THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN
The battle was crucial, but perhaps not as much a turning point in the war as some would argue. For had the Battle of the Atlantic been lost in 1941, Britain, despite such a major victory, would have been starved into submission before vital allied support was available.
The following article attempts to give a balanced account of the battle without the jingoism which, too often, accompanies the writing of such events. As such, it is intended to serve as a quick reference and an insight into the circumstances which dictated the tactics of both sides.
Historic events do not start on one place and end in another. Rather there is a continuum. The dates chosen here are those covering only the main threat of invasion and its immediate aftermath. Air battles over mainland Britain of varying size and intensity began at the outbreak of war and continued into early 1945.
The popular view that the battle was waged against the Luftwaffe exclusively by RAF Fighter Command with Spitfires as the predominant aircraft, and that these were flown exclusively by British pilots is quite wrong and not a fitting tribute to all those who took part in this historic air battle.
The majority of published works on the subject take the Fighter Command perspective and too often omit the contribution of other RAF and Army Commands and in doing so fail to give a complete picture. What of Bomber and Coastal Commands, the "Big Wing" controversy, the Observer Corps and Chain Home? One of the most vauable contributions was from the General Post Office and the telephone network which provided vital communication which linked the the whole Dowding system. These were all vital components that popular history has tended to overlook.
Indeed, the consensus of opinion in America at the time was that this was yet another European squabble and not in the interests of America to become involved. The president and Congress were also advised by a number of sources including Joseph Kennedy, the American Ambassador in London, that Britain was finished and could not hold out for long.
Britain's refusal to comply with Hitler's plans and surrender was to pose an unexpected dilemma for the German High Command. Up to this point all German victories had been gained over relatively short distances and all of these over land. The Luftwaffe, tried and tested in the Spanish Civil War, had been developed as a tactical weapon in support of the army and had achieved great success. It was not designed or equipped to fight the strategic battle which it was now facing across the channel.
Although at its narrowest point the English Channel is only 21 miles (35 Km) wide, it provided the first line in a formidable defensive structure that was geographically immune to Guderian's "Blitzkrieg" tactic of aerial artillery in support of fast-moving armour. A technique that had proved very successful for Germany over the last year.
Despite these problems Oberkommandowehrmacht (OKW) was tasked to prepare a plan for the invasion of Britain. This was written by General Alfred Jodl and dated 2 July 1940. The plan, code named Löwe, addressed the attack as a river crossing on a broad front. This approach was not surprising as nobody yet had considered the problems of amphibious landings on the scale required. The plan, renamed Seelöwe by Hitler, became the foundation for his Führer Directive No 16 "On Preparedness for a Landing Operation Against England" . Navy and Army High Commands were independently tasked to produce more concrete proposals while the Luftwaffe, at Goering's insistence, was given a specific role; the destruction of the RAF. A provisional date of 15 September 1940 was set for the invasion, but in the event it was postponed indefinitely after 17 September. It seems remarkable but unlike the other European conquests, no plan had been drawn up for offensive action against Britain before this date. Equally, the lack of in-depth planning, in comparison to that of other European countries, is difficult to explain.
While Göring was rash in his committal of the Luftwaffe and the claims that they could easily exceed all expectations, it is also true that neither Navy or Army commands had addressed the problems of a sea-borne invasion to any great degree. Additionally, there was very little liaison in what was to become a new military science; that of combined operations. The three armed forces planned independently of each other to the extent that the Luftwaffe targets included facilities that would have been vital to an invading force and better left untouched. Specific problems included a total lack of sea-going landing craft, no effective means of landing tanks or heavy equipment and totally inadequate naval support.
Another major problem was the target area itself. The English Channel, even undefended, is a mass of shallows and strong currents which had defeated invaders in the past. Unlike northern France, there are no long stretches of adjacent beaches on which to land an invasion force, unless towards Devon or Cornwall, where a later breakout from the beach-head would pose insurmountable logistical problems. Alternatively, to try and land on the East coast would involve much longer sea crossings, all within easy range of both RAF Fighter and Bomber Commands, let alone the Royal Navy which would, no doubt, have taken heavy losses, but there is nothing to suggest in any part of Royal Navy history that the odds would have deterred them. The greatest risk to Britian was by aerial attack. Incursions by U-boats were discounted as it would be tantamount to suicide for a submarine to enter the shallow waters of the English Channel or the North Sea.
Thus the pivotal point on which the whole plan depended was the air superiority of the Luftwaffe, at least over the operational area, to permit a virtually unopposed landing.
This was to have a profound effect on the development of air forces all over the world with strong support for these theories from Trenchard, Göring and Mitchell all of whom were protagonist of independent air forces. The result, together with a much greater emphasis on training, was a greater concentration on a bomber force than on fighter aircraft development. Before the outbreak of WWII the theory gained credence for British, German, Italian and Japanese exponents, but always with an unopposed bomber force attacking undefended targets. It was thought at the time that there could be no effective defence against this. It seems incredible, but despite this, little consideration had been given to the need for fighter escorts, night bombing or bombing through cloud for which additional communications, navigational and sighting equipment would be needed.
A further consideration was that the slaughter of W.W.I had led to years of minimal defence spending throughout Europe, Germany being the major exception. This left most countries unprepared for the aggressive stance adopted by Germany under Hitler. Appeasement was the only realistic policy that would buy time until the deficit could be made up.