In the company of his boss, the new Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, Hermann Goering, who would in several years command a new German Air Force in the Battle of Britain, addressed a jubilant crowd in Berlin’s Wilhelmstrasse: “My German comrades, January 30th, 1933, will enter German history as the day on which the nation, after fourteen years of torture, need, deformation, and shame, has found its way back to itself… the future will bring everything for which the Feuhrer and his movement… have fought… in spite of all reverses and disappointments …”

From that moment in the German capitol, Goering devoted himself to the goal of developing for the nation a new and powerful air force capable of being a decisive factor in a European war. Goering had long been a disciple of the philosophy of Italian General Guilio Douhet and his theories of total air warfare. Douhet had been a key proponent of strategic bombing in aerial warfare and was among the earliest advocates of the creation of a separate air arm commanded by airmen rather than ground commanders. After being imprisoned in Italy for one year for having criticized the Italian military leaders in the First World War, he was released, exonerated and promoted to the rank of general in 1921. In that same year he completed and published his highly influential treatise on strategic bombing, The Command of the Air, a work that greatly impressed Goering.

In fact, it took much more than Goering alone to design and build the Luftwaffe. He had the guidance of General Hans von Seekt, who, as a member of the German peace delegation after the First World War had early exposure to the vengeance dished out by the Allies in the Versailles Treaty conditions. Seekt was determined that Germany would not adhere to those conditions and his assistance, coupled with the thoughts and ideas of Douhet, and the clandestine decade-long training of German military pilots and crew at Lipetsk in the Soviet Union, paved the way for the future German founding director of the airline, Deutsche Luft Hansa. In 1933, Erhard Milch became State Secretary of the Reichsluftfahrtministerium [Reich Aviation Ministry], in which capacity he worked directly for Goering. No less a figure in German aviation than Dr Ernst Heinkel, the aircraft designer and manufacturer, said of Milch: “… he possessed great capabilities and unbounded personal ambition and a ruthless energy. Milch was disinclined to leave his high position with the airline when summoned by Goering, but agreed to do so when interviewed by Hitler;” Milch: “Hitler took a man’s soul from him. He was amazingly quick at grasping technical details. He knew much more than Goering.”

A Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive-bomber assembly line in 1939.

The Lipetsk training, and the access to technical personnel from Luft Hansa, helped form a solid basis for the air force that Hitler and Goering wanted, but what was still missing was a core of professional airmen suited for high command in the new Luftwaffe. To fill that gap, Seekt brought in and groomed a handful of particular specialists that included Albert Kesselring to head Supply and Organization, Hans-Juergen Stumpff to run Personnel, Walther Wever as Chief of Operations, Hugo Sperrle, and Hans Jeschonnek. Of these, only Jeschonnek had actually piloted an aircraft; the rest, though, were eager to learn.

In the spring of 1933, the Nazi government created the new Air Ministry, installing Goering as Air Minister with Milch as Secretary of State for Air. When Goering assembled seventy of his most promising young pilots in a meeting at the Air Ministry, he told them “the time has come to throw off the chains of Versailles. Now that the secret training in Russia is over, Mussolini will help out for the time being with the training of our fighter pilots. But in order to avoid complications you will go to Italy under the strictest secrecy.” One among this group of emerging German airmen was Adolf Galland, who would become one of Germany’s greatest fighter pilots and General der Jagdflieger, Commander of the German Fighter Force. In 705 combat sorties, Galland was credited with 104 aerial victories on the Western Front and in the Defense of the Reich. After the war he met and befriended a number of his former enemies, among them the Battle of Britain aces Robert Stanford Tuck and Douglas Bader.

When two dozen members of both houses of the British Parliament flew their own private planes to Düsseldorf during Whitsuntide of 1933, they were met by dozens of Nazi brownshirts, carefully shepherded and shown only the vaguest indication of Germany’s achievements in aviation to that point, and certainly no hint of the developments soon to come like the Me 109 fighter of Willy Messerschmitt. All was corgial at the Aero-Club von Deutschland dinner given for them that evening by Hermann Goering.

