Could the Luftwaffe really have won the Battle of Britain?

09 September 2020
We look back at the Salute Show Guide 2020 and reflect nearing the official anniversary day of The Battle of Britain

This article featured in the Salute Show Guide 2020, which accompanied the April 2020 issue of Miniature Wargames.

Written by Alan Patrick. Photos by Sarwat Chadda

While preparing this article for Salute 2020 I read innumerable articles describing how, despite both sides believing the Germans were winning for much of the battle, British heroism (and, for good measure, German ineptness) had allowed plucky Britain to pluck victory from the jaws of defeat? But how true is this picture? When I started looking at the facts, what struck me more was the opposite –there is another story, of the Luftwaffe being handed an insurmountable task. This story starts with the fall of France.... 

Lessons not learned 
The rapid defeat of France was as much a surprise to the Germans as to anyone else. They had expected it to take much longer, and to lose far more men and machines. But the French and British land forces had collapsed under their “Blitzkrieg” attacks. 

However, the Luftwaffe had not had nearly as easy a time as the Army. The more modern French and British fighter aircraft proved far tougher opposition than the eastern European countries’ older ‘planes, and despite holding all the cards, they lost about 500 experienced fighter pilots in France, about 1/3rd of their fighter pilot force. 

Furthermore, the Luftwaffe strike bomber force had failed to stop the British evacuating about 500,000 troops from French ports to England. Luftwaffe loss ratios were again high against the RAF fighters over the French beaches.

An unexpected air battle 
“What General Weygand called the battle of France is over. I expect that the battle of Britain is about to begin…” So said Winston Churchill in a speech to the British House of Commons on June 18, 1940. Churchill noted the British would fight on the beaches, the lanes and the streets. 

The most Churchill had to say of the RAF in his speeches was: 

“We shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air “ 

An air battle was not at the top of his mind. 

Also, Hitler and his high command didn’t expect a war. It’s not mentioned much nowadays, but there was a strong British movement to settle with Hitler, and despite the new Prime Minister Churchill’s speeches, the Germans believed that this was just for public consumption and Great Britain would soon settle. 

But as the days passed and it became clearer the British would not submit, Hitler grew impatient and it was decided to threaten a land invasion (Operation Sealion) and start a limited air campaign to impact British public opinion and bring Britain to heel. However, with the Royal Navy able see off the German navy and any channel invasion, the only way this could credibly be achieved was to use the Luftwaffe to defeat it. But to do that they would have to achieve air superiority, and to do that they would need to defeat the RAF fighter force. 

The Luftwaffe’s strategic problems 
Churchill’s comment about “growing strength in the air” pinpoints the fundamental problem the Luftwaffe now faced. The term “superpower” was originally coined for Great Britain, and the large industrial base and the large manpower and material reserves of its Empire still hugely exceeded Germany’s capacity for war. Leaving Britain alone meant it would grow steadily stronger while Germany, already re-arming for nearly a decade, was much closer to full capability. 

But Hitler was convinced the British would submit until August 1940, so did not attack immediately, giving Britain time to recover from France and for its larger industrial base to build aircraft. 

The next problem was that the Luftwaffe had been designed to be a tactical strike air force, to support its ground forces in their Blitzkrieg tactics, rather than fight strategic air campaigns. This meant the priority was given to light, fast, strike bombers, not air superiority fighters or heavy strategic bombers. Plans for four-engined strategic bombers had been delayed, the only 4 engined bombers in service were FW 200 Condors – converted airliners – used for maritime attack. 

The benefit of these light bombers was that they were supposed to be fast and match the speed of the fighters to keep out of trouble, and thus not need fighter protection. This was true in the mid 1930’s when they entered service, and even in 1940 against older fighters. But it was not true against state of the art fighters. They would have to be escorted until the Luftwaffe could clear the skies of British fighters, 

In addition, fighter range (“endurance”) was also not a major consideration for a tactical air force operating from close behind its front line. But now, operations would have to be from French coastal airfields , and the Luftwaffe did not yet have advanced repair capabilities in France - so would have to send damaged aircraft back to Germany for all but basic repairs. 

