The fate of Britain -- and indeed the entire civilized world -- hung in the balance in the critical three weeks between the launch of the German air offensive on August 12/13 and the shift in German strategy to London on September 7. Although many now dismiss the actions of the RAF and view British victory as "inevitable," this judgement based on the wisdom of hindsight denigrates the sacrifices and the demeans the accomplishments of those who fought the Battle of Britain.
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, when operations resumed in force on August 24, 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.
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. Raids were made on widely separated targets to try to spread the RAF thin. Or, alternatively, raids were made on the same target in quick succession.
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 also tried cumbersome massive raids, in one case with 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 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. 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.” Volunteers from Coastal Command and the Fleet Air Arm had already been exhausted. 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 had only 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 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 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.
Goering also 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 joked that if the RAF ever bombed Berlin, people could call him “Meyer.” On August 25, the RAF 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 opens with the Battle of France and goes on to show the Battle of Britain, in all its phases, from both sides of the Channel. It does so 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. Where Eagles Never Flew is the winner of the Hemingway Award for 20th Century Wartime Fiction, a Maincrest Media Award for Historical Fiction, and more. Find out more about Where Eagles Never Flew at: https://crossseaspress.com/where-eagles-never-flew or watch a video teaser at: Eagles Video Teaser