Battle Of Britain

Did the RAF’s Defensive Victory in the Battle of Britain Refute Giulio Douhet’s Airpower Theory?

Heinkel He 111 bomber over the Surrey Commercial Docks in South London and Wapping and the Isle of Dogs in the East End of London on 7 September 1940

Was the defensive victory over the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain a repudiation of airpower theory, or was it a special case where the theory was basically correct but improperly applied?  This will demonstrate that in the case of the Battle of Britain, victory was achieved not through the offensive use of airpower but through its defensive use, in direct contradiction to airpower theory. 

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The theories on air power that emerged both before and after the First World War, stressed firstly that airpower, as a new component of war, would become dominant and that defense against large numbers of bombing planes was all but useless. 

Secondly, the use of airpower and bombing, flying over and beyond frontline formations to strike at the heart of an enemy’s cities, command and control and industrial production would result in a quick victory as the enemy population would be so demoralized as to sue for peace.  The third component of airpower theory was to achieve air superiority by using large numbers of bomber aircraft, escorted by fighters to destroy an enemy’s air force while still on the ground.

The “rule” of airpower was to take the offense and destroy your enemy’s airpower capability before he can destroy yours. 

The theories promulgated by Giulio Douhet in his work, Command of the Air, as well as the ideas expressed by American Billy Mitchell, made the assumption that there could be no credible defense against a siege from the air.  In actual practice in 1940, these theories proved to be incorrect. The events of the Battle of Britain, which began in July of 1940, refute all of the tenets of airpower theory prior to 1940.

Female Vs Male Pilots In WW2

A strong adherent to these theories was the commander of the newly formed Royal Air Force of Great Britain, Hugh Trenchard, who was a strong proponent of bombing, and had given little consideration to the defensive role of fighter aircraft. 

During the Spanish Civil War of 1937 and the beginning of the Second World War, Fascist and Nazi victories seemed to prove the theories of offensive airpower, which were seemingly at odds with Carl von Clausewitz’s statement that defense was the stronger form of war.  

A group of RAF pilots and sailors scramble for their planes during an alert at a training centre for the Fleet Air Arm. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

If the theories of the indefensible nature of offensive airpower were true, as well as the demoralizing effects of bombing on the population of a nation under attack, then them Battle of Britain, fought between mid- July and mid September of 1940 should have resulted in yet another victory for Nazi Germany, but history demonstrates quite the opposite. 

Instead of the destruction of the RAF and demoralization of the British population as a prelude to an amphibious invasion, Britain emerged victorious having beating back the concentrated air attacks of the Luftwaffe and had done so with a defensive fighter force of a mere 754 aircraft at the start of the Battle of Britain against 1,808 German bombers supported by 1,464 front line fighters. 

The British victory refuted many of the theories of airpower while demonstrating Carl von Clausewitz’s principle that defense is the stronger form of warfare, even in the new technological arena of aerial combat. 

By mid-July of 1940, Hitler’s military had swept across Europe like an unstoppable wildfire. A year earlier, Nazi forces using the combined efforts of airpower, infantry and mechanized units invaded and conquered Poland in a matter of days. 

By June of 1940, Germany had achieved in weeks what was beyond their reach from 1914 until 1918: the defeat of France. Britain, refusing to bend to the will of Germany, now stood alone, an island nation and fortress facing what had become the world’s most powerful military. 

It was a military supported by the Luftwaffe, a tactical based air force composed of the world’s most modern fighter and bomber aircraft. 

Battle of britain air observer.jpg

Battle of britain air observer.

By the summer of 1940, Goering’s Luftwaffe was charged with the task of gaining air superiority over Britain as a precursor to a massive amphibious invasion dubbed Operation Sea Lion.  It was in these months of battle, from July of 1940 into September of that year, that the numerically superior Luftwaffe would be engaged by the limited defensive forces of the Royal Air Force in what was to be not only a battle of survival for England, but a practical test of offensive airpower theory. 

Prior to the Battle of Britain, it was assumed that there was little in the way of credible defense against an offensive bombing campaign, supported by escorting fighter aircraft. 

Because adherents to this theory in Britain, the victory by the RAF over their German adversaries nearly didn’t happen, due to the adherence by Hugh Trenchard of the RAF to bombing theory.  It was fortunate for Britain that German Air Marshal Hermann Goering also held an unwavering belief in Douhet’s theories that blinded him to the defensive measures employed by the RAF.

In 1921, Great Britain had only two fighter squadrons to offer any sort of air defense.  To make matters worse, most of the RAF was based overseas.  Parliament, alarmed by the possibility of a defenseless Great Britain moved to add fifty-two squadrons by 1928 but British austerity prevented these from actually being built. 

