Battle of Britain – The Real Story

For those who are worried that I might have dumbed down too much for the documentary I’ve got out next week, I can assure you I haven’t.  Fortunately, I have not been forced to repeat what I’ve already said in the previous fifteen minutes, and you’ll also be pleased to know that I don’t get a free ride in a Mk XIV twin seater Spitfire built in 1944 either.  I don’t even sit in a Spitfire or Hurricane, and although I did get to check out the cockpit of a Messerschmitt 109E, it didn’t make the final cut.  However, there’s inevitably much that has been left out – trying to compress a 200,000 word book into an hour of telly ain’t easy, I can assure you…

41 replies
  1. geolab
    geolab says:

    James – Good prog, we need more of the German side. The only problem for me which became increasingly distracting was your inconsistency when pronouncing ‘TH’. You seem to be able to say ‘there’ but most other words with ‘th’ you pronounce as ‘f’.

    In the end I was concentrating more on the words that you were pronouncing with an ‘f’ rather than the content of the prog.

    Perhaps – as a commentator, you could make an effort to speak English, especially in the dialogue of a history programme. Also, BTW, when ‘the’ is before a word starting with a vowel, ‘the is pronounced ‘thee’. Some Americans don’t use this and miss out on being able to emphasise nouns also, for example, the 109 was the (thee) plane of the Battle of Britain.

  2. Cobber55
    Cobber55 says:

    Really enjoyed The Battle of Britain the Real Story on BBC2 just now. Very well written and presented. I liked the insights from the German diaries and coverage of the naval and bomber command aspects. This is something the late Wing Commander Guy Gibson wrote about in his book Enemy Coast Ahead.

    PS. Is there a way to see First Light as I missed it when it aired. IPlayer does not have it available.

  3. JD
    JD says:

    Just watched your documentary on BBC2, even though you only had an hour you managed to make a very good documentary with lots of good footage; im pleased to hear there is a bf 109E being restored to flying condition aswell, hopefully it will have a great future doing displays at airshows instead of the usual Buchon’s.
    Also thank you for being more informative on germanys perspective and including facts that many previous documentarys on the subject often leave out, such as the miscalculations on how many aircraft are in a squadron compared to the luftwaffe staffels, and how the germans considered british radar very inferior to their own.

  4. Duncan Bogie
    Duncan Bogie says:

    Just to say i enjoyed the documentary even though i havent read the book yet (still got your Italy book and several other WWII books to read!). Pity its not a series with other campaigns or battles such as Monte Cassino, Tobruk Malta etc Wonder if they’ll get you back for the 100th anniversary?

  5. Chris Yeoman
    Chris Yeoman says:

    Hi James,

    I enjoyed your documentary tonight – still not convinced the 109 was better than the Spit in 1940, but the cannons certainly did help. 🙂 I thought it was well written and produced and can only commend you in creating an enjoyable show that offered some interesting insights into the Battle from both sides. I was glad to see Billy Drake and Tom Neil interviewed too, they are both wonderful men.

    I wrote a book called “Tiger Cub” last year about Wing Commander John Freeborn – who has sadly passed away. Did you ever get to meet John? If so, I wonder if you would mind mentioning him on your blog sometime, he was one of the best.

    Kind Regards,


  6. JCJ
    JCJ says:

    Interesting to see the David v. Goliath myth deconstructed. The one aspect of the programme which seemed to me to be most unfair was the was the firepower comparison. It may well be the case that the Messerschmitt 109E could keep its machine guns firing for 55 seconds, but it had only two of these, whereas the Spitfires and Hurricanes had eight. In fact the latter and the Me 109 carried roughly the same number of bullets, about 1100. 550 rounds per gun and a firing rate of 10 per second gives the stated figure for the Messerschmitt. For the British fighters the figures were 140 rounds per gun and a firing time of 14 to 15 seconds. This however was by design rather than oversight. The Air Ministry had concluded that suitable firing opportunities would be short and few and far between, and that a few concentrated bursts would be more effective. The cannon were indeed formidable, but they were slow, about three rounds per second, and the Me 109E carried only 60 20mm shells per gun; very effective in the case of an experienced pilot, but the British blunderbuss approach was probably better suited to newcomers.

