Britain or Bust: The Battle of Britain and the Failure of the Luftwaffe to Obtain Air Superiority in the Summer of 1940

The Battle of Britain, fought over the skies of England during the summer of 1940, was a key point in the Second World War.  The German failure to overcome the island would prove to have profound and lasting effects on the course of the war as a whole.  Not only did the loss drive Hitler to invade Russia before he was prepared, it also encouraged American support of England and later provided a foot hold for the Allied invasion of Europe that would come to be known as D-Day.  The German estimation of the state of England’s air force and morale did not anticipate this outcome; in fact, Goering had promised Hitler that England would be defeated in a matter of weeks!  The German failure to make this boast into reality was due to a number of factors.

The Battle of Britain was lost by the Nazis through a series of errors and missed opportunities.  An examination of the three stages of the battle reveal how a lack of focus and poor intelligence continually undermined the attempts of the Luftwaffe to gain air superiority over England.  Adding to these issues was failure to properly exploit both resources and pilots.  All these factors combined to create a complex tapestry of misjudgments and mistakes which ultimately doomed the Nazi attempts to gain air superiority, and in turn rendered Hitler’s schemes for invasion utterly moot.

Broad Strategies Summarized

In 1939, Hitler had expected appeasement to be the response to invading Poland; his surprise was great when England and France dug their heels in and declared war instead.  This was an especially unwelcome development for the Fuhrer, who had not accounted for this contingency in his best-laid plans.  In May of 1940 the French, instead of presenting the expected long war of attrition, capitulated to the Nazis in a few short weeks.  Britannia, however, remained steadfast and stubborn, the solitary remnant of resistance in the face of The Reich.  Forced to contend with her refusal to surrender, the Germans pointed their war machine across the Channel.

For reasons which will be examined shortly, the Germans failed to develop a clear strategy for the war against England. The broad strokes consisted of four goals: destroy the Royal Air Force, strangle shipping, terror bomb if necessary, and after air superiority had been achieved proceed with landing and invasion.[1] The invasion plans were to be known as Operation Sea Lion.

The Royal Air Force’s head of Fighter Command, Air

Air Chief Marshall Hugh Caswall Tremenheer Dowding – hero and visionary

Chief Marshall Hugh Dowding, had a much simpler strategy – defend and deceive.  All England had to do was hold off the Nazis until bad fall weather brought rains and a rough Channel, thus making invasion impossible.[2]   The Germans assumed (not entirely incorrectly) that the British had very little with which to defend and expected an easy fight.  Dowding intended to exploit this perceived weakness to his benefit, and so throughout the battle would only dispatch small groups of fighters instead of entire squadrons.  This “penny packet” strategy would not only protect his precious pilots and aircraft, it would also deceive the Nazis about the true strength of the RAF and cause them to underestimate the British.  Goering would be left to assume that the Royal Air Force was weak and waning, and with luck, his famous ego would be his undoing

Into The Breech – Or Not?

The state of British military power following the Dunkirk evacuation was sorry indeed.  So much kit had been left behind that only four out of 27 infantry divisions were properly equipped.[3]  Seven thousand tons of ammunition were left behind on the beaches of France, along with 2,300 pieces of artillery, eight thousand machine guns, four hundred anti-aircraft guns, and ninety thousand rifles.  The army was left with almost no field artillery, five hundred guns, and only 150 tanks.[4]  The British Expeditionary Force was down to drilling without rifles, and the home guards were armed with pikes.[5]  Of the 250 Hawker Hurricane fighter planes sent across the Channel, only 66 had returned.   Of the bombers, 77% were lost.[6]   Dowding insisted that he needed over fifty squadrons of fighters to defend England from invasions; thanks to France, he was down to 37.[7]  He told Churchill that if Hitler were to attack immediately, he feared he would only have the strength to defend for about 48 hours.[8]  After that, England would belong to the Reich.

Abandoned trucks on the Dunkirk beach

From the German position in France, it seemed an easy thing to defeat England and many of Hitler’s generals urged immediate action.  Erhard Milch, for instance, suggested using Blitzkrieg tactics and sending paratroopers in beneath heavy cover of bombs.[9]  After a survey of the kit left behind at Dunkirk, he insisted that invasion must begin at once, positive that a delay of even three of four weeks would be utterly fatal.[10]  Yet the Fuhrer failed to strike, and even once bombs had been dropped he continued to remain ambivalent throughout the summer.  Why?

Firstly, Hitler was not prepared to fight England.  The accidental six-week “blitz” of France had been a surprise to everyone involved.  The Germans had been planning a long, drawn out land-war against the French and the economy had been geared towards such, with maximum output of the appropriate items not expected until October of 1940.  These were, of course, precisely the wrong sort of items for fighting England, and not due to arrive until months after the fact.[11]   In order to properly fight England Hitler would need a strong navy, and that was not due until 1945.  In 1940 the Kreigsmarine was only a fraction of the size of the Royal Navy.

