THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN: FIVE MONTHS THAT CHANGED HISTORY: MAY-OCTOBER 1940
‘The Battle of Britain began for me in the Autumn of 1939,’ wrote Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding in his despatch – after all, that was when Britain and Germany went to war – but in the end he opted ‘rather arbitrarily’ for 10 July 1940 as its starting point, explaining that his only reason for doing so was because this was the day the Germans first attacked southern England with a large formation of some seventy aircraft. Dowding, as Commander-in-Chief of RAF Fighter Command, was also writing only about his own force’s part in the Battle; it was not his place to comment on the performance of either Bomber or Coastal Commands, or indeed the Luftwaffe or any wider aspects of the clash between Britain and Germany. Unwittingly, however, his despatch helped set the benchmark for how the Battle has been viewed ever since.
Yet there are a number of problems with the rather narrow Dowding view, as he himself was the first to imply in his despatch. Perhaps, however, seventy years on from those critical months, it is time we at last reassessed the Battle of Britain and viewed it in its wider context and, crucially, from both sides. In an age where thorough and international historical research has never been easier, it is essential that we view the war not through the rather myopic prism of our own national perspective, but with a wider, more balanced and objective approach.
Interestingly, the very name, ‘The Battle of Britain,’ suggests that this was not just a fight between RAF Fighter Command and the Luftwaffe but a far more all-encompassing clash of two nations. For Britain, her very survival was at stake; for Germany, the quick defeat of Britain following the astonishing victory in France, held the key to her future. For both sides, the stakes could not have been higher. In these critical summer months, the battle included warfare on land and at sea as well as in the air, whilst the British and German governments fought their own political and propaganda battles as well as one for intelligence, all of which had a profound impact on the unfurling events. In isolation, these differing aspects only present part of the story. Together, new and surprising perspectives emerge.
From the perspective of Fighter Command alone, there is a strong case for suggesting the Battle began in May. With most of the RAF’s Air Component in France returned home by 22 May, it was left to Fighter Command – the force established to defend Britain – to take on the Luftwaffe and provide air cover for the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) as it fell back towards Dunkirk. Dowding had earlier written his famous letter exhorting Britain’s leaders not to send any more fighters to France, but raised no objection to the use of Fighter Command over Dunkirk; after all, defending Britain’s army was seen as essential to the country’s survival.
Much the same view was taken by most of Britain’s war leaders in those critical days of late May and early June. The country was in political turmoil, with the Chamberlain government overthrown and a new Prime Minister best known for his mercurial temperament and tainted by the disastrous Gallipoli campaign of the last war and the General Strike of 1926. Diaries and letters of the day reveal a widespread sense of doom and even panic. It was during this period that the rather hysterical fear that swarms of German parachutists might descend at any moment took root. It was widely expected that rather than defeat all of France first, Germany would launch a rapid strike across the Channel, a view endorsed by the Joint Intelligence Committee and the Chiefs of Staff. ‘If the Invader Comes’ was a pamphlet issued throughout the country with instructions as to how the British public should respond to the arrival of German forces on British shores. No wonder it seemed that Britain was staring down the barrel.
It was in this febrile atmosphere that Britain faced some of her darkest hours of the entire war. At a time when the Dunkirk evacuation looked unlikely to succeed, and with the Germans seemingly unstoppable, a serious split developed within the new War Cabinet. On the one hand, Churchill, the new Prime Minister, was determined to fight on come what may; on the other, Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary and the most respected politician in the country, believed Britain should consider suing for peace. Over 26-27 May – as the evacuation was beginning – much hung in the balance, with Halifax even threatening to resign over the matter, a course that would have undoubtedly brought down the Government once again with catastrophic consequences. Churchill, with Chamberlain’s all-important support, eventually prevailed, but 27 May, six weeks before Dowding suggested the Battle of Britain began, would remain the day Britain came closest to defeat.
