Monday, March 9, 2015

The battle decided

'Never was so much owed by so many to so few.' The famous quotation from Churchill's tribute to the victors of the Bottle of Britain is given visual form in this photomontage, c. 1940.

The campaign The Luftwaffe's campaign began on 10July with a series of probing raids against shipping, coastal convoys and ports. In addition, the Luftwaffe attacked the RAF's RDF stations, but was largely unsuccessful in its effort to eliminate this important element in British air defences.

The Luftwaffe then switched to attacks upon the RAF direct, 11 Group in particular. Air raids were now conducted against RAF aerodromes and stations in an effort to break Fighter Command, and thus gain air superiority over southern England. The Luftwaffe's tactics included mixed high- and low-level attacks to confuse and surprise RDF and observer stations, trying to catch aerodrome defences unprepared. Eagle Day (or Adlertag) on 13 August saw the beginning of this determined effort by the Luftwaffe and, by early September, Fighter Command was on the brink of defeat with heavy losses and acutely stretched infrastructural support. Plans to withdraw Fighter Command 's assets north to await the invasion were discussed, but Dowding and Park decided to continue contesting air superiority over the south.

In reality the Luftwaffe was enduring a chastening experience too, with heavy losses of aircraft, pilots and aircrew. The Ju 87 Stuka had already been withdrawn due to grievous casualties and quest ions were being raised about tactics. Goring was well aware his force was far weaker than Hitler had been led to believe, and conscious that continued losses would quickly break the Luftwaffe as a major fighting force.

The battle decided
The campaign was soon to swing Britain's way, however. The Germans had begun conducting night-time bombing raids on RAF stations, but one such attack hit a civilian area, causing the British to retaliate by bombing Berlin. As Luftwaffe losses remained heavy and the direct attack on the RAF did not seem to be working, Hitler threw his weight behind a change of tack: direct attacks upon the British civilian population in order to break their morale and draw the RAF fighters into direct aerial confrontation. In fact, the Luftwaffe had been very close to success and the change in tactics actually allowed Fighter Command to recover. Moreover, London was at the edge of the Bf 109'soperational range, often causing German bombers to fly unescorted for part of their missions, increasing casualties still further. By mid -September there was now no chance of the Luftwaffe seizing air superiority to allow for Operation See/owe before the winter, so the battle was effectively over. The 'blitz' of British towns and cities continued throughout the winter of 1940-41, but the Germans were forced to switch to night-time attacks to reduce bomber losses, and overall effectiveness was limited. Hitler's attention had in any case by then turned towards the invasion of the Soviet Union planned for.

The battle in retrospect
The degree to which the result of the battle was a product of German failure or British success is a debate that will continue, but it is clear that no one factor decided the outcome. Continually shifting German priorities was a major hindrance, but this was also governed by heavy and near unsustainable loss rates, with the Luftwaffe ill equipped for a sustained air superiority campaign. For the British, the switch to urban bombing in September came as a great relief as their force was close to collapse, but their defence had been stout and resilient and the toll they had exacted from the Luftwaffe was a crucial factor in prompting the Germans to change tactics.

Finally, although Germany's surrender in World War II was brought about by many later campaigns, Britain's determination to continue the war after the fall of France. underpinned by their success in the skies over England in the Battle of Britain ,was to lay the foundations for the combined bomber offensive, success in the Mediterranean, the liberation of western Europe and Germany's total defeat in 1945.

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