Having just read a book about the Battle of Britain (by James Holland, younger brother of the better known and more controversial Tom) I have been looking up more nervously than usual whenever a helicopter flies overhead.
Holland is one of those World War 2 historians who focuses entirely on the struggle in the West- the wrong end of the telescope perspective characteristic of the British view. His six dream dinner guests (in a Daily Telegraph article in 2012) – Errol Flynn, Field Marshal Alexander, Cecil Beeton, Keith Miller (cricketer and Mosquito pilot) Ingrid Bergman (primarily to gaze at) and Guy Gibson (the Dambuster) – gives something of a clue as to where he is coming from; as does a curious passage in which he describes Hitler’s aversion to “Jewish Bolshevism” without the inverted commas.
Nevertheless, there are some interesting insights in his account which challenges a lot of received wisdom about 1940: particularly the central myth that Germany had an overwhelming advantage in numbers and material and Britain was simply a democratic North European island, not the centre of a global Empire with enormous reserves of power. In fact, in 1940, the Wehrmacht was less motorised overall than the British Expeditionary Force and had fewer divisions than the French army alone at the start of their offensive and even fewer tanks – and those they had were less well armed. The paradox of the Blitzkreig was not that it was a manifestation of overwhelming power, but an outrageous gamble with just enough forces to try it on that just about came off – which led the Nazi high command to think that similar absurd attempts to chance their arm would work just as well. A self mesmerising belief in their own ubermesch capacity would increasingly come unstuck as time went on. Material reality has a way of imposing itself and did so during the Battle of Britain.
Production. Losses on both sides were extreme. Of the 1,963 serviceable aircraft available to the RAF in May 1940, 1,744 were destroyed by the end of the battle, killing 1,544 air crew. “The thing that’s always worried me about being one of the few is the way we keep on getting fewer”. Flight Officer David Campbell. The Luftwaffe started with 2,550 planes of which 1,977 were lost by the end, along with 2,585 air crew killed and another 925 captured. This was hard to replace for both sides but, during 1940, Britain produced 15,000 aircraft (about 300 planes a week) to Germany’s 10,000 (200 planes a week) and trained more pilots. The RAF repair system was also quicker than the Luftwaffe’s. So, from May to September the balance of forces was moving inexorably in one direction.
Strategic sense. The German aim was to have decisive air superiority to enable a cross channel invasion with air cover by September. Goering wanted to smash the RAFs Fighter Command in 3 or 4 days and – misled by over optimistic “intelligence” reports from Beppo Schmid (described by Anthony Beevor as “the most disastrous intelligence officer the Wehrmacht ever produced”, possibly because he’d worked out that the best way to prosper – or indeed survive – in Nazi Germany was to tell the higher ups what they wanted to hear) which underestimated RAF fighter strength by 75% at the start and never readjusted- he thought he could get away with it. Like the US army in Vietnam, mesmerised by its massive “kill” count statistics into a belief that it was winning, he kept thinking that one more big push was all that was needed to finish the job; when, in fact, the RAF was getting stronger and the Luftwaffe was getting worn out. He kept shifting priorities too, in a way that was inexplicable to a lot of his pilots – who couldn’t understand what they were expected to do. The RAF, by contrast, had a more straightforward approach – keep enough fighters in the air to grind the raiders down every time they came over and keep replacing the men and machines that were being destroyed – and stuck to it.
The tactical use the Luftwaffe made of its aircraft – within this badly thought out “strategy” – was perverse. In the ME109E they had the most effective fighter aircraft in the battle – faster than the Hurricane, on a par with the Spitfire and with a far more powerful armament. RAF fighters were seriously outgunned and had ammunition for only 15 seconds of firing – so their approach was primarily to get up high, dive, shoot and run. A ME109 had cannon as well as machine guns and could fire for 55 seconds. They were, however, hamstrung by Goering’s order to fly above the bombers at the same speed they were going – which was so slow that it was hard for the pilots not to stall their fighters. The Luftwaffe’s bombers were so slow primarily because of their High Command’s obsession with dive bombing. The Junkers 88, designed as a very fast medium bomber which could outrun a Hurricane and give a Spitfire a good race, had to be redesigned to give it a dive bombing capacity; which made it easily catchable by both. Even the huge and ungainly HE 177 – probably the ugliest bomber ever designed – which was intended to be a long range heavy bomber – had not come into production because Heinkel were still working on making it capable of diving – making the outmoded HE111 the main workhorse of the bombing offensive. Towards the end of the battle – and looking for new gimmicks – Goering settled in the wheeze of putting bombs under ME109’s – which its pilots were not trained for, slowed them down and made them more vulnerable. This genius for self sabotage reflected an aspect of Nazi thinking that believed its own myths – that victory was primarily a triumph of the will. Believe in something hard enough and reality will shape itself to match it. An idea that still resurfaces in odd places – from Noel Edmunds’s notion of “cosmic ordering” to Boris Johnson’s stance that a successful Brexit will result from “belief in Britain.”
The human factor. RAF pilots had leave. The strain of continuous flying would be relieved. Air battles were so quick that pilots lost their best friends in seconds, had to fly back, refuel and rearm and take off again. The constant adrenalin rush, fortified by Benzedrine (for the RAF) or Piratin (for the Luftwaffe) ground down the nerves of the pilots. The RAF culture was to get away from this in the evenings – and “talking shop” in the pub or dance hall was frowned upon. The Luftwaffe culture was more dour. Pilots would often sit and discuss tactics when they weren’t flying, so there was no time in which their minds weren’t on the job. Worse, they just kept flying continuously, sometimes several sorties a day, while their friends and comrades were killed around them. The phenomena of Kanalkrankheit (Channel sickness) with pilots either cracking up or pulling a sickie, became increasingly prevalent as September dragged on. A lesson for managements everywhere. Workers need breaks to function.
The underlying point of all this is that Nazi Germany – with an over leveraged and under resourced economy – was only capable of winning short, fast wars and – once it had started – was compelled to keep trying to do so until they bit off more than they could chew in Operation Barbarossa. The Battle of Britain, in wearing out their air force in a long battle of attrition, was a small harbinger of how their entire war machine was to be ground to total destruction by the Red Army after 1941. As Hitler commented to Finnish dictator Mannerheim in 1943 – surfacing from his barbiturates in a moment of realism and lucidity and seeing the writing on the wall – “who would have thought any country could produce 3,000 tanks a month?”