Did Fighter Command Come Close to Defeat in the Battle of Britain?

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18th May 2020 Military Reference this

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Fighter Command came close to defeat during the Battle of Britain.

How accurate is this statement?

The Battle of Britain is widely regarding as the first military campaign fought entirely in the air.[1] The Royal Air Force (RAF) defended Britain against large scale attacks from the Luftwaffe, Germany’s air force. Following Germany’s lightning war success’ over the French army, the German high command then set their sights on Britain.[2]Therefore, the Luftwaffe were set the task of achieving control of the air, to establish opportunity for invasion, known as Op Sealion.[3] Through analysis this essay will demonstrate that throughout the battle, Fighter Command never truly came close to defeat. This was due to a combination of German strategic failures, British technological advantages and the way each side applied intelligence. It will be shown that Mission Command was employed by the RAF, enabling Dowding to have complete control of Fighter Command, utilising the Integrated Air Defence System (IADS). The IADS network would prove to be crucial component for Fighter Command throughout the battle as it provided an early warning of incoming attacks and a real time intelligence picture, allowing this information to be distributed to the relevant airfields, acting as a force multiplier.[4] On the other hand, the German leadership was laden with issues arising from their poor intelligence,  which was largely influenced through political corruption. Specifically, the German High Command crucially underestimated Fighter Command and furthermore the battle which they were involved in, resulting in a failure to apply a key principle of war, which is to have a clear, unambiguous strategy.[5] Finally, the essential areas of aircraft production, maintenance and pilots, a vital industry needed to maintain the sustainability to be operationally effective, will be highlighted. This will clearly emphasise the decisive role of keeping the maximum number of aircraft available for deployment at all time, again, enabling Fighter Command to avoid defeat.

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The tactics and strategies employed by the RAF and Luftwaffe was critical to determining the outcome of the battle. Fighter Command was mono-functional, it was purpose built for these exact circumstances. Whereas the Luftwaffe were multifunctional, largely regarded as a tactical air force, primarily used in support of ground and naval forces.[6] Therefore it was simply unprepared for a solo aerial battle of attrition. As previously stated; Britain employed mission command, with Churchill empowering Dowding to lead Fighter Command. This enabled Dowding, to have complete unilateral control. [7] As a result, Dowding was able to utilise the IADS. The IADS system was a pivotal system for Fighter Command which was magnified by the fact that it was disregarded by Goring. [8] The Chain Home radar system and Royal Observer Corps (ROC) enabled Fighter Command a key early warning system. Once this information was fed into the filter rooms and HQ it enabled Fighter Command to efficiently deploy relevant squadrons to the incoming threat, rather than have rolling patrols. This not only offered more respite to their pilots, but it gave a proportional response to each Luftwaffe attack, therefore never revealing the true state of Fighter Command aircraft numbers. The network that was the IADS system gave Fighter Command operational intelligence and Dowding the ability to manage his resources effectively.

In contrast, the Luftwaffe were led by Hermann Göring, a previously WW1 fighter pilot. Goring was in the predisposition that victory over Britain was all but assured and it was merely a matter of time. This level of complacency and confidence was largely as a result of the victories over Poland and France in addition to a lack of intelligence of the British which will be highlighted later in the essay.[9] As a consequence of Goring’s over-confidence, the Luftwaffe went into the battle lacking several key principles of war, such as having a selection and maintenance of the aim and know your enemy. [10] This was evident throughout the battle; for example, in August of 1940, when the battle was in its infancy, the Luftwaffe targeted Fighter Command’s radar defence system; attacking multiple front-line radar towers. However, only one was put of action for any significant period. [11] Shortly after the Luftwaffe began targeting the RAF airfields. Not only does this show that German High Command highly underestimated the radar system’s integration into the RAF’s defensive network, its highlights a lack of decisiveness from German leadership.[12] Throughout the battle various targets were chosen such as; defeating Fighter Command and its airfields, destroying the air industry, breaking the will of the people by bombing cities, meanwhile achieving air superiority to enable the naval invasion. As no clear strategy is evident it can be argued that Goring and the German High Command never identified a centre of gravity that would bring about their operational end state.

