Her Hopeless Military Situation

Attacks continued with more damage done to RAF airfields and facilities, but at a heavy cost to both sides. On the 18th of August, the Germans lost 67 planes against British losses of 33 fighters, of which eight pilots survived. These losses forced the Luftwaffe to revise their tactics and they withdrew the slower but more accurate JU87 Stuka dive bomber from operations against England. This veteran of the Blitzkrieg was too vulnerable to fighters and was preserved for later use in the proposed invasion.

With such heavy German losses, Goering ordered that his Bf109 fighters be used as bomber escorts instead of the hunting sweeps previously employed, a decision that had the effect of concentrating all the enemy aircraft in one place, making a larger target for British fighters. Some of the bombers were switched to night raiding to reduce losses from fighter attack. Hitler’s Directive no 17, dated the 1st August, on the conduct of the war against England, directly prohibited Luftwaffe attacks on civilian targets, it states, “The war against England is to be restricted to destructive attacks on industry and air force targets which have weak defensive forces. It is also stressed that every effort should be made to avoid unnecessary loss of life amongst the civilian population”. He also ordered that no direct raid on London should be made without his express approval.

The German attacks widened in scope on the 23rd of August when Goering ordered attacks on Factories and Ports, with Birmingham and Portsmouth being badly damaged. The following night saw heavy raids on London with Dockland being set ablaze. Some bombs fell on Croydon Airfield, believed to be a due to a navigation error by a group of Heinkel 111s.  A similar error resulted in the bombing of Harrow. Whatever the reason, the RAF was ordered to retaliate and on the night of the 25th, sent 81 planes to bomb industrial targets in Berlin.  Low cloud prevented accurate identification of the target and some bombs fell on the city, killing civilians and infuriating Hitler, thus starting the pattern of bombing civilian targets that was to continue throughout the war. Continuing RAF raids on Berlin in retaliation caused Hitler to withdraw his Directive and in a speech on the 4th of September threatened to obliterate British cities if British bombing raids on Germany did not stop. He ordered the Luftwaffe to begin a merciless bombing campaign against Britain, thus spreading their forces and relieving pressure on RAF installations.

From now on the aerial battle became a straight fight between the German Luftlotte 2 Bomber Group, tasked with destroying the RAFs resistance and Air Marshall Park’s 11 Fighter Group who opposed them. The Germans concentrated their attacks on RAF installations, desperate to knock out Fighter Command and over the next two weeks Biggin Hill, Hornchurch, Debden and North Weald were repeatedly attacked as well as Croydon, Rochford, Hawkinge and Manston. The Coastal Command airfield at Eastchurch was bombed a total of seven times in the belief that it too was a fighter station.

Despite these attacks, the RAF maintained its offensive capability. Air Chief Marshall Dowding, Commander of Fighter Command noted in a report that the Luftwaffe “had achieved very little” during these raids and the only Sector Station to be shut down operationally was Biggin Hill and that for just two hours. He went on to confirm that while 11 Group’s efficiency was affected by some damage, only two of the thirteen airfields attacked were down for more than a couple of hours.

Although Britain’s factories could make good the losses in aircraft, experienced replacement pilots were harder to find. New pilots joining the squadrons direct from training units had as little as nine hours experience in flying Spitfires and Hurricanes and no training in air to air combat or gunnery, so life expectancy was short. The Fleet Air Arm sent 58 volunteer pilots to join the RAF with a similar number joining from the pilots of the light bomber Fairy Battle squadrons, but it was the arrival of pilots from the Dominions and from the conquered nations of Europe that enabled the fight to continue.

Men from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Rhodesia and Canada, as well as those from Poland, France and Czechoslovakia, all came to fight for Britain.  Some were seconded to RAF squadrons while others were formed into their own units such as the Free French or the famous Polish 303 Squadron based at Northolt who were credited with being the war’s highest scoring allied unit. Individuals such as Josef Frantisek, a Czech pilot who had flown from the occupation of his own country to join the Polish and then the French air forces before arriving in England, who achieved, by the RAFs reckoning, the highest number of kills in the Battle of Britain with seventeen confirmed victories to add to the seven shot down while in Europe. Morale among the defending fighter pilots was high despite the losses. They knew that if they were forced to bail out, they would land on home soil while their German counterparts would face either capture or dying in the Channel through drowning or exposure.

The fighting, now known as the Battle of Britain, claimed a heavy cost in men and material. In the month of August 1940 alone, Germans aircraft losses were 669 destroyed and 182 damaged with corresponding British losses of 344 fighters destroyed and 98 damaged. Over the total period of July to September 1940, German aircraft losses were 1636 in total with 1184 of them totally destroyed, against Fighter Command’s total losses of 1274, with 785 destroyed.

At a conference on the 14th of September, Hitler concluded that, despite the optimistic claims of Goering, air superiority had not yet been established and undertook to review the situation on the 17th for a possible landing on the 27th of September or the 8th of October. When it became clear some three days later that the Luftwaffe had greatly exaggerated the extent of their success against the RAF, the plan was postponed indefinitely. Britain was given a breathing space to re-equip her forces and prepare to take the fighting to the enemy on land, sea and air. Hitler turned his attention to his planned invasion of Russia and in so doing, created a war on two fronts that was to be his ultimate downfall.

Jim Keys
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Jim Keys

Since his retirement Jim Keys has indulged his passion for history, writing two books on Britain’s past: The Dark Ages and The Bloody Crown. He is currently writing the last of the trilogy, Fighting Brits which covers Britain’s military struggles from the Armada to Afghanistan.

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