Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the winner of more than 20 literary accolades. For a complete list of her awards see: http://helenapschrader.com

Helena is represented by Laurie Blum Guest at the Re-Naissance Agency.

For readers tired of clich├ęs and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

Friday, April 30, 2021

The Fighter Aircraft of the Battle of Britain: Part I - Introduction

 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:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SnAoMC0d6Mo

 

Buy now!

 direct from Itasca or from Barnes and Noble

Buy on Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk

 

Friday, April 23, 2021

The Battle of Britain Through German Eyes - The Assault on London

 As the first week of September drew to a close, the Luftwaffe believed it was winning the war of attrition with the RAF but at a higher cost and a slower pace than anticipated. Crews were tired, tempers on edge and the time for an invasion was running out. Hitler extended the deadline for the invasion to September 21 to give the Luftwaffe more time to “soften up” English defenses, but he also expressed doubts about the Luftwaffe’s successes. Goering scented political trouble. He wanted an alternative to “more of the same.” An attack on London seemed just the thing.

German bombers over London - Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

The decision to switch the focus of the air offensive from RAF Fighter Command to the British capital was not made flippantly. The commander of Luftflotte 3, Generalfeldmarshall Hugo Sperrle opposed the move vehemently. He believed the German fighters were greatly exaggerating their claims (whether intentionally or unintentionally) and he doubted that Fighter Command on was on its last legs. He believed that the assaults on the RAF itself should remain the primary objective of the air offensive.

His counterpart in Luftflotte 2, Generalfeldmarshall Albert Kesselring, wasn’t convinced the RAF was broken either, but he noted that (unlike the Dutch, Belgians, and French) the RAF was not allowing itself to be destroyed on the ground. That is, he was fully cognizant of the fact that the Luftwaffe had caught very few RAF fighter aircraft on the ground and drew the incorrect conclusion that the Luftwaffe’s attacks on RAF fighter stations were not terribly effective. He noted further that the RAF possessed a plenitude of airfields beyond the range of his fighters and — since he could not afford to send in unescorted bombers — that meant these fields were de facto immune to attack. Kesselring believed that the RAF would defend itself from destruction by pulling their aircraft back to stations beyond the range of the Luftwaffe.

In other words, German ignorance of the vital role of the Sector Operations Rooms at the Sector Control Stations misled the Luftwaffe into underestimating the effect their concentrated attacks on key (albeit not all) RAF airfields had had. This miscalculation combined with the over-estimation of the losses the RAF suffered in the air, led Kesselring to the conclusion that the Luftwaffe needed to concentrate on a target that the RAF would be forced to defend in the air. The British capital seemed ideal for this purpose.

Goering, however, was probably swayed not by Kesselring’s military arguments so much as by political considerations. He had bragged that the British could not bomb Berlin — but they had. Although the physical damage was nominal, the damage to his reputation was more substantial. “People” were making jokes about him. Far more serious, however, was the fact that Jodl had long advocated an all-out attack on London.  The Battle of Britain dragged out with still no British pleas for peace negotiations, Jodl sounded more and more convincing. Goering was at risk of losing Hitler’s trust, and in an authoritarian dictatorship the consequences of losing the dictator’s trust were dire.

The bottom line was that Hitler wanted an attack on London. His patience with the stubborn British — or at least Churchill’s government — had worn out. He might have once admired the British Empire, but he detested being flouted. The fact that an attack on London would contribute little to creating the conditions for an invasion did not interest him. He had never been all that keen on the invasion anyway. There was more than one way to skin a cat. If the invasion was called off, Hitler presumed he could starve Britain with his U-boats while pulverizing her cities from the air. Why waste ground troops he needed to subdue the Soviet Union?

On September 4, 1940, Hitler promised:

And should the Royal Air Force drop two thousand, or three thousand, or four thousand kilograms of bombs, then we will now drop 150,000; 180,00; 230,000; 300,000; 400,000; yes, one million kilograms in a single night. And should they declare they will greatly increase their attacks on our cities, then we will erase their cities!

 With the dictator so committed to terror bombing, Goering didn’t really have much choice.