Richard Overy suggests that Hitler’s ambivalence towards England was a result of his desire to keep the door open to political settlement due to the knowledge that a loss would be disastrous.  The Germans could afford a war only if they won.  Overy believes that Hitler was not only aware of the inadequacies of the Sea Lion preparations, but that he had no confidence in his ability to command the insufficient Kreigsmarine in the first place.[12]   Hitler, he maintains, was most comfortable with the army, and knew little about air or naval warfare.[13]  Goering, too, did not like the idea of immediate attack.  He disagreed with Milch’s advice for haste, telling Hitler that they were not quite finished with France and insisted that he did not have enough planes to mount a proper attack on England.[14]  General Franz Hadler encouraged the use of political and diplomatic means to bring the island to the peace table; he urged that invasion be considered only as a last resort.[15] Hitler’s thirst for battle with England was tempered by more than practical considerations.  He had an affinity for the  English people as a whole.  As he once told Frau Troost, the window of a much-admired architect, “The blood of every single Englishman is too valuable to shed.  Our two people belong together, racially and traditionally – this is and always has been my aim…”[16]

20111126142107adolf_hitler_in_paris_1940The attitude of many seemed to be that England was so weak there was little need for hurry; surely she would collapse on her own.  On June 23, Joseph Gobbles declared that England was doomed, and close to the end of her ability to wage war.  General Franz Hadler said, “war is won by us.  A reversal in the prospect of success is impossible.”[17]  Goering was so sure of English surrender that he spent much of the month of July taking in the sights of Paris instead of commanding his Luftwaffe, returning to them only on July 20th and even then telling them to come up with their own strategy.[18]  In Hitler’s mind, there was no reason for England to continue the fight – she had entered to protect Poland and assist France.  She had failed and both were now lost, but honor had been satisfied.  The idea that she – beaten and broken – should continue the fight in the face of the mighty German war machine seemed utterly absurd.[19]

The lack of focus with plagued the Battle of Britain stemmed from this initial reluctance to fight, and this trend tainted the indecisive bombing campaign from the start.  The slow pace of attacks in June emphasized Hitler’s hope that England would “come to their senses,” with just a little coaxing.[20]  On July 19th his famously arrogant speech both threatened war and offered peace, promising the continued existence of England so long as he was allowed a free hand in Europe.[21]  The meetings of July 21st, 25th, and 31st all emphasized the hope that invasion could be avoided.[22]   That is not to say, however, that Hitler sat quietly and waited.  Bombs did fall, the light bombing in July half-hearted and in sync with Hitler’s hope that war was ultimately unnecessary.  These hopes were also encouraged by the British Minister in Berne, David Kelley, who played Hitler for as long as he could manage in order to buy time for England to regroup.[23] Yet during this time Hitler still failed to create a comprehensive strategy in case England did not surrender.  Peter Fleming described Hitler as an olive-branch bearing Dr. Jekyll who prevented Mr. Hyde from sharpening his sword.[24]

Unfortunately for Hitler and his hopes, Milch was correct in his estimation that delay would be fatal.  This slow attack, a combination of sloth, wishful thinking, and shock at the French victory, proved to be a tremendous boon to the English.[25]  By July, American shipments to England had resupplied 200,000 troops.[26]  While Goering vacationed and Hitler hemmed and hawed, England had time to mine and wire her beaches, set up defenses in the harbors to the east and south, prepare herself for the use poison gas if

“Dads’ Army” – the Home Guard

necessary, and had even trained the Home Guard to kill Germans with cheese cutters and destroy tanks with crowbars.  England was receiving Thompson submachine guns at a rate of five thousand a month from Chicago, Illinois.[27]  On June 19th, Dowding’s RAF only had 668 fighter planes left thanks to France, and of these only 520 were operational.  By August, when the Germans attacked in earnest, this number had been increased to over a thousand fighters, 715 of which were operational plus an additional 420 planes held in reserve.  The Luftwaffe, on the other hand, had 805 operational fighters and no reserve at all.[28]  If there had indeed ever been a time for “easy victory” over England, the time was past, sacrificed to procrastination and sentimentality.  Hitler’s ability to bring England to her knees had been “destroyed by his never altogether banished hope that in the end it wouldn’t be necessary, that the mere threat of an invasion might be enough to bring the British to their senses and make them recognize that they had been defeated.”[29]

Adolf’s hopes for peace were severely damaged when the British opened fire on the French Navy July 6th .  The very next day he ordered the preparations necessary in order to begin plans for an invasion.  His ambivalence came through even in the wording of this order, Directive 16: “I have decided to begin to prepare for, and if necessary to carry out, an invasion of England.”[30]

Many plans for the subjugation of England were submitted.  For his part, “Hitler was genuinely uncertain about how to bring about either a political or military settlement with Britain…  He hoped that blockade and air attack might so reduce British resolve and undermine the capacity to fight that invasion would be little more than a mopping up operation.”[31]  Admiral Erich Raeder agreed with this, stating his preference for blockade and using invasion only as a last resort. [32]  Dunkirk had weakened the army; the powerful Royal navy was busy with German U-boats and the tiff in the Mediterranean.  It was decided that the largest threat to German ambitions with England was the Royal Air Force, and to this end Goering had an idea:[33] he would use his Luftwaffe to bring the defenders to battle in order to weaken them.[34]  Because the Luftwaffe could not reach very far inland, they would use attacks on shipping and coastal airfields to draw out and destroy Dowding’s “last few planes.”[35]  Goering was confident – he famously predicted the destruction of the RAF in only a few weeks.

However, Hitler’s ambivalence was in the way of formulating a proper strategy.  An excellent illustration of this can be seen in his confusing orders to the Luftwaffe.  In May, Directive no. 9 ordered siege and blockade of the island.  Directive no. 13 ordered a “large scale air war.”  Yet in June, when Goering urged retaliation for the British bombings of several German towns, Hitler refused.[36]  But again, on July 11th and 17th, he  reiterated his order for “intensive air warfare” against the island.[37]   However, it was not until cfc36ce199c2090c756ff4631e80a9faAugust 1st that Hitler issued the order to actually destroy the RAF.  After air superiority had been achieved, he declared, they would then return to blockade.  This series of orders “reflected deepest uncertainty about the conduct of the war at the highest level.”[38]  This uncertainty came through in the air war itself, and lack of focus would characterize much of the Battle of Britain.  This led the efforts of the ensuing bombing campaign to be scattered, aimed at many targets at once instead of concentrating on striking a few systematically and repeatedly.[39]  Be it shipping, ports, radar, airfields, or cities, each was attacked sporadically and the effort abandoned in favor of other pursuits before the Germans could reap the fruits of their labor.  The targets in question, on the other hand, were given the reprieves necessary to recuperate and recover.


