How the British Beat the Luftwaffe

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October 22, 2020 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IINazi GermanyBattle Of BritainRAFLuftwaffe

How the British Beat the Luftwaffe

The Battle of Britain illustrated flaws in the German system and strengths in that of the British, who adapted when they had to.

By the end of the month, the RAF had shot down 155 Luftwaffe planes to a loss of 69 fighters. The reason for this disparity is simple. There were more German planes in the air, which gave the RAF more targets to shoot down. Also, the Germans had bombers in the air, and the RAF did not. Bombers were slower, less maneuverable, and did not have adequate defensive armament. The Germans also sank approximately 20 coastal merchant ships and a destroyer.

Finger Four Formation

A need for a change in the British fighter tactics was apparent. According to Pilot Officer Harold “Birdy” Bird-Wilson, “Our standard formation was an extremely tight one, which would have been ideal for prewar air shows. Very compact. Very close together. The pilots in formation were looking at each other so as not to collide. We were not looking around as we should have. The Germans, who had learned many flying lessons during the Spanish Civil War, knew better. They flew in much looser formations and were able to pick us off.”

The lessons during the Spanish Civil War were advocated by Mölders, who had shot down 14 planes in Spain. Mölders created, pioneered, and taught the Finger Four formation. This was the “looser formation” described by Bird-Wilson. Finger Four worked by using pairs as the operative tactical groups. There were two pairs (Rotten) to a Schwarm, three or four Schwarmen to a Staffel, three or four Staffeln to a Gruppe, and three or four Gruppen to a Geschwader. Pairs were chosen because of their inherent versatility. Only one other plane needed to be tracked, and it simplified mutual defense. It also made it easier to know where one’s wingman was during combat, as pilots now only had to track one plane instead of two. Finger Four allowed great flexibility in combat, mutual defense capabilities, and the wide spacing of 200 feet between planes made spotting a flight more difficult than seeing a tightly bunched British formation.

Führer Directive Number 17

On August 1, 1940, Hitler issued Führer Directive Number 17, which dramatically altered the course of the battle. The directive ordered the complete destruction of the RAF, with attacks against “flying units, their ground installations, and their supply organization, also against the aircraft industry including that manufacturing anti-aircraft equipment.”

This was effectively an intensification and restatement of the aims of the original plan. It expanded the scope of the raids to include supply and production channels as well. The directive ordered the Luftwaffe not to destroy ports, as they would be important to forthcoming operations. The date for the intensification of the aerial campaign was August 5.

Göring also called his commanders to The Hague in an effort to organize the Luftwaffe for the large-scale attack. Göring dismissed claims that the Spitfire was a worthy craft and did not believe Sperrle and Kesselring when they estimated the Luftwaffe had 700 bombers remaining. Up to this point, Göring had been convinced that the Luftwaffe had the RAF beaten. In fact, Göring stated that the RAF was down to its last 50 Spitfires, a belief he held through September. He underestimated the quality of the RAF and was too aloof to realize that the Luftwaffe had taken large losses in the first month of battle.

The British Radar Advantage

The reason for the effectiveness of RAF interceptions of German bombers was quite simple. The British radar system worked incredibly well. Beginning in the early 1930s, Britain had experimented with radar, and by 1938 the system was so advanced that it could report size, speed, altitude, heading, and whether or not the plane was friendly. The Germans knew about the British radar but chose to ignore it. The towers at Dover could be seen from the French coast. This proximity gave the Germans the false hope that the bombers, even though they showed up on radar, would be able to attack their targets before the information could be passed through the proper channels.

Radar operators sent reports to Observer Corps, which forwarded them to the Filter Room at Fighter Command headquarters. There, the group operation room and group commander (Park) notified individual sections, whose local commanders vectored in the nearest available fighters.

The German commanders, most notably Göring, refused to believe this sophisticated system existed despite the insistence of his pilots that the RAF was always waiting in the right places. This was a massive blunder on his part, costing him precious aircrews and aircraft. Consequently, attacks on radar stations were few during the opening phase of the Battle of Britain, and no effort was made to avoid detection. In reality, the system worked so well that the time from a blip on the radar to a squadron in the air to meet it was six minutes, and the aforementioned climb rates of the Hurricanes and Spitfires put the fighters at 15,000 feet within six minutes of leaving the ground. In effect, it took between 10 and 15 minutes after first spotting the Germans to put together a proper intercept at the point of attack.

On August 8, the Luftwaffe finally attacked coastal radar installations. The attack aroused no suspicions in Fighter Command, however, as it was the only major activity of the month so far. The weather, which had been clear and perfect for flying since May, had been terrible for the first week of August. Had the weather remained conducive for flying, the Luftwaffe would have launched more raids on the radar stations and airfields in southern England. Instead, it granted both sides a much-needed respite, and the British noticed no change in German strategy.

That changed abruptly on August 12, when the weather cleared long enough for a large-scale German attack on radar installations and airfields. Low-level attacks would be used, converting some Bf-110s into fighter-bombers to achieve greater speed. These planes, along with hundreds of level bombers, began their raids at 9 am. The goal of this operation was to knock out the eyes of the British.

The German attacks lasted all day, smashing radar stations in Ventnor, dropping 148 bombs on Manston, and damaging everything in between. Losses for the day totaled 31 German planes shot down to 22 RAF fighters, the latter figure resulting in the loss of 11 pilots. Göring and the leadership of the Luftwaffe believed that the British had been blinded and prepared to launch follow-up raids. Unknown to the Germans, the British worked through the night and repaired the majority of the damage from the day’s raids by the next morning.

Eagle Day

August 13, 1940, known as Adlertag, or Eagle Day, began with a message from Göring to commence a major bombing offensive. Unfortunately, the weather turned sour in the early morning and Göring postponed the attack. However, the postponement order never reached Oberst Johannes Fink, commander of Kampfgeschwader 2, who led his 74 Do-17s to England and attacked Sheerness and Eastchurch just after 7 am, losing five bombers with five more suffering heavy damage.

In the afternoon, the weather broke, and Göring ordered the assault to proceed. By now, Fink’s raid had alerted the British to the aims of the Luftwaffe. As German raiders bombed their targets and clashed with RAF fighters, it became apparent that this was a different tactic than the previous effort against shipping and other targets in the Channel, known as Kanalkampf. When the air action ended on the 13th, a total of 34 German planes and 13 RAF fighters had been shot down.

The attacks resumed with ferocity on August 14. RAF fighters shot down 71 German planes with the loss of 29 fighters. Of the 71, only eight were Bf-109s. Such results reflect British tactical doctrine adopted during the early days of the battle, the targeting of German bombers discussed by Peter Townsend. In an effort to codify this, Dowding allowed Hurricanes to assault the bombers, while Spitfires were tasked with handling the 109s.

This came about from necessity. The Hurricane was a stable gun platform and a ruggedly built fighter, but it was no match for the much faster, nimble 109. The Spitfire, incredibly maneuverable, was to deal with them. Although the 109 could outturn it, the Spitfire had a better chance against the German fighter, creating a rivalry that lasted the duration of the war.

“Harmonizing” the RAF Fighters

In fighter against fighter combat, the Bf-109 was the best in the world in 1940. Its massive advantage lay in its armament. At the time, it was the only single-engine plane to carry cannon, and the E variant prevalent in the Battle of Britain carried one in each wing. These cannon fired exploding shells that could take down a metal-skinned fighter in one or two hits. Of equal importance was the mounting of twin machine guns above the engine, directly in front of the pilot. This meant the guns held an advantage of not needing “harmonization,” the aiming of wing-mounted guns to a convergence point at a certain distance.