Of course, Churchill and Britain’s war leaders would have felt a great deal more confident during those dark days had they known the true state of German affairs. Despite the propaganda that portrayed German military might as an invincible Goliath, Hitler’s forces had begun the Blitzkrieg with fewer men, fewer and more lightly armed tanks, and fewer artillery pieces than the French alone. Only sixteen of the 135 divisions used in the attack were mechanized and only these elite few were the highly trained units of popular perception. It was French failings as much as the brilliance of a handful of commanders and men within the Wehrmacht that had been responsible for Hitler’s incredible victory. This extraordinary achievement in France and the Low Countries papered over a lot of cracks, hiding the inconsistencies, jealousies and indecision within the high command, and covering up the appallingly slow war production and fact that Germany did not have enough of anything – but especially aircraft, U-boats and S-Boats, with which to prosecute anything more than another lightning campaign against Britain.
And the despite the mastery of the skies that the Luftwaffe had so swiftly achieved, it had suffered too during those six weeks that had led to victory. On 10 May, the launch date of Hitler’s offensive, the Luftwaffe had lost an incredible 352 aircraft, its single worst day of the entire summer. Most of those were transport aircraft, losses which, due to slow German aircraft production, would put pay to any airborne invasion of Britain, and which were still being felt the following year as Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. To put this into some perspective, the Luftwaffe’s worst day during the traditional Battle of Britain was 18 August, when 67 aircraft were lost. On 15 September, what we now call Battle of Britain Day, the Luftwaffe lost just 61 aircraft.
It was also over Dunkirk that the shortcomings of the Stuka dive-bombing began to reveal themselves. The Luftwaffe General Staff had placed great faith in dive-bombing, so much so that production of the Junkers 88, original conceived as a fast long-range medium bomber, had been greatly put back by their insistence that this machine should be given dive-bombing capabilities too. This same requirement was further added to their planned four-engine bomber, the Heinkel 177. This absurd notion derailed the latter’s design so greatly, it never came into full-scale production. Yet during the Luftwaffe’s air battles with Fighter Command at the end of May, Stuka pilots discovered not only that it was extremely hard to accurately hit a moving vessel, they also found that as they emerged from their dives they were easy prey for any British fighters which happened to be waiting to pounce. By the end of August, Stuka losses would be so great they would be withdrawn from the battle altogether.
Although General Milch, Göring’s deputy in the Luftwaffe, had urged them to launch an immediate attack on Britain following the evacuation from Dunkirk, the Commander-in-Chief knew that his air forces were not ready. In any case, Hitler had already decided to finish the war in France before turning his attention on England, hoping that momentum and the weight of their victory on the continent, combined with attacks on British shipping by aircraft and by S-boats and U-boats would be enough to persuade the British to sue for peace. Yet with France defeated, it would a further month – on 19 July – before he publicly urged Britain to see sense and lay down her arms, and nearly four more weeks before Göring, Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe, launched his ‘all-out’ air attack on Britain on 13 August.
This eight week period gave Britain a crucial respite, which, with aircraft production newly energized by the press baron, Lord Beaverbrook, allowed Fighter Command to build up its strength once more. Yet although the delay was partly due to Hitler’s indecision and desire to avoid a further clash with Britain, it was also because it had taken the time to create new airfields along the Channel coast in the Pas de Calais and Normandy – and the reason for this was in part the logistics involved but also because Göring had insisted his airfields be adequately defended with anti-aircraft guns, trenches and other defences.
The role of Bomber Command in the first couple of years of the war has been traditionally been viewed as at best rather ineffective and at worst risible, yet from the moment British bombers first attacked Germany in the third week of May, there is considerable evidence that the start of the strategic air offensive really got under the skin of the German war leaders. Moreover, Göring’s concerns for the safety of his airfields were justifiable, because Bomber Command was sending aircraft to attack them every day. German diaries are riddled with references to this. ‘The British are slowly getting on our nerves,’ Ulrich Steinhilper, a fighter pilot based near Calais wrote to his mother in September, ‘because of their persistent activity, our AA guns are virtually continuous use and so we can hardly close our eyes.’ Siegfried Bethke, another fighter pilot, based in Normandy, recorded how he and other pilots took it in turn to sit strapped into their cockpits ready to intercept any British bombers that came over. Without the use of radar, there was no other way of getting airborne quickly enough to intercept; and every German fighter detailed for defensive duties was an aircraft unavailable for offensive missions against Britain.