Interior of RAF Fighter Command’s Sector ‘G’ Operations Room at Duxford, 1940 Devon S A (Mr), Royal Air Force official photographer – This is photograph CH 1401 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums.

Trenchard believed that air power was a prerequisite to military success, that airpower was an offensive weapon and the psychological effects of aerial bombing would succeed in forcing the surrender of an enemy. 

War in the air, according to Trenchard, was offensive and not defensive.  Based upon this belief, two bombers were constructed for every fighter.  Had this trend continued into 1940, the German attacks on Great Britain would have succeeded in achieving the goal of air superiority, leaving Britain open to Hitler’s planned amphibious invasion. Events over the skies of England would soon prove that it was to be the defensive use of airpower that would be the savior of the British Isles and not their offensive bombers.

By1933, Germany had produced over one-thousand aircraft for the secret Luftwaffe. However, many of these planes were for training only. From 1933 to 1935, the Luftwaffe developed a personnel strength of approximately 900 flying officers, 200 flak (antiaircraft) officers, and 17,000 men. In addition to the army, the officer corps came from widely different sources; many pilots entered the Luftwaffe directly from civil aviation, while veterans of the First World War further fleshed out the officer corps. From this mixture, the Luftwaffe expanded to a strength of 15,000 officers and 370,000 men by the outbreak of the war.

 At that time, Nazi General Erhard Milch had declared that the role of airpower was in terror bombing to demoralize the enemy’s will to resist and to cripple their industrial capacity and so, by 1936, Germany had a separate air arm, independent of the German navy and army.  It was this drive to build a massive air arm that created the vaunted Luftwaffe. 

This resulted in considerable friction with the other branches of the German military as to the allocation of funds into the building of aircraft and the housing and training of pilots for the Luftwaffe.  Goering had Hitler’s ear and had convinced the Nazi leader that though the use of airpower, as predicted by Douhet’s theories, Germany could achieve political concessions though the mere existence of a massive air force and the threat of terror bombing without having to resort to actual war. 

This expression of German air superiority was reinforced by American air legend Charles Lindbergh as well as in a report submitted to Winston Churchill in 1936 by RAF Squadron Leader Herbert Rowley after spending ten days in October of that year touring German airfields and aircraft production facilities along with Lieutenant Dick Atcherly.  Both men were given unlimited access to German aircraft and pilot training facilities, along with being flown in a Heinkel bomber. Upon their return to England, Rowley prepared a forty page typewritten report to Churchill urging the rapid build up of fighter aircraft along with Wellington twin engine bombers. 

Pattern of vapour trails left by British and German aircraft after a dogfight
Puttnam (Mr), War Office official photographer – This is photograph H 4219 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums (collection no. 4700-37).

By 1936, a distinct sense of dread of the growing German menace was growing in Britain and as a result, a rethinking of the possibility of air defense was considered. 

It was by the greatest fortune for Great Britain that Sir Hugh Dowding took command as the RAF Air Marshal.  Dowding’s reorganization of the RAF resulted in Bomber Command and Fighter Command, two separate divisions of the air force, with Dowding’s influence changing the ratio of aircraft production to three fighters built for every bomber. It was Dowding who conscientiously built a defensive network of air bases and an outstanding command and control network that was augmented by coastal radar.

Commander-in-Chief, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding
Ministry of Information official photographer –

One of the detriments of Douhet’s theory of airpower was his assumption that the interception of bombing aircraft was nearly impossible. Like many attempts to divine the future, such as executives at IBM who insisted that the future belonged to huge mainframe computers, Douhet’s assumptions were outpaced by technology. 

In this case it was the invention of radar. Radar was an outgrowth of the early attempt to build a “death ray”, a sort of microwave laser that could disable or destroy aircraft at a distance.  Instead, the result was radio detection of metal aircraft in flight. It was the proposal of British engineer Robert Watson-Watt who demonstrated the effectiveness of radar detection to Dowding and the British military that resulted in the construction of radar towers ringing the British Isles. 

Air-raid shelter in London, 1940. Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer – This is photograph D 1587 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums.

As a note of curiosity, the Germans had also developed radar that was in many ways superior to that of the British, yet, except for a few initial attacks, the Luftwaffe failed to destroy the British radar stations. The Germans used their radar to detect, locate and destroy a British bomber formation in May of 1940.  Somehow this lesson was lost on Goering, who seemed to have minimized the effectiveness of radar to direct RAF interceptions of his bombers. 

Another advantage held by the British was their use of transponders that enabled the radar operators to distinguish between hostile and friendly aircraft.  And a key advantage possessed by the British was their having obtained a German Enigma encryption machine.

Douglas Bader commanded 242 Squadron during the battle. He also led the Duxford Wing.
Devon S A (F/O), Royal Air Force official photographer – This is photograph CH 1406 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums.

