Assorted Musings from an Unknown Historian

Bourbon, Books, and Bemusement


World War II

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



Barenjagër: The Unparalleled Success of Luftwaffe Fighter Aces on the Eastern Front in WWII

The year was 1955, the month October, the region West Germany.  In the decade that had passed since the end of the Second World War, the country had made much progress towards recovery.  Families had been reunited. The economy gained strength.  Former soldiers turned back to their proverbial ploughshares, rebuilding homes, businesses, industries.  That decade had also changed the country drastically.  Music and fashion had evolved.  Cars now had clutches.  Televisions, once rare, had replaced radios in the home and were broadcasting American and British shows with German voiceovers.  But most significantly, the country, once united, had been divided between the victors of the Second World War like a Thanksgiving pie.  In the West, Germany prospered beneath the watch of the Allies.  The East, however, struggled with the yoke of Soviet rule.  The very capitol of the country was split down the centre by a massive wall, a physical manifestation of how Potsdam had chosen to hobble the former belligerent.

Stepping off the train and onto German soil for the first time in ten years must have been surreal for former Luftwaffe experten[1] Erich Hartmann.  He was thirty-three years old.  Ten years in the Russian Gulags had left him thin and weak, shadowed hollows beneath bright blue eyes, his once-fit physique having shrunk to just a hundred pounds.  But the Russians had not managed to break the spirit or the pride of the boy-turned-man once known as the Black Knight of Germany.  At long last he would be able to start life with his beloved wife Usci, who had faithfully waited for the long decade in which he had languished in the Soviet gulags.  Flying remained Hartmann’s other great love, and he would soon re-join other former flying aces to build the new German Luftwaffe.


Erich Hartmann had been the premier ace of the Second World War, his astounding score of 352 victories emblazoning his name across history as the top-scoring fighter pilot of all time.  It dwarfed the 104 victories of the respected Generalleutnant Adolf Galland and made the very definition of “ace” –five aerial victories – seem like a joke.  The American ace, Richard Bong, had “only” forty victories, and the top ace of the RAF trails behind Bong with thirty-eight.[2]  Only a handful of pilots from Japan and each of the allied countries qualified as ace by these standards.   And yet there are over five thousand Luftwaffe pilots who can claim this proud title. [3]  Hartmann was not unique amongst his brothers, nor was he a superman.  Gerhard Barkhorn also scored above three hundred victories[4], eight pilots scored above two hundred, and seventy surpassed one hundred aerial victories.[5]   It appears that the Luftwaffe pilots were far superior to pilots from any other air force during the Second World War.

Galland and his dog, Schweinebauch

However, the Luftwaffe cannot claim such remarkable scores in every theatre of war. Generalleutnant Galland with a his 104 victories was number one in his own theatre – the West, where he fought the Allies over Europe and England.  In actuality, pilots like Hartmann were found only in the Eastern field of operations.  In all other fields, German pilots do not appear to have performed any better or worse than their own allies or adversaries.  In fact, Eastern aces who were sent to other fronts were often quickly shot down, while Western pilots who were moved to the East became aces, sometimes overnight.

Over the past seventy years, historians and theorists have attributed this phenomena to various factors, including skill, training, equipment, communications, tactics, and leadership.  This essay will examine each of these factors in turn to determine whether or not they were the decisive elements which made the Luftwaffe scores in the East possible.  It shall demonstrate how differences in these factors originally gave the Germans great initial advantage over the Soviets, who were still reeling from the sprawling effects of the purges.  Yet as the Soviets closed the gaps in these areas, only one thing in particular continued to set the Eastern Front apart and made German victories possible – the sheer number of Soviet pilots.  An in-depth study of the aerial war in the East reveals that there is no single explanation for the incredible scores of the Eastern Luftwaffe pilots; in fact, a variety of factors unique to the Eastern front combined to make their legacy possible.  The Eastern Front provided Luftwaffe pilots with a unique set of circumstances that allowed them to achieve aerial victories on a scale that was unprecedented anywhere else in the Second World War.

Purging the Brains and Brawnrussia_vanessavoisin21

In 1941 the entirety of the Soviet military forces were reeling from the massive shock caused by Stalin’s purges.  Ostensibly triggered by the assassination of party leader Sergei Kerov in 1936, Josef Stalin’s paranoid “cleansing” of the military was intended to rid it of traitors and counterrevolutionaries.  Called off in 1938, the damage was lasting.  Instead of rooting out the seeds of sedition and treason, the purges instead resulted in the virtual decapitation and castration of the Soviet armed forces, depriving it as a unit of its ability to think and cowing its initiative.  Countless experienced combat officers and important military theorists were removed from the ranks, either imprisoned, murdered, or exiled.  The last three years prior to war saw a 90% turnover in military leadership, [6] leaving everything in the hands of people with little experience.  Those who replaced them were all too often sycophants, cronies, and political hacks.[7]  Suffering a desperate need for officers, many hapless privates and junior officers were rapidly promoted without the necessary experience or ability.  Training suffered as a matter of course: “There was no one to teach, no one to be taught, and nothing to teach with.”[8]  School output fell even as the army expanded, leaving the Red Army short thirty-six thousand officers on the eve of Barbarossa.[9]  Their total number of fighter planes were just over 600 – approximately two-thirds of the Luftwaffe’s fighting strength.[10]  Chief of German General Staff Ludwig von Beck described the Red Army as an “inert fighting force” due to the catastrophic effects of the purges.[11]  Indeed, the hobbled Soviets seemed a ripe target to German commanders.

So it was that when Operation Barbarossa was launched in the summer of 1941, the Luftwaffe found themselves facing a Red Army Air Force (VVS) that was hardly combat ready,  led by officers who were green, poorly trained, or utterly incompetent.  The Luftwaffe arrived in the East with fewer frontline aircraft than they had taken to Britain or France.[12]  Overstretched and at just 60% strength, they still swept aside the VVS, gaining air superiority or supremacy along the entire Eastern front on the first day of operations. [13]  According to Soviet sources 4,000 aircraft were lost in the first three days of battle.   The German losses, meanwhile, totaled less than seventy.[14] This vast initial success can be attributed to the effects the Purges had on training, equipment, tactics, and strategy.

