The Battle of Britain: How it was won

*Originally published in Hubpages June 23, 2014* Note: It’s a long one. ūüėČ

The average age of an RAF pilot in 1940 was 20. The strain they were under is clear¬†on the face of Squadron Leader B J E ‘Sandy’ Lane (center), pictured in 1940 at¬†age 23.

The Few

Without question the most important factor in winning the Battle of Britain, was the pilots of RAF Fighter Command. These men endured long periods of little sleep, hurried meals, and multiple, increasingly intense aerial dogfights each day; at a time when battle stress, fatigue and PTSD were notions lumped into the category of ‘cowardice’.

In addition to losing comrades in battle, some RAF pilots endured the personal loss of their own and family members, killed by the German bombers these pilots were trying to protect them against.

Fighter Command was outnumbered from the outset of the battle. Yet, these men continued to fight harder, and better as their numbers whittled away. Together with foreign pilots who escaped from conquered lands in Europe, volunteers from across the British Empire, and a handful of Americans known as the Eagle Squadron, these men halted Hitler’s westward advance. Of that there can never be any doubt.

When Winston Churchill spoke of ‘so many, owing so much, to so few‘, the ‘few‘ is obviously the pilots of RAF Fighter Command. What’s not so obvious today is that the ‘many‘ were not just the people of the British Isles, but those beyond it in the Americas.

Had ‘the few‘ not succeeded, D-Day would very likely have occurred in North America rather than Europe; and it would have been an Axis invasion of conquest, rather than Allied invasion of liberation.

All but forgotten today, are events between the world wars which laid the foundation upon which Fighter Command was able to stand and hold the line.

The Fairey Hendon heavy bomber. The first all-metal low-wing monoplane of the RAF.

New ideas, old thinking

As World War I drew to a close, pilots of the opposing air forces were just beginning to pioneer air combat techniques. The war began four years before with observation balloons and unarmed two-seater observer planes to spy enemy troop movements. As it drew to a close, squadrons of fighter planes battled one another in the skies, observer aircraft expanded into ground attack roles, the concept of long-range aerial bombing of enemy homelands became reality, and navies began experimenting with launching aircraft from ships to conduct bombing and reconnaissance missions.

However with the end of the war, aerial warfare was initially dismissed as a one-off for future historians to ponder. The French planned to fight the next war, precisely the same as the last; constructing the Maginot Line and a system of alliances to encircle Germany.

Britain planned to avoid being drawn into the next land war in Europe, and forged a series of international naval treaties limiting future German naval development; in particular, aircraft carrying warships.

However, the real canary in the coal mine was the Treaty of Versailles itself, which forbade Germany from possessing military aircraft of any kind or even having a military air service.

Allied army and navy chiefs had seen the battlefield potential of air power, and second to their fear of facing an enemy equipped with an air force, was that their own budgets might be cut to fund one.

In their view, with Germany handcuffed by Versailles and the naval treaties, and no other major power on the horizon in the 1920’s having yet demonstrated military air capabilities, there was no argument to be made for funding air forces. However, warfare analysis and experimentation with aircraft continued after 1918, among all the major powers of the world.

2,000lb aerial bomb exploding abeam of the former German battleship SMS Ostfriesland, Chesapeake Bay, VA July 1921

Skywriting on the wall

The wake up call for America’s military chiefs came with the 1921 sinking of the (war prize) German battleship Ostfriesland in Chesapeake Bay, in a bombing demonstration led by General Billy Mitchell of the U.S. Army Air Corps. Though Mitchell’s career was subsequently ruined by vengeful service chiefs who had declared that sinking a capital warship with aircraft was impossible, his point was made and well taken.

Britain had less controversial epiphanies about the value of military air power as British airmen studied the use of aircraft in localized European conflicts, the Russian Civil War, and the development of naval strike forces built around two or more large aircraft carriers by the US and Imperial Japanese navies.

Though Britain’s military suffered after 1918 from political budget wrangling, they achieved the first and most important factor to winning the Battle of Britain by creating the Royal Air Force (RAF) as a separate military service in April 1918. Being its own military service meant that the RAF was able to define its purposes, wartime missions, and steer its own funding, rather than having both dictated to them by the army and navy. Britain was the first nation to create an independent air force.

Growing pains

Even as an independent service however, the RAF was required to field the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm and was often ordered on ‘policing’ missions around the ramparts of the British Empire. Despite all, the RAF managed to focus funding on developing better warplanes when other nations with military aircraft lagged far behind in developing high performance aircraft.

Britain’s efforts had produced by the eve of World War II, the two fighter planes that would achieve victory over Hitler’s Luftwaffe; the Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire; the only aircraft in Europe¬†comparable to Germany’s Messerschmitt Me-109 and twin-engine Me-110.

Another concept the RAF developed before the Luftwaffe, was that of fighter squadrons attacking in formation, massing their firepower, rather than each pilot going after individual targets.

Radio Direction Finding (RDF) towers, later known as Radio Detection and Ranging (RADAR) England, 1940.

Unblinded by Science

The most important technical factor however, was an electronic device taken so much for granted today which is also used to warm your soup or frozen entr√©e; RAdio Direction And Ranging ‚Äď RADAR.

By May 1940, the RAF had already fielded a full network of radar stations codename CH (Chain – Home). Here again, Britain was the first nation to do so. German military intelligence was aware of the network and it was attacked infrequently by the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain. However, most Luftwaffe officers did not take radar seriously, or believed it was a communications network. Most laughed it off as an eccentric ‘toy’.

With radar, the RAF was able to detect German aircraft as soon as they crossed the French coast into the English Channel. Not even initial air raids against merchant shipping in the English Channel ever came as a surprise, or ever went unchallenged by RAF fighters.

Temporary Filter Room set up at Fighter Command HQ – Bentley Priory, Stanmore, Middlesex, Feb. 1940; until a purpose-built underground command center was completed in March 1940.

The ‘brain’ using these electronic ‘eyes’ was the equally new British concept of centralized Command & Control infrastructure for air warfare, which ‘scrambled’ fighter squadrons nearest the approaching planes and vectored them to those planes from takeoff to intercept.

Known as Ground Controlled Intercept (GCI), it was concept many years ahead of its time. It formed the basis for naval Air Intercept Control used by the US Navy today, and that of NORAD air defense control procedures for air and cruise missile defense of North America.

Without the ‘eyes‘ of radar and the ‘brain‘ of GCI, the RAF would have been left with World War I methods of detection; ground based observers with oversized binoculars & range finders; and sending up flights of fighters to patrol for the enemy. The sheer amount of British airspace to be covered would have meant wasting enormous amounts of fuel, and flight time in such patrols, with little to no hope of assembling enough fighters to take on massed German air raids.

With the ‘tripwire’ of radar in place, RAF squadrons could remain at their airfields until the enemy was detected, fly straight to the engagement point and go directly into action once sighting¬†the enemy.

Air Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding. The shepherd of Fighter Command before and during the Battle of Britain, and the one man who bucked Churchill. His men nicknamed him ‘Stuffy‘.

Dowding’s Decision

Following the German Panzers lightning dash across northern France to the English Channel and the failure of the French counterattack at Arras, French political leadership quickly descended into collapse. Across the Channel in London, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s government also fell.

Forming a wartime coalition government following Chamberlain’s resignation, Prime Minister Winston Churchill attempted to shore up resolve among his new French counterparts. Churchill pressed Fighter Command to send more fighter squadrons to France. The head of Fighter Command sternly opposed these requests; Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding.

Dowding outlined in detail Churchill couldn’t possibly argue with, how Fighter Command had progressively lost the equivalent of sixteen fighter squadrons in combat over Europe¬†and that sending more planes would achieve nothing, but to seal Britain’s final defeat before the Battle of France was even over.

Dowding coincidentally was also the man who from the day of his appointment to Fighter Command in 1936 pushed the development of the Hurricane and Spitfire, the development of Britain’s radar sites, and the GCI Command & Control system.

Restored German Heinkel He-111 medium bomber. Frederick MD, 2000

German Factors

Factors on the German side during the Battle of Britain affecting the outcome also have to be weighed. Chief among them is the mere fact that the Luftwaffe was designed only as a tactical air force intended to support ground forces, rather than to establish and maintain strategic air superiority.

While they were superb fighter planes, the Me-109 was built as a short-range battlefield attack and interceptor aircraft; not a long-range air superiority fighter. This restricted the Me-109 to a mere ten or fifteen minutes of combat time over southeast England. The twin-engine Me-110 had longer legs, but was woefully less capable, particularly against the Spitfire.

Unlike the United States and Britain, Germany never built strategic bombers. Only a handful of prototypes late in the war. All of Germany’s bombers were twin-engine tactical strike aircraft.

The Luftwaffe also fell victim to their own previous successes in Europe. Failing for example, to anticipate that the Ju-87 Stuka dive bomber would be highly vulnerable. The Stuka was simply not fast enough or equipped to operate in contested airspace. It’s success in Poland, and in the Battle of France, was due to total German air superiority over both battle fronts.

But, probably biggest factor working against the Germans was the mere fact that the fall of France occurred so shockingly fast. Not even Hitler in May 1940 foresaw¬†that his troops would do in six weeks, what the Kaiser’s couldn’t accomplish in four years.

Operation Sea Lion, the German plan to invade England, was never truly more than a conceptual plan. One hurriedly put together in July 1940. Sea Lion doesn’t seem to have ever been taken seriously by the German General Staff, and even less so by Hitler.

It’s probable that Hitler thought a heavy bombing campaign, ‘talk of invasion’ and no allies left, would force Britain to a negotiated peace. Sound thinking given Neville Chamberlain’s actions prior to the war. But, Hitler (nor most members of the British Parliament for that matter) ever anticipated that Winston Churchill would end up Prime Minister.

The Big Wing Controversy

The one big controversy of the Battle of Britain was the employment of the ‘Big Wing‘ tactic. The brainchild of No. 12 Fighter Group Commander, Air Vice-Marshall Trafford Leigh-Mallory,¬†Big Wing was three or more squadrons combined against formations of German bombers. Leigh-Mallory believed¬†Big Wing could annihilate entire German air raids.

Big Wing simply took too long to amass before Luftwaffe bombers hit their targets and headed home. Leigh-Mallory argued that whether the bombers were shot down on the way in, or out was beside the point. Air Vice Marshall Keith Park argued that Big Wing¬†left his airfields defenseless while his own fighters were away. It was the mission of Leigh-Mallory’s No. 12 Fighter Group to protect Park’s airfields, whenever Park’s No. 11 Fighter Group was aloft engaging the enemy elsewhere.

When was the battle won

Debate swirls to this day as to when precisely the RAF won the Battle of Britain. It cannot be set at one particular day or air engagement. What is certain is that Operation Sea Lion was postponed indefinitely in Sept. 1940.

The intensity of The Blitz was maintained until May 1941, at which point the bulk of the Luftwaffe was sent east for the German invasion of the Soviet Union. There was no longer any possibility of an invasion of Britain as long as the Soviets remained in the war.

Historians often cite the events that led to The Blitz itself, as the turning point in the battle. Prior to September 1940, German bombers had been concentrating on RAF airfields and aircraft factories to eliminate Fighter Command. This strategy was sensible and was costing the RAF dearly in fighter pilots and aircraft.

The strategy changed however following a retaliatory British bombing of Germany. The raid seemed to incense Hitler, who then ordered all bombing to be targeted on British cities; taking the heat off Fighter Command. Numbers of British planes and pilots rebounded.

Hitler made his speech announcing what became coined The Blitz on Sept. 4, 1940. The change in bombing strategy officially began on Sept. 7, 1940. Sea Lion was postponed indefinitely ten days later.

It seems in hindsight that the change in strategy was premeditated rather than a rash decision in anger, coming so soon before the decision to cancel Sea Lion. One could conclude that Sea Lion had been doomed to cancellation prior to the launching of The Blitz, or even the retaliatory British air raid which Hitler cited in his September speech.

Adler Tag (Eagle Day), August 10, 1940, was the commencement of German raids on RAF Fighter Command. By the end of August, both Goering and Hitler had become exasperated that there yet seemed any dent made in RAF opposition; and command of the skies was essential for Sea Lion. The closing of the invasion weather window in October was also nearing.

Therefore, whatever unknown date leading up to Sept. 4, 1940 on which Hitler in the privacy of his mind decided to call off Sea Lion, is the point when the battle was won.

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