The military confrontation in the autumn of 1940 became a test of strength between two rival air forces. The other services waited on the outcome. Armies on both sides of the Channel trained for the coming battle. Navies waited to contest the narrow seas across which German soldiers would have to be conveyed in makeshift transports and hastily converted barges. But none of this mattered as long as the German Air Force had not yet won mastery of the air over southern Britain. For Hitler this was the essential precondition for invasion. ‘If the effect of the air attacks,’ he told Admiral Raeder at the end of July, ‘is such that the enemy air force, harbours, and naval forces, etc., are heavily damaged, operation “Sea Lion” will be carried out in 1940.’ If Germany’s air force could not achieve what would now be called the ‘degrading’ of British air and naval forces, Hitler proposed postponing invasion until May 1941.
The two air forces that fought what later came to be called the Battle of Britain were led and organized in very different ways. The contrast was personified at the very top, in the choice of air minister. This was a difference typical of the gulf that separated a populist, authoritarian dictatorship from a parliamentary democracy dominated by established elites. Germany’s air minister was the flamboyant National Socialist Hermann Goering, a decorated First World War fighter pilot with the famous Richthofen Squadron. He was an ‘Old fighter’ of the Party, who had risen to become one of the principal political playmakers of the Third Reich. He became minister in 1933, and in 1935 also became the German Air Force commander-in-chief, combining both administrative and military responsibilities. Thanks to his considerable political weight, the air force was built almost from the ground up in only six years. He was a vain and ruthless man, a crude popular orator, a corrupt and ambitious lieutenant whose power expanded during the 1930s in step with Germany’s massive remilitarization. The popular image of a baroque, drug-dependent sybarite is largely caricature. As a commander he lacked judgement, but he did not lack energy or interest. From early August 1940 Goering assumed direct command of the air war against Britain.
Britain’s air minister was Sir Archibald Sinclair. He had been second-in-command of the battalion that Churchill briefly led on the Western Front in 1915–16. After the war he went on to a career as a Liberal Member of Parliament, and by 1940 was leader of the Liberal fraction in the Commons. He had no experience of air power (though his parliamentary under-secretary had flown in the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War). Churchill appointed him to his post on the day he became prime minister, which left him with less than three months in office before the onset of the battle.
Sinclair was straight out of that rich British tradition of the gifted amateur. As a result he was not regarded as a particularly good minister, though by all accounts a good parliamentary speaker, and a committed defender of the force he represented. His virtues, according to Sir Maurice Dean, who worked with Sinclair throughout the war, were those of the British genteel establishment: ‘thoroughly competent, completely devoted and highly respected… a great gentleman’. Sinclair epitomized that British elite of dignified public servants so much despised and ridiculed in German propaganda. Goering, on the other hand, was everything Sinclair was not.
Sinclair, unlike his opposite number, made no pretence at leading the Royal Air Force. The British system did not include a commander-in-chief for each defence service. It was a system run by committees. The military side of the British air effort was placed under the Air Staff, whose leader sat on the Chiefs of Staff Committee, where all major issues of strategy and operations were decided. In August 1940 this position was held by Air Chief Marshal Sir Cyril Newall, a career airman nearing the end of his tenure. He was not regarded as an inspirational leader. Like Sinclair’s, Newall’s is not a name that has entered the Battle of Britain pantheon. He was none the less one of the key architects of RAF expansion in the critical years between 1937 and 1940, and a keen defender of air force interests. The British system required effective committee men and military managers; Newall did not command the battle, but he made it possible to fight.
It was the commander-in-chief of Fighter Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, who gave battle to Goering. In 1940 he was already fifty-nine years old and at the end of his career. The son of a Devon schoolmaster, he joined the army in 1899 and served in India and the Far East. A keen skier and polo-player, he taught himself to fly and became a reserve officer in the fledgling Royal Flying Corps in 1914. In the First World War he flew regularly in combat, though already a senior officer in his mid-thirties. In 1916 he was posted to Training Command, and his front-line assignment given to Newall, a former officer in the Gurkhas and the future chief of staff. Dowding became a career air officer in the post-war RAF and when the service was reorganized into separate commands in 1936, he was appointed to lead Fighter Command. Unlike the German system of air fleets, each of which was composed of a mixed force of fighters, bombers, dive-bombers, etc., the RAF was organized functionally, with separate commands for fighters, bombers, coastal aircraft, reserves, training and, later, maintenance. The new system was designed to improve the efficiency and fighting power of the air service; in Fighter Command it produced an organization ideal for the unified defence of the British Isles.
