Myths of the Battle of Britain

Military History Journal
Vol 5 No 1 - June 1980

Myths of the Battle of Britain

by Major D. P. Tidy
To the young men of 1980 it must all seem as remote as the Battle of Hastings in 1066, if indeed they ever consider the matter at all, but to me it is as vivid as it was in that glurious high summer of 1940. The most lovely weather for years, clear blue skies, crisp early dawns, and Messerschrnitts. We did not refer to them as Bf 109s then, just Me 109s because we did not appreciate the difference,(1) and some of us called them ruder names!

There are many myths and arguments about the Battle of Britain, and even forty years on the time-span of the Battle is still debated. Many German historians consider that it went on to climax as late as May 1941, but they do not consider it to have started until 13th August 1940. Basil Collier, in The Defence of the United Kingdom, quotes the official British Ministry of Defence description as a five-phase campaign beginning on 10th July 1940 and continuing to 31st October 1940. These are the dates of qualification for the tiny gilt rose emblem worn when the ribbon alone of the 1939-45 Star is worn, denoting the award of the bar inscribed, ‘Battle of Britain’, which is worn on the ribbon when the medal is worn. To gain this bar one must have flown at least one operational sortie under Fighter Command control or instruction, between 10th July and 31st October 1940. Those who were not under the operational control of Fighter Command, even though they shot down at least six German aircraft between these dates, do not qualify for the bar, and are thus not considered as members of 'the Few’, a term derived from a speech made in the British House of Commons during the afternoon of 20th August 1940, by the then Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. After referring to the work and achievements of the Navy, he turned to the war in the air, and said ‘The gratitude of every home in our island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British Airmen, who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger are turning the tide of world war by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few!’

The medallion in the case of the commemorative Battle of Britain dirk, made by Wilkinson, bears a relief effigy of Winston Churchill, and the dates ‘8th August - 15th September.’ The Royal Air Forces Association’s Battle of Britain Souvenir Book also considers the start of the battle to have been 8th August 1940, but Whitaker’s Almanack gives the date as 11th August. Francis K. Mason in Battle over Britain considers the period from 00h01 on 1st July 1940 to 23h59 on 31st October 1940 as the span of the battle.

A British Air Ministry pamphlet entitled The Battle of Britain, and subtitled An account of the great days from 8th August to 31st October 1940 was published at the end of 1940. It was reprinted in South Africa in 1941, with an additional chapter ‘. . . bringing the story up to the present’. ‘This was entitled ‘The Battle of Britain goes on’, with the subtitle ‘A short account of events since the great days of 1940’. The chapter started: 'The “Battle of Britain” describes the air fighting which took place over south-east England and the Channel during August, September, and October, 1940. The battle began with a mass attack on a convoy in the Channel on August 8 and closed towards the end of October, when the Luftwaffe, having lost 2 375 aircraft in daylight assaults on England, retired to lick its wounds and think over the lessons of the past three months.’

The ‘Battle of Britain’, however, was not ended. In the wider sense, indeed, it had only just begun. The chapter went on: ‘If the “Battle of Britain” from August to October can be compared with the “Battle of the Marne”, the subsequent fighting is similar to the period of “attrition” warfare on the Western Front in the last war.’ It continues by saying that in March 1941, after nearly four months of ‘. . . the worst that the Luftwaffe could do, the Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair, was able to tell the House of Commons: “The strength of the RAF is very much greater today than when the Battle of Britain began in August” ‘. This seems to imply that he too considered the Battle of Britain still to be continuing. The chapter ends: ‘Meanwhile the “Battle of Britain” goes on’, implying that in the eyes of the author the Battle would probably he seen as having lasted as long as the war in Europe up to May 1945, and this I have found to be a view held by many South Africans. It is not, however, the normal interpretation, which should, I think, be governed by the period of eligibility for the Battle of Britain clasp, already quoted as 10th July to 31st October 1940.

If the dates of the duration of the Battle are legendary it is not surprising that the aircraft have also been given mythical preponderance. Hence the idea that the Battle was fought and won mainly by Spitfires; in fact thirty-three squadrons of Hurricanes took part, as compared to only nineteen squadrons of Spitfires.