Throughout the ensuing air battle, the Luftwaffe consistently failed to make the most of its resources. Germany had developed several types of radar, which were considerably more sophisticated than anything Britain had produced, yet there were none available to help the Luftwaffe. Radio technology was also highly developed in Germany, yet there were no ground controllers and once airborne, bombers and fighters were unable to speak to one another. They also had the best fighter aircraft of 1940, the Messerschmitt 109E, which was considerably better armed than either the Spitfire or Hurricane, could climb faster and crucially, had the ability to dive faster than either of the British fighters, three advantages that should have been decisive. Yet although during a conference on 23 July Göring told his commanders to allow the fighters to make the most of these strengths, all too often they were ordered to give the bombers close escort, forcing them to operate at heights and speeds that negated these advantages.
In contrast, Dowding had created the world’s first fully integrated air defence system, by harnessing a radar chain along Britain’s coast with the men of the Royal Observer Corps and by developing a standardized system of collecting this information and then rapidly filtering it back out again. This standardization created flexibility and allowed him to move squadrons and pilots around the country at will. Furthermore, by making good use of the available radio technology, the information filtered back out from radar and the Observer Corps could be relayed by ground controllers to the pilots, enabling them to be directed rapidly to intercept the incoming enemy raiders. As the air battle wore on, so this system was honed. Keith Park, commander of Fighter Command’s 11 Group in south-east England, was able to repeatedly refine his tactics.
Dowding and Park’s flexibility and willingness to improve the system was also demonstrated at the beginning of September when Park proposed categorizing Fighter Command’s squadrons. The last week of August and first of September have been traditional seen as the period when Fighter Command came closest to defeat; only when the Luftwaffe turned their attention away from airfields and onto London on 7 September, the story goes, was Fighter Command able to recover. Certainly Park was worried at this time, but his squadrons were certainly not short of aircraft, while his increased pilot losses were putting the front-line squadrons at only 75% or so full strength. Even this was hardly parlous: the establishment pilot strength of a squadron was around twenty, but no more than twelve would ever be airborne at one time. The idea was that there should be almost double the number needed to be airborne so that no pilot flew more than was reasonable in one day. Thus even at three-quarters strength, there was still some room for revolving pilots within any squadron.
Of greater concern was the quality of pilots coming into the battle straight from training. To get round both these problems, Park suggested labelling squadrons categories ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’. ‘A’ squadrons were front line units, but when their pilot numbers fell below fifteen, they would be rotated to a quieter area of the country. New pilots straight from training would be sent to ‘C’ Squadrons, out of the front-line where they could build up their flying hours and might get a taste of action. There would be just a few experienced pilots amongst them. ‘B’ squadrons were somewhere in between – a squadron building strength once more, in the firing line, but not operating along the main battle front. Park’s plan was simple, efficient, and was possible because of the flexibility of the system.
In contrast, the Luftwaffe’s situation was parlous. This same period marks the tipping point – the moment in the battle in which Luftwaffe fortunes take a severe dip as Fighter Command’s rose. Siegfried Bethke’s diary is particularly revealing. Rather breathless entries conveying excitement and high confidence had characterized much of his earlier scribbles as the Luftwaffe had seemingly swept all before it, but by the beginning of September, the tone begins to change to one of agitation and frustration. Every time they finally reached England, the British fighters were invariably already there, waiting above them. ‘We can almost never surprise them,’ he noted. Even worse, there was little time to engage with the enemy – their Messerschmitt 109s did not really have the range for what was required of them; fear of ditching in the Channel through lack of fuel haunted them all. As they were all well aware, the strip of sea separating Britain from France might look narrow from 20,000 feet but it was enormous when a lone pilot was left treading water, waiting for a rescue launch that would almost certainly never find them.
And by the first week of September there was a severe shortage of aircraft. British pilots might see skies that were appeared to be full of black crosses, but in fact numbers were diminishing fast. Unlike RAF squadrons, each fighter staffel – or squadron – was supposed to have just twelve aircraft, but by 2 September Bethke had just five left in his. ‘The other staffeln have only six or seven machines at the moment,’ he added. Three days later, he wrote, ‘We now take off with only three planes – that is my whole staffel.’ His 1st Gruppe, with just eighteen aircraft in all, was now half-strength; the 2nd and 3rd Gruppen had only twelve aircraft each instead of thirty-six – in other words, they were operating at between a third and half strength. It was the same for those fighter units in the Pas de Calais. ‘Right now we have just four aircraft,’ wrote Ulrich Steinhilper on 8th September. RAF Fighter Command’s numbers, meanwhile, were steadily rising, despite the heavy air battles of recent weeks.
