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Behind the Battle of Britain

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The world as a dart board with bombs for darts.

The Battle of Britain was a battle that, over time, has generated a romantic image typified by the speech 'Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few...' But this view does not quite reflect the actuality of the battle, the differences in the German and British approaches to the battle; a battle for which Britain was undoubtedly the best prepared.

Britain's Defences

Though the Battle of Britain did not occur until the summer of 1940, in many ways Britain's preparation for the battle began in the early 1920s when the threat of invasion first raised its head - not from Germany, but from Britain's traditional enemy, France. In 1922, the French Armée de l'Air had a striking force of 300 bombers and 300 fighters poised across the Channel.

A committee created by Air Commodore Steel and Colonel Bartholomew in 1923 produced a plan of defence based on the assumption that any attack on Britain would come from France and concentrate on the South coast. The plan consisted of a defensive belt 15 miles thick between Duxford and Devizes, called the Air Fighting Zone, with anti-aircraft artillery and searchlights arranged along the belt. Sound Locators and Observer Posts were constructed on the fringes of the belt, allowing the RAF Advanced warning of an attack. Although by 1940 the increased speed of fighter aircraft meant that the Sound Detectors would only give a minute's warning before an attack, it paved the way for a more effective early warning system: radar. The plan also correctly predicted where the enemy attack would come from, and what its main targets would be; the only difference was that the airmen in the aircraft coming from France were German, not French.

In 1929, the Observer Corps1 was founded. It was staffed by volunteers trained in the observation and identification of aircraft. By the outbreak of the war there were 30,000 observers and 1000 observation posts throughout the country.

British Strategy and Preparation

British strategy in the 1930s was insular. Britain did not become allied with France until February 1938, and so had concentrated on defence. When Britain armed itself in the 1930s, its priorities were the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy; the army being of little importance except to prevent an invasion - which would mainly be countered using bombers to drop bombs and gas on the invading army on its landing beaches, that is, if the landing craft had survived crossing the channel without being destroyed by the Royal Navy.

As a result of which, the Royal Navy, the largest in the world, vastly outnumbered the German Navy (at the outbreak of war, the Royal Navy consisted of seven Aircraft Carriers, 12 battleships, three battle cruisers, 15 heavy cruisers, 45 light cruisers, 184 destroyers, 58 submarines and 27 Torpedo boats. The German Navy consisted of no aircraft carriers, although one, the Graf Zeppelin, was under construction but never completed, two battleships, three pocket battleships, seven cruisers, 21 destroyers, 12 torpedo boats and 159 U-boats). This was even more apparent after the Battle of Norway, in which Germany lost three cruisers and ten destroyers, with its two battleships and three other cruisers forced to remain in dockyards while being repaired for several months to come.


Radiolocation2 was an invention of vital importance to the defence of Britain. As early as September 1935, the RAF planned to build a chain of 20 radar stations covering the area from the Tyne to the Isle of Wight. By June 1937, despite the inevitable teething problems, radiolocation was ready for use as a relied upon weapon of war. After the opening of the Dover Chain Home station in July 1937, it was estimated that a 20-station chain would take two years to erect, but with improvements to equipment, the job could be done with 15 stations.

There was, however, a major drawback with the Chain Home system - it was incapable of detecting low-flying aircraft. CS Wright, Director of Scientific Research at the Admiralty, had developed Coastal Defence Radar, known as CD. This was able to detect enemy ships' positions in order to assist coastal batteries in pinpointing their locations, thus ensuring their destruction. The Air Ministry saw in this a solution to the problem of detecting low-flying aircraft. A second network of radar stations, known as Chain Home Low, or CHL, was constructed across the country, the first opening on 1 November, 1939. By the time the Battle of Britain began there were 21 operational Chain Home stations capable of detecting aircraft up to 200 miles away, and 30 Chain Home Low stations with a range of 30 miles covering Britain's threatened areas.

Organising Britain's Defence

RAF's Fighter Command had a far superior command and control headquarters than the Luftwaffe. At the Filter Room in Fighter Command's headquarters at Bentley Priory, Stanmore, information from all radar stations, the Wireless Interception Station at Cheadle (which monitored German Aircrew's radio transmissions, and was able to produce accurate reports on range, destination and origin of aircraft) and the Observer Corps was relayed, with plots laid out on the large map table. Intelligence was also supplied from decryptions of the Luftwaffe's 'Enigma' transmissions, although this was less useful in giving information quickly on the scale and destination of the daily bombing raids.

The combined information was then relayed to Group Headquarters and the individual Sector Stations airfields, where the Sector Station commanders would decide which squadrons to fly on each operation. Once airborne, aircraft were controlled and directed by Radio-Telephony Direction-Finding, (R/T-D/F), with the whole process taking mere minutes.

The Battle of France

The first battle that the RAF was asked to fight was one for which it had not been prepared; the Battle of France. As Britain's strategy and planning had been based on the assumption that any battle in which it was involved would be launched at Britain from overseas, it had not considered the possibility of fighting on the continent, nor had Britain prepared for an offensive battle. In short, Germany won the Battle of France because it was the best prepared.

Britain was unwilling to commit to a major land campaign in France, preferring to leave the defence of France in French hands. Britain did send the British Advanced Air Striking Force to France, which consisted of 25 squadrons and was only slightly larger than the Polish Air Force (the British Expeditionary Force, the Army sent from Britain, was similarly small and poorly equipped). It was mainly equipped with the RAFs most outdated aircraft; only six were equipped with Hurricanes. The rest consisted of squadrons of Battle light bombers, Blenheim bombers and Lysander army co-operation aircraft. No Spitfires flew in the battle of France, except during Dunkirk from bases in England.

When the attack on France came in May 1940, the resistance in France collapsed. France insisted that the RAF do no more than play a short-range, army co-operation role, a role which the RAF had not considered and was a dramatic waste of their aircrafts' potential. France, which had been believed to have one of the world's most advanced air force, was divided into three sections.

The Northern Air War Zone contained 450 aircraft; 275 out-dated fighters, 25 night fighters, 80 reconnaissance aircraft, 15 bombers and 55 night bombers. France did have the potential to have a strong air force, yet only 35 modern LEO 45 bombers were built. They also had a modern fighter, the Dewoitine 520, which had a speed greater than that of Britain's Hurricane3. However, none of the Dewoitine 520s were at front-line airfields at the time of the battle.

The French General Staff did not give the RAF permission to attack the advancing German army, and allowed most of their aircraft to be destroyed on the ground in bombing raids. On 14 May, the French Prime Minister Reynaud requested that Britain send ten more Hurricane squadrons to France as France's Armée de l'Air had been all but wiped out. Air Chief Marshall Dowding strongly objected, preventing further aircraft from being sent from Britain and weakening Britain's defensive position, although aircraft from bases in Southern England were sent to patrol Northern France while withdrawing its troops from battle.

After the battle, the German chain of command grew over-confident, while British leaders felt able to relax; the war which they had prepared for had finally arrived. King George VI commented: 'Personally I feel happier now we have no Allies to be polite to and pamper.' Commander-In-Chief Dowding's response was even greater: 'I went down on my knees and thanked God.'

The Advantage of Defence

Britain, being the defender during the Battle of Britain, had many advantages over Germany. The first, and perhaps the most important, was the range of the Messerschmitt 109 fighter. Even when flying from airfields in Northern France, the ME 109 was only able to fly as north as London before having to return to base to re-fuel, and when engaged in heavy combat, and fuel was being used up faster, London was impossible to reach. Although attempts were made to extend fighter range, including the use of disposable drop fuel tanks and even towing fighter aircraft across the channel, none succeeded, and the Luftwaffe was only able to contest air superiority across an arc covering Kent, Sussex and Surrey.

The British fighters, on the other hand, were able to stay in combat longer as their bases were nearer, and were able to land, refuel, and return to the combat arena far faster.

Germany had also been forced to quickly establish a new network of air bases across northern France. Some French airfields were used, but they needed new supplies of food, oil and spare parts to be able to function effectively. The repair organisation, vital for maintaining a large air fleet capable of launching attacks on Britain, was almost impossible to organise locally; many damaged aircraft were transported by road back to Germany in order to be repaired. The Luftwaffe, which started the Battle of Britain with 1011 fighters in August 1940, compared with Britain's 1032, had, by September, only 533 serviceable single-engine fighters, and by 1 October, only 275. Britain, on the other hand, had established airfields prepared for the conflict, and Fighter Command was able to maintain its strength at around 700 aircraft.

Another advantage was what happened to shot-down pilots during combat. As the Battle of Britain was fought over Britain, if an aircraft was shot down, and the pilot escaped unhurt, he parachuted onto British soil. If the pilot was British, he would either immediately or perhaps after a short stay in hospital, return to his airfield and the war, and be able to fly again soon afterwards. It was for this reason that German fighters were ordered to machine-gun British pilots as they parachuted out of their aircraft, or landed on the ground. German pilots, on the other hand, were captured, shipped across the Atlantic and sent to POW camps in Canada. For them, the war was over.

The Luftwaffe had three other disadvantages; unlike Britain, they were unable to track where the enemy was. And, unlike Britain, they also had no way of controlling the fighter force once it was airborne, as the ME 109s were not equipped with radio. German aircraft were also vulnerable to the network of anti-aircraft guns and barrage balloons under Anti-Aircraft Command.

Germany's Approach to the Battle of Britain

The German ideology of war at the time was centred upon the tank. It was the British tank that had caused Germany to lose the Great War, and so Germany concentrated on creating the world's most effective tanks with which to win the Second World War. The role of aircraft outlined in The Conduct of Air Warfare published in 1936 was comparable to an advanced, refined form of long-range artillery, sub-ordinated to the land armies. Aircraft would take out any threats to the tanks, especially from other aircraft, and clear a path for the fast-moving tanks advancing in an armoured spearhead. This strategy worked all across Europe, yet could not work in the Battle of Britain; the English Channel meant that the Battle of Britain would be fought without Germany's superior tanks.

The Luftwaffe's role was changed almost overnight from being subordinate to the tanks to fighting a major offensive on their own. This was also at a time when Germany had not yet recovered from its losses in Poland and France. Those losses included 30% of Germany's fighters and 40% of its Stukas.

German Bombers

The main failing of the German Luftwaffe was their failure to use heavy four-engined bombers, comparable to the British Lancaster and the American Flying Fortress. In the mid 1930s, two four-engined long-range bombers had been developed; the Dornier 19 and the Junkers 89. Both were capable of carrying a bomb-load over 900 miles. These planes had been developed by First Chief of Staff Major-General Wever. After Wever’s death in a flying accident on 3 June, 1936, Goering cancelled production, saying 'The Führer will not ask how big the bombers are, but how many there are4.'

Production therefore went ahead on smaller, twin-engined bombers such as the Heinkel 111 and Dornier 17. These were both slow and poorly armed, and carried a bomb load maximum of around 2000lbs. The only four-engined bombers used in the Battle of Britain were seven Focke-Wulfe 200s, converted from the Condor civil transport. These could carry a bombload of 2750lbs at a speed of 250mph. In comparison, Germany's best bomber, the twin-engined Junkers 88 could carry 4000lbs and travel at a speed of 286mph. Britain's Avro Lancaster, which first flew in January 1941 was able to carry 20,000lbs5.

Germany's other main bomber, the Junkers 87 Stuka dive-bomber, was able to carry 2205lbs. However, despite its success in Europe, its poor performance, vulnerability and heavy casualties in the Battle of Britain caused it to be withdrawn by 18 August, 1940.

German Fighters

The Luftwaffe employed two fighters during the Battle of Britain; the Messerschmitt 109 and the Messerschmitt 110.

Messerschmitt 110

The Messerschmitt 110 Zerstorer 'Destroyer' was designed as a twin-engined heavy long-range fighter, and during the war in Poland, Belgium, Holland and France had gained a reputation as an almost invincible aircraft. During the Battle of Britain, however, it was found to be as vulnerable as the German bombers. Although it was fast, with a maximum speed of 340mph, it was unmanoeuvrable, had a weak tail, and was an easy target for both the Spitfire and Hurricane. It was only a shortage of ME 109 fighters and the exaggerated success rate claimed by the Zerstorergruppen that prevented it from being withdrawn from the battle in August. By October it had been demoted to a fighter-bomber role.

Messerschmitt 109

The Messerschmitt 109, on the other hand, was without doubt a superb machine, one of the best aircraft in the world. It had a top-speed of 350mph, and a ceiling of 34,000 feet. It was armed with two 20mm cannon and two 7.9mm machine-guns. It had a greater rate of climb and was able to dive more effectively than the Spitfire or Hurricane, due to its fuel injection system. The early Spitfires and Hurricanes used normal carburetors, meaning that every time they dove, the engine would temporarily cut out. Yet both the Spitfire and Hurricane were more maneuverable. The ME 109's petrol tank was also positioned behind the pilot, and it was extremely vulnerable.

The main drawback of the ME 109 was its short range. Its performance was also constricted by its role of protecting the German bombers and ME 110s from attack. It was compelled to fly in front of and on the flanks of the bomber formations in order to protect them effectively. This reduced the flexibility of the aircraft, limited its radius of action and maneuverability, and prevented them from facing Fighter Command on equal terms.

The British Fighters

Supermarine Spitfire

There is no denying that the Supermarine Spitfire, the most famous plane in the world, was a superb aircraft, and one that has rightfully earned the title of the plane that won the Battle of Britain. Although there were far fewer Spitfires than Hurricanes, the 18 Spitfire squadrons accounted for almost as many kills despite having half as many aircraft.

The Spitfire was designed by RJ Mitchell, and was faster at 370mph and more maneuverable than the Hurricane, though equipped with the same Merlin engine. On 1 September when Reichsmarschall Goering asked Ace Adolf Galland if there was anything he needed in the battle of Britain, he famously replied 'A squadron of Spitfires!'.

Hawker Hurricane

Though not as advanced as the Spitfire, the Hurricane was also an advanced fighter, and was easier, quicker and cheaper to build and repair than the Spitfire. It was also more heavily armed, with 8 and 12 machine-gun versions, and the Mk II with four 20mm cannon.

The Hurricane outnumbered the Spitfire in the Battle of Britain, yet was not as advanced an aircraft; both the ME 109 and Spitfire were faster than the Hurricane, whose top speed was 330mph. The Hurricane, though not as maneuverable as the Spitfire, could still out-turn a ME 109. During the battle, Spitfires would often engage the ME 109, with the Hurricane occupying an anti-bomber role.

Boulton-Paul Defiant

The Defiant was a unique two-man fighter, having no forward facing weapons, but instead a power operated turret containing four .303 browning machine guns behind the pilot. It was designed as a bomber-destroyer, as at the time it was designed it was considered unlikely to meet German fighters; no German fighters would have the range to fly from Germany, only German bombers, although that changed when Germany conquered France.

Although conventional fighters such as the Hurricane and Spitfire had forward facing guns, it had been estimated that an enemy aircraft would only stay in range of those guns for approximately two seconds. A turreted aircraft would have a far wider range of fire and be able to concentrate fire on a target for a longer period of time; having an air-gunner who did not have to concentrate on flying the plane as well as firing greatly increased accuracy. In the early stages of the Battle, the Defiant enjoyed tremendous success, especially when attacked from behind.

The Defiant was cheap, quick and easy to build. However, the turret also had a drawback; it not only slowed the plane down, its top speed only 320mph, but its weight also meant that it was unable to mount forward facing guns. It was vulnerable to attack from below and head-on by the ME 109, and in August was converted to use as a night-fighter, mounting Aircraft Interception Radar. As a night fighter it showed its full potential, shooting down more enemy raiders per interception than any other fighter.

Could Germany Have Invaded?

German motives have been questioned since the end of the war, with the belief that German's plans to invade were no more than a bluff. Yet despite this, could Germany have successfully invaded Southern England? In 1938, General Felmy pointed out that the Luftwaffe would need at least 52 bomber wings and 13 anti-ship Geschwaderen. He concluded that Germany could achieve no more than disrupt British industry. In 1939, General Geiseler confirmed that the Luftwaffe was inadequate to successfully attack. An invasion plan, Study Red, was drawn up in 1939 by Admiral Raeder, which essentially listed all the reasons why invasion was impossible. It was this plan that 'Operation Sealion' was based on in July 1940.

On 2 July, 1940, Hitler ordered the creation of an update of invasion plans, which were completed by General Hadler on 13 July. The plan was widely regarded as impractical, especially considering the invasion was to be prepared in two weeks. The Allied D-Day landings took two years to prepare, with a vast British, American and Canadian fleet. The German Navy was still suffering from its losses in Norway, and would have been unable to transport 260,000 men anywhere, let alone across the channel. The tanks and other equipment needed would be impossible to transport, and even if so much was able to be transported by sea, it would be unlikely that they would survive the attacks by the Royal Navy and RAF bombers that would plague any cross-channel attempt.

If the invasion itself managed to land on British soil, it would still be under attack from bombers, other aircraft armed with mustard gas, beaches defended by barbed wire, mine fields, anti-tank obstacles and pillboxes, nearly 25,000 of which are believed to have been built.

Aircraft Production

One of the main advantages Britain had was that of aircraft production. Britain was able, throughout the summer of 1940, to keep fighter production above that in Germany, despite the attacks of German bombers.

In 1940, only 1870 German single-engine fighters were produced against a planned output of 2412. The numbers of ME 109 built were, in June 164, July 220, August 173, September 218; a total of 775 single-engine fighters, against Britain's 1900.

This was due in part to the lack of an organised structure directing fighter development. After the battle of France, many German aircraft manufacturers stopped manufacturing aircraft, instead concentrating on aluminum huts and folding ladders. Britain, however, had successfully organised every industry to contribute to the war effort; furniture factories, for example, were able to construct the all-wooden Mosquito. This was also due to the 'Shadow Factory' scheme, set up in March, 1936, where state-owned plants were equipped and managed by experienced industries, such as car manufacturers.

In January, 1940, the Harrogate Programme hoped to produce 3602 fighters during 1940 - actual production was 4283, although not all aircraft were used in the Battle of Britain. 161 fighters, including 72 Hurricanes, were sent to the middle-east for the war against Italy.

Another advantage the British enjoyed was the Civilian Repair Organisation, which managed to repair 4196 aircraft between July and December. 60% of aircraft believed to be unrepairable at the aircraft stations were rebuilt, with the contributions of organisations such as British Railways and London Transport.

Even had German Bombers put out of operation the factories that were building Spitfires and Hurricanes, Fighter Command had back up plans. These included not only equipping all other aircraft with machine guns, but the Miles M.20. This aircraft was designed as a simplified fighter, without hydraulics, but equipped with 12 .303 machine guns, double the range and ammunition of the Spitfire and Hurricane, and a speed of 350mph, faster than the Hurricane. Its simple design was one that could be manufactured at high speed, yet the RAF had no shortage of Hurricanes and Spitfires, and so none except the prototypes for the RAF and Royal Navy were built.

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1Known from April 1941 as the Royal Observer Corps.2Also known as Radio Direction Finding (RDF), now known as radar.3342mph compared to the Hurricane mk 1's 330mph. The Spitfire had a maximum speed of 370mph, the ME 109 350mph.4Germany later tried to build a good heavy bomber. The result, the two-engined Heinkel 177, killed most of its crew in accidents and was never successful.5The RAF already had two four-engined bombers during the Battle of Britain; the Handley Page Halifax, which first flew on 25 October, 1939, and had a bomb load of 13,000lb, and the Short Stirling which first flew on 19 September, 1938, and could carry just under 15,000lbs, both of which had flown before the Battle of Britain, and were superior to the Heinkel 111 and Junkers 88.

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