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

September 15, 2020 – Defence Stories


During the Battle of Britain, Norma Zelia Watts was the ground contact for the aircrew that fought back the German Luftwaffe in the British skies. Later in the war, she first served with Fighter Command, and then with Bomber Command which is where she met her husband, Flight Lieutenant Jack Vincent Watts, a Royal Canadian Air Force navigator. PHOTO: Submitted

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.

Part III

While this example highlights the difficulties associated with the planning of specific operations, it stands to reason that the development of doctrine without insight into grand strategy would have been equally difficult. Development of aircraft within the German Air Force also focused primarily on aircraft that were ideally suited for the close-support role, such as fighters and dive-bombers that were designed to support army operations. This proved to be a valid focus until 1940 because the dive-bombers and medium bombers of the Luftwaffe performed brilliantly in Spain as well as in the campaigns through France and the Low Countries. During the strategic bombing campaign against Britain, however, the destruction of industrial and economic targets, meant to cripple Britain’s war effort, required much larger payloads than Germany’s aircraft were capable of delivering. Industrial damage never approached a level that could have hoped to have been decisive.

German bombers soon proved to be too slow and vulnerable to defend themselves against determined fighter opposition, and the Germans quickly realized that their bombers would require fighter escorts. Germany had focused its fighter development on fast aircraft that would be capable of achieving air superiority over a localized area in order to facilitate the advance of the army below. The presence of long-range fighters was not a requirement in blitzkrieg because the aircraft were typically operating from airfields close to the front lines.

While accompanying bombers on raids over England, however, the limited range of German fighters was quickly discovered to be a weakness. German fighters often had as little as 10 minutes’ reserve fuel when escorting bombers to London. This, combined with the need to guard the bombers, allowed very little freedom of action for German fighter pilots. Often, the Germans were so fuel critical that the RAF could secure a victory without necessarily having to destroy their opponents. Delaying the Germans for a few minutes could be enough to force them to bail out on the return trip due to lack of fuel. Being tied to the bomber force and with insufficient fuel to be truly effective against RAF Spitfires and Hurricanes, Luftwaffe fighter pilots typically entered dogfights at a disadvantage.

Equally detrimental was Hitler’s responsibility for the general structure of German rearmament throughout the 1930s. As an army man, Hitler’s focus was on the need to strengthen his ground forces for the inevitable show down with the Soviet Union. The army routinely claimed the greater part of Germany’s overtaxed armament production. And, Hitler’s insistence on rapid rearmament meant that Luftwaffe planners were forced to sacrifice quality for quantity. His 1940 “production stop decree” forbade continuing work on any project which could not be finished by the end of the year, essentially stalling military aircraft research and development and ceding technological advantage to the Allies.

While the true effects of the decree would not be felt until later in the war, the decision to forego efforts to advance the technical quality of the Luftwaffe speaks volumes about how little Hitler understood aerial warfare and the role of technology within it. Although Hitler appeared to have a detailed knowledge of aeronautics, he seemed to believe that victory could be achieved through weight of numbers alone.

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