  7. mungee
    mungee says:

    Dear James

    Your documenatry “Battle of Britain: The Real Story” looks brilliant!
    I live down here in SA and am an avid “BoB enthusiast” (I have your latest book on the subject – still to read it! – as well as loads of other books & DVD’s dedicated to that all-important battle).

    I have two things to ask you:

    – from a purely personal point of view, would you mind asking the “powers that be” in BBC to “sell”/whatever these BoB programmes that are being screened in the UK to ‘BBC Knowledge’ so that we can see them down here in South Africa? It seems such a waste to produce such great stuff and for it not to be seen by us down here!

    – the other thing is, last Wed (15 Sept) I held a BoB 70th Commemorative Dinner at my home – a small group (only 11 + my two daughters, acting as waitresses … and wearing replica WAAH caps!!) – we had RAF flags draped around, framed prints showing the badges of the RAF and Luftwaffe squadrons that participated in the BoB, Vera Lynn music, “compulsory” video viewing (only about 12 mins!) of BoB doc’ies to “educate” some of the guests, BBC interviews (on CD) with pilots at the time of the BoB, sing-along at the end of the evening (3 of Vera Lynn’s WWII favouries) etc – and of course, being a dress-tie affair! Some things were light-hearted, and some were serious , like my little talk to the group before the toast to “the Few”. Sorry, this is a long story, but its background to what I’m now going to ask/tell you. In researching things for my little talk, I looked into the South African “influence” on the BoB and learnt quite a few things (I’m sure well-known to you):
    – obviously “Sailor” Malan was a South African
    – Albert “Zulu” Lewis and Gerald “Stapme” Stapleton were South Africans
    – Air Vice-Marshal Quinton-Brand (10 Group) was a South African; and
    – No. 222 Squadron (RAF) was the ‘Natal Squadron’ (Natal is a province in SA, now called KwaZulu Natal) that participated in the BoB and its squadron badge had the “province’s animal”, the wildebeest, shown beneath the crown, with the motto “Pambili Bo” which I think is Zulu for “straight ahead/forward”.
    It occurs to me that this subject could be a could thing to research and make a documentary on – it could also be followed through to the Aussies, the Czechs etc – a series in fact!! What do you think?


    Robin Mun-Gavin
    Durban, South Africa

  8. James Holland
    James Holland says:

    Thank you – and actually, I’m doing the Dambusters next. I’m heading out to New Zealand tonight to interview the last surviving pilot of the raid. Not sure about First Light but I think they’re planning to bring out a DVD.

  9. James Holland
    James Holland says:

    It’s an interesting point – I’d have liked to have gone into it in far greater detail – one could have done a whole hour easily on that subject alone. But don’t forget that Me109s had guns in the cowling making it much easier to aim – and once a bead is gained, the 55secs plus 20mm cannon becomes a huge advantage. The guns in a Spitfire were spaced very wide apart so it was incredibly difficult to get a concentration of fire – realistically, few people were able to fire at the point of synchronisation in the heat of combat. Also, as Tom Neil pointed out, the Me109E could climb faster, had greater acceleration, could dive faster and did, with cannons, pack more of punch, than either the Spitfire or the Hurricane.

  10. cevad58
    cevad58 says:

    I enjoyed the fresh approach but I would really like some pointers as to where one can find details of the daylight operations by Bomber command against Luftwaffe bases in France. The losses must have been terrible as I can’t think of anywhere that I have read of escorted offensive raids during the BoB nor of un escorted offensive daylight raids – which would have been slaughter.
    The ME109 was the superior aircraft because of its armament and no talk about manoeuvrability will change your mind – not the exact wording but the same meaning.
    The fuel injection DB601’s dive without cutting out and have better fuel efficiency but RAF pilots learnt to half roll and follow down plus RAE Farnborough had a simple solution easily fitted in the field.
    RAF aircraft also had 100 Octane fuel giving a speed increase and, in the Spitfire’s case, a better rate of climb than the 109. The spitfire could out turn the 109 and the Hurricane could out turn the Spitfire.
    Certainly the 109’s firepower was superior and devastating for less shot on target BUT you had to get it on target and those 2 x 20mm cannon have a very low rate of fire and according to Oblt Hans Schmoller-Haldy of JG 54:
    “we were always told that in a dogfight one could not hope to hit anything at ranges greater than 50 metres” He also mentions that the 2 x MG’s on the cowling often suffered stoppages.
    I read somewhere that that the cannons had 60 round drums often loaded with 50 – 55 rounds giving just seven seconds firing time. Some changes were made to the Cannon on the 109E4 but the round was much lighter
    Personally I think the Spitfire had a natural slight edge over the 109 as a dog fighting aircraft but that any edge was easily lost or exploited depending on the pilot and the degree of advantage at the beginning of any encounter.
    I found your program extremely interesting and I have always wanted to learn more of the perspective of the “other side”. I only mention the above simply because they conflict with what I have learnt but I am ever open to new knowledge.

  11. Simon J
    Simon J says:

    I was going to raise the fact that although the Spitfire did not have cannon it did have 8 guns “converging” their line of fire into one space about the size of a football. This would have packed alot of concentrated punch. I see however that you have commented on that above already (synchronisation) (i.e. you think it was difficult for pilots to get behind a 109 at the right distance for convergence to be effective). I guess aces could achieve it more easily though.

    On another point – did the Luftwaffe ever experiment at all with any sort of drop tanks in a bid to have more endurance once over the channel?

    Thank you for a great documentary

  12. James Holland
    James Holland says:

    Thank you, Simon. Yes, they did have drop tanks and they certainly had the technology and wherewithal to use them in 1940, but didn’t. It’s another example of them having the science but lacking the appliance of science!

  13. Cobber55
    Cobber55 says:

    Hi James,

    If you are covering the later missions of the Dambusters and are travelling via Melbourne on your way to or from NZ you may be interested in some of the information I have that was left to me by my mother. Her fiancee was an Aussie pilot with 617 squadron. Perhaps send me an email.


  14. Bargee
    Bargee says:


    Thouroughly enjoyed your documentary.

    However, I want to take issue with you regarding the bombing of the airfields. You gave the clear impression that this was very ineffective with only Manston being closed for just 1 day. Come on James, the airfield bombing campaign had to have had a seriously disruptive effect on Fighter Command’s operational capability. Destroyed aircraft, dispersals, fuel dumps, workshops, equipment & ground personnel casualties to list a few as well as having to deploy personnel to airfield defence.

    If I’m wrong on this, I’d be happy to have your views.

    I’m reading Peter Townsend’s book “Duel of Eagles”, a fascinating insight to the historical & political build up to the Battle of Britain. There is one incident that occurred prior to hostilities that I found remarkable in that it illustrates how events can have a massive impact on future history. On 3rd June 1936 General Wever, a leading advocate of 4 engine heavy bombers was killed & Germany’s heavy bomber project was dropped by Goering. They were leading the world at the time & had it gone ahead, Germany would have had an effective heavy bomber force capable of hitting anywhere in Britain at the start of the Battle.


  15. Chris Yeoman
    Chris Yeoman says:

    Thank you James, I’d really appreciate that. By any stretch of the imagination I don’t class myself as a historian like yourself, but I did my best to write about who John was and the men he served with. I hope you enjoy it.

    I also saw you on that ‘chat’ show with Stephen Bungay and really enjoyed it. At first I was amused because I didn’t think you were going to get a word in, but it was very good in all.

