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The Battle of Britain: How the Nazis Lost Before the War Started
Heroes of the RAF
Winston Churchill's immortal words, "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few" have focused our attention on the fighter pilots of the British Royal Air Force (RAF), and those pilots, in turn, spoke of the wonders of their finest airplane, the Spitfire. And certainly those heroic airmen and their marvellous machine deserve a lot of credit.
But success in any battle relies on many elements. And some are not discovered until decades after the war. I built this article studying many sources, one of which, "Battlefield Detectives: Battle of Britain" presented new evidence in 2005, sixty years after the end of World War II. (This episode from The History Channel is available on Netflix Watch Instantly.)
I do not wish to diminish appreciation for the RAF airmen, their heroism, or their airplanes. Just' the opposite. They risked their lives - and many gave their lives - in the cause of freedom. But I believe that we have more we can admire - and more we can learn from - by taking a closer look at several key elements of the British victory that stopped the German Blitzkrieg (Lightning War) in its tracks.
If we look closely, Churchill's famous speech actually points us to the other key elements of the British victory:
- His speech was a rallying cry to the British people: These young men are dying for us, what can we do for them? And the morale of British civilians was crucial: 30,000 of them at 1,000 stations all across England formed the Observer Corps, crucial to locating enemy aircraft.
- His speech probably helped recruit new pilots which the RAF desperately needed, as the RAF needed to grow even as pilots were being killed every week.
- In focusing on the visible part of the military defense system, he deflected attention away from hidden parts that were crucial - and vulnerable.
Decades later, we can safely take a look at all the factors that prevented the German invasion of the British Isles, and so learn a great deal about the path to victory and success. That knowledge is useful today, not only in war, but also in business success, leadership, and personal growth.
WW II: Major German Military Defeats
Germany recognized defeat in the Battle of Britain.
Germany lost the Battle of Stalingrad, and so cannot win on the Eastern Front.
Axis defeated in Africa
Allies invaded Italy; Allied foothold in Europe.
Allies victorious near Rome.
D-Day: The massive Allied invasion of Europe began.
Allied invasion of Germany began.
Allied forces won the Battle of the Bulge, ensuring Allied victory in Europe.
After Hitler's suicide in April, Germany surrendered.
When Did Germany Lose the War?
Nazi Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945. But when did Germany begin to lose the war? Just after the war, a German general was asked this question shortly after the war. People expected him to say that the earliest sign of German defeat was the Battle of Stalingrad in February 1943. But he surprised everyone by saying that it was the loss of the Battle of Britain in the fall of 1940.
And what if we can show that the British ensured their victory before the war, by getting ready in the 1920s? Then we might say that the Nazi failure was inevitable, even before the war began.
German Victory Appeared Certain
In July 1940, at the beginning of the Battle of Britain, the undefeated German Luftwaffe (air force) had 3,000 planes, and the British had only 500. Reichsmarschall Herman Göring had one crucial goal: to destroy the British air force, preferably before it even got off the ground.
To prevent that, the Spitfire pilots apparently had to achieve the impossible: a 5-to-1 kill ratio: shooting down five German planes for every British plane lost. Was that even remotely possible? And is it really what happened?
Churchill: "Never was so much owed . . ."
Keys to Victory
If the Spitfire and her pilots were the key to victory, then we will see that the different results were achieved during the dogfights (fighter battles) between the British and German pilots. But if we look for key differences elsewhere - before the dogfights, or after - then we discover other crucial elements of the British victory.
Let's take a look:
- The Dogfight: Spitfire vs. Messerschmidt 109
- Failure of German Tactics: They Couldn't Destroy the RAF on the Ground
- The British Air Defense Network
The Dogfight: Spitfire vs. Messerschmidt 109
As shown in the 2005 documentary, a flight simulator was used to compare the Spitfire and the Messerschmidt in three critical fighting maneuvers.
- Tight turns. Here, the Spitfire wins, being able to turn at 2.9 gees, better than the Messerschmidt's 2.4 gees. When flying level, the Spitfire can get behind its enemy faster.
- The dive. Both planes can dive equally fast. But, without fuel injection, the Spitfire must roll to the side first, or the engine will cut out. So the Spitfire loses three seconds at the beginning of each dive. In a dogfight, three seconds can easily be a lifetime.
- Rate of climb. The Messerschmidt could climb 200 feet per minute faster than the Spitfire. Advantage: Germany.
If the Messerschmidt had advantages in two of the three crucial maneuvers, then the Spitfire could not have been the decisive factor in the Battle of Britain.