By the early summer of 1940 enough of the codes used by the Germans could be broken to have some comprehension of what the Luftwaffe was intending to do but more importantly, Enigma gave the British the code for Operation Sea Lion, an amphibious invasion of England. Operation Sea Lion was to entail the landing of 260,000 troops, 30,000 vehicles including light tanks and 60,000 horses on beaches that ranged from Brighton and Folkestone to Dover. 

The naval component of the invasion was under the direction of German Admiral Raeder who had insisted that the only way this endeavor could be accomplished was if Goering’s Luftwaffe could achieve air superiority. 

Raedar was well aware that a naval invasion force would be devastated by British airpower. Operation Sea Lion was a plan hastily conceived by Adolf Hitler on the 12th of July.  This seems to have been an ill-considered response to Churchill’s firm stand after the fall of France. Churchill’s defiant speech that England was prepared to fight on alone against Germany had taken Hitler by surprise as the German feelers for a negotiated peace were summarily rejected by Churchill. This left Hitler with no other alternative than to invade and conquer England.

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According to German fighter ace, Adolf Galland, who had heard Hitler speak of the coming conflict with England, Hitler was loath to enter into war with the British.  Hitler had asserted that the English were much like the German people and he felt it was most unfortunate that this war became necessary.  To this end, an invasion plan had been cobbled together with Goering charged with a plan developed for the Luftwaffe called Eagle Attack.  It was a plan to destroy the RAF both on the ground and in the air. Goering felt confident that his overwhelming numbers of bombers and fighters would devastate the British in a repeat of the crushing blows thrown against Poland, Czechoslovakia and France, earlier in the war.

As an ardent follower of Douhet with the theory of achieving victory through airpower, Goering convinced Hitler that he could bring England to her knees, making the amphibious invasion unnecessary. The Germans were aware of England’s limited fighter strength composed of mostly Hawker Hurricane fighters that were part metal and part canvas. 

Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-662-6659-37, Flugzeug Messerschmitt Me 109.jpg

Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-662-6659-37, Flugzeug Messerschmitt Me 109
Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-662-6659-37 / Hebenstreit / CC-BY-SA 3.0

These were augmented by the new all metal Spitfire MKI that was easily the equal of the Messerschmitt Bf-109, a modern frontline fighter; however, the Spitfire was available in limited numbers with less than three hundred in operation at the start of the Battle of Britain. It was with Goering’s supreme confidence in both the superiority of numbers of aircraft as well as quality of aircraft and Douhet’s theories of airpower that the first in a series of attacks was launched against England in July of 1940. The problem for Germany was that the design and make up of the Luftwaffe, despite numerical superiority, was ill suited to the task of a strategic bombing campaign. 

X4474, a late production Mk I Spitfire of 19 Squadron, September 1940. During the battle 19 Squadron was part of the Duxford Wing.
Devon S A (Mr), Royal Air Force official photographer – This is photograph CH 1451 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums.

In Germany during the mid-1930s, Goering appointed fellow World War One pilot and fighter ace, Ernst Udet, to a position to oversee the development of German bomber and fighter aircraft.  However, it was through Udet, that the seeds for German defeat over the skies of England were sown.  Udet was by all accounts a fighter pilot first and not an aerial strategist. He was a proponent of fighter aircraft with limited interest in bombers. In fact, Udet was mired in both old as well as incorrect thinking and had nearly rejected the Messerschmitt Bf-109 because its design was so radically different from open cockpit biplanes he was used to. 

It was Udet who cancelled the project for Germany’s heavy four engine bomber, the He-117, when he discovered that the aircraft could not dive, a maneuver not actually necessary for a heavy bomber, but one that Udet was certain in his own thinking was a necessity. The chief proponent of a heavy four engine bomber for the Luftwaffe was General Walther Weaver, who died in an accident.  Without Weaver’s voice to counter Udet’s, his four engine bomber project was canceled.  

It was Udet’s conviction that fast lightly armed twin engine medium bombers were the kind of aircraft needed for the Luftwaffe.  At the time of the initial development of such light bombers as the He-111, the Ju-88 and the Do-217, the world’s air forces were equipped with relatively slow biplanes.  The speed of the new German bombers, some in excess of 275 mph, made them capable of easily out-distancing any defending aircraft.  However, the technology of fighter aircraft design soon brought about high powered monoplane fighters capable of speeds over 350 mph making the lightly armed twin engine bombers easy targets. 

Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-343-0694-21, Belgien-Frankreich, Flugzeug Heinkel He 111.jpg

Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-343-0694-21, Belgien-Frankreich, Flugzeug Heinkel He 111
Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-343-0694-21 / Schödl (e) / CC-BY-SA 3.0

In 1935 the German He-111 bomber was designated the fastest aircraft in the world and could be considered a vindication of Udet’s fast and light strategy for bomber penetration into enemy territory.  By 1936 and certainly by 1937 the British Hurricane and Spitfire far exceeded this speed. In contrast, the British were building four engine Sterling and Halifax four engine heavy bombers and had begun the design of the Lancaster, a bomber that would later devastate the German homeland.  This was also the case in the United States with the development of the B-17 Flying Fortress.  These heavily armed long range bombers carried a significantly larger payload of bombs than anything in the arsenal of the Luftwaffe. 

Despite the fact that the Luftwaffe was dubbed as a separate service, it was still ultimately under the jurisdiction of the Nazi High Command and was an integrated force that supported German panzer and infantry operations in Poland, the Netherlands, and at Dunkirk. Blitzkrieg warfare involved coordinated attacks that utilized both airpower and ground forces.  This was particularly true in the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 where German Ju-87 Stuka dive bombers spearheaded the German infantry deep into Poland.  In Spain during the Spanish Civil War German bombers acted in a support role along with the ground forces of their Spanish allies. 

Nothing prior to the Battle of Britain seems to have indicated a true strategic bombing mission for the Luftwaffe as was the case later in the war with American and British strategic bombing doctrine.  Again, part of the issue with Germany’s failure to inflict the kind of damage on Britain that was done to Germany later in the war was the unsuitability of their bombing aircraft and their limited numbers for the mission.  The twin engine medium bombers carried neither the armament nor the bomb loads to be an effective tool in the destruction of British cities and industry. 

The German He-111, the principal strategic bomber of the Luftwaffe, carried a little over two tons of bombs and had a maximum range of just under 700 miles.  By comparison the American B-17 could carry up to three times the bomb load of the He-111 and had a range of 2000 miles. 

Boeing-built B-17Fs, with the clear-view two-piece Plexiglas bombardier’s nose.
 Unknown author or not provided – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

The twin engine bombers of the Luftwaffe simply did not have the range or the bomb capacity and could not be fielded in sufficient numbers to be effective strategic bombing platforms. Prevailing post World War One bombing theories may have had merit but this depended upon the equipment selected.  What became apparent was that the bombing planes used against Britain were not the right tool for the job. 

The Second limiting factor for the Germans was the combat radius of the Messerschmitt Bf-109 escort fighters.  This marvelously powerful and maneuverable aircraft could only escort the Luftwaffe’s bomber formations as far as targets on the British coast and not much further. 

Armed with two 7.6mm nose mounted machine guns and two 20 mm wing mounted cannon, and capable of a top speed of 360 mph, the BF-109 was a formidable adversary. Unfortunately the 600 kilometer (375 mile) combat radius of the 109 made it impossible to stay in the air over England for more than a few minutes and often left the lightly armed Ju-88 and He-111 bombers at the mercy of British Hurricane fighters.

Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-363-2258-11, Flugzeug Junkers Ju 88 (cropped).jpg

Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-363-2258-11, Flugzeug Junkers Ju 88 (cropped)
Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-363-2258-11 / Rompel / CC-BY-SA 3.0

In earlier engagements in Europe as well as the Spanish Civil War, German pilots were flying against inferior aircraft and had achieved a distinct advantage by the use of blitzkrieg warfare that devastated what little airpower there was to offer a defense. In the Spanish Civil War for example, the Nazi Condor Squadron flew both the Bf-109 and the He-111 bombers with considerable success, breaking though limited air defenses to terror bomb targets.  

In Spain, Poland and France, little in the way of a credible defense was mounted to halt the German bombing campaigns.  This must have gone a long way to convince Hermann Goering that Douhet was entirely correct in his assumptions on the offensive use of airpower. These assumptions as well as German overconfidence and aircraft not intended for the strategic mission of gaining air superiority over England would lead to Germany’s first defeat. This was even stated by German fighter ace Adolf Galland in an interview long after the war where he remarked that the aircraft, their armament, the tactics and the entire design and purpose of the Luftwaffe were ill suited to the mission of gaining air superiority over the British. 

Goering’s Luftwaffe faced an enemy, that while inferior in numbers, flew fighter aircraft that were the equal of the Germansand were directed to their interception points by a sophisticated command and control network and guided by radar. 

A Bristol Blenheim Mk IV of 21 Squadron
British government photographer. – photograph taken by an employee of the British government. Image found on:

Goering’s bomber and fighter pilots faced an enemy that not only knew far in advance the speed and location of their adversaries but were able to intercept the German planes before they had reached their targets. This was an aspect of aerial warfare totally unaccounted for by Douhet and others that turned the Battle of Britain into a successful defensive air campaign and proved, at least in this particular case, that defensive airpower was the stronger form of warfare. 

