World War II Air Campaign: Battle of Britain Phases (July 1940-May 1941)


Figure 1.--After the failure of the Luftwaffe to break the RAF in August and September 1940, Hitler turned to the terror bombing of London and British cities. Because of severe losses during the day, the Luftwaffe shited to night time raids. Here Queen Elizabeth visits Londoners in a deep shelter during November. There are no known comparable images of Hitler visiting with Germans in shelters.

After the fall of France, Hitler expected the British to make peace. Whn they did not he ordered an invasion of Britain preceeded by an air campaign to establish air superority to cover he Channel crossing. The Luftwaffe quickly established bases in France and by July 10 launched preliminary strikes in what has come to be called the Battle of Britain. The Luftwaffe wih a series of successful campaigns was confident of victory. The Luftwaffe while better trained and outnumbering the RAF was ill prepared for the campaign. The Battle of Britain began in earnest on July 10 and reached intensive levels on August 13 with Luftwaffe raids on British airfields and aircraft factories. Hitler had assumed that the Luftwaffe could force the British to capitualte. The Luftwaffe im its August campaign seriously weakened the RAF and Fighter Command was having increasing difficulty maintaining its forward air bases in Kent. Then off-course German bombers accidentally bomb London on August 23-24. RAF Bomber Command on August 25-26 mounted a small reprisal raid against Berlin. Hitler is furious and orders an immediate change in Luftwaffe tactics. Rather than completing its offensive against the RAF infrastructure, Hitler ordered a "blitz" on British cities which began in earnest on September 7. The Luftwaffe wreaked havoc on civilians in London and major English cities. An estimated 42,000 civilians were killed. Thousands of civilians were killed. White British cities burned, the RAF was given a respite, allowing its forward air bases to recover from the damage done in August. As a result the RAF was able to mount increasingly costly attacks on the German bomber fleets. The Luftwaffe eventually is forced to shift to nightime raids. Night bombing made it impossible to hit actually military and industrial targets, only cities could be targetted. The British were battered, but held.

Operation Sea Lion

The German Panzers in France stopped at the Chnnel Coast. After the British Expeditiobnary Force (BEF) slipped away at Dunkirk, the Germanhs would have to cross the Channel to come to grips with the British. And the fact that the BEF had to leave their heavy wapons on the beach meant that their Army while saved had been effectively disarmed. This was an oppotunity to end the War and the Royal Navy blockade of Germany. But to get an army across the Channel, the Luftwaffe needed to establish air superority over the Channel and southeastern England. The result was what we now know as the Battle of Britain. Many historians believe that Hitler did not want to fight the British, in part for racial reasons. Sometimes loss to this discussion is that while willing to make some concessions, he wanted a Britain that would no longer be a military threat.

German Tatics

There were two kinds of battles in World War II. The first kind was battles in which the outcome was preordained because of the preponderance of forces on one side. Surely the NAZI invasion of Poland or the Soviet invasion of Finland had preordained outcomes not matter what tactics the Poles and Finns used or how valiantly they resisted the invasion of their country. The other type of battle is those in which the forces of the adversaries are relatively balanced and the outcome could have gone either way because of tactics or other factors. The Battle of Britain is surely one of the latter battles, although the odds were probably not as stacked against the British as widely believed at the time. It was the German tactics, and ill-advised changes in those tactics that probably proved decisive. At the time, air warfare was relativelly new. Some strategists believed that bombing could force am opponent to surrender. That view was apparently held by Hitler and Göring. The Germans initiated the Battle of Britain. Thus the phases pf the battle were largely based on their plan and changes in that plan as the battle developed. The initial plans were laid by the professional staff of the Luftwaffe. Tgey were designed to destroy the RAF. When that plan did not bring immediate results, Hitler and Göring intervened which in the end doomed the German campaign. Some analysts believe that even if the Luftwaffe had continued focusing on the RAF, the Luftwaffe would have failed. That is an unresolved issue. What is certain is that Hitler and Göring turned to terror bombing which provide the RAF a respite that was sorely needed. Churchill writes, "The German air assault on Britain is a tale of divided counsels, conflicting purposes, and never fully accomplished plans. Three or four times in three months, the enemey abandoned a method of attack which was causing us severe stress, and turned to something new. But all those stages over-lapped one another, and cannot be readily distinguished by precise dates. Each one merged into the next." [Churchill, Finest, p. 341.]