Also, the British flew in a close 3-plane formation that was very good for attacking slow bombers, but this formation was not very good in a dogfight. It made it very hard to see an attack early, and was hard to maintain.
In contrast, the German 4-plane formation was so well designed that it is still used by fighter planes today.
This evidence would indicate that the Spitfire was not the single key to success that it has sometimes been made out to be.
German Fighters in the Air
•Failure of German Tactics: They Couldn't Destroy the RAF on the Ground
The German tactics relied not on fighters as much as the German bombers, particularly the Junker 87 Stuka, the flying artillery of the Blitzkrieg, with its screaming dive. The bombs are released as the plane is diving straight down, and so it is very accurate.
The dive is from 1,000 feet at over 100 miles an hour, which means that the entire dive takes less than 7 seconds. The plane pulls out of the dive on autopilot. It must, because the pull-up is so steep and fast that the Gee forces cause the pilot to black out.
This was a very effective technique all across Europe. But it failed to destroy the RAF on the ground. Why? There were three elements that made the Battle of Britain a very different war from the successful Blitzkrieg of Europe:
- No ground support
- Aerial attack
- Well-defended airfields
Imagine yourself as the pilot of a German Junker dive bomber, and you will see what the Germans were facing in trying to conquer not just the RAF, but English society.
Your Last Junker Dive-Bombing Run
You've been flying for over half a year. It has always been an easy job. You fly over an enemy just ahead of your own German tanks and ground troops. Zooming ahead, you dive-bomb an airfield, dropping your one bomb. The shrapnel blows apart 5 airplanes, probably of World War I or 1920s vintage. As soon as you pull up, you turn and you see, safe below you, your own tanks rolling into the airfield. This was the Blitzkrieg way, all across Europe.
Now, you are called on to cross the Channel and bomb a British airfield in the same way. Only you have no ground support - tanks cannot cross the English Channel, nor can German soldiers swim the distance. But you are not entirely on your own: the Messerschmidt 109 fighters are providing cover to keep you safe.
You cross the Channel. You think it will be a surprise attack, but you know nothing of British radar, nor the Observer Corps. Suddenly, your flight group is confronted with British fighters. The Spitfires engage the Messerschmidts, and you lose air cover. The Hurricanes, no match against the Messerschmidts, attack your group of Junkers and make short work of your comrades.
You escape this attack and make it to the airfield. Unexpectedly, the airfield is mostly empty. How did the British know you were coming? Still, you see four airplanes on the ground, apparently down for repairs. But they are not sitting on an open airfield. They are nestled in two cubbies of a dirt bunker shaped like a capital E. You do your dive-bombing run, dropping your one bomb and, if you do really well, you destroy two already damaged airplanes.
But as you dive, you come under fire. How is this possible? The British airfield had concrete machine-gun stations nestled below ground that could pop up on a hydraulic lift and start shooting in seconds. No one knew - these top-secret defenses had been built in the 1920s, before the Nazis even came to power, and were kept hidden until 2005, 60 years after the Nazis were gone. If you are lucky enough to not get shot down during your dive, you drop one bomb and destroy two airplanes. Then you black out as your plane pulls up in autopilot.
And you probably never wake up. Your autopilot flight is predictable, and the Britsh machine guns have been tracking you now for five seconds. Your airplane is shredded during it's slow vulnerable vertical turn.
A successful Junker dive-bombing run usually meant two British planes destroyed, and one Junker destroyed, with its pilot killed. An unsuccessful run is one Junker and pilot lost, probably shot down by a Hurricane or by machine-gun fire or shells from the ground, and no British casualties at all. Junker losses were so severe that, on August 19th, just over one month after the Battle of Britain began, Göring stopped using the Junker JU-87 Stuka in the Battle of Britain. As a result, the Luftwaffe had only 1,500 planes to attack England, not 3,000. The crucial 3,000:600 (5:1) ratio was immediately reduced to 1,500:600 or 2-1/2:1.
Junker JU-87: Crashed!
The Messerschmidts, and the Bombers They Tried to Protect
Even so, the Luftwaffe had two or three planes to every British fighter. That should have been an overwhelming advantage. If we take an imaginary ride as a Messerschmidt pilot, we will see why it wasn't.
Taking off from France, you have enough fm fuel to fly to London and make it back to your airfield a few miles inland from the French coast. Your destination isn't even as far as London - it is an airfield in the southwest of England, halfway between London and the coast. You are escorting bombers, providing air cover. You are keeping an eye out for British planes, but you don't expect to see any. After all, how can the British know you are coming across the Channel, and get their planes into the air?
