Göring was confident that his airmen could smash the Royal Air Force as a prelude to the German invasion of Britain. But a combination of poor command decisions and the tenacity of Britain’s pilots stopped the Luftwaffe.
An Heinkel He 115 floatplane attacks a British merchant ship in the Channel, July 1940. Channel attacks failed to entice the RAF.
Pre-war studies by the Luftwaffe had concluded that aerial attacks on Britain would be of little strategic value unless airbases were available in northern France and the Low Countries. Otherwise, most of the worthwhile targets across the Channel would be out of range of existing aircraft and particularly fighters. The most that might be achieved was for the Luftwaffe to contribute, with the Kriegsmarine, the German Navy, to an economic blockade of Great Britain. Indeed, this was what Hitler ordered Göring to do as early as September 1939, when war broke out. Throughout the “Phoney War” period both Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe aircraft carried out mining sorties close to British ports, attacked coastal convoys when they came within range, and sought out elements of the British fleet, either in harbour or on the high seas.
A fine study of a Heinkel He 111 H bomber of Kampfgeschwader 26 as it approaches the English coast, August 1940. The band around the fuselage is for recognition purposes, while the letters “EN” denote the individual aircraft and the staffel to which it belonged. The Geschwader code, in this case “1 H”, appeared in front of the cross.
The effects were not significant, though in the process of the campaign the Luftwaffe did gradually assume duties that had previously been the preserve of the Kriegsmarine, whose floatplanes and flying boats soon proved inadequate. In the spring of 1940, for example, the Luftwaffe began to deploy Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor long-range converted airliners for maritime reconnaissance and attack. Capable of carrying a 909kg (2000lb) bomb load over a radius of 1609km (1000 miles), the four-engined Condors were to prove the “Scourge of the Atlantic”, hitting merchant ships or guiding U-boats in their direction, but there were never enough of them to be decisive. It was another case of too little, too late.
A swarm of Junkers Ju 88’s head for London, escorted by Messerschmitt Bf 109’s. Göring made a fatal error. Convinced, with good reason, that the Luftwaffe was succeeding, and aiming to demoralise the British people as the next logical preliminary to invasion, he ordered his bombers to concentrate on London.
The first raids against England.
The strategic situation changed in June 1940, for once the panzers had spearheaded the seizer of both France and the Low Countries, and the Luftwaffe was presented with airbases within 20 minutes’ flying time of southern England. At the same time, aircraft in Norway and Denmark could reach eastern England, increasing the diversity of the threat. As early as the 5th June, about 50 Heinkel He 111s were sent to hit airfields and military instillations in southern England, and these “nuisance raids” were to continue, mostly at night, for the best part of a week. In the process, the bombers tested their top secret “Knickerbein” the “Crooked Leg”, a radio-directional navigation aid, the discovery and countering of which was to constitute an early, albeit unsung, victory for British scientists.
Unterfelwebel Georg Karl Lange. “Bordfunker”, Wireless-Operator/Air-Gunner flying in a crew of a Junkers Ju 88. His awards 1939 Iron Cross 2nd Class, 13th January 1941, 1939 Iron Cross 1st Class 26th July 1941, Operational Flying Clasp – Bomber – Bronze Class, 20 operational flights 31st July 1941, Operational Flying Clasp – Bomber – Silver Class, 60 operational flights 7th October 1941,Operational Flying Clasp – Bomber – Gold Class, 110 operational flights 20th January 1942, Luftwaffe Honour Goblet 29th June 1942, Medal for the Winter Campaign in Russia 1941/1942 23rd September 1942, German Cross in Gold 23rd November 1942. He was killed on the Eastern Front.
Unterfelwebel Georg Karl Lange. “Flugbuch” Flight Book cover.
–.”Flugbuch” Flight Book left, hand page. Shows attack flights, 3,4,5,6.
“Flugbuch” Flight Book, right hand page. Shows attack flights, 3 - 29th December 1940, target London. 4 - 19th March 1941, target London, 5 – 20th March 1941, target Plymouth. 6 – 21st March 1941, target Plymouth.
