aviation in World War 2

the Battle of Britain
RAF and Luftwaffe
WW2 air force commanders
the aircraft of the Battle
RAF Fighter Control
Chain Home radar
Battle of Britain tactics

the Battle of Britain

The first fighters to confront the Messerschmitts were British: the Hawker Hurricane, already deployed by the RAF in 1937, and the Supermarine Spitfire, a plane developed from the Supermarine seaplanes that won the Schneider Trophy but which was not produced in great numbers until the war was underway.  The Hurricane had begun on the drawing board of Sidney Camm as early as 1934. Camm’s intention was to replace the Gloster Gladiator, then being built as the ultimate biplane fighter. Camm was convinced that the  era of the biplane fighter was past and that the next war would see dogfights between much faster and better-performing single-wing aircraft. The way had already been shown in the United States with the creation of the Seversky P-35.

Hawker Hurricanes are probably best known for their outstanding performance during the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940, proving vital to Britain's survival when the Nazi Blitzkrieg seemed unstoppable. These airplanes also performed other roles, flying on nearly every front until the end of the war.

As the fighter role of the Hurricane was taken over by the Spitfire, the Hurricane was found to be a versatile aircraft that could be used for many other missions, including night bombing, ground support, and as a carrier-based aircraft. The British fighter airplane that became the most celebrated during the war was the Spitfire, based on the designs of Reginald J. Mitchell in the late 1920s. The Spitfire benefited not only from Mitchell’s intuitive genius about aerodynamics, but also from the close association with Henry Royce, who developed the Merlin engine specifically for the Spitfire.

The development of the Spitfire took time, and improvements were made throughout the war that kept the aircraft a step ahead of its adversaries. But the fact that only a few Spitfires were  involved in the Battle of Britain, and that the brunt of the battle was borne by the Hurricanes, points to another strategic error the Germans made in conducting the air war: they waited too long, giving England and the United States the opportunity to develop fighters and bombers that could challenge the Nazis in the air.

This was evident in the nine-month “phony war” that took place between Germany and France, during which the Allies initiated a crash program, and in the hesitation Hitler showed at Dunkirk, allowing a large portion of the British ground forces to escape. It was also evident in the hesitation the Germans showed in invading England and beginning the air war over British skies that came to be known as the Battle of Britain. Why the Germans hesitated at key moments when their entire strategy depended on swiftness is grist for the historian’s mill, but the results were clear enough. The Germans did not cut off development and deployment of advanced aircraft in England the way they had in France, and this was a critical factor in the outcome of the war.

British pilots run to their fighter planes, warned of an imminent German attack. By shooting down enemy aircraft in large numbers, such pilots saved their country from invasion in 1940.

In May 1940, the Germans invaded the Low Countries (Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg) as a prelude to the “end run” invasion of France. The technique was the by-now terribly familiar Blitzkrieg, with a new wrinkle in that Stukas were used to airlift supplies to forward ground troops, which allowed the troops to move across the countryside even faster. With a speed that made the conquest of Poland leisurely by comparison, France—and with it the French aircraft development program—fell in June 1940.

Most observers at the time believed the French program had great promise, and two fighters in particular—the Dewoitine 520 and the Arsenal VG-33—were believed capable of one day becoming fighters of the first rank. These were produced in French factories under German management during the occupation of France, but either because of sabotage of the production or the German belief in the superiority of the Messerschmitt planes, they were not deployed in large numbers.

The key aerial confrontation between Germany and England came early in the war, during the summer of 1940. At the time, the fighter force of the RAF stood at about six hundred planes, about a third the size of the Luftwaffe. The only way the RAF stood a chance against a force so superior in numbers and capabilities was by using the latest communications and electronic technology to mount a coordinated defence.

The Operations Room of Fighter Command HQ was connected to airfields, communications stations, radar installations, and observation posts all over England through a telephone, radio, and teletype network that allowed all movements of the fighter planes to be coordinated. The Germans had attempted to discover these electronic secrets of the British before the war, but were unsuccessful. Though they did not fully appreciate how powerful an instrument radar was, they knew that destroying British radar installations would be an important step in winning the war.

On July 21, Goring, acting on direct orders from Hitler, announced to the commanders of the Luftflotten (air fleets) the plans for Operation Adler Angriff—Eagle Attack—aimed at the destruction of the RAF The day on which the air invasion was to take place, called Adler Tag
(Eagle Day), was August 10. The strategy was simple: on day one the radar stations would be taken out; on day two, the airfields; on day three, the planes and hangars. All that would be necessary, Goring believed, were three days of clear weather in which to fly.

During World War 11, the Spitfire became the dominant fighter in the European sky. A key to its success was its ability to continue to perform well when increasingly powerful engines were  installed. The Rolls-Royce Merlin engines that powered the plane eventually doubled their output in the course of the war, allowing the Spitfire literally to save England from invasion during the Battle of Britain.

The Heinkel He-111 was based on a 1935 plane that the Germans claimed was designed for commercial transport. When Lindbergh visited Germany in 1936, he took one look at the He-Ill and knew he was looking at a  bomber.