The Brains: Training and Experience

In the early 1930s, VVS pilots had received a thorough two-and-a-half year course of training and were put into some of the best, most modern planes the world had to offer.  These pilots went on to gain combat experience over Spain, Khalkin Gol, and the Winter War against Finland.  However, by the time of the German invasion, pilots and commanders who had this sort of experience were few.  Stalin’s purges had stripped many of them from the VVS, depriving it of its most experienced commanders and trainers.  In June of 1941, 91% of the aviation commanders and over half of the officers had been in their position for less than six months.[15]  Many of them had never seen combat.  With all this inexperience in the upper echelons of the VVS, there were few or no suitable teachers to train new pilots.  With the desperate shortage of men and officers, training programs were repeatedly shortened to fill the gaps, reducing it from years to months.  Many if not most of the pilots whom the Germans met in the air in the summer of 1941 had suffered from enormously deficient training in which they had been taught only basic take-off and landing in trainer planes, with no experience in aerobatics and only very limited practice on the firing range.  In most cases, these men had received twenty hours of flight time or less[16] and had little to no understanding of aerobatics, dogfighting, or flying in bad weather.[17]   These deficiencies were magnified by the nature of the men themselves: the VVS recruited pilots based on the draft, the only air force in the world to do so.  As a result, some of the pilots simply had no talent, and others suffered from an outright fear of flying.[18]  To illustrate the gross deficiencies in their training, consider for example that 13% of the losses during the opening of Barbarossa had nothing at all to do with the Germans; they were due to accident on behalf of poorly trained VVS pilots.[19]

The German training program, on the other hand, was one of the best in the world, producing pilots who were vastly superior.  In 1941, all Luftwaffe pilots were volunteers who had been chosen with care.  Many of them had started out in gliding clubs in the 1930s.  The 250 hours of flying time which they had each received had included a thorough training in aerobatics, group flying, foul weather flying, emergency landings, and other likely situations with an emphasis on dog fighting and ground assaults.[20]  Training continued when green pilots reached the front.  Inexperienced pilots were tucked beneath the wing of an experten so they could safely gain more experience in the air.  It was beneath the protection and tutelage of aces that fresh pilots got their first victories, as their experienced tutors would make opportunities for them and protect them while they hunted.[21]  This helped them build confidence as well as practice – key ingredients to building a good pilot.

Not only were the Luftwaffe pilots better trained during these early stages of the war, but many of them had already been tempered in battle beginning with the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s and continuing with the war in Western Europe.  Victories over weaker enemies such as were found in Poland, Holland, Norway, and France gave fresh Luftwaffe pilots experience and confidence while providing veterans of the Spanish Civil War with more practice and opportunities.  The first true test of the Luftwaffe’s skill in the Second World War came when they faced the British over France and England.  A “mirror image” of the Luftwaffe in terms of skill and aircraft,[22] combat with the Royal Air Force was later called especially good practice by the Luftwaffe aces.  German ace Johannes Steinhoff[23] felt that they “learned a lot from the British, and… became even better fighter pilots” before turning East.[24]

Later, over the Eastern front, veteran pilots honed their skills on Soviets who presented a far lesser challenge than the RAF.[25]  Beneath the watchful and protective eyes of the German experten, fresh Luftwaffe pilots practiced the tricks of aerial combat on easy Soviet prey, gaining confidence and earning their first victories.  The Luftwaffe enjoyed such astounding success in the first week of battle that the twenty kills required to win the coveted Knight’s Cross had to be raised to forty in order to preserve its value![26]  Hermann Goering himself did not initially believe the numbers claimed by Eastern pilots, yet their systefighteraces2m for crediting kills was the most rigorous in the war: a credited victory required written testimony by a witness in the air or on the ground.  If no witnesses were present, a crash site was required.  The necessary paperwork required the pilot include his altitude, the aircraft type which he had downed, the time and date of the victory, and the location.  This elaborate and demanding system essentially eliminated the double-counting so many other air forces had to contend with.[27]  The first few months of Barbarossa were known as the “Happy Time” as pilots racked up scores and earned decorations.  Many became aces literally overnight.  Soon the requirements for the Oak Leaves to the Knight’s Cross were raised from forty victories to one hundred, and then to 120, and finally 190 after 1943.

But while the Luftwaffe would continue to enjoy success and glory in the east for the duration of the war, the “Happy Time” would come to an end as the Soviets began gaining experience and plugging the gaps which had given the Germans their initial lead.  The Soviets may have lost their few experienced pilots at an early point, but those who survived gained experience just as the Luftwaffe pilots did and talent began to emerge. The Red Banner squads in particular were staffed with excellent flyers, respected by the Luftwaffe and described as “some of the best pilots in the world.”[28]  Soviet training programs also improved  while the Germans, suffering from attrition, were forced to shorten their own pilot training programs, thus closing the gap.  Hartmann and other pilots who had entered the war early on had received thorough training and tutelage, whereas the new pilots had only received between twenty and sixty hours of training on biplanes or trainers – few had even sat in a Bf-109 before they reached the front.[29]  By 1943, the VVS was sending up pilots whose training was equal or superior to that of the incoming Luftwaffe pilots.  Learning from the Germans, Soviets quit throwing green pilots straight into combat and instead sent them into the reserves, where they could continue main-qimg-a88b9fac4fe6ad812da7b1ec66e8e6d0-c.jpgto learn in relative safety and where they, too, received tutelage for the growing ranks of Soviet aces.  The Germans soon lost such an option thanks to attrition, and fresh pilots went straight into combat.  Upon the receipt of the Diamonds to his Oak Leaves, Erich Hartmann complained about the growing deficiencies in the German training program to Adolf Hitler himself, explaining to the Fuhrer that the minimally trained pilots they were receiving were just throwing their lives away.  Thus, the success of German experten in the East cannot be solely attributed to  differences in training.

Like training, differences in tactics also contributed to the initial German success.  The effects of the Purges could be felt here, as well.  Important Russian theorists had fallen victim to Stalin’s paranoia just as military leaders had, leading to a stagnation in thought and a VVS that was relying on old and outdated tactics,[30] poorly taught. The resulting pilots “almost never used anything that resembled a coherent tactical formation,” flying instead in loose clumps and attacking individually as though they didn’t have an assigned wingman.[31]  This was in part because the Soviets initially fought in formations of three – when attacks came, the triple Soviet formation essentially shattered.  Teamwork was made impossible through lack of radios, and the use of wingmen was prevented by the odd

Erich Hartmann and Gerhard Barkhorn, the only two pilots in history to score over 300 victories apiece

number which always left someone the odd-man-out.  The Germans, meanwhile, flew in groups of four.  The “Finger Four” formation allowed the formation to split evenly into two pairs, leaving every lead with a wingman to protect him.  It was only a short time before the Soviets recognized the wisdom of this formation and adopted it themselves.[32]  Using this formation, they developed the “Hat” tactic, with one pair of fighters flying higher than the other for observation.  If attacked, the “Hats” would dive down to cover the other pair.[33]  Initially disdained for their weak or non-existent strategy, as the war progressed the Russians improved, soon proving themselves adept at improvisations and quick to learn from their adversaries.[34]  Their quick adoption of the “Finger Four” formation is an example of one such lesson, and how the tactical gap between Russian and German began to close.

A rigid Soviet command style combined with the Comissar system left pilots with little room for initiative.  This system of dual command attached politicians to each military unit, giving them a rank equal to whatever commander they were partnered with.  They had the ability to override or countermand orders, something which could be doubly problematic considering that these were politicians typically without military experience.  Taught by the Purges that thinking and initiative were dangerous, commanders took no risks and pilots followed orders without thought, for the consequences of doing otherwise could be quite dire.

