Friday 16 September 2022

September 15 'Battle of Britain' day - the German fighter pilots and the 'myth'


Living in the shadow of the 'Battle of Britain' memorial to the 'Few' at Capel-le-Ferne on the white cliffs between Folkestone and Dover with the sound of Merlin engines almost constantly overhead at certain times of the year, I am reminded that 'Battle of Britain Day' (as September 15 is known in the UK)  has come and gone once again. 

According to some, the Luftwaffe was 'ill-prepared' for the fight over England. One fact not often acknowledged here, is the 'mauling' and subsequent losses that the Luftwaffe had sustained over France, so that the Luftwaffe's early forays over England in late July 1940 amounted to 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's losses over France amounted 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 or '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).

By mid-September the Luftwaffe could in theory claimed to have won the Battle - at least 'statistically’. However, men and machines were being worn down relentlessly, while the numbers of carefully husbanded RAF fighters were increasing. Losses on the scale being sustained by the Luftwaffe risked jeopardizing the planned assault on the Soviet Union. Hitler was probably already looking to 'shut-down' operations over the UK. But until the British government surrendered – an unlikely scenario- the Luftwaffe continued to lose men and machines to little purpose. 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. As Ulrich Steinhilper noted;

“Although most of us were still not outwardly showing major signs of nerves, by late August arguments were becoming more frequent, tempers frayed quicker…The strain of unrelenting front-line flying was beginning to show.”

And it was during September that the Luftwaffe turned its attentions towards London. This change of tactic played into the hands of the defenders - the RAF was able to concentrate its defensive force around the capital while the Bf 109s' limited endurance was again a factor. On September 7, the first day of raids on London, the Germans overwhelmed the defences. Fighter Command lost 33 aircraft. On the German side, a dozen bombers were lost as well as 15 Bf 109s and 10 Bf 110s. On the 8th, the Luftwaffe could not repeat its previous day's effort and the RAF had a breathing space. On the 9th, orders were given to bomb the capital by day and by night. Two major raids took place in the afternoon, but here the Luftwaffe could no longer saturate the defence - the '1000' bombers of the official history were never more than 400 and on only two dates could the Luftwaffe put more than 300 in the air. On September 9, some 23 RAF fighters were downed by Bf 109s. The Staffelkapitän 4./JG 53 Oblt.Günther Schulze-Blanck who had led the Staffel during August was killed in a dogfight over Hastings. He had returned six victories. His body washed up on a French beach some two weeks later.

There was by now perhaps, a growing realization that the fighter pilots had been assigned an impossible task. Equipping one third of the fighter force with bombs served little purpose. Lt. Jules Meimberg of 4./JG 2;

“..It was not until today that I grasped just how big a city London is. Brussels, Paris, even Berlin are tiny in comparison. What sort of effect could we hope to achieve with a few hundred bombs on a metropolis like this, aside from inflicting a few scratches..?”
On September 11, the fighting was particularly costly with the Luftwaffe claiming 67 fighters, while RAF Fighter Command claimed 89 German aircraft. Actual losses however amounted to 30 RAF fighters and 27 Luftwaffe machines - 11 bombers, 8 Bf 110s and about 8 Bf 109s including the machine flown by a certain Fhr. Hans-Joachim Marseille (1./LG 2) who managed to return to Wissant to crash-land his machine, 75% destroyed.

On September 15, the weather cleared and the Luftwaffe prepared for their “Final Blow” against England. This was to be the test of strength for Göring’s Luftwaffe and Dowding’s refreshed and reinforced Fighter Command. During the day’s prolonged and bitter fighting the Luftwaffe would lose 6% of their committed forces - 57 aircraft - their highest percentage loss rate during the entire Battle. Fighter Command’s losses were half of those on the German side, i.e. the rates of the Adlertag of 13 August. For the OKW, it now appeared that in major offensives, the RAF was always able to pull out the stops. Many more weeks would be required to destroy the RAF, a realisation that led to another review of tactics - attacks on airfields and factories with bomb-carrying Me 109 Jabos became more frequent. This 'Jabo' offensive - while far from decisive - was a much more effective use of the Luftwaffe fighters than the hated bomber escort duties. On October 5, for example, waves of Messerschmitt 109s (possibly as many as one hundred fighters), of which around thirty were toting ordnance, headed for Southampton and London. Fighter Command was no longer to be directed exclusively against German bombers - the Spitfires and Hurricanes were free to engage the Messerschmitts. But for the RAF, it did not necessarily have to 'win' the battle - simply not 'lose' it.. Ulrich Steinhilper, on the other hand, shot down over England at the end of October, was mentally and physically at the end of his tether.

“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.”.

And on the basis that you don't always know that something is there unless you are reminded of it occasionally here is a piece on this blog published by the UK's 'Guardian' newspaper back in the year 2000 which discusses the German view of the 'Battle of Britain'..