On September 7, Goering set out to show Hitler, the German people, and — almost incidentally — the British, just what the Luftwaffe could do. In a maximum effort, 348 bombers escorted by 617 fighters were launched on a single late-afternoon raid. Goering and his field marshals watched through binoculars from the Pas de Calais while picnicking on fine food and selected wines.

The attack caught Air Vice Marshal Park flat-footed. He was himself away at a meeting with Dowding and others. His controllers, anticipating attacks on airfields, kept waiting for the large force to split up into multiple smaller raids heading for a variety of different targets. The first squadrons to make visual contact with the raid had never seen anything like it and could hardly believe their eyes.

 Amazed though they were, a section of three aircraft was detailed to “deal with" the 600 fighters while the remaining nine aircraft attacked the bombers. Naturally, other squadrons were soon sent into the fray, but they arrived piecemeal, one or two at a time. The RAF pilots could not see their comrades coming from different stations on different vectors and attacking in a staggered fashion. They were left feeling that they — a squadron or two — were utterly alone against this gigantic air armada.

The Luftwaffe had the same feeling. The RAF did not come up in hoards or swarms, but instead nibbled at the fringes more like irritable gnats than the vicious eagles they had been the weeks before. That is, until they reached London itself. Then more aircraft appeared and a great dog-fight involving close to 1,000 aircraft altogether developed, but it was a fighter-fighter engagement for the most part. Meanwhile, the bombers had set the London docks on fire, destroyed a gas works and shattered hundreds of buildings. At the end of the day, the Luftwaffe lost only fourteen bombers, sixteen 109s and seven 110s. That didn’t seem so bad. All the intelligence about RAF attrition appeared confirmed.


Furthermore, with the target now the huge city of London, precision bombing was a luxury. All that mattered was delivering Hitler’s message of vengeance and obliteration until the British surrendered. The Luftwaffe started a round-the-clock bombing offensive, with night as well as daylight raids whenever weather permitted. For the next week, bombing by night and cloud, the Luftwaffe inflicted damage and encountered comparatively little opposition as interceptions went awry in cloud. The impression of a weakening RAF was reinforced.

On Sunday September 15, conditions appeared perfect for a new massive daylight raid on London — a final effort before Hitler decided yea-or-nay about an invasion of England. The Luftwaffe confidently mustered its full strength again and sent the raid in. The RAF, however, knew where they were headed this time. There was no need to hold squadron’s back to protect airfields and radar. Instead, Park timed his interceptions to first peel the German escorts away from the bombers with high level, predominantly Spitfire attacks, and then sent the remaining (mostly Hurricane) squadrons in to take out the bombers after their escorts were fully engaged with the Spitfires. Meanwhile, 12 Group had been alerted of the incoming raid and had time to assemble a “Big Wing” of five squadrons just north of London. By the time the last German aircraft of this raid had landed back at base, the Luftwaffe had lost one-quarter of the bombers deployed and more than 12% of the fighters. But this raid had only been the “prelude” to the real strike.

The second raid of the day was composed of 114 bombers escorted by 340 fighters. While smaller than the raid of September 7, the fighter/bomber ratio was higher.  AVM Park answered with every squadron he had and then some — 10 Group put up squadrons over 11 Group airfields and 12 Group was asked again to provide a Big Wing over London. By 14:35 every available RAF squadron was in the air — with PM Churchill was at Uxbridge watching the entire show -- rather nervously. 

By evening, however, the RAF was claiming 185 Luftwaffe aircraft for the loss of 28 fighters. Actual Luftwaffe losses were 56. It was now the RAF that was wildly exaggerating their claims, particularly in inexperienced squadrons and those in the Big Wing of 12 Group. But the pilot losses were markedly different. The 81 Luftwaffe airmen had been killed, 63 captured and 31 returned to base wounded. The effective loss to the Luftwaffe was 144 killed and captured. In contrast, 12 RAF pilots were killed and one captured after bailing out into the Channel and being picked up by Luftwaffe air/sea rescue. Even with respect to wounded, the RAF had escaped lightly with only 14 casualties.