A comparison between the two main combat fighters of the Battle of Britain, the German Messerschmitt Bf-109 and the British Spitfire reveal two aircraft with nearly identical performance capabilities.  Although the Spitfire had a tighter turning radius, the Bf-109s fuel injected engine gave it an advantage in certain maneuvers. Both aircraft had nearly identical ceilings and speed ratings with the Spitfire having a slightly greater rate of climb and better pilot visibility over the Messerschmitt. However, while the Germans had well over a thousand of their front line 109s to deploy against England, the RAF had slightly more than three-hundred Spitfires for the defense of Britain. 

Much of the job of air defense fell to the less advanced Hawker Hurricane, a capable if already obsolete design when the aircraft entered service.  It’s lineage to earlier biplanes could be attested to due to its fabric covered rear fuselage and tubular metal supports. Although slower and far less advanced than either the Spitfire or the opposing German Bf-109, the Hurricane was still capable of speeds in excess of 325 mph, making it a good 50 mph faster than any of the invading German bombers. 

In most cases German bombers laden with munitions were flying a good deal slower than their maximum speed and generally the Hurricane had a 100 mph speed advantage over the German aircraft.  In fact the British Hurricane, armed with eight Browning machine guns accounted for over sixty percent of the invading German aircraft shot down during the months between July and October of 1940. 

Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister, in 1941
 digitized by: BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives – Flickr: Sir Winston Churchill

The Battle of Britain was to some extent a Modern Waterloo, where the defeat and conquest of the British Isles by the Nazis hung in the balance but it was not just the fate of the British people that was at stake, but also the potential of receiving any aid from the United States. 

Many in America and including America’s ambassador to England, Joseph Kennedy, were all but certain of Britain’s defeat.  Kennedy, an appeasement driven defeatist, was highly impressed with Lindbergh’s very positive assessment of the German Air Force and attempted to convince American President Franklin Roosevelt of England’s ultimate defeat. Kennedy went out of his way to excoriate American volunteer pilots, flying for the RAF, and threatening them with prosecution and jail when and if they returned to the United States. 

The Battle of Britain would be a pivotal point in the war, not only for the survival of England but would prove to the United States and the world that Hitler could be stopped and that victory by England would assure that nation of American military support in the way of arms, money and eventually American forces.  This had come down to a matter of credibility for England.  At stake was the immediate goal of obtaining fifty destroyers from the United States.  Without a victory, these ships would not be coming and Britain would have been forced into a humiliating peace.

Goering’s Operations commenced in July with an overall goal of obtaining air superiority by September, allowing the start of Operation Sea Lion and the invasion of England. By mid August, The German Luftwaffe was sending in waves of bombers escorted by Bf-109 fighters as well as the heavily armed Me-110 twin engine fighter. It was here that Goering became aware that all was not going according to plan and the air operation was not the success of earlier operations nor was it following Douhet’s theories of air superiority. 

Rather than gaining control of the air of England, Goering’s Luftwaffe was experiencing heavy losses.  Instead of a virtually undetectable force of bombing planes meeting a scant defense as predicted by pre 1940 airpower theory, Luftwaffe bombers and their escorts were detected by coastal radar as they formed up over the French side of the English Channel. From there, fighter command’s control center plotted the German’s progress on a large map table calling out by telephone to the various squadrons of fighters most likely to be in the path of the German bombers. 

X4382, a late production Spitfire Mk I of 602 Squadron flown by P/O Osgood Hanbury, Westhampnett, September 1940

By the time the Germans reached the British coastline, defending Spitfires and Hurricanes were in a position of advantage, above the bombers and in the sun, waiting to strike. This was a defense provided by a numerically smaller force of aircraft and pilots that inflicted very heavy losses on the Germans in contradiction to airpower theory.  In fact, because of the use of radar and very accurate plotting of the speed and altitude of the incoming German planes, the entire advantage of offensive airpower as expressed by Douhet was nullified, with air battles becoming a war of attrition between defender and attacker. 

In a way, it was once again trench warfare that had been moved into the third dimension and in this case, defense was proving to be the stronger form of warfare.  This was also putting pressure upon Goering to reevaluate his strategy with regard to crushing the RAF. 

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What Goering perhaps failed to grasp was that while his Luftwaffe was a tactical force, augmenting tanks and infantry, it was a very poor strategic force for the purposes of forcing the English to surrender.  Goering then directed his forces to bomb RAF airfields and aircraft factories in what was becoming a war of attrition to grind down the RAF, depleting them of fighter aircraft.

At one point, the RAF had only twenty-eight Spitfires in reserve and while British pilots were scoring a higher number of kills against their German adversaries, in some cases two to one and even three two one, there were far more German planes and pilots than could be mustered by the RAF.