One of the reasons Park was so worried about pilot strength was because British intelligence, assuming German staffeln were the same size as British squadrons, had considerably over-estimated Luftwaffe strength. German intelligence, on the other hand, had consistently underestimated British strength. The former worked to Britain’s advantage; the latter most certainly did nothing but hoodwink the Luftwaffe – and the world – as to the true situation. Indeed, the principle Luftwaffe intelligence officer, Colonel ‘Beppo’ Schmid, was an old Nazi who understood a great deal about Nazi politics but very little about intelligence. Much of his reports were little more than pure fantasy.
In fact, the Luftwaffe high command had been deluding themselves most of the summer. Göring had believed it would take his Luftwaffe four consecutive days to destroy the RAF, but the weather was against him. From 13 August to 31 October, there was only one four-day period that was completely free of rain and low cloud, 15-18 August. The Germans were quick to blame the weather, but most of the Luftwaffe’s problems were of their own making. There is no evidence, for example, that they had any idea that the RAF was divided into three commands, or that some airfields were for fighters and others for bombers. More than a third of all attacks on British airfields were against, Bomber, Coastal or Naval Command targets. Nor were these attacks on airfields especially effective. Manston was knocked out for a few days, buildings at Biggin, Kenley and other key airfields in the south of England were destroyed or badly damaged, but flying continued. At the beginning of September, Tom Neil, a pilot with 249 Squadron, was airborne when he saw North Weald, come under attack. Seeing their airfield disappear amidst an array of explosions, smoke and dust, he wondered how they would ever land back down again. But they did, all eleven aircraft that had been airborne, without any damage whatsoever. It was very hard to drop enough bombs to put a wide, open grass airfields out of action.
The critical weeks of the air battle certainly put an enormous strain on the pilots of Fighter Command, but at least they could let off steam in the evening, and could drink a few pints in a nearby pub where they would be welcomed as the heroes they were. They were also given twenty-four hours off every week, plus regular 48-hour periods of leave. Luftwaffe pilots shared none of these benefits. German pilots and crew were expected to fly and fly and fly. Ulrich Steinhilper once flew seven missions (sorties) in one day, an astonishingly tough work-load. The chronic shortage of aircraft also placed a massive extra strain on the more experienced pilots, who naturally flew what machines were left rather than handing them over to newcomers straight from training. Furthermore, German pilots rarely had a chance to let off steam at all. At the end of a tough day’s fighting, RAF pilots were encouraged not to talk shop. The cultural contrast with the Luftwaffe could not have been more different, where much of their non-flying time was spent analyzing their flying and writing up reports.
Furthermore, many of the German fighter pilots believed their tactics were all wrong in any case, with resentment mounting at their commanders’ insistence on close escorting the bombers. Unsurprisingly morale began to drop dramatically. ‘By ordering us to fly as close escorts,’ noted Günther Rall, another German fighter pilot, ‘our gruppe was effectively offered up on a plate to the most efficient and determined aerial opponents the Luftwaffe has yet come against.’
As the summer wore on these factors all contributed to mounting cases of what was becoming termed Kanalkrankheit – Channel Sickness – better known now as combat fatigue. ‘Although most of us were still not outwardly showing major signs of nerves,’ noted Ulrich Steinhilper at the end of August, ‘arguments were becoming more frequent, tempers frayed quicker…The strain of unrelenting front-line flying was beginning to show.’
Frustrations were compounded by the mounting sense that they were achieving very little. While Dowding and Park constantly worked to sharpen both tactics and performance, Luftwaffe strategy became increasingly woolly. The switch away from attacking the airfields to the assault on London had been prompted the RAF’s bombing of Berlin, which began on 24 August. It was an heroic feat by Bomber Command and again, although damage was slight – especially when compared with what was to come – it incensed Hitler and the German high command, and the Luftwaffe’s subsequent switch to attacking London was a direct response. Yet in doing so they had fallen for the bait. The stated aim of the Luftwaffe remained to destroy the RAF as a precursor to invasion – yet bombing London was in no way contributing to that primary goal. Changing tactics through a fit of pique does not win either battles or wars.