The returning bomber crews were shaken. Individual units had sustained casualty rates of 30% or more, the worst being 60%. They were shaken too by head-on attacks that appeared suicidal and ramming that was equally so. The RAF did not look beaten to the pilots and aircrew of the Luftwaffe.

But in the jovial and congenial atmosphere of Goering’s hunting lodge Karin Hall, all was still well. The RAF had only managed to ‘scrape together’ so many aircraft by denuding the rest of the country and concentrating their fighters around London. They had thrown untrained pilots into the fight who didn’t even know how to shoot — which was why they tried ramming their enemy. If only the days were longer and the weather more stable, the Luftwaffe would have air superiority in a day or two. Fortunately for Goering, his commanders and above all his aircrews, the weather was bad and Hitler postponed  the invasion of Great Britain “indefinitely”

The RAF had won the Battle of Britain -- the Luftwaffe leadership just didn't know it yet.

“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 daylight raids on London naturally figure prominently. Find out more about “Where Eagles Never Flew” at:  https://crossseaspress.com/where-eagles-never-flew

 

Buy now!

 direct from Itasca or from Barnes and Noble

Buy on Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk

 

Friday, April 16, 2021

The Battle of Britain through German Eyes -- Going for the Airfields

 After the intensive air battles of August 12 – 18, a spell of bad weather coincided with internal reorganization and redeployments of the Luftwaffe. A short lull in the Battle of Britain ensued.  On August 24, the Battle resumed. The next two weeks tested Fighter Command to the very limits of its endurance.

Photo Courtesy of Chris Goss 

At a conference of Luftwaffe commanders on August 19, the destruction of the RAF’s defensive capacity was recognized as the priority, short-term objective. To achieve this goal, the Luftwaffe employed a variety of tactics which it varied rapidly and unpredictably to keep the RAF guessing and try to catch it off guard when operations resumed in force on August 24.

Large and small bombing raids were interspersed with fighter sweeps. Diving bombing, high-altitude and low-altitude bombing were used separately or in combined attacks. Raids were launched in the early hours of the morning, mid-day and in the evening. Sometimes the Luftwaffe struck at widely separated times and on other occasions struck at short intervals in an attempt to saturate defenses. Often raids were made on the same target in quick succession — but not always. On the one hand, the Luftwaffe tried to catch fighters on the ground refueling and, on the other, to force the RAF into the air to fight with the Me109s. To achieve the latter, the Luftwaffe now and again deployed Me110s in formations to look like bombers protected by hundreds of their smaller comrades. The Luftwaffe tried cumbersome massive raids with, in one case, over 400 fighter escorts, and it tried small raids by fighter-bombers without escorts.  It experimented with large formations that then split into two, three or even four smaller raids attacking widely separated targets.                                                      

Although in retrospect, it is evident that many of these raids were far from effective, others were devastating. In general, the frequency and ferocity of these attacks and the much more focused targeting of RAF Fighter Command made them extremely dangerous to Britain’s air defences. Altogether 32 attacks against airfields were made in just 14 days.

On the very first day of the renewed offensive, the satellite field of RAF Manston was hit twice, taking out its communications. Bomb craters and unexploded bombs littered the field and the accommodations became unusable. Park made the decision, which pilots operating from Manston felt was belated, to write the field off except for emergencies. In short, the Luftwaffe scored a victory on its very first day of the renewed offensive.

But Manston was not a Sector Airfield with an all-important Sector Operations Room. Attacks on the Sector Stations were far more dangerous attacks, and there were 22 of these between August 24 and September 6. Of these, ten raids were directed at Biggin Hill. The second of these, a low-level attack by fighter-bombers, left the Sergeants’ and the WAAF quarters destroyed along with the NAAFI and cook-house, the stores, workshops and one of the hangers. A direct hit on an air-raid shelter killed 39 airmen and women and other bombs disabled the telephone lines and disrupted the gas, water and electricity supply. Although the Sector Operations Room was unscathed, without electricity and telecommunications the controllers could not direct their squadrons. Hornchurch had to temporarily take control of Biggin Hill’s squadrons. And that was only the beginning.

