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Battle Of Britain: The Inside Story Of How We Beat The Luftwaffe

Learn the ins and outs of Britain's 'finest hour' on this, September 15, Battle of Britain Day.

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When the RAF were scrambled on September 7, 1940, its fighter pilots were expecting another attack on their airfields. 

They’d been duelling with the Luftwaffe (German air force) for air supremacy for the last two months, but this time the enemy had its sights set on a new target, London.

Racing into the capital to intercept them, Francis Mason’s ‘Battle Over Britain’ tells us that what British pilots were confronted with must have been truly terrifying:

“At this moment the first British pilots were experiencing a sight which would haunt the survivors for the rest of their lives.

"Breaking out of a layer of haze east of Sheppey, they found themselves on the edge of a tidal wave of aircraft, towering above them rank upon rank, more than a mile and a half high and covering 800 square miles, blotting out the sky like some vast, irresistible migration.”

World War 2
A German Heinkel He 111 bomber over London © IWM (C 5422)

On the ground, the alarm went up. One civilian interviewed on Thames Television’s 1973 series ‘The World at War’ recalled:

“Five minutes to five, the sirens went. Walking out onto the veranda… looking down the river – sky was full of planes.

"Within couple of minutes, the bombs started dropping, in the Millwall Dock, and I could watch ‘em. And that was how it went on for some considerable time.”

Another one remembered:

"On that first Saturday, they practically obliterated from the Silvertown Way to Silvertown. As a matter of fact, the whole of Tidal Basin Custom House right up to Silvertown was obliterated. Make no mistake about it.”

The RAF men set to work breaking up and even plunging into the colossal formation. 

One pilot who was there was a Pole, Jan Zumbach of 303 Squadron: 

“In front of me, two Dorniers (bombers) were already on fire and parachutes were opening in the sky. The German bombers were approaching at tremendous speed.

"My leader was already firing. It was my turn. I pressed the button. Nothing happened. I swore violently. Already I had to move out.

"Tracer bullets were whizzing by on all sides and then I realised I had forgotten to release the safety switch.”

He soon got his bearings:

“Turning violently, crushed down by centrifugal force, bent in two, I found myself on the tail of a stream of bombers, with a Dornier 215 in front of me growing bigger and bigger in my sights, until it blotted out everything else.

"I saw the rear gunner aiming at me. I pressed the button and the rattle of my eight machine guns shook my plane.

"A long cloud of smoke came out of the Dornier. Another burst and it was ablaze.

"Over the radio, everyone was shouting, in English, in Polish.”

In ‘Blood, Tears and Folly’, Len Deighton describes the damage left behind as the Luftwaffe were finally, mercifully, driven off:

“As night came, the fires reached high into the sky and burned all night. Many ships, and their vital cargoes, were lost. Warehouses full of paint, rubber, whisky, sugar and spice added to the flames. Hundreds of fire pumps were in action, and no one who was there ever forgot that night.”

POLITICS

Contrary to the stereotype, the bombing of British civilian areas was not an aspect of Nazi cruelty, but rather the culmination of miscalculation and tit-for-tat manoeuvres.

In ‘Battle of Britain 1940’, Douglas Dildy points out that the pre-war Luftwaffe Service Regulation 16 had specifically dismissed earlier ‘Douhetian notions’ of attacking civilians and aiming to crush home-front morale.

After World War 1, Italian General Giulio Douhet had promoted the ‘moral effects of bombing’ non-combatants in enemy countries during wartime, but the Germans were having none of it:

“Attacks against cities made for the purpose of inducing terror in the civilian populace are to be avoided on principle.”

It appears instead that civilian centres were mistaken for nearby military targets and this kickstarted the retaliatory bombing of Berlin, ordered by Churchill.

Things escalated from there and bombing British cities, especially London, soon became the objective.

It was, after all, the best way to draw out and destroy the otherwise elusive RAF, or so Luftwaffe chief Herman Goring believed.

Second World War
France’s Petain shakes hands with Hitler in June 1940 © IWM (HU 76027)

In a sense, this was a microcosm of the larger political situation: fascism had taken root, first in Italy and then in Germany, amidst post-World War 1 societal turmoil and grievances (real or imagined).

Just like the war it would spark, fascism too could not be confined within any reasonable boundaries, and it soon metastasized across the continent.

The Nazis had gobbled up Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland (finally provoking the Allies to war in 1939), Norway, then, in one fell swoop, France, Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg.

Bizarrely, a pact was agreed between fascist Germany and the equally totalitarian communist Russia, which would itself take part of Poland, and then Finland.

Before the Battle of Britain was over, imperial Japan would also join the Axis alliance, and later, so too would Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Bulgaria.