This lack of certainty and focus was especially apparent in the months of June and July.  Kanalkamph, or  the Channel Battles, were launched in part because Kesselring and Speerle were as unsure about the conduct of the battle as their Fuhrer, and didn’t really know what else to do.[40]   This preliminary stage gave the pilots on each side a chance to test the waters; the Luftwaffe probed the British defenses, and the RAF got more practice with their new Spitfires. [41] Strategically the Channel Battles posed a great enough threat to England that one would think they would have been pursued with aggression. England, an island now isolated and utterly without a continental friend, was dependent upon shipping.  The shipping lanes were a vital life line, sending her badly needed supplies and helping her maintain her alliance with America.[42]  Between the Luftwaffe and the ap-9192lgU-boats, shipping through the Channel in the spring of 1940 was highly dangerous.  The unintentionally combined efforts of the Luftwaffe and Kreigsmarine closed the ports at Southampton and shipping to London had to be done at night.[43]  Luftwaffe attacks forced the British to reroute shipping either by rail, or through the North Channel, which removed the precious cargo ships from range of the Stukas but put them at the mercy of the tiny Type II U-boats that thrived in the waters between Scotland and Ireland.  It is not coincidence that the U-boat captains enjoyed their greatest successes during the summer of 1940 when Allied shipping was harried from above and below.[44]  Between May and June of 1940, the British had built 1.5 million tons of new shipping, but had lost over two million tons to German activity in the Channel.[45]  The possibility of shutting down British shipping lanes and strangling them into submission was looking very possible.  With such heavy losses being inflicted by two separate, uncoordinated branches of the Wehrmacht, one wonders how much damage could have been dealt had Raeder and Goering planned a joint attack.  However, the Reich was famous for its backbiting and general lack of cooperation, and thus such an effort never came to pass.

Kanalkamph also posed a serious threat to Dowding.  At Churchill’s insistence, he grudgingly allowed five squadrons for the protection of convoys.  He resented this; shortsightedly he argued that fighting over water would not save the mainland.[46]  Defending the convoys was also an issue because it exposed a major weakness in Dowding’s system: he had not anticipated fighting over water, and his pilots, unlike the Germans, were not properly equipped for it.  Effective air-sea rescue techniques would not even be in place until 1941. [47]  Furthermore, the Luftwaffe had an advantage in attacking the coast – their planes came in too low for Dowding’s vital radar stations to detect.  Combined with the fact that they were often outnumbered, British losses at this stage of the battle were relatively high. [48]

Hitler coveted a settlement with England without the need for war or invasion, and on some level it was understood by many if not all that England was highly vulnerable to blockade.  Yet instead of pursuing this avenue to its fullest advantage, complete with a combined Luftwaffe/U-boat effort, the Luftwaffe swarmed aimlessly though the skies over the Channel for a few weeks before Goering bothered to formulate something resembling strategy.  The targets were varied and therefore the impact was scattered – aircraft factories, ports, naval bases, and the rail system – rendering the efforts aimed at them inefficient.[49]


401px-goering1932It was not until August that Goering set down a strategy which he predicted would destroy the RAF in just four days:  Adlerangriff, or Attack of the Eagles.  The procrastination in starting a full assault cannot be laid entirely at the Reichmarschall’s feet – after all, he was waiting on word from Hitler, and Hitler, as we know, was waiting on England.[50]  The broad plan was for the Luftwaffe to systematically destroy key targets from Kings Lynn to Leicester, and, once the RAF was destroyed, the Luftwaffe would move to dominate the entire island.  Small bombers with light escorts would be sent in order to allow the majority of the Messerschmitt 109 fighters the ability to “free hunt” the British.[51]  However, this stage of the battle would prove to be plagued with poor intelligence which would render much of the German efforts impotent, and far from being the quick, killing blow which had been promised and expected, the attacks on the airfields will drag on for weeks.

Early intelligence reports in July contained no mention of the radar system, communications system, or the Civilian Repair Organization, and judged Dowding and his system to be rigid and  inflexible.  The Spitfire and Hurricane were declared vastly inferior to the Me 109.[52]   Luftwaffe intelligence officer Beppo Schmidd announced there were more pilots than planes and claimed the leadership of the RAF was “out of touch.”  All of the above was incorrect.  In August, a report did mention Dowding’s RDF radar system but assumed the pilots were tied to their individual ground stations.  It claimed that each station was independent of the other, showing that the Germans knew nothing of the complex phone network that tied sector station to sector station.  This was a serious misconception, as it led the Luftwaffe to assume that the RAF would be unable to converge on a single point on short notice.[53]  It would also made their later attacks on the RDF chain utterly ineffective.