The 3 080 young men who comprised the Royal Air Force aircrew of the Battle(2) were ‘few’ in that they were only the equivalent of a Brigade Group or a capital warship in terms of manpower; the fact that they achieved the survival of Britain is in itself worthy of note. Their youth is a fact also noteworthy; many were under 20, and, still under training, I was not unique at 17, being one of several who had increased their ages to enlist. South African ‘Sailor’ Malan(3) at 30 seemed almost grandfatherly in contrast, and his onetime wingman, Ernie Mayne, at just on 40 seemed like Methuselah! Both survived the heavy fighting of the Battle, and died after the war, ‘Sailor’ in 1963, and Ernie in 1978. Of 2 949 British fighter pilots, 515 were killed between 10th July and 31st October 1940. The German bomber crew casualties were not revealed, but 340 fighter pilots were lost (261 killed). The RAF lost 715 Spitfires and Hurricanes, the Luftwaffe 348 bombers, 45 dive bombers, and 558 fighters.

Sailor Malan - South African fighter pilot in the Battle of Britain
(from the collection of the late Captain Cuthbert Orde - Crown Copyright)

When these total German losses (951) are contrasted with the figure of 2 375 (quoted earlier in the additional chapter of the pamphlet reprinted by the Union Government Printer on behalf of the Bureau of information in South Africa) the mythical claims current during time 1939-45 war for the Battle of Britain become apparent. The debate on the subject of overclaiming of aircraft destroyed lingers on. In the absence of any centralised agency for checking pilots’ victory claims, gross errors were inevitable even though individual pilots’ reports were usually honestly made. The mythical high figures have been perpetuated through the years; how did they arise? It was almost impossible to avoid duplication of claims, for when a pilot saw his tracer slashing into an enemy aircraft, saw the aircraft then crash, and claimed accordingly, he often did not even see the other aircraft that also hit and claimed the same enemy. Alfred Price in ‘The Hardest Day’, his excellent account of the fighting on 18th August 1941, describes how a Junkers 88 was knocked out of a formation by Pilot Officer Boleshaw Wlasnowolski, a Pole of No. 32 Squadron, RAE. Once separated from its protectors, the bomber came under attack from no fewer than five other British fighters from various squadrons. The Ju 88 crashed in woods beside the church at Ide Hill, a small village 13 km south-east of Biggin Hill, and 5 km south-west of Sevenoaks. Wlasnowolski claimed a ‘Do 215’ which 'dived into the ground and burst into flames, near a church’ about 10 km south of Biggin Hill. Flight lieutenant Pete Brothers claimed a ‘Do 215’ which ‘hit the ground at Ide Hill’. Flight Lieutenant James Sanders reported that he, together with another Hurricane, accounted for a Ju 88 which crashed south of Sevenoaks’. Flying Officer James O’Meara claimed a Ju 88 which ‘being attacked by three Hurricanes and one Spitfire, crashed about 6 km east of Biggin Hill’. Flight Sergeant E. Gilbert and Sergeant A. Laws jointly claimed an ‘He 111’ which ‘crashed and burst into flames beside a church south of Biggin Hill’. Because all the Dorniers, Heinkels, and Junkers 88s that were lost during this engagement can be accounted for, and no other German aircraft came down within 8 km of Ide Hill, there is no doubt that these claims all refer to the same aircraft (obviously, remarks Price, the pilots’ shooting was more accurate than their aircraft recognition!) In their defence, it was not easy in a few short moments, when one had to shoot first or die, to identify types which had previously been but models or pictures. Gilbert, Laws, and O’Meara were each subsequently awarded a ‘1/2 kill’: Sanders, Brothers, and Wlasnowolski were each awarded kills. Thus the Junkers was counted 4 1/2 times in the overall British victory total for the day. This happened constantly and with little dishonesty of intent on the part of the pilots There are one or two whose victories always seemed to occur out of sight of anybody else, but they were wellknown to us, if not to the Intelligence Officers who allowed their claims for enemy aircraft shot down in cloud!