On the following day, Biggin Hill was again hit twice, first by a high-level raid that did little damage, and then, at six in the evening, by another low-level raid. This raid promptly destroyed two of the three remaining hangars and, more importantly, knocked out the Operations Room. Kenley had to assume control of the Biggin Hill squadrons. Yet the next morning (September 1,) Biggin Hill was again deemed fully operational — until it was bombed yet again that evening. This time teams worked through the night to set up an emergency control room in a shop in the near-by village, and one of Biggin Hill’s squadrons was moved to the satellite airfield of Croydon. The Station Commander also took the radical decision to blow-up his remaining hangar in an effort to discourage further raids. In short, the Luftwaffe had achieved a partial victory.

Meanwhile, Hornchurch had been hit four times, Debden three times, North Weald twice, and Kenley once. In addition, the Luftwaffe had devoted some raids to attacks on aircraft factories, twice targeting Hawker Hurricane production, albeit unsuccessfully. It had also undertaken a series of concentrated attacks on Portsmouth. British civilian casualties in this period rose to their highest of the war so far, causing Prime Minister Churchill increasing concern.

With the wisdom of hindsight, historians have argued that none of this was really so terrible. They point out that the Luftwaffe continued to waste much of its effort on airfields not associated with Fighter Command (14 raids altogether) and on satellite airfields (6 raids). There has also been much written about how bomb craters and unexploded bombs don’t really render an airfield inoperable (or not for long). Likewise, damage to hangars, workshops, accommodations and other facilities have also been disparaged as “insignificant” to fighting capacity. I beg to differ.

AVM Park writing on September 12, 1940 noted that:

There was a critical period between 28 August and 5 September when the damage to Sector Stations and our ground organization was having a serious effect on the fighting efficiency of the fighter squadrons, who could not be given the same good technical and administrative service as previous. [Source: Stephen Bungay, The Most Dangerous Enemy: A History of the Battle of Britain, London: Aurum Press, 2000. 290]

Park was employing the then-common “British understatement.” First-hand accounts of the conditions under which airmen were living and working and pilots fighting leave little doubt that the impact on “efficiency” and morale was becoming severe. Squadrons were being asked to fly three to four times a day. Instances of squadrons flying 50 hours in a day are recorded. Yet many pilots were no longer getting regular, hot meals or able to sleep in proper accommodations. Many were being forced to live off station, commuting substantial distances that thereby reduced the time available for sleep. A few more weeks of this treatment might have resulted in a different outcome. Men were reaching the breaking point as the increasing casualties underline.

Although the Luftwaffe was still losing more aircraft than the RAF, the margin had narrowed dramatically. In this two week period, 380 Luftwaffe machines were lost for 286 RAF fighters. The RAF was losing more than 140 fighters per week. At that rate, even Beaverbrook was hard pressed to keep pace, and one effective strike on a Hurricane or Spitfire factory would have wiped out the ability of the British aircraft industry to replace losses in a timely fashion.

More critical, of course, were the pilot losses that simply could not be replaced in a short space of time. By the end of August 1940, RAF Training Command was “producing” pilots with nominal training on operational fighter aircraft at a rate of 280 per month. Casualties in August, however, had been 348 pilots. The training infrastructure was not keeping up with demand.

That was not a situation that could be reversed by a change in policy or priorities. It took roughly one year to train a young man to fly monoplane fighter aircraft; there were no short-cuts or means of speeding up “production.” Furthermore, turning that pilot into an effective fighter pilot took more than time — it took experience. Inexperienced pilots had a six-times higher chance of being killed than an experienced pilot. Many replacement pilots did not survive their first sortie; many more did not survive their first week.

The same was true of inexperienced squadrons. In squadrons with experienced leaders, fledgling pilots got advice, guidance and support from their more-savvy comrades. When entire squadrons without recent front-line experience were rotated into 11 Group, there were no leaders who could warn, coach and protect their charges and slaughters occurred in which six or seven aircraft were shot down in a single engagement often with the loss of several pilots. Some squadrons all but ceased to exist within a week.

