In retrospect — or from the perspective of the government — the price of victory in the Battle of Britain was clearly affordable. During the Battle of Britain, the RAF lost 1,023 aircraft compared to the Luftwaffe’s loss of 1,887 aircraft. In fact, due to the dramatic increases in aircraft production introduced by Lord Beaverbrook, the RAF ended the Battle with more front-line fighter aircraft than it had at the start of the Battle. In contrast, the Luftwaffe’s fighter strength declined by 30%. The imbalance in personnel losses was even greater: while the Luftwaffe lost 2,698 airmen during the battle (killed, wounded and captured), the RAF lost 544 pilots killed. (The number of RAF pilots taken prisoner during the Battle, which largely took place over English soil, was negligible, while the majority of wounded RAF pilots also later returned to active service and, therefore, do not weigh in the balance.)
Yet these statistics are deceptive. It must be remembered that pilots at the time were highly trained specialists who could not be easily or rapidly replaced. While the numbers were small compared to the total population, the pilot losses nevertheless represented roughly 40% of Fighter Command’s strength.
What this meant, is that from the perspective of the participants, chances of survival were barely greater than 50%. The situation was aggravated by the fact that, as a rule, the more experienced pilots had a 5-6 times greater chance of surviving than did the replacement pilots coming into the front line with very little flying and no combat experience. The most critical period for a replacement pilot was his first fortnight in the front-line squadron.
In consequence, there were a significant number of pilots who fought throughout the Battle (four full months) and survived, but many other pilots who did not survive four hours. This meant, in effect, that a smallish core of experienced pilots often watched waves of replacements arriving and then being shot-down in a short space of time. Meanwhile, sheer exhaustion wore down even the experienced pilots and by the end of the Battle it was the Squadron Leaders, Flight Lieutenants and Section Leaders who were falling victim as a result of inattention, and “sloppy flying.”
For an individual squadron engaged in the Battle of Britain the pilots who were seriously injured and hospitalised also had to be replaced, so the effective casualty rate (killed and wounded) at squadron level was closer to 70% than 50%. This situation forced ACM Dowding and AVM Park to pull entire squadrons out of the front line (i.e. 11 Group) and replace them with new squadrons when a certain — albeit very subjective — level of exhaustion and depletion had been reached. Altogether 16 squadrons were withdrawn from 11 Group in the one month between August 8 and September 8, 1940.
The problem with this rotation was that the replacement squadrons — like replacement pilots — were far more likely to suffer casualties and far less likely to destroy enemy aircraft than the tired but experienced squadrons. This was because the replacement squadrons often had no pilots with experience of the combat conditions reigning in Southeast England at the time. Without experienced leaders, these fresh squadrons were often mauled badly during their first encounters with the Luftwaffe. It was not uncommon for these squadrons to lose 5 – 6 aircraft and 3 – 4 pilots in a single engagement.
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