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

September 17, 2020 - Defences Stories

Author: Major James Pinhorn

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.


Hawker Hurricane Mk IIB BE485, Coded AE-W, crosses channel with 250-pound bombs slung under wings on intruder sortie into occupied France, with 402 (F) Squadron in 1941. PHOTO: DND Archives, PL-6898


Hitler’s constant meddling ensured that German industry delivered neither the quantity nor the quality of which it was capable. The result was aircraft that were simply inappropriate for the distances and payloads required in the Battle of Britain. That the Luftwaffe was dependent on aircraft so poorly suited for its campaign against England was, to a large degree, the result of Hitler’s meddling in an area he simply did not understand.

Failures in German intelligence were even more damaging. The Luftwaffe intelligence department, led by Colonel Josef Schmid, was underfunded, understaffed, and far too small to meet the requirements of the world’s largest air force.

During the planning and conduct of the battle, German intelligence failures included a lack of information on appropriate bombing targets, little useful information about British radar or the British air defence system, and a tendency to underestimate the strength of the RAF. These shortfalls caused leaders to be overly optimistic before and during the battle, and impeded effective decision-making. The political climate of the Nazi regime led to intelligence authors tailoring their reports to suit the wishes of their readers, rather than attempting to describe the conditions as they actually were. Decisions were made based on overly optimistic assessments that ignored military realities and resulted in unnecessary difficulties.

The Luftwaffe intelligence unit’s major contribution to the invasion of Britain planning process was the “Study Blue.” The major sources for this report were officially published maps and handbooks, British newspaper articles, and a book on British industry that had been ordered directly from a London bookshop. This speaks volumes about the unsophisticated and amateur nature of the Luftwaffe intelligence department.

“Study Blue” included no information on radar and failed to recognize the significance of the air defence system, despite Germany’s having pioneered the technology. Radar allowed the British to husband their fighter resources; early detection of incoming German aircraft meant that fighter squadrons were able to stay on the ground until the last moment. This allowed pilots to engage the enemy fully fuelled, and to avoid mounting tiresome and wasteful patrols. The Germans chose to attribute RAF success in locating German aircraft to luck. As Fred Strebeigh points out, “In the first five weeks of the Battle of Britain, the ‘lucky’ RAF outshot the Luftwaffe [sic] day after day, losing 128 planes but destroying 255 by August 12.”

Another major flaw in Schmid’s study was its underestimation of both RAF strength and British industrial capability. Schmid reported that the RAF had only 200 frontline fighters, and that Bomber Command had in the vicinity of 500 bombers at its disposal. While his estimate of bomber strength was remarkably accurate—there were actually 536—he failed to accurately predict the all-important strength of Fighter Command, which had more than 600 frontline aircraft.

Intelligence failures were by no means limited to underestimating British numbers. Fighter bases were routinely tagged as bomber bases. Parked aircraft were misidentified. The most serious mistakes were made in estimating British strength during the course of the battle. By early September, Göring was insisting that the British were down to their last 150 fighters. Hitler decided to switch the focus of the campaign to daylight bombing of London. The result gave Fighter Command time to repair and restock. As well, the British aircraft industry not only caught up to the expansion of the Luftwaffe in the following two years but would surpass German production as early as 1940, when Britain produced 15,049 aircraft compared to just 10,247 in Germany.

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