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Factors that Determined the Outcome of the Battle of Britain

Info: 3480 words (14 pages) Essay
Published: 9th Nov 2021 in History

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The Battle of Britain has been described as the first major battle contested entirely by air forces, fought between 10th July and 31st October 1940.[1]  It resulted from German efforts to drive Britain out of the war, whether directly by seaborne invasion or by its threat,[2] forcing Britain to sue for peace.[3]   For these efforts to succeed the Luftwaffe had to attain air superiority over the Royal Air Force (RAF), which objective the Germans failed to achieve. 

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This essay will argue that British air defence organisation and the ability to maintain effective forces combined with inadequate German intelligence were the key factors in determining the result.  It will consider the world’s first Integrated Air Defence System (IADS), the Dowding System,[4] enabling Fighter Command to effectively control the deployment of its resources and manage its assets such that it never reached the point of collapse.  It will analyse British success in achieving levels of aircraft production and serviceability that prevented the Luftwaffe from establishing effective numerical superiority.  Finally the failure of the Germans to secure accurate intelligence of RAF aircraft numbers, losses and deployments will be considered, together with the effect of this upon Luftwaffe planning, strategy and tactics and in encouraging the overconfidence of its leadership.

A key factor in the outcome of the battle was the RAF’s effective use of its IADS, which gave Fighter Command the ability to ‘see, control and influence what was happening using the maximum economy of force’.[5] Central to this was the Chain Home system of Radio Direction and Finding (RDF) stations which by 1940 covered the length of Britain’s eastern and southern coasts from the Orkneys to Weymouth. These could provide early warning of incoming enemy aircraft at ranges of up to 200 miles, or 110 miles for low flying aircraft.[6]

The aerials of the Chain Home stations did not rotate, a broad beam of radio pulses being transmitted to 'floodlight' a fixed area of sea approaches.  The Chain Home Low (used to identify low flying aircraft) aerials did rotate, however their signals were affected by returns from the land surface.[7]  Therefore once enemy aircraft crossed the coast and moved inland they were unsighted by the RDF stations and hence responsibility for tracking them was passed to the Observer Corps.

In 1940 there were 30,000 observers continuously manning 1,000 observation posts, largely made up of volunteers self-trained in aircraft recognition and height estimation.[8]  While the system worked well in good weather the observers struggled in rain or low cloud, however the Observer Corps constituted the sole means of tracking enemy raids once they had crossed the coastline.  Supplemented by low-level radio interception based around the RAF wireless interception station at Cheadle (taking advantage of the slack radio discipline frequently displayed by German aircrew),[9] information on incoming aircraft was sent by landline to Fighter Command headquarters or, in the case of the Observer Corps, to Sector Stations (i.e. airfields) and Group Headquarters.

The cumulative effect of these multiple sources of intelligence was to create a network of information that could be internally compared for consistency, one source confirming, refuting or supporting another, to build a composite picture of enemy activity.  The IADS information network had such an effective flow of secure intelligence it allowed Fighter Command the crucial time to flexibly organise responses to German attacks.[10] This gave the RAF an essential counter to the element of surprise enjoyed by an enemy who could pick and choose when and where to attack.

The heart of the system lay in the Filter Room at Fighter Command headquarters, where information on incoming aircraft was relayed by landline from RDF stations.  Here plots were recorded and once the track of incoming aircraft was clearly established information would be relayed in turn to Group Headquarters and individual Sector Stations.  Group commanders decided which of their sectors to activate while Sector Station commanders selected which squadrons should fly on a particular operation. The whole process, from target discovery to aircraft deployment, was intended to take only minutes however without speed and clear instructions based on accurate and timely information the system could not be effective and for this the IADS was critical. 

As a result Fighter Command no longer needed constant airborne patrols to track the enemy and could use the minimum assets necessary for an interception.[11] The effectiveness of the RAF squadrons was thus increased, with pilot flying hours reduced and aircraft and fuel usage minimised, maximising the efficient utilisation of personnel and aircraft.[12]

The effectiveness of the IADS was supported by the maintenance of operational aircraft numbers.  Despite advances in monoplane aircraft technology prior to the war which greatly increased the speed, reach and potential of air power the British aircraft industry had been unable to properly exploit these developments due to years of austerity and disarmament.[13]  Great strides were made, however, to enable British aircraft production to catch up with Germany’s by the outbreak of war.

