When last we left this journey through aerial mayhem, France had just been knocked out of the war, the British Army was busy thanking every boat owner in Southern England while wringing out their clothes, and the Luftwaffe had just learned how to say “Acthung! Spitfire!” In the (wholly apocryphal) words of Hermann Goering, “Don’t worry, this will be quick.”
*pause* Yeah, just like Hermann was a little premature in his boasting, I’m going to tell you up front I have no idea how long this one’s going to be. The Battle of Britain has probably been responsible for literally millions of gallons of ink being spilled. With so many authors out there choosing the final three books is going to be a bit, um, interesting. On one hand, you have the view that the Battle of Britain was the decisive battle of World War II. In the middle there’s the theory that the Germans could have pulled it off, but it would have required the luck equivalent of a strong run at the craps table. As in, hitting so many die rolls that the casino’s staff tells the gambler in question “Don’t come back here if you like your internal organs…”. Finally, there’s the school of thought that the Germans were never serious about Sea Lion, the British knew this, and it was all a propaganda stunt.
As for your humble host, I fully believe the German High Command was capable of saying, “Hey, here’s a great idea! Let’s take our tactical / operational air arm and try to set the conditions for an amphibious debacle that will make Gallipoli seem like a Sunday tram ride!” These are the folks who brought you Operation Barbarossa, so high stakes gambles were sort of baked into the cake. Similarly, given that France threw in the towel with most of its army still in the field and the Germans far from possessing overwhelming force, Great Britain was certainly capable of getting a case of the yips in mid-1940. Ergo, without further ado, let me tell you how Air Marshal Hugh Dowding was responsible for saving Western Civilization.
*angry murmur from other historians* What’s that? You think I’m disrespecting ol’ Winston “Foggy” Churchill, Wielder of the Tommy Gun and Chewer of the Cigar? Mmm, maybe. I mean, don’t get me wrong–Winston Churchill is certainly the reason that Great Britain didn’t say, “Oh eff this noise, we’re done…” in May 1940. Indeed, despite Churchill beating out Lord Halifax for the post of Prime Minister, half of his cabinet wanted to cut a deal in the interest of preserving the Empire…
*glare at internal editor*
…the British Empire. To which Churchill gave a long, blunt reply that basically broke down to:
“They are fucking Nazis. Negotiating with Nazis is like negotiating with a hungry lion. Have you bloody idiots not been paying attention for the last two years?”
Winston then followed this up with telling Parliament something about “fight them on the beaches, blah, blah, blah.” Subsequent to that speech, he regularly advised the womenfolk in his social circle that maybe they should resign themselves to taking out one last Nazi while ol’ Hans was ‘in the saddle.’ (I’m not kidding about that part. Seriously.) Finally, to demonstrate England’s resolve to the rest of the world, Winston proceeded to have the Royal Navy blast the living crap out of whatever French fleet units that did not immediately
surrender, erm, I mean go into “internment.”
All this makes great history and does show a head of state that is, in the vernacular, not messing around. Buuuuuuttt, it ignores the fact that Churchill had not been Prime Minister from 1938-1940, was not particularly air minded and, despite his meddling nature, was not secure enough in his position to start meddling around with aerial defense of Great Britain. That job resided with one man: Air Marshal Hugh Dowding, head of Fighter Command.
Hugh Dowding was not a dashing fellow. Indeed, he is generally described as giving off the air of a particularly boring school principal who did not necessarily mix with those under his command. If there is a spectrum of leadership styles for aerial generals, Dowding is likely on the opposite side from Curtis Lemay. This is part of the reason he gets one or two sentences in most general histories, with the other being that he was cursed with back stabbers for subordinates (more on that later).
However, one of the things Dowding was good at was organization. Another was remaining calm. Both of these were necessary in May 1940 as everyone in London was running around going “Holy shit, holy shit…the Germans are right across the bloody Channel. Holy shit!” like they’d just witnessed a horrible car crash. In the final years of peace, Dowding had already begun putting together what would later be called an integrated air defense system (IADS). This defensive network relied on radar to provide early warning (Chain Home), guns to keep the the Lufwaffe from coming over at too low of an altitude, interceptors to deal with the German aircraft and, most importantly, a series of control command posts to make sure said Spitfires, Hurricanes and *gulp* “other fighters” were in the right place at the right time. In large part, Dowding was calmer because, unlike France and Poland, geography meant that he didn’t have to worry about panzers on his runways.
The British defense system looked like this:
Now, if you’re looking at that map and thinking, “Whoa, the guys in 11 Group sure look like they’ve drawn the short straw…”, you would be absolutely correct. After a last, “Okay, are we really doing this?” check from Adolph Hitler, the pilots in southern Kent got to find out how annoying it is to get the notice to scramble…then end up with Bf-109s in your takeoff queue.
