Military history

THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN

Goering’s great air offensive against Britain, Operation Eagle (Adlerangriffe), had been launched on August 15 with the objective of driving the British Air Force from the skies and thus achieving the one condition on which the launching of the invasion depended. The fat Reich Marshal, as he now was, had no doubts about victory. By mid-July he was confident that British fighter defenses in southern England could be smashed within four days by an all-out assault, thus opening the way for the invasion. To destroy the R.A.F. completely would take a little longer, Goering told the Army High Command: from two to four weeks.32 In fact, the bemedaled German Air Force chief thought that the Luftwaffe alone could bring Britain to her knees and that an invasion by land forces probably would not be necessary.

To obtain this mighty objective he had three great air fleets (Luftflotten): Number 2 under Field Marshal Kesselring, operating from the Low Countries and northern France, Number 3 under Field Marshal Sperrle, based on northern France, and Number 5 under General Stumpft, stationed in Norway and Denmark. The first two had a total of 929 fighters, 875 bombers and 316 dive bombers; Number 5 was much smaller, with 123 bombers and 34 twin-engined ME-110 fighters. Against this vast force the R.A.F. had for the air defense of the realm at the beginning of August between 700 and 800 fighters.

Throughout July the Luftwaffe gradually stepped up its attacks on British shipping in the Channel and on Britain’s southern ports. This was a probing operation. Though it was necessary to clear the narrow waters of British ships before an invasion could begin, the main object of these preliminary air assaults was to lure the British fighters to battle. This failed. The R.A.F. Command shrewdly declined to commit more than a fraction of its fighters, and as a result considerable damage was done to shipping and to some of the ports. Four destroyers and eighteen merchant ships were sunk, but this preliminary sparring cost the Luftwaffe 296 aircraft destroyed and 135 damaged. The R.A.F. lost 148 fighters.

On August 12, Goering gave orders to launch Eagle the next day. As a curtain raiser heavy attacks were made on the twelfth on enemy radar stations, five of which were actually hit and damaged and one knocked out, but the Germans at this stage did not realize how vital to Britain’s defenses radar was and did not pursue the attack. On the thirteenth and fourteenth the Germans put in the air some 1,500 aircraft, mostly against R.A.F. fighter fields, and though they claimed five of them had been “completely destroyed” the damage was actually negligible and the Luftwaffe lost forty-seven planes against thirteen for the R.A.F.*

August 15 brought the first great battle in the skies. The Germans threw in the bulk of their planes from all three air fleets, flying 801 bombing and 1,149 fighter sorties. Luftflotten 5, operating from Scandinavia, met disaster. By sending some 800 planes in a massive attack on the south coast the Germans had expected to find the northeast coast defenseless. But a force of a hundred bombers, escorted by thirty-four twin-engined ME-110 fighters, was surprised by seven squadrons of Hurricanes and Spitfires as it approached the Tyneside and severely mauled. Thirty German planes, mostly bombers, were shot down without loss to the defenders. That was the end of Air Fleet 5 in the Battle of Britain. It never returned to it.

In the south of England that day the Germans were more successful. They launched four massive attacks, one of which was able to penetrate almost to London. Four aircraft factories at Croydon were hit and five R.A.F. fighter fields damaged. In all, the Germans lost seventy-five planes, against thirty-four for the R.A.F.* At this rate, despite their numerical superiority, the Germans could scarcely hope to drive the R.A.F. from the skies.

Now Goering made the first of his two tactical errors. The skill of British Fighter Command in committing its planes to battle against vastly superior attacking forces was based on its shrewd use of radar. From the moment they took off from their bases in Western Europe the German aircraft were spotted on British radar screens, and their course so accurately plotted that Fighter Command knew exactly where and when they could best be attacked. This was something new in warfare and it puzzled the Germans, who were far behind the British in the development and use of this electronic device.

We realized [Adolf Galland, the famous German fighter ace, later testified] that the R.A.F. fighter squadrons must be controlled from the ground by some new procedure because we heard commands skillfully and accurately directing Spitfires and Hurricanes on to German formations … For us this radar and fighter control was a surprise and a very bitter one.33

Yet the attack on British radar stations which on August 12 had been so damaging had not been continued and on August 15, the day of his first major setback, Goering called them off entirely, declaring: “It is doubtful whether there is any point in continuing the attacks on radar stations, since not one of those attacked has so far been put out of action.”