But, somehow, they do know. (That secret radar, again.) You see a flight of Spitfires and Hurricanes. The Spitfires take a run at you - three of their planes to your four Messerschmidts. To engage them, you have to pull away from the bombers you were sent to protect. Then you see the slower Hurricanes coming in behind the Spitfires to attack the bombers you were supposed to defend.
But there is nothing you can do about that now. You must gain altitude rapidly. If you can climb fast enough, you can dive down on the Spitfires and have the advantage. The dogfight begins.
Perhaps there is damage on both sides - after all, machine gun fire can be deadly even to these new metal-skinned planes you are flying. Suddenly, though, you look at your fuel gauge. You barely have enough to make it back to France. What happened?
What happened? It's this: At cruising speed, the Messerschmidt uses one gallon of fuel in 70 seconds. But when it accelerates to dogfight speeds, it uses up that same gallon in just 30 seconds, less than half the time. So, get into a short dog fight, and you're running out of gas and losing your ticket home.
Messerschmidt pilots over Britain flew with one eye on the fuel gauge - a tremendous disadvantage in a dogfight. Worse, you can't just get away from a dogfight whenever you want to. If you turn tail and run, you will be pursued. You face four hazards on your way home:
- The Spitfires you were fighting may chase you, and you can't afford the fuel to outclimb them, and they turn faster than you do. You're likely to be shot down.
- Let's say that you manage to get away from the Spitfire, or even shoot it down. You're headed for the coast and you think you're in the clear. All of a sudden, another Spitfire. How did it find you? Courtesy of one member of the 30,000-person civilian Observer Corps, equiped with rangefinders and telephones. You were seen headed for the coast, and an interceptor was set on your tail.
- Then you might run out of gas over the English Channel. Early in the war, that was a death sentence.
- Or you might make it to the French coast before you run out of fuel. At that point, you have to belly-land on the beach, bending your plane's propellors and taking it out of commission. And, if you are less than lucky, you are not met by German allies, but by the French resistance.
As you can see, the Battle of Britain was not airplane against airplane. It was airplane against radar, Observer Corps, command and control, airplanes, hidden guns, low fuel, and the cold waters of the English Channel.
Keep this in mind, as well. In 1940, the Nazi regime had been growing as a military power for eight years. The British had been growing and defending an empire for over 200 years. Maybe the British knew what they were doing!
Getting the Planes Off the Ground
The most crucial tactic of the Luftwaffe was to bomb the Spitfires on the ground. This way, they could win the air war without even having a dogfight. And the Luftwaffe had done this all across Europe, destroying Polish, French, and other air forces with this Blitzkrieg tactic.
Early Warning: Timing is Critical
The British had built coastal radar stations and gotten them working before the war. These radar stations, with a range of about 100 miles over the Channel and France, gave, at best, 20 minutes warning of German planes gathering in the air in France before the planes reached their targets: the British military airfields.
But it takes 13 minutes to scramble a fleet of Spitfires and get them up to an altitude that levels the playing field with the Messerschmidts.
So the British had to detect the Luftwaffe attack with radar, communicate it through the chain of command, determine the target, make the command decision to get the planes off the ground, and order the pilots into action in 7 minutes.
They did it in 5.
You can argue that, day in and day out, those two crucial minutes were the most important source of victory in the Battle of Britain.
The British Air Defense Network
The British air defense network had six crucial elements:
- Radar - Early Warning, Secret Weapon
- The Observer Corps, 30,000 civilians scanning the skies for planes
- Fighter Command Central Headquarters
- Backup Command Centers
- Phones and Phone Lines
- Well-Defended Airfields
Radar - Early Warning, Secret Weapon
The British built radar stations, which they called RDF (Range and Direction Finding), all along the English coast. They could detect enemy fighters and bombers as they took to the air in France, as shown in the map below. Since the German Luftwaffe didn't really understand the power and use of radar, they didn't do enough about it. For example, they set course in a straight line from taking off to their target. So British radar operators only had to look at a flight of German planes for a minute or so to know exactly what airfield was going to come under attack. Each radar station had a phone line to the British RAF command and control station at Bentley Priory.
British Radar Range, 1940
Each station had a tall metal tower with a radar antenna and a building for the people housing the radar. Towers are harder to destroy than you might think, because bombs exploding in open fields, even right near the tower, don't have a lot of power.