    Glad I came across this site. Have fun in NZ!

  16. I_like_alternative_histories
    I_like_alternative_histories says:

    I’ve at last caught up with the forum, having just registered to contribute to the message board and only just having the chance to read off the e-mail with my details, so sorry for being a ‘Johnny-come-lately’!

    That was certainly a highly revelatory documentary, James and I was very glad to get the chance yesterday to go through it once again on i-Player.

    Although there was an interview with the bomber pilot, Hajo Herrmann, one thing that disappointed me personally was the concentration on the clash of the fighters, which was perhaps the ‘glamour’ side of the conflict, (so it is understandable that this would have more commanded your attention). In that respect the doc. was a missed opportunity to break free of ‘fighter-ism’.

    Elsewhere in the ‘BoB’ series there was the excellent doc. on the Wellington bomber, mentioning in passing that a great British invention was the power-operated turret. Had the Germans themselves decided to arm their bombers with power-operated turrets might that have lessened the likelihood that the escorts had to stick so close to the bomber formations? (Since they would presumably have been in a better position to defend themselves and the Luftwaffe Command wouldn’t have been so panicked by bomber losses.)

    Alternatively, maybe you think the manually-operated MG 15 wasn’t such a slouch as a defensive weapon, in the hands of a good air gunner, after all.

    What’s your take on that issue?

  17. BDJ
    BDJ says:

    Very interesting doc.

    The Spitfire has been glorified in companion docs this week but the 109 seems to have been the better plane in all respects, hamstrung by having to fly from and to France.

    The Merlin was glorified, too, but why oh why did it have a carburettor? We did stupid things, too.

    The German view would be worth a doc in its own right.

  18. Ross
    Ross says:

    Enjoyed it James although it got bumped for the b****y Scottish football! Managed to record it.

    In additions to the comments about German cannon, didn’t they have an extremely low muzzle velocity too? No doubt about it though, 20mm cannon became absolutle essential.

  19. John merritt
    John merritt says:

    It was of great interest the programme which I saw on last sunday night. how late to put this on1!
    Can i ask this
    1) Does all the statisics for the downed german aircraft include the aircraft that crashed on returning? even on take off as ythe 109 was not very stable. was the british totals evey revised after the german artives had been looked at after the end of the war/
    2) it was very interesting the German pilots diary that said about waiting in the cockpit for hours1 i wish this was in a english published form! JUst what effort was made by British Bombers to photogragh and attack german airfields? i know thay were tasked to attack the invasion barges but this other side of the bomber story is unknown.

  20. David Williams
    David Williams says:

    Fantastic programme this week – a great bit of revisionist history James who would have thought it – the plucky amateurs turn out to be the strategic planners whilst the Germans are consumed by ego and complacency. I am halfway through the book and particularly enjoyed your pen picture of Goring as a sort of later day Henry VIII with his hunting grounds and opulent lifestyle. Hope more TV in the pipeline dpw

  21. James Holland
    James Holland says:

    Hi Adrian – thanks for this. Well, yes, they did cause lots of damage and Biggin and Kenley and many others did look like complete wrecks, but, Manston aside, not one was rendered inoperable, not least because Dowding had anticipated damage with back-up ops rooms, piles of gravel and scalpings to fill in pot holes etc, so no, it didn’t have that much effect on Fighter Command’s operational ability. Also, it takes a heck of a lot of bombs to destroy a 100 acre plus grass airfield. I’ll give you an example: on 3rd September, Tom Neil was airborne with 11 others from 249 Squadron when North Weald came under attack and disappeared amidst clouds of smoke. But all 12 managed to land back down again twenty minutes later.

    I go into it all in much greater detail in my book – as well as the Luftwaffe’s 4 engine bomber programme, and Wever et al.