 But the Germans didn’t know any of this.

The Germans relied on aerial reconnaissance and the combat reports of their own pilots. As we have seen, Luftwaffe fighter pilots overestimated their victories by huge margins, while the Luftwaffe staff severely underestimated the capacity of the British industry to produce replacement aircraft. At the end of the first week of September, the Luftwaffe was again convinced that the British could have no more than 200 Spitfires and Hurricanes left.

Meanwhile, the quality of high-altitude photo reconnaissance was still quite low. It was not always possible to tell what kind of aircraft were on an airfield, let alone the extent of damage. Furthermore, the damage that threatened Fighter Command most severely — electricity and telecommunications cuts to the Operations Rooms and radar stations — were virtually impossible to detect from the recce photos. The destruction of buildings on the other hand was easily recorded and looked very impressive, even if the immediate impact was far less damaging to the RAF’s ability to keep fighting. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the Luftwaffe continued to believe that they were winning the air war against Britain.

What was starting to worry the Luftwaffe leadership, however, were their own losses. The Luftwaffe was starting to notice that it could not replace aircraft as fast as it as losing them. Some squadrons were down to 50% of official aircraft strength. Serviceability rates were also down, as low as 75% in fighter squadrons. As with the British, however, the bigger problem was pilots.

While the number of fighter pilots killed on both sides was roughly equal, RAF pilots who were wounded or simply had to bail out of damaged aircraft usually landed in Britain and found themselves either in hospital or back with their units in a short space of time. The wounded usually made their way back into a cockpit within a period of weeks or months. Even in the case of severe burns, many pilots returned to flying duties after dozens of operations and plastic surgery. For the Luftwaffe, the situation was different. Because the fighting was taking place in British airspace, pilots unable to nurse a damaged aircraft across the Channel put it down in England — and became prisoners of war. Likewise, pilots who had to bail out for one reason or another became prisoners. Thus, the RAF’s pilot losses amounted to the number of pilots killed, while the Luftwaffe’s pilot losses consisted of those killed and captured. 

Meanwhile, the Luftwaffe was feeling the exhaustion too. Because the Me 110 had proved ineffective, the Me109s were being asked to fly three to four sorties a day on average and as much as six or seven on some occasions. These were not short interceptions as in the case of the RAF. A Luftwaffe fighter sortie entailed a long flight across the lethal Channel — and back. Furthermore, the Luftwaffe had no system for rotating squadrons out of the front line as the RAF did. This meant that the Luftwaffe squadrons had all been engaged continuously since the start of the Battle of Britain, and often before that in the Battle of France.

In addition, in the fighter units the culture of rewarding kills resulted in the “experts” (the aces) winning medals and promotions — and receiving protection in the from of wingmen and “staff flights,” while everyone else took the casualties. This fact was increasingly resented.

Yet even more shattering to morale in fighter units was the tendency of the Luftwaffe leadership, including Goering himself, to blame the fighters for the continued attrition among the bombers. The fighter pilots knew they were giving their best, but it still wasn’t enough either to destroy those “last 200 Spitfires” or to get all the bombers safely home.

If morale was starting to crumble in the ranks of the Luftwaffe’s fighter pilots, the bomber crews faced the same slow but steady erosion of elan that British and American bomber crews would learn about in the years to come. A psychiatrist specialized in battle fatigue noted after studying soldiers in both world wars that courage was like having money in a bank account: the reserves of even the bravest men could be drawn down to nothing if demands were made upon it too often and too soon.  This was happening to the Luftwaffe in 1940. 

The final straw for Luftwaffe morale, however, was the absence of a powerful incentive. The men and women of RAF Fighter Command, whether flying or supporting those who did, understood that they were fighting (in the words of Winston Churchill) “a monstrous tyranny” and even more importantly (again in Churchill’s words) for “the survival of Christian civilization,” and “our own British life.” But the men in the Luftwaffe had no such powerful incentive.