German losses were horrendous and a repudiation of the idea that aerial warfare had made any sort of defensive measures impossible.  In some cases unescorted German bomber losses exceeded fifty-percent with losses to the slow flying Stuka dive bombers being one hundred percent with the interception of the Luftwaffe’s attacks on British shipping in June and July of 1940.

Members of the London Auxiliary Firefighting Service

By mid August the losses of German planes and pilots had reached a point that more aircraft were being shot down than German factories were able to replace and Goering was not being informed of the rapid depletion of his forces. Hitler, growing impatient, issued Order 17, Eagle Day.  This was to entail a series of bomber strikes over a period of four to five days designed to destroy the RAF and finally gain air superiority. 

On August the 12th 1940, dive bomber attacks destroyed a number of radar towers with the Germans sending forth 1000 fighters and 485 bombers in an attempt to overwhelm British air defenses.  By August 19th the Luftwaffe struck the industrial centers of British aircraft and armaments production and on August the 24th began terror bombing London.

126 German aircraft or “Adolfs” were claimed by Polish pilots of 303 Squadron during the Battle of Britain.
Unknown author – Arkady Fidler (1956) Dywizjon 303, Warsaw: Iskry, pp. 17 no ISBN Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum London.

It is a rather curious thing that Goering, a follower of Douhet’s airpower theories, did not move immediately to terror bombing.  One can only speculate that as Hitler did not wish to engage in a war with Britain in the first place, that perhaps he wished to bring about their surrender without resorting to the destruction of British cities.  However, with Goering’s failure to achieve victory by destroying the Royal Air Force, he fell back upon the theory that terror bombing would be so psychologically damaging to a population, that they would quickly urge their government to sue for peace. Basically, Goering was about to employ what the RAF’s Trenchard had preached for years that by destroying a nation’s transportation network, industry and economy, that any conflict would be quickly ended.  

Earlier theorists speculating on the effects of aerial bombing such as Major James E. Fechet held an apocalyptic view of aerial warfare with cities depopulated and devastated.  Other writers such as Air Commodore L.E. O. Charlton, who had written War from the Air: Past, Present and Future, predicted something akin to a nuclear holocaust with aerial warfare being too terrible to contemplate. In truth this actually was the case with the German cities of Hanover, Dresden and Berlin and the firebombing of Tokyo, but these attacks by allied forces were entirely different in the use of airpower than the London Blitz.

Arguably, one of the greatest tactical failures was the neglect of naval aviation in the western theatre, 1939–1941. (pictured is a Focke-Wulf Fw 200 C Condor)
Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1978-043-02 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Both the RAF and the American Army Air Corps fielded aircraft that were specifically designed and constructed for strategic bombing with heavy armaments, large bomb load capacities and manufactured in sufficient quantities to allow thousand plane raids on targets.  Goering’s tactical bombers were far too few and far too small in their bomb capacity to inflict the kinds of damage needed to force the population to demand an end to hostilities.

While a great deal of property was destroyed and a good many people killed it was nowhere near any sort of critical threshold needed to push the British into a truce. Rather, it produced just the opposite effect, enraging the British population even more and bringing about the sympathy for a brave people from the Americans that eroded much of the isolationist sentiment that was prevalent in the United States at that time.  To make an analogy, if you hit a man over the head with a steel pipe, you may succeed in killing him.  If you simply punch him in the face, all you do is make him mad.  That was exactly what the terror bombings of London and other British cities accomplished. 

Four 264 Squadron Defiants. PS-V was shot down on 28 August 1940 over Kent by Bf 109s.)
B.J. Daventry, Royal Air Force official photographer – This is photograph CH 884 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums.

The second effect of Goering’s terror bombings of population centers was to take the pressure off industrial areas of the country and the RAF fighter bases. Once the limited bomber forces of the Luftwaffe were tuned against British cities, fighter production surged and included the Spitfire Mk II, a much faster and better armed aircraft than the already capable Mk I. 

This new Spitfire took Luftwaffe pilots by surprise and devastated daylight German bombing fleets with often a dozen squadrons of fighters that were alerted and on station high and in the sun waiting to pounce on unescorted He-111s and Ju-88s.  Though numerically inferior, the smaller force of British fighters tore apart the invading German bombers, not only proving Clausewitz‘s argument that defense is the stronger form of warfare but that of Sun Tzu who asserted that a smaller defensive force can be victorious over  a larger offensive force. This had the effect of changing German bombing tactics from daylight raids to night raids against British cities, and in particular London. 

Wellington crews studying maps at a briefing with the station commander, September 1940
Press Agency photographer – This is photograph HU 104658 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums.

