various sources report disparate estimates.)

During this first phase of the battle it became apparent that some German aircraft were not suited to intense dogfighting, such as the Defiant and the Bf 110.

The next phase, Adlerangriff (Eagle Attack) began on August 12th. The special fighter-bomber unit Erprobungsgruppe (Erpro) 210 attacked four radar stations, hitting the tall radar towers rather than the more important and vital operation centers. Three stations were temporarily knocked off the air but resumed functionality within six hours. It demonstrated that the British radar system was difficult to destroy. It also revealed the incompetence of German intelligence services. Although the Germans knew about British radar that existed before the war, they were not aware of the advancements made through the Dowding system, nor its importance to British defence.

Operation Eagle Attack
The key to British defence was a complex infrastructure of Radio Direction Finding (later called radar - for radio detection and ranging.) It was referred to as the Dowding System, for its creator, Air Chief Marshall, Sir Dowding, leader of RAF Fighter Command.  At his insistence radar operators were linked through telephone lines to an operational centre, that is with Fighter Command located at Bentley Priory. (Wires were laid deep underground with concrete anti-bomb protection.) Victory depended on the British ability to be able to detect and intercept incoming German aircraft.

Contrary to popular belief England did not invent radar. In 1887 Heinrich Hertz, a German physicist was the first to generate and detect what were to be called radio waves. During the interwar period from 1934 to 1939, eight nations were conducting secret experiments developing their own radar systems: the United States, Great Britain, Germany, USSR, Japan, Netherlands, France and Italy. After the onset of World War II, Hungary was added to the list. By 1939 Germany already possessed sophisticated radar designs but had failed to appreciate its applications for defensive uses. One of their systems, called the Knickebein ("crooked leg") was used during night bomb raids where precision was required. Another system called the "Freya" was first tested by the Germans in 1937 and was used in conjunction with the Wurzburg radar. (The Freya would find targets at long distances and then "hand them over" to the shorter-range Wurburg for tracking.)
On August 15th, the OKL ordered the largest number of sorties yet in which Luftflotte 5 attacked the North of England. However, a large number of Bf 110 bombers lacked adequate fighter escort and were shot down by the RAF. North East England was attacked by 65 Heinkel 111s (escorted by 34 Messerschmitt 110s) and RAF Great Driffield was attacked by 50 unescorted Junkers 88s. Of a total of 115 bombers and 35 fighters, the RAF shot down 16 bombers and 7 fighters, greatly diminishing the strength of Luftflotte 5.

August 18, dubbed "The Hardest Day" resulted in very heavy casualties for both sides. It marked the end of the Ju 87 in battle. This aircraft was too vulnerable to enemy fighters and in order to preserve the fleet, Goring withdrew them from action. By removing the main weapon in the Luftwaffe's arsenal, the burden was shifted to the Erpro 210. The Bf 110 lacked agility in the air and was ill-suited for dogfighting with single-engined fighters. It too was withdrawn and redeployed as night fighters, allotting them greater protection under cover of darkness.

Bf 110 Messerschmidts
Goring made numerous decisions which had negative repercussions on Germany's prospects in the Battle. He ordered more bomber escorts at the expense of free-hunting sweeps. Luftflotte 2 was to carry the weight of the attack; the bulk of the Bf 109s were transferred from Luftflotte 3 to Kesselring's command in reinforce his bases in the Pas-de-Calais. As a result Luftflotte 3 was stripped of its fighters and was deployed on night bombing raids. He also made sweeping changes to the command structure of the fighter units with replacements of younger and more aggressive pilots. Furthermore, his decision to stop attacks on the radar chain indicated that he underestimated its importance. Instead he chose to focus on bringing up the "Tommies" in an effort to draw the British into an air battle.

The most ill-conceived decision made by the Luftwaffe was to change the target to London, and the increased range it entailed. Their Bf 109 escorts had only a limited fuel capacity and by the time German fighters reached London airspace, they had only 10 minutes more flying time before having to return to base. The Bf 109 had a range of about 850 km (528 miles) but a droptank could have extended its range to 1,000 km (621 miles). By the time the OKL included the drop tank to their planes, the Battle was already in its later stages. The drop tank provided an additional capacity of about 300 litres of fuel (66 imp gal. or 79 US gal) that could have extended their endurance for over an hour. Without it, the Luftwaffes power was greatly diminished and hence many raids were conducted without cover from fighter escorts.

Bf 109 Messershmidt
On August 19th, Goring ordered attacks on aircraft factories and on August 23rd attacks on RAF airfields. The same night the Luftwaffe attacked a tyre factory in Birmingham, a major attack on Portsmouth, and several areas of London including the East End and central London were bombed. In retaliation, on the night of August 25-26,the RAF dispatched 95 planes to bomb Tempelhof Airport, and Siemensstadt near the environs of Berlin, and bombing raids continued.

