Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Luftschlacht über England - did the RAF win the Battle of Britain ?

..Having been mauled over France, the Luftwaffe's early forays over England in late July 1940 can be seen as no more than an attempt to exert some 'political' pressure on those who might have been prepared to sue for peace in the UK. Göring hadn't got the potential to do anything else after sustaining losses over France amounting to over 1,000 aircraft and trained crews according to which source you care to read.

The latest 'official' score for 'la chasse' (the French fighter arm) according to the Service Historique de la Défense or SHD is around 650 Luftwaffe aircraft shot down during the Westfeldzug (campaign in the West). Aircrew losses may have been as high as 3,000 men according to some sources. Infrastructure along the Channel coast had largely been wrecked. Hence the two month 'pause' before setting out to subdue England in earnest.

In fact, the Luftwaffe high command went on to delude themselves as to their actual strength for most of the summer. The stunning success of the Blitzkrieg in the West had belied the fact that on the opening day – May 10 – Germany had lost a staggering 352 aircraft, its single worst day by a massive margin all that summer. To put that into some perspective, their costliest day during the Battle of Britain was August 18, when they lost 67 aircraft. On September 15, now known to us as Battle of Britain Day, they lost 61.

They also suffered a large number of losses at the hands of Fighter Command over Dunkirk, where the short-comings of the Stuka – its inability to hit successfully moving targets such as ships and its vulnerability when coming out of a dive – first came to the fore. This was a major problem because dive-bombing had become the focus of all future bomber development, yet in a trice, the inherent weaknesses of the strategy had been made all too clear.

In the immediate aftermath of Dunkirk, Britain was on its knees. At the time German war machine was effectively "unbeatable" and people - on both sides of the Channel - had visions of thousands of German paratroopers landing, being quickly supported by thousands of troops and tanks from an invasion fleet. So yes, depending on whom you talked too and when, invasion had to be a very real option for the Germans. Some pour scorn on the tenor of some of Churchill's speeches, but when he said (in so many words) that Hitler knew that he must defeat Britain or lose the war, he was absolutely right. The US had to enter the war sooner or later and Hitler had to take the British out of the equation. So the British were simply expected to sue for peace at this stage, a process that could no doubt be aided by a 'demonstration de force'; harassing shipping in the Channel, sending a few hundred bombers & fighters over now & again and drawing up loads of barges where they could be photographed.

However looking back from a distance of nearly 70 years, we can see, as Adam Tooze, that Germany was economically weak both in production & resources. The pause of some two months at the conclusion of the French campaign enabled the Luftwaffe to make good material losses. If Hitler was able to over-run militarily weak neighbours, when it came to crossing the Channel , " the basic preconditions for the defeat of Britain were never met ". The task of assembling both the naval & aerial forces necessary to subdue the British were simply beyond Germany's industrial resources. After all look how long it took for the powerful US and her allies to build up sufficient strength to undertake the relatively unopposed landings in Normandy. And Fighter Command finished the battle stronger than it had started it. Follow that logic then the fact that invasion never occurred has nothing to do with the presence of the RN or not as some would like to maintain.

Look a little more closely at what the Jagdwaffe managed during the Battle of Britain ; (this from Prien in his Jagdfliegerverbände volume dealing with the BoB) the average Jagdflieger flew no more than 50 sorties during an 85 day period from 8 August to 31 October, contacting the enemy on only around 20 of these; for around 20 days at the supposed height of the Battle there were no German aircraft at all in the skies of England and when the bombers turned on London in September the 1,000 Luftwaffe aircraft of the British ‘official’ history were never more than 400. On only two occasions (7 & 15 September) could the Luftwaffe put more than 300 bombers in the air and on nearly 20 days of the ‘battle’ the Luftwaffe flew less than 200 sorties. How on earth could they have been hoping to subdue a metropolis the size of London - over 1,000 sq kilometres in area even in 1940. A couple of HE bombs per sq mile is all the Luftwaffe could hope to manage. This is all pretty minor league stuff especially in comparison with the later air battles over the Reich. And it was so unsuccessful that the Germans had to switch from a day assault to night bombing.

Many Luftwaffe fighter pilots believed their tactics were all wrong. All too often they had been expected to escort bomber formations, which meant flying at the speed of the bombers too. This in turn meant forgoing one of the Messerschmitt 109’s major advantages – its speed. The Me 109E was the superior of the Spitfire Mk I and Hurricane in terms of speed of climb and dive, and had vastly superior fire-power. Used correctly, they might have beaten Fighter Command in spite of the Luftwaffe’s many failings, and yet this advantage was uselessly thrown away. The fighter pilots felt this keenly and unsurprisingly morale began to drop dramatically. “By ordering us to fly as close escorts,” noted Günther Rall, “our Gruppe was effectively offered up on a plate to the most efficient and determined aerial opponents the Luftwaffe has yet come against.”

As the summer wore on these factors all contributed to mounting cases of what was becoming termed Kanalkrankheit – Channel Sickness – better known now as combat fatigue. “Although most of us were still not outwardly showing major signs of nerves,” noted Ulrich Steinhilper at the end of August, “arguments were becoming more frequent, tempers frayed quicker…The strain of unrelenting front-line flying was beginning to show.”

As September gave way to October and still there seemed to be as many British fighters in the skies as ever, the Luftwaffe’s troubles grew progressively worse.

There were now more than 700 British single-engine fighters, but the Luftwaffe was down to around 300. Worse, more and more pilots were not returning home. The strain on those still flying was becoming acute.

KG4's Hajo Herrmann had already flown extensively in Spain before the war, then over Poland, Norway and throughout the summer. By October, he had clocked up 90 combat missions, more than most British bomber pilots would be expected to fly during the entire war. In the middle of the month he had just completed four consecutive nights of missions over London and was about to take off on yet another when his airfield was attacked by British bombers. The blast from one explosion caused him to slew his plane and crash. Although he survived, he was in a coma for three days. When he eventually came to he noticed a Knight’s Cross medal on his bedside table, and asked where it had come from.

“Don’t you know?” he was told. “The Reichsmarschall awarded it to you personally three days ago.”

Herrmann could remember nothing. Looking at it, he burst into tears.

On October 16, Siegfried Bethke reflected on the general situation in his diary. He now realised that destroying the RAF in a few days, as Göring was still claiming, was a fool’s dream. “The English seems to be putting up with things quite well,” he jotted then added, “Important things did not happen.”

Bethke was lucky – he would be one of very few pilots to survive the war unscathed. Ulrich Steinhilper, on the other hand, was shot down over England at the end of October, by which time he was mentally and physically completely exhausted.

“There is no doubt in my mind,” he says, “that the RAF broke the back and the spirit of the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain.”

In reality, however, it was not just the RAF, heroically though they undoubtedly fought, but the Luftwaffe itself that had caused the damage.

This in no way diminishes the achievements of the RAF. In Churchill's high flown rhetoric the clash between the Luftwaffe and the RAF took on a decisive turning-point in the war because he realised what lay in store once the US were able to park their bomber & fighter fleets off continental European shores. Therein lies the prime importance of the Battle of Britain and the RAF's 'victory' in the air.

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