Historian James Holland offers nine reasons why the German Luftwaffe was unable to overcome the RAF during the Battle of Britain…
Insufficient radio communciations
The Germans had far more sophisticated radar than the British but failed to use it. Radio communications once in the air were non-existent between fighters and bombers, leading to repeated confusion. There were no ground controllers as such, so that once on their way to England, the Luftwaffe were left with the pre-flight orders and nothing more. Otherwise, they were on their own. Confusion frequently ensued.
Your guide to the Battle of Britain: how the RAF turned back the Luftwaffe
The Battle of Britain (10 July – 31 October 1940) was the first major military campaign in history to be fought entirely in the air, described by Churchill as the RAF’s finest hour. What exactly happened, how was the battle won, and what did it mean for Hitler? Get the answers to these questions and more in our full guide to the Battle of Britain.
Hitler had his own shortcomings
Because of his background and lack of military command experience, Adolf Hitler’s geopolitical understanding was poor. He spent much of the summer of 1940 in a state of indecision, unsure what to do about Britain’s refusal to play ball. He mostly remained in his Bavarian retreat, and there was no joint-service planning or joined-up thinking in any way.
Luftwaffe intelligence was woeful and largely in the hands of Colonel ‘Beppo’ Schmid, who spoke no other languages, liked the bottle, and had barely been out of Germany. He was also a sycophant who told Göring what he wanted to hear rather than the reality. He massively underestimated British strength, and had no idea that the RAF was divided into three commands.
There was an overdependence on dive-bombing
The Luftwaffe high command were obsessed with dive-bombing and placed the future of bomber development with this in mind. Dive-bombing was fine when the Luftwaffe controlled air space and when attacking a fixed target, but as Dunkirk had shown, it wasn’t so effective when targets such as ships were moving or when British fighters were waiting to pounce. Over England, the Stukas were decimated and swiftly withdrawn.
If an RAF pilot was shot down, then provided he was uninjured, he could be flying again later that day. In contrast, if Luftwaffe aircrew came down over England, for them the war was over.
British pilots were also treated like heroes whenever off-duty, whereas if a Luftwaffe pilot went to a French bar when off-duty, the chances were he’d be treated with cool contempt. Furthermore, Luftwaffe pilots had to cross the Channel to fight, and the fear of being lost and drowning increasingly played on their nerves.
Care for German pilots was
One of the reasons that Fighter Command commander-in-chief Dowding was so worried about squadron strength dipping to 75 per cent was because he feared it would mean putting too much strain on his pilots.
The Luftwaffe command had no such concerns, forcing their aircrew to fly and fly and keep flying. Unlike in Fighter Command, any kind of leave was rare and irregular. Combat fatigue was the result.
Aircraft production lagged badly behind that of Britain. In July 1940, for example, Britain produced 496 new single-engine fighters, while the figure for the Luftwaffe was just 240. It was a ratio that only worsened as the battle progressed. Complacency, shortage of materials, and increasingly chaotic staff procurement were to blame.
The Luftwaffe was not a strategic air force
The Luftwaffe was designed to support the army, and was highly effective at this role during the war’s early campaigns. As such, it was later called a tactical air force. Taking on the RAF, independently from ground forces, was a strategic rather than a tactical role – and one for which it had never trained.
James Holland is a bestselling historian, writer and broadcaster
This article was first published in the July 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine