Stories of the Battle of Britain 1940 – The Math of Destruction

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19 August 1940 Luftwaffe activities between the Adlertag and 18 August, which marked the end of the first phase of their assault, followed essentially ...

19 August 1940

Luftwaffe activities between the Adlertag and 18 August, which marked the end of the first phase of their assault, followed essentially the same pattern. While attacks were directed against Fighter Command sector airfields and supporting bases, usually only limited damage was inflicted with most facilities back in service within a few hours. Luftwaffe sortie rates remained high, reaching 2,000 on 15 August when forces of Luftflotte 5 joined in the battle for the first and only time.

For the most part, considering the identified aim to reduce the effectiveness of Fighter Command, only limited effort was directed against Fighter Command bases, facilities, and command and control centre. This was due to the fact that the German intelligence services could not single out which of the British airfields were occupied by fighters. Alternatively, such knowledge, if it existed, did not markedly affect the prioritization of targets.

The highest total losses of the battle occurred on the 18th; 68 British and 69 German. On the following day Goering, during staff conference at Karinhall, declared:

“We have reached the decisive period of the air war against England. The vital task is to turn all means at our disposal to the defeat of the enemy air force. Our first aim is the destruction of the enemy’s fighters. If they no longer take to the air, we shall attack them on the ground, or force them into battle by directing bomber attacks against targets within the range of air fighters.”

But, Goering also insisted that, in addition to the destruction of the RAF fighters,

“At the same time, and on a growing scale, we must continue our activities against the ground organization of the bomber units. Surprise attacks on the enemy aircraft industry must be made by day and by night.”

This continued dilution of effort suggests that Göring was still seeking for the best targets to draw the British fighters into an air battle. Alternatively, he chose to believe that their remaining strength would not be decisive for the outcome of the battle. The Germans were willing to believe that the strategy of Adlerangriff was working, even though the losses were disturbing. By the 18th, Luftwaffe losses from all causes stood at 350 versus 171 for Fighter Command.

Adolph Galland described the prevailing sense of over-optimism:

“The bombing attacks on the British fighter bases did not achieve the expected success. Apart from the fact that it was purely coincidental if the respective fighter squadrons were grounded at the time of the attack, the quantity of bombs dropped on each target was by no means sufficient. Runways and buildings were usually only slightly damaged and could frequently be repaired overnight. At Luftwaffe HQ, however, somebody took the reports of the bomber or Stuka squadrons in one hand and a thick blue pencil in the other and crossed the squadron or base in question off the tactical map. It did not exist any more – in any case not on paper. Reports of fighter and other pilots regarding numbers of shot-down enemy planes were also exaggerated as happens on both sides during large-scale air battles. Thus it came about that one day according to the calculations in Berlin there were no more British fighters (…)”

Bruno Loerzer, Hermann Göring, Adolf Galland during an inspection of a Luftwaffe unit in France

Unknowingly to the Germans, Fighter Command’s ability to generate defensive sorties remained essentially unchanged. German intelligence report on the 18th estimated that the British had lost 770 fighters in the period from 1st July to 16th August and that only 300 were still operational, whereas in reality 214 had been destroyed and seventy-one damaged in combat, and more than 600 were still operational.

The main effort for the following days was planned against 11 Group’s airfields, mainly around London. Luftflotte 2 conducted day raids and Luftflotte 3 flew at night. The theory was that Luftflotte’s bombers could lure the Fighter Command aircraft into decisive battle within range of the Me 109s. Therefore, daytime forces were deployed with a protective ratio of three or four fighters for every bomber.

Additional decisions made during the meeting on the 19th resulted in the Junkers Ju 87 Stuka’s withdrawal because of excessive losses. This decision was also justified as a measure to conserve them for support of the invasion forces.

Despite a similar high loss rate, Goering refused to allow withdrawal of the twin-engined Bf 110s. Instead, he directed that Bf 109s would be tasked to escort the Bf 110s as well as the bombers.

Finally, the decision not to press attacks against the radar facilities was reaffirmed.

Thus the Bf 109 force, already depleted, began to be a strongly limiting factor for the size of the German offensive. Even in a day of the Luftwaffe’s all-out effort on 15 August, not all bombers could be deployed at the same time due to the lack of fighter escorts. The requirement to multiply the escort-to-bomber ratio meant in practice that the tonnage of bombs dropped over England would be reduced, and that the range of assault would henceforth be strictly limited by the operational radius of the Luftwaffe’s shortest-legged aircraft.

On a strategic level, the Battle of Britain would become a fighter-vs-fighter battle.

Galland again:

“In those days all the loudspeakers of the ‘Greater German Reich’ from Aachen to Tilsit, from Flensburg to Innsbruck, and from the army stations of most of the occupied countries, blared out the song: ‘Bomben auf En-ge-land.’ By beating the big drum in strong and martial rhythm and blending it with the roar of aircraft, they expected a mass psychological effect. We pilots could not stand this song from the very start.

Moreover during the first and the second phase of the Battle of Britain there could be no question as yet of Bombs on England. Only with the third phase did bombers appear over England to assist the fighters in the battle for air supremacy. Until then they had only concentrated on shipping targets. This third phase of the Battle of Britain was fought between August 8 and September 7, 1940. In this action the bombers returned to the task allocated to them by Douhet: the enemy air force must be wiped out while still grounded. Douhet however envisaged for this task waves and waves of bombers, darkening the sky with their multitudes. He would have been gravely disappointed to see the realization of his strategic dream as it was put into practice over England at the time.”

Portions of this article quoted after Earle Lund, The Battle of Britain – A German Perspective, USAF 1996

– Derek Dempster, Derek Wood: The Narrow Margin – The Battle of Britain and the Rise of Air Power 1939-1940, Pen & Sword, 2010
– Adolf Galland: The First and the Last – The Rise and Fall of the German Fighter Forces, 1938-1945, Ballantine Books, 1957

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By Airminded · Post-blogging 1940  |  2010-08-28 at 13:05  |  permalink

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