Thursday, February 19, 2015

Who Won the Battle of Britain

By Jon Lake

Everyone 'knows' that the Battle of Britain marked a historic victory for the RAF, and a humiliating defeat for the Luftwaffe. This is, however, a dangerously simplistic conclusion. Long after the end of the Battle, German aircraft were able to operate over Britain, attacking targets with virtual impunity. The Luftwaffe had been unable to achieve the air supremacy required for an invasion, and admittedly failed to crush its enemy. But at the same time the RAF had similarly failed to destroy the Luftwaffe, and was unable to win complete control of its own airspace.

In the end, Fighter Command achieved its stated (and relatively modest) aim by surviving intact long enough to keep Britain in the war and to deny Hitler any chance of invading, while the Luftwaffe failed to achieve its more ambitious aims. In that sense, at least, the RAF 'won' the Battle. An official Luftwaffe report on the Battle concluded gloomily that the 'enemy's power of resistance was stronger than the means of attack', and even dismissed claims that the effect of the Blitz on civilian morale had been worthwhile. It noted Allied reports claiming that the Battle of Britain had changed the course of the war, and acknowledged Allied assessments of why the Luftwaffe failed - 'Insufficient defensive power and bombload of German bombers' and 'fragmentation of effort' with 'insufficient follow-up to attacks on specific targets'.

A study of the overall numbers of aircraft downed and aircrew lost on each side would also support the verdict of a British victory, though the German single-engined fighters (despite operating at the end of their range) more than held their own, and could arguably have been said to have won their part of the battle.

Some serious historians have concluded that the Battle of Britain marked the beginning of the end for Germany, confidently stating that the Luftwaffe never again mounted a serious challenge to Allied superiority in the air. This at least is extremely questionable, even if we accept that the Battle of Britain marked a victory for the RAF.

No-one can seriously claim that the RAF's disastrous probing raids of 1941 and 1942 (and especially the wasteful fiasco that was Dieppe) were anything but a long-running and costly defeat for the RAE Some German historians have argued that there was no Battle of Britain (at least as defined by the British), and that the air campaign against Britain continued throughout the Blitz of 1941 until the invasion of Russia. By including the RAF's own bomber losses throughout this longer period, and by adding in the heavy losses over France in May 1940 and in early 1941, some have even claimed a massive victory. In late 1940, the official German propaganda was that Britain was beaten, needing only a coup de grace - patently an exaggeration, if not actually untrue. When von Ribbentrop made this claim to Molotov, his Russian counterpart, the Soviet Foreign Minister retorted that 'one should not speak of victory when British bombs are still falling on Berlin!'

Whatever the various historical angles, there was a very definite and distinctive battle for air superiority over southern England in the summer of 1940, and this was very different in extent and character from the sporadic raiding and night bombing which followed it. And while the RAF did not manage to destroy the Luftwaffe, it did prevent the Germans from gaining air supremacy over Britain, and did impose such high costs that daylight bombing by massed formations had to be abandoned. If the threat of invasion was ever more than a heavily crafted illusion, then the RAF prevented that from happening too, and kept Britain in the war. At the very least it represented a modest and partial victory for Britain. It gave a glimpse of what was possible, opening a chink in the myth of Nazi invulnerability, and almost certainly saved Britain from the same fate as France.

But it was not without cost, with 515 fighter pilots killed, and many more seriously wounded, while the loss of aircraft was also staggering. Hitler's bombers caused massive damage to British cities, and had an appreciable effect on short-term production figures. Many civilians lost their lives, while the concentration on home defence may have sowed the seeds of later British defeat in the Balkans and Far East. The Royal Navy's withdrawal of destroyers from convoy escort duties to await an invasion also cost the Merchant Navy huge casualties from U-boats and the Luftwaffe. However, the Battle of Britain can be seen to have turned the tide of the war. There were, admittedly, further defeats to come for the British, but the Battle of Britain kept the United Kingdom, its dominions and empire in the war. This in turn forced Hitler to fight a war on two fronts, and it was the subsequent overstretch on resources that was to eventually bring total defeat for the Third Reich.

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