In a little-known irony, the aero engine makers of both Germany and Britain had a part in advancing the military aircraft development of their future enemy. British Napier engines powered the Fokker D. 13, and the Rolls-Royce Kestrel was the powerplant of the RAF Fury fighter, and used by Arado in the Ar. 67. Early examples of the Junkers Ju-87 Stuka dive-bomber and the Messerschmitt Me 109 fighter both flew with Rolls-Royce engines; and the Merlin first powered a German aircraft acquired from Heinkel, the Heinkel He 70 Blitz. Thus it was that the German plane maker unintentionally aided Rolls-Royce in the development of the engine that would ultimately power the Spitfire, Hurricane, Lancaster Mosquito, Mustang, and other aircraft that would play a major part in Germany’s defeat in the Second World War.

In Britain, meanwhile, technical development in the Royal Air Force had, since 1930, been in the capable hands of Air Vice Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding; in charge of Research and Development. Sir Cyril Newell had charge of Supply and Organization. Dowding put Captain F.W. Hill in charge of the Armament Experimental Establishment at Martlesham, of whom Dowding said: “Just the sort of chap who would get a new idea five years before anybody else.” In a meeting of armament specialists on 19 July 1934, Hill told them that the new fighter required by the RAF would need eight machine-guns firing at a thousand rounds a minute to destroy a bomber in two seconds. This pronouncement led R.J. Mitchell, the designer of the Schneider Trophy-winning racer, and Sydney Camm, chief designer of the Hawker Company, to scrap the designs they had been working on for a new four-gun monoplane fighter, and concentrate on a new Air Ministry specification for an eight-gun fighter with a closed cockpit and retractable undercarriage. In a separate announcement of 19 July, the British government said that it planned to expand the RAF by forty-one squadrons. Many of these new outfits would be equipped with Mitchell’s Spitfires and Camm’s Hurricanes.

Back on the continent, the German pretense of respecting and obeying the provisions of the Versailles Treaty continued, an example being the naming of the Luftwaffe’s first bomber squadron, the Vershuchsanstalt für Schaedlingsbekaempfung—literally the Agricultural Pest Control Unit.

In July Winston Churchill stood in the Commons to express his thoughts on the vulnerability of Britain to attack, “…with our enormous Metropolis here, the greatest target in the world, a kind of tremendous fat cow …tied up to attract the beasts of prey.” Churchill knew from “private sources” that Germany already had put together a significant military air force, and that that air force would quite soon be stronger than the Royal Air Force. As usual in those days, his words were greeted largely with derision. The policy of the British government had focused on the expansion of an effective home-based bomber force for the RAF, a force they hoped and expected would pose sufficient threat to the Germans to make them reconsider before acting on any plans to attack Britain or France. Prime Minister Chamberlain, both in that role and his former one of Chancellor of the Exchequer, had refused to fund a broader, more balanced defence strategy which would have included the formation of an Expeditionary Force, choosing instead to depend almost entirely on the deterrence of the bomber threat to stave off Hitler.

top: A formation of Heinkel He 111H bombers en route to an English target in the summer of 1940. The He 111 was the principal bomber of the German Air Force in the early years of the Second World War; above: Some of the Chain Home High tower masts along the English sea coast which made up part of Britain’s very effective Chain Home radar defence system that was completed in 1940.

The weakness of Britain’s military policy persisted from 1934 through the 1938 when the Munich Agreement in which Britain and France permitted the Nazis to annexe areas along Czechoslovakia’s borders which were largely inhabited by ethnic Germans, areas the German government now referred to as Sudetenland. The Czechs had not been invited to the Munich conference and felt betrayed by the British and French. Ultimately, the British were forced to assemble an Expeditionary Force to be sent to Europe with the outbreak of the Second World War. The British bomber-based military policy by the time of the Munich Agreement, had failed to produce the strong bomber force the government had wanted.