RDF towers

Adlerangriff opened with Adlertag – “Eagle Day”- on August 12th, the goal being the destruction of the RDF towers in order to blind Dowding, easing the way for Adlerangriff the next day.  Adlertag proved to be the first major failure of this stage of the battle.  Six attacks were made in total upon the RDF, mostly on August 12th but not repeatedly and then not at all.[54]  Upon bombing the RDF chain, the Luftwaffe was to find the delicate lattice-work towers difficult to destroy.  Very few were knocked out, and a failure to send follow-up attacks or to destroy their supporting infrastructure meant that they were up and running again soon.[55]  Goering, however, was unaware of this, and expected the element of surprise to belong to his pilots when they returned the next day.[56]  When the RAF once again rose to meet the onslaught, he assumed the attacks were a waste of time and they were dropped.[57]

The trouble here is that the Germans neither understand the importance the RDF played for Dowding, nor understood the structure of the radar system.  They assumed – incorrectly – that Fighter Command was not actually centralized.  They believed that the operations_control_from_1941_pamphletsquadrons were tied to individual radar stations and had no knowledge or understanding of the complex communication systems which Dowding had been struggling to build and refine for some time.  Sector stations, the heart of the RDF system, were not identified and as a result not attacked.   The phone lines which Dowding’s system were so dependent upon were not even buried, yet the Germans failed to take advantage of this important weakness.

Further trouble lay in the chosen targets, which turned out to be of little importance to Fighter Command.  The locations for Bentley Priory – Dowding’s headquarters – important factories, the radar towers and supporting infrastructure had not exactly been concealed by the British.  In fact, much of this vital information could have been easily found in guide books or phone directories, or observed through a quick tour of England.[58]  However, airfields belonging to Coastal Command – already declared nonthreatening and unimportant – were hit instead, either an illogical choice or a careless mistake in light of the fact that it was Fighter Command the Germans needed to cripple.  Southampton was bombed for an hour, but instead of managing to hit Vicker’s Supermarine, which manufactured Spitfires, a bicycle factory, furniture store, and meat storage depot were destroyed.  A second wave of attacks also hit the wrong targets, and an attack on Stratford, a tourist town, was utterly pointless.[59]

However Goering had not yet discovered these mistakes, and Eagle Day was declared a triumph by the Germans.  Goering reported to Hitler that his pilots had destroyed 84 fighters in the air, plus another fifty Spitfires which had been on the ground.  He assumed the British only had between three to four hundred planes left and was sure that Eagle Day had destroyed between one-quarter and one-third of these.  Invasion, he was positive, could begin in just a few days.  The trouble is that the numbers Goering had were incorrect, and the reality was that Dowding had only suffered a loss of 14 fighters.  Of the fifty so-called Spitfires that had been bombed on the ground, only one of them was actually a real Spit, and when the sun set at the end of the day Dowding had 647 operational fighter planes.[60]  The Germans, on the other hand, had lost 64 aircraft.[61]  Already faulty numbers were building the false sense of confidence in the Germans which Dowding so wished to foster with his Penny-Packets.

On August 15th Goering vowed to destroy “those last few planes” and organized a massive attack against England.   On poor intelligence, Luftflotte 5 from Norway was dispatched to attack the “undefended” north of England.  Assuming that Dowding had amassed the majority of fighters in the south, and believing his pilots would meet with very little resistance, the bombers headed over with a fake escort of Me 110s.  The 110s were there only for show – it was well known that they were no match for the Spitfires or Hurricanes. Instead of finding vulnerable, sparsely manned airfields, the Luftflotte 5 was routed.  Even though the RAF was outnumbered, the slow bombers which Goering had sent –sans a proper escort – suffered heavy casualties totaling seventy-six aircraft.[62]  The British did not lose a single plane, but Luftflotte 5 was done for good.[63]  On the day that came to be known by the Luftwaffe as Black Thursday, Goering’s poor intel had cost the Germans dearly, and not for the last time that summer.

The fighting in the south met with better success.  At Eastchurch and Rochester, sixty German bombers overwhelmed penny-packets of twenty fighters.[64]  Numerous other airfields were heavily damaged.  With over two thousand planes engaged Goering was confident that he had succeeded in destroying the RAF and “those last few planes.”  He reported to Hitler that twelve of Dowding’s airfields were completely obliterated and that ninety-nine Spitfires were in flames.  However, his information again proved to be faulty and the truth very different.  The Royal Air Force had lost just thirty-four planes while the Germans had lost more than twice that.[65]  They had indeed hit a number of British airfields, but many of them had not even belonged to the Royal Air Force.  Goering’s massive force of bombers had hit the wrong targets yet again. rare_battle_of_britain_aircraft_to_be_restored_by_raf_museum_2

In fact, between August 13th and 21st, 40% of the major attacks had been conducted against airfields not belonging to the RAF.[66]  For instance, Andover was hit instead of Wallop, the correct target, and Croydon, a civilian airfield, was also damaged.  Furthermore, many of the planes hit at Eastchurch were not Spitfires, and the airfield – assumed destroyed – was up and running within a few hours.  Because it was believed to be destroyed, it would not be bothered again.[67]

Eastchurch is a fine example of the sort of faulty intelligence the Luftwaffe had to work with.  Following August 15th Goering was operating on the assumption that eight airfields had been destroyed, but in actuality only three had taken heavy damage and they were all  quickly repaired.[68]  He also believed the RAF was down to their last three hundred planes, when in reality they had 653 and counting.  The English were not only making up their losses; they were, in fact, actually increasing their number of aircraft.  In July of 1940 Dowding had 1,200 aircraft at his disposal.  In August he had 1,400, October 1,600, and by November the number had risen to 1,800.  In addition, 4,955 damaged aircraft had been repaired and returned to the sky.  The Germans never had more than 1,200 planes and they did not make any repairs at all. [69]  These mis-estimations, made in part by the Luftwaffe’s intelligence officer Beppo Schmid, “lulled the commanders into a false sense of security.”[70]

The Luftwaffe was engaged in a battle “against a force persistently misrepresented as technically and tactically inept, short of aircraft, pilots, and bases.  This… put Germans at a perceptual disadvantage.”[71] Because of such poor intelligence, the German pilots began to feel as though they were digging a hole in the sand, constantly struggling and failing to eradicate those inexplicable “last few planes.”  This would begin to wear away at morale and damage their confidence in their commanders, who kept assuring them that victory was nearly theirs.  Complacency fueled by overconfidence would soon give way to frustration, adding to the fatigue that the overworked pilots would soon begin to suffer. The British, on the other hand, continually overestimated German strength, and as a result fought harder and no doubt enjoyed a greater sense of accomplishment with each victory.