Portugal and Spain remained neutral (thanks in part to British lobbying) but these countries were still authoritarian. 

All in all, the scorecard for global democracy looked decidedly bleak during this period.

‘Dunkirk’ depicts the evacuation of the BEF from France; featured here are three Spitfires in the ‘vic’ flying formation, a pattern that was found to be ineffective in combat and was later dropped

Indeed, things were so bad that it seemed self-evidently stupid for the British to go on fighting alone.

Hitler offered an agreement and, not wishing to see a rerun of the bloodbath that was the First World War, the British establishment seriously considered taking it.

But as we know, the ‘unorthodox’ Churchill, portrayed recently by Gary Oldman fighting through this ‘Darkest Hour’ of British politics, refused to accept defeat. 

He was helped to power by Labour, who wouldn’t serve in a coalition under his predecessor Neville Chamberlain, and by former Liberal World War 1 PM David Lloyd George, who made a damning speech about Chamberlain in the Commons:

“You have asked the nation for sacrifices, but there is one sacrifice that is more necessary than any other, and that is the sacrifice of your own office.” 

But even after becoming Prime Minister, it would take Churchill some time to correct the prior course of relative complacency. One politician who remembered the Chamberlain period was Lord Boothby, who served as an MP from 1924 to 1958:

“Well the opening phase of the war was one of the most extraordinary periods through which I ever lived because it was sort of a period of euphoria on the part of the people of this country.

"For a long time, there were quite a lot of unemployed, while the Germans were manufacturing arms at full stretch, particularly in the Skoda works in Czechoslovakia, which they had by that time occupied.

"Now all this time, the Germans were a beehive of activity.

"We were doing absolutely nothing… We confined our war effort to dropping leaflets on the German people telling them that it was a bad idea to go to war and that it was a pity that they’d done it, and perhaps we might make peace.”

As noted, peace with Britain is what Hitler wanted – just on his terms – so that he could get on with the business of going after the real enemy: his current ‘ally’ the Soviet Union.

What we call the ‘Battle of Britain’ was, to the Germans, meant as a prelude to ‘Operation Sealion’, the invasion of Britain due to commence on S-Tag (‘D-Day’, essentially) - September 21, 1940.

In preparation for this, the Germans produced guidelines for their soldiers on how they were to deal with the British population:

“1. The Englishman suffers from a certain lack of imagination when faced with new situations. Therefore he reacts more slowly to given instructions or inquires than do most European peoples. His slowness in reaction is not necessarily malevolent.

“2. The greatest strength of the Englishman is to appear ignorant (stupid). He is a master at questioning others while not giving away anything of himself. When he disagrees he almost always has a hidden purpose. Mostly by disagreeing, he wants to get others to speak.

“3. The Englishman doesn’t like to say yes or no, he doesn’t like to commit himself and is a master at the art of evasion. Instead of yes he likes to say: ‘It’s possible’; instead of no: ‘That might be difficult.’ The Englishman will not tell others, even when they ask, that they have done something wrong, he doesn’t correct.

“4. The Englishman is very reserved. Pushiness is considered in bad taste in England. It is considered extremely tactless to intrude in another’s domain or to push oneself upon someone. That explains the cool attitude to strangers. Compared to the Englishman the Scotsman is avowedly taciturn, the Welshman is much more open-minded and temperamental. With him one has to watch his cunning.

“5. The Englishman is used to having even orders and instructions preceded with the word ‘Please’, whereas the word ‘verboten’ (‘forbidden’) will automatically arouse resistance in him.

“6. Extreme friendliness and humour especially pay off with members of the public (lower class). With a joke, one achieves more than with an order when dealing with a workman.

“7. The working-class man, when handled with reserve and friendliness, is easily trusted (won over). He is then reliable up to a certain level and will be grateful for being treated decently.

“8. The English woman of all classes is used to an unusual amount of consideration and courtesy from the opposite sex.”

PLOTTING

When the Germans launched their bomber and fighter sorties (a sortie being the departure on a mission by a single aircraft) on August 15, their presence showed up on screens across the English Channel. 

They were being tracked.

Radar had been developed in the wake of the Zeppelin raids more than 20 years before and was intended to help fighters reach enemy bombers before they reached their targets.

German bombers
Spitfires attack German bombers - Airfix is a registered trademark of Hornby Hobbies Ltd, and use of the illustration has been kindly permitted by Hornby Hobbies Ltd © 2018

One pilot who remembered the effect of radar was Sir Max Aitken, son of the press magnate and politician 1 Baron Beaverbrook (who himself took over the system of repairing and resupplying Spitfires to airmen):

“Now radar really won the Battle of Britain because without it we would have been doing standing patrols and with a limited number of aircraft and a limited number of pilots you couldn’t have done it.

