The Battle of Britain was a sustained conflict (three months) that hinged on the ability of the defenders (Britain) to stop an assault launched entirely by air. It pitted two air forces against one another without significant contributions from land or sea forces. It proved for the first time that air defenses -- fighter aircraft -- could play a decisive role in modern warfare. In a five part series I plan to look at the iconic fighters deployed in the Battle: the Hurricane, Spitfire, Me109 and Me110
This series is not intended for Battle of Britain enthusiasts and aviation experts. They will find nothing new or original here. However, readers with only a passing or casual knowledge will, hopefully, find this series a useful summary of the key characteristics and features of the various aircraft.
Before the Battle of Britain, it was widely believed that there was no effective defense against air assault, and that "the bomber would always get through." Most air forces in the inter-war years focused their attention and budgets on building large bomber fleets with which to cudgel the enemy. The assumption was that the nation that could deliver the most high-explosive on the homeland of its enemy would win the war by breaking enemy civilian morale. The Luftwaffe, notably, took a somewhat different approach, focusing on medium range bombers designed more to support of ground forces than conduct strategic bombing. In both doctrines, however, fighter aircraft played only a secondary role.
The Luftwaffe's experience in Spain, Poland, Holland and France seemed to validate their strategy. The Luftwaffe had generally overwhelmed enemy air defenses by surprise attacks that eliminated enemy air forces while they were still on the ground. This paved the way for the Luftwaffe bomber force to support ground operations by destroying tactical targets selected by the army such as bridges, marshalling yards, rail-junctions and the like. In addition, the Luftwaffe engaged in widespread attacks on enemy cities -- a strategy that struck terror into the hearts of many.
The Battle of Britain, however, presented the Luftwaffe with a new challenge. The Luftwaffe no longer had the element of surprise on its side. Furthermore, the army would not engage until after the Luftwaffe had successfully cleared the skies of British aircraft. Last but not least, Britain was surrounded by water. Nevertheless, the Luftwaffe opened the Battle of Britain supremely confident of its ability to rapidly subdue the Royal Air Force and establish the air superiority necessary for an invasion. The Nazi leadership furthermore believed that the Luftwaffe's ability to strike at targets in Britain would cause sufficient terror -- or at least consternation -- to bring the British to the negotiating table.
Up to this point, the primary tool in the Luftwaffe's arsenal for destroying enemy air forces had been the Stuka dive bomber. Stukas had wrecked havoc in the campaigns in Spain, Poland and France -- because they had repeatedly caught enemy aircraft while they were still on the ground. However, very early in the Battle of Britain, during the Kanalkampf phase, it became apparent that the Stuka's were themselves extremely vulnerable to RAF fighter attacks unless they were defended by Luftwaffe fighters.
By the second phase of the Battle (Eagle Day and afterwards) it became clear that all the Luftwaffe's bombers were vulnerable without fighter escort. (A lesson the USAAF had to learn all over again in 1942-1943.) By mid-August, the Luftwaffe had also learned that their twin-engined fighter, the Me110, was likewise no match for the RAF's single-seater fighters. German success in the Battle of Britain increasingly depended on the smaller, single-engine Me109.
From the British perspective, the bombers were the primary targets. Only the bombers could deliver the destruction that would 1) destroy their ability to keep fighting, 2) damage the economy, and 3) possibly shatter civilian morale. But the British very rapidly learned that they first had to peel away the fighter escorts before they could do much damage to the bombers.
As a result, the air-to-air combat in the form of fighter dogfights played a vital -- though not the exclusive role sometimes implied in popular imagery -- in the Battle of Britain. Understanding the characteristics of the four main fighters is therefore valuable to an understanding of the Battle. With the exception of the Me110, which was patently inferior to the other three, the fighters were very well-matched. There are countless instances of both British fighters defeating Me109s, but also of Me109s besting both British machines. Equally telling, all three aircraft remained operational through-out the war.
This series will start by looking next week at the Me110. At the opening of the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe had great expectations for this fighter, believing it could prove decisive. It is worthwhile considering its characteristics and weaknesses before looking at the three "stars."
The following week, May 14, I'll look at the Me109. This fighter was produced in larger numbers than any other German fighter. Although the FW190 and, obviously, the later jet fighters such as the Me262 were generally viewed as better, the Me109 remained the work-horse of the Luftwaffe's fighter wing because it was ultimately good-enough -- as the men of Bomber Command and the USAAF can attest.
May 21st, I'll turn to the Spitfire. This iconic aircraft won fame as soon as it appeared, and the Luftwaffe pilots were so awed by it that they often claimed to be fighting Spitfires even when they were facing Hurricanes. The Spitfire became the symbol of Britain's defiance and victory in the Battle of Britain and remained the RAF's most beloved fighter throughout the war. It underwent multiple modifications and at various times was viewed as inferior or superior to the German fighters it faced, but it proved its worth in six long years of war.
The Hurricane, which I'll examine in more depth on May 28, is probably the most maligned (or at least misunderstood) of the Battle of Britain fighters and is frequently dismissed as 'inferior.' This is utterly unjustified by its performance. It brought down more German aircraft in the Battle of Britain than did the Spitfire (though there are various reasons for that), and although withdrawn from service in Great Britain itself, it was successfully deployed to other theaters of war. In the course of the war, it fulfilled a variety of roles, all of which it performed credibly. Indeed, it can be argued that the Hawker Hurricane was one of the most most versatile aircraft of the Second World War.
“Where Eagles Never Flew” shows the Battle of Britain from both sides of the Channel by following the fate of German characters as well as British ones. The British characters are members of the fictional No. 606 (Hurricane) Squadron based at Tangmere. The German characters are the pilots and women auxiliaries of a Me109 Gruppe based in Northern France. Find out more about “Where Eagles Never Flew” at: https://crossseaspress.com/where-eagles-never-flew or watch a video teaser at:
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