The Germans encountered this same problem with their 7.92mm rounds, and both sides eventually switched to a .50-caliber (German 13mm) machine gun and 20mm or 30mm cannon to inflict greater damage.
Germany’s Messerschmitt Fighters
The Luftwaffe possessed two frontline fighters, the Messerschmitt Bf-109 and Bf-110. On the eve of the Battle of Britain, a mystical aura surrounded the Bf-110. The RAF had yet to see one in combat and had only heard reports of the fast, heavy fighter with massive armament and two engines. Designed by Willy Messerschmitt, the Zerstörer could reach speeds of 336 mph. In the nose, it carried four 7.92mm (.311 caliber) machine guns and two 20mm cannon, with an additional machine gun in the rear of the cockpit to defend the tail.
Destined to become the most produced fighter of all time, the Bf-109’s E variant topped out at 342 mph and carried two 7.92mm machine guns in the nose. In the wings it held two 20mm cannon. These inflicted massive structural damage on metal-skinned fighters and bombers. The 109 was small, maneuverable, and fast. Most importantly, its Daimler-Benz DB 601 engine had fuel injection, which meant the aircraft would not stall in a negative-G maneuver such as a dive or a split-S. This enabled it to outdive any British plane in the sky.
The 109 did not have sufficient range (410 miles) to operate over England for much more than 15 minutes—especially at full throttle as would be the case in combat—so this trait enabled it to retreat effectively in the event a fight would last more than the usual few minutes.
The thin wings of the 109 did not provide as much area for lift, thereby limiting its performance at extremely low altitude, and narrow landing gear resulted in inherently unstable ground characteristics. Many novice pilots would wreck their 109s while landing too fast or unevenly. In fact, Messerschmitt’s prototype crashed in a ground loop during trials in 1936. The pilot, World War I ace Ernst Udet, was unharmed. By 1940, Germany was producing 6,618 aircraft per year, 25 percent of them fighters.
Flying the abundance of planes in the Luftwaffe arsenal were some of the most experienced pilots in the world. In 1936, when men who would fly for the RAF in the Battle of Britain did not even entertain the thought of joining the service, Luftwaffe pilots were dogfighting in Spanish skies. Later, many of these men would be commanders over Poland, France, and Britain, exponentially increasing the skill of the German pilots.
A Battle Determined by Tactics and Leadership
On paper in June 1940, the Battle of Britain looked one-sided. The only advantage apparent to the RAF was the fact that its pilots were defending their homeland. In addition to the motivational aspects of this, it held an advantage in regard to personnel. Pilots in World War II were more likely to survive an encounter than their fathers had been in World War I. Parachutes were now standard equipment as opposed to contraband during the Great War. When RAF pilots bailed out during the Battle of Britain, they could be back at their squadron within a few hours. Luftwaffe pilots, however, became spectators if they “hit the silk” over England, consigned to a POW camp or a long swim back to their airfield.
The Battle of Britain would be decided by tactics and leadership if the British hoped to survive. The men of the RAF knew the Luftwaffe was good. They had proven it over Spain, Poland, and France. Messerschmitt’s fighters carried a daunting reputation, and the Stuka was feared around the world. In contrast, the Luftwaffe viewed the RAF pilots as nascent weekend warriors who lacked the skills to compete with the deadly German aces. This is not to say the Germans did not have any respect for the RAF, as Luftwaffe pilots were intimately familiar with the Spitfire, and held it in the same regard that the RAF held the 109.
“Stuffy” Dowding vs Hermann Göring
Affectionately known as “Stuffy” for his personality and terse demeanor, Dowding was the senior serving officer of the RAF. The outbreak of war postponed his retirement, and the 58-year-old understood technical and logistical matters exceptionally well, which would be illustrated in the upcoming battle. Dowding had led Fighter Command since its inception in 1936. Under his direct command were the group commanders. Air Vice Marshals Richard Saul, Trafford Leigh-Mallory, Keith Park, and Sir Christopher Quintin Brand commanded 13, 12, 11, and 10 Groups, respectively. Of these, 12 Group was responsible for central England while 11 Group covered London and southeastern England. Leigh-Mallory, the senior group commander, was expecting to command 11 Group. Dowding’s appointment of Park to the position was based on the fact that Park was a World War I ace with 20 kills and an expert in fighter tactics and organization. Nevertheless, the slight alienated Leigh-Mallory, who saw himself as relegated to a secondary role.