The British claimed 144 destroyed om 18th August 1940, whereas in fact there were 69, and the Germans admitted 36. The Germans claimed 147 British aircraft destroyed, whereas in fact there were 68, and the British admitted 23! On 15th September 1940 the British claimed 185 whereas the Germans lost about 60 beyond repair. Price quotes Dean Acheson as having remarked that ‘propaganda is that branch of the art of lying which consists in very nearly deceiving your friends, without quite deceiving your enemies.’

The German Air Force was not divided into functional command.s like the Royal Air Force. Its Luftflotten (Air Fleets) were in effect Tactical Air Forces each with its own long-range bombers, dive bombers, single- and twin-engined fighters, reconnaissance aircraft, and so on. Luftflotte 2 in Holland and Belgium was led by Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, who had commanded Luftflotte 1 in Poland, and Luftflotte 3 was in Northern France led by Field Marshal Hugo Sperrle, who had led the Kondor Legion in the Spanish Civil War in 1936/7. Luftflotte 5 in Norway and Denmark was led by General Stumpff and was little concerned in the action.

The British No. 10 Group of Fighter Command, in which I served in 1941, was commanded by South African Air Chief Marshal Sir Christopher Joseph Quentin Brand (then an Air Vice Marshal) whose statue, with that of General Sir H. A. (Pierre) van Ryneveld, stands at Jan Smuts Airport near Johannesburg. No. 11 Group was led by New Zealander Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Roolney Park (then an Air Vice Marshal), and the other two groups, Nos 12 and 13 were commanded by Air Vice Marshal (later Air Chief Marshal) Sir Trafford Leigh Mallory, and Air Vice Marshal R.E. Saul, respectively. Fighter Command as a whole was led by the incomparable Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Caswall Tremenheere Downing (three years later belatedly created Lord Dowding), known to all, out of his hearing, as ‘Stuffy’. He had protested with calm logic that dissipation of his priceless pilots and precious aircraft in France would imperil the defence of the United Kingdom. Churchill had wanted more squadrons in France, and when the Battle of Britain was won, Dowding was quietly ‘bowler hatted’. His ‘fighter boys’ never forgave Churchill.
To man the aircraft at the beginning of the Battle there were 1 253 pilots, 197 short of the authorized establishment, and including 58 loaned by the Royal Navy.

The five phases of the Battle often quoted are as follows:
1. Attacks on the Channel convoys and ports (10th July to 7th August 1940)
2. The offensive against coastal airfields and radar stations (8th to 23rd August)
3. Assaults on inland airfields near London and sector stations (24th August to 6th September)
4. The attack on London (7th to 30th September)
5. The fighter-bomber attacks in which the targets were of secondary importance to the main object of drawing RAF fighters into the air (7th to 30th September).
There were four methods of air attack open to the Luftwaffe.
a. Attacks against military or economic targets, to get RAF fighters into the air where German fighter escorts and bomber defenders could destroy them.
b. Attacks against British fighter airfields to put them out of action and to destroy fighters on the ground.
c. Attacks against the RAF fighter-control system and radar stations to put the system out of action.
d. Attacks against the factories that were producing the fighters.

All four methods were used over the four months, and the Luftwaffe, which was a tactical air force, fought a strategic battle, with little to show for its efforts. Britain was not invaded and Fighter Command, though hardpressed, was undefeated.

Another myth is that of a small band of invincible ‘aces’ (the very term ‘ace’ is frowned upon by the RAF), brilliant, debonair, and carefree, flying into battle again and again, trailing vapour across the blue skies, shooting down German after German, and occasionally falling themselves when outnumbered by great odds. It was not like that at all really; there were a few members of a rare elite, like ‘Sailor’ Malan, who survived longest and carried the heaviest burden. Yet scores of humble unknowns made up the squadrons, and many were very young, overconfident, and inexperienced, with little idea of what it was all about. Other thoroughly competent pilots, courageous and determined, lacked the speed and instinct to live long in action. If one succeeded in snatching a victory or two before being shot down, it was this that gained the narrow victory in the long run, together with radar and the other preparations made before 1939.

