In the eighty years since the Battle of Britain, there have been a plethora of books written about that epic struggle. The vast majority have been written from the victor’s perspective and at the tactical level of warfare, describing the frenetic, life or death struggles waged between the young pilots of Royal Air Force (RAF), Fighter Command and their Luftwaffe opponents.
Few historians have studied and written about the battle through the lens of the aggressor and at an operational level. Since the Luftwaffe initiated all combats against Fighter Command, implementing various and constantly changing plans and tactics as it attempted to achieve its operational objective, it is proper to describe the campaign, and the many battles that compose it, from their point of view.
In To Defeat the Few, we have done just that. Using the Luftwaffe’s official histories – 42 volumes written by surviving high ranking Luftwaffe officers between 1952-1958 – and their headquarters’ daily ‘situation reports’ for 1 July through 30 September 1940, we have correlated German strategy, operational plans and tactical missions with original RAF reports, such as group, unit and station Operation Record Books, to develop an accurate, balanced, and comprehensive account of what actually happened and why.
The Start of the Battle
Ravaged by the Nazi’s Blitzkrieg war machine, much of Europe had succumbed to German occupation by May 1940, leaving Great Britain to stand alone against a battle-hardened foe. To prevent fighting a war on two fronts, Hitler understood that he’d need to remove his ‘English problem’ from the war, before focusing attention on his arch enemy, Bolshevism and the Soviet Union.
On 2 July 1940, with losses from the invasion of France and the Low Countries largely replenished, the Luftwaffe began launching attacks against allied shipping in the English Channel. Known as Kanalkampf or Channel battle, many historians have mistakenly identified this as the beginning of the Battle of Britain.
However, having researched the battle from the Luftwaffe’s perspective, it became apparent that this was part of an entirely different strategy known as Handelskieg – or blockade battle.
The Nazi leadership hoped that this maritime air campaign, mounted in parallel with the Kriegsmarine, would force Britain to eventually sue for peace. But like all blockades, it needed time to take effect and patience was one of many characteristics that the Fűhrer didn’t possess.
Instead an alternative plan was approved, a proposed invasion of Britain – codenamed Operation Sealion. For this to be successful, air superiority over the landing beaches in southern England would have to be achieved by first destroying RAF Fighter Command.
Given the eye-watering successes of ‘his’ Luftwaffe to date, it was a task that its arrogant, bombastic boss, Reichmarschall Herman Göring, considered to be easily within its capabilities.
However, unlike other air forces crushed by the Nazis, the RAF had developed two modern, monoplane fighter designs, each packing eight .303 calibre machine guns – the Hurricane and the Spitfire.
In addition, a complex network of aircraft radio and visual detection systems had been developed to produce the world’s first Integrated Air Defence System (IADS). This enabled incoming raids to be detected early and fighters to be scrambled and positioned to intercept incoming raids.
At the operational command level, many previously unidentified factors that played crucial roles in determining the outcome of the campaign were discovered and are described in the book.
For example, Luftwaffe fighter formations ‘out-gunned’ their RAF opponents at virtually the same ratio as their resulting ‘kill/loss’ records. This is because Fighter Command’s rigid, obsolete and patently inappropriate three-aeroplane engaged tactics permitted only one fighter in the section – the leader – to be the ‘shooter’, while the two wingmen guarded his tail. So, a 12-aeroplane RAF squadron had four ‘shooters’ at the outset of an engagement.
The Luftwaffe however, used modern fluid ‘finger four’ formations, where the flight leader and his deputy were both designated ‘shooters’. So a German 12-fighter formation had six ‘shooters’ – a 1.5 to 1 advantage in squadron-versus-squadron combat.
Interestingly, the RAF’s overall loss-vs-victory ratio in fighter-versus-fighter dogfights was 1.77:1, statistically virtually identical.
Through their radio monitoring service and by listening to RAF voice frequencies during Kanalkampf, the Germans determined that their aircraft were being detected by electronic emissions emanating from mysterious towers that dotted the English coastline. Fighters were then being directed by radio from certain airfields to intercept the raid.
It was therefore clear to the Luftwaffe that if this command system could be disrupted, their aircraft were less likely to be intercepted.
On the morning of the 12 August 1940, the Luftwaffe launched the first raids that were part of Adlerangriff (Attack of the Eagles) Stage 1. These were designed to eliminate the detection masts thereby disrupting the effectiveness of the system, whilst also attempting to destroy airfields some 30 miles inland from the south coast.
During combat operations in Europe, the Germans appreciated that virtually any grass-strip could support fighter operations, they therefore targeted Fleet Air Arm and Coastal Command bases as well as those operated by Fighter Command.
“ULTRA” and “Big Wing”
Many have wondered why the devastating 7 September raid on London’s East End Docks was not effectively intercepted before bombs rained down.
The answer is found in the bureaucratic restrictions governing the use of “Ultra”, the decoded information gleaned from the Nazi’s “Enigma” encoding machine, the devastating suppression of the crucial Biggin Hill Sector Operations Centre, and the difference between an “active defense” versus a “static defense” along the line of approach.
Another discovery described and assessed in To Defeat the Few is one of the most famous – and contentious – RAF debates concerning the effectiveness of the so-called “Big Wing” concept. In the final analysis, at an operational level, it proved to be tactically ineffective because those Midlands-based formations couldn’t operate on the same radio frequencies as the southern Sector controllers.
We also discovered that there was a technical limitation that imposed an operational restriction on the number of squadrons each RAF Sector Operations Center could control in defending its airspace.
The innovative “Pip Squeak”/”Huff-Duff” equipment for tracking the position of intercepting units could only accommodate four individual squadrons at one time – about 48 fighters – who were frequently overwhelmed by German raiders that often totaled twice that number. Under this restriction, the RAF was fighting the Luftwaffe to a draw (despite the unfavorable “exchange ratio”) until they began pairing squadrons together to meet the incoming raiders with equal or superior numbers of interceptors. With this major revision in operational tactics, after a series of dramatic German defeats during the concluding week of September 1940, the campaign, at least during daylight hours, became a British victory.
What is most important is that To Defeat the Few provides a professional military account and assessment of what was history’s first Offensive Counter Air Campaign waged against the world’s first Integrated Air Defence System, thereby establishing the blueprint for all that followed it, from the Arab-Israeli ‘Six Day War’ through Operation Desert Storm.
For this reason, the Battle of Britain – as told from an air campaign perspective – remains vitally relevant even 80 years after it occurred.
Paul F. Crickmore is the author of the much-acclaimed Lockheed Blackbird: Beyond the Secret Missions. He was commissioned to write his first book for Osprey 35 years ago and since then he has written 20 other aviation titles – including 12 for Osprey. In addition he has also written numerous articles for the aviation press, appeared in several documentaries and is an honorary member of the Road Runners and Blackbird associations. To Defeat the Few is published by Osprey Publishing.