Adolf Hitler assigned the Luftwaffe the task of eliminating the RAF and winning control of the skies over Britain, an essential precondition to the German invasion of England (Operation sea lion). There were additional reasons for the attack as well. Hitler did not particularly want a war with the British and had publicly appealed for an end to the conflict, only to be rebuffed on each occasion. He nevertheless hoped that if the Luftwaffe were to inflict sufficient damage, the British would be forced to sue for peace. Thus, plans went forward, but Hitler expressly forbade Luftwaffe attacks on civilian targets and on London in particular.
The British frantically worked to prepare for a German invasion, although their army had abandoned most of its equipment in France during the Dunkerque evacuation. They did what they could, removing signposts and such; a blackout had been observed from very early in the war. The Germans were expected to attack in strength by parachute, and there was a certain amount of hysteria about fifth columnists (covert enemy sympathizers) and spies. The British also experimented with means of setting the sea on fire, and Bomber Command secretly trained crews in the use of poison gas.
German plans called for the Luftwaffe to establish air superiority over southern England between 8 August and 15 September. To accomplish this, it had to achieve a highly favorable kill ratio in the air or destroy RAF Fighter Command's infrastructure on the ground, while keeping a sufficiently large fighter force intact to protect the German invasion fleet. Although leaders of the Luftwaffe were confident of defeating the RAF in the air, they were concerned about attrition among German aircraft.
Reichsmarschall (Reich Marshal) Hermann Göring had three Luftflotten available to prosecute the battle. Luftflotte 2, based in Belgium and commanded by Feldmarschall (field marshal) Albert Kesselring, was the largest with 1,206 aircraft, over half of them fighters. General Hugo Sperrle headed Luftflotte 3, with 1,042 aircraft, in France, and Feldmarschall Hans-Jürgen Stumpff commanded Luftflotte 5, based in Norway, with only 155 offensive aircraft.
RAF Fighter Command, headed by Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding, was organized into four fighter groups with a total of 754 single-seat aircraft. Air Vice Marshal Sir Quintin Brand commanded 10 Group, covering the southwestern United Kingdom. It bordered 11 Group, headed by Air Vice Marshal Keith Park, which was in the southeast and thus likely to bear the brunt of the German attack. Air Vice Marshal Trafford L. Leigh-Mallory commanded 12 Group in the Midlands, and Air Vice Marshal Richard Saul headed 13 Group, covering northern England and Scotland. Of the four group commanders, Keith Park was probably the most capable.
A significant advantage held by Dowding was that his force had the world's only integrated air defense system. Based on the telephone and teleprinter network, Ii was very resilient, merging inputs from radar stations and observer corps, filtering friendly or "doubtful" contacts, and devolving responsibility to group and sector levels. Group headquarters (HQs) allocated raids to sectors, which then scrambled fighters and guided them by radio to intercept the attacking aircraft. The system was the product of years of careful thought, and it enabled Dowding to make the most effective use of his scarce resources. The Luftwaffe was, of course, aware that some sort of fighter-direction system was in use but had no idea of its scope or capabilities.
In terms of aircraft, the German Messerschmitt Bf-109 and the British Supermarine Spitfire were quite evenly matched; the British Hurricane had a lower performance but was more maneuverable. Both RAF fighters benefited from the introduction of constant-speed propellers and 100-octane fuel during the battle. The Bf-110 was shown to be inferior to single-engined fighters, and the German Junkers Ju-87 Stuka dive-bomber was so vulnerable that it was withdrawn partway through the Battle of Britain. The RAF, however, had much to learn about fighter tactics. The Luftwaffe was using flexible, open formations that had worked well in Spain and earlier in the war. Many RAF squadrons were still using close formations that allowed little tactical flexibility.
About 80 percent of the RAF pilots were British, and roughly 10 percent were from Commonwealth countries, the bulk of them New Zealanders and Canadians, with some Australians, South Africans, and Rhodesians. In June 1940, 1 Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) arrived with its own Hurricanes. Most of the remaining 10 percent were pilots who had escaped from occupied Europe (Poles, Czechs, Belgians, Free French), and complete squadrons of Czechs (the 310 and 312 Squadrons) and Poles (the 302 and 303 Squadrons) were formed as the battle progressed. There were probably about 11 American pilots, but since some of them pretended to be Canadian in order to circumvent U.S. neutrality, it is difficult to be sure.