But this was not what Göring had planned. On the 30th June, he issued a “General directive for the Operation of the Luftwaffe against England”, reinforcing the need to cooperate closely with the Kriegsmarine in imposing an economic blockade, but for the first time including as a priority the destruction of the Royal Air Force and its supporting aircraft industry. These instructions were translated into orders by the Luftwaffe General Staff on the 11th July, and sent to Luftflotte 5 in Norway, commanded by General Hans Jurgen Stumpff, Luftflotte 2 to the north of Le Harvre which was under the command of General Albert Kesselring, and Luftflotte 3 to the south of Le Havre which was under the command of General Hugo Sperrle. All three air fleets were to mount attacks designed to force the Royal Air Force to react, upon which British aircraft would be destroyed, opening the way to a blockade.
Close-up of a gunner in the extensive glazed nose compartment of a Heinkel He 111 H gives a good indication of the observation he enjoyed. He is armed with a 7.9mm Maschinengewehr (MG) 15 on a special flexible mounting, but is very vulnerable to attack by fighters, especially Royal Air Force Spitfires or Hurricanes. The Heinkel He 111 H series was popular with crews, having pleasant handling qualities, even at maximum weights, plus excellent manoeuvrability and stability. Ironically, the Heinkel He 111 was designed from the outset to fulfil the role of both bomber and commercial transport. That said, the two roles were by no means incompatible at the time, as the Nazis always placed an emphasis on military potential in aircraft designs, resulting in some airliners being built in the 1930’s which had very dubious commercial value.
Luftwaffe ground crew paint a victory symbol on the tail of a Heinkel He 111, denoting in this case the sinking of a British submarine. Such victories were rare; it was difficult to catch a submarine on the surface. This gives rise to the looks of satisfaction on the faces of the men involved.
Initial phase of the “Battle of Britain”.
This preliminary phase of what was to be known as the “Battle of Britain” lasted throughout July and into early August. It was not a success. Small groups of bombers, operating both by day and night, penetrated British defences to hit selected targets, while larger formations, protected by fighter cover, attacked Channel convoys when they appeared. To the German airmen involved, this was the “Kanalkampf” or “Channel War”, but it did not force the Royal Air Force to engage in all-out battle. Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, commanding RAF Fighter Command, refused to commit his precious Spitfires or Hurricanes unless something like a convoy was actually under attack, and even then was wary about falling into deliberate traps. In the six weeks from the 1st July, the Luftwaffe flew over 7000 bomber sorties and dropped 1930 tonnes (1900 tons) of bombs, but the results were disappointing. Although roughly 71,123 tonnes (70,000 tons) of merchant shipping were claimed, the Luftwaffe lost 279 aircraft to the RAF’s 142.
German bombs await transportation to the aircraft that will carry them to England, summer 1940. These are large devices, possibly SC 1000kg (2200lb) bombs, and they are already attached to the shackles which will allow them to be loaded into the bays of Heinkel He 111s or Junkers Ju 88s.
Like ground crews the world over, Luftwaffe armourers and fitters take delight in chalking messages on the bombs that are about to be used. These appear to be SC 500kg (1100lb) blast bombs, about to be loaded into the Junkers Ju 88 parked behind, sometime in the summer of 1940.
On the 1st August, Hitler intervened to alter the priorities of the Luftwaffe assault. He was already preparing Operation “See löwe”, or “Sea lion”, an amphibious invasion of England, and realised that any such attack would be doomed unless the forces involved enjoyed both naval and air superiority, at least in the invasion area. Führer Directive No 17, entitled “For the Conduct of Air and Sea Warfare against England”, ordered the Luftwaffe “to overpower the English Air Force with all the forces at its command”, with the attacks directed primarily “against flying units, their ground instillations, and their supply organisations”. Within 24 hours, this had been translated into a Luftwaffe plan codenamed “Adlerangriff” or the “Eagle Attack”. According to its details, the Luftflotten in France and the Low Countries were to spend the first five days of the campaign attacking aircraft, airfields, radar stations and ground facilities in a semi-circle to the west and south of London, out to a radius of about 96km (60 miles); in the following three days, this radius would be brought in to about 48km (30 miles); in the final five days it would squeeze in on London itself. Aircraft from Norway and Denmark would join in to split the British defences by attacking eastern England.