"As it was, we could wait on the ground and then radar would watch and, through the various controls, we would be told to take off at a time when the Germans were over Calais or over Amiens.

"And so therefore we wasted no petrol, no time, no energy.

"In fact, we could sleep in between patrols, and then we’d take off and we’d be directed towards the German formation, given height, distance, and their numbers, which was very important.”

Second World War
Pilots of 19 Squadron, stationed near Duxford, do a mock scramble for the camera © IWM (CH 1398)

That was how things worked in ideal conditions, anyway. 

But whereas plotting units neatly on a map and swiftly dispatching squadron intercepts based upon them was the ideal scenario, at other times, the primitive technology couldn’t distinguish formations anywhere near specifically enough for that. According to Dildy, on August 15:

“…Aalborg- and Stavanger-based bombers took off around 1030hrs from their 450-mile/two-and-a-half hour flight to bomb RAF bomber bases at Linton-on-Ouse, Dishforth, and Driffield… two Stukagruppen (Stuka dive bomber groups were also launched and) these formed a wide line-abreast formation with a dozen Bf 110s (long-range fighters) flying on their right wing and three Jadggruppen (more fighters) sweeping ahead and flying top cover.”

These various groups merged into a blob on the other end and were a nightmare to interpret:

“When the large, wide, ill-defined radar ‘echo’ was received by the Rye and Swingate CH stations at 1100hrs, the D-Sector controller established a two-squadron patrol inland from the coast… while he waited for the broad radar return to resolve into individual raids.”

The delay allowed some of the bombers to reach their targets unmolested.

What is also not sometimes generally appreciated is that the Germans weren’t ignorant about radar – in fact, they even attacked radar installations.

What they didn’t realise was just how centrally important radar was to the British response.

Len Deighton relates the experience of a Spitfire pilot who chased a Messerschmitt back to France only to be captured. He was treated to drinks with his enemies – a little while later they took off on another mission. He remembered:

“It was impressive – several hundred aircraft going round and round, getting into their massive formations.

I was then taken away and spent a day in the office of an adjutant. He was writing letters of condolence to families of Germans who were being shot down. He told me,

‘Not only you. We lose a lot too’.”

The pilot was later asked: “How is it you’re always there when we come?” 

He responded: “We have powerful binoculars and watch all the time.” 

The lie appears to have worked.

PLANES

Something else Deighton makes clear is how, just like our early war effort, Britain was woefully unprepared to meet the challenge of the inter-war race to master aircraft technology, at least as far as single-wing aircraft were concerned:

“In 1922, when 60 per cent of German aircraft types were monoplanes, they comprised only 6 per cent of Britain’s aircraft types, 9 per cent of French aircraft types and 27 per cent of American aircraft types… Even by 1934 the only monoplanes in RAF service were a few special aircraft and 17 amphibian trainers, all the others were biplanes.”

Battle of Britain memorial flight
A Spitfire seen during the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight

Given these shaky foundations, it’s even more impressive to think that, following the air war effort during the First World War, Britain was able to become so proficient at aircraft technology during the Second

The most obvious example of this proficiency is the Spitfire, which drew neck-and-neck with the top German fighter, the Messerschmitt Bf 109, for air superiority:

“The Spitfire and the Bf 109 marked a drastic change in fighter design.

"From being large, spacious and manoeuvrable biplanes with bracing wires, fixed landing gear and open cockpits, they became high-speed metal-clad monoplanes.

"Their wheels retracted into the wings and they were capable of climbing quickly to untold heights while their pilots, who had to get used to the cramped confines of the new configuration, communicated by means of short-wave radio-telephones.”

One pilot remembered:

“The cockpit – let’s say it’s a Spitfire – fits you like a glove. It just about touches your shoulders on either side.

"The perspex canopy almost touches your head above. You can move your booted feet a few inches in either direction; you can stretch your arms right forward or down, but need to bend your elbows if you pull them back or up.

"No matter; you can control a fighter with just a few inches’ movement of hands and feet.”

One imagines that, just like walking along a First World War trench, there must have been certain advantages to being short.

Accounts from both sides show that each was impressed by the other’s top aircraft, though seem to have been slightly biased towards their own aeroplanes. German ace Hauptmann Werner Molders had this to say about a captured Spitfire he flew:

“The Spitfire is one class better than the Hurricane, being very nice to the touch, light, excellent in the turn and almost equal to the Bf 109E in performance, but a rotten dogfighter, as any sudden dive and the engine cuts out…”

RAF
A Mk 19 Spitfire – Mk 1 and 2 Spitfires were used during the battle

In fact, the Spitfire could be half rolled to avoid this problem, and fitting it with the right kind of propeller unit vastly improved its performance. 

