I originally wrote this for BBC History Magazine, but a healthy Twitter debate has prompted me to post it here as well.
On 14 August, 1940, 87 Squadron had been scrambled at around 4.30pm, and rushing to their Hurricanes had quickly got airborne and started speeding towards Weymouth on the Dorset coast. ‘One hundred and twenty plus approaching Warmwell from the south,’ came the calm voice of the ground controller in the pilots’ ears. ‘Good luck, chaps.’ Pilot Officer Roland ‘Bee’ Beamont swallowed hard and began desperately to scan the sky. They were over Lyme Regis and flying at around 12,000 feet when Beamont saw them, still out to sea – what looked to him like a gigantic swarm of bees all revolving around each other in a fantastical spiral from around 8,000 to 14,000 feet.
As the Hurricanes drew closer, Beamont could see there were about fifty or Stuka dive-bombers and two-engine Messerschmitt 110s above and single-engine Me109s above them. Although there were just twelve Hurricanes, the squadron commander shouted, ‘Tally ho!’, the attack signal, and then they were diving into the fray. In a brief, manic and confused melee, Beamont nearly hit a Stuka, then came under attack himself, managed to shoot down a Me110 and then another before running out of ammunition and heading for the safety of a cloud bank, emerging into the clear over Chesil Beach. He was hot, his uniform was dark with sweat, and he felt utterly exhausted. He was also astonished to discover he’d been airborne a mere thirty-five minutes.
Beamont’s experiences on that day fit very neatly into the familiar narrative of the Battle of Britain, in which that small band of brothers in RAF Fighter Command repeatedly found themselves battling a vastly superior enemy over a sun-drenched southern England. On that day, Beamont and his fellows in 87 Squadron were just twelve men taking on 120. Others regularly found themselves facing even greater odds – odds that have come to represent Britain’s wider experience in the summer of 1940. It was a time when she was all alone, with her army defeated on the continent, her back to the wall – little Britain as David, defiantly fighting on against the Goliath of Nazi Germany. Above all, Britain’s finest hour was a triumph of backs-to-the-wall amateurism against the professional militarism of the Germans.
It is, however, a myth, and one that, seventy-five years on, we should put to bed once and for all. Britain was not alone, nor dependent on just a handful of young men in Spitfires and Hurricanes and the Captain Mainwaring figures of the Home Guard. Rather, Britain was one of the world’s leading super-powers, and at the centre of the largest global trading network the world had ever known, with the kind of access to resources of which Germany could only dream. Britain had the world’s largest navy, largest merchant fleet, access to around 85% of the world’s merchant shipping, and trading and business interests that went well beyond its empire. Within the dominions and commonwealth, there were also some 250 million men it could potentially call upon to fight.
Moreover, there was nothing amateurish in any way about the Britain’s defence against potential German invasion. The conquest of France and the Low Countries had been fought on Germany’s terms, but what followed was fought on Britain’s. The Few, the pilots in their fighter aircraft, were one cog that made up the first fully co-ordinated air defence system in the world – a system in which modern radar, an Observer Corps, radio, a supremely slick filter system and highly developed ground control all insured that Luftwaffe raids such as those on 14 August were intercepted and harried repeatedly. This defence system meant that Spitfires and Hurricanes would be in the air chipping away at the strength of the enemy and at the same time ensuring they were not being destroyed on the ground. Fighter Command could have put up more than seven hundred fighters at a time had they chosen to, but its commanders preferred different tactics – one of dispersal of forces and airfields more suited to a defensive battle. For a pilot like Beamont, however, it seemed as though just a few were taking on the many.
Moreover, Fighter Command was only one part of the RAF – both Coastal and Bomber Commands also played a full part in the battle; Bomber Command, especially, was repeatedly striking targets inside the Reich as well as Luftwaffe airfields in Northern France. And the RAF was only one of three services. There was also the Royal Navy, Britain’s ‘Senior Service’, and vastly superior to the Kriegsmarine, especially after the bloody nose it had inflicted on the German navy in Norway; and there was the army, admittedly rebuilding, but, by August, nearly two million strong when including the Home Guard, many of whom were far more proficient than Dad’s Army would suggest. There were also significant coastal defences and chemical weapons ready to be deployed. Collectively, these were formidable defences.
In contrast, the German plans were disjointed, lacked any kind combined services co-operation, and were supported by a transport lift that was frankly risible at the time and which was made to look even more so in light of future wartime amphibious operations. Fortunately for the Germans, they never had the chance to test their plans to cross the Channel. Rather, the Luftwaffe fell some way short of destroying RAF Fighter Command, the first line of Britain’s defence, rather than the last as is usually portrayed.