A formation of Junkers Ju 87 Stukas, photographed in the summer of 1940 over northern France. The commitment of the Stukas to the “Battle of Britain” showed how obsolete these aircraft were when pitted against modern interceptor fighters. As losses mounted in August, they were withdrawn from the battle.
A Luftwaffe general, in the centre and denoted by the white lapels of his great coat, watches as ground crew armourers prepare a 500kg (1100lb) bomb for loading aboard the Heinkel He 111 under which he is standing. The bed of bricks on the bomb-trolley is clearly a local extemporisation for the purpose of display.
Göring and his commanders had no doubt that this would force Dowding to commit everything he had, and were confident that the Luftwaffe would destroy the RAF with ease. There was some logic to their calculations: on the 10th August the three Luftflotten fielded a total of 3196 aircraft, of which 2485 were fully serviceable, against which the RAF in southeast England, which constituted No 11 Group under the command of Air Vice Marshal Keith Park, could only deploy 570 Spitfires and Hurricanes of which only 467 were serviceable. There were also a few obsolete Fulmars and Defiants and, if any use in the air battle to come, the 500 Hampdens, Wellingtons and Whitleys of Bomber Command. On paper, the RAF was outnumbered by at least two to one in fighters and, in overall terms, by a factor of nearly six to one. In addition, Britain’s anti-aircraft defences were weak, with only 1200 heavy and 650 light guns protecting London and the Channel ports. It should have been a walkover.
Messerschmitt Bf 109 E fighter stands ready on an airfield in northern France, summer 1940. They belong to Jagdgeschwader 53, as denoted by the “Ace of Hearts” symbol painted on the side of the engine cowling.
But the British did enjoy certain crucial advantages. Although No 11 Group may have looked weak, it was operating largely over its own soil, meaning that any pilots who did survive being shot down would be available to fly again, and Park could call on reinforcements from other Fighter Groups, No 10 in the west of England and No 12 to the north of London. The bases for these were out of range of the Luftwaffe’s fighters or not included in Göring’s target list. More importantly, the British had their “Chain Home” radar system deployed along the southern and eastern coasts, enabling them to foresee the build-up of Luftwaffe raids and so conserve and direct their fighters for maximum effect.
These advantages were shown as the “Battle of Britain” progressed, though the RAF did come perilously close to defeat in the process. Göring initially chose the 10th August as the opening date for “Adlerangriff”, but poor weather intervened to delay this for three days. The Luftwaffe did not cease operating during that time; indeed, on the 12th August bombers seriously damaged the radar station at Ventnor on the Isle of White, opening up a potentially vulnerable gap in the defences, but “Adler tag”, “Eagle Day” was eventually set for the 13th August. On that day, the Luftwaffe flew a total of 1485 sorties, only to find that British pilots were able to exploit the early warning system and impose significant casualties, shooting down 20 bombers and 24 fighters in furious air battles for the loss of 13 fighters. More importantly, Göring had already ordered his airmen to concentrate on airfields, and although a number were hit and put out of action, this did mean that radar stations were spared, leaving the system largely intact. The raids continued until the 18th August, constituting the second phase of the battle, during which the Luftwaffe lost 247 aircraft to the RAF’s 131. What Göring did not realise was that Dowding was beginning to run out of trained pilots, particularly ones who could also lead the squadrons in battle, and he was already having to “raid” other Fighter Groups.
Striking poses similar to those adopted by RAF fighter pilots on their airfields in southern England, these Luftwaffe pilots of Jagdgeschwader 3 wait for their next operation, summer 1940. The pilot seated on the steps is Unteroffizier Scheef.
The RAF at breaking point.
This was shown during the next phase, which lasted from the 19th August until the 6th September. As the Luftwaffe increased the pressure, flying up to 1000 sorties a day, Göring shifted tactics, deploying more fighters in an attempt to lure the RAF into battle. It almost worked. By the 6th September, Dowding had lost a further precious 273 fighters in combat, and though the balance still seemed to be in his favour, with 303 Luftwaffe aircraft downed, including 146 Messerschmitt Bf 109s, he was fat running out of reserves. As plans were made to pull the RAF back to the north of London, the Luftwaffe, still fielding 1158 bombers and over 1000 fighters, seemed on the brink of victory.