Knew that no one had particularly wanted to fight Great Britain in the first place. Those that had read Mein Kampf even knew that Hitler admired the British and the British Empire. Why on earth were they being asked to die? 

Despite the successes the Luftwaffe believed they had achieved, the Luftwaffe leadership recognized that their crews were tired and did not want more of the same. Goering wanted something new, some trick, some clever new tactic that would at last “crack” the nut he firmly believed was ripe. More importantly, Goering needed to restore his standing in Hitler’s eyes. He had promised to defeat the RAF in a couple of weeks and after two months the British were still not begging for peace talks. He had also joked that if the RAF ever bombed Berlin, people could call him “Meyer.” On August 25, the RAF had retaliated for bombs dropped (accidentally) on London with a more-or-less harmless raid on Berlin. Goering was about to make the worst mistake of the Battle.

“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 attacks on RAF airfields naturally figures prominently. Find out more about “Where Eagles Never Flew” at:  https://crossseaspress.com/where-eagles-never-flew

 

Buy now!

 direct from Itasca or from Barnes and Noble

Buy on Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk

 

Friday, April 9, 2021

The Battle of Britain through German Eyes -- The Air Offensive Begins in Earnest - "Eagle Day"

On the morning of 13 August 1940, the German Luftwaffe opened its main offensive against British air defenses. The Nazis designated this “Eagle Day.” The objective of this phase of the Battle was to destroy the ability of the Royal Air Force to defend British air space. The targets of the offensive were first and foremost the RAF airfields themselves, but also the aircraft industry replacing RAF losses and the radar installations vital to command and control of Britain’s fighter forces.

German Bombers - Courtesy of Chris Goss

The Luftwaffe opened its main offensive against British air defenses with high morale. According to their calculations, during the Kanalkampf they had achieved a “kill ratio” (number of enemy aircraft shot down per friendly aircraft lost) of 5:1. That is, they believed that they had destroyed five RAF aircraft for every Luftwaffe loss. German intelligence, meanwhile, underestimated British aircraft production by 50% — that is they believed the British aircraft manufacturers were delivering only 250 fighters per month when, in fact, under Lord Beaverbrook’s management British aircraft factories were producing 500 Hurricanes and Spitfires every month.

On the eve of Eagle Day, to pave the way for the main assault, the Luftwaffe targeted Britain’s “eyes” — the radar installations along the coast. In the early hours of the morning, the Luftwaffe’s Test Flying Wing (Erprobungsgruppe) 210 attacked the radar stations at Dover, Pevensey and Rye, putting all three out of action. Fighter Command was blind from East Kent to West Sussex. Notably, the Test Flying Wing consisted of Me110s and Me109s converted into fighter bombers. They came in fast and low — and all returned without encountering a single British fighter.

Later that same morning, a force of bombers larger than anything seen up to this point made a determined attack on both Portsmouth and the Ventor radar station on the Isle of Wight.  Last but not least, the Luftwaffe hammered RAF forward airfields at Manston, Lympne and Hawkinge, all three of which temporarily rendered unusable.

As the day ended, the Luftwaffe believed they had shut down four radar stations, rendered three airfields inoperable and destroyed (they claimed) forty-six Spitfires and twenty-three Hurricanes. In fact, by the end of the day, the airfields were all again operational. Of the radar stations, the three mainland radar stations were back on the air; only Ventor would remain inoperable for three more days. As for the RAF, “only” twenty aircraft had been destroyed in the air, although some aircraft were lost on the ground in the attacks on the airfields.

“Eagle Day,” August 13, dawned with uncertain weather and Goering ordered the great assault on Great Britain postponed until the afternoon. However, the postponement orders only reached some of the units designated to participate, resulting in these staying on the ground or turning back, while others proceeded — with inadequate fighter escort. The low cloud that had induced Goering to want to postpone the operation provided some protection, but eventually the bombers were found and five bombers were shot down for the loss of a single Spitfire.

