Unrealistic expectations: The Luftwaffe’s doomed mission during the Battle of Britain - Part I

September 8, 2020 - Defences Stories

Author: Major James Pinhorn

Hurricanes and Spitfires

A Fighter Station of the RAF in England during an air battle in which the intrepid pilots of RCAF Hurricanes and Spitfires, aided by the ground defences, destroyed no fewer than 180 Nazi aircraft of all types in a single day. [In this photo] Hurricanes come in to refuel and re-ammunition during the great air battle.

PHOTO: DND Archives, PL-3050

In the summer of 1940, the prospects for democracy in Europe appeared bleak. Adolf Hitler’s apparently unstoppable military machine had overrun most of Western Europe in less than two months; only the English Channel stood between Nazi Germany and the sole outpost of democracy in Europe.

To commemorate the 80th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain, we are running this historical, six-part series is based on an article written by Major Jim Pinhorn, originally published on the RCAF newsroom.

Part I

Britain’s small army, and those of its allies, had been defeated on the continent; the island nation stood alone against the might of the Nazi regime. Despite the seeming hopelessness of the situation, England refused to listen to Hitler’s “reason”, and vowed to fight on. Consequently, Hitler decided that only the invasion of England would eliminate it from the war. Given the relative weakness of the German navy, Nazi planners concluded that only with command of the air could a cross-channel landing be successful.

The ensuing “Battle of Britain”, which pitted the German Luftwaffe against the Royal Air Force (RAF), was part of the preparatory effort meant to clear the way for Operation Sea Lion – the invasion of Britain.

As Karl Klee noted, “For the people of Britain… the continued existence of their island empire was at stake.” Prospects for a British victory appeared slim. The defeat of the largest air force in the world would fall to the pilots and personnel of Fighter Command, led by Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding. Typical of British leaders at the time, Dowding pessimistically predicted that “our young men will have to shoot down their young men at a rate of five to one.”

Internationally, opinion was equally pessimistic. Joseph P. Kennedy, United States ambassador to the United Kingdom, informed President Franklin Roosevelt that, “England will go down fighting. Unfortunately, I am one who does not believe that it is going to do the slightest bit of good.” In the years since, historians have continued to portray it as a battle in which the British were constantly on the ropes and struggling to survive.

However, as Wing Commander M. P. Barley of the RAF points out, the truth is that “German failings before and during the battle conspired to ensure that they would not win.” Contrary to the popular perception that the Battle of Britain was a close affair that was fought by the “few” in the face of overwhelming odds, the destruction of the RAF, as a prelude to a cross-channel invasion, was a task for which the Germans were woefully ill-prepared.

Despite being in a favourable military position after a series of quick victories on the continent, failures in German doctrine, equipment, intelligence, and leadership conspired to ensure that the Luftwaffe would not be able to achieve success operating independently in pursuit of strategic goals. While this is in no way meant to belittle the efforts and achievements of the RAF, the reality is that German shortcomings played a greater role in the defeat of its air force than many choose to remember.

The Luftwaffe was created as a tactical force, designed to be successful in a support role within offensive blitzkrieg warfare. Procurement, doctrine, and the role of intelligence were all geared for tactical success, and all contributed to the Luftwaffe’s inability to carry out a successful strategic campaign against Britain. These shortcomings, combined with the disastrous effects of poor leadership, ensured that the British would be able to make the most of the advantages they enjoyed and that the RAF would ultimately emerge victorious.

In his account of the Battle of Britain, Matthew Parker asserts that “in June 1940, the Luftwaffe was unquestionably the strongest air force in the world”. Germany possessed more planes than Britain and was fresh off a series of successful campaigns through France and the Low Countries in which it had shot down more than 3,000 enemy aircraft. With the decision to attack Britain, it appeared as if it was only a matter of time before the pilots of the RAF would be swept aside as well.

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