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.

Initially, the RAF set harmonization at 600 yards for Hurricanes and Spitfires. At this distance, and because both the shooter and the target were traveling at over 300 mph, planes were incredibly difficult to hit. Also, one must consider the drop of the bullets as they travel that distance and the spread as they begin to lose accuracy. In light of this, many British pilots worked to get close (200-300 yards) before opening fire. The result was many missed opportunities.

A 600-yard harmonization meant that the pilots willing to work in close did not have their guns sighted to fire at this range, and the most destructive point of fire, the convergence or harmonization point, was 400 yards in front of the plane they had worked so hard to line up. Pilots began unofficially realigning their guns to harmonize at 250 yards, which increased the accuracy and effectiveness of RAF fighters.

The Luftwaffe’s Strategic Shift

The attacks on RAF airfields and radar installations continued throughout August and into September. Enraged that the RAF was still operational, Göring cleaned up his units. He fired his older wing commanders in fighter, attack, and bombing Geschwadern, replacing them with young, rising stars. Adolf Galland resisted his appointment as commander of JG 26, while Mölders readily took charge of JG 51. To Göring, the prolonging of the conflict, as it neared two full months, was the result of old men in command who lacked the energy and drive of younger men. It did not change German fortunes, as the RAF shot down more planes than it lost every day from August 26 to September 6.

On the night of August 24, a German bomber lost touch with its formation and dropped its payload on a residential area in the city of London. The following night, Churchill sent 80 bombers to attack Berlin. Indignant, Hitler ordered Göring to avenge this personal insult against German pride. Göring also believed that this would entice the remainder of Fighter Command into the skies for a great climactic battle, which would thoroughly destroy the RAF and completely demoralize the British people. The strategic shift took place on September 7.

Up to this point in the battle, Fighter Command was inflicting heavy losses on the Germans but was also sustaining losses it could not withstand. By August 24, Dowding had lost 80 percent of his squadron commanders. By September 6, Fighter Command had lost 295 Hurricanes and Spitfires with 171 more damaged, and 103 pilots were killed or missing with a further 128 wounded. The RAF could not sustain operations much longer as the German plan to win a battle of attrition began to succeed. It was the loss of the pilots that was most worrisome as British fighter production offset the battle losses. Due to a combination of poor intelligence, arrogance, and ignorance, Göring believed that the true number of British fighters was about 300 when he launched Adlertag.

On September 7, 1940, the Luftwaffe began attacking London at night. The initial “Blitz” would last for 10 days. Due to lack of onboard radar, RAF fighters were ineffective at night, which cut Luftwaffe losses. Without individual radar systems, the fighters had to be vectored in from the ground. Even then, it was up to a pilot’s ability to see in the dark to spot the enemy planes. The Luftwaffe employment of night bombing in September was undertaken in part to terrorize British citizens and break morale.

The RAF used the week to recover from massive losses and regroup. Weekly losses dropped from nearly 300 planes to less than 150, and the suddenly resurgent RAF quickly began exacting revenge on the Luftwaffe.

“Big Wing”

Coinciding with the German shift in targets was the British switch in tactics. Wing Commander Douglas Bader of 242 Squadron had overcome the loss of both legs to become one of the most famous British aces of the battle. An outspoken, brash man, Bader advocated a strategy he called “Big Wing.” This involved taking at least three squadrons into attacks simultaneously, similar to the German strategy. Dowding and Park both instantly rejected the theory, claiming the wing took too long to assemble into proper formation once airborne. Thus, Leigh-Mallory came to Bader’s aid and chided his peer and superior for their failure to utilize the tactics that held so much potential. Leigh-Mallory gave Bader three squadrons—19, 310, and Bader’s own 242—which became known as the Duxford Wing.

The culmination of the battle came on September 15. Kesselring sent 400 fighters and 100 bombers to London. They had found 300 RAF fighters over southern England, when 200 fighters of the now five-squadron strong Duxford Wing arrived from the north. Although 60 German planes were shot down to the RAF loss of 26, the importance of the clash went beyond the material aspect. German pilots had been told that the RAF was ready for the knockout punch, with Göring restating his belief that England had merely 50 Spitfires remaining. However, Luftwaffe fliers had encountered 500 fighters simultaneously. They did not know that it was a gamble by the RAF, which had scrambled every fighter it could.