As Adolf Galland (left) looks on, Walter Oesau is presented to the Führer. Oesau is about to receive the Swords to his Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross in recognition of having downed 40 enemy aircraft. Galland has just received the same award.
Luftwaffe armourers carefully load a belt of 7.9mm bullets into a machine gun mounted alongside the nose of a German fighter. Care is essential if the pilot is not to be plagued by stoppages in mid-combat – a potentially fatal occurrence.
It was at this point that Göring made a fatal error. Convinced, with good reason, that the Luftwaffe was succeeding, and aiming to demoralise the British people as the next logical preliminary to invasion, he ordered his bombers to concentrate on London. This tied the Luftwaffe to a precise and predictable target and, even more importantly, relieved the pressure on the RAF. Dowding hastily conserved his remaining assets, absorbing new aircraft and pilots while overseeing the repair of damaged airfields. Göring’s airmen turned their attention to a campaign for which they were ill prepared.
Adolf Galland, one of the leading fighter “aces”, of the “Battle of Britain”. Photographed as an Oberst (Colonel), he is wearing the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oakleaves and Swords at his neck and the Spanish Cross in Gold with Brilliants on his right breast
Adolf Galland alights from his Messerschmitt Bf 109 after a heavy engagement over England. His motive mascot “Micky Mouse” can be seen beneath the open canopy.
Adolf Galland with his mechanic. Galland’s boots are highly polished, while his mechanic looks decidedly “muddy”.
“War is no game of Cricket”.
Adolf Galland recalled the combat and the unwritten laws of chivalry that prevailed during the early days. The British pressed us very hard and drove us round the ring with deadly punches. But we hit back whenever we could. In the late summer and autumn months I shot down 21 Spitfires, 3 Blenheim’s and 1 Hurricane. I am pleased to say that tough as the fight was, it did not for a moment violate the unwritten laws of chivalry. Far removed from all humanitarian sentimentality and fully aware that our conflict with the enemy was a life and death struggle, we kept to the rules of a fair fight, the foremost of which is to spare a defenceless opponent. The German Air Sea Rescue Service therefore looked after any “Johnny” they found swimming in the Channel as well as after the German airman. To shoot at a pilot parachuting down would have seemed to us then an act of unspeakable barbarism.
I remember quite well the particular circumstances when Göring mentioned this subject during the “Battle of Britain”. Only Mölders was present when this conversation took place outside the Reichsmarshal’s special train in France.
Experience had proved, he told us, that especially with technically highly developed arms such as tanks and fighter aircraft, the men who controlled these machines were more important than the machines themselves. The aircraft which we shot down could easily be replaced by the English. Not so the pilots. As in our own case it was very difficult, particularly as the war dragged on. Successful fighter pilots who could survive this war safe and sound would be worth their weight in gold not only because of their experiences and knowledge but also because of their rarity! There was a short pause. Göring wanted to know if we ever had thought about this subject. “Jawohl, Herr Reichsmarschall!” I replied. Well? I was silent. Göring looked me straight in the eyes and said, “What would you think of an order directing you to shoot down pilots who were bailing out?” “I should regard it as murder, Herr Reichsmarschall,” I replied, “and I should do everything in my power to disobey such an order.” Göring put both his hands on my shoulders and said, “That is just the reply I had expected from you, Galland.” In the First World War I had similar thoughts that cropped up, but these were equally strongly rejected by the fighter pilots.
Göring had clearly seen the importance of trained pilots and their asset value. Hardware could be reasonably easily replaced but not the trained manpower asset. What Göring did not realise was that Dowding was beginning to run out of trained pilots. His questioning of the view of possible “shoot to kill” orders of defenceless protagonists was meet with an uncompromising response. One that upholds the tenants of the Luftwaffe’s fighter forces. Göring’s might be less easily assessed or was it simply that he saw the need to rectify the situation at any cost?
Staffelkapitan (Staff Captain) Kurt Sochatzy (right) of Jagdgeschwader 3 poses with his mechanic, Unteroffizer (Corporal) Buchholz, in front of his Messerschmitt Bf 109 F, nicknamed “Tizi”, in August 1940. The odd-looing bandolier around Sochatzy’s lower leg contains ammunition for his flare pistol, vital if he is shot down over the Channel. Many Luftwaffe pilots also wore life jackets when operating over water.