The result was a VVS that was “a little stupid.”[35]  Completely micromanaged, even speed and altitude were dictated,[36] so that pilots, fearing the consequences of violating orders, often continued to fly their course even while being attacked.  Bomber pilots who had been poorly trained could not think independently[37] and often panicked at the loss of their leader.  Luftwaffe pilots recognized this quickly and targeted leaders, taking them out and reaping the victories from the ensuing chaos as formations fell apart.

Conversely, Luftwaffe command was comprised of pilots, both current and former, who had already proven themselves capable in battle and demonstrated leadership skills.  Pilots were given the freedom to think for themselves and were encouraged to exhibit independence within the framework of general orders.  This concept, known as Auftragstaktik, encouraged improvisation and initiative whilst in battle, allowing those in the action itself to determine the best way of fulfilling their objectives.  It was even permissible to bypass orders if another opportunity to fulfill the mission made itself apparent.  This resulted in a flexible and adaptable air force with pilots who were capable of making competent decisions and were able to function without their commanders.  Such things were particularly important in dog fights, where the fighting was fast-paced and the unexpected was a matter of course.

On either side, the Eastern air war was essentially a non-strategic conflict.[38]  Soviet strategy mostly consisted of swamping the enemy with large numbers.  The Luftwaffe also faced the Eastern Front without any set strategy.  Instead of being sent on long range missions or assigned bomber duty like in the West, German pilots were generally allowed to free-hunt, going into the air whenever they liked and searching for prey.  An extension of the German love for hunting, there was heavy emphasis on personal scores.  In their quest to achieve coveted decorations like the Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds, they completed multiple sorties a day in order to increase their score,[39] and would sometimes

Hans Philip, 206 victories (second from left)

even keep particularly good hunting grounds a secret.  Hartmann, for instance, once discovered a hidden Soviet base.  For a time he made a habit of going out before dawn to hunt the Soviet planes as they took off and landed.  He was able to enjoy his solitary success for a short time before he had to take another pilot with him to prove that he wasn’t cheating.[40]  Conversely, in the West, Luftwaffe pilots were often sent on escort duty with bomber missions, an assignment they hated as they were forced to fly slowly to protect the bombers.  This stripped fighter pilots of the advantages of their speedy mounts and made them more vulnerable to attacks from the Allies.  Denied free-hunts, Western pilots didn’t have the opportunities to score the way Eastern pilots did.

Free hunts in the East yielded bountiful fruits, made easy by Soviet tactics.  Soviet fighters were tied to the protection of ground troops and thus forced to fly slowly at medium or low altitudes, easily visible to the ground troops in order to “boost morale.”[41]  Bombers flew in tight, rigid formations with low, steady courses and no fighter escorts.  The Luftwaffe pilots would swoop down upon their prey from high altitudes, scatter the formation, take out one or two targets, then go back up to altitude and wait for the next wave.  They would do this several times a day, and there was a plentiful supply of prey for their hunts.  The


sheer number of targets made the Eastern Front unique in World War II.  The Germans were forced to spread their waning number of pilots thinly across a large front – and, later, across multiple fronts.  This meant that the Luftwaffe pilots who served in the east had more prey to go around and less sharing to do.  “We were always outnumbered,” said Hartmann, “Ten or twenty to one.  We had a lot of targets.”[42]  By June of 1944 this number had actually increased to forty-to-one.[43]  Gunther Rall said that there were “so many Russians in the air, I believe you could have thrown a stone blindfolded and hit one by accident.”[44]  The air space was so busy that pilots had to work to avoid collisions – and the VVS had developed the habit of ramming.

It was a different story on other fronts.  The increasingly finite Luftwaffe presented American aces a distinct lack of targets.  On the average day over Western Europe, the


United States Air Force flew between ten and twenty thousand missions.  In contrast, the Luftwaffe typically only managed somewhere between three and eight hundred.[45]  In the east, the same fact of numbers which made the Germans so successful also prevented VVS pilots from achieving similar results.  For instance, VVS pilot Aleksander Konstantinovich Gorovets flew 73 missions between June 1942 and July 1943.  In that time he only encountered Germans ten times.[46] The outnumbered Germans were hard to find.

The rotation of Luftwaffe pilots also played a major role in their high scores – namely, that they were not rotated at all.  American pilots typically only toured for a year at a time.[47]  Over England, the RAF rotated their pilots regularly, moving them from the areas of action in the south to areas of relative calm in the north where they could rest and recover.  Allied aces were often pulled from combat entirely and sent to teach in flight schools or to work desk jobs after a certain number of missions.  Not so for the Luftwaffe.  Once a pilot left training and entered combat, he was there until the war ended or he died.  There was no rotation system, and while some aces were in fact pulled from flight, for the most part joining the Luftwaffe meant a pilot and his plane were not to be parted.  There was no limit on combat missions.  There was no limit on hours.  This “Fly-Till-You-Die” policy resulted in stress and battle fatigue – during the Battle of Britain, they even had a name for it: Kanalkrankheit, or Channel Sickness.  But this also meant that Luftwaffe pilots had more time in the air and flew more combat missions than any other air force during the Second World War.[48]  For example, Joachim Brendel flew 950 missions between 1941 and 1945, and scored 189 victories.[49]  Dietrich Hrabak began his service with the invasion of Poland, flew eight hundred missions, and won 125 victories.  Conversely, the top American ace Richard “Dick” Bong[50] scored forty victories while flying a total of 200 missions in the Pacific, giving him a far better victory ratio than either of the two mentioned Germans.  Also boasting a better ratio but fewer missions is the Soviet ace Ivan Kozhedub, who shot down 62 German planes in just 120 missions.[51]  It seems clear that the Luftwaffe pilots, while overworked, were given something which other pilots simply did not get – greater opportunity to build up a remarkable victory tally.[52]

The Brawn: Technology and Equipment

Polikarpov I-16

In the 1920s and early 30s the Soviet Union boasted the largest and most powerful air force in the world in terms of numbers and excellence.  They could proudly lay claim to the world’s first monoplane four-engine bomber, the Tupolev TB-3, and their Polikarpov I-16 was the first monoplane fighter with a retractable undercarriage.  Originally built in part through a post-WWI collaboration with the Germans,[53] the Soviet air force excelled at simplifying German designs from Junkers, relying on their ability to copy and improve foreign engine designs rather than coming up with their own.[54]  Poor production standards notwithstanding,[55] the VVS of the early 1930s was a force to be reckoned with.  However, in 1933 this arrangement was broken off and the VVS began to stagnate. Then came the Purges, and with important designers like Vladimir Petlaykov and Andrei Tupolev languishing in prison, the VVS stagnated further, suffering from increasingly outdated tactics, and shoddy training, and obsolescent planes.