The Bf 109’s performance could also be improved – pilots who mastered their machine’s technical aspects became defter at aerial manoeuvre.  

These small details help explain the differing accounts; for example, the Spitfire was quicker at below 20,000 feet whilst the Bf 109 excelled above that altitude.

Deighton also points out another key detail that might explain why the Germans didn’t seem to get the same level of performance out of captured Spitfires as RAF pilots did:

“The near parity of Spitfire and Bf 109 should take into account the fact that the Germans used 87 octane fuel while by the time of the Battle of Britain, the RAF had overcome the limitations of the Neutrality Act to secure from the United States supplies of incomparably superior 100 octane fuel.

"This vastly improved the performance of the (Spitfire’s) Merlin engine, particularly the rate of climb. Speed was also improved.”

Another important point is that the Supermarine Spitfire was really part of a double act, its sister plane being the Hawker Hurricane. 

(In a similar fashion, the Bf 109 was also part of a double act, though this was the result of it taking over duties from the inadequate Bf 110 – a long-range two-seat fighter that was meant to provide the bulk of the protection for German bombers. Its subpar performance put the 109 front and centre by default.)

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Inspecting the wreckage of a Bf-109 shot down on Aug 12, 1940 © IWM (HU 73928)

The two main British fighters shared work far more harmoniously, with the super spec Spitfire taking on German fighters whilst the Hurricane concentrated on the bombers.

Whilst the former was high performance and high maintenance, the latter was mechanically simple, meaning easy to fix and chuck right back into circulation. (Spitfires took two-and-a-half times as long to construct and only eight RAF airfields were equipped to repair them.) 

Flight Lieutenant ‘Pete’ Brothers, who served with 32 and 257 Squadrons as a Hurricane pilot, remembered that:

“The urgent thing was to get at the bombers before they dropped their bombs, and if you were short of the height you wanted to carry out a stern or beam (side-on/perpendicular) attack, the best thing to do was take them head-on and go straight through the formation.

"I always dived underneath the bombers short of impact because I always thought that the instinctive thing for pilots to do was pull up rather than push down when faced with a collision, and the last thing I wanted was to meet a Dornier or Heinkel at close quarters.

"This manoeuvre also produced additional speed, thus enabling me to pull the Hurricane around once clear of the bombers and turn back into them again for a more conventional stern attack.

"Head on shots were the easiest of the lot to perform because there was no deflection needed whatsoever. I would press home the attack until I thought a collision was almost inevitable.”

Second World War
Hurricanes, with their more tightly-packed guns, usually blasted bombers – here one attacks BF 110s, inferior fighters to the Bf 109s (image from ‘Hurricane I vs Bf 110’ by Tony Holmes © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

He goes on:

“In many respects this was the best form of attack, as most bombers had less protection from both guns and armour at the front.

"It was often very difficult to confirm whether you had inflicted mortal damage to an aircraft after a single pass, however, as once you had turned back into the bombers the formation had often scattered in response to your initial assault.

"With a stern attack, you would usually look to set an engine on fire, thus denoting some success for your endeavours.”

As intimidating as it sounds, one pilot, 253 Squadron Leader G R ‘Gerry’ Edge, said:

“If you left it til your last hundred yards to break away from a head-on attack, you were in trouble.

"With practice, you got to judge when to break. But once you knew how, a head-on attack was a piece of cake.

"When you opened fire, you’d kill or badly wound the pilot and the second pilot. Then you’d rake the line of them as you broke away.”

Weaponry helps explain some of these accounts, as well as flying tactics.

Cannons would have been the preferred armament of British fighter aircraft designers, but they weren’t available. Instead, a relative plethora of machine guns was jammed into the wings of Hurricanes and Spitfires, eight in all, four on either side.

These (Colt) Brownings had 300 to 350 rounds each, over 2,500 in all.

Each gun fired 1,150 rounds a minute, or just under 20 rounds a second. Thus, during a two-second burst - the standard form of attack – an enemy plane was riddled with over 300 bullets. These attacks became even more deadly as the battle went on and De Wilde incendiary ammunition was added to the mix.

Second World War
A Spitfire engine firing up

The drawback here is that ammunition was depleted very quickly, in about 15 seconds, or eight two-second bursts.

The Bf 109, at least in principle, also had very limited ammo, though of the cannon variety.