Unteroffizer (Corporal) Buchholz works on Sochatzy’s “Tizi”, summer of 1940, making sure that it is fully prepared for action at the shortest notice. He is responsible for checking all aspects of the aircraft, including the engine, airframe and guns.
Major Walter Oesau (centre) shows the strains of command while listening to a conversation between General Osterkamp (left) and the fighter “ace” Werner Mölders (right). Oesau is wearing his recently awarded Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross.
Oberst Werner Mölders: Photographed in 1941, by which time he was an Oberst with the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oakleaves, Swords and Diamonds.
He was born in Gelsenkirchen on the 18th March 1913. At the age of 23 he volunteered for service in the Legion Condor to fight in the Spanish Civil War. While leading Jagdgruppe 88 in Spain, he perfected the “finger four” tactical formation. By the war’s end he was recognised as the most successful fighter pilot, downing a total of 14 aircraft. He was awarded the Spanish Cross in Gold with Diamonds. The experience that he had gained with J - 88 was to serve him well over the next six years. At the outbreak of the Second World War, he was appointed commander of a Jagdgeschwader 53 which took part in the Battle of France and Britain. He was able to share his earlier experiences with the men of the Jagdgeschwader 51. A gifted tactician, he could only look to the future. It seemed as if his future would be short when he was shot down over France on 5th June 1940 by a French fighter pilot and was forced to bail out of his flaming Messerschmitt Bf 109 over Chantilly and taken prisoner. He remained a prisoner until the defeat of France. He was certainly a prize catch since he was the first to shoot down a total of 20 aircraft. When France fell, he was returned to Germany and took command of the Jagdgeschwader 51. After his 68 victory in the west his wing was transferred to the Eastern Front. As a result of his demonstrated leadership and heroism in the face of man-on-man combat, he was accorded the highest bravery award and promoted to the rank of General der Jagdflieger at the age of 27, the first officer to obtain such a position. He had to turn over command of Jagdgeschwader 51. He had already been the youngest wing commander in the Luftwaffe. The Jagdgeschwader 51 was called Jagdgeschwader 51 “Mölders”, and was accorded the privilege of wearing a sleeve band carrying that name as an honorary distinction.
While returning from the funeral of Ernst Udet, Oberst “Vati” Mölders, at the age of 28, was killed in a plane crash on 22nd November 1941. He was flying as passenger in a bomber during a rain storm, when the aircraft struck a cable and crashed. He was buried in the Invaliden Cemetery in Berlin near the grave of the “Red Baron” Manfred von Richthofen.
Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross: Awarded on the 29th May 1940 for scoring 20 victories while a Hauptmann serving on the Western Front.
Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oakleaves: Awarded on the 21st September 1940 for accumulating 40 victories while a Major serving on the Western Front. He was the 2nd Recipient.
Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oakleaves and Swords: Awarded on the 22nd June 1941 for accumulating 72 victories while an Oberstleutnant serving as commander of Jagdgeschwader 51 He was the 2nd Recipient.
Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oakleaves, Swords and Diamonds: Awarded on the 16th July 1941 for accumulating 28 victories on the Eastern Front between 22nd June 1941 and 16th July 1941. He was the 18th Recipient.
Combined Pilots and Observers Badge in Gold with Diamonds.
A gathering of Eagles: 3 Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross holders are photographed together in the summer of 1940. On the left is Oberstleutnant (Lieutenant-Colonel) Leie, with Major Oesau in the centre and Leutnant Mayer on the right.