What had been a modernized air force less than ten years previous was, by June 1941, utterly outdated.  The majority of the VVS fighters were bi-planes like the Polikarpov I-15 and I-153 and the once-vaunted Polikarpov I-16.   Now comparatively slow, the I-16 was still maneuverable, although most of its early pilots were not experienced enough to take

Lavochkin-Gorbunov-Gudkov LaGG-3

advantage of this.[56]  Poor standards of production resulted in all three of the above aircraft being coated with a flammable material, making them easy kills for the Germans. [57]  A similar problem plagued the more modern LaGG-3 fighter, also known as the “laquored coffin.”  Not only was it flammable, its laminated wood frame would shatter when hit by German cannon fire.  The LaGG-3 also suffered from engineering problems.  Its 1,210hp twelve-cylinder inline engine was not strong enough to haul the weight of the body, and as a result it “lagged” in speed at just 348 mph.[58]  It was difficult to pull out of a dive and had a tendency to spin if the stick was yanked too hard, making it a terrible plane for inexperienced pilots.  In an attempt to remedy the weight problem the armament was reduced, and as a result it was

Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-1

completely outclassed by the Messerschmitt Bf-109.[59]  The MiG-1 and its offspring the MiG-3, while speedy at around 400 mph, were poorly armed with just three machine guns.[60]  Yet the greatest shortcoming of any of these modern fighters is that there simply weren’t enough of them.  Planes like the MiGs and the LaGG-3 made up less than one quarter of the VVS on the eve of Barbarossa.[61]   Existing bombers such as the Ilyushin Db-3 and Tupolev SB, once formidable, were also obsolete and easily shot down by the Germans, especially because they were sent out without escort.

Many of these planes were marked by a distinct lack of technology, a feature which many Germans scorned.  For instance, there was a general lack of gun-sights, with only a circle painted on the window as substitute.  In many cases altimeters and air speed indicators were also absent.[62]  More troublesome was the lack of radios.  This was a major handicap which affected many areas of Soviet combat far beyond the mere inconvenience of being forced to rely on hand signals, something most other pilots hadn’t had to resort to since the First World War.  Incapable of being able to properly communicate while in formation, pilots could not warn each other of incoming Germans.  When attacked, bombers dove and ran while their fighter escorts rallied to defend.  Following a dogfight, relocating the scattered bombers was difficult if not impossible without the ability to ask for their location, and there was no way for fighters to discuss which fighter was now to cover who.[63]  Given orders which were utterly inflexible, pilots had no way to communicate to the ground when the situation changed and the orders were no longer appropriate, and they had no freedom to adapt to an attack or any unexpected situation.  Germans, on the other hand, all had radios.  The later addition of radios to Soviet fighters was a great help; the improvement in communication also led to increased flexibility and an improvement in tactics.[64]  However, a lack of radio discipline or use of codes on the part of the Soviets ensured that Luftwaffe often had very good intelligence.[65]

The Luftwaffe fighter of choice was the Messerschmitt Bf-109.  Designed in 1934, it was first introduced into combat during the Spanish Civil War and emerged from that conflict a refined and superior war bird with a set of proven tactics to match.  By the outbreak of the Second World War, it was the dominant fighting machine in use by the Luftwaffe.  Built with an eye towards the British Supermarine Spitfire, the Battle of Britain resulted in further modifications and variations, so that the version employed against the Soviets in 1941 had been tried and refined in not one but two major conflicts.   Introduced in January


1941, the Frederick variant of the Messerschmitt Bf-109 was the most common version flown by the Germans during the early stages of the war against the Soviet Union.  Boasting a supercharged Daimler-Benz engine pumping out 1,200hp and a maximum speed of 373 mph, it was armed with a pair of synchronized machine guns and a 15 mm cannon.[66]  With a dual water-cooled radiator system, armour plating behind the pilot’s head, and useful automatic features like an electrical pitch regulator, even the Soviets admitted it was a very well designed plane.[67]  In 1942 the Gustav variant was released, outstripping the Fredericks with speeds of 406 mph and carrying a larger, 20mm cannon.[68]  The 109s major flaw came into play during take-off and landing – it featured a narrow undercarriage, the legs attached to the fuselage instead of the wings for the purpose of easing certain repairs.  In order to widen the stance of the plane, the legs were splayed to increase stability.  This delicate arrangement meant the legs were apt to snap during take-off and landing, a particular problem for fresh pilots.


Yet the scores of the aces cannot be solely attributed to the quality of their craft, for the Luftwaffe edge over Soviet technology lasted only a matter of months.  By the start of 1942 the Soviets had surpassed their previous aircraft production levels and were pumping out a steady stream of moderns fighters which were good and quickly becoming better.[69]  The MiG-1, MiG-3, and LaGG-3 were becoming increasingly available, helping to close the

Yakovlev Yak-7b

technological gap between the two adversaries.  As the war progressed, these planes were refined into variants which were increasingly efficient and effective.  The LaGG-3 was improved through the switch to an air-cooled double-banked 15 cylinder radial engine with 1,600hp.  The elimination of the liquid cooling system reduced the weight and led to increased speeds which just exceeded 400 mph.[70]  By 1944 this had evolved into the fearsome La-7, declared “damned fast” with a top speed of 423 mph and formidably armed with three 20mm cannons.[71]  Some of these fighters even came with an auxiliary rocket engine which, when fired off, increased speed by ten to fifteen percent.[72]  The slower Yak-1, produced in 1942, was to provide a base for solid fighters like the Yak-3.  This small and easy-to-handle fighter had an excellent power-to-weight ratio and was considered by some to be the best fighter in all of WWII.  Below eleven thousand feet – where most eastern dogfighting took place – it was equal to the Bf-109s.  It’s successor, the Yak-7b, was superior.[73]  The Il-10, introduced in 1944, was slow at just 311 mph but positively bristled with two machine guns and three 20mm cannons.[74]  Even the technological simplicity which Luftwaffe pilots had scorned proved to be a boon:  Soviet fighters were more easily accessible for trainees and green pilots.  Although ultimately they would comprise just one-eighth of the VVS, the arrival of Allied Lend-Lease planes also helped close the technological gap.  While British fighters like the Hurricane and the elegant

Bell P-39 Aircobra

Spitfire and proved intolerant of the conditions created by bad Russian weather and primitive airfields, the Soviets put many American planes to use.  The P-39 Aircobra was to prove a particular favourite, even though it had been dismissed by the USAAF as a failure.[75]