Dowding devoted himself to the task of creating that defensive shield, and in the process was often at loggerheads with the Air Ministry and the Air Staff. His merited reputation as a prickly and independent-minded commander is often used to explain the decision to retire him in June 1939, but he had simply come to the end of his term of appointment. When his designated successor suffered an air accident, the Air Ministry decided, given the tense international situation, to keep Dowding on until March 1940. At the last moment, on 30 March, Newall wrote to him asking him to retain his office until 14 July. On the very brink of the air battle, Dowding still expected to retire. On 5 July, however, with Churchill’s backing, Newall asked Dowding for the third time to remain in office a little longer, until 31 October. Dowding huffily consented, but he fought the Battle of Britain with retirement hanging over his head.
The Command that Dowding led in July 1940 was composed of four operational groups. The front line in south-east England was held by 11 Group, commanded by the New Zealand airman Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park, who had been Dowding’s deputy staff officer in the 1930s. North of London was 12 Group under Air Vice-Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory. The north of England and Scotland were defended by 13 Group, and the west and south-west by 10 Group, which comprised only a handful of squadrons. On 19 June, at the end of the campaign in France, Fighter Command had only 768 fighters in operational squadrons, and of these only 520 were fit for operations. By 9 August, shortly before the launch of the full German air offensive, the situation had improved significantly. There were now 1,032 aircraft at operational bases, of which 715 were immediately ready for operations. There were a further 424 aircraft in storage units, ready for use the next day. These figures remained more or less constant throughout the coming battle.
One of the most enduring myths of the Battle of Britain is the idea of the few against the many. The official battle narrative produced by the Air Ministry talked of the unequalled achievement of ‘a force so small, facing one so large’. Yet on 10 August 1940, the German single-engined fighter forces assigned to the battle over Britain had an operational establishment of 1,011, slightly fewer than Fighter Command. They enjoyed a marginally better serviceability record, with 805 fighters immediately ready for operations. It is, of course, true that Fighter Command was spread across Britain, while the German fighter force concentrated attacks on the south. It is true, too, that Fighter Command also faced enemy bombers, dive-bombers and heavy twin-engined fighters deployed in the battle, but apart from the heavy fighters, which proved to be outmatched in combat, the bombers and dive-bombers were not a major threat to fighter aircraft, whose job it was to shoot them down while trying to avoid enemy fighters themselves. Air superiority for the German side meant defeating the enemy fighter force, as it did later for the Anglo-American air forces in their bombing offensive over Germany. During the course of the battle, Fighter Command was often outnumbered in the many smaller engagements, but its aggregate numbers were maintained despite high losses. The German Air Force, however, suffered heavy attrition of its fighter units; by 7 September there were only 533 serviceable single-engined fighters. On 1 October the number fell temporarily to 275. Early in the battle there was a rough parity in fighter numbers; in the last weeks Fighter Command had the edge.
The key to this success was aircraft production. During 1940 the numbers of fighter aircraft initially planned for production were substantially exceeded. The Harrogate Programme published in January 1940 designated the output of 3,602 fighters during 1940. Actual production reached 4,283 over the year, and rose very substantially from June onwards throughout the months of the air conflict. In May Churchill appointed his old friend Lord Beaverbrook, the owner of Express newspapers, as Minister of Aircraft Production in the hope that his energy and experience might speed up aircraft deliveries for the coming battle. Though he harried and bullied the manufacturers, it was not his urgent activity alone that produced the finished aircraft. The large-scale output of aircraft was possible only after a considerable period of gestation and could not be conjured out of thin air. The expansion of output in the summer of 1940 was the fruit of earlier preparation under Newall’s stewardship.
Nevertheless, real anxieties existed about the supply of aircraft. Throughout the battle, equipment had to be sent overseas to meet the demands of the war against Italy in North Africa. It is easy to forget that the RAF was forced to fight on two fronts in the summer of 1940, following Italy’s declaration of war on 10 June. Between July and October 161 fighters were sent to the Middle East, including 72 Hurricanes. It was hoped that this outflow might be compensated by a swelling stream of aircraft from North America, where Britain placed orders for 14,000 aeroplanes. The results were disappointing. During the period between July and the end of October some 509 aircraft were imported, half of them from late September when the air battle was nearly over. This figure included only 29 Hurricanes produced under licence in Canada, and a mixture of trainer and light bomber aircraft; there were no other fighters for the battle.8 In May, the fiercely anti-communist Lord Beaverbrook suggested the unusual step of buying fighters from the Soviet Union. Cripps, the British ambassador in Moscow, thought the prospects ‘improbable’. The Air Staff, with little enthusiasm, agreed that the I 16 fighter might be ‘usable’, at least in the Middle East theatre. The Chinese ambassador in London volunteered the services of his country as a go-between in the trade, but when Cripps finally approached the Soviet side in June, he was told to wait until Anglo-Soviet trade was on a sounder footing.