  • German Air Power Strategy conducted by officers with little practical experience of air ops.
  • They felt Luftwaffe should be used to support Army/ Navy- not conduct a war, therefore no strategic air campaign that didn’t involve supporting other services

German intelligence in the Battle of Britain was characterised with disorganisation, rivalry among its differing services and inefficiency. The cause of this was largely down to the Nazi political system itself, with the relevant intelligence agencies often embellishing reports to gain favour with their commanders to develop their personal careers.[13] Furthermore, any valuable information was often wasted due to lack of collaboration. The result of this had a direct impact on the Battle of Britain as the RAF’s key strategic strengths, such as the IADS or the fighter production industry were largely undervalued and overlooked.[14] Prior to the battle, Josef Schmid, head of Luftwaffe intelligence, was tasked with producing a report on the RAF and Britain’s aerial warfighting capabilities. In his report he completely underestimated the RAF, miscalculating their available fighters while stating that the Luftwaffe is superior in every way including their aircraft and commanders.[15] Consequently, the German High Command were confident of a swift conquest over Fighter Command and the wider RAF. The report also furthered Goring’s impeccable confidence in the Luftwaffe and he felt so assured he went onto claim that Fighter Command could be defeated in four days and the wider RAF within a month.[16] As this clearly wasn’t the case it highlights the importance of a clear intelligence picture. The Luftwaffe never managed to achieve this and as a result suffered from a fatal over-confidence in their own strengths and abilities.

To have any chance of avoiding defeat, Fighter Command always needed the maximum number of aircraft available for operation. Therefore, it was aircraft production and repairs that would contribute significantly. This was evident in the RAF pre-war planning on wastage, with the research from WW1 suggesting they could expect to suffer aircraft losses up to 50% per month.[17] As the results suggested, aircraft production was of critical importance if there was an to be an outbreak of war, leading to the introduction of the War Potential Programme to focus on aircraft production in 1938. Subsequently, British aircraft production for 1940, during the Battle of Britain, was 4,283, while the German output was 3,000. [18] Moreover, in September, at the height of the battle, Britain still produced more than double of German single seat fighters. Aircraft maintenance, repairs and the ability to salvage downed planes would also be critical to fighter command sustaining operational ability. The introduction of the Civilian Repair Organization (CRO) in January 1940 was vital to aircraft repairs. During the battle the CRO would contribute a total of 40% of total repairs [19], ensuring production and maintenance would always outweigh losses. In comparison with the Germans, no such civilian system was in place. It was the out production of the German factories coupled with better maintenance programmes that would enable the RAF to outlast the Luftwaffe and sustain aircraft attrition rates.

Pilot numbers of both sides were to play a crucial role during the Battle of Britain. Fatigue and attrition rates were key elements which would directly impact fighter command through the battle. Following their intense three-week campaign over the various European air forces, the Luftwaffe pilots were beginning to suffer with combat weariness.[20] Furthermore, the RAF pilots that fought over France were awarded the time to recover in Scotland and the Midlands, while fighter command rotated the freshest squadrons to the South East. [21] This was a significant advantage for fighter command throughout the battle, allowing rest and recuperation away from the frontlines. Dowding enforced each pilot had a minimum 24 hours off per week.[22] It was a respite that was simply something that Luftwaffe pilots couldn’t attain. Additionally, Fighter Command also held home advantage, allowing pilots that were shot down over British skies and ejected safely, to return to active duty the following day. The Luftwaffe pilots had no such luxury, often facing death or becoming POWs for the remainder of the war, which gave Britain a major psychological advantage. [23] The number of operational pilots were vital to the sustainment of both sides throughout the course of the battle. Besides home advantage, the RAF were able to employ pilots from other nations such as US, Canada, South Africa and several others totalling almost 3000 additional pilots. [24] However, regardless of support from other nations and having home advantage, it would be the lack of a constant supply of pilots through training that would be Fighter Command’s greatest weakness; even though they were able to recruit and train more than the Luftwaffe. On September 1st, 1940 RAF pilot numbers were at the lowest, with a quarter of their entire pilot strength had been lost. [25]