The Soviets had upped their game, answering the German invasion with fighters and pilots that were rapidly improving.  The Germans responded with the introduction of the Focke-Wulf 190, a plane that would prove to be the trigger for many Luftwaffe pilots to become Aces.[76]  This sturdy craft was an excellent design for the Russian front.  A


massive fourteen cylinder BMW radial engine producing 1,600hp tolerated abuse and damage better than the inline Dahlimer-Benzs of the Bf-109s.  The shape of the radial engine doubled as additional protection for the pilot, acting as a shield in a head-on attack or a crash-landing, something not provided by the sleek, streamlined nose of the Messerschmitts.  The downside to the engine was that the Focke-Wulfs would not glide; in the event of a stall, the front of the plane would drop “like a brick” and was apt to spin.  The weight of the engine also made it far more likely to summersault in a landing if a pilot failed to keep the tail down.  However, the stance of the plane was sturdier than the narrow, splayed arrangement of the Bf-109s.  Performance suffered at higher altitudes, but since fighting on the Russian front was at a lower level this proved somewhat irrelevant.[77]  The FW-190 also provided a solid gun platform with two machine guns and four 20mm cannons.[78]  In 1944 the Messerschmitt was also upgraded, the Kurfust  series representing the maximum power the airframe could take with a monstrous 2,000hp engine by Jumo Junkers.  This variant eschewed machine guns entirely, instead carrying two 15mm cannons and a single 30mm cannon.  With a top speed of 452 mph, it tore past everything else on the Eastern Front.[79]

Zum Schluss

German experten Hartman Grasser[80] summarized the situation in the East: “In the beginning it was the low quality of the Russian planes which cost them losses.  But after two years they improved their planes… and… their experience that the whole situation altered.  The Russians then could get true advantage, because their planes were better and more numerous, and their plots were better, and their training was vastly improved.”[81]

Yet In spite of all the improvements the Soviets made, the Germans continued to score remarkably well throughout the war.  Take for instance the case of the Fifty-Second Fighter Wing Jagdgeschwader 52, left alone in the east after Zitadelle.  Forced to lead a nomadic existence, they travelled from place to place to provide aid to the army as needed and to avoid the Russian line of advance.  The Soviets had become increasingly skilled and increasingly aggressive.  The Luftwaffe was running short of planes and men.  Yet in spite of these circumstances, JG 52 produced the late-comer Erich Hartmann, who, in the course of two weeks in August of 1943 increased his victories from fifty to eighty.  In a year his count rocketed skyward as he added two hundred tallies to his score.[82]  Another member of JG 52, Wilhelm “Willi” Batz struggled with finding his “shooting eye” right up until March of 1944, when in the space of 13 months he suddenly racked up 222 victories.[83]  The whole Jagdgeschwader actually had an eventful March: on March 21st, 1944, III JG 52 became the Luftwaffe’s most successful fighter wing ever with 3,500 kills to the group.  On May 10th this number had increased considerably and they claimed their 9,000th victory, and in June, in the face of a strengthening enemy and deteriorating situation, they hit 10,000.  While Soviet improvements in training, technology, and tactics helped narrow the gap, they could not stem the success of the Germans, leaving one to conclude that German success ultimately came down to a question of numbers, the one factor on the Eastern front which remained constant.

Flugzeug Me 109 auf Feldflugplatz
Bf-109s belonging to JG-52



Feltus, Pamela. “Air Power on the Eastern Front in World War II.” (accessed February 16, 2016).

Heaton, Colin D. “Aviation History: Interview with World War II Luftwaffe Ace Gunther Rall, (accessed February 16, 2016).


Harvey, A.D.  “The Soviet Air Force vs. the Luftwaffe.” History Today, 52, issue 1, (January 2002).


Angelucci Enzo, The Rand McNally Encyclopaedia of Military Aircraft 1914-1980. New York: The Military Press, 1980.

Bergström, Christopher.  Barbarossa – The Air Battle: July–December 1941.  Hinckley: Classic Publications, 2007.

Drabkin, Artem. The Red Air Force at War: Barbarossa and The Retreat to Moscow, Recollections of Fighter Pilots on the Eastern Front. Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military, 2007.

Faber, Harold, ed.  Luftwaffe: A History.  New York: Times Books, 1977.

Glantz, David. Stumbling Colossus: The Red Army on the Eve of World War. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998.

Heaton, Colin D. and Anne-Marie Lewis.  The German Aces Speak II: WWII through the Eyes of Four More of the Luftwaffe’s Most Important Commanders.  Minneapolis: Zenith Press, 2014.

Merridale, Catherine. Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2006. .

Toliver, Col. Raymond F. and Trevor J. Constable.  Horrido!  Fighter Aces of the Luftwaffe. New York: Bantam Books, 1968.

[1] The Germans used the term “experten” instead of “ace.”

[2] Air Vice Marshall James “Johnnie” Johnson.

[3] John Weal, German Aces of the Russian Front, (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2002), 7.

[4] Gerhard Barkharn scored 301 victories.

[5] Weal, 7.

[6] Catherine Merridale, Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945 (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2006), 70.

[7] David Glantz, Stumbling Colossus the Red Army on the Eve of World War, (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998), 109.

[8] Ibid., 34.

[9] Merridale, 71.

[10] Weal, 7.

[11] Glantz, 32.

[12] Weal, 7. The Luftwaffe took 3,826 frontline aircraft to France, and attrition left them with 3,705 over England.  They arrived in Russia with 2,598 frontline aircraft.

[13] Ibid., 264.

[14] Christopher Bergström, Barbarossa – The Air Battle: July–December 1941, (Hinckley: Classic Publications, 2007), 23.

[15] Ibid, 190.

[16] Weal, 9.

[17] Artem Drabkin, Barbarossa and the Retreat to Moscow: Recollections of Fighter Pilots on the Eastern Front, (Yorkshire: Pen and Sword, 2007), x.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Glantz, 202.

[20] Drabkin, xi.

[21] Colin D. Heaton and Anne-Marie Lewis, Interview with Erich Hartmann, The German Aces Speak II: WWII through the Eyes of Four More of the Luftwaffe’s Most Important Commanders, (Minneapolis: Zenith Press, 2014), 42.

[22] Colin D. Heaton, Interview with Gunther Rall, “Aviation History: Interview with World War II Luftwaffe Ace Gunther Rall, (accessed February 16, 2016).

[23] 176 total victories, awarded Oak Leaves and Swords to his Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross.  A particularly interesting character because of his role in the Fighter Pilot’s Revolt against Herman Goering late in the war.

[24] Heaton and Lewis, Interview with Johannes Steinhoff, 135.

[25] Heaton and Lewis, Interview with Anton Hrabak, 224.

[26] Weal, 22.

[27] Heaton and Lewis, Interview with Erich Hartmann, 20; Weal, 7.

[28] Heaton and Lewis, Interview with Johannes Steinhoff, 155.

[29] Heaton and Lewis, Interview with Erich Hartmann, 49.

[30] Weal, 51.

[31] Heaton and Lewis, Interview with Johannes Steinhoff, 154.

[32] Drabkin, Interview with Vitaly Klimenko, 9.

[33] Ibid., 13.

[34] Heaton and Lewis, Interview with Erich Hartmann, 19.