  22. James Holland
    James Holland says:

    Thanks for this. It frustrated me too – trying to reduce a 200,000 word book into 59 minutes of TV is not easy, I can promise you! Inevitably there’s lots I had to leave out, but it is all described in much greater detail in the book.

  23. James Holland
    James Holland says:

    Hi John, This is all spelled out in much greater detail in my book – and although there is not a complete translation of Bethke’s diary (although there will be) large parts of it can be found in my book. German statistics include accidents, although these were no broadly speaking no higher than those suffered by the RAF. Again, more in my book on this.

  24. I_like_alternative_histories
    I_like_alternative_histories says:

    I’ll have to get the book for the story on the Luftwaffe’s 4-engine bomber programme, such as it was.

    No doubt that will reflect the ominous (for the German side) remark in Heinz Nowarra’s book on the He 111, “…and it was with this quantitatively and qualitatively inadequate bomber force that the Luftwaffe entered the Second World War.”

    Here’s a good question, since you referred to your being in no doubt that you would have preferred to have been a Bf 109 pilot anyday – in comparison with the Spitfire.

    Given the choice between, say, the He 111 and the Wellington, of which one of the two would you rather have been part of the crew, trying to press home the kind of attacks that the Luftwaffe was attempting to carry out?

  25. James Holland
    James Holland says:

    Hmm – good one. Neither, frankly, although I’d take the Wellington, I think. I’d also rather be in a Spit Mk V by 1941. It was because of Udet and Jeschonnek’s obsession with dive-bombing that the Junkers 88 and Heinkel 177 4-engine bomber got so far behind. It was hopeless trying to give dive-bombing properties to the Ju88 but insanity to attempt it with the He177. It was why there were comparatively few Ju88s in 1940 and so many mid-30s bombers like the He111 and Do17. Heinz Nowarra is bang on the money.

  26. I_like_alternative_histories
    I_like_alternative_histories says:

    Thanks for the feedback on the Wellington versus He 111 and for ‘that’ remark in the Heinz Nowarra book.

    I now have had the chance actually to look at your latest book, thanks to a request to the Derbyshire County Council Libraries Service. (Judging by the way in which my father – who was in the RAF shortly after the end of WWII – hogged the book on Friday afternoon I think I know what might make a good Christmas present!)

    It certainly brings many human stories vividly to life – and after all, through all the ‘hardware’ the story of the Battle of Britain was essentially a human one and it is welcome to note that the Battle of France – so often relegated to a mere footnote or prelude to the Battle of Britain – is thoroughly dissected.

    Incidentally, I have long thought about why the Luftwaffe didn’t use the Me 110 more as a ground attack aircraft, during the BoB rather than persevering against all logic with it as an escort fighter, so the story of the Erpro.-Gruppe was fascinating. More like that and they could have had their ‘answer’ (before the fact) to, say, the Typhoon or Thunderbolt, which caused all sorts of havoc across the airfields of the Continental Mainland later in the conflict. It’s what its heavy nose armament was made for.

  27. James Holland
    James Holland says:

    Thank you! I think the problem with the Luftwaffe in the summer of 1940 is that they were all over the place – they simply didn’t know what they were supposed to be doing. It’s one of the great paradoxes about the Nazis that there is such a disconnect between the armed services – so, on the one hand you can have the very small U-boat force using the absolutely latest technology to make the very most of their size and resources while several hundred miles away in the air the Luftwaffe are frittering everything away.

  28. Andrew
    Andrew says:

    I am reading Leo McInstry’s book “Spitfire” (although I almost didn’t buy it as the cover is awful). His coverage on the issue of Dowding and Park is interesting in that rather than it being the Battle of Britain one could say it was the “Battle of 11 Group”. I had not seen it in that light before but there is more than a grain of truth in that fighter squadrons were held in needless reserve across the country rather than concentrated where needed. Of course some of these squadrons had been withdrawn for rest – but not all of them.

