(Aug. 21, 2020) This week, 80 years ago, the German Luftwaffe was completing Phase Two of its aerial assault on Britain’s island nation. Phase Three would begin shortly.
On Aug. 8, 1940, Luftwaffe chief, newly promoted Reichsmarschal Hermann Göring issued the following instruction to his Air Force that had so successfully swept all opposition before it since Sept. 1, 1939: “From Reichsmarshal Göring to all units of Luftflotte 2, 3 and 5 Operation Adler. Within a short period you will wipe the British Air Force from the sky. Heil Hitler.”
The successful invasion of Britain in 1940 would have completed Hitler’s objectives in the West, allowing him to divert his full attention to the East. To do this, victory over the Royal Air Force had to be achieved — a victory that neither Hitler nor Göring doubted would be swift — in order to prevent the Royal Navy from interfering in the planned invasion of Britain. It was a time of greatest peril for Britain.
In June 1940, with his victorious armies on the Channel coast, and no indication from Churchill that Britain would agree to terms, Hitler accepted Göring’s assurance that the Luftwaffe could engage, and defeat, RAF Fighter Command, and open the way for a seaborne invasion of Britain.
“Operation Sea Lion,” as this invasion was code named, envisioned a ground assault on the British Isles to force the United Kingdom out of the conflict on terms favorable to Germany.
During July 1940, the combat units of the Luftwaffe were gradually deployed to airfields between Hamburg, Germany, and Brest, France. These units were organized into two air fleets, or Luftflottes. To the east, Luftflotte 2 was deployed under the command of (“Smiling”) Albert Kesselring, and to the west, Luftflotte 3 was commanded by Hugo Sperrle.
These two Luftflottes contained 1,200 bombers, 760 single-engine fighters, 220 twin-engine fighters and 140 long- and short-range reconnaissance aircraft. A total of 2,600 planes were deployed between these two Luftflottes. In addition, Luftflotte 5, commanded by Col.-Gen. Hans-Jürgen Stumpff, was deployed in Norway and had 130 HE-111 bombers, 30 ME-110 fighters and 30 long-range reconnaissance aircraft.
While this massive strike force was gathering on the fields in France and Belgium, the intervening weeks before the start of large scale operations were used by RAF Fighter Command to restore its depleted squadrons and build up its reserves.
Air Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding also put the final touches on the fully integrated air defense system. He pressed for other commands, important to the defense of Britain, to be brought under the wing of Fighter Command. Balloon Command, Anti-aircraft Command, and the Observer Corps were all linked to the efforts of Fighter Command.
The deployment of Fighter Command itself was also finalized by July 1940. Six groups were to be responsible for defense of Britain. The four most important were: 10 Group, commanded by South African Sir Quintin Brand, to the southwest; 11 Group, under New Zealander Sir Keith Park, was deployed around London and the southeast; 12 Group, under Englishman Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory to the east; and 13 Group, commanded by Irishman Sir Richard Saul to the north.
With the deployment of radar stations around the British Isles, Dowding would have under his control the most comprehensive air defense system Britain had yet possessed.
The Battle of Britain took place from July 10 to Oct. 31 1940 and could be divided into five phases. The first phase was fought over the English Channel. During this period from July 10 to Aug. 7, the Luftwaffe launched a limited campaign to test the mettle of RAF Fighter Command before commencing a main air assault.
In this phase, Luftwaffe Air Corps II, under Bruno Loerzer, and Air Corps VIII, under Baron Dr. Wolfram von Richthofen, attacked British ports and shipping traffic along the Channel. Air Marshal Dowding, on the other hand, started with 644 fighters under his command and was obliged to send his Hurricanes and Spitfires to meet the Luftwaffe.
Fierce dogfights involving more than 100 aircraft ensued off Dover. During this phase, the Germans were also sending “free chase” missions over the Channel. They were meant to draw RAF Fighters into combat and make it suffer accordingly.
Phase Two, the all-out offensive to eliminate the RAF and lay waste to British aircraft industry, lasted from Aug. 8 to Aug. 23. Bad weather dictated postponement of the Eagle Day (Adlertag) until Aug. 13, and even then it was not until the afternoon that the Luftwaffe appeared in force to start the sustained effort on the RAF’s air and ground forces.
On Eagle Day, the Luftwaffe flew 1,485 sorties for the loss of 46 aircraft. During this period, the Germans lost 403 aircraft with a further 127 damaged. But RAF Fighter Command casualties were equally serious, with 94 pilots killed or missing and 60 wounded. The losses in aircraft amounted to 54 Spitfires and 121 Hurricanes.
It was in a speech to the House of Commons, on Aug. 20, when Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill uttered the immortal words of praise for the RAF, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
Phase Three, lasted from Aug. 24 to Sept. 6. During this period, the Luftwaffe’s major effort was devoted to the attack on RAF air fields and installations in the extreme south and southeast of England, with emphasis on the RAF Fighter concentrations deployed around London.
Throughout this period, Fighter Command suffered 295 planes destroyed and 171 damaged, but far more serious was the loss of 103 pilots killed or missing and a further 128 withdrawn from combat because of injuries. The Luftwaffe’s losses amounted to 378 aircraft, with a further 115 damaged.
Phase Four was characterized by the bombing of London, from Sept. 7 to Sept. 30. The decision to bomb London was, in part, an admission of defeat by the Luftwaffe, but at the same time Göring still hoped that the RAF Fighter arm might be finally exhausted and that a turn of fortune would produce victory at the last moment.
On the afternoon of Sept. 7, the Luftwaffe sent 372 bombers and 642 fighter sorties against targets in East London starting large fires and causing considerable damage. That night, a further 255 bomber sorties were directed to the same area. On Sept. 15, the Luftwaffe lost 60 aircraft. It was further proof that the goal of air superiority was as distant as ever. Two days later, Hitler ordered “Operation Sea Lion” to be postponed indefinitely.
In the last phase of the Battle of Britain, Göring resorted to the use of fighter bombers operating at high altitude. The speed and altitude in which the fighter bombers operated rendered their interception extremely difficult. The main Luftwaffe effort, directed now to night attacks, the RAF was woefully unable to counter, but, to all intents and purposes, the threat by day had been neutralized. The crisis was over.
By the end of October, the Luftwaffe was glad to call a halt to daylight operations because of deteriorating weather conditions. It was Göring, himself, that made the decision. The Battle of Britain had been a failure for the Luftwaffe.
The final tally showed 1,733 aircraft and 2,500 air crews lost by the Luftwaffe, compared to 915 aircraft and 415 pilots by the RAF. In November 1940 to the end of May 1941, the Luftwaffe resorted to night bombing attacks against strategic targets. In the end, Britain lost 40,000 civilian dead, 86,000 wounded and two million homes destroyed.
Next week: Second Vienna Diktat