On August 19th Goering ordered concentrated attacks on the airfields, which began on August 24th.  This stage of the battle would prove to be the most damaging for the RAF and should have been pursued ruthlessly in order to meet the goal of air superiority over England.   Keith Park and his south-eastern 11 Group received the brunt of the action, bobmapengaging the Luftwaffe thirty-three times in two weeks.  Twenty-four of these attacks were on air fields.  The week of August 30th was a tough one indeed for the Royal Air Force, particularly those stationed at Biggin Airfield in the south – it was hit twice on the 30th and again the next day.  August 31st represented the costliest single day for the British, losing them forty-one planes and nine pilots in the face of German losses of thirty-nine aircraft.  In all, the final week in August would leave Dowding down sixty-four pilots with an additional eighty-one wounded.[72]   It was the loss of pilots that was most dangerous to the RAF.  Planes could be replaced quickly as long as factories survived, but pilots needed training and seasoning in order to be anything but flying targets.[73]  The Luftwaffe strategy of repeatedly bombing major Southern airfields by day and specific industrial targets at night had proven effective.  The attacks were now relentless, without break or pause,  depriving pilots of needed rest and leaving the crews hard pressed to repair the heavily damaged fields.  Dowding’s fighter reserves were becoming depleted.  Had the fighting persisted through September for another three weeks, his reserves would have been gone and true attrition would have begun.[74]  Extensive damage to the RDF sector stations was causing problems with ground control.  The Germans were closing the gap with losses, as well.  September 1st and 3rd were the first time that losses between the two sides were equal.  Michael Korda declared that September 6th was the breaking point for the RAF.[75]

This was a critical time in the Battle of Britain.  While the British had proven quite efficient at building and repairing their planes, this two-week period was the one time in which they were not able to make up for their losses.  At this time, had the Germans continued to hammer England at such a brutal pace for another three weeks it is sure she would have faltered and lost.[76]  According to Dowding, “If the attacks had not been brought to a standstill, the invasion would have been facilitated and the war might as well have been lost.”[77]  Keith Park also agreed, saying that “had the enemy continued his heavy attacks…fighter defenses would have been in peril.”[78]


However, Germany’s lack of focus again came into play, and the Luftwaffe was turned towards the city of London.  This switch “ saved Fighter Command and turned the tide of the battle.”[79]  Urged on by faulty intelligence which claimed the RAF was down to about two hundred fighters, in early September the Luftwaffe was ordered to destroy industrial, martial, and transport targets around urban centers in order to prepare for invasion.[80]  The attacks were also ordered in the spirit of vengeance:  on August 24th, a Luftwaffe pilot bombed Croydon airfield on the Outskirts of London.  Dowding believed  it to be an accident – he suspected the target had in fact been Kenley airfield but the pilot had likely gotten lost in the dark.  A few days later Harrow, again on the outskirts of the city, was bombed. [81]  Accident or not, Churchill was furious and retaliated by bombing Berlin on August 25th and 26th.  Enraged by Churchill’s willingness to attack German cities, on September 3rd Hitler withdrew Directive #17 and authorized the official bombing of London.   Hitler also hoped that the attacks on London would destroy the morale of the people, sapping their will to fight and attempting to incite the overthrow of Churchill in favor of a more cooperative government.   The question, however, was this – should they bomb the East End, to de-house the poor and send them rioting and angry into the wealthy areas, or should they bomb the West End, and frighten the wealthy into surrendering directly?[82]  On September 7th Goering began attacks on London, hoping the attack on the capitol would draw out the elusive “last few planes” in a final, killing battle that would cripple the Royal Air Force.[83]

dogfightThe London attacks began on September 7th.  Nearly one thousand German aircraft bombarded the docks at London’s East End.   11 Group met the onslaught and was joined by Tafford Leigh-Mallory’s vaunted yet troublesome Big Wing, nearly half an hour late but still useful and rather intimidating.  The British, it seemed, had more planes than Goering had suspected.  Intelligence reports indicated that Dowding only had 288 fighters left, yet this was clearly not the case.[84]  Goering decided he would have to push harder, since those “last few planes” were somewhat more numerous than reports had indicated.

The hard push came on September 15th, when Goering launched the largest air-offensive against England to date.  The Luftwaffe swooped upon London from the morning sky, somehow still expecting light resistance from Dowding’s “last few planes.”  Goering got his wish – he did indeed succeed in drawing Fighter Command’s total strength out to fight, but to the Luftwaffe’s shock it was not the piddly force Schmidd had led them to believe. Not only did the attacks on London expose the Luftwaffe to resistance by Park’s 10 battle-of-britain-london-contrailsGroup and Leigh-Mallory’s 11 Group, but also to Groups 12 and 13, which were fresh and at full strength.  The sight of their sheer numbers was a major blow to Luftwaffe morale.  The Luftwaffe’s best chance at damaging the RAF would have been to hit them while on the ground refueling, but this would have required good intelligence, which again, they did not have.[85]

Long frustrated by their apparent inability to wear down those mythic “last few planes,” the full and equivocal strength of the British RAF, even after all that time and all that bombing, convinced the tired German pilots that their fight was futile and undermined the last of their waning faith in the word of their intelligence officer and their Reichmarschall.  Fall and winter weather made invasion untenable, and since air superiority was clearly far from won, Operation Sea Lion was postponed indefinitely.