If the Germans had really known what radar could do and how the British stations were built, they would have focused attacks on the buildings where the radar operators and technicians were housed. That would have taken down the stations and also killed key operators who were highly trained and would be hard to replace. Arguably, it was a lot more important to take out a radar station and kill a radar operator than to destroy a Spitfire and kill its pilot.
Why didn't the Germans focus on attacking radar? There were two reasons: First, they truly didn't know how powerful and useful radar was. They'd never seen it before, and its specific use was a well-kept secret of the British defense system. Second, they mistakenly assumed that the British radar operators and technicians were housed in hardened concrete underground bunkers and that the system was invulnerable. They didn't realize that the operating stations were vulnerable buildings sitting above ground, or that destroying the nearest power station would take the radar offline for quite a while. So, after bombing a few radar stations and seeing little effect, the Germans made their first big mistake - they left the British early warning radar defense system intact.
Specifically, the Luftwaffe targeted four radar stations on August 12, 1940, and interruped three of them, taking them down for 6 hours. The British quickly got the stations going again. If the Germans had realized how significant those stations were, they had options. They could have focused on the radar buildings, the phone lines, or the nearest electrical power station. Attacks on any of those could have put radar out of commission for a lot longer, and made a big difference. Why didn't the Germans think of that?
To understand this major failure of German tactics, we need to understand the mindset of Blitzkrieg. Lightning war is based on successful strikes. If a strike fails, then the lightning doesn't strike in the same place twice, another target is sought. Ten months of successful Blitzkrieg had not taught the Germans how to understand enemy systems and operations. Blitzkrieg is powerful for its speed, but not for its intelligence. That lack of intelligence (both in the sense of military intelligence - real understanding of enemy operations and vulnerabilities, and rational intelligence - careful planning towards committed goals) was a great weakness of the German Blitzkrieg machine.
The Observer Corps
When the Luftwaffe sends hundreds of aircraft on several missions at once, radar provides early warning, but it is not enough. The radar only pointed outward, over the Channel. It did not track enemy planes once they were over English soil. Each fighter or bomber may follow it's original plan, change course, be shot down, or go down for other reasons. This is where the British civilian Observer Corps come in. 30,000 men and women at 1,000 posts all over England, armed with binoculars, a range finder called a theodolite, and a telephone, situated on hilltops and roofs all across England, kept an eye out for enemy aircraft 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Observer Corps stations were local, and each station's telephone connected to both local command and central command. Thus, local fighters could be warned or directed in minutes, and more distant fighters (say between an enemy headed back to France and the Channel), could be scrambled to intercept. One time, an attack came in low, below radar. But Kenley Airfield was still safe, planes in the air, due to the Observer Corps's fast work.
The Observer Corps was invincible. The targets were too small to notice. And even if the German fighters had hunted them down and strafed them, what are a few thousand fighter planes against 30,000 citizens, especially when more volunteers can be trained quickly?
The Observer Corps helped the Spitfires, after take-off, quickly find the German invaders. Spitfire pilots and military experts have said that the Spitfire and Messerschmidt airplanes were similar enough in ability that the key to the fight lay more in who say who first, and in the planes relative position. In this, the Observer Corps gave the Spitfires a crucial advantage. Radar warning got the Spitfire in the air just in time. Then a message from the Observer Corps would come in, directing the Spitfire pilot to look at a certain location and altitude. The pilot could fly to a higher altitude and see the Messerschmidt coming. That's a huge advantage. Now, this system was far from perfect. But it gave a big advantage often enough to make a crucial difference.
The Observer Corps also prevented many German airmen and aircraft from ever reaching home, and also ensured that any who did parachute or crash-land and survive became prisoners of war, and not underground spies.
Fighter Command Central Headquarters
The British created a reasonably bomb-proof command and control center at Bentley Priory. It received phone calls from every radar station, and also from the Observer Corps. As depicted in The Battle of Britain and many other World War II movies, information was used to move icons of planes across a map of the Channel and England. Light boards showed which airfields and other targets were threatened. Calls went out to regional command centers and to airfields to scramble aircraft. If the information moved through in under 7 minutes, the Spitfires would be in the air ready for a dogfight, and the German plan of destroying the RAF on the ground would fail for one more day.
This command and control center was used day in and day out. According to the movie, The Battle of Britain, Winston Churchill was there as an observer on September 15, 1940, one of the worst days of the Battle of Britain, and a turning point in the war.
RAF Bomber Command, Bentley Priory
Backup Command Centers
It is a little known fact that, even if the Germans had somehow put RAF central command or sector command out of control, it would have made little difference. For example, Kenley Airfield was a sector command station that was frequently attacked. But the Germans never knew that a backup command was located in an old butcher shop a few miles away.