The tactics employed by the RAF when the Battle began were completely wrong, the squadrons flying in tight v-shaped formations, so close that only the leader could see where he was going and what was happening. The others had to concentrate on keeping formation and many were bounced(4) as a close formation was easy to spot and surprise.

The German combat tactics were greatly superior, being based on the ‘rotte’ (pair) developed in Spain in 1936/7. This consisted of two widely spaced aircraft, flying about 200 metres apart, almost in line abreast, with the leader slightly ahead. Each pilot concentrated his search inwards so as to cover his partner’s blind areas behind and below. The leader made the attacks while his wingman guarded his tail, and the star performers were as good as their wingman enabled them to be.

Two pairs made up the ‘schwarm’ (formation) of four, with the leading pair flying to one side and slightly ahead. The RAF adapted this later as the ‘finger four’ formation, so called because each aircraft flew in a position corresponding to the fingertips seen in plan view. The leader was represented by the longest finger, the number two by the index, and numbers three and four took the positions of the third and little fingers. Number two flew on the sun side of the leader scanning down-sun and positioned slightly below so that the other pilots could see him well below the glare, leaving two pairs of eyes stepped-up down-sun of the leader, scanning the danger area.

In July 1940 however, the old parade-ground-type, textbook Fighting Area Attacks led to punishing losses in squadrons that had not learned the hard way over France. They were fine for air displays but no good against the hardened Luftwaffe pilots trained in the Spanish war skies. In mid-July, No 152 Squadron instituted a regular battle formation using pairs and fours. ‘A’ Flight consisted of Red, Yellow, and White sections, and ‘B’ Flight of Blue, Green, and Black, each pair being a fighting unit. This differed to a certain extent from the German practice but eventually evolved into the ‘finger four’ formation that was almost identical to the ‘schwarm’. Other squadrons soon followed No 152 and the closely spaced vics(5) and line-astern formations were abandoned.

So much for the men and the tactics, but what of the aircraft? In the single-engined Bf 109E the Luftwaffe possessed one of the finest interceptors in the world, but it had insufficient range for a bomber escort. The twin-engined Bf 110, with a longer range (the Zerstorer, destroyer) was less manoeuvrable than the Spitfire I and Hurricane I and soon needed protection by Bf 109s for itself. The light twin-engined bombers (Heinkel 111 and Dorniers 17 and 215) were insufficiently armed because they had been designed to escape by speed, but they were not fast enough. They could not carry bomb loads heavy enough to mount successful attacks on factories and airfields, let alone to demolish cities. There were no torpedo bombers to attack shipping and naval forces. The only ascendancy was in numbers, Luftflotte 2 and 3 having 2 600 aircraft, and Luftflotte 5 a further 190. The RAF had 600 day fighters but its forward airfields were located right on the coast where they were very vulnerable. Luckily for Britain, the Germans greatly underestimated the capabilities of the radar system.

By 19th July the two-seater RAF Defiants had to be withdrawn because their rear turret guns could not make up for their poor performance. There was a similar failure on the other side for a month later came the first decisive defeat of the German Junkers 87 divebomber that had wreaked such havoc in Europe. We called it a Stuka (short for Sturzkampfflugzeug, divebomber) among other ruder names. Although this was the generic term for all dive-bombers, I do not recall that it was ever used for any but the Ju 87; certainly not the Ju 88. Few of the Ju 87s had the notorious wind-driven sirens fitted to their mainplanes contrary to popular legend, but those that did made one hell of a noise! They were not vulnerable to attack during the dive, but at the bottom, as they pulled out, they were sitting ducks.

