This article is an edited transcript of World War Two: A Forgotten Narrative with James Holland on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 22 November 2015. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.
Contrary to what we’ve been brought up to believe in the UK, the Battle of Britain wasn’t actually that close – the German Luftwaffe was pretty hopeless. It was very badly led at the highest level, its general staff was in a complete mess and its intelligence was woeful. Really unbelievably bad.
That’s one of the really interesting things about the whole Nazi regime – just how bad its international intelligence was. Secondly, the Nazis just didn’t have enough planes. You can pretty much count on one hand the number of times that 100 bombers went over and hit a specific target in the Battle of Britain.
The number of planes that the Nazis were sending over wasn’t enough because what they were trying to do was to target airfields.
Britain wasn’t France
Now, before the Battle of Britain started, the Luftwaffe assumed the clash was going to be just like the fight in France where there had been no defence system. There had been radar in France, but it was very, very basic radar that was not coordinated whatsoever. There had been no early warning system in France or anything.
So the Luftwaffe could completely choose as and when it attacked. Its Messerschmitts and Junkers 88s, and its Dorniers and stuff could scream in, fly over an Allied airfield, shoot it up and hit most of the Hurricanes or Marines on the ground.
All the Allies could do in France was sort of take off and hope for the best, hope that they bumped into some Luftwaffe planes.
Thus, the Luftwaffe held all the aces in France.
But it was completely different in Britain because we knew when the Luftwaffe planes were coming and so we could get off the ground get into the air and actually shoot some of them down. And, more importantly, make sure that we weren’t shot up on the ground and destroyed on the ground.
So for the Germans, all that was a problem because if the enemy’s aircraft wasn’t on the ground to be destroyed then all they could do was bomb the airfield. But the British airfields were all grass and about 100 acres in size, which is big.
If the Germans were only attacking with 20 Dorniers, the amount of tonnage they could drop in total was about 30 tonnes. And 30 tonnes is nothing.
It would only be enough to make a few pockmarks around the field, which the British could quickly fill in with pre-prepared scalpings and soil and be good to go again within a few hours.
Over the entire course of the Battle of Britain, only one airfield was knocked out for more than 24 hours, and that was Manston. Manston was deliberately kept out of action because it was right on the tip of Kent and not needed, so there was no point in getting it back up and running. So the Luftwaffe was never even close to victory.
The failing of British intelligence
British intelligence on the Luftwaffe was pretty good, but the one failing was that they overestimated the strength of the German air force. They thought that German squadrons were based on British squadrons, which had 12 planes in the air but double that on the ground – so 22 to 24 total pilots and 20 to 22 total planes for every 12 planes in the air.
When the British were down to 75 per cent strength at the end of August 1940 and the first week of September, they were worried and thinking, “God, you know, we’re 75 per cent strength, that’s not enough. We can’t sustain that”. But that capacity still meant that each British squadron had around 16 to 18 pilots and aircraft, though the number of pilots was more of a problem than the number of aircraft.
By contrast, German squadrons only had 12 planes at full capacity – though very often operated with nine. And by the first week of September, quite a lot of the squadrons had only four or three or even no planes on a particular day.
The German problem was a shortage of planes because they weren’t producing as many as the British were.
In reality, the German situation was much worse than our intelligence thought it was. But that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you’re on the defensive, it’s quite good to overestimate your enemy’s strength.
The “henpecking” tactic
Quite often, German planes would come over to Britain for a raid and, while initially a squadron of 12 British planes might be attacking a formation of 100 Luftwaffe aircraft, over the course of the entire raid, the total British fighters attacking would number more than the German planes.
The classic example of that is 15 September 1940, which is known as Battle of Britain Day.
Two major raids took place on that day, with the first one peaking at around midday over London when about 75 to 80 enemy aircraft were met by about 275 British Spitfires and Hurricanes. So the ratio was massively in favour of the British Royal Air Force.
But, again, at the point of impact, a 20-year-old British pilot might have been one of only 12 attacking a German formation of 80-plus and he wouldn’t have necessarily realised that there was another wave of British planes flying out after him, tag-teaming almost.
Because our airfields were dispersed all around southern England, British aircraft weren’t all going to take off at the same time and form one big wing.
Instead, a squadron of 12 from Biggin Hill, say, would be sent up and would attack the German formation as they saw it coming in. But then another British squadron would also attack, and then another.
So the British would henpeck a German formation all the way as it came out, and the point would be to try and put the German planes off their aim and get them to get rid of their bombs early rather than drop them on London or whatever the target might be.