That was the case anyway with the Bf 109E-3s, which were fitted with cannons on the fuselage in front of the cockpit (they fired through the propeller via an interrupter gear, just like machine guns on planes in the First World War); they also had one cannon protruding from each wing, beyond the propeller arc. 

Again, though, here too a relative lack of cannons meant that the Bf 109E-1s had two machine guns in the wings, with 1,000 rounds of ammunition each. 

These clearly packed less of a punch than the eight machine guns blazing out of the Spitfires and Hurricanes but the trade-off was that the larger ammunition supply meant the guns expended it less quickly.

With a rate of fire of 1,200 rounds a minute, they could fire continuously for a relatively-generous 50 seconds.

That advantage may have gone to waste though, because the BF 109s were flying at the very edge of their range (or, more specifically, their ‘radius of action’, the distance they could travel out and return to base comfortably.)

As ‘The World at War’ makes clear, this gave the British a distinct advantage:

“Fighting over England put the Luftwaffe at a disadvantage.

"It was expected, but not equipped, to win a decisive battle alone.

"The German bombers were not designed to carry a heavy-enough bomb load.

"The German fighters carried only enough fuel to stay over England for half an hour, whereas the British fighters, close to their bases, could land and refuel quickly enough to re-join the battle.”

Interviewed for the program, German airman Adolf Galland spelt out just how this limitation played out:

“Our range was very, very limited and we could only cover a small part of the British islands, including London.

"But over London, as an example, we could only stay for 10 minutes, to come back to our bases. So this limited range of our fighters in the escort has been perhaps the main point which avoided an effective air offensive against Britain.”

Second World War
Orange and red Luftwaffe formations on August 15, 1940, intercepted by blue RAF formations (image from 'Battle of Britain 1940' by Douglas Dildy © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

Unfortunately, just as the way their tanks were arrayed hampered them during the Battle of France, British flyer formations were sub-optimal, something that tipped the scales back in Germany’s favour.

This is because the British fighter squadrons flew in four groups of ‘vics’, tight V-formations of three planes each.

The rationale behind these tight groupings was the maximisation of firepower (recall the lack of cannons on British planes at this time), but the Germans called this set up ‘Idiotenreihen’ (‘rows of idiots’) because they made the British pilots relatively easy to beat.

They limited manoeuvrability by requiring planes on the inside to slow down so as not to break the formation during turns; they also reduced the ability of the pilots flying further back to scan the skies for enemy planes.

This is because part of their attention had to be diverted to keeping the tight formation.

Fighter Command sought to ameliorate these issues by having the rear vic of the twelve-plane squadron fly above and behind the other three, ready to swoop down on any enemy fighters who attacked their comrades.

But this only exposed the rear vic to more danger (Bf 109s were, after all, superior at higher altitudes and were more likely to dive in and attack them than the other way around.)

To mitigate this issue, they were encouraged to fly in a zigzag pattern, but this too created problems: slowing down the entire squadron by requiring the other three vics to reduce speed to avoid outpacing them; and simply creating more time and distance with their tails exposed to attack.

The Jagdwaffe (the Luftwaffe’s fighter arm), on the other hand, had its fighters fly in two sets of two lead pilots and wingmen known as ‘schwarms’.

Today, these are commonly known as ‘four-finger formations’ because they resemble the straight digits of an outstretched hand, the centre-left plane being furthest forward with his wingman just behind and to the left; the centre-right lead plane not far behind with his wingman just behind him to the right.

Second World War aircraft
RAF Tomahawks shown in a vic formation (left; image © IWM (CH 2573)) and a four-finger formation (right; image: Gold Lead)

In terms of bombers, the Germans had three main types: the dreaded Skuka dive-bombers, which, with their wailing sirens, had made life hell for British soldiers on the beaches at Dunkirk, and the larger Junkers Ju 88, the Heinkel He 111 and the Dornier Do 17.

At the beginning of the battle, in July, there were a total of 1,808 of these bombers in the German air force escorted by 1,464 fighters (with a grand total, including reconnaissance and coastal aircraft, coming to 4,074 aircraft); the RAF had 1,963 planes and only 903 of these were fighters.

But, as Stephen Bungay points out in 'The Most Dangerous Enemy', the RAF's situation wasn't necessarily as grim as the numbers make it appear:

"The defensive battle during the day would effectively pit the 48 squadrons of 754 (serviceable - i.e. immediately usable) Hurricanes and Spitfires against (all the Luftwaffe fighters and bombers, which meant they were) outnumbered by almost four and a half to one. In comparing like with like, however, the Hurricanes and Spitfires would be taking on 1,107 Bf 109s, a ratio of one and a half to one... From the Luftwaffe's point of view, its fighters had to cripple their opponents with a numerical superiority of 3:2, which is a narrow margin on which to stake a bid for air superiority. There was little room for mistakes."

