Spitfire and the Battle of Britain

Posted on Thursday 19th April 2012


By Taylor Downing and Andrew Johnston
Extracted from Battle Stations and reproduced by permission of Pen and Sword Books Ltd.
It was during the first phase of the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940 that German plans for Operation Sealion became more clear. Hitler ordered his army generals to draw up plans for an invasion of Britain. Firstly, though, Hitler looked to Hermann Göring to pave the way for an invasion. Göring happily boasted that his Luftwaffe would bomb the RAF into oblivion. Hitler and his generals knew that no landings could take place until the Luftwaffe had total mastery of the skies over southern England – otherwise the RAF would cause havoc to both the naval ships bringing the invaders across the Channel and to the army units once they had waded ashore.
Luftwaffe attacks on RAF radar stations on 12 August were intended to open up the RAF defences for the main onslaught on the following day, 13 August, Göring’s much heralded Adlertag, Eagle Day. Göring sent a command to every unit: ‘Within a short period you will wipe the British Air Force from the sky. Heil Hitler.’ The signal was immediately deciphered by the code breakers at Bletchley Park. But the day began almost farcically for the Luftwaffe. Awakening to heavy cloud cover, Göring himself issued the order to recall the first wave of fighters and bombers which had already set out across the Channel. The fighters had new crystal radio sets installed and received the order to turn back. The bombers with old radio sets, did not. The fighter commander, unsure of what was happening, flew his Bf 110 across the front of the bomber commander waving frantically to turn back. The bomber pilot put this down to high spirits and carried on. The bombers now flew on unaccompanied. Without fighter escorts they received a heavy mauling from the Spitfires and Hurricanes which were scrambled to intercept them.
image
Spitfires taking to the skies to intercept enemy aircraft.
However, later in the day as the clouds began to clear the order to restart Adlertag in earnest was given. A German force of some 300 planes assembled with the objective of hitting the RAF airfields. The losses were severe but had no impact on the Battle of Britain. Elsewhere, the RAF fighters did well. At the end of Eagle Day, the Luftwaffe had lost forty-five planes in action; the RAF had lost thirteen fighters in the air and forty-seven aircraft on the ground, only one of which was a fighter. On the morning of 15 August the Luftwaffe northern groups from Norway were the first to attack, heading this time for the Scottish coast and targets near Newcastle. Every squadron from Catterick to Drem near Edinburgh was scrambled. Out of range of the fighter escorts, the German bombers were badly done over by the fighters of 13 Group – fifteen German bombers were shot down for the loss of one RAF fighter. Then more bombers, this time from Denmark, arrived over the Yorkshire coast. Leigh-Mallory scrambled squadrons from 12 Group. Seven Ju 88s were shot down. Later in the day, massive German raiding forces inflicted more serious damage on the airfields and the radar stations of the south-east. The raiders kept the RAF busy well into the evening. Despite the ground damage it had not been a good day for the Luftwaffe – seventy-one aircraft had been lost against twenty-nine for Fighter Command.
German intelligence continually underestimated the strength of RAF Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain. Intelligence as to targets was also poor. The Luftwaffe never clearly identified the key industrial sites they needed to destroy first of all to impact upon the Battle of Britain itself – like the factories where the Spitfires and Hurricanes were pouring off the production lines.
Throughout August the two adversaries battled away. The Luftwaffe continued to suffer immense punishment – especially the dive bombing Stukas that had brought terror to the hearts of the men trying to get off the Dunkirk beaches only a few weeks earlier. The Ju 87s were no match for the Spitfire or the Hurricane and almost always came off worst in the daily dogfights over England. On the other hand, the Bf 109s continued to perform well.
However, the major problem facing the Bf 109 pilots came from the aircraft’s weak wings. Potentially faster in a dive than the Spitfire, the 109 pilots had to pull out of the dive sooner into a relatively shallow curve in order to avoid the Gforces tearing the wings off. This made them vulnerable to the Spitfires who could catch up and fire at them as they flattened out. And although they were supposed to be able to turn more tightly than a Spitfire, in practice few pilots were willing to risk losing their wings by pushing their aircraft to its limits. In the reality of day to day dogfights, the Spitfire was emerging as the superior fighter of the skies.