The star German performer was undoubtedly the Messerschmitt Bf 109, proved in Spain; as fast as the Spitfire Mark I (maximum speed 354 mph = 569 km/h), faster than the Hurricane Mark 1 , and it could out-dive and out-climb both. The Spits could out-turn the Bf I 09s but, as already stated, only nineteen squadrons of them took part in the Battle, and on 30th August 1940 only 372 were at readiness. Of the aircraft serving on the thirty-three squadrons of Hurricanes that fought in the Battle, 709 were available on that date. Reliable as a sturdy gun platform up to 20 000 feet (6 096 metres) the Hurricane was a slower mover with a climbing rate of 2 380 feet (725 metres) per minute (if you were lucky) and a reputed maximum speed of 342 mph (550 km/h). She was a dear old bus though, and Paul Gallico, her unlikely biographer, wrote of her: ‘She was loved and trusted by every man who ever knew her. She was unique in the heavens. She had no vices. In the hands of the young men who mastered her and became her lovers she saved England and all the rest of the world that cherished the right of freedom.' A minor role in the Battle was played by eleven night-fighter Blenheim squadrons (I flew on Blenheims and friends still commiserate with me!), the two ill-fated Defiant squadrons, twelve wooden Gloster Gladiator biplanes, and the Fleet Air Arm Fairey Fulmars of No 808 Squadron.

The Emil, as the German Bf 109E was nicknamed by the Luftwaffe, had a Daimler Benz DB 601 engine of the direct-injection type and responded almost instantaneously to throttle movement without choking. This gave a great advantage over the Spitfire’s and Hurricane’s carburettors, and was a standard item. In the design of the DB 601 the supercharger was mounted on the side requiring a pressure carburettor underneath and between the cylinder banks. Rather than waste time on carburettor development, the Germans chose to use the Bosch injector pump with which they had much experience. The Merlin engine of the Spitfire and Hurricane had a normal float carburettor. In the sudden change from level to diving flight the negative g(6) interrupted the fuel supply. To catch the enemy, the only way on a Spit or Hurricane, was to turn them over on to their backs and dive, a somewhat tricky ploy in combat. it is strange that this problem was not tackled earlier or that Rolls-Royce did not fit an injection pump in place of a carburettor.

Equally strange was the fact that originally the Spitfire was designed for a Rotol constant-speed propeller which, owing to development troubles, had not evolved by 1938, and so the Spitfire came into service with fixed-pitch wooden propeller. The design of fixed-pitch propeller for an aeroplane with a speed range from stalling at about 70 mph (112 km/h) to 361 mph (579 km/h) at top speed, was an almost impossible compromise and, with the top speed optimized, take-off was correspondingly poor — in fact, it was terrible. So bad, in fact, that Spitfires could at first only be operatedfrom Duxford and Catterick, both of which had good open approaches in both directions and which were Fighter Command’s biggest airfields. As a result of personal enquiries from De Havilland by Squadror Leader D.S. Brookes, a lightened-blade version of the DH two-pitch airscrew, as designed for the Fairey Battle, was produced, and it was a great success. It gave a vastly improved take-off, a better rate of climb and increased the top speed to 372 mph (598 km/h). It was suggested at the time that a constant speed unit should be fitted to the two-pitch propelIer to give even better climb performance, but De Havillands thought that it was not adequately developed to cope with fighter manoeuvres. After Dunkirk in May 1941 the question was brought up again and all the two-pitch propellers were hurriedly converted in the field to constant speed operation and this was much appreciated in the Battle.

The initial acceleration of the Bf 1 09E was good, and there was no tendency to swing or bucket. When the throttle was opened the stick had to be held hard forward, but when the tail came up, it could be eased back. So long as no effort was made to pull the aircraft off quickly the take-off was easy and straightforward, the run remarkably short, and the initial rate of climb very good. The Bf 109 was definitely superior in these respects to Spitfires and Hurricanes with two-pitch airscrews. Generally, however, it was inferior to the two British fighters. Its good points were its high top speed and excellent rate of climb, good control at low speeds, gentle stall, even under g, and the fact that the engine did not cut immediately under negative g as already mentioned. Its bad points were the controls, which were far too heavy at high speeds, particularly the ailerons.

Because of the high wing loading, it stalled readily under g and had a poor turning circle. Aileron snatching occurred as the slots opened, and quick manoeuvres were difficult at speed because of the heavy control at high speed, and the stalling propensity and poor turning circle at low speed. The absence of a rudder trimmer curtailed ability to bank to port at high speeds, and the cockpit was too cramped for comfort when fighting. It was too narrow, the headroom was insufficient, and the seating position was tiring, and with the side windows open the noise was considerable.