The British lost thirty-five aircraft that day.[86]  The German losses were heavy – sixty-one planes plus another twenty damaged beyond flight capacity.  In the first week of attacks alone, the Germans lost 199 bombers, a toll which forced another change in strategy and the Luftwaffe would begin bombing at night.[87]  Their fighters were at their limit to reach London anyway, having only ten minutes worth of fighting time, and the switch to nights provided the bombers with the protection of darkness – a protection which would take the RAF months to overcome.  Dowding, in the meantime, was sacked for his inability to defend England at night.

London was bombed for 57 consecutive nights.  The lower-income East End of London took the most damage on account of their docks and warehouses, and the gleaming, moonlit Thames made it easy to find at night.  But even Buckingham would be bombed before calm was restored.  In all, thirteen thousand London civilians would be killed in thearticle-1301162-0056b1f100000258-194_468x378 Blitz and another twenty thousand wounded.[88]  Yet in spite of the damage, the trauma, and the casualties, the move to attacking cities was fallacy on the part of the Germans.  In bombing London, Hitler’s goal had been to “repay terror with terror, rather than what was most advantageous militarily.”[89]  Hitler looked at bombing as a terror weapon, failing to exploit its potential effectiveness as an economic tool which could be used against convoys, factories, or ports.  His emotional decision to bomb London was both impractical and ineffective, and it would have far-reaching consequences.  The effects of this decision reached further than the fatal mistake of relieving pressure on the airfields – London would distract him from Russia, the Blitz sapping valuable supplies from the Eastern Front.  England would also make possible the invasion of Europe in the summer of 1944.

Keepin’ calm and carryin’ on!

The intent of the attacks on London had been to cause fear and panic among the people, forcing them to demand surrender.  This idea failed miserably.  The attacks actually proved to be a huge victory for the British in terms of propaganda and morale.  America had been hanging back in her aid to the country, expecting England to roll over at any time and surrender much as the French had.  Surviving the Battle of Britain and enduring the Blitz proved to this powerful potential ally that England was willing to “take it,” and would be a worthy investment of resources and manpower.[90]  Not only were the English willing to take it, they took it in stride, continuing with their daily lives and routine with as little fuss and disruption as possible.[91]  The German indecision of which end of London to bomb – East or West – also only served to bring the country closer together.  When Churchill visited the bombed out East End and purportedly cried, it proved to the previously bitter and angry lower classes that their Prime Minister really cared about them, cementing their loyalty and willingness to fight.  When Buckingham was bombed, it made the whole country feel that this was indeed a fight that involved all of them, from the Queen on down to the lowliest scullery maid.[92]  In fact, the entire Battle of Britain proved tremendous for morale. They felt they were fighting for something truly great – no longer shackled by unreliable France, England now found herself facing the Fuhrer alone as the last bastion of Democracy in all of Europe.[93] As opposed to black-and-white newspaper photos, abstract newsreels, and disembodied voices on the radio, this fight was happening right overhead.  The people of England felt more involved, more connected to it, and even a bit excited and exhilarated, and the young pilots made dashingly romantic figures, the modern knight-in-shining armor. dailymail19400909p02

Planes and Pilots

Lack of focus and poor intelligence may have doomed the Luftwaffe to failure, but a failure to properly exploit the Germans fighter planes or pilots also put rocks in the pockets of the German onslaught.  One of the continuing tactical debates in the Luftwaffe was the best use of the Messerschmitt 109s.  These fighters had the technical edge on the famous Spitfire in many ways, starting with their fuel injected engine which, unlike the British fighters, did not stall in a dive.  They were also better armed than the Spits, possessing not just guns but also a cannon which enabled them to shoot down both fighters and bombers.  They had armor plating in the back of the pilots’ seat, an addition which saved many a German and was the source of much envy on behalf of the British, who would sometimes steal these plates from downed 109s and install them on their own planes.  Another major advantage was height, a valuable ally for a fighter pilot. [94]  In terms of performance the 109s and the Spitfires were similar, but at twenty-thousand feet the performance gap between the two widened considerably in favor of the Germans, who were at their best at high altitudes.[95]   The Spitfires, although zippy and excellent with turns, had leaky, unpressurized cabins and their pilots suffered when forced to such lofty combat.  According to James Holland, while the Spitfire was an excellent piece of equipment, the Messerschmitt 109 was better still and should have won.  The fault was when Goering chose to tie them to bombers.[96]

Air war was relatively new, and the question – especially in 1940 – was how best to go about it.  In England, Vice Air Marshall Tafford Leigh-Mallory butted heads with Park and Dowding over the controversy of “Big Wings” vs. “Penny Packets.”  In the Luftwaffe, the debate focused on the best use of the Me 109s.  Bombers were easy pickings for the zippy British fighters, and  Goering wanted the 109s tethered closely to the bombers as protective escorts.  The pilots disagreed and preferred “free hunts.”[97]   Baron Manfred von Richtohfen – the Red Baron himself – had said that “fighter pilots have to rove freely in the area… and when they spot an enemy they attack and shoot him down.  Anything else is rubbish.”[98]  Early in the battle they were given more freedom to do this, but following the heavy losses of September 15 they were confined to bomber escort.[99] This was poor strategy for several reasons.