Goring had once claimed that the British would never be able to attack Berlin. That the RAF succeeded enraged Hitler and he ordered retaliatory attacks on London. In a speech given on September 4th, 1940, Hitler threatened to obliterate several British cities unless the RAF ceased the bombing.

From August 24th onwards, the Luftwaffe concentrated its attacks on British airfields in an attempt to knock out Fighter Command. Within two weeks the Germans had mounted thirty-three heavy attacks against Biggin Hill, Hornchurch, Debden, North Weald, Croydon, Gravesend, Rochford, Hawkinge and Manston. Coastal Command`s Eastchurch was bombed at least seven times. (The Germans thought it was a Fighter Command aerodrome.) Despite the intensity and frequency of these attacks, the integrity of British radar was not compromised. Although there was some damage to sector stations they were quickly repaired.

Fighter Command 1940

From July to September 1940, the Luftwaffe lost 1,636 aircraft (1,184 destroyed by Allied attacks) constituting a loss of 47 per cent of their single-engined fighters, 66 per cent of twin-engined fighters and 45 per cent of bombers. During the same period the number of Luftwaffe pilots decreased by 136 and the number of operational pilots had declined by 171 by September, losses which were not replaced. And unlike the British pilots, German fighter pilots were not afforded training or rest rotations.

BBC Broadcast of Air Battle July 14, 1940

British losses were also heavy but the RAF was able to keep pace with losses to planes and aircrew. Production sectors completed 496 planes in July, 467 in August and another 467 in September. The number of pilots also increased: 1,200 were available in July, 1,400 in August, and by October their numbers reached 1,600 - significantly higher than the number of Luftwaffe pilots. To offset losses RAF squadrons were supplemented by about 58 Fleet Air Arm fighter pilot volunteers but most of them were inexperienced having logged as little as nine hours flying time and had virtually no training in air-to-air combat or gunnery.  The new RAF pilots had "almost no chance at all" of surviving their first five sorties, partly due to the fact that they were given the least reliable planes,damaged planes, or the rookies flew at the tail-end of formations. Their chances for survival increased during the next 15 sorties along with their skill and confidence. Unfortunately after 20 sorties their chances of survival were nil. The RAF was desperate for more aircrew at this point and began incorporating squadrons and personnel from the British Dominions, that is, Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders, Rhodesians and South Africans. In addition multi-national squadrons were also organzied from the Free French, Czechoslovakian and Polish squadrons.

The Polish squadrons however, were held back by the Commander-in-Chief Sir Hugh Dowding and placed through a regime of unnecessary training drills. Apparently Dowding was under the impression that non-English speaking pilots would have difficulty working within his system. Much to his astonishment, the Polish pilots proved themselves to be highly-skilled and effective fighters, having gained considerable experience fighting the Germans in Poland. The men of 303 "Kosciuszko" Squadron ranked the highest in the RAF for the most number of kills. Josef Frantisek, a Czech, so admired the Poles that he joined their squadron. Frantisek is credited with the highest RAF score in the Battle of Britain.

Polish 303 Squadron
Josef Frantisek

On September 7, 1940, the Germans launched Operation Loge, its first intentional air raid against the Port of London. A total of 348 bombers and 617 fighters took part in the battle, the Luftwaffe causing damage to over 107,400 long tons of shipping in the Thames Estuary, and casualties of over 1,600 civilians, 400 of whom were killed. The battle continued for 57 consecutive nights, with daylight raids being more intense. The Luftwaffe lost 41 aircraft, 14 bombers, 16 Messerschmitt Bf 109s, 7 Messerschmitt Bf 110s and 4 reconnaissance planes. Fighter Command lost 23 fighters with 6 pilots killed and 7 wounded. The next night German bombers attacked again killing 412 people and severely wounding 747 others.

The RAF rose to meet the threat in larger numbers than were expected by the Luftwaffe. However, Group 12 Group took twenty minutes to gain formation and missed its intended target, but encountered another formation of enemy bombers while still climbing. Fighter Command was at its lowest ebb - short of both men and planes, however the break from airfield attacks had given them the opportunity to recover. Group 11 had achieved its mission successfully breaking up daytime raids however Group 12 had some successes but often failed to meet requests to protect Group 11 airfields.

St.Katherine Docks, London 1940

At a meeting on September 14, Hitler raised the question of whether to cancel Operation Sealion altogether. It was apparent by then that an invasion could not be realized even with massive German air cover. But he believed that he could win the Battle by crushing British morale while maintaining the threat of an imminent invasion. The next day two massive waves of German attacks were launched but were repulsed by the RAF. The total casualties that day were 60 German and 26 RAF planes shot down. Two days later Hitler called for the postponement of the invasion of Britain, and announce yet another postponement on October 13th, - a precursor to the cancellation a month later.