A second key to the successful defense of the skies over southern England was the sector station. This was the underground nerve center from which the Hurricanes and Spitfires were guided by radiotelephone into battle on the basis of the latest intelligence from radar, from ground observation posts and from pilots in the air. The Germans, as Galland noted, could hear the constant chatter over the air waves between the sector stations and the pilots aloft and finally began to understand the importance of these ground control centers. On August 24 they switched their tactics to the destruction of the sector stations, seven of which on the airfields around London were crucial to the protection of the south of England and of the capital itself. This was a blow against the very vitals of Britain’s air defenses.

Until that day the battle had appeared to be going against the Luftwaffe. On August 17 it lost seventy-one aircraft against the R.A.F.’s twenty-seven. The slow Stuka dive bomber, which had helped to pave the way for the Army’s victories in Poland and in the West, was proving to be asitting duck for British fighters and on that day, August 17, was withdrawn by Goering from the battle, reducing the German bombing force by a third. Between August 19 and 23 there was a five-day lull in the air due to bad weather. Goering, reviewing the situation at Karinhall, his country show place near Berlin, on the nineteenth, ordered that as soon as the weather improved, the Luftwaffe was to concentrate its attacks exclusively on the Royal Air Force.

“We have reached the decisive period of the air war against England,” he declared. “The vital task is the defeat of the enemy air force. Our first aim is to destroy the enemy’s fighters.”34

From August 24 to September 6 the Germans sent over an average of a thousand planes a day to achieve this end. For once the Reich Marshal was right. The Battle of Britain had entered its decisive stage. Though the R.A.F. pilots, already strained from a month of flying several sorties a day, put up a valiant fight, the German preponderance in sheer numbers began to tell. Five forward fighter fields in the south of England were extensively damaged and, what was worse, six of the seven key sector stations were so severely bombed that the whole communications system seemed to be on the verge of being knocked out. This threatened disaster to Britain.

Worst of all, the pace was beginning to tell on the R.A.F. fighter defense. In the crucial fortnight between August 23 and September 6 the British lost 466 fighters destroyed or badly damaged, and though they did not know it at the time the Luftwaffe losses were less: 385 aircraft, of which 214 were fighters and 138 bombers. Moreover, the R.A.F. had lost 103 pilots killed and 128 seriously wounded—a quarter of all those available.

“The scales,” as Churchill later wrote, “had tilted against Fighter Command … There was much anxiety.” A few more weeks of this and Britain would have had no organized defense of its skies. The invasion would almost certainly succeed.

And then suddenly Goering made his second tactical error, this one comparable in its consequences to Hitler’s calling off the armored attack on Dunkirk on May 24. It saved the battered, reeling R.A.F. and marked one of the major turning points of history’s first great battle in the air.

With the British fighter defense suffering losses in the air and on the ground which it could not for long sustain, the Luftwaffe switched its attack on September 7 to massive night bombings of London. The R.A.F. fighters were reprieved.

What had happened in the German camp to cause this change in tactics which was destined to prove so fatal to the ambitions of Hitler and Goering? The answer is full of irony.

To begin with, there was a minor navigational error by the pilots of a dozen German bombers on the night of August 23. Directed to drop their loads on aircraft factories and oil tanks on the outskirts of London, they missed their mark and dropped bombs on the center of the capital, blowingup some homes and killing some civilians. The British thought it was deliberate and as retaliation bombed Berlin the next evening.

It didn’t amount to much. There was a dense cloud cover over Berlin that night and only about half of the eighty-one R.A.F. bombers dispatched found the target. Material damage was negligible. But the effect on German morale was tremendous. For this was the first time that bombs had ever fallen on Berlin.

The Berliners are stunned [I wrote in my diary the next day, August 26]. They did not think it could ever happen. When this war began, Goering assured them it couldn’t … They believed him. Their disillusionment today therefore is all the greater. You have to see their faces to measure it.

Berlin was well defended by two great rings of antiaircraft and for three hours while the visiting bombers droned above the clouds, which prevented the hundreds of searchlight batteries from picking them up, the flak fire was the most intense I had ever seen. But not a single plane was brought down. The British also dropped a few leaflets saying that “the war which Hitler started will go on, and it will last as long as Hitler does.” This was good propaganda, but the thud of exploding bombs was better.

