The Raiders

Bomber and fighter squadrons of the Luftwaffe were relocating from their German bases to airfields near the French coast with the fall of France in June 1940. Their new fields put them within easy striking distance of their targets in England. For the fighter escorts, though, the Messerschmitt Me and Bf 109s that were charged with shepherding the Heinkel He 111s, Junkers Ju 88s, Dornier DO 17 bombers, and the Junkers Ju 87 dive-bombers, it was not much of an improvement. The German fighters were not provided with additional external fuel tanks and their range was severely limited. They were normally stretching it to the limit to make the round trip from a French base to an English target, with roughly a ten-minute allowance over England.

The German “bases” in France were probably best described as rough and ready, their French constructors having put much higher priorities on the airfields they had built in eastern France, guarding the French border with Germany. Further construction was carried out on the western airfields to bring them up to an acceptable standard for Luftwaffe operations, much of the work being done by French forced labourers euphemistically referred to by the Germans as special workers. During their early days on the crude French airfields in the west, the Germans spent much of their time on leave, enjoying the beaches along the Channel coast and the allure of the seaside towns and villages.

But with the issuance of Hitler’s order of 16 July in preparation for Operation Sea Lion, the top-secret plan for the invasion of Britain that autumn, the holiday came to an abrupt end for the pilots and aircrews of the German air force in France. The Luftwaffe was equipped on the French fields with some 2,600 aircraft: 1,480 bombers and 1,120 fighters. Like their Allied airmen counterparts, the German fliers were keenly aware that every mission they flew across the Channel could well be their last. Because of that threat they tended to live life to the fullest between the missions. While there few comforts, luxuries, or even simple pleasures available to them in that circumstance, the Luftwaffe did make an effort to do what could be done towards maintaining the morale and spirit of the aircrews. In one such example, a Junkers Ju 52 transport plane was pressed into service making frequent flights over to the Channel island of Guernsey, which had been occupied by the Germans. There it was loaded with fresh fruit and vegetables, whiskey and cigarettes to be distributed on one of the French air bases in a welcome break from the canned food to which the fliers were accustomed. Ample diversion too was provided by the uniformed German Helferinnen vom Dienst, the female helpers of the service, many of whom contributed generously to the morale of the airmen there.

On the forward airfields in France, where possible, the pilots were generally billeted in barracks or commandeered civilian accommodation, while in the primitive conditions of these bases, the mechanics and ground personnel lived in tents on the airfields. Ever-present mud made their existence challenging at best and downright miserable much of the time. The fighter pilots of the Luftwaffe, the fortunate ones among them, were often housed in the comfort of requisitioned chateaux. When they returned from raids on England, they were well looked after for the most part.

Fall Gelb (Plan Yellow) was the German plan for an offensive against Holland, Belgium, France, and ultimately, Britain, and within it, the task of the German forces was to overrun and destroy as many French and Allied forces as possible to pave the way for a naval and aerial assault on Britain. The planning of Fall Gelb was the responsibility of Generaloberst Erich von Manstein and the staff of the German High Command. The extremely ambitious offensive was heavily dependent on powerful, effective air support of the infantry, armour and other ground forces on a spectacular, unprecedented scale. The equipment assembled by the German air force for Fall Gelb included 1,120 bombers, of which more than half were Heinkel He 111s, with the remainder mainly Dornier Do 17 light bombers. Additionally, there were 380 Ju 87 Stuka dive-bombers, all supported by 860 Messerschmitt Bf 109E fighters. That huge force, augmented by some 640 Messerschmitt Bf 110 Zerstörer twin-engine heavy fighters, 475 Junkers Ju 52 transports for supply delivery and paratroop operations, as well as 230 gliders, launched in surprise attack operations in the pre-dawn hours of 10 May 1940.

Heinkel bombers cruising low over the English Channel to avoid detection by RAF radar in the autumn of 1940.

The initial actions against airfields in Belgium and Holland were followed by massive airborne landings and parachute drops with varying degrees of success achieved as the German forces met some strong resistance. They experienced particularly high losses among the fleet of Ju 52 transports, losses approaching forty percent. By 13 May, however, the Luftwaffe had secured air superiority over the entire length of the front. The Stukas used in this overall action were especially effective and successful under the conditions of the air superiority. The Bf 109 fighters greatly outnumbered and outperformed the French and British defending fighters, which were never really a serious deterrent to the tactical operations of the German air force. By nightfall of 26 May, German forces had accomplished much of what they had set out to do and the evacuation of the enormous British Expeditionary Force from the beaches of Dunkirk was under way.