Replacing the Masterful Hugh Dowding

The fighting did not end on September 15, although it soon became recognized as the day the Luftwaffe lost the Battle of Britain. As for Operation Sea Lion, the proposed invasion of Britain, Hitler postponed it indefinitely. London would suffer from the Blitz as bombing raids continued throughout October. Historians often cite October 31 as the date on which the actual Battle of Britain concluded. RAF losses were 1,017 planes and 537 pilots in Fighter Command and 248 planes and nearly 1,000 men from Bomber and Coastal Commands. The Luftwaffe lost 1,733 planes and nearly 3,000 crewmen.

After the battle, Hugh Dowding was promptly fired, retiring shortly thereafter. Keith Park was also sacked. They were replaced by Sholto Douglas and Leigh-Mallory, respectively. This represented the shift in British tactics to Big Wing. Dowding was seen as part of the old guard. Bader and Leigh-Mallory had harped on Dowding and Park enough to taint their performances. Leigh-Mallory and Sholto Douglas were seen as more forward thinking. After his retirement, Dowding was made Lord Dowding of Bentley Priory. It was a small token for a man who orchestrated a phenomenally improbable victory during a crucial moment of the war.

Despite his opposition to Big Wing, Dowding had performed marvelously. His obsessively thorough delegation of orders and control of command and communication channels resulted in the RAF working with precision. The radar system, impeccably organized, worked with clocklike efficiency that even the Germans refused to believe. Dowding also proved masterful with his use of aircraft and pilots. He knew he had limited resources, and he appropriated them wisely. He never let the Germans know exactly how many planes he had, refusing to send up an all-out attack until the Germans did the same on September 15. The result of that action, his greatest bluff, was a decimation of German morale.

Dowding, as a commander, was coolheaded and stoic. He did not panic and commit too much too early, which surely would have cost the British dearly. Dowding’s patience and excellent management of resources, a reflection of his “Stuffy” personality, gave Britain and the RAF every opportunity to triumph. His major mistake was his refusal to accept Big Wing, and to Parliament (thanks to Leigh-Mallory and Bader) it appeared that Big Wing had dealt the decisive blow. While the tactic certainly played a major role in increasing German losses, Dowding’s contributions seem easily forgotten. The reality is that without Hugh Dowding the outcome of the Battle of Britain might well have been dramatically different.

The Luftwaffe’s Strategic Failures

In the Nazi system, Hermann Göring was incapable of accepting blame. Göring failed his subordinates and pilots with a lack of concern and ineffective direction of the battle. He knew about British radar, as he could stand at Calais and see the towers at Dover with his naked eye. Despite being told otherwise by his pilots, he was convinced that his planes could still reach operational areas ahead of the RAF fighters. Failure to properly deal with radar cost Göring the element of surprise and many aircraft.

Göring hopelessly clung to his admiration of the Bf-110, despite the obvious fact that single-engine fighters were vastly superior. Eventually, Bf-110s were escorted by Bf-109s, fighters escorting fighters. This illustrates just how far removed Göring was from the fighting, compared with Keith Park who was flying sorties in his personal Hurricane.

Another mistake the Luftwaffe made was the switch to London as a top-priority target. The Luftwaffe bombing of the British capital and other major cities caused the civilian population to suffer greatly, but it also provided a much needed respite for the rejuvenation of the RAF. It was an impetuous move that allowed the RAF some breathing room.

Innovation and Adaptability Won the Battle of Britain

Meanwhile, the British made tactical judgments that benefited their situation. On the squadron level, RAF pilots began to copy the Finger Four formation used by the Luftwaffe. Pilots, by changing the harmonization points of their machine guns, worked to level the playing field. Catching an enemy plane with a burst at the harmonization point allowed maximum damage with a minimal amount of ammunition expended.