From the German perspective, the main objective of the air offensive against England in the summer of 1940 was to force the British to the negotiating table. While the Navy and Army produced dilettantish plans that would have stood little chance of success in the short-term, the Luftwaffe was tasked with putting the fear of God (or Hitler as the case may be) into the hearts of the stubborn British. The Luftwaffe leadership was delighted with the opportunity to show what they could do. Herman Goering appears to have sincerely believed that the task would be complete within weeks. Yet, in line with the goal of bringing the British to sue for peace, the Luftwaffe did not at once launch an all-out offensive. The Luftwaffe followed a strategy that can be divided into clear phases, the first of which was the “Kanalkampf” or “Channel Battle.”
Photo Courtesy of Chris Goss
Photo Courtesy of Chris Goss
In preparation for a proper air offensive, on 30 June 1940 Herman Goering ordered the Luftwaffe to start pin-prick attacks on Great Britain. The primary objective of these attacks, which were explicitly kept at a small scale, was to conduct reconnaissance and test the air defenses of the opponent. However, the secondary objective was to close the English Channel to British shipping. The reasoning was: if the British government proved obstinate and refused to negotiate, then the Channel would have to be cleared of British shipping (read warships) to facilitate the German seaborne invasion of the British Isles.
In accordance with these orders, the Luftwaffe initiated operations on a small scale. Initially, the Luftwaffe sought to draw the RAF up and into combat by conducting fighter sweeps over British airspace. The Luftwaffe was confident that if the RAF engaged the German fighters, the British fighters would be destroyed in the ensuing dogfights. Unfortunately for the Luftwaffe, AVM Park did not take the bait and to the extent possible avoided launching his squadrons when the Luftwaffe sent only fighters across the Channel.
On July 10, Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft spotted a juice “target of opportunity” in the form of a large convoy making for the Straits of Dover and ordered an assault on it. The RAF sent a flight of Spitfires to defend the convoy — a moderate and measured response. Yet both sides called in reinforcements and the largest single dogfight of the war so far ensued — causing many historians to date the start of the Battle of Britain from this day.
Both sides claimed victory. The RAF had successfully broken up the bomber formations and prevented their effectiveness; only one ship was lost. In addition, they had destroyed six Luftwaffe aircraft (three bombers and three of the escorting Me110s) for the loss of only one aircraft and pilot, although four additional Hurricanes had sustained damage. Significantly, however, the Luftwaffe was convinced they had just attained a stunning victory. They believed they had shot down thirty RAF fighters! The German Army High Command (OKW) was told that the RAF would be “neutralized” in between two to four weeks.
In the following days, fate favored first one and then the other side, and both air forces learned valuable lessons. The Germans learned that the British would shoot down their air ambulances mercilessly, despite the fact that they were unarmed and marked by the Red Cross — something the Germans considered barbaric right to the end of the war. The Germans also gradually came to recognize that the Me 110 was not a match for the British Hurricanes and Spitfires. The British, however, learned that their own two-seater fighter was a disaster. On July 19, the Luftwaffe annihilated the RAF’s only Defiant squadron in just 30 minutes.
Perhaps it was this victory that encouraged Goering to make a dramatic appeal to the British public in a speech before the
Reichstag that same evening. Goering argued that the British were already
defeated and there was no need to senselessly prolong the destruction and
casualties. Recognizing that Churchill was not receptive to peace overtures, Goering’s
speech was aimed not at the British government per se, but rather at presumably reasonable
and peace-loving elements inside Britain, who were thereby encouraged to bring
down Churchill’s government. Goering is said to have been astonished that his
words did not fall on fertile ground. The BBC sent a rejection within an hour,
while the official rejection was broadcast by Lord Halifax — the leader of the
British peace faction — two days later.
In consequence, on July 21, Goering met with his senior commanders to discuss tactics for an upcoming offensive, which now appeared inevitable. Except for adding British warships to the favored targets, the tactics remained largely unchanged. Goering still favored using small numbers of bombers to lure up the RAF where large and free-roving swarms of Luftwaffe fighter could shoot them down, but he moved top-scoring “aces” into senior command positions, apparently on the assumption that they would produce better results.
Whatever the reason, the results were satisfying. On July 25, a westbound convoy was all but wiped out, only two merchantmen remaining afloat at the end of the day, and two Royal Navy destroyers sent to their assistance were so badly damaged that they were withdrawn from the fight. The Admiralty concluded that the advantages of sending shipping through the Straits of Dover did not justify the risks and cancelled all merchant shipping in the confined waters of the Channel by daylight starting July 26. Two days later, because RAF reconnaissance showed that long-range guns were being installed at Calais the Admiralty went one step farther and abandoned Dover as a base for the Royal Navy. Thus by July 29, the English Channel was effectively closed to all British shipping during the hours of daylight. The Germans had every reason to think they were winning the Kanalkampf.
On 1 August 1940, Hitler issued a new directive ordering the Luftwaffe to start the destruction of the Royal Air Force. The warm-up phase of probing and luring was over. It was time to knock-out the opponent — as soon as the weather permitted. What this meant was the days of the pin-prick nuisance raids and free-roaming fighter sweeps were over. In their place large scale attacks involving much larger numbers of bombers were to take place, and the German fighters were to provide much closer protection for the bombers. The date of the offensive was set for August 10 and then postponed due to weather conditions until the 13th.
Meanwhile, however, the Kanalkampf continued. On 7 August, a British attempt to slip a convoy through the Straits of Dover under cover of darkness resulted in a massacre of British merchantmen. Of 20 ships, only four came through unscathed, while seven were sunk outright, six rendered temporarily unseaworthy, and the remainder damaged. The RAF had, furthermore, lost thirteen fighters while another five were shot up while bringing down ten Stukas, four Me 110s and two Me 109s. The Germans claimed 20 British fighters, reinforcing their sense of superiority and victory.
August 11 saw three separate air battles, two over convoys off the Essex coast and the Thames Estuary and a third over the naval base of Portland on the Dorset coast. The later was a taste of things to come with 165 German aircraft deployed on the raid, the largest raid against British targets up to that time. British and German aircraft losses were almost identical. Nineteen Luftwaffe aircraft (five bombers, eight Me 109s and six Me 110s) were shot down and an additional six sustained damage. The RAF lost sixteen fighters and an additional seven aircraft were damaged.
However, the Luftwaffe claimed fifty-seven kills, including aircraft types never deployed by the RAF at all. Only the loss of three senior officers, two Gruppenkommandeure and one Staffelkapitaen among the bomber crews dampened the Luftwaffe’s sense of winning as they prepared for what they expected to be “the final assault” on the RAF.
“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 "Kanalkampf" naturally figures prominently. Find out more about “Where Eagles Never Flew” at: https://crossseaspress.com/where-eagles-never-flew