*** war and social upheaval: World War II air campaign -- Battle of Britain intelligence

Battle of Britain intelligence
Figure 1.--Downed aircraft were an important intelligence source. And some were recovered virtually intact. This photograph was taken at the height of the Battke of Britain (August 21, 1940). Troops and civilians can be seen posing with a Junkers Ju 88A-1 (B3+BM) of 4./Kampfgeschwader 54, which belly-landed on Marsh Farm, Earnley, West Sussex. It had been intercepted by No.17 Squadron Hawker Hurricanes during an attack on RAF Brize Norton. The aircraft's engines were hit by AA Fire during the attack, it was also subject to attacks by Hurricanes of 17 Sqdn and finally crashed at Marsh farm at 16.15. Hptm. L.Maiwald, Ogfr. H. Apollony, Uffz. K. Miethner and Uffz H. Hempel all POWs. Source: Imperial War Museum HU 73745)T.

World War II Air Campaign: Battle of Britain--Intelligence

The British had several important sources of information on Luftwaff oprations in France, including photo reconisance, interogation of downed Luftwaffe crews, and Ultra. The Germans had very little accurate inteligence. And much of what they did have, they misinterprted largely because they were so convinced of their superiority. This might be likened to the subsequent Japanese 'Victory Disease' in the Pacific. The Germans did have photo reconisance, but that and debriefing returning air crews was about all they had. As a result, while the British were able to amass a very good picture of the Luftwaffe order of battle and strength, the Germans had a very poor knowledge of the RAF, especially the strength of Fighter Command and even the impotance of radar. Thus the size and depth of RAF Fighter Command and the importance of the Chain Home radar system was never fully understood--a colossal inteligence failure. As the Battle played out, the Luftwaffe commanders kept telling their flyers that they were near victory and RAF Fighter Command had been largely destroyed which they believed at first. The flyers continued, however, to encounter heavy opposition over Britain. What they did not know at the time was that radar was enabling the British to vector their over-streached fighter strength on to the approching Luftwaffe raiding forces. It was a very significant force multiplier. The Luftwaffe understood that the CH radar towers was detecting their approach, but did not know how systemized it was and thus how effectively the British fighters were being vectored. Had they known this they would have surely more aggressively gone after the CH towers. It was an incredible mistake on the poart OKL. Perhaps understannable at first, but not as their bomber losses mounted. They should have known not only because the Luftwaffe groups were being so regularly intercepted and the CH sector stations were radioing the headings to the Fighter Command fighters in the clear.


The code name for the British effort to crack the German military Enigma cipher machines was called Ultra. It was one of the most closely guarded secrets of the War. The operationm was conducted at a country estate called Blechley Park. With the help of the Poles the British began working on the Enigma code machines that the German military used for radio communications. Effctive German communications were part of the reason for the victories in Poland and France. The French General Staff for example was using messengers to communications. While effective, the use of messages sent by radio meant that German military communications were vulnerable. The German relying on their preceived notions of supperiority were convinced that their Enigma cipher machines could not be broken. The Germans did not know of the Allied success until well after the War. British code breakers at Bletchley Park faced different problems with the Wehrmacht, Luftwaffe, and Kriegsmarina Enigma msachines. The Luftwaffe code proved the easiest to crack, primarily because flushed with sucess, the Luftwaffe was careless about following established procedures. Thus thefirst sucesses were vachieved with bthe Luftwaffe Enigma. The British suceeded in deciphering Luftwaffe messages (May 1940), although regular and timely decoding was not possible until the end of the year. (We have noted different assessments as to how useful Ultra was during the Battle of Britain.) Working with uncoded German radio messages also provided valuable information. They produced infornmation on force strength and targetting which was relayed to the RAF. Deciphering naval messages proved more challenging, but they were also eventually cracked and played a major role in the defeat of the U-boat campaign in the North Atlantic.


The Y Service was an already established opeation. The operation had begun during World War I focusing on intercepting German radio (wireless) signals. To crack Enigma and other German messages, the British first needed mesages to work with. These wre provided by the 'Y' Service. This was a chain of wireless intercept stations located throughout Britain. There were also sites in countries/colonies overseas. Royal Navy ships at sea also intercepted messages. The Y Service consisted of thousands of wireless operators, consisting of many civilians, including Wrens, WAAF personnel and members of the ATS. They tracked German and other enemy transmissions all over the frequency dial. They carefully logged every letter or figure. British ham radio short wave enthusiasts reported that they were picking up voice conversations from Luftwaffee planes. These messages were then forwarded to Station X--Bletchely Park. Here they were not only decoded, but fitted together like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle to create a composite view of enemy operations and intentions. The Y Service was also did important directionl finding, especially important during the vital Battle of the Atlantic.

Interogating Downed Aircrews

An important source of information were captured German aircrews. Here the British had an advantage because as the battle was fought over Britain, they captured large number of crew memnbers from downed Luftwaffe planes. Every plane that went down meant air crews lost to the German war effort while many British pilots were back in the air in a few days. While the loss of British and German aircraft was much tighter than the offical statistics reported, the loss of pilots and air crews were decidely in the RAF's favor. The Germans captured were not cooperative. The Luftwaffe was the most ardently NAZI of the three services and the captured airmen were sure that the invading German Army would soon set them free. In fact they would have a long wait, but this is what had happened in France. The British had pleaded with the French to transfer captured German airmen to Britain, but the French had refused to do so. And as a result, they were soon in the air again, this time over Britain. One such French POW was Adolf Galland who would become the youngest Luftwaffe general and a World War II legend. A great deal of information was obtained from the downed German airmen through interogation despite their lack of cooperation. The British also bugged the quaters where the Germans were held and listening to their conversations.

Recovered Aircraft

The British also recovered large numbers of German aircraft. Most were badly damaged, but some were revovered in fairly good condution. And not all came down in combat. Some pilots became lost, some were flown by defectors, and some were lured by British electronic counter measures. The British thus got hold of all the major Germam aircraft types (Do-17, He-111, Ju-87, Me-109, Me-110, as well as others) fairly early in the War. Some were repired and pieced together. There were plenty of spareparts with all the downed aircrft scatered from one end if Britain to th other. Thus the planes could be studied and even test flown, providing useful information on how to attack them. [Saunders] The electronic devices onboard also provided useful infomation for the Battle of the Beams. The German fuel injection system used on the Me-109s was also useful.

Photo Reconaissance

Photo reconnaissance was an important source of information for both the RAF and Luftwaffe. For the Battle of Britain, it was mostly used by the Germans. It was was virtually the only source of information abailable to the Germans beyond debriefing the retruning air crews. The British had steroscopic readers, we are not sure about the Germans. We suspect that the damage picked up in the reconnaissance photographs led them to believe that they were doing more damage tan they actually were. It certainly never helped them gain an accurate idea of British fighter strength, either in the all important 11 Group area or 12 Group to the north. The British conducted photo recon missions to learn about Luftwaffe bases, but made only limited use of them during the Battle of Britain.


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Created: 9:17 AM 9/11/2019
Last updated: 9:17 AM 9/11/2019