of Britain tactics
In order to invade Britain, the Germans
had to have control in the air over the English Channel, otherwise the RAF
and the Royal Navy would have been able to destroy their invasion force
before it reached the shore. It has been postulated by many naval experts
that due to the type of flat-bottomed barge built by the Germans, simply
running a Destroyer Squadron at full speed through their ranks would have
caused many to capsize in the wake from the ships. The troops and their
equipment would have suffered heavy casualties, and the invasion
effectively stopped with little or no gunfire. The Luftwaffe's command of
the air was therefore vital to any plan for an invasion fleet to
successfully cross the Channel, to prevent British sea or air forces from
interfering with the operation.
Interestingly, the German Navy, Army and
Air Force each had their own plans and ideas as to how and where the
invasion should be launched. There seems to have been little co-operation
between the German armed forces, and despite the impressive build up of
barges and other equipment in the Channel ports, the actual detailed
planning for the operation, code-named "Sea Lion", was never really
thrashed out. All depended on the success of the Luftwaffe it would
appear, before the invasion was to be taken seriously.
Starting on 10 July 1940, the Luftwaffe
attacked shipping convoys in the Channel and Channel Ports. They also
suspected the importance of the British radar masts and attacked the
stations on the South coast, damaging some of them very badly.
One of the aircraft types used in these
raids was the Junkers Ju87 'Stuka' dive-bomber. These were very accurate,
and had been particularly successful earlier in the war when there was no
effective fighter opposition. But when dive-bombing, they were very
vulnerable to attacks against them and the Hurricanes and Spitfires of
Fighter Command found them easy prey. Because of their heavy losses, they
were withdrawn from the battle in mid-August.
In this stage of the battle, the
Luftwaffe was in effect probing the British defences - looking for
weaknesses before a major assault could be launched to exploit them.
At the beginning of August, with German
invasion forces and troop barges being assembled on the French coast, the
raids against the South coast of England were increased in size and
Believing that the British early warning
system had been destroyed and the coastal towns sufficiently 'softened up'
for an invasion, the Luftwaffe began the next stage of their plan.
On 13 August (called Adlertag or Eagle
Day by the German High Command), massive raids began on the airfields of
11 Group. The aim was to destroy the RAF, either in the air or on the
ground, in South East England. To put pressure on the British defences,
the Germans sent high and low level raids to different targets at the same
Sometimes low level raids sneaked past
the battered but still working radar stations, and the first warning the
British fighter pilots had was bombs landing on their airfield.
Particularly good in the low-level role was the Dornier Do 17 and its
derivatives, several of their raids succeeded in achieving complete
surprise and escaping any form of interception.
This pattern continued into September
and the situation in 11 Group became desperate. Small civilian airfields
were used in the emergency, as many RAF stations became badly damaged. The
Spitfire and Hurricane could easily take off from grass fields, but the
maintenance and spares supply situation became dangerously stretched.
Ground crews working in the open suffered heavy casualties from the raids,
and many maintenance facilities were destroyed in the bombing. Despite
this, the crews kept the fighters as combat ready as possible, winning the
Battle on the ground as the pilots were in the air.
Suggestions were made that the fighters
should be pulled back north of the Thames, but Dowding and Park knew that
this was exactly what the Germans wanted, effectively giving them air
superiority over the intended invasion area. So the 11 Group squadrons
stayed and fought for their lives.
To keep up the pressure, the Germans
began night raids, to stop the defenders repairing damage overnight. On
one night raid, some aircraft bombed civilian areas of London by mistake;
a mistake which was to become a crucial turning point in the Battle.
Attacks on civilian centres were something which had been specifically
banned by Hitler, who was still hoping at this time that the hopelessness
of the situation would cause the British to sue for a negotiated peace.
The German High Command knew that widespread civilian casualties would
only harden the resolve of the nation to fight on. In reply to this
accidental attack, the British bombed Berlin. Fears grew that cities would
be raided more often, so children were evacuated again in a second mass
exodus to places of safety in the country, as they had been during the
Phoney War of 1939.
However, just when it seemed that the
country and 11 Group in particular couldn't continue for another day, the
Germans changed their tactics.
