Air Vice-Marshal Peter Dye, Director General of the RAF Museum, takes an in-depth look at the crucial role played by logistics during the Battle of Britain, and finds some surprising facts that seem to run counter to the accepted view of the Few" against lithe many"
Reserves and storage
Before the expansion scheme such reserves as existed were stored on the stations where they were to be used. However, the significant increase in reserves brought a need for dedicated storage facilities. It was planned to establish 24 Aircraft Storage Units (ASUs) able to store some 400 aircraft each and located at existing airfields (as far away from continental Europe as practicable).
On the outbreak of war the RAF had some 2,200 aircraft in storage at 12 ASUs. Early in 1940 it was decided that large hangars storing considerable numbers of aircraft posed too high a risk, and aircraft were dispersed more widely to reduce the maximum holdings in each ASU from 400 to 200 aircraft. As well as providing a strategic reserve, the ASUs also formed an important buffer between factories and the front line to cope with surges in wastage. Modifications and installations could also be done at ASUs before final delivery. By the last quarter of 1939 ASU holdings had risen to 3,600 aircraft, and had grown to more than 5,000 by late 1940.
The Luftwaffe spent much of June and July 1940 making good the significant losses suffered during the Battle of France and putting in place the logistics to support operations from its new airfields along the Channel coast. The repair organisation was less easy to improvise. Day-to-day maintenance was the responsibility of mechanics attached to each Staffel. Work that was expected to take longer than two days was transferred where possible to static workshops based at major airfields. At this stage these were all in Germany, so many damaged aircraft had to be transported long distances by road and rail just to be repaired.
Britain's stubborn refusal to sue for peace meant that destruction of the RAF was now essential if Hitler's strategic aims were to be realised. For this the Luftwaffe could muster 3,358 aircraft (see Luftwaffe order of battle, above). Most sources agree that the Luftwaffe deployed an effective strength of a little more than 900 Bf 109 fighters from an establishment of some 1,000 aircraft. This comprised the bulk of its single seat fighter force; approximately ISO aircraft remained in other theatres, including Germany, to defend against possible Bomber Command attacks. By comparison, Fighter Command could field 52 squadrons of Hurricanes and Spitfires; nearly 1,100 aircraft in total. Thus, in terms of single-seat fighters, the opposing air forces were evenly matched, albeit that Fighter Command was outnumbered more than 3:1in overall terms.
These figures provide only an opening balance. The strength of the respective air forces altered over the course of the summer and autumn as attrition took its toll. However, a look at the overall picture (see Figure 2) shows that Fighter Command steadily fielded more single -seat fighters as the Battle progressed. In fact, as the RAF grew stronger so the Luftwaffe grew weaker.
What makes this all the more surprising is the fact that Fighter Command's operational losses were significantly higher than those of the Luftwaffe's fighter force. This was equally true for the Battle of France as it was for the Battle of Britain. In the four months during July-October 1940 Fighter Command lost more than 900 Hurricanes and Spitfires destroyed on operations, whereas the Luftwaffe lost 600 Bf 109s. Operational losses do not tell the whole story, however, as accidents and other wastage are excluded. But here again the RAF suffered more than the Luftwaffe. At the height of the Battle, Fighter Command's total wastage in Hurricanes and Spitfires was more than 180 per cent of its operational losses, compared with 140 per cent for the Luftwaffe's Bf 109s.
Perhaps a better test of relative strength is serviceability. The comparative rates for Fighter Command and the Luftwaffe are shown in Figure 3. Serviceability remained fairly constant in Fighter Command throughout the Battle, at between 80 and 90 per cent. On the other hand, serviceability of the Luftwaffe's single-engined fighter force fell from a little more than 80 per cent at the start of the Battle to close to 70 per cent by the autumn. The operational implication for the Luftwaffe of the steady decline in the number of serviceable Bf 109s was significant, if not fatal.
Experience rapidly demonstrated that only the Bf 109 could provide adequate protection to bomber formations. In general, attacks on mainland targets required a 2: I fighter: bomber ratio, and sometimes as high as 3: I. With only 600-700 Bf 109s available daily for offensive operations, the attacking force was limited to no more than 250-300 bombers out of a total strength of some 1,800. Quite simply, the number of Bf 109s available for escort duties determined the Luftwaffe's offensive capability.
Although great emphasis has been placed on the shortage of pilots faced by Fighter Command, the Luftwaffe suffered equally, if not more, from the impact of wastage. Fighter Command's pilot casualties reached a little more than 20 per cent in August and September, but with some 260 pilots (albeit inexperienced) being produced each month from the Operational Training Units, the situation was unlikely to become desperate. In fact, as Figure 4 indicates, Fighter Command started with a distinct advantage in pilot numbers that only increased as the Battle progressed. This situation largely arose from the Luftwaffe's systematic neglect of training; a situation that only worsened as the war progressed.
Wastage vs. production
In operational terms, Fighter Command significantly outperformed the Luftwaffe. A comparison of day-fighter sorties between the respective air forces (Figure 5) indicates that it was able to generate up to as much as four times the weekly sortie rate of the Luftwaffe. At the height of the Battle, Fighter Command's Spitfires and Hurricanes flew 1,000 sorties per week more than the Luftwaffe's Bf 109s.
Fighter Command clearly possessed an increasing advantage in single-seat fighters as the campaign continued, notwithstanding higher aircraft and pilot attrition. How was this achieved?
The simple answer is that wastage never exceeded production. Deliveries to the operational squadrons actually exceeded wastage throughout the Battle. This disguises, however, the crucial role played by the CRO. Al though the sustained efforts of the aircraft industry were vital in sustaining the front line, repair provided nearly 50 per cent of the total output received by the operational squadrons, as Figure 6 illustrates. At the height of the fighting the CRO was achieving repair turnaround times of less than six weeks for fighters. The Luftwaffe had no capability on this scale. In fact, until as late as 1942, repair output was no more than 25 per cent of production.
By October 1940, after three months' steady attrition, Fighter Command's front line stood at some 98 per cent of its established strength, slightly higher than when the Battle opened. By comparison, the Luftwaffe fighter force had fallen from 95 to 82 per cent of established strength.