The R.A.F. came over in greater force on the night of August 28–29 and, as I noted in my diary, “for the first time killed Germans in the capital of the Reich.” The official count was ten killed and twenty-nine wounded. The Nazi bigwigs were outraged. Goebbels, who had ordered the press to publish only a few lines on the first attack, now gave instructions to cry out at the “brutality” of the British flyers in attacking the defenseless women and children of Berlin. Most of the capital’s dailies carried the same headline: COWARDLY BRITISH ATTACK. Two nights later, after the third raid, the headlines read: BRITISH AIR PIRATES OVER BERLIN!

The main effect of a week of constant British night bombings [I wrote in my diary on September 1] has been to spread great disillusionment among the people and sow doubt in their minds … Actually the bombings have not been very deadly.

September 1 was the first anniversary of the beginning of the war. I noted the mood of the people, aside from their frayed nerves at having been robbed of their sleep and frightened by the surprise bombings and the terrific din of the flak.

In this year German arms have achieved victories never equaled even in the brilliant military history of this aggressive, militaristic nation. And yet the war is not yet over or won. And it was on this aspect that people’s minds were concentrated today. They long for peace. And they want it before the winter comes.

Hitler deemed it necessary to address them on September 4 on the occasion of the opening of the Winterhilfe campaign at the Sportpalast. His appearance there was kept secret to the last moment, apparently out of fear that enemy planes might take advantage of the cloud cover and break up the meeting, though it was held in the afternoon, an hour before dark.

I have rarely seen the Nazi dictator in a more sarcastic mood or so given to what the German people regarded as humor, though Hitler was essentially a humorless man. He described Churchill as “that noted war correspondent.” For “a character like Duff Cooper,” he said, “there is no word in conventional German. Only the Bavarians have a word that adequately describes this type of man, and that is Krampfhenne,” which might be translated as “a nervous old hen.”

The babbling of Mr. Churchill or of Mr. Eden [he said]—reverence for old age forbids the mention of Mr. Chamberlain—doesn’t mean a thing to the German people. At best, it makes them laugh.

And Hitler proceeded to make his audience, which consisted mostly of women nurses and social workers, laugh—and then applaud hysterically. He was faced with the problem of answering two questions uppermost in the minds of the German people: When would Britain be invaded, and what would be done about the night bombings of Berlin and other German cities? As to the first:

In England they’re filled with curiosity and keep asking, “Why doesn’t he come?” Be calm. Be calm. He’s coming! He’s coming!

His listeners found that crack very funny, but they also believed that it was an unequivocal pledge. As to the bombings, he began by a typical falsification and ended with a dire threat:

Just now … Mr. Churchill is demonstrating his new brain child, the night air raid. Mr. Churchill is carrying out these raids not because they promise to be highly effective, but because his Air Force cannot fly over Germany in daylight … whereas German planes are over English soil every day … Whenever the Englishman sees a light, he drops a bomb … on residential districts, farms and villages.

And then came the threat.

For three months I did not answer because I believed that such madness would be stopped. Mr. Churchill took this for a sign of weakness. We are now answering night for night.

When the British Air Force drops two or three or four thousand kilograms of bombs, then we will in one night drop 150-, 230-, 300- or 400,000 kilograms.

At this point, according to my diary, Hitler had to pause because of the hysterical applause of the German women listeners.

“When they declare,” Hitler continued, “that they will increase their attacks on our cities, then we will raze their cities to the ground.” At this, I noted, the young ladies were quite beside themselves and applauded phrenetically. When they had recovered, he added, “We will stop the handiwork of these night air pirates, so help us God!”

On hearing this, I also noted, “the young German women hopped to their feet and, their breasts heaving, screamed their approval!”

“The hour will come,” Hitler concluded, “when one of us will break, and it will not be National Socialist Germany!” At this, I finally noted, “the raving maidens kept their heads sufficiently to break their wild shouts of joy with a chorus of ‘Never! Never!’”

Ciano in Rome, listening to the broadcast, which was made from records some hours later, confessed to being perplexed. “Hitler must be nervous,” he concluded.35

His nerves were a factor in the fatal decision to switch the Luftwaffe’s winning daylight attacks on the R.A.F. to massive night bombings of London. This was a political as well as a military decision, made in part to revenge the bombings of Berlin and other German cities (which were but pinpricks compared to what the Luftwaffe was doing to Britain’s cities) and to destroy the will of the British to resist by razing their capital. If it succeeded, and Hitler and Goebbels had no doubt it would, an invasion might not be necessary.