Phones and Phone Lines
The British may have had only a few hundred Spitfires, but they had over 30,000 telephones! Every member of the Observer Corps was equipped with one as well as all the radar stations. All calls could reach the Command and Control center and the backup center, and calls could go out from there to all regional commands and all air bases.
It might be argued that the lowly telephone was as important to the British victory as the Spitfire was!
Curiously, the phone lines to the backup center for Kenley Airfield were strung tree to tree - and checked daily for breakage. I'm not sure if this was done because there was no time to put up telephone polls, or to keep the backup center secret, or both. Either way, it worked!
The Falling Jet Aircraft
While researching this article, I had a laugh-out-loud moment. I came across the German phrase "Sturz-kmpfflugzeug" and tried to use Google Translate to find out what it meant. According to Google Translate, it means "falling jet fighter aircraft."
It actually means "dive bomber." But the Stuka (a contraction of "Sturz-kmpfflugzeug") did, indeed go from being a dive bomber to being a falling jet fighter aircraft when it faced British defenses.
Remember how, in every war movie with a strafing attack on an airfield, you see men standing behind a ring of sandbags, very vulnerable, quickly spinning machine guns by hand, hoping to shoot down the strafing fighter (or the dive bomber) before they get killed? Meanwhile, rows of fighters are sitting at the edge of the runway, sitting ducks for an attack?
That's not the real story.
British airfields were much better defended than these movies show. There were three main defenses:
- Underground machine-gun stations. Bomb-proof concrete pillboxes called Picket Hamilton Forts were built with their roofs level with the ground. When the air raid warning came in, they would pop up just a few feet on a hydraulic jack and be able to rotate and adjust elevation while providing the gunners with thich concrete protection above and all around. Two or three of these stations protected each airfield. Safe from strafing, and even somewhat from bombs, these stations proved deadly to the Junker JU-87 Stuka dive-bombers.
- Gun stations. A single airfield, such as Kenley, was defended by forty high-powered strategically placed gun stations.
- Spitfires on the ground protected on three sides. Spitfires were parked under the open sky, but they were protected on three sides by dirt, concrete, and brick bunkers built in the shape of a capital E opening towards the runway. These defenses were appropriately called E pens. Two planes rested inside each part of the E. So a dive bomber could only destroy two Spitfires at once, even if the planes were still on the ground. The E pens also made the dive bomber's work of targeting slower and more difficult. (The documentary I shared above re-creates this with model planes and really small bombs - that's one of the coolest scenes.)
Early warning got the planes off the ground. The airfields were well-protected. Most bombs were just leaving craters, and doing little damage. The craters were repaired overnight, and the airmen, exhausted, were ready to fly again.
Don't get me wrong. The Battle of Britain was a grueling, deadly time for the airmen of the RAF. It just wasn't quite as one-sided as we've been led to believe.
The underground machine-gun stations were the best-kept secret of the war. Their role did not become clear until 2005, 60 years after the war was over. (That's why you never see them in the movies.)
Save the World: Choose Your Role
If you were defending England during the Battle of Britain, which job would you like?
The Progress of the Battle of Britain
The Battle of Britain was waged in three stages as the Germans changed their tactics.
- Attacks on Channel shipping
- Attacks on airfields and the RAF
- Terror bombing of London and widespread attacks
Attacks on Channel Shipping
From July 10 to August 11, 1940, the Luftwaffe made very successful attacks against British shipping in the English Channel. Short range attacks against relatively undefended ships were quite successful. The channel was so close to France that the British radar system did not give much early warning. The Stuka dive bombers put a halt to daytime shipping. In one raid, the British lost 16 out of 20 coal ships. The British stopped shipping coal in the Channel, and switched to railways.
Attacks on the RAF
On August 12, 1940, the Luftwaffe attacked British radar stations with little success, as described above. They then began to target British airfields, starting at the coast and working inwards. Thinkng that the RAF was focused primarily in southwest England, they tried a major assault from Denmark and Norway into northeast England. The Germans planned badly, and bombers unescorted by fighters took a beating. Of 115 bombers sent, 16 were destroyed.
Weather Over the War Zone
Bad weather and fatal decisions
August 18 was dubbed "The Hardest Day." Then poor weather created a break in the attacks, and the Germans evaluated the results of their work and made several choices:
- They stopped using the Junker 87 Stuka dive bomber, as described above. This was a good decision, but it put a lot of pressure on the Erpro 210, the alternate bomber.
