Described by prime minister Winston Churchill as the RAF’s finest hour, the Battle of Britain was the first major military campaign in history to be fought entirely in the air. It was one of Britain’s most important victories of the Second World War and prevented Germany from invading Britain.
Here, Swedish historian Christer Bergström dispels six myths that still surround the epic World War Two battle – from the role of Bomber Command and the competence of the Luftwaffe’s commander Hermann Göring, to the flying skills of the German and British fighter pilots who fought the battle for the skies. Writing for History Extra, the author of The Battle of Britain – an Epic Conflict Revisited separates facts from fiction…
Myth: The Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göring was incompetent
According to popular perception, the commander of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Göring (aka Goering), was a totally incompetent commander, whose unfortunate decisions placed the Luftwaffe in an unnecessarily difficult position. Certainly, he was a ruthless Nazi who eventually amassed a huge list of crimes against humanity. However, the widespread image of him as a thoroughly incompetent air force commander needs to be corrected.
At the beginning of the Second World War, the Luftwaffe, the most effective air force in the world, was, after all, Göring’s very personal creation. Admittedly, not everything about the Luftwaffe was a result to Göring’s accomplishments, but he had the ability to put the right man in the right place, and he was more open to new, revolutionary ideas than many of his younger subordinates.
Göring realised early the benefits of new types of combat aviation, such as dive-bombers and long-range fighter escort. As one of the first air force commanders in the world he also took the initiative to create a specialised night-fighter force: early in the war, he ordered a couple of fighter units to begin night-fighter experiments. The twin-engined Messerschmitt Bf 110 proved to be the aircraft best suited for this task, and in June 1940 Göring decided to redesign the fighter wing I./ZG 1 under Hauptmann Wolfgang Falck to become the first regular night-fighter unit, NJG 1.
Hermann Göring also had an inspiring effect on his subordinates. Hans-Jürgen Stumpff, who commanded Luftflotte 5 during the Battle of Britain, described Göring as a man “with a tremendous strength; he was full of bright ideas. After each meeting with him you felt strongly inspired and filled with energy”.
Myth: Hermann Göring ruined the German possibilities to win the battle by turning the attention against London
It is a fact that just when RAF fighter command was on the brink of destruction as a result of German air raids against its ground organisation, the Germans shifted focus and started to bomb London instead. This took place on 7 September 1940, and it gave the RAF a ‘breather’, which was used to repair the destroyed installations. When fighter command met the Luftwaffe in force again, on 15 September, the result was the decisive victory that compelled Hitler to cancel the planned invasion of Great Britain.
17 March 1938: German Fuhrer Adolf Hitler, left, and Hermann Göring watch a parade honouring Hitler while standing on a balcony at the Chancellory, Berlin, Germany. Hitler had just annexed Austria in the Anschluss. (Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images)
Hermann Göring has often received the blame for this change in tactic. But a study of first-hand sources show that no one was more staunchly opposed than him to shifting the air offensive towards London.
Myth: Bomber command played a minor role in the Battle of Britain
Winston Churchill’s speech in the British parliament on 20 August 1940 is well known: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. All hearts go out to the fighter pilots, whose brilliant actions we see with our own eyes day after day.”
However, precisely what Churchill immediately afterwards asked us not to forget has been largely omitted in historiography on the Battle of Britain: “But we must never forget that all the time, night after night, month after month, our bomber squadrons travel far into Germany, find their targets in the darkness by the highest navigational skill, aim their attacks, often under the heaviest fire, often with serious loss, with deliberate careful discrimination, and inflict shattering blows upon the whole of the technical and war-making structure of the Nazi power.”
In fact, had it not been for the British bombings of Berlin from late August 1940 and onward, the Battle of Britain might have ended quite differently. The small-scale Berlin raids in 1940, carried out by a handful of bombers with totally inadequate navigational equipment, have been regarded as more or less meaningless pinpricks. But this disregards the main object of warfare: to destroy the enemy’s fighting spirit.
Winston Churchill inspects bomb damage caused by Luftwaffe night raids in Ramsgate, Kent, on 28 August 1940. Eight days previously he had delivered his famous speech in parliament. (Photo by Capt. Horton/ IWM via Getty Images)
On 1 September 1940, American correspondent William Shirer (the US was, at that time, still a neutral country) wrote in his diary in Berlin: “The main effect of a week of constant British night bombings has been to spread great disillusionment among the people here and sow doubt in their minds. One said to me today: ‘I’ll never believe another thing they say. If they’ve lied about the raids in the rest of Germany as they have about the ones on Berlin, then it must have been pretty bad there.’”
The direct effect of these ‘pinprick’ raids was that Hitler ordered the Luftwaffe to stop attacking RAF fighter command’s ground organisation and instead start bombing London. It is commonly accepted that this was what saved fighter command from annihilation.
But RAF bomber command contributed to the victory in several other ways too. Through incessant nocturnal harassment raids, the RAF bombers disturbed the sleep of the German airmen, which – according to German reports – had serious consequences. The RAF bombers also wrought a great deal of havoc among the barges that made up the German invasion fleet, and, not least, helped to raise spirits among the hard-pressed British population.
