Memorable Battles in World History
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Battle of Britain

Title: Blitz damage in London
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The decision of the French government to surrender and end of fighting on the battlefields of France on June 25, 1940, left Britain as Germany's only remaining major military opponent. Although the bulk of the 12 British divisions from the continent returned to Britain to join 15 other divisions forming, in early June there was only 1 properly equipped and trained division in the entire British Isles. The army had only about 500 artillery pieces and a like number of tanks. The fleet was kept far to the north, away from the Luftwaffe. If the Germans could have landed in Britain in the several weeks after Dunkerque, there would have been little means of stopping them.

The Germans had not expected France to fall so quickly, however, and German chancellor Adolf Hitler had no plans for a follow-up invasion of Britain. Not until late July did the Germans begin planning the invasion—Operation SEALION—which would not be ready until at least mid-September. Any invasion of Britain would require not just massive naval logistical planning and assembly of resources, however, but control of the air.

Generalfeldmarschall Erhard Milch, the Air Inspector General, pleaded with Hitler to send Luftwaffe units to secure airfields in southern England, then rush in ground forces by air. Milch stated prophetically that if the British were left undisturbed for a month it would be too late, but Hitler rejected the advice. Even after the defeat of France in late June, Hitler postponed a decision, expecting that the British people would recognize the inevitable and agree to peace.

On June 3 RAF Fighter Command, which had lost more than 400 planes over France, had only 413 serviceable aircraft, 79 of them bombers. In Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring's Luftflotte 2 and Generalfeldmarschall Hugo Sperrle's Luftflotte 3 alone, the Luftwaffe counted 1,480 bombers and dive-bombers and 980 fighters, as well as 140 reconnaissance aircraft. Three additional Luftflotte were also available: Luftflotte 1 in Poland, Luftflotte 4 in Austria and the former Czechoslovakia, and Luftflotte 5 in Norway and Denmark. (Indeed, Luftflotte 5 did participate in the battle, stiking the northeast coastal area of Britain beginning on August 15.) Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering predicted a quick victory.

Official British dates for the Battle of Britain are July 10–October 31, 1940. The battle began with an attack on Channel shipping. Until August 7 though, the Luftwaffe only conducted fighter sweeps along the Channel approaches and against land targets. The next phase of August 8–23 saw German attacks near the coast in south England and bomber strikes against ground installations, radar stations, and aircraft factories. The final phase of the battle, August 24–October 31, saw attacks on London and other targets designed to affect civilian morale. The Germans failed, however, in their aim of driving the RAF from the skies.

There were many reasons for the German failure. Goering's lack of leadership was one. He intervened in the battle intermittently without ever understanding the true situation. The Germans also consistently over-estimated their effectiveness. The early shift from attacks against shipping in the Channel approaches was a major blunder. The Germans then shifted their attention from radar masts and vector stations to airfields just as their attacks were rendering Fighter Command blind. Raids moved prematurely from airfields to London and industrial centers as well.

The British had in place an excellent early warning system of signals intelligence (Ultra), radar, and a ground observation corps. Ultra provided advance warning of some raids. Radar gave advance warning of the size and direction of the German bomber streams, allowing the smaller number of British fighters to scramble and intercept them. Coastal watchers armed with binoculars provided tallies of German aircraft and their types. Dummy British Q and K airfield sites also drew a number of German air strikes, exploding much German ordnance harmlessly.

One great disadvantage for the Germans in the Battle of Britain was the short range of their aircraft. Counting time to target and return, a German fighter pilot had, at best, 20 minutes over England. Consequently, many German planes crashed, out of fuel and short of their bases. Short fighter range also prevented German bombers from striking British airfields north of London.

Germany's crash building program before the war also meant that many of its aircraft over Britain in 1940 were obsolete. The chief problem confronting the Luftwaffe, however, was trying to make a tactical air force work at the strategic level. The German bombers were medium types, intended for ground support. They were only lightly protected with machine guns and so required large numbers of fighters as escorts, but in 1940 only a third of German aircraft production was in fighters. With three or four fighters required for every bomber sent over Britain, this sharply limited the number of bombers that could be utilized.

The Germans had also laid great emphasis on dive bombers, but the JU-87 Stuka proved highly vulnerable to attacks by British Hurricane and Spitfire fighters, forcing its withdrawal, and with it went a third of the German bombers. The Luftwaffe was simply not ready for strategic bombing in 1940.

The British also were able to put thousands of damaged aircraft back on line. Of the British aircraft involved in the Battle of Britain, fully one-third were repaired machines. The number of aircraft available to Fighter Command continued to increase throughout the battle: 413 on June 3; 602 on June 30; and 675 on August 1.

Pilot replacement was even more important, and Fighter Command managed to keep replacements ahead of casualties and increases in aircraft. In this foreign pilots, including Poles and Czechs, played a vital role. Fighting over their home territory helped the RAF immensely as well, as any pilot forced to bail out might easily return to fight another day. Any German pilot who crashed or abandoned his aircraft, on the other hand, likely became a prisoner and was lost for the remainder of the war.

Finally, there was the German concentration on London. On the night of August 24–25, 10 German bombers got lost and dropped their bombs on London. British prime minister Winston Churchill immediately ordered a retaliatory air strike on Berlin. Only a third of the 81 British aircraft reached the German capital, but it led Hitler into a fatal mistake. He ordered the Luftwaffe to concentrate on London, rather than on the vastly more important RAF airfields and production facilities. Chief of Fighter Command Air Marshal Hugh Dowding heralded the shift to bombing London on September 7 as a "supernatural intervention." The switch to the bombing of cities ended any chance that the Luftwaffe would obtain air superiority over southern England.

The Germans hoped their concentration on London would bring up the remaining British fighters so they might be destroyed. Dowding refused to be drawn into a fight for London or other forward areas though. Instead he used his aircraft to cover vital sectors, particularly the airfields.

This decision was unpopular, but decisive. Some 14,000 people died in London alone but the city's productive activity continued. Far from breaking civilian morale as the air power theorists had predicted, the bombing strengthened British resolve. The Battle of Britain provided the first proof that bombing, at least when used against civilians, had been over-estimated.

Finally, on November 1, with the Luftwaffe taking prohibitive losses, the Germans went over to night bombing—what Londoners called "the Blitz." As part of this, on the night of November 14–15 the Germans dropped a million pounds of bombs on Coventry, flattening the center of the city. At the height of the Blitz an average of 200 German planes came over London for 57 nights in a row. Heavy bombing continued into May 1941. Although it was savage and relentless, night area bombing had no strategic result. The German air offensive had failed.

The Battle of Britain was the first serious German military setback of the war. On October 12, 1940, the Germans officially shelved SEALION until the spring, when it was put off indefinitely. The German army and navy chiefs, never happy about the prospects of SEALION, were glad to suspend it. More surprising is Hitler's concurrence. He failed to recognize the need to continue the pressure on Britain. He might have continued air and submarine attacks against shipping, which might have brought starvation and eventual British collapse, but Hitler's attention was increasingly drawn eastward to the Soviet Union.

Spencer C. Tucker

Further Reading
Terraine, John. A Time for Courage: The Royal Air Force in the European War, 1939–1945. New York: Macmillan, 1985; Townsend, Peter. Duel of Eagles. London: Butler and Tanner, 1991; Churchill, Winston L. S. The Second World War. Vol. 2, Their Finest Hour. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1949; Hough, Richard, and Denis Richards. The Battle of Britain: The Greatest Air Battle of World War II. New York: W. W. Norton, 1989.

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