German Confidence

The Luftwaffe as the Battle of Britain was shaping up were experienced, well-equipped, and confident. Thry had every reason to be so. The Luftwaffe had from the onset of the War one impressive victory after another, beginning in Poland, followed by Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belium, and finally France. Thge other countries were small, but France was a major country and well armed. Yet in the French campaign, the Luftwaffe out faught both the British Royal ir Force abd the French Armée de l'Air. There was every reason to believe that the Battle of Britain would be just one more stunningly sucessful battle. Luftwaffe commander and former fighter pilot , Reichsmarshal Herman Goering, was optimistic and assured the Führer that the victory over England would take only a few days once the Luftwaffe was in place. The Germans deployed three Airflotten in the arc of occupied Europe from Norway to southern France. The Luftwaffe airmen were every bit as confident as their commander. They had seen nothing during the Phoney War, the Norwegin Campaig, or in France that led them to believe that the Royal Air Force could effitively resist them. Göring proclaimed at the outset of the War, "I have done my best, in the past few years, to make our Luftwaffe the largest and most powerful in the world. The creation of the Greater German Reich has been made possible largely by the strength and constant readiness of the Air Force. Born of the spirit of the German airmen in the first World War, inspired by the faith in our Fuhrer and Commander-in-Chief--thus stands the German Air Force today, ready to carry out every command of the Fuhrer with lightning speed and undreamed-of might." After the stunning victories, Hitler himself was sure of victory. He was convinced that the Bitish were weak, a conviction that was confirmed by Chanberlain at Munich. Those who had doubted him before the War were now convinced. After victory after victory, Göring was even more sure of his Luftwaffe as they prepared to smash the RAF. The Lufwaffe had substantial numbers, effective planes, experience, a well-honed battle doctrine, and well equipped French fields from which to operate. And it was not just the Germans that were confident, most neutral observers also thought tghe outcome of the Battle was pre-ordained. Among those preducting aquick Germnan vuctory was the american Ambassadorto Britain, Joseph P. Kennedy, and famed aviator, Charles Lindberg, who had onserved the Luftwaffe and its planes first hand at the invitation of Göring himself. Because of the confidence og Göring and others, German air planning was based largely on the spectacular successes of earlier campaigns. One military expert reports, 'no uniformly accepted concept existed concerning the operational conduct of air warfare against England.' [Klee. 9.] The Battle of Britain was different than all previous Luftwaffe campaigns. Not only was the RAF the most powerful air force yet taken on, but theChannel meant that the Panzers could not easly occupy RAF bases. And largely inapprecited by the Germans at the time was the potential of the Chin Home Network radar system. The prevalebt thinking in the Luftwaffe according toa post-War British assessment was just that it would tke aittle longer (meaning few more days) to destroy the RAF. [Air Ministry, p. 1.] But the Luftwaffe was no composed with amateurs like Hitler and Göring. There was quite unease among the more competent commnders. Erhard Milch, Luftwaffe Inspector General, reported after visits to the various captured airfields and the field headquarters, "no preparations at all were being made for air war with Britain." (June 1940). [Irving, p. 92.] And there were airmen that shared Milch's concerns. Werner Baumbach who would go on to command bombers wrote even before the battle, "we know that England is the hardest nut to be cracked in this war. Our experience at the front has shown us that final victory against England can only be attained by the systematic cooperation of all arms of the service and ruthless application of the elementary principle of concentrating all one's strength and effort at the vital strategic point. Even if the air arm is the most important weapon in total war, it cannot by itself ensure the decisive, final and total victory."[Cooper, p. 103.] Even so the general attitude among the Luftwaffe flyers who began the air assault on Britain was that the Channel was simply a wide river and that victory as in the earlier campaigns would be quickly achieved.

Battle Phases

The Battle of Britain can be divided into four major, but overlapping and not always easily destinguishable phases. The critical stage, was the second one in which the Luftwaffe attempted to destroy the organization and forward air bases of the RAF. If accomplished an invasion might have become feasible, although Hitler still hoped the British could be forced to make peace. This was the most critical phase for the RAF. British industry was producing substantial numbers of fighter aircraft, especially the all-metal Spitfires, but the Luftwaffe still had an edge in trained pilots. If Britain was to be defeated, this was the critical time. The failure of the Luftwaffe to destroy the RAF at this time mean that a vengeful and determined enemy was left in the West with important technological and industril resources that would prove to be the launching board for a stratehic bombing campaign that would dwarf the Blitz and destroy German cities. Britain would also be the necessary launching board for the ground assault on Hitler's Fortress Europe.

Sources

British Air Ministry. The Rise and Fall of the German Air Force 1993-1945 (New York: Sterling Publishing, 1987).

Churchill, Winston. Their Finest Hour (Houghton Mifflin: Boston, 1949), 751p.

Cooper, Matthew. The German Air Force 1933-1945, An Anatomy of Failure (New York, N.Y.: Jane's Publishing, Inc., 1981).

Davidson, Eugene. The Unmaking of Adolf Hitler (Univesity of Missouri: Columbia, 1996), 519p.

Fest, Joachim C. Hitler (Vintage Books: New York, 1974), 844p.

Gilbert, Martin. A History of the Twentieth Century Vol. 2 1933-54 (William Morrow and Company, Inc.: New York, 1998), 1050p.

Klee, Karl. Operation "Sea Lion" and the Role Planned for the Luftwaffe (Maxwell AFB, Ala.: USAF Historical Division, Monograph 8-1115-5, 1955).

Olson, Lynne and Stanley Cloud. A Question of Honor: The Kosciuszko Squadron: Forgotten Heroes of World War II (Knopf, 2003).






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Created: January 14, 2003
Last updated: 9:28 AM 1/1/2015