Meanwhile at sea, Hitler’s U-boats and fast surface torpedo boats, the S-boats continued with their attempts to strangle Britain economically; Hitler’s war effort against Britain in the summer of 1940 was not only fought in the skies. The S-boats proved particularly effective against the east coast convoys that continued to deliver much needed supplies of coal from one part of Britain to another – after all, without coal, the power stations would not run, and without the power stations there would be no electricity; without electricity there could be no Spitfire factories. Yet although they were incredibly fast, powerfully armed, and able to cross magnetic minefields, there never more than 15-20 S-boats operating at any one time. Like much of German equipment, they were massively over-engineered that required incredibly skilled craftsmen to manufacture. S-boats could never be mass-produced.
Nor were there enough U-boats to carry out an effective economic blockade. The U-boats were sinking gargantuan numbers of Allied ships during the Battle of Britain – as much as 400,000 tons per month – but the most U-boats operating in the Atlantic at any one time was just fourteen. It was not enough to make a decisive impact.
And there were increasingly few aircraft. As September gave way to October and still there seemed to be as many British fighters in the skies as ever, the Luftwaffe’s troubles grew progressively worse. There were now over 700 British single-engine fighters, but the Luftwaffe was down to around 300. Worse, more and more pilots were not returning home. The strain on those still flying was becoming acute. Hajo Herrmann was a staffel commander in KG4 , a bomber unit. He had already flown extensively in Spain before the war, then over Poland, Norway and throughout the summer. By October, he had clocked up ninety combat missions, more than most British bomber pilots would be expected to fly during the entire war. In the middle of the month he had just completed four consecutive nights of missions over London and was about to take off on yet another when his airfield was attacked by British bombers. The blast from one explosion caused him to slew his plane and crash. Although he survived, he was in a coma for three days. When he eventually came to he noticed a Knight’s Cross medal on his bedside table, and asked where it had come from. ‘Don’t you know?’ he was told. ‘The Reichsmarschall awarded it to you personally three days ago.’ Herrmann could remember nothing. Looking at it, he burst into tears.
On 16th October, Siegfried Bethke was ruminating in his diary about the general situation. He now realized that destroying the RAF in a few days, as Göring was still claiming, was a fool’s dream. ‘The English seems to be putting up with things quite well,’ he jotted then added, ‘Important things did not happen.’
Bethke was lucky – he was one of very few pilots to survive the war unscathed. Ulrich Steinhilper, on the other hand, was shot down over England at the end of October, by which time he was mentally and physically completely exhausted. ‘There is no doubt in my mind,’ he says, ‘that the RAF broke the back and the spirit of the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain.’ In reality, however, it was not just the RAF, heroically though they undoubtedly fought, but the Luftwaffe itself that had caused the damage.
By mid-October, Hitler had indefinitely postponed the invasion of Britain and with winter drawing on, it was clear his hopes of winning the war before the summer was out had been dashed. Britain had to be defeated, however. Waiting in the wings, as he was well aware, was a rapidly growing industrial power across the Atlantic. The United States posed a significant threat but would need the springboard of Great Britain were she to actively trouble his dominance in Europe. Hitler had always intended to invade the Soviet Union at some point – only the vast lands of Russia would provide him with the minerals and manpower he needed – but with the failure to beat Britain in 1940, he began turning his thoughts to a strike the following summer, several years earlier than he had originally planned. If he could quickly destroy the Soviet Union, then he could once more, and decisively this time, turn his attention back to Britain.
The Battle of Britain was the country’s finest hour. That part of the myth remains. The Few were also every bit as heroic as they have been hailed ever since. Yet it was also a bigger national effort, more complex, more involving than has been traditionally perceived. Moreover, the consequences were, perhaps, even more profound. Had Britain lost in the summer of 1940, it is hard to see how Hitler, for all his follies, could have then lost the war. It is right that the Battle of Britain should remain such an important episode in our history, but it is also time to view those momentous months in a wider and more balanced context.