By the first week of September 1939, when the Germans had invaded Poland, and the British and French had declared war on Germany, the vaunted British bomber force was utterly deficient in frontline strength, with mostly obsolete aircraft and crews incapable of reaching the well-defended German targets in daylight, or locating them at night as they lacked the navigational aids that would not be available to them until much later in the war. Britain’s situation was made worse for neglecting to properly provide her late-blooming expeditionary force with the substantial air support it would require. In the plus column, though, was the basic development and deployment of a solid air defence system for Britain. A prime mover in that capability was Sir Kingsley Wood who, in May 1938, replaced Lord Swinton as Secretary of State for Air. Wood was firm in his insistence that the fundamental emphasis of the British aircraft industry be the equipment needs of the RAF fighter force. Swinton’s main contribution to the air defence of Britain was his part in the development of the early-warning radar capability, initially known as radio direction finding, which enabled the interception of rapidly incoming enemy aircraft. The men who pioneered radar for the British defence system were Robert Watson-Watt, Henry Tizard, and Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, the Air Member for Research and Development, who a year later would take control of British air defences.

top: Engine maintenance on a Dornier Do 17 medium bomber at a French airfield; above: Masts of the Chain Home Low radar system above chalk cliffs of the English Channel coast; Quality artwork applied to a Luftwaffe bomber engine nacelle; below: The application of enemy shipping kill markings to the tail of a Luftwaffe bomber; bottom: An example of nose art on a Messerschmitt Bf 110 fighter.

Goering and the Germans shared the view of the British Air Staff about the decisive importance of strategic bombing, but they shifted somewhat from that position following their experience in the Spanish Civil War, deciding that the most important role for the Luftwaffe was to spearhead the way for an advancing German army. To that end, they effectively shaped the German air force, to the extent, however, that the emphasis on tactical support began to far outweigh the ability to meet the strategic part of their remit. That imbalance of emphasis would in the end cost them the Battle of Britain. They had ridden the crest of relatively easy successes in the Scandinavian, French, and Low Countries campaigns, working closely with German ground commanders to smoothly advance the tactical situations there. But when they were required to do the business of preparing for the German invasion of Britain, they were unable to meet the need and forfeited their advantage of numerical superiority.

If Air Chief Marshal Dowding was perceived in any way as flawed when he was passed over for the job of Chief of the Air Staff a few years before the outbreak of World War Two, it would have been because he didn’t subscribe to the prevailing Air Ministry philosophy about the invincibility of the bomber and was thought to be too defensively orientated. It was, of course, fortunate for Britain that Dowding instead became the commander of RAF Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain, virtually perfect type-casting for the air defence of the nation in its greatest ever hour of need.

The competent air leaders of the German Air Force, while able and efficient, were no match for Dowding and his commander of Eleven Group, Fighter Command, in the southeast of England, New Zealander Air Vice Marshal Keith Park. A superb tactician and manager of his resources, Park wielded his fighter squadrons with subtlety and restraint in the Battle of Britain, nearly always pouncing on the enemy air fleets at the best possible moment to punish them decisively and in the extreme. He operated in that way throughout the Battle, despite the persistent criticism of many in the government and the RAF who wanted him to prematurely commit the entirety of his squadrons. In Park, Dowding had a gifted area commander, ideally positioned to defend and strike at the enemy air force in its attacks on the prize target, London.

The way to an efficient, reliable early warning system for Britain in the 1930s was not a smooth and easy one. Air exercises by the RAF in the summer of 1934 had shown up the many weaknesses in the early warning system of that time. That system was the Adcock-Chandler method of radio direction finding, a promising concept meant to let defending fighters be ‘fixed’, ‘plotted’, and precisely positioned by ground controllers. But it relied upon frequent transmissions from the fighters; a contribution that could not be expected from hostile attacking bombers. During his researches into trying to discover clues to developing a greatly improved detection process, A.P. Rowe of the Air Ministry Directorate of Scientific Research, wrote to his boss, H.E. Wimperis: “Unless science finds some new method of assisting air defence, any war within ten years will be lost.”

A German bomb aimer’s view from the nose of his Heinkel bomber during the Battle of Britain.