[35] Heaton and Lewis, Interview with Johannes Steinhoff, 152.

[36] Heaton and Lewis, Interview with Erich Hartmann, 19.

[37] Ibid, 44.

[38] Weal, 13.

[39] Pamela Feltus, “Air Power on the Eastern Front in World War II, (accessed February 16, 2016).

[40] Heaton and Lewis, Interview with Erich Hartmann, 27

[41] Drabkin, xii.

[42] Heaton and Lewis, Interview with Erich Hartmann, 20.

[43] Weal, 85.

[44] Heaton and Lewis, Interview with Gunther Rall, 248.

[45] Heaton, Interview with Gunther Rall

[46] Norbert Hanning, Luftwaffe Fighter Ace: From the Eastern Front to the Defence of the Homeland, (Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books, 2004) ??

[47] Heaton, Interview with Gunther Rall.

[48] Col. Raymond F. Toliver and Trevor J. Constable, Horrido!  Fighter Aces of the Luftwaffe, (New York: Bantam Books, 1968), 237.

[49] Ibid, 247.

[50] Served in action from 1942 to January 1945, when he was awarded the Medal of Honor and pulled from active duty to work publicity tours.  Bong was killed in August 1945 while attempting to test fly the P-80 Shooting Star jet fighter.  In a most amusing tale, Bong was left behind in America while the rest of his group was sent to England in 1942.  Bong had been grounded for taking his P-38 into San Francisco, buzzing Market Street, blowing wash of a lady’s clothesline, and looping the Golden Gate Bridge with some buddies.

[51] All missions flown in the Lavochkin LA-7, an excellent aircraft.  His victories even included one Me-262!

[52] Feltus.

[53] The “Lipetsk Arrangement” lasted from 1925 to 1933, during which time the Soviets allowed the Germans to build a flight school at Lipetsk in order to circumvent some of the restrictions from the Treaty of Versailles.  In return for use of the land, the Germans gave the Soviets technical information.  In 1933 the Soviets decided it had not been beneficial and broke it off, and the Germans agreed – although their own motivations for such an action are pretty clear.

[54] Toliver and Constable, 237.

[55] A.D. Harvey, The Soviet Air Force vs. the Luftwaffe, History Today, 52, issue 1, (January 2002).

[56] Harold Faber, ed., Luftwaffe: A History, (New York: Times Books, 1977), 251.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Enzo Angelucci, The Rand McNally Encyclopaedia of Military Aircraft 1914-1980, (New York: The Military Press, 1980), 196.

[59] Drabkin, Interview with Vitaly Klimenko, 14.

[60] Angelucci, 191.

[61] Harvey.

[62] Heaton and Lewis, Interview with Gunther Rall, 251.

[63] Drabkin, Interview with Vitaly Klimenko, 9.

[64] Drabkin, xii.

[65] Heaton and Lewis, Interview with Gunther Rall, 247.

[66] Angelucci,186.

[67] Drabkin, Interview with Viktor M. Sinaisky, 74.

[68] Angelucci, 186.

[69] Faber, 245.

[70] Angelucci, 228.

[71] Heaton and Lewis, Interview with Gunther Rall, 269.

[72] Angelucci, 228.

[73] Weal, 95.

[74] Angelucci, 211.

[75] Harvey.

[76] Weal, 120.

[77] Ibid., 95.

[78] Angelucci, 187.

[79] Ibid., 186.

[80] 103 aerial victories.

[81] Toliver and Constable, 270

[82] Weal, 84.

[83] Toliver and Constable, 252.


Blitzkreig: Brilliant Strategy, or Happy Accident?

“Even the most casual student of the Second World War is familiar with Blitzkrieg. This “lightning war” was the German secret weapon, a new and dramatic method of waging war. Combing tanks and other mechanized forces with a powerful air force, and employed with breathtaking speed, and blitzkrieg was able to overwhelm almost all of Europe, in an incredibly short period of time. And blitzkrieg nearly overwhelmed the largest and most powerful nation on the planet, the Soviet Union. Blitzkrieg ran out of steam in front of Moscow, worn away by fierce Soviet resistance and “general winter”. From that point on, blitzkrieg would be gradually overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of its foes, falling to the combined power of the USSR, USA, and UK.

Or so goes the commonly accepted view. But is this in fact the truth? Was there a secret German “blitzkrieg” that enabled them to win the early stages of the war, only to be overwhelmed by the mass of its enemies? Or was blitzkrieg merely an excuse of the Allies for their failure to match the Germans in terms of mobile warfare theory and execution?”


The Germans did indeed recognize the concept of Blitzkrieg.  It was originally part of WWI strategy and was essentially just mobile warfare designed to put an end to trench warfare.[1]  In 1935 it appeared in a military periodical and was defined as a way for countries lacking in raw materials to finish a war quickly by using all their military forces to force a decision immediately.  In 1938 it was called a strategic surprise attack with the same end in mind.[2]  All propaganda that was to follow, whether it was based in reality or myth, took the idea of Blitzkrieg from these early criteria.  However, one of the great weaknesses of the Third Reich was Hitler’s general lack of strategy, and thus thorough study reveals a lack of full Blitzkrieg strategy.  Hitler understood clearly that he had to hurry; he dreaded another world war, knowing full well that Germany lacked the resources and fearing that the German people would not tolerate the privations of another long war.  Gerhard Weinberg gives three main reasons for Hitler’s hurry.  Fear of his own mortality, awareness of Germany’s material shortcomings, and the small lead in armaments pushed him to try to have his ccartoononquests of Lebensraum complete before the Western powers were able to aptly fight back.[3] It was this need to hurry that led him to pick off the European countries one-by-one in what appears to be a series of stunning Blitzkriegs.  Freiser reveals that this series of quick victories – particularly France – was not an intentional Blitz at all but made to appear as such in German and Allied propaganda.

Freiser offers many definitions of Blitzkrieg: to “finish a war quickly and suddenly by trying to force a decision right at the very beginning through the ruthless employment of their total fighting strength… a strategic surprise attack… concentrated employment of armor and air forces… objective is to defeat the enemy quickly in a decision seeking operation… put an end to rigid front lines involved in positional warfare and to return to mobile warfare… synonym for the modern operational war of maneuver… overwhelming the enemies, one after the other, in a series of individual, successive campaigns that would last only a short time… isolate the particular opponent and thus localize the conflict… the indispensable prerequisite for a Blitzkrieg, in other words, a strategic first-strike capacity, was to be created by at least a temporary armament lead over the enemy who was to be attacked by surprise… overrun the enemy after exploiting the element of surprise, by using fast, mechanized forces with air support.”[4] We shall keep these definitions in mind when we examine Poland and France.