Hitler was enraged by the attack on
Berlin and because it seemed that the attacks on airfields were not
destroying enough RAF fighters, he ordered a change of targets. By
attacking cities and industry, the Germans hoped to break British morale
and to destroy the factories that built fighter aircraft. They also hoped
that RAF fighters would gather in force round the cities to protect them,
which would make it easier for the Luftwaffe to shoot them down in the
numbers required to establish air superiority.
The change of plan was a mistake for a
number of reasons. It gave 11 Group a chance to repair their airfields and
radar sites, so the defences became fully operational again. The German Me
109 fighter could only carry enough fuel for 20 minutes flight over
Britain, so London was on the edge of its limited range. Finally, the
German raids now came within the range of 12 Group, and their large
formation tactics known as "Big Wings".
Much has been written about the
different tactics employed by Nos 11 and 12 Groups and their commanders,
and the supposed disagreements these differences caused. Suffice to say
that 11 Group's fast response tactics with whatever was available, meeting
the enemy formations as far from their targets as possible, was best
suited to their geographical proximity to the German bases. 11 Group
Squadrons simply did not have the time to assemble, they had to get
airborne and climb to height as quickly as possible or miss intercepting
the raid altogether. 12 Group, being further north had somewhat more time
for a large formation of fighters to assemble and climb to meet the
oncoming attacks, tactics that suited their circumstances. Dowding, as
befits a true leader, allowed his Group commanders to run their
organisations as they saw fit, the detail work being done a Group level
while he dealt with the overall picture. The life of an 11 Group pilot was
made more difficult by these operating methods, but Park understood the
true situation of his command, and employed his Squadrons with brilliant
effectiveness. In the light of the outcome of the Battle, and the fact
that for many days he had the fate of a nation resting on his shoulders
alone, Park must be considered as the architect of the RAF's victory.
Knowing the target to be London and the
industrial centres, the British controllers now had time to assemble a
large number of fighters to attack the German formations and break them up
before they could bomb. The appearance of large numbers of Hurricanes and
Spitfires came as something as a shock to the Luftwaffe pilots, who had
been told by their intelligence officers that Fighter Command had
practically been wiped out by the earlier raids against the airfields. By
changing tactics and targets, the Germans had actually helped Fighter
Command to deal with raids.
For the people living in the cities, the
Blitz had begun, as night raids followed daytime raids and gave the
civilians little rest. Everybody was in the front line, and there was
little the RAF could do to stop the night raids. Airborne radar was in its
infancy, but there were some successes for the Blenheim, Defiant and early
Beaufighter night-fighter Squadrons. Some of the Hurricane and Spitfire
day-fighter Squadrons also took part in the night defences, but relied
largely on luck to make an interception.
The End of the Battle
As the long, hot summer ran into
October, the German daylight bomber losses became too heavy. Their bomber
force started to operate only at night, and the damage they caused to
Britain's cities was enormous. Many civilian organisations were set up to
help deal with the wounded people and damaged buildings.
The German raids continued, but the RAF
had started to develop night fighters equipped with radar which could
tackle the problem. The first AI (Airborne Intercept) radar sets were
being fitted to Blenheim, Defiant and Beaufighter aircraft, and proved
increasingly effective as the equipment developed and operational
During the day, German fighters, mostly
Me 109s but occasionally Me 110s, were sent over carrying bombs in small
and large scale Jagd-bomber or "Jabo" raids. Largely these nuisance
raiders were aimed at engaging the RAF fighters and disrupting defensive
operations over the South-East. Defenders, tired from the night attacks,
were stretched still further by these raids. They flew fast and high and
were difficult to intercept. The radar warning was not long enough to
allow a Spitfire to climb to this height from the ground, so the RAF had
regular patrols between 15,000 and 20,000 feet. This was a costly and
inefficient use of the aircraft and pilots, exactly the situation the
control system had helped to avoid during the earlier phases of the
Battle, but German losses began to increase. The weather also began to
worsen and the raids stopped in late October.
The Germans then realised that the RAF
could not be defeated in 1940. Germany was also preparing to attack
Russia, so Operation Sea-Lion was cancelled indefinitely and eventually
abandoned altogether. The Battle of Britain was over. Strangely, for such
a ground breaking Battle, the first to be decided purely in the air and
the first real test of air power as a defensive and offensive weapon, it
did not really end, so much as petered out.