Hitler inspecting Kriegsmarine January 1, 1940

On September 15, the Luftwaffe launched a large-scale daylight attack on London along the Thames estuary resulting in a loss of 18 per cent of its bombers. The day came to be known as "Battle of Britain Day". Several more battles ensued during September and into October but the Luftwaffe still could not achieve air superiority. Finally, on October 7 German command ordered the Luftwaffe to switch to night-time raids under the protection of darkness.

On the night of September 27 a Junkers Ju88 was shot down as it was returning from a raid on London. Two RAF fighters, a Supermarine Spitfire and Hawker Hurricane from the No.66 and No.92 Squardron attacked when they recognized the Junkers over Faversham (near Kent). The British pilots were under orders to capture an enemy aircraft intact if possible. The Junkers first engine was already damaged from a previous raid on London, and the Spitfire destroyed the second engine forcing the pilot to make a crash landing at Graveney Marsh. The four German crewmembers armed with aircraft machine guns and submachine guns exchanged heavy fire with the British soldiers. One German was injured and the remainder surrendered and were taken prisoner. Captain John Cantopher disarmed the bombers demolition charge after which the plane was taken to Farnborough Airfield for examination by British engineers. It was the last time that England was “invaded".

Captain John Cantopher
The Junkers 88 shot down over Faversham

On October 8, 1940 the first of the RAF's Eagle Squadrons, No. 71 was formed of Americans who enlisted in the RAF.  Another two Eagle Squadrons were soon formed, No.121 and No. 133, all of which were later transferred to the United States Army Air Force when the United States entered the war. They formed the 4th Fighter Group, United States 8th Air Force.

RAF Eagle Squadron (00:07:59m)

One of the most important factors that kept British morale high was the continued presence in London of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth I.  When war broke out in 1939 they did not flee the capital but remained in London, alternating visits between Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. They had survived the terror of the Blitz when the Luftwaffe had bombed Buckingham Palace. In one instance the King and Queen were in a room about 80 yards from where the bombs fell. Queen Elizabeth I was reported to have said later, "Good. Now I can look the East End in the eye."

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth I visit London's East-End 1940

British victory came at a very heavy cost. From July to December 1940 British civilian losses were 23,002 dead and 32,138 wounded. In one of the largest single raids on December 19, 1940, almost 3,000 civilians were killed. RAF casualties were 544 aircrew killed, 422 wounded, and 1,547 aircraft destroyed. Casualties resulting from the Blitz (September 7, 1940 to May 10, 1941) were 40,000 to 43,000 civilians killed; 46,000 injured ( figures for wounded possibly as high as 139,000 ) German casualties were 2,698 aircrew killed, 967 captured, 638 missing bodies, and 1,887 aircraft destroyed.  Despite the heavy losses Britain was able to recover after the battle and re-establish itself as an Allied stronghold.

The Battle of Britain was Hitler's first defeat, and one of the crucial turning points in World War II. It proved that the German war machine was not invincible. The Luftwaffe was incapable of destroying Fighter Command despite continuous raids on airfields and on London. Moreover, German forces had already lost much of its initial strength as a result of its western campaign. It is interesting to note that throughout the Battle, the OKL greatly underestimated the size of the RAF and the scale of its aircraft production, while exaggerating the extent of the Luftwaffe’s successes. Such misconceptions led to strategic errors. Believing that they had already succeeded in eliminating Fighter Command, the OKL shifted its attacks from the airfields to that of industry and communications. Such changes were due to a lack of cohesion among German commanders, each one vying for his own plan of action. That and the lack of German Intelligence assured that the German offensive over Britain was doomed to fail before it even began.

The key to British victory in the Battle of Britain was its air superiority. It had been acknowledged by both sides that the only way of achieving a successful invasion of the British Isles was through naval supremacy. Historians continue to debate the subject. According to Professor Andrew Gordon, who lectures at the Joint Services Command and Staff College, had the Luftwaffe won the air battle, the Royal Navy could have easily prevented the Germans from making a landing. However, some veterans of the Battle disagreed and maintained that the Royal Navy would have then been vulnerable to air attack (as occurred when the HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse were sunk in December 1941 in an attack by Japanese aircraft.) Others have argued that a German invasion could not have succeeded with or without German air superiority, solely because of the massive superiority of the Royal Navy. Nevertheless, the consensus of opinion is that the Luftwaffe was incapable of crushing the RAF. We owe a great debt to the pilots of the RAF. They were the "few" who saved England and the world. Churchill’s words of praise has immortalised them forever.


NB: Sources and Suggested Links will be provided at the end of this series.

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