Prior to actual attacks upon population centers within England and using anecdotal evidence extrapolated from the very limited aerial attacks of the First World War, an exaggerated impression of the destructiveness, casualties and the psychological effects of bombing on a civilian population had been promulgated. 

The first misconception with this idea was the accuracy of bombers in being able to effectively hit their targets as well as the amount of damage done to those targets. This was commented on by Hudson Maxim (brother of the inventor of the Maxim machine gun), in an article titled Defenseless in America

In the Harper’s magazine article, Maxim contended that aerial bombing would be imprecise, and would fail to hit many of the intended targets.  This assertion went against some of the apocalyptic claims that a particular tonnage of bombs would result in casualties far in excess of what was actually the case in the terror bombing of London.

Perhaps Goering was aware of the limitations of his bomber force and chose to single out industrial targets as opposed to the blanket bombing of cities. This was yet another component of airpower theory that believed in crippling the means of production and transportation, while destroying an enemy’s means to supply and equip their military forces.  In fact, the Luftwaffe was doing a good job of identifying and striking selective targets.  The RAF fighter force, as a result of these targeted attacks, was losing more aircraft than factory production could replace.  

Spitfire gun camera film showing an attack on German Heinkel He 111s. Public Domain.

It was Adolf Hitler’s decision, as a result of the inadvertent dropping of bombs on Berlin by virtue of a navigation error from RAF medium bombers, for which he ordered the reprisal terror bombing of London.  This action had an opposite effect than what airpower theory would have predicted.  Instead of bringing the population of London to their knees, the bombings strengthened the will of the population, while taking the pressure of the critical defense industries. 

This change in tactics led to the devastation of Luftwaffe bombers in daylight raids. 

To counter the attrition of German Bombers, night raids with indiscriminate bombings of civilian population centers began.  German bombers were fitted with Lorenz directional equipment with the bombers following a radio guide beam. Using radio beams, He-111 bombers flew unopposed to wreak destruction upon the city of Liverpool.  British fighters held the edge in the daytime but the Luftwaffe ruled the night sky.

The use of night time terror bombing returned the offensive nature of airpower to the sort of predictions envisioned by Douhet and Mitchell. Night missions left the RAF blind, for while radar could locate the bomber streams, pilots could not properly find the bombers at night nor could they be effective in engaging them. While these bombers were equipped with the necessary radio direction finding equipment, most of Goering’s air fleet was not and so daylight raids continued as well, with very high losses. 

Faced with a contradiction in airpower theory, that bombing fleets would be able to inflict considerable damage without suffering the kinds of losses the Germans were experiencing, the Luftwaffe turned to time-honored tactics to defeat a defender. 

A Spitfire pilot recounts how he shot down a Messerschmitt, Biggin Hill, September 1940
Press Agency photographer – This is photograph HU 104450 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums.

On August the 30th 1940, a deceptive raid was launched to draw off British fighters from the main battle zone.  It was the kind of deception used by land armies for centuries; only in this case, it was being used in the air.  It was only by the greatest stroke of luck that a squadron of Hurricanes being filmed for a newsreel had been simulating a scramble when the message came in about the real location of the main bombing fleet. 

With pilots already suited up and in their planes, the squadron had an excellent head start to intercept the bombers.  Here, tactics were being created and evolved that had their roots in earlier ages of combat.  Once again offense and defense swung in the balance, a situation quite a bit more complex than had been predicted in airpower theory. This had become a war of attrition with the huge force of German fighters reduced to 600 aircraft by September.  As many Bf-109s were lost due to running out of fuel over the English Channel as were lost to RAF fighters.

As the summer dragged on, well past the timetable for air superiority required by the German Navy for an amphibious invasion, Hitler ordered an all out assault upon the British capital in a massive daylight bombing campaign.   

German invasion barges waiting at Boulogne Harbour, France during the Battle of Britain
RAF official photographer –

The date was September 15th 1940.  The Luftwaffe sent their entire air fleet that had been reduced to just 100 bombers and 400 fighters against London. They were met by a resurgent fighter force of hundreds of Hurricane and Spitfire fighters that shredded the German air fleet.  On the 17th of September, 1940, decoded German messages said the plans for Operation Sea Lion; the Invasion of England, had been canceled. 

Goering’s Luftwaffe, failed to gain air superiority, failed to destroy the industrial centers of Britain, and failed to create panic in the population.  Everything that had been predicted by Giulio Douhet and many other proponents of strategic bombing by an independent air force had failed to defeat Great Britain.  In this case, airpower theory was brilliant on paper but utterly wrong in practice. 

Bombers could be located early on by radar.  Fighters could be vectored to their interception points by radio and successful interceptions of offensive forces could be achieved.  Considering the comparatively small number of RAF fighters that opposed many times their number of German bombers and escort aircraft, defense proved to be the stronger form of warfare, just as Carl von Clausewitz had predicted. 