In the skies over Dunkirk, the pilots of the German fighters experienced their first contact with the impressive Spitfire Mk 1 of the Royal Air Force. Many would have been alarmed—some of them shocked—to find that their 109s were being out-turned and out-climbed by the fast and agile Spitfires. Even flown at the absolute limits of their performance in the action, the 109s were, in the main, out-classed by the British fighter. Even though the Spitfire and Hurricane pilots had the distinct disadvantage of having to operate far from their home bases in England, the German fighter pilots were now being involved in many dogfights over the beaches and were frequently missing their planned rendezvous to escort their bombers, which led to heavier losses than anticipated for the bombers and for the Stukas over Dunkirk. It was the first occasion, since the start of the heretofore brilliantly successful blitzkrieg (lightning war) campaign of the Germans, in which they were required to fight an opponent of at least equal capability. As a result, the Luftwaffe was unable to prevent the British evacuation of the Allied troops at Dunkirk, an operation completed in the early hours of 4 June.

The German campaign for France was over by 25 June. They had occupied Paris on the 14th and, after the 25th, the Luftwaffe was rested and allowed time for a re-fit, to be ready for the next and key phase of the overall western offensive, the invasion of Britain. In the air over Dunkirk, Goering’s air force had had exposure to the sort of powerful, determined opposition they would face when they would try to secure air superiority over the British Isles.

The German plans called for an invasion of Britain within three months of defeating the French, in order to accomplish it before the worsening weather of the autumn. There was general agreement among the planners that such a land assault was far preferable to the months, or possibly years, that might be required for a lengthy campaign of economic strangulation. While Hitler continued to look for a diplomatic breakthrough with the British, it was not forthcoming and, on 2 July he ordered that the preparations for Sea Lion go forward. The prerequisite for the cross-Channel invasion, however, was not merely air superiority now, but air supremacy, which the Luftwaffe must secure and maintain. They had to neutralize the aerial opposition by the RAF and destroy its ground facilities.

Throughout July, the Luftwaffe consolidated its assets in France, deploying its various dedicated units from the German-French border, across the country to the Channel coast. In the build-up for the offensive on Britain, 1,200 bombers, He 111s, Do 17s, and Ju 88s, 280 Ju 87 dive-bombers, 760 Bf 109E fighters, 220 Bf 110 fighters, fifty long-range reconnaissance and ninety short-range reconnaissance aircraft were assembled and made ready, for a total of 2,420 aircraft committed to the assault. Additionally, Luftflotte 5 maintained a reserve force of 130 He 111 and Ju 88 bombers, thirty long-range Bf 110 fighters, and thirty long-range reconnaissance aircraft for back-up and possible use as a diversionary force.

In the interim, before the main onslaught by the Germans, RAF Fighter Command used the precious time to re-equip its vital front-line squadrons, as well as to re-build its own reserves, all of which were sorely depleted following the Dunkirk operations. Over Dunkirk, Fighter Command lost more than 100 fighters and eighty pilots, killed or missing in action. These losses, though hard to bear were relatively minor compared to the losses the command had suffered between 10 May and 20 June, the high points of action thus far. In that period, the RAF lost 944 aircraft in total, including 386 Hurricane fighters and sixty-seven Spitfires. By 5 June, the situation was so dire that only 331 Hurricanes and Spitfires, and a further thirty-six aircraft were available for operations. Thanks, though, largely to the efforts of the Minister for Aircraft Production, Lord Beaverbrook, the fighter aircraft inventory was soon growing impressively. The replacement rate for trained pilots and aircrew, however, was nowhere near as impressive. There the shortages were crippling and seemingly insurmountable.

Heavy bomb damage inflicted on Portsmouth, England by Luftwaffe bombers.

top: The final moments of a German bomber as captured by the gun camera of a Royal Air Force fighter in the Battle of Britain; above: The Spitfire of RAF Sergeant Pilot Denis Robinson, of 152 Squadron, flying from Warmwell. Robinson was shot down by a Me 109 while running in to land. “I was quite pleased with myself as the Spit slithered across the grass. Then suddenly, I felt her going up onto her nose and, I thought, over onto her back.”