For nearly a year, between summer 1940 and spring 1941, the British were subjected to a sustained aerial assault. Gradually, however, people got used to the daily ordeal of bombing and, after a night spent huddled in a subterranean air-raid shelter, it was back to work and business as usual. The wail of air-raid sirens … the drone of enemy aircraft overhead... the WHAMM WHAMM WHAMM of the anti-aircraft batteries … the CRUMP CRUMP CRUMP of the bombs … these were the Blitz’s sombre sound-effects. Britons endured their first civilian bomb casualties in March 1940 as the Luftwaffe attacked the huge Scapa Flow naval base, in the extreme north of Scotland. Larger bombing raids were mounted from July, at the outset of the “Battle of Britain”. But it was not until summer’s end that the Blitz proper began. A sustained aerial assault on selected cities, ports and industrial centres that lasted until May 1941. London, Birmingham, Bristol, Glasgow, Coventry, Manchester and Liverpool were among the key targets. Raids were made on the same areas for several nights running, to bring infernos of flames, smashed brickwork, splintered glass and black, asphyxiating smoke. In the chaos, entire streets simply vanished, burying mothers, fathers and children in the rubble.
Messerschmitt Bf 109 E fighter’s take off on a “Hunting expedition”, over Kent. We were no longer in doubt that the RAF would prove a most formidable opponent. Luftwaffe fighter squadrons on the Channel were in continuous action. Two or three sorties were the rule and the briefing read: “Free chase over southeast England”. The physical as well as the mental strain on the pilots was considerable. The ground personnel and planes themselves were taxed to the limit.
The White Cliffs of Dover and Dover Castle. The Barrage Balloons were the first line of defence.
Nearly 2000 people were killed or wounded in London’s first night of the Blitz, Saturday the 7th September 1940, in a raid lasting 11 hours, some 650 bombers and 1000 fighters sorties were flown over London, the dockland area of which was hit by 670 tonnes (660 tons) of high explosive and thousands of incendiaries. Nearly 450 Londoners were killed, but the Luftwaffe lost 36 aircraft and gave notice of their future intentions. The brunt of the attack was borne by the East End where the docks were the important targets. From central London one could see fire engines racing eastwards, clanging their bells. A vast pink cloud turned an angry red and blackened around the edges. At ground level the East End’s experience was eerily horrific. One account of the events was that the whole of King Street was rising and falling, with shrapnel dancing off the cobbles. The suction and compression from the high-explosive blasts just pulled and pushed the residents and workers. They even had experience of their eyeballs being sucked out. Bomb blast, people had weird effects; it could rip victim’s limb from limb, or leave them unharmed but stripped naked.
On that first night in London the Luftwaffe airplanes kept on coming in waves, lured by a Thames aglow with blazing barges and flames reflected from the wharves. At Surry Docks on the south bank the heat was so intense that it blistered the paintwork of the fireboats on the opposite side of the river, and solid embers the size of footballs whirled away to start fresh fires elsewhere. Warehouses spilled blazing rum into the streets, causing paint drums to explode, and also spewed melting rubber that billowed with inky, noxious fumes, while flaming sugar flowed in cataracts over the dockside to form fiery sheets on the water’s surface. For the following 56 nights, London was bombed from dusk to dawn. Nor was London alone. The populations of the other great ports and cities knew similar terrors, and Coventry was subjected to a night of such annihilating ferocity that the Germans coined a new word: Coventrieren, to Coventrate.
The scourge of the Luftwaffe in the “Battle of Britain”: Supermarine Spitfire Mark 1As of No 65 Squadron, RAF Fighter Command, flying in formation over southern England, 1940. With a maximum speed of 580kmph (362mph) and armed with eight .303in machine guns, these were formidable machines. The RAF had 700 fast monoplane fighters by June 1940 – a mixture of Spitfires and Hurricanes, and the factory rates of production were high. By late 1940, for example, British aircraft manufacturing plants were turning out just over 400 fighters a month. In comparison, German industry was producing an average of less than 200 a month.
Even country districts suffered. The county of Kent, south-east of London, was known as “bomb alley” because it lay on the flight path to the Capital. People became used to the throb of Luftwaffe aircraft over quiet woods and villages and on one Kentish farm a single pasture was scarred by 93 bomb holes, one of them 12.2 m (40ft) across. The Farmer’s son said, “As a break from bombing, we sometimes get machine-gunning. That is definitely not so healthy. We had just left off threshing the other day when one blighter came hurtling down to 150ft and sprayed us. We threw ourselves under the wagon just in time.”
Under the watchful eyes of a Military Policeman and a Grenadier Guardsman, the crew of a Luftwaffe aircraft downed over southern England in 1940 enter captivity. The pilot is on the left and is denoted by his pilots badge on his left breast; the Oberfeldwebel on the right has the Iron Cross First Class.