That being said, the Germans found out a few things very quickly. One, while the RAF would still have village idiot squadron commanders flying in vics throughout the battle, self-preservation and attrition helped weed many of these men out. Ergo, it started becoming harder and harder to find quacking fighters with roundels. That’s not to say squadrons rotated in from No. 12 and 13 group didn’t occasionally get smacked around due to inexperience, but as June became July, the RAF started figuring out what in the Hell it was doing.
Helping this process was the innate advantage of fighting over home turn. Although the British air/sea rescue process over the Channel was criminally negligent, things were far better inland. If a Fighter Command pilot ‘took to the silk’ in the morning and was not injured, it was not unheard of for him to be sitting in another Hurricane or Spitfire within forty-eight hours.
This fact underscores another point–the Luftwaffe, for the first time, found itself in an even fight. There are various ways of counting airframes at the beginning of the Battle of Britain, and most sources will choose a method that suits the historian’s overarching thesis. (We’re sneaky like that.) However, only recently have folks started taking into account things like German pilot fatigue, high engine hours, and the operational wear and tear of operating very far forward from their depots into account. As June turned to July, the Jagdwaffe was sucking wind like a welterweight that had been throwing nothing but haymakers for ten rounds.
This analogy is particularly apt when one looks back at the map above. Notice that blue line that indicates the 109s’ maximum range? Yeaaaaahhh, that’s kind of important. Like most bomber disciples, Hermann Goering and his chief of aircraft development, Ernst Udet, had not invested in the development of a long-range, single-engine fighter. (In this they were not alone–you’ll get to hear how the Americans dropped this ball in a later post.) This made sense, as the Luftwaffe was a tactical / operational air arm. Long story short, this meant most of the German fighter pilots had to keep one eye on the fuel gauge as they started mixing it up with Hurricanes and Spitfires. Once the red light started glowing, it was time to head for home…or figure out how long one could tread water.
“Wait a second, James. In the last blog post you told us there were two German fighters. What about the Bf-110?!” Well, funny thing about radar–it tells people you’re coming. At that point, things like slashing attacks from upsun become problematic, and people end up having to actually dogfight. The 110, which had seemed quite capable on the continent, quickly found itself the equivalent of a station wagon in an Indy race. Although it still occasionally managed to surprise an unwary RAF fighter or two, by June it became apparent the 110 could not even look after itself, much less escort German bombers.
Speaking of escorting, also hindering the Jagdwaffe were tactical decisions forced upon them by higher headquarters. As the German Kampfgruppen began getting repeatedly mauled, they began to complain to higher headquarters that the Jagdwaffe were off hunting kills rather than actually, you know, escorting. This would be a common bomber refrain throughout the war for all sides. The Luftwaffe head shed, horrified at their losses, were the first to make the critical error of tying their fighter pilots to within visual range of the bombers as opposed to giving them free rein. This was a major error, as it meant that the 109s could no longer “free hunt,” but were forced to fly fuel drinking weaving patterns above their slower bomber brethren. I’ll let Adolf Galland sum up the problem:
“[The fighter pilots’] element is to attack, to track, to hunt, and to destroy the enemy. Only in this way can the eager and skillful fighter pilot display his ability. Tie him to a narrow and confined task, rob him of his initiative, and you take away from him the best and most valuable qualities he posses: aggressive spirit, joy of action, and the passion of the hunter.”
— General Adolf Galland, Luftwaffe.
The change in tactics allowed the RAF the respite of largely taking off and forming up in peace rather than having to worry about “fights on” from the moment their wheels left the grass. Moreover, it often allowed the Spitfires and Hurricanes to gain advantageous positions and seize the initiative. It was a rude awakening for the Jagdwaffe, and a harbinger of things to come for them later in the war.
As opposed to Goering, Dowding managed his end of the Battle of Britain like a maestro. Ever cognizant of the fact that he just had to keep the issue in doubt until September 30th at the latest, Dowding conducted an aerial economy of force operation. Despite Churchill’s pressures, Dowding refused to overly commit to protecting Channel convoys when the same resources could be moved by rail. Squadrons were committed as they became available, with the initial combatants wearing down the 109s so that later entries had free runs at bomber formations. Despite the temptation to meddle in squadron tactics, Dowding let leaders figure their own methods.
As time went on, the respite from German bounces as the RAF climbed to altitude, the winning of the production war, and the German decision to switch to targeting cities all contributed to Dowding’s victory. After getting through the critical period of mid-July to early August when Fighter Command was losing pilots quicker than they could replace them, by August 31st Dowding had actually started getting enough pilots to flesh out the squadrons he’d rotated north due to their losses. When Hermann Goering got the bright idea to go after London in order to force Fighter Command into a final series of battles, the new numbers ensured that didn’t go well. To follow our earlier analogy, the hard swinging welterweight found out that their opponent not only had one hell of a corner man, but had somehow put on 20 pounds in between bells.