The Bf I 09E was better in many respects than the Hurricane Mark I, and was livelier than the Spitfire Mark I, its throttle control giving it a great advantage. The great handicap was its longitudinal control which was so heavy at speed that it was difficult to loop the aircraft neatly. This stiffness saved the lives of many RAF pilots!

When the eight-gun fighters came in the policy had been to disperse the lines of fire so that a comparatively wide area was sprayed with bullets. Dunkirk particularly showed that with the short time the target was in line in the gun sight, dispersed fire was insufficiently concentrated. Most squadrons harmonized their guns on a point 250 yards (228 metres) ahead, giving a range of concentration of about 500 yards (457 metres), the bullets diverging outwards from the point of intersection. Despite the proved lethal effect, a penguin (one in a thousand flies!) plumber (armament officer) emerged during the Battle from his mahogany bomber (desk) in Whitehall and demanded to know why the original instructions had been ignored. He was told to get stuffed by the tired pilots who had survived!

There was even a mythical German aeroplane! Many RAF squadrons reported engagements with Heinkel 113s and the British Air Ministry pamphlet reported that the Germans used a few He 113s, and even described it! This was a low-wing all-metal cantilever aeroplane with a single engine. A cannon fired through the airscrew hub and there were two large-bore machine-guns in the wings. The maximum speed was about 380 mph it reported. I also have a dog-eared recognition manual showing the He 113. In fact the aircraft depicted is the He 100 that did not see active service. The aircraft described as He 113s in combat reports were almost certainly Bf 109s, and even the legendary Malan reported He 113s on 11th September 1940.

Perhaps the greatest myth is that the Luftwaffe lost the Battle because of Germany’s blunder in switching the weight of the attack from Fighter Command airfields to London. However, neither by attacking the airfields, nor London, was the Luftwaffe likely to have destroyed Fighter Command. Given the size of the RAF fighter force and the general high quality of its equipment, training, and morale, the Luftwaffe, as Alfred Price wrote ‘. . . could have achieved no more than a Pyrrhic victory'.

The importance of the Battle lies in the fact that it showed for the first time that the German war machine was not unbeatable. For we who stood alone in 1940 it meant that we could never envisage defeat thereafter. We knew that we were invincible, come what may. We all basked in the reflected glory of ‘the Few’, and although it seems like yesterday to me . . . forty years is a long time.

  1. The Me 109R was a specially designed aircraft that raised the world speed record in 1939. Me 109R itself was a spurious designation for publicity purposes. It was actually the Me 209Vl. The only thing it had in common with the standard fighter, the Bf 109, was that it was designed by the same team. The Nazi propagandists gained world acclaim for the standard Bf 109 by confusing the two aircraft (as have many since). Although Willy Messerschmitt joined the Bayerische Flugzeugwerke more than ten years before the war and headed the team that designed the Me 109R, the factory’s name was not changed to Messerschmitt AG until after the first Bf 109s and Bf 110s had been produced. Only subsequently were the products of the factory known as Me 163, Me 210, Me 262, and so on. There were 33 000 Bf 109s but only one Me 109, so perhaps one might say that this was another myth!
  2. The South African pilots who flew under Fighter Command control during the Battle are listed in Vol. 1 No. 7 of the South African Military History Journal at p. 37.
  3. Articles on Group Captain AG. Malan appear on p. 9 in Vol. 1, No. 1, and pp. 13 to 18 of Vol. 1, No. 3 of the South African Military History Journal.
  4. ‘Bounced’ — surprised, ofter from above and out of the sun.
  5. Vics — vee-shaped formations usually of three.
  6. The term g is simply a shorthand form of ‘the acceleration due to gravity’. Acceleration tolerance for airborne equipment, such as carburettors (and aircrews!) is measured in gs. Most g effects in aviation are caused by accelerations due to change of course. The tighter the turn (or change from dive to climb) the greater the force, and severity of greyout or blackout. The centrifugal force, or g, increases with speed for various turning radii, and for a given radius, increases as the square of the speed.

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