In June 1932, a British Post Office report, No 233, had noted that aircraft interfered with radio signals and re-radiated them. It had been written by Robert Watson-Watt. In 1922, Watson-Watt had received one of two American cathode-ray tubes at Farnborough. Wimperis now asked Watson-Watt to urgently look at the matter of aircraft detection and even at the possibility of developing “death rays.”

Henry Tizard, meanwhile, had been given the chair of an Air Ministry scientific committee charged with a survey of air defence. When the committee gathered for the first time, in January 1935, Watson-Watt told them that death rays were out of the question, but he had made some progress on the issue of aircraft detection. He stated that a new understanding of the height of the ionosphere, coupled with the report that aircraft reflected radio signals, led him to conclude that a cathode-ray tube could be made to show the distance and height of an aircraft target. His report impressed the Tizard committee sufficiently to cause them to grant him £10,000 to develop his idea.

26 February. Late in that afternoon, in a field near the high Daventry transmitter masts, Dr Watson-Watt, A.P. Rowe, and two assistants huddled around a luminous screen of a crude, early type of television set in a trailer. They heard the sound of an approaching Heyford bomber, and as they watched the screen and heard the plane, a green spot in the middle of the screen grew larger and then smaller as the sound of the Heyford diminished. Watson-Watt had created the basis for the device that would be essential to the defeat of the Germans in the Battle of Britain.

10 March. Hermann Goering told the world, via the London Daily Mail, that “The objective was not the creation of an offensive weapon threatening other nations, but rather a … military aviation strong enough to repulse attacks on Germany.” Demanding equality in the air, he announced “A new German air force has stepped onto the scene of world politics.”

16 March. The Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels disclosed the passage of a new German law “for the creation of national defense forces” and said that Hitler had discarded the portions of the Versailles Treaty dealing with German armed forces. The following day, the American correspondent and author William L. Shirer wrote that it was “a day of rejoicing in Germany. The shackles of Versailles, symbol of Germany’s defeat and humiliation, had been torn off.” One week later, in a Berlin meeting between Hitler and William Strang of the British Foreign Office, Strang asked the German leader, “What is the strength of the German air force?” Hitler replied “We have reached parity with Britain.” The Luftwaffe was ‘official’ and out in the open.

The autumn of 1935 saw the maiden flights of three aircraft types that would have a major impact on the Battle of Britain and the German bombing Blitz on London. On 6 November, K5083, the prototype of the Rolls-Royce Merlin-engined Hawker Hurricane fighter flew for the first time. The Hurricane would account for about two-thirds of all the German aircraft shot down during the Battle. She is remembered as the somewhat less lovely sister of the lovlier, more glamourous Vickers-Supermarine Spitfire, the aeroplane still revered by airmen the world over as either the one machine they have most enjoyed flying, or the one they would most like to fly. But the Hurricane, while not quite as fast or as fabulously manoeuvrable as the Spitfire, was a much better and steadier gun platform, which, after all, is what a fighter plane is meant to be. And, very importantly, she was partially fabric-covered, making the repair of bullet holes a much simpler and less specialized procedure than on the all-metal fuselage and wings of the Spit, which normally had to be sent to a special Spitfire repair facility.

In the cockpit of the Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive-bomber. Operated by a pilot and a rear gunner, the Stuka was an impressive symbol of German air power early in WW2, but suffered from lack of manoevrability and speed, dooming it to failure in the Battle of Britain period. It is remembered for its wailing “Jericho Trumpet” siren.

In that same season, the maiden flights of two vitally important Luftwaffe aircraft took place—the principal German fighter of the Battle and the Blitz, the Messerschmitt Me 109, and the screaming, vertical-diving Junkers Ju-87 Stuka. Because the Jumo engines meant to power both of these aircraft were not ready for installation and flight testing in time for the scheduled first flights, the manufacturers instead mounted Rolls-Royce Kestrel powerplants in them for these occasions. Across the English Channel, meanwhile, Rolls-Royce was utilizing the Heinkel 70 it had purchased, as a flying test-bed for the new Merlin aero engine.

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