The “Few” and the Many: RAF and Luftwaffe

The “Few” and the Many:
RAF Spitfire and Luftwaffe Bf 109
Fighters in the Battle of Britain
David Isby
20 December 2012
The Decisive Duel: Spitfire vs 109
“Dual biography” of the two Second
World War fighter aircraft.
Best known for their decisive roles in
the Battle of Britain.
Before the Battle, three key races,
affecting the European balance of
Race to design and fly the first
modern fighter.
Race to produce and deploy modern
Race to integrate these fighters into
effective war-fighting organizations.
The first race starts in 1933. The last
does not finish until the opening
stages of the Battle of Britain.
May 1940: Ability of Fighters to Exert Strategic Impact
The Luftwaffe’s Bf 109s won the war on
13-14 May 1940 over France.
No one but the German fighter pilots
noticed it.
On 13 May, control of the air over the
Meuse crossings allowed Luftwaffe to
provide bombing that enabled advance.
On 14 May, defended bridges over the
Meuse from air attack.
Showed how fighters could win a war,
by enabling other forces (in this case
the panzer divisions). Most air arms
considered that only bombing could be
RAF, emphasizing strategic bombing,
did not see how airpower could be
decisive by enabling ground forces.
Germans were unable to convert this to
a final success either militarily (Dunkirk)
or diplomatically (no peace).
Dunkirk, 1940
RAF Fighter Command commits home
defense forces in large number out of
reach of UK-based radar (part of IADS).
All but three squadrons of Fighter
Command committed, provides needed
combat experience (but losses of
experienced pilots irreplaceable).
First large-scale battles between Spitfires
and Bf 109s. RAF has to defeat escorted
bombers, not considered much pre-war.
RAF has to chose between operating in
squadrons (assuring coverage) or wings
(assuring concentration).
Choice becomes more important when
Battle of Britain opens (and the time to
form up the wing means will not be able
to intercept before the bombers hit
targets s. of London).
The Messerschmitt Bf 109E and the Jagdwaffe
Bf 109 was originally designed for air
defense against bombers.
Role changed with German offensive
Spanish Civil War experience – showed
other missions needed to perform.
Twin-engine Bf 110 designed for offensive
operations (longer range, HF radio,
armament). Potentially highly lethal, used
ineffective tactics.
LW had advantage of superior tactics,
good training, but way fighters used
prevented them from using their strengths
and made limitations (short range, no
external tanks) key.
Numerical superiority undercut by lack of
spares, inability to rotate pilots.
The Supermarine Spitfire & RAF Fighter Command
Spitfire was doing what it was designed
for, daylight air defense as part of Fighter
Command, part of an integrated air
defense system (IADS).
Intended to defeat unescorted bombers.
Fortunate that Hawker Hurricane had
been in service a year before Spitfire.
RAF learned how to fly modern fighters on
the Hurricane just before Spitfire arrived.
Hurricane has older design (high drag,
slower speed though same engine as
Spitfire) but some older structural
elements helps for production/repair.
Combat experience shows that the side
with the best fighter can inflict large
losses on numerically superior but less
performing opponents – like Hurricanes
without Spitfires.
Building the Spitfire and 109
September 40 – Britain produces 470
single-engine fighters, Germany produces
Britain cuts production of spares to 6 pct
of output – short-term surge.
Germans have multiple factories for 109
(Erla, Fiesler, Arado, AGO). UK 1 .
German mobilization goes ahead, but
inefficient, committed to early victory.
WW2 in air underlines importance of
industry & operational capability.
Second Spitfire factory (Castle Bromwich.
Designed for assembly line) coming on
line in summer 1940, building Spitfire II.
Spitfire production centred at
Southampton, bombed out in late
September, importance of second line,
Hurricane production.
Setting up the Battle
After Dunkirk, Britain surges industrial
production, adds pilots (foreign), improves
existing aircraft (100 0ctane fuel, armour,
some self-sealing fuel tanks, constant
speed propellers) absent before.
Operates at prewar bases, near factories.
LW in constant action since 10/5/40, no
rotation of pilots, short on munitions, fuel,
spare parts. (Limiting numbers of
airplanes they can put up in Battle).
Operates from improvised fields in France,
at end of long and non-responsive supply
LW had looked at potential of having to
wage air war through bombing (though a
38 kriegsspiel showed the best way to win
was hit ports in conjunction with U-boats).
But both sides largely improvise.
10 July – 8 August: Opening Stages
10 July-8 August. Opening stage. Attacks
on Channel shipping, try and draw RAF
into air battles where LW numbers will
RAF fights limited liability battles,
concentrates on preparing for main battle.
Germans plan for and prepare invasion,
though Hitler does not take a hands-on
role. Fuhrer War Directive 16, 16/7,
orders preparations. Offers final demand
for peace.
But LW leadership does not come up with
a viable way to defeat RAF in limited time
(October latest possible invasion)
13 August – start of offensive against RAF.
Failure to prevail sets next phase of Battle.
15 August: “Black Thursday”
15 August was to be “Alder Tag”.
Shows importance of weather.
Improvised after failures of 13 August.
Show vulnerability of Bf 110, unescorted
bombers over Britain.
Powerful blows against radars, aircraft
factories, airfields largely wasted because
Germans could not assess, did not know
when needed to repeat, or what was
important to winning the Battle (did not
focus on fighter fields or factories)
Show bombers could not survive without
Therefore, key limit is number of fighters
(NOT bombers ) that can be put in air.
Short range of Bf 109 – could cover
invasion beaches but defeating RAF
8 August – 6 September: Attacks on Airfields, Aircraft
Most intense attacks on RAF targets.
Last 10 days of August, RAF loses 126
fighter pilots (14 pct of total, 60 pct of
them experienced and hence
Germans lack of intelligence, systematic
targeting, effective doctrine.
RAF short of pilots, but able to rotate
squadrons to north.
Germans continue buildup of invasion
barges despite intense RAF bombing.
Importance of intelligence, ULTRA, photo
recon, to British.
15 September: The Decisive Day?
15 September “Battle of Britain Day”.
Germans send two escorted mass daylight
raids against London.
Neither does well.
Map shows the afternoon raid as it heads
for London over a massive frontage.
Gets hit by 11 Group “squadron forward”
en route and 12 Group “big wing” over
While RAF claims massively exaggerated,
evident to Germans that they remain
Hitler orders invasion postponed 17
September, though had been leaning
towards that before.
Transition: From the Battle to the Blitz, September
1940 – May 1941
LW has to improvise an independent air
war at night after daylight attacks fail.
Something they had invested in, why have
KG 100 and navigation aids (RAF, which
embraced independent air war, lacks).
Germans reluctant to shift to night
operations until after RAF bombs Berlin .
Shift to night bombing plays to LW
strength, RAF weakness (Fighter
Command IADS day-only).
British have to improvise night air
defenses, only start to become effective
as the Blitz is ending. Continue to refine
1944 “Baby Blitz” utter failure.
Germans cannot counter Allied bomber
offensives (V-1/2).
The Battle in History
British tend to see it as climactic action,
end of March of Conquest that started in
Rhineland, sent message to US, Soviets.
Saving of western civilization.
Germans see it as part of March of
Conquest that ended at Stalingrad, see the
daylight (8-9/40) offensive as the less
successful opening stage of the (largely
night) air offensive running to 5/41. See
invasion threat as not credible. Battle was
a tactical adjustment in a battle they win.
Germans point to losses suffered by RAF
offensive operations against invasion
ports. It would be 1942 before RAF could
achieve LW level of night bombing
Difficulty/importance of narrative.
The final “race” is to determine who wins.
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