Bizarrely, however, all the attacks carried out were against comparatively unimportant targets. The bombers went for Eastchurch, which was a Coastal Command station, and raided the airfields at Farnborough and Odiham, neither of which were used by Fighter Command. Me110s also undertook a free sweep that resulted in the loss of six of their number but claimed nine Spitfires. In fact, they had tangled with the Hurricanes of 601 Squadron, which suffered only one aircraft lost and two damaged in the engagement. (The claims of Spitfires shot down was “Spitfire snobbery,” i.e. the Luftwaffe’s perpetual refusal to recognize how deadly the Hurricane was and for pilots to dogmatically insist were dog-fighting with “Spitfires” even when they were facing Hurricanes.)

At 14:00 the units that had received the postponement orders took off at last and proceeded in large numbers to again assault airfields the Luftwaffe apparently considered vital: Boscombe Down, Worthy Down, Andover, Warmwell, Yeovil, Rochester, and Detling. Readers familiar with the Battle of Britain will note that none of these airfields were vital Fighter Command Sector Airfields.  From the latter, the RAF dispatched fighters to intercept the intruders, bringing down 47 aircraft altogether.

At the end of the day, the Luftwaffe leadership was acutely aware that the mix-up about timing had hurt them and cost them lives and aircraft, but they consoled themselves with the “fact” — unfortunately largely self-fabricated — that they had destroyed 84 RAF fighters. The correct figure for RAF losses were 13 aircraft lost in the air and one on the ground. RAF pilot losses amounted to just three. The RAF had handily won on Eagle Day — the Germans just didn’t know it yet.

August 14 was comparatively quiet as the Luftwaffe prepared for their next “big” day. This was to be a broad attack along the entire south coast of England and — exceptionally — including Luftwaffe units based in Norway and Denmark against targets in the North of England. The Luftwaffe assumed that the RAF had only been able to put up such a spirited defense in the southeast in recent days because it had denuding the rest of the country of fighters. The Luftwaffe remained confident that the Me110s, which had the range to carry out missions over the distances involved, would now prove their worth.

The targets were again predominantly airfields, although a factory producing Stirling bombers was also hit. The factory was so badly damaged that production was halted for three whole months, but the impact on the Battle of Britain was nil. Other attacks were more significant. Martlesham Heath was put out of action for 48 hours and bombs intended for Hawkinge severed the power cables to the radar stations at Rye, Foreness and Dover, again blinding Fighter Command in this vital sector for a whole day. Also, toward the end of the day, raids were sent against Kenley and Biggin Hill — the first time Sector Airfields essential to Fighter Command’s ability to defend the country were targeted.

The results for the Luftwaffe were shockingly disappointing — and this time they knew it. The northern raids had been intercepted early, forcing many bombers to drop their loads into the sea, while the Me110 again proved completely incapable of providing an effective protection for the bombers. The raids on the south had provoked a savage response and many of the targets had been missed. Critically, instead of Biggin Hill, the Luftwaffe had bombed West Malling, a satellite airfield still under construction, and instead of Kenley they had hit the satellite airfield at Croydon. Altogether the Luftwaffe had flown 2,000 sorties and lost 75 aircraft, including some key senior officers.

While the Luftwaffe's loss rate of 3.75% was far below what RAF Bomber Command and the U.S. Eighth Air Force would endure at the height of the Allied bombing offensive, it was sobering to an air force that until this date had believed it was easily winning the air war against Britain. August 15 went down in Luftwaffe history as “Black Thursday.”

Goering drew some lessons from the disaster. The Stukas, he concluded, needed to be defended better — by three full Gruppe of fighters. He also ordered fresh fighters to meet the waves of bombers coming out, recognizing that the escort fighters would be nearly out of fuel and unable to engage on the return leg. Goering also stipulated that the focus of all future attacks much remain the RAF and the aircraft industry, but he made a serious error. Believing that successful attacks on airfields rendered them inoperable for at least 24 hours or more, he ordered that the same airfields should not be targeted in quick succession. In fact, even airfields that were badly hit were usually operational again within hours. By stopping attacks in quick succession, Goering gave the RAF fighter stations a breather. Overall, however, the pressure was to be maintained.