PILOTS

Unlike early pilot training, which had been pursued by many rich amateur enthusiasts until it began to professionalise in the First World War, early on in World War 2 the RAF was drawing its ranks from a broader range of social strata, thanks in part to the formation of the RAFVR (RAF Volunteer Reserve.)

Once qualified, young pilots, many of whom were only around 20, found their schedules truly frenetic during the battle. 

One of these was Flight Lieutenant Eustace ‘Gus’ Holden, of 501 Squadron:

“At dawn one day, the squadron went to 30,000 ft and, on landing, I started to walk to the mess for some breakfast when I was recalled for standby.

"Relieved ten minutes later, I again made for the mess but just as I got to the door, I was called back and I had to go to 30,000ft again.

"Back at the aerodrome in due course, I tried again to get a meal. I was half-way through it when I was wanted for another standby.

"When that came to nothing, I made for my quarters to have a shave. I’d just lathered myself when the loudspeaker called, ‘501 Sqn – readiness!’ So up to 30,000 ft again.

"Later, I finished shaving and actually had lunch before being called for another standby. Then, about five o’clock, at 30,000 ft again for the fourth time that day.”

But it wasn’t always hectic. RAF sergeant pilot Ray Holmes remembers things differently:

“I think they took the situation not the least bit seriously from the point of view of their lives generally. Some fellows would just kick a ball around, or lie around, some would sleep, read paperbacks, listen to the radio and that was our life.”

World War II
Spitfire pilots relax between sorties © IWM (HU 1062)

In contrast to many in the RAF, a lot of German pilots were more experienced, having flown in and derived important lessons flying for the far-right dictator Franco during the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War.

In terms of the attitudes these young men had to each other, again, perspectives varied. Ray Holmes noted:

“I wanted to shoot an aeroplane down but I didn’t want to shoot a German down, I really did not.

"We did hear stories of Germans shooting our fellows in parachutes and we used to think that was pretty horrible, but we weren’t sure whether it was true or not.

"I know I had an experience of a German aircrew getting draped over my own wing – he bailed out of a bomber and got caught on my wing with his parachute and I was jolly careful to get him off as easily and as quickly as I could by yawing the aeroplane and shaking him off.”

On the other hand, Sir Max Aitken stated:

“…there was no chivalry at all… between the German air force and the British… not as far as I was concerned. I hated them. They were trying to do something to us, they were trying to enslave us.”

Second World War
A sergeant pilot in the cockpit of a Spitfire © IWM (HU 54419)

Sergeant J M B Beard of 249 Squadron described what it was like to go up against the 'hated hun'. He recalled the moment he spotted a vast cloud of German bombers:

“It was really a terrific sight and quite beautiful.

"First they seemed just a cloud of light as the sun caught the many glistening chromium parts of their engines, their windshield and the spin of their airscrew discs. Then as our squadron hurtled nearer, the details stood out. I could see the bright yellow noses of Messerschmitt fighters sandwiching the bombers, and could even pick out some of the types. The sky seemed full of them, packed in layers thousands of feet deep. They came on steadily, wavering up and down along the horizon. ‘Oh golly!’ I thought, ‘Golly, golly!’

“And then any tension I had felt on the way suddenly left me. I was elated but very calm. I leaned over and switched on my reflector sight, flicked the catch on the guns button from ‘Safe’ to ‘Fire’ and lowered my seat ‘til the circle and dot on the reflector sight shone dark red in front of my eyes.

“The squadron leader’s… voice came through the earphones giving tactical orders. We swung round in a great circle to attack on their beam – into the thick of them. Then, on order, down we went. I took my hand from the throttle lever so as to get both hands on the stick and my thumb played neatly across the gun button. You have to steady a fighter just as you have to steady a rifle before you fire it.

“My Merlin screamed as I went down in a steeply-banked dive on to the tail of a forward line of Heinkels. I knew the air was full of aircraft flinging themselves about in all directions but, hunched and snuggled down behind my sight, I was conscious only of the Heinkel I had picked out. As the angle of my dive increased, the enemy machine loomed larger in the sight field, heaved towards the red dot, and then he was there! I had an instant’s flash of amazement at the Heinkel proceeding so regularly on its way with a fighter on its tail. ‘Why doesn’t the fool move?’ I thought, and actually caught myself flexing my muscles into the action I would have taken had I been him.

“When he was square across the sight I pressed the button. There was a smooth trembling of my Hurricane as the eight-gun squirt shot out. I gave him a two-second burst and then another. Cordite fumes blew back into the cockpit making an acrid mixture with the smell of hot oil and the air compressors.