Beginning on 4 July 1940, a few isolated engagements took place between British and German fighters, and on 10 July, the Germans began the actual battle by mounting their first bombing raid against a convoy in the English Channel. The British had one ship sunk and one Hurricane lost; the Germans lost two Dornier Do-17s, two Bf-109s, and a Messerschmitt Bf-110. Over the next few weeks, the Luftwaffe mounted repeated raids on convoys and coastal targets and attempted to engage British fighters en masse with fighter sweeps, but RAF controllers carefully avoided fighter-versus-fighter combat. Early in the battle, German harbors and shipping became RAF Bomber Command's priority targets; many minelaying and antishipping sorties were made against the massing invasion barges.
On 12 August, the Luftwaffe attacked and temporarily disabled radar stations at Dover, Pevensey, and Rye, and the Ventnor station was out of action for three days, although a dummy signal was sent out while repairs were made. The following day was designated "Alder Tag" (Eagle Day) and marked the beginning of the German attack on Fighter Command. The Germans' plan for multiple raids was handicapped by bad weather and poor communications. Some of their bombers attacked without escorts and were lucky to escape with relatively few losses. There was very heavy fighting on 15 August, with the Luftwaffe flying over 2,000 sorties against airfields and aircraft factories. Luftflotte 5 attacked from Norway for the first and last time and was badly mauled. The Luftwaffe lost a total of 75 aircraft in exchange for 34 RAF fighters.
Both sides inevitably overestimated the amount of damage they were inflicting and overinflated claims for propaganda purposes. The Germans believed that the RAF was down to 300 fighters, partly because they had badly underestimated the production rate of British aircraft. In fact, Dowding still had about 600 fighters. However, the high sortie rate (RAF pilots sometimes flew five missions daily) was beginning to take its toll on the aircrews of both sides, and cases of combat fatigue were becoming more common.
Bad weather between 16 and 19 August offered some respite for the defenders. The Germans then heavily escorted subsequent bombing raids in a bid to wear down the last few British fighters. The RAF's 11 Group suffered determined attacks on several airfields, and a dispute broke out between Park, who used squadron-sized attacks, and Leigh-Mallory, who favored use of a "big wing" of five squadrons to deal a crushing blow to the enemy. However, the big wing took so long to assemble that it only contacted the Germans at full strength on three occasions, and the large number of fighters involved led to exaggerated claims that gave a misleading impression of its effectiveness.
Toward the end of August, Dowding was beginning to run out of pilots, in spite of transfers from other commands and the length of the pilot training course being cut. The Poles of 303 Squadron were declared operational and quickly became the squadron in Fighter Command with the highest kill-to-loss ratio, 14-to-1.
Following the inadvertent jettisoning of German bombs over London and subsequent night raids by the RAF on Berlin, the Luftwaffe shifted its focus to London on 7 September. With hindsight, this decision can be seen as a mistake, but the prevailing view in the Luftwaffe was that the RAF had taken heavy damage and had few fighters left. On 15 September, the Luftwaffe launched a large attack protected by many escorts that were progressively engaged by Park's fighters as the force approached London, where the bombers were confronted by Leigh-Mallory's big wing. Many aircraft were shot down on both sides; the RAF claimed 185 kills, but the Luftwaffe actually lost 56 aircraft against 28 RAF fighters.
On 27 September, Germany's Operation sea lion was postponed indefinitely. At Benito Mussolini's insistence, however, units of the Italian Regia Aeronautica (the Italian air force) arrived in Belgium in mid-September and began training for attacks in England. They were, however, equipped with obsolete and obsolescent aircraft, and on their only daylight raid, on 11 November 1940, nearly half of the attacking force of two dozen aircraft were shot down, with no loss to the RAF. German daylight raids continued during October but tailed off through November as the emphasis gradually shifted to night attacks.
The Luftwaffe had effectively blunted itself on the most sophisticated air defense system in the world and was never again to be as strong relative to its opponents. In the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe had 2,698 experienced aircrew killed or captured, resulting in a shortfall that the German training machine was poorly equipped to make up. The RAF lost 544 fighter pilots and over 1,100 bomber aircrew, but it learned several important lessons and built up a cadre of experienced fighter units. Andy Blackburn
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