Myth: The twin-engined Messerschmitt Bf 110 was worthless as a fighter
Beginning in early September 1940, some German air units equipped with the twin-engined fighter plane Messerschmitt Bf 110 were withdrawn from the English Channel to be used as night fighters. Sometimes this has been regarded as a ‘degradation’ of the Bf 110.
In fact, under heavy pressure from Hitler and the German population to put an end to the night raids against Berlin and other German cities, Göring chose to use his very best fighter plane, the Bf 110.
This should come as a surprise to many, because a fairly common notion is that the Bf 110 didn’t suffice as a day fighter; that it performed poorly in combat; and because of this had to be assigned with fighter escorts of single-engined Bf 109s. However, none of this stands up to closer scrutiny.
The twin-engined, long-range fighter Bf 110 was the result of the war games conducted under Göring’s supervision in the winter of 1933/34. These showed that the prevailing view by then that “the bombers will always get through” – the notion that regardless of intercepting fighters and air defence a sufficient number of bombers always would get through to their assigned targets, where they were expected to cause enormous damage – was incorrect.
c1940: Four German Messerschmitts BF 110 in flight. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
In the summer of 1934, the leadership of the still secret Luftwaffe presented a study that suggested what at that time was quite revolutionary: a twin-engined fighter, heavily armed with automatic cannons as well as machine guns, to protect the bombers against enemy fighter interception. The idea was to dispatch these twin-engined fighter aircraft in advance, at a high altitude over the intended bombing target area, to clear the air of enemy fighters before the bombers arrived.
In fact, when used in that way, the Messerschmitt Bf 110 was quite successful. Actually, the Bf 110 appears to have had a better ratio of shot down enemy aircraft to own combat losses than any other fighter type during the Battle of Britain. Yet in most accounts of the Battle of Britain, the accomplishments of the Bf 110 have been nearly totally neglected (although admittedly this is largely a result of the inaccessibility of sources on this aircraft). Investigations of the available material have enabled a completely different picture to be drawn of the Bf 110 during the Battle of Britain.
Bf 110 fighter units sustained some very heavy losses on various occasions. In most cases, however, this was when the Bf 110 fighters were ordered to fly slow, close-escort missions to German bombers. In those cases, there was no difference between what the Bf 110 suffered and what the Bf 109 suffered. There are numerous cases where Bf 109 units were absolutely thrashed by RAF fighters because they had to fly on foolishly slow close-escort missions. In this way, Bf 110-equipped I./ZG 26 lost six aircraft over the North Sea on 15 August 1940, just as Bf 109-equipped I./JG 77 lost five aircraft on 31 August 1940, to pick just two examples.
Myth: Göring despised the German fighters
Göring has been accused of advocating these slow-flying, close escort missions. In reality, as protocols from Luftwaffe conferences show, things were exactly the opposite. No one advocated the German fighters to be unleashed on free hunting – where they were most effective – more strongly than Hermann Göring. The people who ordered the fighters to fly these close-escort missions were the commanders at the English Channel.
Göring, in fact, favoured the fighter pilots, quite contrary to what many of them have stated after the war, and he heaped medals and awards on them as with no other pilots.
Myth: The German Bf 109 pilots were absolutely superior to the RAF’s fighter pilots
In recent years, it has been popular to revise the Battle of Britain in a way that gives the impression that the German Bf 109 pilots were absolutely superior to the RAF’s fighter pilots. Of course, some of the most experienced Luftwaffe pilots – such as Adolf Galland and Werner Mölders – had accumulated a far greater experience than most RAF pilots. But a comparison between British and German pilot training shows that they were of about equal standard.
What, however, is fairly clear when one compares RAF fighter pilots with German airmen during the Battle of Britain is that the RAF pilots generally fought with a greater stamina than many of their opponents. While it was not uncommon to see a dozen RAF pilots climb to intercept a many times larger German formation in their relatively obsolete Hurricanes, whole German bomber formations could jettison their bombs when RAF fighters appeared, or German fighter pilots would be satisfied with one gunnery run at a British formation. There also were several cases when RAF pilots deliberately rammed an enemy aircraft.
By comparing RAF fighter losses with the number of lost Bf 109s, some writers have in recent times drawn the erroneous conclusion that the Bf 109 units on average shot down two RAF planes for each own loss. By revealing the number of RAF aircraft that were shot down by Bf 110s, this conclusion proves to be utterly false.
The ‘revisionist’ version of the Battle of Britain, according to which the courage and efforts made by the RAF airmen is ‘exaggerated’, also does not stand up to scrutiny. It is beyond any doubt that without the unparalleled courage and efforts by ‘The Few’, and the contribution made by the RAF bomber crews, the Battle of Britain would not have been won.
Christer Bergström is the author of several highly acclaimed Second World War and aviation books, such as The Battle of Britain – an Epic Conflict Revisited (Casemate UK, 2015) and Black Cross/Red Star: Operation Barbarossa 1941 v. 1: The Air War Over the Eastern Front (Pacific Military History, 2000).
To find out more about the author, visit www.begrstrombooks.se
This article was first published by History Extra in October 2015