Britain was forced to fight with what she could produce herself in 1940. The aircraft available for the battle were among the very best fighter aircraft in the world. There is no myth surrounding the performance of the Hawker Hurricane and the Vickers Supermarine Spitfire, which between them formed the backbone of Fighter Command. The other aircraft available, the Bristol Blenheim twin-engined fighter and the Boulton-Paul Defiant, lacked the performance necessary to compete with German aircraft by day and were converted early in the battle to a night-fighter role. There were never more than a few squadrons throughout the battle, two of Defiants and six of Blenheims. Bristol Beaufighters began to appear late in the battle as night-fighters.
The great bulk of Fighter Command was composed of Hurricanes. The almost complete identification of the Spitfire with the Battle of Britain has come to obscure the true balance of power between the two models. Spitfires only became available in quantity in the late spring of 1940. Spitfire production lagged substantially behind Hurricane output until early 1941. Hurricanes provided 65 per cent of the combined output of the two models, Spitfires 35 per cent. In early August, Hurricanes supplied 55 per cent of operational fighter aircraft, Spitfires only 31 per cent, and 11 Group throughout the battle had twice as many Hurricane squadrons as Spitfire.10 The most telling statistic is the loss ratio. From early May to the end of October 1940, Spitfires accounted for almost 40 per cent of combined losses, while constituting only one-third of the force. Spitfires were shot down faster than Hurricanes.
Both aircraft were at the cutting edge of fighter technology. The Spitfire Mark IA carried an armament of eight .303 machine-guns, the Mark IB (used experimentally in August 1940) had four .303 machine-guns and two 20 mm cannon. The Mark II, which began to arrive in June 1940, had a higher rate of climb and higher service ceiling, but was slightly slower – 354 mph against 362 mph at 18,000 feet. The Hurricane was a slower aircraft, but sturdier. The Hurricane Mark I had armament of eight .303 machine-guns, and had a maximum speed of 325 mph, and an average of 305 mph. The Mark IIA had a maximum speed of 342 mph, and was delivered in small numbers from August 1940. Both marks had a ceiling of 34–35,000 feet.
There was room for improvement on both designs. The Hurricane had a number of drawbacks, but the most serious was the failure to supply a self-sealing fuel tank in the fuselage. The tank, positioned close to the pilot, was easily ignited and was the cause of serious burns for any pilots lucky enough to survive the experience. The pilot canopy was also difficult to dislodge before baling out, and was later modified. Dowding urged Hawker from early in 1940 to seal the fuselage tanks with ‘Linatex’, but not until the battle was the modification slowly carried out. During the battle both Spitfires and Hurricanes had their less-effective two-pitch propellers replaced with constant-speed propellers, which improved general handling qualities and gave them an extra 7,000 feet of ceiling. A more serious problem was the supply of effective armament. Although the eight-gun fighter was regarded as an advance on German models, the .303 armament could not penetrate the armour installed in German fighters and bombers. Mixed armament was supplied for the eight guns in the hope that a mixture of armour-piercing and incendiary bullets would hit something vulnerable. But in his despatch on the battle, Dowding concluded that with better armament higher casualties could have been inflicted on the enemy.
The supply of trained fighter pilots promised to be a much more damaging constraint on Fighter Command operations than the supply of aircraft. Yet this deficiency can be wildly exaggerated. The number of fighter pilots available for operations increased by one-third between June and August 1940. The personnel records show an almost constant supply of around 1,400 pilots during the crucial weeks of the battle, and over 1,500 in the second half of September. The shortfall of pilots was seldom above 10 per cent of the force. The German single-seater fighter force, on the other hand, had between 1,100 and 1,200 pilots, with around 800–900 available for operations, a deficiency of up to one-third. The German fighter force was able to cope with this shortage only because it enjoyed a lower rate of loss than Fighter Command. If Fighter Command were the ‘few’, German fighter pilots were fewer.
Little of this was appreciated at the time on the British side. Air Intelligence estimated that the German Air Force had around 16,000 pilots in the spring of 1940, with at least 7,300 in operational units. There was a flurry of activity to try to raise pilot output to match these numbers. The training system was overhauled in the summer of 1940 with the addition of three operational training units capable of supplying 115 pilots instead of 39 every two weeks. This did not satisfy Churchill, who badgered the Air Ministry all summer with unhelpful suggestions for getting men into the cockpit.
When he discovered that 1,600 qualified pilots were assigned to staff duties and a further 2,000 to training, he demanded an urgent inquiry, despite Sinclair’s assurance that most of the men were over-age or under-trained. More was expected of the many foreign airmen who made their way to Britain during 1940. By June they included some 1,500 Poles, who were undergoing training near Blackpool. Churchill was determined ‘to make the most of the Poles’, and in early July the War Cabinet authorized the creation of two all-Polish squadrons for Fighter Command. By August there was also a Canadian and a Czech squadron, but the rest of the Command had its share of American, Irish, Commonwealth and European volunteers. Two of the four Group commanders were non-British: Park was a New Zealander and Brand, commander of 10 Group, was South African.