In addition, they did not have a structured pilot training scheme, pilots were trained for campaigns as required. There was no pipeline, they would have to start training from scratch, but these new pilots would not be available for several months. 

Air superiority (or bust?) 
As noted above, the German bomber force was mainly comprised of light bombers. To do much damage to airfields, factories and cities the Luftwaffe would need to fly a large number of such bombers, many times, to deliver the sorts of bomb loads required. 

And they had to do this in skies full of enemy fighters. This meant the key to winning the battle would be air superiority, and that required superiority in fighter aircraft. But the Luftwaffe was not structured to both escort large numbers of bombers and fight an air superiority war against a major power. They only had rough parity with the RAF in terms of fighter aircraft. 

The Luftwaffe had lost quite a lot of its fighter force in France, but by raiding other commands had managed to gather about 1,000 experienced fighter pilots by the beginning of the Battle of Britain. 

Although the RAF had also taken heavy losses in France, it could muster about 1100 fighter pilots at the beginning of the battle. They were also, however, already bringing on-stream about 600 more experienced pilots from conquered European countries and the British Empire, as well as new pilots from a structured training scheme. 

So there was not a large difference in the fighter force numbers, and the RAF was going to get a lot more trained pilots sooner. Was there a difference in fighter quality? 

The ‘plane truth 
The German Messerschmitt Bf 109 was a top of the range modern monococque metal monoplane fighter, but so was the British Supermarine Spitfire. The Hawker Hurricane was older but still a top-of-the-range wood and strut monoplane fighter so could just about mix it with the other two, but was also (owing to its construction) as tough as old boots and could out-turn a 109. So not a decisive difference in quality. 

Also, in France both air forces had used 97 Octane fuel, but the British were now getting 100 Octane fuel from the USA, giving the Merlin engined British fighters a c 15% increase in power, increasing their performance. 

With some justification, the Germans believed their pilots were more experienced than the RAF, and this would make a difference (though the experience over France did not augur well). But even if they were better, as noted above all of these fighters had 
a low range (or time in the air, called “endurance” in airspeak) compared to the bombers. This was not a problem for the British, fighting over their own airspace, but the Bf 109s could only fight over England for about 30 minutes before having to turn for home. Thus all attempts to establish Luftwaffe air superiority needed to happen in the first half hour of any attack. 

To understand why this is yet another major problem, we need to look at the map of Britain. 

Content continues after advertisements

A short note on British geo-economics 
The map shows the setup of the RAF defences in the South East during the Battle. The killer point is this - German fighter range is limited by the area described by the blue lines in the sectors covered by 11 Group. 

There are 3 important points to bear in mind for any battle outcome:
1. Most of Britain’s manufacturing industry base was out of German
fighter range. Thus, any attempts to bomb British aircraft factories would be unescorted.

2. The RAF has a lot of air bases out of range of the German fighters (minor ones are not shown in the map), but can still contest the South East from these bases. 

3. The RAF strategy was to keep an air force in being, so it would have retreated North and West if it started to look threatened in the South East. It would be embarrassing to give the Luftwaffe the run of London, but not strategically damaging.

In other words, it would not be possible for the Luftwaffe to sweep the RAF from the skies unless the RAF fighters chose to fight over South East England until destroyed, which they had no intention of doing. 

Amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics 
There are many stirring accounts already of the air battles, and the evolution of air tactics, but our concern is the overall battle – and that means logistics. How many aircraft and pilots is each side losing, how many replacements are there, what is the relative attrition rate. 

The Luftwaffe started off with in July with 1,107 single seat fighters to the RAF’s 750, and 360 two seat fighters to the RAF’s 150, but the two seat fighter of both sides soon proved to be useless in the first air battles. 

The Luftwaffe also started with about 1,400 bombers and 400 “Stuka” dive bombers. The British had about 500 bombers, and both had several hundred reconnaissance and maritime aircraft. 

Loss rates 
There are various estimates of losses, both sides overestimating the lossesnof the enemy. These are the loss rates according to Winston Churchill in “Their Finest Hour”. 