“I saw my first burst go in and just as I was on top of him and turning away I noticed a red glow inside the bomber. I turned rightly into position again and now saw several short tongues of flame lick out along the fuselage. Then he went down in a spin, blanketed with smoke and with pieces flying off.”

London
Battle of Britain memorial in London (image: Marathon, Geograph)

Len Deighton has argued that, not only was flying a kind of art, but so too was finding a good combat flyer:

“It was not a quick and simple matter to train a fighter pilot.

"Some highly skilled and experienced pilots never became good fighter pilots. An aggressive confidence was needed, together with exceptional vision and a willingness to fly dangerously close to the enemy planes.

"But finding the enemy required some sort of sixth sense that told men where to look, and to recognize what they saw.”

The vastness of the sky was a huge obstacle here, as one veteran pointed out:

“A lot of people were hit in their first flights and didn’t know what hit them.

"If you look out the small window of a passenger aircraft today, you see there’s a lot of space out there to look for an aeroplane.

"If you open up the whole area above and below you, there’s an enormous amount of space for an aircraft to be in.”

This helps explain why one in six of the RAF’s fighter pilots during the Battle of Britain came from abroad – they needed all the help they could get.

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Polish pilots with 303 Squadron © IWM (CH 1532)

PERSPECTIVE

The Battle of Britain ran from July 10 until October 31, 1940, but its climax was September 15. Subsequently known in the UK as ‘Battle of Britain Day’, this was when the RAF effectively hammered the last nails into the Luftwaffe coffin, ending any realistic prospect of Operation Sealion.

A thorough statistical analysis of the battle is difficult because the numbers are incredibly complex. For example, most sources (the BBC, for instance) state that the Luftwaffe lost 1,887 aircraft whilst the RAF only suffered 1,023 losses. 

On his History Hit site, Dan Snow lists the Allies (British side) as having lost 1,547 aircraft, as well as 966 casualties, including 522 dead; and the German losses as being (the same) 1,887 aircraft as well as 4,303 casualties, of whom 3,336 were killed.

These figures are misleading. The huge number of German casualties can largely be accounted for by the fact that they were sending over large numbers of bombers. Thus, whenever one of them was shot down, not only would two pilots be lost, but several crew members as well.

Additionally, the Forces Network contacted the Royal Air Force Museum and the Imperial War Museum for guidance. 

Both consulted Derek Dempster and Derek Wood’s book ‘The Narrow Margin’, which puts RAF fighter losses at over 1,100 and gives bomber losses (recall that Churchill initiated bombing raids on Germany too) as being over 300 aircraft. Taken together, these figures more or less match Dan Snow’s stat of over 1,500 Allied/RAF aircraft having been lost.

The RAF Museum also supplied an extract from Larry Donnelly’s ‘The Other Few: Bomber and Coastal Command Operations in the Battle of Britain’. It shows that deaths sustained by bomber, Fleet Air Arm and coastal crews were almost double those of Fighter Command. (Additionally, the National Archives have hosted a debate to raise awareness of the Royal Navy's important contribution to the battle).

It’s also worth bearing in mind that Fighter Command aircraft losses may be underestimated in some instances. Hurricanes and Spitfires made up the bulk of the fighters and the bulk of the losses (about 600 and 400, respectively) but there were also a handful of other aircraft - such as Defiants and Bristol Blenheim Mark 1Fs – and these too were shot down in small numbers.

Primary period documents are also suspect because both sides vastly exaggerated their ‘kills’, and in the confusion of battle, one plane being shot down could be claimed by two or more simultaneous assailants. 

Having said all that, there is a second statistical trap that undersells the RAF’s performance. 

Here too, figures seem to vary but most sources put the loss rate of the Bf 109 German fighters at somewhere around 500 or 600 aircraft. 

Comparing this to the loss rate of the main RAF fighters (around 1,000) gives a kill ratio of roughly 2:1 in the Germans’ favour. Other figures on either side of this range from 1.77:1 to 2.2:1.

But all this fails to account for losses of the slower Messerschmitt Bf 110s, which, though less numerous than the Bf 109s, weren’t insignificant. 

John Weal’s ‘Messerschmitt Bf 110 Zerstorer Aces of World War 2’ puts their loss rate at 223. (Incredibly, there were only 237 of these when the battle started, but that doesn't account for the production of new aircraft during the campaign. Though Weal tells us that the 110's participation was reduced precisely because new 110s weren't being made quickly enough to replace those shot down).