Sometimes the Luftwaffe bombers made mistakes and dropped their bombs in entirely the wrong areas. At other times, returning from a raid, they would jettison the remaining bomb load at random in order to fly home with greater safety. Many bombs fell on suburbs. No one within any distance of a likely target could sleep entirely easy in their beds. On the 13th September 1940, Buckingham Palace itself was bombed. An event that quickened feelings of solidarity among all classes, “I’m glad we’ve been bombed,” was the Queen’s famous remark. “It makes me feel that I can look the East End in the face.”
The raids allowed Dowding to concentrate his forces to protect the capital. The advantages became apparent on the 15th September, latter to be adopted as the official “Battle of Britain Day”, when successive Luftwaffe raids were met by swarms of fighters, some brought in from No 12 Group. For the loss of 26 aircraft, the RAF managed to destroy 58 of the enemy planes. This pattern soon became the norm. between the 16th and the 30th September, Dowding lost 115 aircraft to the Luftwaffe’s 199, and it was obvious that the initiative had been wrested from the Germans and swung the RAF’s way.
A Heinkel He 111 H lies with its back broken on a Scottish hillside, October 1939. This is a photograph of the first German aircraft to be downed over the British Isles in the Second World War, hence the considerable interest being displayed. It was credited to Spitfires of Nos 602 and 603 Squadrons.
Hitler, already thinking about his projected assault on the Soviet Union, cancelled Operation “See löwe”, or “Sea lion”, while Göring, aware that his forces would soon be called upon to support that venture, he downgraded the daylight attacks on Britain to fighter-bomber sweeps using Messerschmitt Bf 109’s and Messerschmitt Bf 110’s in the roles for which they were not designed.
But British victory in the “Battle of Britain did not mean that German attacks ceased, far from it. Despite the losses over London in mid-September, Göring continued to press for a bombing campaign. Indeed, by the end of the month 6953 British civilians had been killed in Luftwaffe raids and British anti-aircraft defences had proved to be weak. These considerations led to a shift in tactics, with the bombers being sent over by night to hit targets throughout the country. It seemed to work. As searchlights swept the night skies fruitlessly, anti-aircraft guns failed to do much damage and British night-fighters, lacking radar, had little impact. This was shown most dramatically on the night of the 14th/15th November 1940, when 439 German bombers, spearheaded by “pathfinder” aircraft equipped with a sophisticated radio-direction beam known as X-Gerät, dropped 511 tonnes (503 tons) of high explosive and over 30,000 incendiaries on the city of Coventry in the industrial Midlands. The raid killed 568 people and left 1256 badly injured; more than 60,000 buildings were destroyed or damaged and factory production faltered.
The crew of a Heinkel He 111 drink from their thermos flasks having just returned from another raid on southern England, September 1940. Although the flying distance involved were not large, each raid took its toll in terms of stress and fatigue. Adrenalin rushes caused by combat often left crews with raging thirsts – for those who survived that is.
A flight of Messerschmitt Bf 110s photographed over southern England, August 1940. The Messerschmitt Bf 110, designed as a long-range fighter, proved to be vulnerable to British single-engined interceptors during the Battle of Britain. In the end, Messerschmitt Bf 109s were forced to act as protectors. Fighters defending fighters was not envisaged in pre-war tactics.
Reichsmarschall of the Greater German Reich, the Commander-in-chief appeared once more at the Channel to be on the spot and to give the order for the beginning of the operation in person. When on the afternoon of the 7th September the Luftwaffe squadrons assembled over the Channel coast. Bombers, Stukas, fighters, destroyers, more than 1000 aircraft in all set course for London, each of the participants realised the importance of the hour. The fourth phase of the “Battle of Britain” had started.
Göring declared angrily that the fighter arm had failed to give adequate protection to the bomber squadrons and were now opposed to escorting fighter bombers, a job which had resulted entirely from their own failure. If they were to prove unfit for this task as well it would be better to disband the fighter arm altogether. That was the limit! The fighter pilots who took part in the “Battle of Britain” were quite justly convinced that they had done their duty during the past weeks of heavy fighting.