- They stopped attacking radar stations for the reasons described above. This was a very bad decision. An additional reason shows a flaw in the German command structure. The central tactic was to destroy the RAF on the ground, but the German fighter pilots wanted to taunt the Spitfires into the air and fight them there. So they pressured the higher command not to attack radar. This meant that the German precision tactics (get the Spitfires into the air for a fight) were out of alignment with the primary battle tactic (destroy the Spitfires on the ground).
- Göring increased fighter cover for bombers. That was a good idea in itself, but it meant that one command, Luftflotte 3, was short of fighter cover and could only do night bombing raids that did not need escorts. That early in World War II, night bombing raids were inaccurate. They were terrifying when used on cities, but had little strategic impact.
Göring's most fatal decisions
Göring has been criticized for his impatience, seen as a side effect of a morphine addiction. Essentially, he was addicted to quick victory. In his re-evaluation, wherever failure occurred, instead of studying what went wrong and improving his tactics, he blamed people and squadrons and took them out of commission.
At the beginning of the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe had three advantages over the RAF.
- The ability to use bombers
- 3,000 aircraft to the British 600, a 5:1 ratio in size of fleet
- Much more military flying and combat experience
Göring's decisions reduced all of these advantages.
- The German's best bomber, the Junker 87 Stukka, proved ineffective and vulnerable, and had to be withdrawn. The bombers of Luftflotte 3 had no air cover, and were reduced to night raids that were ineffective for destroying aircraft.
- The large fleets based in Denmark and Norway had failed. Instead of revising tactics and using them again, Göring took them out of the Battle of Britain, reducing the total size of his force in the battle and evening the odds towards the British.
- Disappointed with the ineffectiveness of Luftwaffe fighters, Göring replaced many seasoned commanders with younger hotshots.
As a result of these changes, when the Luftwaffe resumed its attacks, it was crippled by its own commander. It had less experience and fewer aircraft, and its own tactics had an unresolvable internal conflict: Were they trying to destroy the RAF on the ground, or, as the young hotshots wanted, in the air?
The British were not wasting time
As Göring re-evaluated, the British kept building. Given the Nazi goal of air superiority through destruction of the RAF, the British focused on two critical factors: Pilots and airplanes.
There were, as we've shown, other critical factors, including the entire air defense system and skilled radar operators. But these were not at risk, as the Luftwaffe were not attacking them.
Where could the RAF get more pilots? Anywhere and everywhere. Pilots who could fly anything were given as little as nine hours of Spitfire training and sent into air battles. The British drew on its vast empire, pulling in pilots from Canada, Australia, and even Palestine. And defeated Europe contributed pilots from Poland and Czecheslovakia, once language differences were worked out. These experienced pilots, in fact, did incredibly well.
And British industry kept making airplanes. The ratio of 600 airplanes to the 3,000 of the Luftwaffe sounds terrible. But England was producing over 450 new aircraft per month, and the Civilian Repair Organization (CRO) repaired nearly 5,000 aircraft in the last 6 months of 1940. (A lot of planes must have been repaired twice!)
Home field advantage
Imagine this. A Messerschmidt and a Spitfire are in a dogfight over the green fields of England. Both lose (or win, if you want to look at it that way). The damaged planes spiral down to crash landings.
The Germans just lost one pilot (now a prisoner of war) and one airplane. The RAF pilot is picked up by a farmer who sees the plane goes down and gives him a lift back to the nearest airfield (quite possibly his own). He's literally flying a different plane the same day after the crash. And the plane is picked up by the CRO and put back into service. Losses: Luftwaffe, one pilot, one plane. RAF: none. Victory RAF.
As many German pilots became prisoners of war as died in the air or in the Channel. During the defense of England, no British pilots risked becoming prisoners of war. (That danger came later, when the Allied side of the war turned from defense to attack.)
The situation at the end of the focus on the RAF
The British defense system responded to the first two phases of the Battle of Britain where the Nazis were reactive. As a result, before the third phase, the German advantage was largely gone and the two sides much more equal. The Germans were losing pilots and planes, and the British were holding their own and slowly growing. But even more important were issues of focus, will, and morale.
Focus Will and Morale in the Battle of Britain
Scattered: Tactical (destroy the RAF); or terror (bomb London)?
Focused: Maintain the whole system of air defense, and focus on the crucial factors: the supply of pilots and planes.
Divided: Destroy the RAF on the ground; or fight them in the air?
