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.
The decision to switch the focus of the Nazi 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 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. In the absence of 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 in anything. 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 had 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 any 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 smaller raids. 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 as well, 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, it became clear that 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 at Uxbridge watching the entire show. By evening 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 and his commanders, the weather was bad and Hitler postponed “indefinitely” the invasion of Great Britain. The RAF had won the Battle of Britain — the Luftwaffe Leadership just didn’t know it yet.
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