From the outset Trafford Leigh-Mallory and Keith Park did not see eye to eye. Park, who flew his personal Hurricane to check up on his pilots in combat, commanded 22 fighter squadrons over the most important area of the country. Leigh-Mallory was assigned to support Park, and his 14 squadrons would cover 11 Group’s bases when they went up after the German raiders. Because 11 Group’s area was closer to the French coast and held the priority targets, logistics made it more reasonable for Park’s fighters to be the first wave of attackers. Nevertheless, this created animosity among Leigh-Mallory, Park, and Dowding. The approaches each man took to thwart the Luftwaffe would directly affect the outcome of the battle.
Göring, a World War I ace, had become Hitler’s most dedicated sycophant, declaring “If the Führer wants it, two and two make five!” In the early years of the Nazi party, Göring had held several political offices and exhibited great energy and skill in these duties. By the end of the 1930s, he had become addicted to painkillers. He had also become a corpulent Nazi robot, whose ambition led him to greed, complacency, and lavish excess and created a schism between him and his pilots. Once war broke out, Göring was extremely powerful, second only to Hitler in the Nazi hierarchy. But his power and arrogance clouded his judgment.
Göring’s Luftwaffe fielded three air fleets, two in France and one in Norway, in preparation for the attack on Britain. Col. Gen. Hans-Jurgen Stumpff was an old staff officer in command of Luftflotte 5 in Norway. His forces took heavy losses in their only day of fighting during the Battle of Britain on August 15, losing 75 planes out of 258, mostly 110s and bombers—nearly a 30 percent loss rate. As a result, the remainder of Luftflotte 5 would serve as replacements for the men of Luftflotten 2 and 3.
In command of Luftflotte 3 was Field Marshal Hugo Sperrle. He was the most experienced air officer in the Luftwaffe having seen action in World War I and commanded the Condor Legion in Spain. The most influential Luftflotte commander was Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, a former army officer who led Luftflotte 2, which was located in the Dunkirk area and included much of the Luftwaffe fighter strength.
155 Luftwaffe Planes Shot Down in the First Month
As these forces prepared for the coming showdown, it became apparent that the Battle of Britain was going to be unlike any fought before. It was a rarity not only because of the nature of the fighting—air to air—but also in the respect that it had no exact dates. The battle was fought daily (weather permitting), in raid after raid, over several months.
It began in earnest on the afternoon of July 10, 1940, when 20 Do-17s, 30 Bf-110s, and 20 Bf-109s attacked a westbound convoy in the Channel. Thirty British fighters attempted to intercept them. Peter Townsend, commander of 85 Squadron, described this engagement. “Our job was defense. German fighters could do no harm to Britain. German bombers with their deadly loads were the menace. Our orders were to seek them out and destroy them. Only when their Me. 109 [sic] escort interfered did it become a fleeting battle between fighter and fighter. But we tried to avoid them, not to challenge them … Three Hurricanes and four 109s were lost that day … In four patrols I flew for nearly six hours.”
During the remainder of July and into the first two weeks of August, German Do-17s, He-111s, and Ju-87s assaulted shipping and coastal regions of England. Bf-109s ravaged British Hurricanes, while Spitfires fared slightly better. The weaknesses of the Stuka, slow speed and virtual paralysis when coming out of a dive, were taken advantage of by swarms of RAF fighters looking to pounce. As a consolation to the Luftwaffe, Bf-109s exploited the weaknesses of the Defiants, which made easy prey for the nimble and powerful 109.
Two formations of German fighters jumped a flight of nine Defiants on July 19, shooting six down and crippling another before a squadron of Hurricanes interceded. It also became apparent quickly that the Bf-110 could not compete with single-engine fighters. The 110 proved highly vulnerable to Hurricanes and Spitfires, which could easily outmaneuver them. The twin-engine craft simply could not outturn or outrun the Spitfire.