So where does this enduring view that Britain won the Battle of Britain by a whisker come from? In part it is because of the public perception at the time. Britain’s ally, France, another leading global power, had been defeated in just six weeks, the British Expeditionary Force had been forced into a humiliating retreat back across the Channel, and this had followed defeat on land in Norway. That Britain had won at sea off Norway counted for less in public perception now that the swastika was fluttering over the continental coastline from the Arctic to the Spanish border. In Britain there was mounting panic through May and June 1940 as it seemed they would be next in the path of Nazi Germany’s apparently unstoppable military machine. This widely held perception that Germany was a highly developed modern military Molloch appeared to be borne out not only by the pre-war newsreels of rallies and grand-standing but then by the lightning speed with which they overran first Poland, then Denmark and Norway and then France and the Low Countries. Few in Britain realised that only sixteen divisions out of the 135 used in the attack in the west were mechanised, or that in Poland Germany had almost run out of ammunition, or that the Reich was already suffering very stringent rationing. Or indeed that there were never more than fourteen U-boats in British waters and the Atlantic at any one time at any point since the war had begun. Most British people had no idea just how shaky were the foundations on which German military might was built.
The sense of German numerical and qualitative superiority was then further manifested in what British people were seeing with their owns eyes once the battle got under way. A formation of 120 enemy aircraft would have made a great deal of noise and looked awesome. However, as Bee Beamont had realized on 14 August, only around forty of those were actually bombers, and it was bombers, primarily, that were expected to destroy the RAF by knocking out airfields, facilities, and aircraft on the ground. The truth was that no matter how impressive such a formation may have looked in the summer of 1940, it was simply not enough. Tom Neil was a pilot in 249 Squadron and at the beginning of September, they were operating from North Weald. On 3 September, Neil took off in his Hurricane along with eleven others and soon saw the airfield disappear under clouds of smoke as the Luftwaffe attacked. He wondered how they were ever going to land again but an hour later they all did. ‘We just dodged the pot-holes,’ he says. This was something the Luftwaffe had not really considered: destroying grass airfields of up to 100 acres required vast amounts of ordnance – ordnance the Germans simply did not have. Bomb craters were swiftly filled in, reserve operations rooms put into practice, and although many of Fighter Command’s front-line airfields quickly looked a mess, only Manston, in the south-east tip of Kent, was knocked out for more than twenty-four hours in the whole battle. Just one.
Ten days after the Luftwaffe launched the battle on 13 August, the Stuka dive-bombers, on which so many pre-war hopes had been placed, were withdrawn. Losses were too great. There were not enough of the next-generation bomber, the Ju 88, which meant from now on the lion’s share of the bomber work was carried out by Dorniers and Heinkels that were increasingly obsolescent. By the beginning of September, thanks to the rate of attrition and low production, numbers of fighters were also diminishing. Most Luftwaffe fighter squadrons were operating at half-strength. Some had just two or three planes left; others were beginning the day with none at all.
Yet it was at this point that Air Chief Marshal Dowding, the Commander-in-Chief of Fighter Command, and Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park, commanding 11 Group in the south-east, feared they were staring down the barrel of defeat. It was not for lack of aircraft; rather, the new Ministry of Aircraft Production was building more than double that of Germany while the Civilian Repair Units had increased numbers by a staggering 186%. No, it was pilot shortage that so worried them, or specifically, trained pilot shortage.
This was largely due to an over-estimation of German strength. British intelligence was excellent, but it had been assumed that German staffeln were structured in the same way as British fighter squadrons, that is, with almost double the number of pilots to keep twelve in the air at any one time. For example, on 14 August, when Bee Beamont had been in action, Tom Neil had spent much of the day on the ground watching other members of the squadron taking off to meet the invaders. He finally flew later that afternoon, allowing those who had flown earlier a rest.
When Park claimed many of his squadrons were operating at 75% strength, he meant they were down to 16-18 pilots, not eight or nine. In fact, German squadrons were only twelve strong on paper, not twenty-four, but many had only nine aircraft at the beginning of the battle. Attrition and aircraft shortage reduced those numbers dramatically further after several weeks of heavy fighting. Neither Park nor Dowding had any idea about this gulf between perceived and actual strength, nor of the crushing shortage of aircraft. For the Luftwaffe, this meant fighter pilots, especially, were made to fly ever more sorties to make up the shortfall. Few British pilots would fly more than three times a day and usually not more than twice. By September, their opposite numbers might fly as many as seven times. The physical and mental strain of this was immense.