In conclusion, this essay has highlighted several key aspects which support the notion that Fighter Command was never truly close to defeat. A critical cause of this was the failures in German high command which came from a complete lack of airpower strategy. This was coupled with a failure to define an operational end state from the outset. This was emphasised with the various change in tactical targets, such as airfields; to that of a strategic nature, such as attacking the will of the people when bombing cities. Furthermore, the Luftwaffe was a tactical air force designed to support ground forces and therefore unprepared and lacking the capabilities to defeat Fight Command from the beginning. Additionally, their lack of intelligence of their enemies’ defences, capabilities and organisation resulted in a complete underestimation of the force they were facing; the German high command never had a situational awareness of the fight they were in. Therefore, their industries were not prepared for a war of attrition in the air and could not sustain such an offence. Furthermore, the RAF’s use of their technological advantages into a coherent defensive system and their employment of mission command was critical. It enabled Dowding complete control and manoeuvrability to defend Britain. Moreover, the concentrated production of fighter aircraft allowed Fighter Command to remain operational. Therefore, it was a totality of combined factors that ensured Fighter Command would not be defeated. The lack of competent leadership and little emphasis on intelligence resulted in the German not sufficiently equipped or organised to overcome a such well-prepared Fighter Command.

Bibliography

  • Barley, M. (2006), ‘Contributing to its Own Defeat: The Luftwaffe and the Battle of Britain’, Defence Studies, Vol 4, No 3, pp.387-411.
  • Boog, Horst (2008), ‘German Air Intelligence in the Second World War’, Intelligence and National Security, Vol 5, No 2, pp.350-424.
  • Corum, James (1997), The Luftwaffe: Creating the Operational Air War, 1918-1940 (US: University of Kansas Press).
  • Clark, Gregory (2014), Deflating British Radar Myths pf World War II (London: Lucknow Books).
  • Clausewitz, Carl von, ed. (2012), Principles of War (England: Dover Publications).
  • Clodfelter, Micheal (2002), Warfare and Armed Conflicts: A Statistical Reference to Casualty and Other Figures (McFarland & Co Inc; 2nd Revised edition).
  • Dempster, Derek & Derek Wood (2003), The Narrow Margin: The Battle of Britain and the Rise Air Power, 1930-1949 (Pen & Sword, Barnsley).
  • Dye, Peter (2000), ‘Logistics and the Battle of Britain’ Air Force Journal of Logistics, Vol 25, No 2, pp31-39.
  • Emmett, Peter (2002), ‘Silent Trackers: The Spectre of Passive Surveillance in the Information Age’, Air Power Review, Vol 5, No 2, pp.43-58.
  • Gray, Peter (2000), ‘The Battle of Britain’, Air Power Review, Vol 3, No 3, pp.15-30.
  • Higham, Robin DS (2012), Unflinching Zeal: The Air Battles Over France and Britain, May-October 1940 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press).
  • Holland, James (2010), The Battle of Britain: Five Months That Changed History, May-October 1940 (United States: Bantam Books).
  • Holland, James (2017), The Battle of Britain, (London: Ladybird Books).
  • Murray, Williamson (1999), War in the Air, 1914–1945 (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson).
  • Olsen, John (2010), A History if Air Warfare (United States: Potomac Books, Inc).
  • Overy, Richard, ed (2010), The Battle of Britain: Myth and Reality (England: Penguin Books).
  • Smith, N. (1962), The Battle of Britain (London: Faber and Faber).

[1] Smith (1962), pp.22-24.

[2] Holland, James (2017), p.4.

[3] Olsen, John (2010), p.30.

[4] Overy, Richard (2010) p.42.

[5] Clausewitz, Carl von (2012). PAGE NUMBER

[6] Barley, M (2006), p.400.

[7] Barley, M (2006), pp.387-411.

[8] Smith (1962), pp.58.

[9] Murray, Williamson (1999), pp9-11.

[10] Clausewitz, Carl Von (2012), PAGE NUMBER

[11] Overy, Richard (2010), PAGE NUMBER

[12] Clark, Gregory (2014), PAGE NUMBER

[13] Boog, Horst (2008), pp.350-424.

[14] Boog, Horst (2008, p.405.

[15] Barley, M. (2006), pp.403-407.

[16] Gray, Peter (2000), pp.15-30.

[17] Emmett, Peter (2002), pp.43-58.

[18] Clodfelter, Michael (2002), p.490.

[19] Dye, Peter (2000), p.37.

[20] Murray, Williamson (1999), p.10.

[21] Murray, Williamson (1999), p.13.

[22] Dye, Peter (2000), PAGE NUMBER

[23] Dempster & Wood (2003), RESEARCH PAGES

[24] Dempster & Wood (2003), RESEARCH PAGES

[25] Clodfelter, Michael (2002), p.490.

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