*** World War II air campaign -- Battle of Britain opposing forces

Battle of Britain opposing forces
Figure 1.-- The He-111 was he primary Luftwaffe bomber in the Battle of Britain. It was a medium bomber with a elatively small bomb load which limited the damage inflicted in a raid. Tt was also vulnable to British fighters. This meant that large numbers of Luftwaffe flight crews and planes would be exposed to British air defenses. Unless heavily protected by fighter escorts the He-111 and other German bombers could not be used for daylight attacks. The problem for the Germans was although thy had more fighters than the British, their Me-109 fighters had only a limited range and fuel enough for only minutes for escort flights over Btiain. A major problem for the Germans, unlike France, all of the crews shot down over Britain were lost to the war effort. The result was that the Luftwaffe was seriously damaged for Hitler's primary objective -- the Barbarossa offensive and the destruction of the Sovit Union.

World War II Air Campaign: Battle of Britain--Opposing Forces

The advantages of the Luftwaffe are often overstated in assessments of the Battle of Britain. It is true that the Luftwaffe had a much larger force. In the key area of fighters, however, the German advantage was not so overwealming, especially given the fact that they fuel limitations allowed the German fighters relatively little time actully over Englnd to protect the bombers. The Me-109 was a fine fighter, buy it could only spend minutes over Britain. Even with bomber force, the fact that the Luftwaffe was conceievd as a tactical force meant that it had mostly medium bonbers with short ranges designed to support ground troops not level a huge city. The He-111 was the most important German bomber, but was totally inadequate for the task assigned. Using memdium bombers exposed a greater number of air crews to fighter attack than was the case of heavy bombers with greater bomb loads. The key advantage held by the Luftwaffe was it had more well-trained pilots with experience in tactical operations. The Battle of Britain was the Luftwaffe's first encounter with a prepared opponent with modern aircraft and radar as part of their defense. The British had to excellnt fighters, the Huricane and Spitfire, but it was th Cgain Home System that made the critical difference. The British had no trouble replcing fifgters, but it was training pilots that was the RAF's major problem.

The Luftwaffe

The German Luftwaffe at the start of the Battle of Britain was the most powerful airforce on the War. It had at the time was seen as a vast air armada to hurl at the British. The Luftwaffe deployed 2,355 planes, including 1,000 bombers and over 700 front-line fighters. It was the largest and most effctive airforce in the world. This was the force that had so frightned the British and French at Munich. The Luftwaffe had superbly trained and more experienced pilots. Their fighter pilots had a well-conceived tactical doctrine. The RAF was ill prepared for the campaign. They had been bloodied in France. The Lufwaffe had, however, severe weaknesses. It was conceived as a tactical air force and was not equipped for a strategic bombing campaign, especially one at substantial distances from their bases. The German air offensive was to be conducted with two engine medium bombers that proved highly effective in short range tactical operations, but were not well suited for long-range strategic bombing. They had no strategic bomber fleet with the ability to strike inforce throughout Britain. The Me-109 was, however, the preminent fighter in the opening years of the War, although its edge over British and French fighters is commonly overstated. The reason the Luftwaffe did so well in France was the concentration of force and its attack mode which put the the Allied fiughters at a disadvantage, easy targets on the ground, without radar. The British Spitfire was the first oposing fighter of comparable capabilities. It was over Britain that the inadequacies of the Luftwaffe first became apparent. The Me-109 had several advantages, including fuel injection and canon rather than machine guns. Its major disadvantage was its limited range which meant that over England it had only minutes of combat to protect the bombers. Over Kent this was managgeable, but furrther north the fighters could not say with the bombers very long and north of London fighter escorts were ot possible. And it was in the industrial Mislands north of industry when British industry was located. No matter how good the Me-109 was, it was valuless after it had to wihdraw across the Channel. The greatest problem for the Germans, however, was the chief of the Luftwaffe was incompetent and more concerned with maintaing his relationship with Hitler than listening to his competent commanders. And not fully understood at the onset of the Battle was that their bombers (Do-17, Ju-87, Ju-88, and He-111) were totally unsuited for the campaign. All four were not only slow, but carried only small bomb loads. And most importantly they were vulnerable to the British fighters. Lufwaffe bombers had 6-7 hours of fuel bringing most British cities within range. Luftwaffe fighters, however, could only cover the bombers raiding southern England and not beyond London. And even then they only had fuel for a few minutes of aerial combat. Another problem was that the German planes were beautifully engineered, but were complicated and required extensive maintenance. This meant that the Luftwaffe was unable to strike with the full force, especially after the opening raids.

The Royal Air Force (RAF)

Perhaps the greatest advantage of the Royal Air Force was its professional leadership and the willingness of Prime-minister Churchill to let the professionals run the campaign. Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding's command of the RAF effort was one of the great sucesses of World War II. The British had a substantial fighter force -- about 600. For the first time, the Luftwaffe faced Spitfire squadrons which would hit the Me-109 fighter cover while the Huricanes pounced on the vulnerable bombrs. And with the Home Chin Network, the RAF was the first airforce they faced that they could not catch on the ground. The British were rapidly running their new Spitfire fighter off the production lines and training new pilots. The question was whether the RAF could hold out long enough for new fighter squandrons to come on line and for the new pilots to develop the skills of the experienced Luftwaffe pilots. The planes were there, the critical British weakness was the nunber of trained pilots. British fighter pilots were discouraged from marriage. It was believed to take some of their dash away. The British also had some advantages. Fighting the battle over Britain put the British airfields under attack, but also meant that the British squadrons could engage two or even three times during the day--as long as the pilots could hold out. This was a significant force multiplier. In addition, the British planes were easier to maintain and they could be refurbished quickly and put back in servive in a short period, another force multiplier. Fighting over Britain also meant that if a pilot bailed out, he was not lost to the War, but could conceivably be up again in a day or so if not injured. (And conversely German pilots even if uninjured were lost to the War.) In several cases, shot down RAF pilots were back in the air the same day. This was particularly important because the major British weakness was a shortage of pilots. The major technical advantages the British held were unappreciated or unknown to the Luftwaffe. Even the highly competent Luftwaffe planners did not fully appreciated the importance of radar. And with the wreckage of German planes all over Britain, British aircraft engineers were able to study every aspect of the Germn planes and quickly adopt advances like fuel injection. Totally unknown to the Luftwaffe was the fact that the British were beginning to read some of their Enigma messages. [Davidion, p. 415.] The RAF also had some trained pilots from the occupied countries who with a fierce committment and who for the first time had modern fighter aircraft to fly. One of the most important groups was the Polish Kosciuszko Squadron. [Olson and Cloud]


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

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: 3:24 AM 9/8/2017
Last updated: 3:24 AM 9/8/2017