While the threat of an amphibious invasion was now over and American assistance secured, Britain would still feel the sting of German bombers and later the V-1 and V-2 rockets throughout the war. 

Manufacture of V-1 cruise missiles and V-2 rockets in the Mittelwerk tunnels, resulting in the deaths of more than 12,000 people.

In November of 1940, the English city of Coventry was devastated by German terror bombing.  However, by the early fall of 1940, Hitler had suffered his first major defeat, Britain was unconquered and it had secured American aid and would soon become the staging ground for Allied invasion forces as well as a virtual aircraft carrier for bombing raids by British and American planes that would number in the thousands, bringing devastation to Germany many times greater than what had been inflicted upon Britain.  

Heinkel He 111 bombers during the Battle of Britain Unknown author – This is photograph MH6547 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums (collection no. 4700-05).

To understand the defeat of the Luftwaffe as well as the defeat of airpower theory in this case, we need to examine just how defensive warfare defeated the so-called unstoppable offensive use of airpower envisioned by Douhet.  German attacks upon RAF airfields were ineffective.  In most cases, these grass covered fields were repaired within less than two hours of an attack.  The RAF fighters could not be destroyed on the ground save for those undergoing repairs as early alert by radar had all flyable fighters already in the air when German bombers arrived. 

Drawing RAF fighters into battle in the hopes of depleting planes and pilots proved ineffective due to the equal performance of the British fighters and the limited range of the German fighters.  German attacks were taking place over British soil and while many of the German combatants managed to bail out, crash land their planes, or ditch at sea, the survivors were taken prisoner.  Since the majority of the German losses were five-crewman bombers, the ratio of crew loss was five Germans to one Englishman. German Bf-109 fighters were far too short on combat range to provide adequate fighter cover for the bombers with many ditching at sea or, crash landing on French beaches, out of fuel. 

Clearly this was not a sustainable percentage.  Lastly the tonnage of bombs delivered by the German He-111 and Ju-88 bombers was far from sufficient in order to cause the kinds of damage that would later be inflicted on Germany by US and British bomber forces. While some regard the switch from industrial targets to terror bombing by the Germans to be a turning point in the battle, the facts are that the Luftwaffe, an excellent tactical air force in support of German infantry, was not a strategic bombing force. In short the Luftwaffe achieved none of its objectives. 

German Heinkel He 111 bombers over the English Channel 1940
Bundesarchiv, Bild 141-0678 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Without air superiority an amphibious invasion of England would have been a disaster for Germany.  Would it have been possible to smash British airpower and force a surrender had the Luftwaffe actually been a strategic air force with four engine heavy bombers in sufficient quantities and long range fighter escorts?  If so, this would have been the German version of the American and British bombing campaigns three and four years later.  The answer is probably yes. 

At the very least, this would have led to air supremacy over the British Isles and the potentially successful invasion of England by Operation Sea Lion.  While airpower alone may not have crushed Britain, the combination of a seaborne invasion coupled with a massive bombing campaign would have led to some sort of surrender or at the very least an absence of any sort of a victory by England.  This in turn would have led to America withdrawing support for England with the result being a very different world. 

German propaganda photo purporting to show a Spitfire I flying very close to a Dornier 17Z[nb 9]
Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1969-094-18 / Speer / CC-BY-SA 3.0

The air campaign by the Allies against Germany faced some of the same obstacles that hindered the Luftwaffe such as fighting over enemy territory and inadequate fighter support to protect bomber formations but these issues were solved with a different approach to airpower by the Allies. With the Luftwaffe, a tactical air force was used to attempt to secure a strategic objective and failed. 

In the case of the Allies, the goal of strategic bombing was carried out by planes designed for that mission and protected by long range fighters that could fly to and from targets in the heart of Germany with the mission of protecting the bombers.

In the case of the War in the Pacific, strategic bombing of Japan and control of Japanese airspace did end the war without a costly amphibious invasion although it required expending two atomic weapons to do so. In the end, one will have to conclude that the battle of Britain was a defeat for airpower theory and a victory for defensive warfare as it can be argued that the aircraft of the Luftwaffe were simply not up to the task.  As the expression goes, “never bring a knife to a gunfight.” In the case of the Allies in Europe and America in the Pacific, airpower, while not totally responsible for victory, played a role much more in keeping with Douhet’s theories than did Germany in the Battle of Britain. 

Battle of Britain by Chrs Berman

I’m Chris Berman. I am a science fiction author, and military historian, writing hard SF with credible technology. I am well versed in astronomy as well as the US and Russian space programs. I live in Florida with my beautiful wife, and our two daughters.

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