On August 16, the important Sector Airfield of Tangmere was badly hit and so was the Ventnor radar station. The former was only temporarily inoperable, but Ventnor was knocked off the air for seven days. Other targets that day were the Portsmouth docks, Manston, and the non-Fighter Command airfields at Lee-on-Solent and Brize Norton. At Tangmere, the Stukas were attacked by Tangmere based squadrons with such viciousness and effect that 70% of the Stuka unit engaged was wiped out. Nevertheless, based on the intelligence reports received and (false) assumptions about aircraft production, the Luftwaffe General Staff concluded that the RAF had at most 300 operable fighter aircraft left. In fact, there were 855 serviceable aircraft with front line squadrons alone, and another 363 fighter aircraft available at training units and maintenance units.

But ignorance is bliss and the Luftwaffe prepared for another “big” day: August 18. The Luftwaffe saw no need for an early start, and it was not until mid-day that the Luftwaffe assembled their air armadas. Large numbers of He 111s, Do 17s and Ju 88s were detailed to attack Kenley and Biggin Hill, protected by no less than 410 Me 109s and 73 Me 110s. The Luftwaffe’s plans also called for a three-stage attack composed of 1) an initial dive bombing attack to destroy ground infrastructure, followed by 2) a high-level attack to shoot down RAF fighters that came up to defend their airfield, and finally 3) a low-level raid to finish the station off with strafing as well as bombing.

Unfortunately, even the best-laid plans can go wrong. Cloud resulted in some confusion and the low-level raid without fighter escort reached the target first, only to encounter the full fury of the defenders. When the other bombing contingents put in their appearance, however, the RAF was soon stretched and fighting so hard that several fighters were lost to friendly ground fire. Furthermore, some of the German fighter commanders had figured out that Manston was used for refueling RAF fighters. They decided to strafe the field while going in to take over the escort of returning bombers, catching four RAF fighters on the ground.

Meanwhile, farther west, Luftflotte 3 sent Stukas against the non-Fighter Command airfields of Gosport, Ford and Thorney Island and the radar station at Poling. Fighter Command was able to muster six squadrons to oppose these raids and the Stukas were again slaughtered. Seventeen were destroyed and six damaged, while eight of the escorting Me 109s were also shot down. The RAF on the other hand had lost five aircraft but only two pilots. Although the Luftwaffe could not know that the RAF’s losses, they did know that one of their Stuka groups had sustained 50% casualties — and this after losses of 70% in the raid on Tangmere two days earlier. Such losses were not sustainable regardless of the successes.

Meanwhile, the last raid of the day targeting Hornchurch and North Weald took off at 17:00. The RAF went up in force to meet them and was understandably gratified when the bombers turned back. The reason for the retreat, however, was cloud cover over the targets rather than fear of the RAF. Only four bombers were lost, but ten of the Luftwaffe’s escorting fighters were shot down for a loss of nine RAF fighters.

Altogether on August 18, the Luftwaffe lost 69 aircraft destroyed and 31 damaged in order to knock out 34 RAF fighters and damage 39. Furthermore, since the opening of the offensive, the Luftwaffe had lost roughly 300 aircraft, thirty percent more than in the entire previous month. Yet Goering’s response to the situation was essentially “more of the same.”

To be sure he promoted his top-scoring aces to “Kommodores,” reorganized the units, changing who was responsible for what, and also moved them around a bit geographically, but Goering made few changes in tactics. RAF Fighter Command remained the principal target, with the aircraft industry, other RAF bases and the Royal Navy as secondary targets to be attacked when circumstances were “right.” He pulled back his Stukas and allowed his fighters a little more leeway for free hunting rather than insisting on specific escort ratios, but he also made it abundantly clear that he wanted his bombers protected and the escorts would be blamed for unacceptable losses.  A spell of bad weather then set in that gave both sides a breather before the battle continued again. Same song, second verse, doesn’t get better ….


“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 attacks on the RAF airfields and radar naturally figure prominently. Find out more about “Where Eagles Never Flew” at:  https://crossseaspress.com/where-eagles-never-flew

 

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