A week after Adlertag, Luftwaffe intelligence again made estimates of the strength of Fighter Command – and again got it wrong. They now calculated that Dowding was down to about 300 operational fighters. In fact the figure was more like 700 available planes. Luftwaffe pilots increasingly began to be suspicious of their intelligence reports, as on each sortie they were attacked by more squadrons of Spitfires and Hurricanes. As they came under attack the Luftwaffe pilots would joke bitterly, right to the end of the Battle, that yet again they had found ‘the last fifty Spitfires’.
Dowding’s major problem by mid-August was not the availability of planes, which were coming through in good numbers, it was the loss of trained pilots. A week after Eagle Day, Fighter Command had lost nearly 80 per cent of its squadron commanders dead, wounded or resting from the strains of continuous combat. In August, Dowding agreed to reduce the Operational Training period to two weeks – it had been six months only a short while earlier. Pilots with only a few hours flying experience on the Spitfire or the Hurricane were now being thrown into the heat of battle. There was little attempt by the RAF to pass on the skills learned by its veteran pilots to its rookie recruits.
image
In a series of dogfights on 3 September, the RAF and the Luftwaffe both lost sixteen aircraft each. Two days later, the RAF lost twenty-two aircraft shot down whilst the Luftwaffe suffered twenty-one losses. In addition, the Germans had finally turned their attention towards the vital aircraft production factories and were hitting their new targets with deadly accuracy – the Vickers Wellington factory was put out action for days after a series of direct hits resulted in nearly 100 deaths and 600 casualties. Again, a mixture of good luck and bad intelligence by the Luftwaffe meant that most of the essential Spitfire and Hurricane factories remained in production.
The climax of the Battle of Britain was now only a few days away. On Sunday, 15 September, the Luftwaffe attacked in two large waves in the morning and the afternoon. Park’s fighters just had enough time to refuel and rearm in between. The groundcrews worked like heroes to get their planes airborne again. And this time, Bader’s ‘big wing’ flying in from the north gave the German bombers a heavy mauling. But the RAF could not carry on like this for much longer. The Prime Minister chose this of all days to drive from his weekend retreat, Chequers, across to Park’s 11 Group headquarters at Uxbridge. There he anxiously followed the battle as WAAFs moved the counters across the board map of southern England. Signals came in reporting ‘40 plus’ raiders, then ‘60 plus’, then ‘80 plus’. Eventually, all the squadrons were ordered into the air. Three reserve squadrons were called in from neighbouring 12 Group. On the blackboards around the walls there were no other squadrons listed as standing by. Churchill went over and spoke to Park who looked tense. Churchill asked ‘What other reserves have we?’ The chilling reply came back ‘There are none.’ Churchill looked grave. Both men realised that the game was nearly up. One further wave of German bombers and the airfields, the city of London, indeed the very survival of Britain would be at stake. But no more bombers came. Göring had pushed the Luftwaffe to its limit.
The plan to invade Britain would be postponed indefinitely.
image
‘Within a short period you will wipe the British Air Force from the sky. Heil Hitler.’
image
The BF 109E escort for the bombers.
image

A downed BF 109E which has made a successful belly landing.
image
A compilation of Battle of britain footage.

Further Reading


Battle Stations
(Hardback - 192 pages)
ISBN: 9780850527490

by Taylor Downing
Only £19.95

The publication of Battle Stations is timed to coincide with the first UK screening of the first four parts of the major new History Channel series of the same name. Each chapter (and each programme) covers one particular legendary weapon system; the Spitfire, the Sherman Tank, DC-3 Dakota and the amphibious DUKW. The story is told from the earliest design stage, through production to its battle-winning use in a particular theatre and phase of the Second World War. The series is as much about the men - and women -…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

Of further interest...