Focused: Defend our homeland by shooting down German planes.
Weakened by fear
Growing in determination
Fighter Pilot Morale
Low: Fighter pilots claimed "Channel sickness" a battle fatigue symptom that simply meant they were scared to fly over the Channel and be shot down.
High: Even if I'm shot down, I'll grab another plane and get flying as soon as I can.
Stage 3: London, or Maybe Not?
Classically, the third stage of the Battle of Britain is seen as the German assault on London, with the explicit purpose of creating terror for the British people. In fact, the bombing of London was a new factor, but it was not a single focus. If it had been, the Germans might have won.
London During the Blitz
But German strategy and tactics were scattered. They attacked London, but also kept up some raids on airfields and industrial targets. This might have been effective if the Germans were coordinating well-plannes surprise attacks. But British radar eliminated the element of surprise, and German command errors made the attacks reactive, not coordinated.
First, lack of sufficient fighter cover led to nighttime bombing, which was inaccurate. These raids created civilian casualties even though, at the time, Hitler had called for attacks only on military targets. In response to the civilian deaths (even if they were accidental), Churchill ordered a bombing raid against Berlin. This embarrassed Göring, who said Berlin was safe, and it infuriated Hitler, who then authorized attacks on cities, including the bombing of London.
But London was a far-away target. Fighters had only ten minutes of fuel (less in a dogfight) when they reached London. So many bombers were left without fighter cover on their way back. Bombers were easy prey for Hurricanes or Spitfires, and losses were huge.
September 7, 1940, was the day of the biggest air attack on London. 11 Group, from southeast England, mounted a large defense, even though the Germans thought they were already almost destroyed.. Meanwhile, 12 Group was called in from the Midlands further north to protect the 11 Group airfields.
But 12 Group did not obey orders. The commander of 12 Group favored the Big Wing strategy, and wanted to prove himself. So he flew all his planes to defend London. But he arrived late, and did only small damage to the German bombers as they were returning home. 12 Group thought they had failed, and were in trouble for disobeying orders.
But that is not how it looked to Hitler. He heard reports that, in spite of the Luftwaffe effort to reduce the RAF to nothing, they had put more planes in the air than ever before. Clearly, the RAF could not be cut down on the ground, or in the air.
On September 14, Hitler asked of Operation Sea Lion, the planned invasion of England, "Should we call it off altogether?" The bombing of London went ahead on the 15th, but this time 11 Group and 12 Group both flew Big Wings, and shot down 60 German aircraft, losing only 26 of their own. (And remember, every German plane down is one less pilot and plane for Germany, but not always so for the English, due to the home field advantage.)
From that point forward, Hitler made a series of decisions to delay and shrink the planned assault on England. He finally cancelled Nazi invasion plans on December 18, 1940.
But the Nazis were addicted to success. Having lost the Battle of Britain, they made the great mistake of opening a second European front by attacking the Soviet Union. Over two years later, Stalingrad would prove as resistant as London had been, dooming any German hope of victory.
Could the Germans Have Won the Battle of Britain?
Many historians have asked, "Could the Germans have won the Battle of Britain?" Until recently, the answer seemed close to a "yes." Slight changes in tactics, or a bit more commitment could have done it.
These views hold two perspectives on the path to German victory. One is that, if the Germans had kept a complete focus on destroying RAF airplanes and airfields, and not bombed London, they might have wiped out the RAF and then been able to launch the air-amphibious combined assault plan they named Sea Lion. The second is that if they had continued to bomb London, even at a cost of 200 planes a month, they could have brought down London and England in two or three more months.
But are these tactics realistic in light of our new knowledge of British defenses? Perhaps, but only if we modify them quite a bit.
Imaginary Strategy 1: Eliminate the RAF on the Ground
How would a brilliant tactician with deep knowledge of the British defense system have conducted the Battle of Britain? Most importantly, he would have focused on all key aspects of the RAF command, control, and military system. He would have attacked:
- The radar stations, especially the buildings with staff in them, plus supporting phone and power line and power stations with a sustained attack.
- The Command and Control Center at Bentley Prior, the sector command stations at major airfields, and their its backup centers, as well
- British airfields, doing his best to catch the airplanes on the ground
- Roads that could bring planes and constuction materials to the airfields
- British airplane manufacturing and repair facilities
Further, it would require all Luftwaffe resources, including those in Denmark and Norway. Attacks would need to be sustained until objectives were achieved. And as soon as a target was restored - say, a radar station made operational again - it would be attacked and destroyed again. And all raids would need to be coordinated fighter and bomber raids, so the bombers could be protected. It would even make sense to send additional fighter squadrons out, timed to protect the bombers on their return journeys.