In the traditional narrative, the crisis passed in the nick of time when the Luftwaffe changed tactics and began bombing London instead of airfields on Saturday 7 September. Since the attack on the airfields was failing, the change of tack, while making little tactical sense, was perhaps not as significant as the idea thought up by Park that very same day. He suggested introducing a system of squadron classification. ‘A’ squadrons would be in the front-line and consist of experienced combat pilots. ‘C’ squadrons would be filled mostly by men straight out of training but with a few old hands and would be placed away from the front-line, such as in Acklington in Northumberland, where they could build up hours, learn the ropes and get some combat experience against the odd obliging German raider from Norway. Category ‘B’ squadrons were in between the two. And pilots and squadrons could be moved around and up- or down-graded in category at a moment’s notice. In a trice, Park had done much to solve the pilot crisis, but it was only possible because of the inherent flexibility yet uniformity of Dowding’s ingenious system. Thereafter, Fighter Command never looked back. By the time the battle officially ended on 31 October, it was stronger than it had been at the start. The Luftwaffe, by contrast, never really recovered.
Was the Battle of Britain the country’s finest hour? One of them, certainly, as it consigned Hitler to a long attritional war on multiple fronts – a conflict his forces were not designed to fight, and which materially meant they would always be struggling. It was the victory that unquestionably turned the tide of the war, but was also a very well fought, meticulously planned and managed battle that demonstrated many of Britain’s undoubted strengths. This anniversary year, we should celebrate that brilliance as well as the courage of the Few.
Ten German Failings
- Poor Intelligence
Luftwaffe intelligence was woeful and largely in the hands of Colonel ‘Bello’ Schmid, who spoke no other languages, liked the bottle, and had barely been out of Germany, but was a good party man. He was also a sycophant who told Goring what he wanted to hear rather than the reality. He massively underestimated British strength, had no idea about Dowding’s system, nor that the RAF was divided into three commands.
- Poor Tactics
Although Goring had been a fighter pilot in the last war, he was a far better businessman than air commander. After 12 August, he stopped further attacks on British radar stations, repeatedly made his subordinates come to him in Berlin, constantly chopped and changed his mind and disastrously began insisting his fighters escort the bombers closely, which meant losing their advantage of speed. Then he turned on London, which made no tactical sense whatsoever.
- Insufficient Radio
The Germans had far more sophisticated radar than the British but failed to use it. Radio communications once in the air were non-existent between fighters and bombers, leading to repeated confusion – not least on the morning of Adlertag, Eagle Day, on 13 August. There were no ground controllers as such, so that once on their way to England, the Luftwaffe was left with the pre-flight orders and nothing more. Otherwise, they were on their own. Confusion frequently ensued.
Hitler was a continentalist, but because of his background and lack of military command experience, his geo-political understanding was poor. He spent much of the summer of 1940 in a state of indecision, unsure what to do about Britain’s refusal to play ball. Mostly remaining in his Bavarian retreat, he repeatedly summoned his commanders and in turn, which hardly helped. There was no tri-service planning or joined-up thinking in any way.
- The Wrong Fighter
The Messerschmitt 109E was the best fighter of 1940 as it could climb and dive faster, and pack a bigger punch and for longer than either the Hurricane or Spitfire. However, the twin-engine Me110, much loved by Goring, was cumbersome and ill-suited to air-to-air combat. A far better pairing would have been the Heinkel 112, but this was discarded in favour of party-man Messerschmitt’s 110.
- Over-Dependence on Dive-Bombing
The Luftwaffe high command were obsessed with dive-bombing and placed the future of bomber development with this in mind. However, dive-bombing was fine when the Luftwaffe controlled air space and when attacking a fixed target, but as Dunkirk had shown, not when targets such as ships were moving or when British fighters were waiting to pounce. Over England, the Stukas were decimated and swiftly withdrawn.
- Lack of Home Advantage
If an RAF pilot was shot down, then provided he was uninjured, he could be flying again later that day. In contrast, if Luftwaffe aircrew came down over England, for them the war was over. British pilots were also treated like heroes whenever off-duty, whereas if a Luftwaffe pilot went to a French bar when off-duty, the chances were he’d be treated with cool contempt. Furthermore, Luftwaffe pilots had to cross the Channel to fight, and the fear of being lost and drowning increasingly played on nerves.
- Insufficient Care of Pilots
One of the reasons Dowding was so worried about squadron strength dipping to 75% was because he feared it would mean putting too much strain on his pilots. The Luftwaffe command had no such concerns, forcing their aircrew to fly and fly and keep flying. Unlike in Fighter Command, any kind of leave was rare and irregular. Combat fatigue was the result.
- Low Aircraft Production
Aircraft production lagged badly behind that of Britain. In July 1940, for example, Britain produced 496 new single engine fighters, while the figure for the Luftwaffe was less than half that at just 240. It was a ratio that only worsened as the battle progressed. Complacency, shortage of materials, and an increasingly chaotic and over-staffed procurement staff were to blame.
- Not a Strategic Air Force
The Luftwaffe was built up and designed to support the army and in that role proved very effective during the early campaigns of the war. This made it was later termed a tactical air force. In taking on the RAF, independently from of any ground operations, was a strategic rather than a tactical role and one for which it had never trained.