The Air Minister, Lord Swinton, introduced a scheme to generate a reserve of productive capacity by creating ‘shadow factories’ across Britain that would be provided with all the resources necessary to establish a functional production line by their ‘parent’ firms.[14] Increased aircraft production was supported by the Civilian Repair Organisation (CRO) placed under the energetic Lord Beaverbrook at the Ministry of Aircraft Production.  The CRO proved highly effective, co-ordinating the maintenance and repair of military aircraft by civilian firms with such success that 60% of aircraft repaired were able to return to operational service, the remainder being utilised for spares.[15]  The foundations of success had been laid with new aircraft being constructed at an unprecedented rate and damaged aircraft returned to service in ever increasing numbers.  The numbers confirmed this: in addition to nearly 300 new aircraft a week, in the last two weeks of June more than 250 were repaired and sent back to squadrons.[16], [17]

Throughout the battle British aircraft industry out-produced its German rival by a considerable margin, allowing a continuous flow of replacements to compensate for the high loss rates sustained by Fighter Command.  Indeed RAF fighter numbers grew steadily stronger between June and October. On 19 June there were 548 operationally ready fighters (with 200 more ready for the following day); by 31 October 729 ready to fly, 370 in store at a day’s notice, and a further 110 at four days’ notice.[18]  At no point during the battle did Fighter Command suffer from a shortage of serviceable front-line aircraft.[19]

Unlike the increasingly efficient British aircraft production and repair systems the German aviation industry suffered from generally poor levels of performance, constructing less than half the number of aircraft produced by the British during 1940.[20] Despite possessing the most advanced aeronautical technology in the world, with larger resources of machinery, raw materials and manpower than the British, productivity often fell more than 30% below target.[21]  

German aircraft were some of the most technically complex of the period therefore could frequently not be suitably repaired in the field, [22] often having to be transported back to Germany by land or rail.  This exposed the long supply and logistical chain of the Luftwaffe from its forward bases back to German factories, in direct contrast to the RAF based in its home airfields. The RAF and the CRO could repair an aircraft in hours, depending on its level of damage, and have it serviceable for front-line combat the next day. Luftwaffe repair times were long:  ‘just over a thousand Me 109s and just fifty-nine Ju 88s would be repaired and back in the air during the whole of 1940’.[23]   This poor supply and repair system restricted the operational capabilities of the Luftwaffe, preventing it from achieving a decisive numerical advantage in the air.[24]

By the summer of 1940 Germany’s series of speedy and spectacular victories had left the Luftwaffe’s high command feeling arrogant and unbeatable.[25]  Led by Goering, who lacked ‘the technical knowledge and strategic forethought necessary to develop the German Air Force’s full potential’,[26] Luftwaffe leadership had come to believe that they could defeat Britain as quickly and efficiently as their other recent campaigns. This overconfidence was supported by German Air Intelligence failures.

The Luftwaffe never understood the efficiency and effectiveness of Britain’s defences,[27] as late as July 1940 producing intelligence reports which failed to appreciate the significance of either IADS or RDF.[28] This contributed to the German failure to give a higher priority to attacks upon the RDF stations.  Luftwaffe intelligence was ‘disorganised and inefficient’,[29] displaying a clear lack of understanding of RAF capabilities. This resulted in ever changing operational aims and objectives and plans that were disjointed with contradictory targets.[30] 

The true balance of forces was never properly appreciated, the outcome being a misperception that played a critical part in the conduct of the battle.  German intelligence reports consistently underestimated the size of Fighter Command and the scale of British aircraft production while exaggerating RAF losses. This encouraged the Luftwaffe to believe that attrition had pushed Fighter Command to the very edge of defeat, leading first to complacency then strategic misjudgement. It was assumed that Fighter Command was virtually eliminated: at the end of August it was estimated that the RAF had lost 50% of its fighters. On 16th September Goering announced that Fighter Command had only 177 operational aircraft, while intelligence estimated that only 300 British fighters were left, including reserves, with a monthly output of 250.[31] 

This miscalculation led to the mistaken shift of targets from air bases to industry and communications.  In reality on 19th September Fighter Command had an actual operational strength of 656 with 202 aircraft in reserve, 226 in preparation; output of fighters between 7th September and 5th October being 428.[32]  This difference was critical, leading the Luftwaffe to fight in September as if Fighter Command had been all but destroyed and resulting in a level of attrition so high that the Luftwaffe could not sustain it for more than a few weeks.

The outcome of the Battle of Britain was technically a stalemate, neither side being defeated in a conventional sense as both remained operationally effective.  However, the failure of the Luftwaffe to achieve its primary objective of air supremacy enabled the RAF’s Fighter Command to claim victory by the removal of the threat of invasion. 

This essay has argued that the German failure resulted from effective British preparation contrasted with an overconfident Luftwaffe lacking efficient logistics and whose intelligence failures led to poor strategic decision making.  The development of the IADS, supported by innovative RDF technology, gave the RAF a greatly enhanced early warning and resource management capability that supplied Fighter Command with a vital force multiplier. The use of IADS was underpinned by a swift and revolutionary transformation of the British aircraft industry to produce a collaborative, nation-wide mass production and repair capacity in the form of shadow factories and CRO. 