Month    RAF Losses    Luftwaffe Losses

Churchill’s estimate was about 770 Spitfires and Hurricanes lost. Luftwaffe estimated fighter losses were about 660 Bf 109s (of which c 500 were shot down, the rest were lost to other causes such as ditchings and crash landings from fuel starvation). Given that the RAF fighters were also attacking the bombers and losing quiet a few in that way, this gives the Luftwaffe at best a near parity fighter to fighter loss rate. It also showed c 250 twin engined fighters (the Messerschmitt Bf 110 “Zerstorer” (Destroyer) were destroyed, about 2/3 of that fleet. 

Replenishment rates 
This is the list of fighter pilot availability over the period. RAF numbers include reserves, the Luftwaffe do not – but the picture is clear. Luftwaffe fighter pilot numbers are declining, RAF are increasing. 

This table does not include the large Luftwaffe bomber aircrew numbers (bombers have larger aircrews) which would make the Luftwaffe numbers seem much larger. But the message is clear - as far as fighter pilots were concerned it was more the Luftwaffe that had “The Few”. 

Month         RAF Availability        Luftwaffe Availability 
July.....................1,200 (06/06)................ 906 (01/07) 
August .............1,377 (27/07)................ 869 (01/08) 
September.......1,422 (31/08)............... 735 (01/09) 
October ...........1,796 (02/11) .............. 673 (01/11) 

In addition, 925 shot down Luftwaffe aircrew were taken prisoner over the period. To be sure, the majority were bomber crew, but that’s at least c 200 trained Luftwaffe pilots lost, whereas RAF pilots shot down over England could return to their units. This was also true of damaged aircraft crash landing in England. (Even a beyond repair aircraft is useful, for spares that don’t need re- manufacturing) 

The Luftwaffe also had to split its production resources between bomber and fighter production, with a smaller aircraft industry. During the Battle of Britain period they were producing only about 200 Bf 109s a month at most. 

The British on the other hand could focus on fighter production, and 400 - 500 Spitfires and Hurricanes a month were made, but very few bombers. The Luftwaffe were barely keeping up with losses, the RAF were increasing the number of fighter aircraft available every month. 

Much has been made of the advantage of British radar, but its real impact was not (as is often supposed) getting British fighters up to meet German bombers. For the reasons outlined already the Luftwaffe wanted this to happen, they wanted to meet the RAF in the air, in the first half hour, while the Bf 109s were available. 

Radar’s real effect was more subtle. It meant the RAF didn’t have to fly combat patrols all day, which is very draining on aircrew and aircraft on a front that wide. It also spoiled the role of the Messerschmitt Bf 110 “Zerstorer” (Destroyer), which was supposed to 
fly in advance of the bomber wave and attack enemy fighter aircraft as they were scrambling (many aircraft were destroyed in Poland and France this way). Instead they got destroyed and the RAF fighters got airborne undamaged. (It took a while for the Luftwaffe to work out it was possible to fly below the radar). 

Let Battle Commence 
So, arguably, the Luftwaffe were not in pole position, but were up against a task they would have great difficulty of succeeding in. But in that case, how come both sides thought the Luftwaffe would win, and was winning for quite a bit of the battle itself. 

The answer was intelligence (or lack of it). German kill counting methods overestimated British losses and underestimated the RAF rate of repair, and while the British knew how many enemy aircraft crashed on their own island, they had little idea of the number of enemy losses on the way back to France and how poor the German repair system was. The Germans also underestimated the size of the RAF reserves (especially the foreign contingent) and the British overestimated both German fighter and pilot production rate. 

At any rate, the level of hubris in the German High Command after the fall of France was sky high, and ReichsMarschall Herman Goering, hardly a modest of man, promised Hitler he could sweep the RAF from the sky in 4 days. Are there any signs that senior Luftwaffe officers knew the size of the task before the battle – there are many, but the reality was there was no other option once the Fuhrer had ordered it, and duty called.... 



This extract has been taken from the Salute Show Guide 2020 which accompanied the April 2020 issue of Miniature Wargames. Purchase the magazine and the full Salute Show Guide here


No comments