Goering wanted the fighters to fly wing-to-wing with the bombers to provide the pilots

Me-109s escorting a Heinkel He-111

with a sense of security and moral support.  The 109s had not been designed for this purpose; they were designed to have the speed and height necessary for attacking, not escort duty.[100]  German ace Adolf “Dolfo” Galland argued that the best way to protect the bombers was in fact to fly above them and dive down as the British appeared.[101]  Height and speed were the fighter pilots’ best weapons.  Forcing them to stay close to the bombers cost them both of these advantages and rendered them vulnerable to attacks from Spitfires and even the slower Hurricanes.  They also did not have the radius of action which bombers had; their light design, plus Goering’s refusal to add drop tanks, meant that they were limited to a radius of 125 miles from their bases and sometimes had to abandon the bombers entirely in order to get back.[102]  The attacks on London caused the 109s more problems.  London was further than the Southern airfields, and at best the 109s only had ten minutes fighting time before they had to turn back.  But in battle they had to zigzag through the bombers to stay with them, and this drained their already limited fuel supply, thus rendering the attacks on London even more impractical.[103]

Bomber duty was enough trouble for the pilots, but most hazardous of all was Stuka duty.   Not only did guarding the famous dive-bombers come with all the difficulties of bomber escort, the fighters were expected to dive with the Stukas, protecting them from enemy fire to the last.  This was problematic because the 109s were not designed as dive-bombers, meaning they had no air brakes and could not actually stop in a dive, frequently ending up in the ground instead.[104]  All bomber duty seemed to do, according to Galland, was increase the loss of fighter pilots.[105]

Goering also failed to give his pilots due consideration.  In true Prussian manner, Luftwaffe pilots were expected to be machines.  From the beginning of the Battle of Britain to the end, they received no breaks and leave came only after several months of combat; the only rest they could count on was to be found either in the hospital or in the grave.  Adding to this exhaustion was the stress of having to cross the Channel each day and fight over enemy territory.  British pilots who were shot down were already home.  They could return to their bases and fight again the next day, providing they survived.  The Luftwaffe already had fewer available pilots than the British and if they were shot down they were captured and sent to Canada, where they would sit the rest of the war out.[106]  If they had

A British soldier guards a downed German plane

to bail out over the Channel for any reason they understood that even with the life-jackets and bright dye, their chances of rescue were slim and most likely they were looking at a slow, watery death.  When faced with this possible fate, many pilots chose suicide instead.  The sight of German bodies washing up on the shores of France with a single bullet wound to the head was terribly demoralizing for other German pilots.  Goering went as far as forbidding pilots guns, denying them of even this small reprieve.[107]  Galland spoke of the demoralization from the stress on both mind and body, combined with the seeming lack of progress against those pesky “last few planes.”[108]  German pilots began to suffer from something known as Kanalkrankheit – “Channel Sickness.”  The symptoms were stress, fatigue, stomach cramps, vomiting, loss of appetite, and irritability.  “It seemed,” German ace Hans Ulrich-Rudel once noted, “you could just wear out like any other machine, and that is where things were going wrong; we just weren’t getting a break.”[109]  German doctors were not allowed to prescribe leave, but in severe instances they would diagnose Kanalkrankheit as appendicitis.[110]  The minor operation would provide the pilots with at least some rest, but the trouble with this is that each pilot only had one appendix to remove!  As the battle wore on into October, Fighter Command was staying strong but the Luftwaffe was wearing down.  That very month they lost 379 aircraft to 185 British losses.[111]

Unlike the Germans, Dowding took the human element into account when it came to his pilots.  Realizing that in July accidents accounted one-third of their losses, the Air Marshall insisted on rest for his pilots.  Each pilot would receive eight hours of rest daily and 24 hours leave weekly.[112]  They were given squash courts, built from tax dollars, and enjoyed pool halls and visiting bands.[113]  He also established a system of rotation, having pilots serve for three weeks in one sector before being moved to another.  This allowed weary pilots who were  assigned heavily hit areas like Park’s 11 Group a period of relative rest.  Also, he started new pilots in the north so they had more time to practice and become familiar with their machines before being sent into the meat-grinder in the south.[114]  The Luftwaffe had no such system in place; new pilots were thrown straight into the mix and ended up being more burden than benefit to their more experienced comrades.[115]

The Battle of Britain was a decisive turning point in the war, often overlooked in favor of D-Day and Stalingrad.  Hitler’s failure to overcome the island would be a vital cog that set the machine of his undoing in motion.  “In mid-September 1940 Hitler lost the war… Unable to invade and conquer Britain, he would turn against the Soviet Union, sacrificing the German army, and thereby prolonging his war until, at last, the Americans were dragged into it by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, pitting Germany against three of the most powerful industrial countries in the world.”[116]  His inability to conquer Britain was due to a number factors, the most important of these Hitler’s reluctance to attack at all.  This reluctance infected the German efforts against England, resulting in a lack of solid strategy and therefor a lack of focus that completely undermined any progress that was made in gaining air superiority against the island nation.  A failure to make the most of their resources in terms of pilots and the stupendous Messerschmitt Me-109 compounded these errors and sealed the fate of Nazi Germany.

“Never was so much owed by so many to so few” – Sir Winston Churchill


Scholarly Articles

Dye, Air Commodore Peter J. “Logistics and the Battle of Britain,” Air Force Journal of Logistics No. 24, Vol. 4, Winter 2000.

Overy, R.J. “Hitler and Air Strategy.”  Journal of Contemporary History 15, no. 3 (1980): 685-709.


Bungay, Stephen. The Most Dangerous Enemy: A History of the Battle of Britain. London: Aurum Press, 2000.

Fleming, Peter.  Operation Sea Lion.  London: Pan Books, 1975.

