Battle of Britain Day 76 Years On

Even today, we still tend to paint a picture of plucky little Britain against mighty Germany in 1940 and the myth persists, incredibly, that the RAF was on its last legs in early September and that had it not been for the Luftwaffe switching tactics and attacking London and cities instead of airfields, it would have been a very close run thing. This is nonsense. Britain won the Battle of Britain because it was better organised, better led, had better aircraft production, much better intelligence, and was fighting a battle for which Fighter Command was prepared.

In contrast, the Luftwaffe was poorly led at the highest level, its aircraft production was less than half that of the RAF, it’s intelligence was woefully inaccurate, it grossly underestimated the RAF’s strengths, had no real idea or understanding of the British co-ordinated air defence system – the world’s first – and was fighting a battle for which it was not designed and with nothing like the number of aircraft for the task it had been given. To put this into some perspective, the amount of times more than a hundred bombers attacked a single target before September 15th 1940 could be counted on one hand. In July 1943, Hamburg was destroyed by 3,500 Allied bombers. In the Blitz (September 1940 – May 1941), London was hit by 18,000 tons on bombs. In 1944, RAF Bomber Command alone hit German targets with 440,000 tons of bombs.

It is true, however, that the Luftwaffe’s switch of tactics the previous Saturday, 7th September, favoured Fighter Command, not least because it meant the commanders could now better predict German intentions. Even with radar and the Observer Corps, it was hard to meet a mass of different raids launched simultaneously. But now that much larger formations of aircraft appeared to be heading to London, it was easier to intercept more effectively. Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park, the commander of 11 Group in the south-east of England, spent the battle constantly refining and honing his tactics, and with the Luftwaffe assaults on London, his intention was to harry the enemy from the moment they crossed the Kent coast and for squadrons to now operate in pairs rather than singly.

Fortunately, we have excellent records of what happened and it is possible to piece together accurate what happened on Sunday, 15th September 1940. We know precisely when and where squadrons engaged, how many aircraft were involved, the number destroyed and damaged and so on.

British pilots were usually massively out-numbered at the point of attack – as any British Battle of Britain pilot will tell you – and to be one of twelve Spitfires attacking a formation of over two hundred bombers and fighters required incredible courage. Overall, however, it was not always so one-sided. The air battles over south-east England and London on 15 September are a case in point.

The first raid peaked around midday when some twenty-five Dorniers, escorted by fifty fighters were attacked variously by twenty-four squadrons, amounting to over 280 fighter aircraft. The second and larger Luftwaffe raid was of around one hundred bombers and two hundred fighters and was attacked and harried constantly by 330 RAF fighters, including the new ‘Big Wing’ of five squadrons from Duxford in 12 Group.

In other words, in the first of the attacks on London that day, Fighter Command massively out-numbered the Luftwaffe, and in the second, the numbers again favoured the RAF, albeit only slightly so. The incident that is invariably cited on this day is Winston Churchill being down in the 11 Group HQ bunker alongside Park. During the second attack, he turned and asked, ‘What reserves are there?’ to which Park replied, ‘None.’

What Park meant was that all his 11 Group squadrons were now airborne. He was not talking about the fighters of 10, 12 and 13 Groups, which amounted to another 300 plus aircraft. They were available, but Dowding, the Commander-in-Chief of Fighter Command, had very sensible spread his defences around the entire country. Just because Park had committed all his squadrons to one Luftwaffe raid did not mean Fighter Command was staring down the barrel of imminent defeat. On the contrary, the mass of fighters successfully broke up the German bomber formations as was the intention, and shot down some sixty Luftwaffe aircraft in the process. Far from showing Fighter Command’s inherent weakness, 15th September 1940 showed how the RAF was growing in both confidence and effectiveness.

As with so many other aspects of Britain’s war effort, it really is time to kick this ‘little Britain’ declinist view into touch. Anniversaries give us a useful chance to reconsider the past and today we should celebrate Britain’s smashing of the Luftwaffe in 1940. Far from the victory being a ‘narrow margin’ it was actually a whopping defeat over an under-strength and increasingly exhausted enemy whose limitations had been starkly revealed.

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