By September 30th, it was clear to everyone involved that the Luftwaffe would not be obtaining air superiority in 1940, if ever. Hitler, not having really wanted to force England to the negotiating table through invasion, began to look east. The Luftwaffe would continue to send fighter-bombers by day and their medium bombers by night for several months, but quickly became consumed in preparations for Operation Barbarossa. A couple of day fighter Gruppen remained in the West, but by March 1941 the majority of the Jagdwaffe were gathering in eastern Germany and Poland for a date with the Red Air Force.
Great Britain, bloodied and battered, had a brief moment where the cabinet once more suggested that the nation seek the best deal possible. Churchill, as was his wont, quickly squashed this idea. Possibly with physical violence.
(Note: I have no proof that anyone got DDT’d in that cabinet meeting…but I have visions of Winston Churchill coming across the table a couple of times. “Winston!” “I didn’t hit him in the face and he’s already had all the damn children he should! Amazed I was able to actually find them to kick given how much he’s been crying about surrendering…”)
Air Marshal Dowding, despite having overseen the first successful defense of Britain proper in centuries, was forced out against his will in favor of the former commander of No. 12 Group, Trafford Leigh-Mallory. Leigh-Mallory speciously claimed that Dowding had basically left kills on the table by not following his suggestions of forming RAF squadrons into “big wings” of multiple units prior to vectoring them against incoming German bombers. Of course, Leigh-Mallory conveniently failed to discuss just how his “big wings” would have formed in the face of free hunting Jagdwaffe 109s. Nor did Leigh-Mallory address the fact that said big wings, by virtue of being easier to spot, would likely have suffered mightily at the hands of even the bomber-bound German escorts.
In any case Churchill, unimpressed with Dowding’s lack of offensive spirit and demeanor, summarily sacked his head of Fighter Command in December 1940. Forced to retire…
*loud klaxon* Oh, hey, the Eschewing Easy Alarm is going off. Better wrap this up before I kill someone through rhetorical bludgeoning.
1.) For the first time, radar changed the course of a campaign. Without Chain Home, Spitfires and Hurricanes would have been forced to fly standing patrols and been unable to mass against German attacks. It wasn’t perfect, but after two decades of the aerial offense largely having its way, things appeared to have swung decisively towards the defense.
2.) The German Luftwaffe, for all its potency, demonstrated the perils of thinking all air power was the same. For various reasons, the Germans found themselves attempting to kick Great Britain’s door in with twin-engine bombers and tactical fighter aircraft. The 109 was arguably superior to both of the British front line fighters and had its way against just about everything else (e.g., the Defiant), but simply lacked the legs to gain air superiority over southern England. As the British would find out when they went on the offensive, gaining air supremacy required range.
3.) The devil is in the pilot and airframe replacement program. Whether one believes that Fighter Command was on the ropes or not (a topic of much recent debate), the fact remains that the Jagdwaffe could not regenerate fighters nearly as fast as the RAF could. Moreover, for the first (but certainly not the last) time, the Germans began to suffer decreasing effectiveness due to a lack of “bench.” Although several individuals (e.g., Galland and Moelders) ran up impressive kill tallies, many more Experten from the Polish and French campaigns were either killed or became prisoners of war. Concurrently, the Germans’ airframes also began to wear out due to a poorly organized depot system. Both of these issues were the proverbial canaries in the coal mine for the Luftwaffe.
4.) Firepower improvement was relative. The RAF’s decision to go to the “8-gun monoplane” was both vindicated and disproven by the Battle of Britain. As the Hurricane and Spitfire‘s designers had expected, their battery of machine guns were quite destructive. Unfortunately, all too often the level of damage tapped out at the “We’re going to need a firehose to wash the gunners’ blood out of the aircraft” versus the “Mein Gott, they just sawed off our wing…”-level. As mentioned above, aircrew being wounded but alive to kvetch about poor fighter protection ultimately led to German errors…yet the RAF expedited cannon armaments after the Battle of Britain for a reason.
5.) Overclaiming influenced the course of the campaign. Despite strenuous rules being put in place, the Jagdwaffe‘s victory claims led to less than optimal operational decision making by Lufwaffe leadership. Many histories of the Battle of Britain discuss Goering constantly referring to Fighter Command’s “last few Spitfires.” This is not hyperbole–the Germans actually believed it. While no small part of this miscalculation was due to Lord Beaverbrook’s strenuous efforts, in the main it was because German pilots often mistook a fighter diving away on fire as one that actually crashed.
Three books for the masses:
The Most Dangerous Enemy by Stephen Bungay. This one is borderline between a book for the masses versus the monkhood. Bungay’s got an easy writing style, but it’s a really thick work.
Duel of Eagles by Peter Townsend. If you’re a fan of The Crown, yes that Peter Townsend.
Fighter by Len Deighton
One book for the monkhood:
Luftwaffe Fighter Aces by Michael Spick. Another “But wait, this one talks about the whole war…”-tome that I’m fitting in now rather than later.