As for the aircraft, the great majority of the Fighter Command squadrons to that point were equipped with Hawker Hurricane 1s, an excellent aircraft of rugged construction, highly capable and a very stable gun platform greatly appreciated by its pilots. It took punishment well and was easily repaired, but was not as fast or as glamourous as the Spitfire and was generally considered inferior to the primary opposition, the Bf and Me 109 types. In the critical period of the Battle of Britain, the Hurricane would continue to be the mainstay of Fighter Command, however.

While at a distinct numerical disadvantage throughout the period before, and through the Battle itself, RAF Fighter Command had one significant advantage. Thanks to the progressive thinking of Air Chief Marshal Dowding and others in the command structure in the years immediately leading up to the Battle of Britain, the RAF had in place a wonderful Ground Controlled Interception (GCI) system, without equal anywhere. Utilizing a network of new radar installations situated around the English coastline, the incoming information on air raid threats was analyzed and passed along to the controlling stations and relayed by a Fighter Controller via radio-telephone to airborne squadrons. The system eliminated fuel-wasting standing patrols by the defending squadrons. This new, untested system held great promise and would prove itself efficient and extremely effective in the coming day and night offensive Battle.

In mid-July, the Luftwaffe reiterated the task at hand for its Luftflotten: the elimination of the Royal Air Force as a fighting force and a ground organization, and the destruction of the supply shipping to Britain in its ports. In two phases, the RAF was to be eliminated through attacking the fighter defences in the south of England, and to the north, by hitting RAF bases throughout England in a day and night bombing campaign against the British aircraft industry. This overall offensive was code-named Adlerangriff (Eagle Attack) and the official launch date was set as 10 August. The German planners estimated it would require four days to neutralize the RAF fighter defences, and four weeks more to destroy the entire RAF as a fighting organization. This accomplished, it was believed that Sea Lion could proceed in the first half of September.

The first job for Luftwaffe Fliegerkorps II, based in the Pas de Calais, and Fliegerkorps VIII, based in Normandy, was to gain air superiority over the Channel and over the British convoys. They would be supported by additional formations of fighters and Stukas. Henceforth German bombers were appearing in substantially larger formations over the Channel, the southeast coast and the Dover Straits in daylight, though they mostly confined their attacks to shipping, the ports and a few coastal airfields. And while the German bombers were so engaged, the bulk of the German fighter force in the west was focused on Frei Jagd (Free Chase) missions in an effort to entice the RAF fighters up for combat. The lure was at first irresistable for the squadrons of Fighter Command, but the lack of warning in that early stage, and the reliance on earlier tactics, placed the Spitfire and Hurricane pilots at a disadvantage, contributing to excessive losses. The RAF pilots soon learned a lesson and quickly adopted the German Schwarm and Kette tactics.

The Luftwaffe had to accept the fact that RAF Fighter Command was then still an effective fighting force and had not yet suffered the sort of losses the Germans had sought to inflict. For its part, Luftwaffe losses in the early stages had amounted to 192 combat aircraft destroyed with a further seventy-seven damaged. The Luftwaffe now had to attack targets further inland in the hope of destroying a greater proportion of the RAF fighter inventory.

A lesson for the Luftwaffe came in the discovery that the quality and even the quantity of German fighters being thrown into the effort was actually not sufficiently superior to that of the RAF. The skill, aggressiveness and determination of the RAF fighter pilots were such that the Germans seemed to need upwards of three times the number of fighter escorts they had anticipated to adequately support their bombers. Further they soon found that the Bf 110C twin-engine fighter they depended upon for long-range escorted penetration missions was totally out-classed by the Spitfire and Hurricane in fighter combat. In such circumstances, the 110s were forced to form into defensive circles and, in extreme situations, needed the protection and support of the 109s. The strain of the Battle was telling on both sides and growing rapidly as the Germans intensified their bombing activity after 8 August. The capability of the RAF fighters was being stretched to the limit. For the Germans, they discovered in the early convoy attacks of this phase that the frightening, legendary Stuka dive-bombers were extremely vulnerable. Sixteen of the planes were lost on 18 August, establishing the plane as more of a liability than an asset. After that date the Stuka was withdrawn from the Battle.

Eagle Day was postponed by the Germans due to inclement weather lasting until the 13th. The opening of the main Luftwaffe offensive had to wait until the afternoon of that day. The massive bomber forces struck then at the ports of Southampton and Portsmouth, as well as the airfields of Detling, Eastchurch, and Middle Wallop, in a total of 1,485 sorties. They lost forty-six aircraft in the raids and were disconcerted by relatively poor bombing results at the start of their vaunted offensive. The next day the Germans redoubled their efforts to wipe out the RAF in the air ruin its airfields and destroy its radar stations. And in the week that followed, the Luftwaffe attacks on the airfields of Fighter Command in southern England were ramped up greatly amid seemingly continuous air fighting over Hampshire, Sussex and Kent. The scope of its attacks on the aircraft industry and shipping was also increased. For their trouble, the Germans lost another 403 aircraft with 127 damaged, against RAF losses of 121 Hurricanes and fifty-four Spitfires.