And so on the late afternoon of September 7 the great air attack on London began. The Germans threw in, as we have seen,* 625 bombers and 648 fighters. At about 5 P.M. that Saturday the first wave of 320 bombers, protected by every fighter the Germans had, flew up the Thames and began to drop their bombs on Woolwich Arsenal, various gas works, power stations, depots and mile upon mile of docks. The whole vast area was soon a mass of flames. At one locality, Silvertown, the population was surrounded by fire and had to be evacuated by water. At 8:10 P.M., after dark, a second wave of 250 bombers arrived and resumed the attack, which was kept up by successive waves until dawn at 4:30 on Sunday morning. The next evening at 7:30, the attack was renewed by two hundred bombers and continued throughout the night. Some 842 persons were killed and 2,347 wounded, according to the official British historian, during these first two nights, and vast damage was inflicted on the sprawling city.36 The assault went on all the following week, night after night.

And then, stimulated by its successes, or what it thought were such, the Luftwaffe decided to carry out a great daylight assault on the battered, burning capital. This led on Sunday, September 15, to one of the decisive battles of the war.

Some two hundred German bombers, escorted by three times as many fighters, appeared over the Channel about midday, headed for London. Fighter Command had watched the assembling of the attackers on its radar screens and was ready. The Germans were intercepted before they approached the capital, and though some planes got through, many were dispersed and others shot down before they could deliver their bomb load. Two hours later an even stronger German formation returned and was routed. Though the British claimed to have shot down 185 Luftwaffe planes, the actual figure, as learned after the war from the Berlin archives, was much lower—fifty-six, but thirty-four of these were bombers. The R.A.F. lost only twenty-six aircraft.

The day had shown that the Luftwaffe could not for the moment, anyway, now that it had given Fighter Command a week to recover, carry out a successful major daylight attack on Britain. That being so, the prospect of an effective landing was dim. September 15 therefore was a turning point, “the crux,” as Churchill later judged, of the Battle of Britain. Though Goering the next day, in ordering a change of tactics that provided for the use of bombers in daylight no longer to bomb but merely to serve as decoys for British fighters, boasted that the enemy’s fighters “ought to be finished off within four or five days,”37 Hitler and the Army and Navy commanders knew better and two days after the decisive air battle, on September 17, as has been noted, the Fuehrer called off Sea Lion indefinitely.

Although London was to take a terrible pounding for fifty-seven consecutive nights from September 7 to November 3 from a daily average of two hundred bombers, so that it seemed certain to Churchill, as he later revealed, that the city would soon be reduced to a rubble heap, and though most of Britain’s other cities, Coventry above all, were to suffer great damage throughout that grim fall and winter, British morale did not collapse nor armament production fall off, as Hitler had so confidently expected. Just the opposite. Aircraft factories in England, one of the prime targets of the Luftwaffe bombers, actually outproduced the Germans in 1940 by 9,924 to 8,070 planes. Hitler’s bomber losses over England had been so severe that they could never be made up, and in fact the Luftwaffe, as the German confidential records make clear, never fully recovered from the blow it received in the skies over Britain that late summer and fall.

The German Navy, crippled by the losses off Norway in the early spring, was unable, as its chiefs admitted all along, to provide the sea power for an invasion of Britain. Without this, and without air supremacy, the German Army was helpless to move across the narrow Channel waters. For the first time in the war Hitler had been stopped, his plans of further conquest frustrated, and just at the moment, as we have seen, when he was certain that final victory had been achieved.

He had never conceived—nor had anyone else up to that time—that a decisive battle could be decided in the air. Nor perhaps did he yet realize as the dark winter settled over Europe that a handful of British fighter pilots, by thwarting his invasion, had preserved England as a great base for the possible reconquest of the Continent from the west at a later date. His thoughts were perforce turning elsewhere; in fact, as we shall see, had already turned.

Britain was saved. For nearly a thousand years it had successfully defended itself by sea power. Just in time, its leaders, a very few of them, despite all the bungling (of which these pages have been so replete) in the interwar years, had recognized that air power had become decisive in the mid-twentieth century and the little fighter plane and its pilot the chief shield for defense. As Churchill told the Commons in another memorable peroration on August 20, when the battle in the skies still raged and its outcome was in doubt, “never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

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