Key point: The RAF held their own despite the odds. Here’s how good leadership and logistics carried the day.
It was a battle fought without armies. No rifles, no tanks, no barbed wire. In the summer of 1940, the skies above Britain served as the battlefield for the British Royal Air Force and the German Luftwaffe. The Nazis had conquered most of Western Europe, and Britain stood alone. The Luftwaffe represented the first arm of the German military juggernaut to take a swing at the British Isles. Its mission was simple: repeat the performances in Poland and France and eliminate the enemy air force. This would facilitate an invasion, which the Germans had no reason to believe would fail. The Luftwaffe’s crack pilots, many of them experienced since 1936 in the Spanish Civil War, included men like the dashing and headstrong Adolf Galland and deadly tactical genius Werner Mölders. The RAF stood grossly outnumbered, outgunned, and outmanned. Therein lies the importance of the Battle of Britain. The RAF, subsequently nicknamed “The Few” by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, held the responsibility of not only defending Britain from the Luftwaffe but also defeating the German pilots and thwarting Hitler’s plan for invasion. Despite German numerical and tactical superiority, higher echelons of leadership in the RAF proved more strategically flexible and adapted to the situations and parameters of the battle better than their Luftwaffe counterparts.
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“The Battle of Britain is About to Begin”
By the spring of 1940, World War II had begun only months earlier but looked to possibly end within the year. The French defense against the Germans ranged from abysmal to nonexistent, and the British Expeditionary Force evacuated Dunkirk in mid-June, as French Marshal Philippe Pétain sought an armistice with Germany. Resiliently, Churchill declared to Parliament on June 18, “The Battle of France is over. I expect the Battle of Britain is about to begin.”
With France removed from the picture, Germany looked to attack Britain, the last bastion of resistance. In preparation for a decisive victory, Hitler issued Directive Number 16, which charged Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring with the task of softening up Britain. Arrogant and pompous, Göring guaranteed the destruction of the RAF. Göring fully expected the RAF to flounder and fall from the sky.
Göring had little reason to assume the RAF could withstand a full-force assault. During the battles over France and Norway, the RAF lost 1,020 planes, 509 of which were fighters. According to the battle order of the RAF on July 1, 1940, this left 900 fighters in 10, 11, 12, and 13 Groups, responsible for the defense of England. Of these, 151 (17 percent) were Bristol Blenheims and Boulton Paul Defiants, although the majority of the squadrons were equipped with Hawker Hurricanes, and to a lesser extent, the Supermarine Spitfire. To add to these numbers, fighter production in June of 1940 was 446. The count of Hurricanes and Spitfires would increase to 972 in July and August.
Pilots of the RAF
In terms of pilots, the RAF faced a bleak situation. Planes were available, but pilots were not. Since 1939, the British had produced only 200 new pilots every month. Those men were not likely to be considered veterans, since the only combat they had encountered was over France and Norway. In all, Fighter Command could muster 591 serviceable (combat ready) fighters and 1,200 pilots. As optimistic as these figures were, one must remember that several squadrons would be rotated out for rest if the head of Fighter Command, Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding, could spare them. This was not often, as the pressure from the Germans forced all available aircraft to remain at the ready.
It was more likely that individual pilots were sent for rest when they reached the limits of their nerves, suffering from exhaustion. This was done on an individual basis since the stress of combat affected each man differently.
RAF pilots came from a few different strands before they manned a squadron. Pilots were schooled at Cranwell, which was the pinnacle of British flight schools. Also, Halton trained those who were of a social position that was not high enough for Cranwell. Halton specialized in ground crew rather than pilots. Short service commissions were another option, with the promise of an officer’s rank for six years followed by four in the reserve, with all the accoutrements such a position carried. This method proved very popular, offering instant social advancement in the stratified English society.
The final method of induction into an RAF squadron was through the Auxiliary Air Force. The AAF began in the mid-1920s as a grouping of clubs for amateur flyers, intended to create a local identity in a social class. As the 1920s and 1930s progressed, these grew in number and were funded by the Air Ministry. By 1940, AAF squadrons made up one-quarter of Fighter Command’s frontline strength, while those pilots with public school educations accounted for only 200 of the 3,000 pilots who would fly for the RAF in the Battle of Britain. The working class men accepting short-service commissions, which bypassed training at Cranwell, made up the majority of the pilots in 1940.
The RAF’s Many Fighters
The pilots coming into the RAF looking to find themselves in the romantic role of a fighter pilot in 1940 flew a mixed bag of fighter planes. The oldest type was the Bristol Blenheim. A prewar design, the Blenheim was a twin-engine craft converted from reconnaissance to a night fighter/fighter-bomber. The plane had a top speed of 260 mph and carried either two or four machine guns, depending on design variant and role, and up to 1,000 pounds of bombs.
The Boulton Paul Defiant first appeared in May 1940. Its top speed was 303 mph, and its four machine guns were located in a manned turret immediately aft of the cockpit. This arrangement made it impossible to attack a target in front of the aircraft, as it had no fixed forward firing armament. The turret had been placed in a defensive position.
The most numerous fighter on the RAF airfields was the Hawker Hurricane Mk. I. The Hurricane was a fast fighter at 320 mph. It climbed beautifully (2,520 ft/min) and was a stable gun platform for the eight .303-caliber Browning machine guns in the wings. However, the most modern fighter in the British arsenal was the Supermarine Spitfire Mk. I. The beautifully aerodynamic “Spit” could reach 355 mph and held eight .303 Brownings, four in each wing. It could climb slightly faster than the Hurricane, ascending at 2,530 ft/min. Climb was of massive importance to the RAF, as the British had mere minutes to meet each incoming threat. Time was a crucial factor in the battle. The ability to get to fighting altitude (10,000 to 15,000 feet, usually) proved critical, and the aid of radar early warning would prove to be one of the vital British advantages in the battle.
Despite the large number of guns, which had a sustained firing time of 14 seconds for both the Hurricane and the Spitfire and dropped 13 pounds of ordinance in a three-second burst (as opposed to the Bf-109’s 18 pounds), both planes were very maneuverable, with the Spitfire having a slight edge. The Spit was trickier to fly because of a high rate of roll due to its aerodynamics and powerful engine. This gave the plane incredible maneuverability, which would put it on par with the German fighters. This fact determined how the Spitfire was to be deployed during the battle. In July 1940, aircraft available to Fighter Command consisted of 463 Hurricanes, 286 Spitfires, 37 Defiants, and 114 Blenheims.
The Inadequate .303 Round
Across the English Channel from the RAF, the Luftwaffe boasted 2,909 aircraft in Luftflotten 2, 3, and 5. This included 1,260 twin-engine bombers, 316 dive-bombers, 280 twin-engine fighters, 809 single-engine fighters, and 244 various reconnaissance planes. The twin-engine bombers were the Heinkel He-111, the Dornier Do-17, and the Junkers Ju-88. Top speeds of these bombers were 252, 255, and 280 mph, respectively. They were light to medium-sized craft with medium payloads and poor defensive armament, but they proved tricky to shoot down. As for dive-bombers, the Germans employed their notorious Junkers Ju-87 Stuka. Despite success in France and Poland, the Stuka had a top speed of only 238 mph and proved extremely vulnerable to attack if unescorted.
The difficulty in shooting down a German bomber owed to the inadequacy of the .303 round and to the self-sealing fuel tanks found in German aircraft. The self-sealing tanks worked by employing two layers of metal divided by a special rubber compound. When the tank was punctured, the fuel reacted with the rubber, causing the compound to swell and close the hole. This was only a temporary fix, which would allow the plane to return to base without losing appreciable fuel or bursting into flames.