Unrealistic expectations: The Luftwaffe’s doomed mission during the Battle of Britain – Part II

September 10, 2020 – Defence Stories


An undated photograph of the goal of every Allied airman: a downed enemy aircraft in southern England. PHOTO: DND Archives, PL-129315

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.


Hermann Göring, head of the German Air Force, predicted that the elimination of fighter forces from southern England would take only four days, and the defeat of the RAF only four weeks. Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, chief operations officer of the German High Command, suggested that crossing the English Channel “should prove no more difficult than a river crossing.”

It soon became apparent that the RAF was a much more formidable opponent than had been anticipated. Perhaps more important than British prowess, however, were the limitations of German Luftwaffe capabilities which resulted from its short history and tactical role within the German military.

The Luftwaffe had been forced to grow fast. Germany had been forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles from possessing an air force, and so German warplane manufacturers turned their efforts to commercial endeavours such as the airline Lufthansa, which by 1930 was larger than the French and British airlines combined. In this way, German industry maintained much of its technical sophistication in aircraft design and production, and many of the aircraft which would be employed during the Second World War evolved from these world-class civilian designs. But little knowledge existed about the employment of aircraft in combat.

When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, Germany began to overtly develop its air force. Hitler pursued a policy of rapid rearmament, and the Luftwaffe was quickly receiving men and materiel. However, the development of air power concepts and doctrine was left to army officers for the most part, who had little practical experience in the employment and operation of aircraft. Therefore, German air power doctrine focused on support of ground troops, and the Luftwaffe would be structured and trained to fulfill this tactical role. Experience in Spain, where aircraft had been successfully employed in ground support operations, virtually ensured that the Luftwaffe would evolve as a close support force to the Wehrmacht. This model resulted in the creation of an air force that was incapable of independent planning and action, and was poorly equipped and structured for a strategic campaign against Britain.

Another challenge to the development of successful strategic air power doctrine was Germany’s adherence to the concept of the supremacy of the offensive. German strategic doctrine evolved from the belief that the offensive must always be used to overpower the enemy. The success of blitzkrieg warfare only served to strengthen this belief. Little thought was devoted to defence, and that which was remained predominately offensive in nature. Much of the Luftwaffe’s air defence strategy, for example, rested with being able to destroy the enemy’s air resources on the ground or in air-to-air combat over enemy territory.

Hitler never seriously considered the possibility of enemy attacks against Germany. Defence against such attacks, therefore, received little attention from the Luftwaffe. Therefore, when faced with the sophisticated British air defence system, Germany was unable to appreciate the capability which had been created, and so was unable to develop an effective means of dealing with it. Britain’s air defence system continued to play a vital role throughout the Battle of Britain, and went largely untouched by the Germans because they simply could not understand its value.

Perhaps the greatest challenge to the German development of successful air doctrine was Hitler himself. As R. J. Overy points out, Hitler “was by inclination and experience an ‘army’ man.” As such, the Luftwaffe was typically relegated to a position of lesser importance within the senior German military leadership, despite the position of prominence held by Hermann Göring himself. Very few Luftwaffe liaison officers were stationed at the Supreme Headquarters, and those who were usually of low rank, with little influence. Luftwaffe planning staff was routinely ignorant of Hitler’s intentions and was rarely given sufficient time to gear planning to future contingencies.

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