Fischer, David.  A Summer Bright and Terrible: Winston Churchill, Lord Dowding, Radar, and the Impossible Triumph of the Battle of Britain. California: Counterpoint Press, 2006.

Freiser, Karl Heinz. The Blitzkrieg Legend. Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2005.

Holland, James. The Battle of Britain: Five Month that Changed History, May-October 1940. New York: Macmillan, 2012.

Korda, Michael. With Wings Like Eagles: The Untold Story of the Battle of Britain. New York: Harper Perennial, 2010.

Milner, Marc.  Battle of the Atlantic.  Gloucestershire: The History Press, 2011.

Price, Alfred. The Hardest Day: 18 August 1940. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1980.

Richards, Denis, and Hilary St. G. Saunders.   Royal Air Force, 1939-194,Vol I: The Fight at Odds.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1953.

Robinson, Derek .  Invasion, 1940.  New York: Carroll and Graf, 2005.

Weinberg, Gerhard L. A World at Arms. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.


[1] James Holland, The Battle of Britain: Five Month that Changed History, May-October 1940, (New York: Macmillan, 2012), 443.

[2] David Fischer, A Summer Bright and Terrible: Winston Churchill, Lord Dowding, Radar, and the Impossible Triumph of the Battle of Britain, (California: Counterpoint Press, 2006),  , 137.

[3] Holland, 405.

[4] Derek Robinson, Invasion, 1940, (New York: Carroll and Graf,2005), 85.

[5] Ibid., 7.

[6] Holland, 125.

[7] Fischer, 122.

[8] Holland, 282.

[9] Robinson, 35.

[10] Ibid., 85.

[11]Karl Heinz Freiser, The Blitzkrieg Legend, (Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2005), 32.

[12] Richard Overy, The Battle of Britain: The Myth and the Reality, (New York: W.W. Milton and Co, 2002), 121

[13] Richard Overy, “Hitler and Air Strategy,” Journal of Contemporary History (Vol. 15, no. 3, July 1980),  406

[14] Holland, 282.

[15] Overy, Myth, 17.

[16] Robinson, 34.

[17] Overy, 18.

[18] Michael Korda, With Wings Like Eagles, (New York: Harper Collins, 2009), 152.

[19] Peter Fleming, Operation Sea Lion (London: Pan Books, 1975), 74.

[20] Holland, 346.

[21] Korda, 6.

[22] Overy, 22.

[23] Robinson, 61.

[24] Fleming, 42.

[25] Korda, 152.

[26] Robinson, 105.

[27] Robinson, 106-108.

[28] Ovary, 34.

[29] Korda, 289.

[30] Fleming, 37.

[31] Overy, 25.

[32] Fischer, 18.

[33] Overy, 72.

[34] Fischer, 139.

[35] Overy, 60.

[36] Robinson, 54

[37] Overy, 61.

[38] Ibid., 62.

[39] Ibid., 115.

[40] Stephen Bungay. The Most Dangerous Enemy: A History of the Battle of Britain, (London: Aurum Press, 2000), 122.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Gerhard L. Weinberg, A World at Arms, (New York: Cambridge University Press,2005), 365

[43] Marc Milner, Battle of the Atlantic, (Gloucestershire: The History Press, 2011), 37.

[44] Ibid.,42.

[45] Holland, 385.

[46] Korda, 126.

[47] Bungay, 68.

[48] Holland, 101.

[49] Robinson, 175.

[50] Holland, 443.

[51] Overy, 62.

[52] Holland, 396.

[53] Robinson, 154.

[54] Overy, 76.

[55] Holland, 327.

[56] Korda, 169.

[57] Fischer, 168.

[58] Holland, 167.

[59] Korda, 160.

[60] Ibid., 146.

[61] Fischer, 173

[62] Holland, 467.

[63] Fischer, 180.

[64] Fischer, 185.

[65] Ibid.

[66] Holland, 494.

[67] Ibid., 454.

[68] Ibid., 480.

[69] Air Commodore Peter J. Dye, “Logistics and the Battle of Britain,” Air Force Journal of Logistics, (No. 24, Vol 4, Winter 2000), 33.

[70] Overy, 80.

[71] Overy, 125.

[72] Holland, 520.

[73] Denis Richards and Hilary St. G. Saunders, Royal Air Force, 1939-1945. Vol I: The Fight at Odds, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1953), 176.

[74] Korda, 253.

[75] Ibid., 255.

[76] Richards, 190-193 .

[77] Overy, 121.

[78] Robinson, 182

[79] Overy, 86

[80] Ibid., 88.

[81] Korda, 197.

[82] Overy, 107.

[83] Alfred Prince, The Hardest Day: 18 August 194, ( New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1980), 12.

[84] Holland, 571.

[85] Korda, 279.

[86] Holland 572.

[87] Overy, 94.

[88] Richards, 206.

[89] Overy, 411.

[90] Korda, 264.

[91] Ibid., 233.

[92] Ibid., 273.

[93] Robinson, 35.

[94] Holland, 509.

[95] Overy, 57.

[96] Holland, 511.

[97] Holland 456.

[98] Overy, 186.

[99] Holland, 467,

[100] Over? 269

[101] Overy, 185.

[102] Robinson, 159.

[103] Over, 97.

[104] Holland, 467.

[105] Ibid., 185.

[106] Overy, 125.

[107] Robinson 176.

[108] Overy, 83.

[109] Holland, 588

[110] Robinson, 167.

[111] Holland, 590.

[112] Ibid., 421.

[113] Overy, 125.

[114] Holland, 559.

[115] Ibid., 588.

[116] Korda 282




  1. Do you have any suggestions for writing short articles? That’s where I always battle and I just wind
    up staring empty screen for lengthy time.


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