Even this might not have worked. The Luftwaffe was really fighting only 11 Group in southeast England for most of the Battle of Britain, which was about 1/2 of the British Air Force. If 11 Group had been defeated, the British could have brought in other groups to defend the coast during Operation Sea Lion. Germany might have thought that they had the air superiority for the attack, and then discovered that they did not.
Imaginary Strategy #2: Destroy London
A sustained attack on London, some say, would have forced the RAF into a complete showdown at their weakest time. Given the problem of distance and fighter cover, German losses would have been immense. But if the Germans had succeeded in killing Churchill or King George and Queen Elizabeth and obliterating London, it might have opened the door to British surrender, forced armistice, or defeat.
Such scenarios are conceivable, but, I think, impossible. Keep on reading to see why.
Deeper Reasons for the German Defeat
I believe that the German defeat and British victory were rooted in the society and culture of Nazi Germany and the shrinking British Empire, respectively. I'm speaking about a level of human experience captured in two German words: Weltanschauung and Zeitgeist, or, in English, world-view and spirit of the times.
The Nazi Worldview
The Nazi Zeitgeist informed Blitzkrieg. I believe it also expressed itself in the addictive personality of Herman Göring and Hitler's insane need for purity. I am not saying that their mental illness guided the society. Rather, the collective insanity of the entire culture expressed itself through Blitzkrieg, addiction, and obsession.
A person who experience pain followed by the bliss of morphine (or cocaine or any related or similar drug) has these qualities:
- Great rushes of energy, followed by lassitude or seizures
- A very low tolerance for pain
- A need for a quick, effortless fix
- A tendency to blame others
Blitzkrieg had all these same qualities, as a way of doing war:
- Quick, coordinated attack, but, if that failed, an equally quick collapse, seizing up, and giving up
- A very low tolerance for failure or even for losses in a successful battle. Military commanders who failed, even when given impossible tasks, were demoted or sidelined
- A need to succeed quickly with few losses
- Blame of one's own commanders, even when they were given hopeless tasks, rather than analysis of the enemy's strengths and weaknesses, and one's own
In addition, we see a parallel in the dismissing of capable German commanders who failed on impossible tasks and Hitler's insane need to create purity by destroying all that he perceived as weak.
I believe that the spirit of the times (Zeitgeist) and worldview (Weltanschauung) were limited, rigid, and reactive. They could create a powerful driving force that succeeded only when it succeeded quickly. We know that force as Blitzkrieg. But, in Europe, when Blitzkrieg failed - in Britain and later in Stalingrad - the Nazi war effort also failed completely.
With such limitations, Nazism was doomed to failure. It had no method of long-term success.
The British Empire was designed for long-term success.
The Worldview of the British Empire
I see very little of value in Nazi culture: I find it horrific. In comparison, the British come up roses. But let me be clear: I am not a total fan of the British Empire. The British Empire was abusive all the way from the 1700s through the first half of the 20th century. The American Revolution was a just revolt, and Gandhi's swaraj (self-rule) for India and his Quit India campaign were fully justified.
That said, the British certainly knew how to sustain an empire. By the time of World War II, global social and economic conditions were bringing about an end of colonialism, and an end of the Empire. But the British will to survive these difficulties was the essence of its Zeitgeist. The British knew how to govern and how to run a military organization. I'm sure that lessons from the revolts in India in the 1800s and World War I were well applied as the British built their airfields with defense in mind, and even more as they built the communication and control structure that connected radar and the Observer Corps (information sources) with command and control and then into action at the airfields.
The British Zeitgeist and Weltanschauung were embodied in Winston Churchill, who said, "Continuous effort - not strength or intelligence - is the key to unlocking our potential." Both the British and the Germans had strength and intelligence. But it was the continuous effort - the constant training of new pilots, building of new airplanes, repair of old airplanes - by which Britain endured the brief onslaught of the Battle of Britain. And the British had a world-view that allowed them to use their intelligence, planning, adapting, and succeeding. The reactive Nazi regime did not have such abilities. It was not that the Nazis were not intelligent; rather than those who live in fear and anger cannot use their intelligence in a strong and steady way.
This long-term application of intelligence - planning and implementation - was exemplified by the earlier preparations for national defense. The British started to win the Battle of Britain and World War II in the 1920s, before anyone had even heard of Adolph Hitler. The Nazis were fore-doomed by their own nature.