The initial attempts to knock out the radar stations at Dover, Pevensey, and Rye were unsuccessful for the simple reason that the British radar system gave the defenders ample warning and permitted them to marshal their forces. It became immediately apparent that the only way the Germans would have a chance of gaining mastery of the air was to conduct a total onslaught of the British skies, so that Britain could not use its sophisticated detection and communications systems to move its forces into the most advantageous position. If the RAF were engaged everywhere, they would be outmatched everywhere. The renewed onslaught began on August 13, 1940, and in the three weeks that followed the skies above England became a battlefield in which the true capabilities of the aircraft fighting each other became apparent.

It also became clear what advantages could be gained by engaging in an air battle over one’s own territory (lessons that would be useful when the air war was taken to Germany). The Messerschmitt Bf 109s were very poorly armoured, which meant that the slightest hit brought down a plane, usually killing the pilot. The British planes may have been slower, but they were much better protected. (Dowding had even fought to have bullet-proof glass used for the cockpits.) A Hurricane or a Spitfire could take many blows and keep fighting. The Bf 109s used 75 percent of their fuel just getting to the theatre of battle and returning. This meant that a British plane had two to three times the useful flight combat time that a German plane had. A damaged British plane could land in a field or at a nearby airbase, be repaired, and be in the air again within a few hours.

A German flier whose  plane was damaged in battle could only hope to make it back over the English Channel; most did not. By early September, the RAF had fought the Luftwaffe to a stalemate, an incredible achievement given the advantages enjoyed by the Germans. When it appeared that a strategic victory over the RAF was not going to be possible (or come as quickly as promised), Hitler, claiming he was acting out of revenge for British bombing raids on Berlin, changed policy and attempted to intimidate the British into submission by directing his bombing attacks at London and other British cities instead of at the RAF airfields.

The tactic had worked in the past, and it appealed to the Fuhrer’s sense of the dramatic. (The sound effects that were added to the Stukas were said to appeal to Hitler more than the dive-bombing techniques that made them so effective. In early discussions about the possibility of an atom bomb, Hitler supposedly mused about what a magnificent noise it would make, and was disappointed when told that there would he no survivors of a bomb blast left to hear anything.) It was considered another major blunder in the conduct of the air war, and the British were grateful for the respite.

On September 8, 1 940, the “Blitz” of London began, driving most of the city underground as the battle waged overhead. Now the major weapons the Germans threw at the British were their bombers: the Dornier Do 17 and the Heinkel He-111. These planes were designed primarily as medium-range bombers with ranges of about one thousand miles (1 ,609km), and they were no match for the British fighters. Hitler had grossly underestimated the resolve of the British and their determination to win the war, no matter the cost.

By the end of October, the Battle of Britain was over. The British had lost more than nine hundred planes, but the German toll was twice that, and most of their losses were costly bombers with crews of three or four. It was during the Battle of Britain that the first aces of the war emerged (and the reader will note that names of individual fliers are absent in this air war).

The RAF had always been reluctant to single out individual pilots, believing it contradicted the team approach to air combat. But two of the top three pilots in the Battle of Britain were not RAF officers, and the government believed that singling them out would make for good public relations at home and with other countries. The top ace was Czech pilot Josef Frantisek; next came Eric Lock, an RAF officer; and then came “Ginger” Lacey, a non-commissioned pilot who shot down the He-Ill that bombed Buckingham Palace.

The air war over England was by no means over. The Germans were to continue bombing for many months, and a November 14 bombing raid on Coventry was one of the most severe of the war. But by then it was clear that a German invasion of England was not going to be possible, and that mastery of the skies over England belonged to the RAE England was committed to defeating the Nazis and liberating the nations of Europe; the Germans, however, could have been content to leave England alone for the moment and solidify their hold on Europe. Hitler was already making plans to invade the Soviet Union—Operation Barbarossa—and spurring oil production of munitions for the campaigns ahead.

The great unknown factor in the war was the United States. Throughout 4941, it became increasingly clear that the United States would come into the war on the side of England, if it entered the war at all. The passage of the Lend-Lease Act of March 12, 1941, put the United States into the war as a chief supplier of goods to England. A provision of the Lend-Lease program was that England could procure from any U.S. manufacturer any aircraft it produced, once a superior aircraft by any other manufacturer was delivered to the U.S. Army Air Corps. This meant that the entire air force of the United States was placed at the disposal of England and the Army Air Corps would not lose a single plane in the process.

The United States even started supplying squadrons of pilots to fly the planes: they were called the Eagle Squadrons and they distinguished themselves through the latter half of 1941, winning three Distinguished Flying Crosses. They risked loss of citizenship, a consequence of fighting for a foreign power, but none were so punished, and in September 1942 the squadrons were placed under American command as part of the Fourth Fighter Group. As 1941 drew to a close, the United States found itself already in a sea war with the German U-boats that had tried to prevent the delivery of the Lend-Lease materials. It was now only a matter of time until the United States would enter the war.