So with both the Bf 109s and 110s accounted for, the fighter-on-fighter kill ratios were actually closer to 4:3, with Fighter Command achieving parity with the Jagdwaffe on September 15.

Second World War
A newspaper seller watches the battle © IWM (HU 810)

It's also important to remember that, just as the casualty figures oversell the RAF's performance, the Jagdwaffe/Fighter Command kill ratios do the opposite.

Quite apart from being outnumbered from the outset of the campaign, British fighters were disadvantaged by having two jobs to do throughout it. Because the Hurricanes dealt primarily with the bombers, that left only about 40 percent of Fighter Command's planes, the Spitfires, to deal primarily with the Jadgwaffe's mostly first-rate Bf 109s. Although outperformed by the 109, if the Hurricanes had been able to concentrate on tackling enemy fighters as well, the kill ratio would almost certainly have been closer to 1:1. 

Could the RAF have fought more effectively?

Certainly. As mentioned, the ‘vic’ formations were cumbersome, but dropping them entirely and drastically reorganising things in the midst of a campaign was impossible. The quick fix was for pilots to keep these patterns but to be allowed to fly them more loosely, with a greater distance between aircraft.

It's also clear that the RAF was suboptimal at finding and training fighter pilots. Air Vice Marshal Keith Park of 11 Group, which, in covering the South East, took the brunt of the Luftwaffe assault, said that:

“…it was not until the battle was nearly lost that Air Staff at the Air Ministry assisted by borrowing pilots from Bomber Command and the Royal Navy. Incidentally, [after the Battle of Britain] when I was posted to Flying Training Command, I found that the flying schools were working at only two-thirds capacity and were following peacetime routines, being quite unaware of the grave shortage of pilots in Fighter Command.”

On the other hand, the head of Fighter Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, is generally recognised as having organised a highly efficient system for allocating planes to pilots. And, as Max Aitken made so clear, those planes and pilots were then sent exactly where they were needed thanks to radar.

Luftwaffe Jaggwaffe
Messerschmitt Bf 109s attacking a radar installation (image from 'Battle of Britain 1940' by Douglas Dildy © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

Another important point is that, for all the mistakes made by the British, the Germans made more. 

Being unaware of just how crucially important radar was to the British, they didn’t press on with attacks on radar installations. Had they done so, they might have crippled a crucial portion of the network across the South East, blinding Fighter Command.

The pressure to achieve overwhelming air superiority in order to enable the launch of Operation Sealion also led the Germans into the trap of believing their own inflated kill figures. 

A game ensued whereby fighter squadrons were sent over the Channel but Dowding held back his – bombers were the main concern so why send precious Hurricanes and Spitfires to tackle these empty threats? 

The Luftwaffe then recommitted bombers to bait the RAF and got a nasty shock when they kept showing up in much greater numbers than had been anticipated. 

It surely didn’t help that the Luftwaffe didn’t even have a unified staff to plan its operations, leaving its various parts to plan on their own and then try to stitch things together. Goring is generally regarded as having been more of a politician than a professional airman and strategist.

And, of course, similar faults can be attributed to the Fuhrer himself, who blocked his army from pressing forward and wiping out the British at Dunkirk in a petty power struggle.

He is likewise said to have inexplicably cut production of aircraft part-way through the battle – this, while the British were, by every metric (again, figures vary) significantly outproducing him, albeit largely with the Hurricane, which was approaching obsolescence. (It was unable to reach the 28,000-ft altitude from which the more advanced Bf 109E-7s dropped their bombs later on in the campaign).

Overall, the whole thing had been an exercise in Nazi power projection in which the RAF had seen off the Luftwaffe.

A quote from Dempster and Wood’s ‘The Narrow Margin’, serves as a fitting summation of the importance of the RAF’s effort:

“The Battle of Britain saved the country from invasion. If the RAF had been defeated all the efforts of the British Army and the Royal Navy would hardly have averted defeat in the face of complete German air superiority. With all Europe subjugated, Germany and Japan would later have met on the borders of India.”

For more, read ‘Battle of Britain 1940: The Luftwaffe’s ‘Eagle Attack’’ by Douglas Dildy, ‘Britain 1940: The Battle of Britain’ from Osprey’s ‘Battles of World War II’ series and ‘Hurricane I vs Bf 110: 1940’ by Tony Holmes. Visit Osprey's website for more military history.

Read Len Deighton’s ‘Blood, Tears and Folly’ for a comprehensive assessment of the early portion of World War 2 and ‘The Narrow Margin’ and 'The Most Dangerous Enemy' for detailed assessments of the Battle of Britain.

Special thanks to Gordon Leith at the Royal Air Force Museum and Sean Rehling at the Imperial War Museum.