Who Did the RAF Face in the Skies During the Battle of Britain?

Patrick Eriksson

5 mins

30 Jul 2019

The Battle of Britain was a critical part of the larger invasion and conquest of Britain; despite Hitler’s vacillation over the ‘go’ decision, all preparations of naval and merchant shipping, training, staff work, human and materiel cargoes were in place for a 15 September 1940 launch.

Advantage Britain

While the Luftwaffe was ill-prepared for the Battle, and indifferently led by Göring, the RAF was superbly led by Dowding and Park who made full use of a sophisticated, and practised defence system based primarily on radar to maximise efficient use of their fighters.

They also fought the Battle as one of attrition, with adequate reserves of aircraft and pilots in place, and an efficient civilian repair network to rapidly turn around damaged Spitfires and Hurricanes.

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The German concept of war, the Blitzkrieg approach, envisaged rapid victory, and they thus lacked adequate reserves; many lightly damaged machines were sent back to factories in Germany for repair (generally all aircraft over 10% damaged).

Pilot shortages

While the Luftwaffe possessed close to 1500 bombers (808 serviceable) and an effective 760 serviceable Me 109s, pitted against 990 serviceable RAF fighters (all figures early August 1940), the latter were spread across the island, while the Germans concentrated on SE England, hence generally outnumbering the RAF in most encounters.

Ironically, German bomber strength was limited in its use by available Me 109s to escort them, and shrinking fighter availability had become critical by mid-September, being part of the motivation for turning the attack on London.

Burnt-out remains of Artur Dau’s Me 109, 10 July 1940, France.

By 7 September when this occurred, only 564 serviceable Me 109s were available and they were by then used in a 3:1 ratio to escorted bombers. While the RAF was under pressure from pilot resources also, and suffering significant airfield damage by then, the Luftwaffe was worse off.

It was not only exhausted RAF squadrons being withdrawn from combat, the Luftwaffe also had to remove fighter units (II and III/JG 52, II/JG 51). III/JG 52, for example lost almost all their leaders within a few days in July, and never returned to the Channel again.

The view from the fighter pilots

Luftwaffe ace and Battle of Britain veteran Max Clerico with his dog.

Most German fighter pilot survivors regarded the Battle as a draw; Max Clerico (above image) of 7/JG 54:

‘..the situation was always fifty-fifty’.

Part of this viewpoint relates also to the great confidence the German pilots had at the beginning of the Battle, having destroyed all the European air forces that opposed them within a few days to weeks.

Hatred of their opponents in the Battle of Britain was not predominant, again Max Clerico:

‘I never had the impression that they were enemies, but rather something like colleagues, but just from the other faculty. Sometimes they showed a sense of humour. Once, I saw a Spitfire doing an upward roll right through a chaotic mix-up of fighting aircraft’.

Although bomber escorts were obviously critical, many Me 109 pilots resented these missions; Josef Bűrschgens, 7/JG 26:

‘Fighter protection for the bombers was improvised – a task absolutely contrary to the original role of the Me 109, the intentions of its designer Messerschmitt, and our training.’

Fighter-bomber coordination in the air was difficult as they used different radio frequency bands. Gűnther Scholz who led 7/JG 54 and was acting Gruppekommandeur of III/JG 54 after the incumbent was killed, had a much more stark memory of the Battle:

‘I can only say that the air war against England led to very high losses and for the individual pilots it was a great nervous strain. For example, my friend Leo Eggers, developed psychosomatic conditions, insomnia, anxiety attacks. He was “flown out” (abgeflogen) as we called it’.

Gűnther Scholz, Clerico’s Staffelkapitän (left).

The early fighter battles of July were often highly confused, and German fighter pilots had trouble differentiating friend and foe; as a result most of the Me 109 Geschwader painted noses and tails bright yellow (less often orange or red) and yellow noses did not denote elite units.

Theo Osterkamp, commander of all Luftwaffe fighters operating out of the Pas de Calais, did not enforce effective bomber escort tactics, and in his autobiography described using the Me 109s preferably in free chases, and then bouncing the British fighters, for which the Messerschmitts were ideally suited.

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Protect the bombers

Osterkamp tried to run things so that his fighters could obtain a 5:1 ratio of victories versus losses, something they never came close to achieving. The Luftwaffe’s fascination with victories and the high-scoring ace led them towards tactical advantage and a higher kill rate while losing sight of the attritional nature of the air battle and the true costs of bomber casualties.

The replacement of older World War One veterans as Geschwader leaders between about 19 and 25 August 1940 mostly by young and highly successful pilots exacerbated the concept of the supremacy of the ace.

Gerhard Schöpfel, Gruppenkommandeur III/JG 26 nicely summed up German bomber escort tactics:

‘One Gruppe had the task of close escort, pairs of fighters buzzing all around the bomber formation. Another Gruppe escorted the bombers from the side and higher, but at a distance, flying in four’s. The last Gruppe flew a sweep in Staffel formations, far away but within sight of the bombers, to be able to attack approaching enemy fighters before they reached the bombers.’

Geschwader commander Hanns Trűbenbach.

One of the more mature newly appointed Geschwader commanders, Hanns Trűbenbach of JG 52 felt strongly about protecting the bombers and made every effort to follow his instructions in this regard:

‘We met the bomber Geschwader at 7,000 m height over the French coast and then flew tactically such that the bomber formation was protected from above. We had strict orders never to leave the bomber formation without adequate fighter escort, and I always carried these out.
Other fighter units often in such situations entered combat and thereby neglected the protection of the bomber Geschwader. This was hard to resist, as who wanted to be shot down without fighting, without defending your own skin? The results of all this was unsustainable bomber losses’.

In the end the battle of attrition was lost.

Patrick Eriksson is emeritus Professor of Geology, University of Pretoria, has co-authored/-edited three scientific books and over 230 papers, and is a veteran of the Namibian Bush War. Alarmstart (2017) was his first aviation history book, now being reprinted in paperback by Amberley Publishing