24 August brought the third phase of the Battle of Britain. The RAF still existed despite the best efforts of the Luftwaffe to destroy it in the air and on the ground. Goering and Hitler were now becoming desperate. One factor making the Luftwaffe pay an especially high price for what they were trying to achieve was the absence of jettisonable fuel tanks on their otherwise very capable Bf 109E escort fighters. Their relatively short combat radius had been boosted slightly by relocating the majority of them to bases in the Pas de Calais, giving them greater penetration ability deeper into British airspace. The problem was compounded now by the ever-increasing losses being experienced by the German bombers. The German fighter leaders were being ordered by Goering to stay very close to the bombers they were supposed to be protecting, thus giving up nearly all the advantages designed into the 109. To help compensate for the reality of this sacrifice, many of the Luftwaffe’s bombers and reconnaissance aircraft were being employed in diversionary feints; many fighters in complex sweeps, all manufactured in the hope of getting at the planes of Fighter Command while they were down on their fields being refuelled and rearmed.

The most punishing day of the Battle to date came for the RAF on 31 August when thirty-nine aircraft were destroyed and fourteen pilots killed. The personnel situation for Fighter Command looked better superficially than it actually was. The command had lost so many experienced Squadron and Flight commanders in the Battle so far that the bulk of the air fighting was being flown by a handful of remaining seasoned airmen, backed up by a gathering of fresh-faced, utterly inexperienced young pilots, most of whom would survive less than a week or two. Between 24 August and 6 September, Fighter Command lost 295 fighters and 171 damaged. Much more serious was the loss of 103 pilots killed or missing, with a further 128 wounded and lost to combat with injuries. The Luftwaffe losses for the period amounted to 378 aircraft destroyed and 115 damaged.

above: Messerschmitt Me 110s tucked into the trees on a forward airfield in France; below: A Heinkel He 111 crew member concentrates on filming over England.

On the night of 25 August, a retaliatory attack against Berlin was launched by RAF Bomber Command. Hitler then used the attack on Berlin as his rationale for the revenge bombing of London, an offensive move he had until now rejected. On the apparent basis of the German successes in their bombing campaigns on Warsaw and Rotterdam, he seemed to think at this point that the British would react to such a campaign by suing for peace. On 2 September he had given Goering the order to attack the defences and population centres of Britain’s largest cities in raids by day and night.

For the Luftwaffe leader it was an admission of defeat, though Goering still looked for something miraculous that would retrieve victory for him, something that would once and for all exhaust the British Fighter Command. But when Hitler turned his air force on London and the other big cities of Britain, doing so gave Fighter Command the breathing space it desperately needed then to regroup, rebuild and reinforce its ranks. Thereafter the pilots and crews of Fighter Command were able to operate largely with impunity in the air and on the ground.

As if further proof were needed that German air superiority over Britain, much less air supremacy was as far from achievement as ever, the chaotic, astonishing air battle of 15 September over London certainly made the case. In that extreme series of encounters over the capital, some sixty German aircraft were shot down. It proved to be the death knell for Hitler’s invasion plan, which he postponed indefinitely on the 17th. Still, he ordered his invasion fleet to remain at readiness until the 2nd October In the fifteen weeks of the Battle of Britain the German air force lost 1,653 aircraft.

The Battle was essentially over. Now the attentions of the Luftwaffe were redirected primarily to the night bombing of London; the threat of invasion having been effectively neutralized by the Royal Air Force. As the weather gradually deteriorated from the glorious days of that summer to the more typical rain and cold of England in autumn and winter, Goering shifted his bombing attacks on London to night raids. While refusing to admit defeat in the Battle of Britain, or even to refer to it as such, the German air force devoted itself to the goal of ultimately wearing down the resistance of the British people through constant bombing attacks on the population centres and by depriving them of vital supplies through continuing attacks on the major British ports and its shipping.

From 10 July through 31 October 1940, the German Luftwaffe suffered the loss of 1,733 aircraft against the loss of 915 RAF aircraft.

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