Nor was Coventry the only target. By Christmas 1940, Birmingham, Sheffield, Liverpool and Manchester had been badly hit, and other cities were beginning to feel the full weight of Luftwaffe attacks. At the same time, raids on London continued. On the night of the 29th/30th December, 130 bombers hit the city, dropping incendiaries that left an area between St Paul’s Cathedral and the Guildhall aflame. Britain was effectively under siege.
The Blitz on London entered its final phase in May 1941 with a raid that left a third of the capital’s streets impassable and 155,000 families without gas, water or electricity. Thereafter the attacks eased off, but occasional raids continued to affect different parts of the country. But Britain did survive. Its population, more enraged than demoralised by the raids, insisted on conducting “business as usual” and, as the attacks were absorbed, countermeasures were adopted. British scientists learned to “jam” the German radio-direction beams, and even on occasion to “bend” them to ensure that the bombers dropped their loads on open ground; at the same time, anti-aircraft guns and searchlights became more effective and night-fighters, equipped with on-board radar, began to seek out and destroy their prey.
On the 7th September 1940, Göring switched the main weight of his offensive away from RAF airfields and installations to the port of London. This photograph, one of the most famous of the Second World War, shows the East End aflame. Despite the destruction and loss of civilian life, it gave the RAF the respite it needed. In addition, it had exactly the opposite effect to that intended by the Nazi leadership: instead of blitzing the population into submission, it merely fortified resolve.
British troops stand guard over the remains of a Dornier Do 17 Z shot down at Leaves Green, close to Biggin Hill airbase, on the 18th August 1940. Despite the extensive damage to the cockpit area, the five-man crew survived.
Caught on camera by the attacking fighter, this Messerschmitt Bf 110 is about to be shot down. A lack of manoeuvrability and speed meant that the Bf 110 was not able to survive against more agile fighters, while its rearward-facing defensive armament was inadequate.
A lifesaving buoy like this drifted in the English Channel and the North Sea. Airmen in disabled planes tried to land as close as possible to one. Within were four bunks, medical supplies and food. German air-sea rescue planes made periodic visits to these refuges to pick up anyone fortunate enough to reach its safety.
The Messerschmitt Bf 109 E of Oberleutnant Karl Fischer of Jagdgeschwader 27 is recovered from Windsor Great Park, early October 1940. Fischer survived his fight with the RAF.
The Blitz continued until the very eve of the attack on the Soviet Union. As late as the 10th/11th May 1941 more than 1400 civilians were killed in London, but by then it was obvious that the Luftwaffe had failed. It had not destroyed the RAF, nor had it prepared the way for an invasion. It was Göring’s first setback and one that gave the lie to pre-war theories that countries could be defeated from the air. However awe-inspiring the Luftwaffe may have been over Guernica, Warsaw or Rotterdam, none of these cities had been adequately defended, chiefly because air superiority had been lost before the raids began. Over Britain, Göring’s error was to shift to city bombing before his enemy’s air force had been neutralised. It was a fatal error, leaving Britain undefeated in the West at a time when Hitler was insistent on shifting his attacks to the East, against the Soviet Union. Ironically Göring was presented by Hitler, The Grand Cross of the Iron Cross on the 19th July 1940, for the part that the Luftwaffe had played in the success of the German Armed Forces in the campaign in France and the Low Countries. At the same time Göring was promoted to the unique rank of Reichsmarschall des Grossdeutschen Reiches.
Adolf Hitler congratulates Göring after the conclusion of the campaign in France. On the evening of the 19th July 1940, in the Opera House in Berlin, Hitler promoted a dozen generals to the rank of Generalfeldmarschall. The highest honour, however, went to Hermann Göring. Hitler personally read the citation: “For his mighty contribution to victory, I hereby appoint the creator of the Luftwaffe Reichsmarschall of the Greater German Reich, and award him the Grand Cross of the Iron Cross.” Göring was now the only holder of the highest decoration in the land and the only holder of the highest military rank in German history, a hitherto unheard of rank at that.
The crew of a Messerschmitt Bf 110 long-range fighter shelter from the sun, North Africa 1941. By this stage in the war, the Messerschmitt Bf 110 was being used more as a fighter-bomber.