Over the years much has been made of the “exaggerated” claims made by the RAF during the Battle of Britain — far too much.
It is the nature of all aerial dog-fighting that it is very fast, brief and confused. Pilots were flying at the extreme limits of their physical capabilities and the limits of their machines (instances of aircraft breaking up and pilots being killed by the force of gravity alone are documented). Under the circumstances it was difficult to get in more than a quick “squirt” of fire. Usually one or both aircraft took violent evasive action after an exchange of fire.
If seconds later the fighter pilot saw an enemy aircraft crashing, then it was an easy mistake to think it was the one he had just shot at. The larger the number of aircraft involved, the more likely it was that several pilots fired at the same target. The result was multiple claims made for the same downed aircraft. Thus, on September 15, when the Big Wings of 12 Group were engaged over London, the RAF claimed 185 enemy aircraft shot down when, in fact, Luftwaffe lost only 56 air. In fact, it was on this day that no less than 9 pilots put in claims for the same Dornier.
The key problem at the time was that claims were made to squadron intelligence officers by excited young men (the pilots were generally between 18 and 22 years old) immediately after combat. The squadron intelligence officers usually weeded out the duplications and contradictions and implausible claims put in by their own pilots, but squadron intelligence officers did not compare notes between squadrons. Instead, squadron claims were simply added up, and so the above kind of multiple claims for the same aircraft crept into the official figures.
At the time, however, British morale benefited from these exaggerated claims, and no one had any particular interest in double checking much less correcting the filed claims. The bottom line is that the British shooting down more German aircraft than they were losing — even if by a far lower margin than claimed. Ultimately, that was all that mattered because it was enough. The RAF entered the Battle of Britain as the under-dog, and it won the Battle of Britain against all the odds.
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