‘How did the British achieve this victory? Statistics can often illustrate the decline of one side as against the other. Here the statistics tell only part of the story.’
On 15 September 1940 Britain came under air attack from the German Luftwaffe, in the first major military campaign to be fought entirely in the air. 75 years on, we commemorate these events on what’s now known as Battle of Britain Day – celebrating a campaign that saw British armed forces succeed at a time when Hitler was dominating the rest of Europe.
The last piece in our series of extracts from When Britain Saved the West: The Story of 1940 examines the final stage of the Battle of Britain, with Britain finally emerging victorious. However, author Robin Prior questions whether there was a better, quicker way to win, and why we accept this historic victory, glossing over some of the facts about how Britain succeeded where Hitler failed.
From Chapter 11, The Battle of Britain: The Battle Won
by Robin Prior
The Battle of Britain rather fizzled out, but there is no doubt that Fighter Command had won the day. The Germans just could not risk large losses of fighters or bombers by day and so bombed at night.
How did the British achieve this victory? In war, casualty statistics can often illustrate the decline of one side as against the other. Here the statistics tell only part of the story. In terms of pilots Fighter Command suffered significant losses. Between 10 July and 31 October 1940, of its 2,228 pilots, 537 were killed and a somewhat larger number wounded. This amounts to an overall casualty rate of about 50 per cent. Yet because the training of new pilots proceeded throughout the battle, Fighter Command had more pilots available to it in November than it had in July.
The Luftwaffe lost many more personnel simply because most of their casualties were bombers with crews of two, three or four. The total German aircrew killed was 2,262. Attrition rates of aircraft add another dimension to the picture of decline. Although the Germans still possessed 836 bombers in October, this was 25 per cent fewer than they had started with in July. The numbers for single- engine fighters tell a similar story. There were over 900 available in July – just 650 in October, a decline of almost 30 per cent. No force could continue to suffer losses at this rate, especially when the aircraft were being insufficiently supplemented by new production. These German statistics reveal two things. First, the reduced number of available fighters meant that fewer bombers could be safely escorted. Second, because of the losses, the pilots of both bombers and fighters were much less experienced in October than those in July.
These figures reveal another factor that is a major part of the explanation for the defeat of the Luftwaffe – it was just too small to mount a constant series of raids over Britain. If we examine those days during the battle when the Germans managed to fly over 1,000 sorties, we find they only amounted to eight days out of 113 – on 13, 14, 15, 16, 30 August and 7, 18, 30 September. What is doubly notable about these figures is that only in one period (13–16 August) did the Luftwaffe mount consecutive attacks on this scale. On most occasions, therefore, a massive raid would be followed by a pause while pilots were rested and aircraft repaired. The Germans just did not have the capacity to maintain constant heavy pressure on Fighter Command.
One feature of the battle is seldom dealt with. Because the British won it, the manner of its winning is seldom questioned. But was there a better way? One of the great historians of the battle, T. C. G. James, thought there was. In his official narrative of the battle, written in 1944, he said:
It is at least debatable whether the Commander- in- Chief ’s policy [of retaining so many squadrons in the north] was correct. If, for example, he had packed additional squadrons into No. 11 group early in the battle so powerful a blow might have been struck at the attacking forces that the daylight offensive might conceivably have been abandoned.
Certainly Dowding was parsimonious in the number of squadrons he maintained in the front line. 11 Group never had more than 43 per cent of Fighter Command’s serviceable Spitfires and Hurricanes at any period of the battle. No doubt Dowding wanted to keep a reserve of his modern fighters distant enough from enemy aerodromes in France so that escorted German bombers could not attack them. But could Dowding not have done more to reinforce Park? Would not an additional 100 fighters have dealt the Luftwaffe such a blow that they might have called off the battle? After all, 15 September demonstrated that Goering was not prepared to take losses of that scale as a regular occurrence …