These developments enabled the RAF to replace its losses and increasingly negate the Luftwaffe’s initial numerical superiority.  German inability to produce and repair their own aircraft in similar numbers eroded the balance of forces as the battle progressed and the Luftwaffe leadership’s misperception of these factors, driven by a lack of accurate intelligence, encouraged first complacency and then fatal strategic misjudgement.

Bibliography

Addison, Paul & Jeremy Crang (2000), The Burning Blue: a New History of the Battle of Britain, (London: Pimlico).

Barley, Wing Commander M.P. (2004), ‘Contributing to its Own Defeat: The Luftwaffe and the Battle of Britain’, Defence Studies Vol 4, No 3, pp.387-411.

Bungay, Stephen (2009), The Most Dangerous Enemy: A History of the Battle of Britain (London: Aurum Press).

Cole, Gerald (1990), The Battle of Britain the Siege that Failed (Berkhamsted: Firefly Publications).

Commander in Chief of the Luftwaffe (n.d.), Royal Air Force Museum, https://www.rafmuseum.org.uk/research/online-exhibitions/history-of-the-battle-of-britain/commander-in-chief-of-the-luftwaffe.aspx, accessed 17 Dec 2019.

Guerlac, Henry (1987), RADAR in World War II (Cambridge: Tomash Publishers).

Holland, James (2010), The Battle of Britain: Five Months that Changed History May-October 1940 (London: Transworld Publishers).

Introduction to the Phases of the Battle of Britain (n.d.), Royal Air Force Museum, https://www.rafmuseum.org.uk/research/online-exhibitions/history-of-the-battle-of-britain/introduction-to-the-phases-of-the-battle-of-britain.aspx, accessed 20 Dec 2019.

Ledwidge, Frank (2018), Aerial Warfare: The Battle for the Skies (Oxford University Press).

Orange, Vincent (2008), Dowding of Fighter Command: Victor of The Battle of Britain (London: Grub Street Publising).

Overy, Richard (2005), The Air War (Dulles: Potomac Books).

Overy, Richard (2010), The Battle of Britain: Myth and Reality (London: Penguin Books).

RADAR – The Battle Winner? (n.d.), Royal Air Force Museum, https://www.rafmuseum.org.uk/research/online-exhibitions/history-of-the-battle-of-britain/radar-the-battle-winner.aspx, accessed 02 January 2020.

Shields, John (2015), ‘The Battle of Britain: A Not So Narrow Margin’, Air Power Review, Vol 18, No2, pp.182-196.

Support from the Ground in the Battle of Britain (2018), Imperial War Museums, https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/support-from-the-ground-in-the-battle-of-britain, accessed 15 January 2020.

Wood, Derek & Derek Dempster (2010), The Narrow Margin (Barnsley: Hutchinson & Company).

Wright, Robert (1969), Dowding and the Battle of Britain (London: Macdonald &Co).

Zimmerman, David (2001), Britain’s Shield: Radar and the Defeat of the Luftwaffe (Stroud: Sutton Publishing).


[1] Introduction to the Phases of the Battle of Britain (n.d.), https://www.rafmuseum.org.uk/research/online-exhibitions/history-of-the-battle-of-britain/introduction-to-the-phases-of-the-battle-of-britain.aspx.

[2] Overy (2010), p.19.

[3] Ibid., p.xii.

[4] Ledwidge (2018), p.68.

[5] Id.

[6] RADAR – The Battle Winner? (n.d.), https://www.rafmuseum.org.uk/research/online-exhibitions/history-of-the-battle-of-britain/radar-the-battle-winner.aspx.

[7] Id.

[8] Support from the Ground in the Battle of Britain (2018), https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/support-from-the-ground-in-the-battle-of-britain.

[9] Overy (2010), p.20.

[10] Wright (1969), p.64.

[11] Bungay (2009), p.235.

[12] Guerlac (1987), p.11.

[13] Orange (2008), p.69.

[14] Smith (2000), p.50.

[15] Wood & Dempster (2010), p.103.

[16] Id.

[17] Holland (2010), p.325.

[18] Overy (2010), p.45.

[19] Holland (2010), p. 325.

[20] Overy (2010), p.50.

[21] Id.

[22] Ibid, p.51.

[23] Holland (2010), p.325.

[24] Overy (2005), p.23.

[25] Zimmerman (2001), p.195.

[26] Commander in Chief of the Luftwaffe (n.d.), https://www.rafmuseum.org.uk/research/online-exhibitions/history-of-the-battle-of-britain/commander-in-chief-of-the-luftwaffe.aspx.

[27] Shields (2015), p.185.

[28] Cole (1990), p.49.

[29] Wood & Dempster (2010), p.41.

[30] Barley (2004), p.403.

[31] Overy (2010), p.114.

[32] Id.

 

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