Freiser discounts Poland as a Blitzkrieg because he feels it was only a preliminary stage, because armor was not fully deployed, and there were no air-born troops present.[5]  However, as he insists that France was not a Blitz because it was not planned as such, I must argue that Poland was indeed a Blitz for the same reasons.  According to Weinberg, “It was the intention of the Germans to combine surprise coups to seize special objectives at or before the moment of attack with a  sudden overwhelming attack on two fronts carried forward by the mass of the German army and supported by most of the German air force.”[6] The plan was to march on Warsaw, where they would encircle the main Polish Army and crush them.  These plans fit the very definition of Blitzkrieg as presented by Freiser in the first chapter.  While the surprise coups failed, the Germans were still spectacularly successful.  Also fitting Freiser’s definitions of Blitzkrieg are Hitler’s numerous attempts, successful or failed, to isolate Poland politically from her allies and neighbors.  Furthermore, Poland satisfies the requirements stated in Chapter One of using “fast, mechanized forces with air power for support.”[7]  Freiser essentially argues that the tanks don’t count because they were only deployed on a tactical and not an operational level and discounts air power because there were no air-born troops.  The Luftwaffe, however, was present and in force, and after clearing the skies of the few Polish planes they encountered provided support for the ground troops.  Speed was of necessity in Poland.  Even if one discounts the “catch-up” theory, there is the fact that the Germans only had bombs and ammunition for two weeks of fighting.[8]  They had to hit hard and fast to make Poland capitulate, and that’s precisely what they did, starting on September 1st when the Luftwaffe destroyed 75% of the Polish town of Weilun.  The Polish army collapsed in just eighteen days.

Poland was a success for five main reasons.  One, the 1934 Non-Aggression Pact lulled them into a sense of security, allowing them to prepare for danger only from the East.  When the Pact was cancelled in 1939, combined with German demands for the Polish corridor, it became clear that Germany represented a real threat.  However, there was not much time for the Polish army to make the necessary changes.  Second, Poland lacked modern military weapons, and third, they could not decide what precisely to d3320737efend against the Germans.  Concentrations of Polish forces at any point would leave the rest of the country vulnerable, and they could not decide between guarding industrial or population centers.  Fourth, Poland feared that total mobilization of their forces too early would damage their fragile economy as they pulled skilled labor from the factories and sent them to the front to wait for a German attack.  With such consideration in mind, they procrastinated until the last minute and were caught mid-way through mobilization.[9] Finally, aid from Poland’s so-called allies was minimal, and she was left to fact the Germans, and then the Soviets, essentially on her own.

The Germans did not waste the months in between.  Now confronted with a major war – precisely what Hitler hoped to avoid – changes needed to be made.  One of the reasons why Freiser does not believe Hitler’s 1940 strategy can be called a Blitz is because Germany did not have a Blitzkrieg economy, which requires all resources to be turned towards war production.  The German economy was not fully mobilized and rationing was not in place, especially not in 1939.  One of the reasons for this was that Hitler did not actually expect a war in ‘39; what plans he had were aimed at having war – if necessary – with the Western sea powers only in 1944.  1939 and his gathering of Lebensraum was only a step in his preparations for this. He did not expect war to be declared over the question of Poland, a point which Freiser illustrates with his description of the “ghost scene” when the Germans received the declarations of war from France and England.[10]  However, once he discovered that he had a war on his hands he moved to remedy the production shortage.  Between October of 1939 and May 1940, artillery production increased five-fold and the Panzers were modified and altered to make them more suitable to the tough French army.[11]  But never did the German economy reach full mobilization.

Freiser maintains that what happened in France the following spring was not a Blitzkrieg because it was not planned that way.  This is an excellent point that bears consideration.  The Germans were pleased with their success in Poland but did not believe that it could be used as a guide for how to approach France.[12]  Instead, they prepared for a long war of attrition during which the Wehrmacht would slowly build and strengthen their army in order to wear the French down.  This plan was due in part to the technical might of the French army and the vivid memory of the First World War, when the French simply dug in and refused to surrender.  This also probably had something to do with the supposed inferiority of the Polish people vs the racial superiority of the French, who were Aryan cousins.  Naturally the inferior Slavics to the East would collapse, but the racially and technically equal French would put up a longer fight.  However, what Hitler failed to understand was how war-weary France truly was.  While he counted on the European aversion to war to protect him while he snatched up bits of his precious Living Space, he did not consider the effect this would have on French fighting, which would prove to be rather half-hearted.  What actually happened in France was far from the long war of attrition which everyone so feared.  The country capitulated in about a month, sending the bulk of their air force to safety in Africa and evacuating many of their troops at Dunkirk.  Instead of the long, drawn out war which the Wehrmacht had planned, something which one could fairly call “Accidental Blitzkrieg” occurred, which was excellent for propaganda and gave the Allies the perfect excuse for their failure.

535824133Hitler’s success in France was due to a great many factors.  Foremost was the Allies’ general mismanagement of the fighting there.  Take, for example,  General Blumentritt’s “Triple Miracle.”  War-weariness and vivid memories of the trenches of yesteryear discouraged the French from becoming too involved.  They refused to dedicate all their resources to the battle, committing only a quarter of their air force to the fight while begging the British to pull the fat from the fire.  The British were also torn on their priorities in regards to the fight in France, and this dilemma prevented them from entering all their resources into the fray, as well.  England contributed 30% of the RAF over the objections of Air Marshall Hugh Dowding.  Dowding insisted that as many planes as possible were needed for the imminent defense of England, and he did not have the requisite number of squadrons to achieve this end and could not afford to lose any to France.[13]  Churchill hoped to defeat the Nazis across the Channel, but his actions lacked the strength of his convictions.  While it could be theorized that full English mobilization in France may have ended the war in the spring of 1940, Dowding’s insistence at holding back forces to protect England would save the island in the months to come.  As far as American aid, Americans, too, were reluctant to become involved in another European war, preferring to follow the isolationist doctrines of Washington, Jefferson, and Monroe.  Positive that both France and England would fall, they held back on aid until the Battle of Britain proved that England was a worthy investment of resources. Technology beyond Panzers and Stukas also played a role in the German victory.  The radios which they were equipped with made the delivery of orders instant, while France had very few radios at all and those they did have often didn’t work.  Most of their orders were delivered by mouth.  Another factor that benefited the Germans was the use of the interim between Poland and France.  Poland had been a learning curve for the Germans, who took advantage of the months between invasions to put the experience they had gained into practice and to prepare for war.  French officers, however, did nothing while they waited for “Ze Germans.”[14]

What made the German Blitz unique was, in my opinion, largely timing.  Blitzkrieg – real or propaganda – only worked during the first part of the war because the enemies which the Germans fought were either unequal to the task, such as Poland, or unwilling to fight, like France.  England was the first opponent which the Germans faced who had the will to truly dig in her heels and throw all her resources into resistance.  When faced with actual opposition the German War Machine ground to a halt and the blitzkrieg stalled out.  In frustration, Hitler hastened his plans for the invasion of Russia and turned East instead.  The Allies were unable to replicate similar successes later in the war because unlike Hitler, they did not face an unprepared opponent nor did they face a country so wearied by war that surrender was preferable to attrition.  War was in full swing by the time America entered.  The time for Blitz had passed.