    I also take this opportunity to talk about the “huge mistake” of the Luftwaffe in turning to London. Hindsight can be so subtle and insidious ! It should be remembered that images of Guernica were relatively recent – then the Luftwaffe’s destruction of Warsaw and Rotterdam. Real terror bombing. Why wouldn’t Hitler and Goering believe the same couldn’t follow with London ? With such never before seen bombing power one can easily see how they would have expected us to quickly capitulate once London was razed to the ground. Why waste any more time and effort on RAF airfields. Get it over with !

  29. James Holland
    James Holland says:

    All good points, but I think Leo McK is quite wrong on his view of the sacking of Dowding and Park. Fighter Command was not short of aircraft, or even pilots. It’s true that by the end of the first week of September, most in 11 Group were down to about 75% pilot strength, but that wasn’t anything like as disastrous as it seemed at the time because a) that still meant a squadron pilot strength of around 16-18, when never more than 12 were airborne at one time, and b) because the Luftwaffe situation was far, far worse. There were good reasons for moving Dowding on – and if he went then Park had to go too – which I went into in some detail in my book, but as far as Sholto Douglas and Leigh-Mallory are concerned, their desire to push them both out was entirely due to personal ambition and dislike of Dowding and Park.

    Re: the decision to bomb London, I don’t think there’s that much hindsight involved. The stated aim was to clear the skies of the RAF as a prelude to invasion, and that continued to the case after the decision was made to turn on London. In other words, they still wanted to destroy the RAF but also to grind the British into defeat by the bombing of cities, but they had even less aircraft with which to do this than they had at the beginning of August. Goering also knew that the chances of subduing Britain by bombing London etc was very unlikely to work. German strategy was just very, very woolly by this time. They hadn’t really got a clue what they were doing.

  30. I_like_alternative_histories
    I_like_alternative_histories says:

    Well, I’ve finally reached the end of the book (although I don’t doubt that I’ll be dipping back into it every once in a while in the time I have it) and without spoiling it for anybody on this forum who might read it in the immediate future may I say what a thoughtful volume it was. It all goes to show what you said, James, in the TV doc. about us thinking we all ‘know’ the story of the Battle of Britain.

    Two final thoughts :-
    (A) It’s a very great shame that (as far as I know) there are no airworthy BoB-vintage Bristol Blenheims any more, since they’d have been a useful addition to the BoB Flight, given their ‘noises off’ contribution, harrying the invasion fleets and Luftwaffe airfields. At least they were there, unlike the Lancaster!

    (B) Since I talk of the ‘human story’, on a human level isn’t it a valuable philosophical lesson that Dowding looked after his pilots, allowing for human limitations – and WON, whereas Goering thrashed them for all they were worth (presumably because they were Aryan supermen) – and LOST? In other words, there is no such thing as a ‘Master Race’ – we’re all human and we all bleed.

  31. I_like_alternative_histories
    I_like_alternative_histories says:

    Oh, you’re quite welcome!

    Since you mention my home city in your book, as one who clearly has quite some array of inside knowledge at their disposal could you possibly clear up the ‘urban myth’ I have come across that on the fateful night that Coventry was ‘Coventriert’ that Derby had been ‘intended’ (quotation marks used advisedly) to be the target for that night but that at the very last minute the target had been switched to Coventry to throw the defences off the scent?

    As one interested in Twentieth Century Architecture I was researching the fate of Coventry’s 1937-built Owen Owen department store (unfortunately subsequently having to be demolished, thereby having a life of only some three years) and got in touch with a local Web historian and mentioned the aforementioned urban myth and he couldn’t enlighten me, unfortunately.

    We have a beautiful, streamline Co-Operative Department Store in Derby that was opened just as the Stukas were pounding our forces only a few hundred miles to the south and I hate to think that it would have had a life of only six months, say, if Derby had ever been a real target for that night. In that respect, Coventry’s new pride and joy was a more tragic loss than the Mediaeval magnificence of the Cathedral, I happen to think.

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