We also could not replicate the “shock and awe”of the early Blitzkrieg, because much of that was tied in to the use of new technologies.   A Messerschmidt, new and intimidating in 1939 when so many others were still relying on bi-planes, was a shiny and impressive new toy.  New technologies contribute to escalation, and other nations caught up out of necessity, building to meet the enemy.  The technology ceased to be new and exciting and became commonplace.  Shell-shock also could have played a role in this.  It was not until the  summer of 1945 when America hit Japan with some new “shock and awe” that could certainly be described as a blitzkrieg.  In short, Hitler’s Blitz of 1940 could not be replicated because circumstances had changed.  His Blitz had been waged against unprepared and untried nations using new technologies; it was successful on account of the naiveté of its targets.  By the summer of 1940, this naiveté had vanished.

–E.L. Akin

Works Cited

[1] Karl-Heinz Frieser, The Blitzkrieg Legend (Maryland: Naval Institute Press) 2005, pg 7.

[2] Ibid, 5.

[3] Gerhard L. Weinberg, A World At Arms (New York: Cambridge University Press) 2005, pg 45.

[4] Freiser, 4-8.

[5] Freiser, 19

[6] Weinberg, 48.

[7] Freiser, 8.

[8] Freiser, 21.

[9] Weinberg, 49.

[10] Freiser, 12

[11] Freiser, 21.

[12] Freiser, 19

[13] David Fischer, A Summer Bright and Terrible, (where? Counterpoint Press), 2005, pg 120.

[14] Freiser, 24.

Midway, the Trouncing that Turned the Tide in the Pacific

*Under Construction and Soon to be Expanded*

Certainly one of the most stunning battles of the Second World War, the Battle of Midway served as the turning point in the Pacific because it crippled the Japanese navy in June of 1942.

Alright, so it took us a minute after Pearl Harbor, but once we got rolling, the American war machine proved far more formidable than the Japanese has reckoned.


Much like the attack on Pearl Harbor, the idea was for the Japanese to seize Midway in order to curb our Pacific activity, reduce our potential threat to their imperial plans and, of course, secure the safety of the home islands.  At Midway, they hoped to draw out our remaining fleet and destroy it (1). There was a hurry to neutralize us as quickly as possible  – following Pearl their navy was numerically superior, but they knew that once America got their economy in gear, simple logistics would shift events in US favor.  They needed to knock the US out before that became an issue. They hoped that after eliminating our navy they could push for peace.  With no Pacific fleet, America would have no choice but to accept and then they could go about their business, safe from any potential Western threat to their imperial plans (2).

Midway was planned as a two-part attack, with a feint in Alaska and the Aleutians designed to draw our attention from the main thrust at Midway. In Alaska, they were (technically) successful, if by successful one means that they managed to capture two utterly unimportant and uninhabited islands that carried little strategic value at all.

The feint didn’t work anyway, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

Following Pearl, the Japanese possessed six carriers to a measly American two, giving them great advantage.  However, numerous mistakes stripped them of their advantages and put the adversaries on an even footing at Midway.  The screw-ups began at Pearl Harbor, when the Japanese failed to hunt down and destroy the missing American carriers.  A similar mistake occurred at Midway, when they made the erroneous assumption that the American fleet was in the Solomons(3).  It was not.

The mistakes continued.  The previous month, the Battle of Coral Sea had dealt damage to the Japanese carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku, leaving them unable to participate at Midway and depriving them of a number of aircraft and trained pilots.  The prudent thing to do would have been to postpone the attack. However they pushed on, sending us carriers that were not fully armed with planes and pilots that were not fully trained (4).

The feint in the Aleutians also drew off a substantial portion of their navy.  Just as shoddy intelligence work had left them to assume the US was in the Solomons, it also left them ignorant to the fact that the Yorktown, mauled and believed sunk at Coral Sea, had actually been patched up in what must be the quickest repair job ever.  The Yorktown was to join the carriers Enterprise and Hornet, along with sundry other ships and destroyers, for the defense of the island. Combined with the airstrip at Midway, the US now faced the Japanese on nearly even terms.

A massive mistake was made in broadcasting Japanese battle plans via radio (5). Our cryptographers decoded almost the entire thing and we knew just what they were up to, leaving us to dismiss the feint in the Aleutians and prepare ourselves to ambush them at Midway, turning the hunter into the game.

Admiral Yamomoto further compounded these mistakes with others, such as his failure to create a contingency plan in case surprise was not achieved, his failure to alter plans in the face of discovery, or his insistence on radio silence which hampered communications and therefore intel.

In essence, the Battle of Midway practically handed us the Japanese navy with gift wrap and a bow.

The first wave of attack found old, out dated planes defending the base while the bombers, alerted by radar, had already been scrambled and were heading towards the Japanese fleet.  This initial attack was not very successful for Americans – the bombers were un-escorted and suffered heavy losses at the hands of the Japanese fighter planes.  The base at Midway took heavy damage but remained useful while the Japanese attack force suffered losses of 60% (6). Bombs spent and low on fuel, they returned to their carriers to prepare for a second wave in order to fully neutralize the base.  Yet Admiral Nagumo had found himself in a quandary.  Choosing at first to arm his fighters with bombs to finish off the base, a sighting of the American navy caused him to order the planes stripped and rearmed with torpedoes.  Furthermore, Japanese doctrine discouraged piece-meal attacks, so he chose to hold his planes until the Midway strike force returned and all planes could be launched at once.  This call cost him precious moments while American planes, launched from the three carriers which the Japanese had not expected, approached the Japanese fleet.

What our pilots saw when they arrived must have looked like a pyromaniac’s Christmas wish, the Japanese planes all lined up like highly-explosive presents just waiting to be ignited. In those conditions it was quick work indeed to break the back of the Japanese – in just five minutes three out of four carriers were mortally wounded. The fourth was later sunk by another air attack.

The costs of Midway were high indeed for the Japanese. In one fell swoop they lost a substantial portion of their navy, three hundred planes, and five thousand sailors and pilots, effectively crippling their navy and making it possible for us to pursue our “Germany First” strategy (7). The loss at Midway also prevented them from mounting a new major offensive while allowing us to go after the Solomons, and rendered them unable to lend Germany, sans a proper navy themselves, previously promised aid.


—E. L. Akin

  1. Mitsuo Fuchida and Masatake Okumiya, Midway: The Battle that Doomed Japan, the Japanese Navy’s Story (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2001), 104.
  2. Ibid., 127.
  3. Ibid., 158.
  4. Gerhard L. Weinberg, A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 335.
  5. Ronald Spector, Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan (New York: Vintage Books, 1985), 167.
  6. Ibid.,171.
  7. Weinberg, 339.

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