“You ask, What is our policy? I will say; ‘It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us: to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy.’ You ask, What is our aim? I can answer with one word: Victory – victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be; for without victory there is no survival.1” The Allied air forces based in Great Britain had numerous tactical advantages over the Luftwaffe. These included the use of anti-aircraft guns, the “home field advantage,” preference in mission profiles, slight technological superiority, and the use of land-based radar.
Ground-based anti-aircraft fire from friendly allied units provided support for allied fighter and caused another threat for Luftwaffe bombers. A statement issued by the Air Ministry on September 15, 1940 stated that four enemy aircraft were shot down by anti-aircraft fire by 2000 hours.2 Friendly anti-aircraft units provided an extra threat for the Luftwaffe, gave direct assistance to the Royal Air Force and were a psychological disadvantage for the Luftwaffe.
When Allied fighter pilots were shot down during air battles, they had the ability to either eject or crash in friendly territory where local residents were willing to help the pilots return to action; Luftwaffe pilots who were shot down were most likely done flying for the duration of the war. In August of 1940, the ratio of destroyed planes to pilots reported Missing in Action was 49.14:1. The same ratio for the Luftwaffe during August of 1940 was 1:1.39.3 This is the combat equivalent to “home field advantage.” The Allied pilots were familiar with the terrain, cities and countryside so that if they were forced to “bail out,” the chances of them returning to combat were much higher than Luftwaffe pilots. The Luftwaffe had to worry about one more problem that was hardly bothering allied air forces. The high Luftwaffe casualties in comparison to allied forces were a large advantage for the Royal Air Force and its allies.
The only objective for scrambled Allied fighter pilots was to intercept inbound Luftwaffe air raids while the Luftwaffe fighters had to stay with the bombers to provide escort. This gave the Allied fighters much more freedom in terms of the engagement and allowed the Royal Air Force to dictate the engagement. The Luftwaffe fighter pilots were bound by a number of other similar problems also. For example, a dogfight uses a lot of fuel as fighters raise their speeds, roll, and climb.
Fuel was something that the Luftwaffe fighter aircraft simply did not have enough of as they had to fly to Britain, engage the Royal Air Force (RAF) aircraft and still reserve enough fuel for the flight home, keeping in mind running out of fuel would result in the Luftwaffe pilots being captured as they would be over British soil if they were to eject. The RAF did not have this problem because they could return to their airfield as soon as they reached “bingo fuel” (the state at which there is only enough fuel to return to base with a small reserve to orbit). This gave the Allies a significant tactical advantage; they forced the Luftwaffe to react to their actions as soon as they reacted initially with a scramble. There is no armed force that wants to react to another and the Luftwaffe was no exception. This is simply because it gives the other armed force a tactical advantage.
The Royal Air Force and her allies also had a slight performance advantage over the Luftwaffe on an objective to objective basis. There are two major classifications of fixed-wing combat aircraft: the fighter and the bomber. Due to the differences between the classes, which are caused by their role, some aircraft are better at specific targets than others. This was no exception during World War II or the Battle of Britain. During the Battle of Britain, Hurricanes, for the most part, were tasked to intercept the inbound bombers. The Hurricane was a very efficient design for intercepting bombers as it sacrificed speed for heavier armaments.4 The Hawker Hurricane MkI’s maximum speed of 521 km/h was enough to intercept any bomber in the Luftwaffe’s inventory, the fastest of which being the Junker Ju88A/D/H/S/T and the Dornier Do215 which both reached speeds of 470 km/h. The Hawker Hurricane also had eight .303 machine guns that were beneficial for tearing up Luftwaffe bombers.
However, because very few bombers can hold defend themselves against a fighter, they are usually escorted by fighter aircraft. In the case of the Battle of Britain, it was usually the dangerous Messerschmitt Me109 that performed the role of sortie escort. Unlike the Hawker Hurricane, the Me109E1 was a fighter aircraft, designed to kill other fighter aircraft. This meant that it had a faster maximum speed of 560 km/h, which was more than enough to engage the Hurricane.6 To counter this threat, the Royal Air Force deployed the Supermarine Spitfire. The early Supermarine Spitfire Mk1 was the Royal Air Force’s answer to the Messerschmitt Me109. With a maximum airspeed of 594 km/h, the Spitfire Mk1 had a slight speed advantage of approximately 34 km/h.7 In terms of weaponry, the Spitfire Mk1 had eight .303 machine guns (which is equivalent to 7.6962mm) compared to the Me109E’s two 7.92mm machine guns and two 20mm cannons;
However, Me109 pilots did not have to worry about fire convergence for their 7.92mm guns as they were located in the upper fuselage. The largest advantage the Spitfires and Hurricanes had was that they simply out-turned Luftwaffe fighters. According to Douglas Bader, a Group Captain in the Royal Air Force, the Spitfire and the Hurricane both had smaller turning radiuses than the Luftwaffe fighters did9. Therefore, in order to keep out of an enemy gun sight, RAF pilots simply had to turn hard. If the Luftwaffe pilots tried to follow, the RAF pilot would be behind them after a couple of full turns. In March 1942, the Luftwaffe began flying the Focke-Wulf FW190 which did have significant performance advantages over the Spitfire Mk1 and Hurricane; However the Royal Air Force quickly answered by creating Supermarine Spitfire IXA which was the equivalent to the FW190i. The only other aircraft that outperformed the Royal Aircraft fighters was the Messerschmitt Me262; however it was introduced too late in the campaign to make a significant difference.10 These performance advantages allowed the Royal Air Force to control the engagement and forced the Luftwaffe to react.
One advantage that can not be overlooked in any war or conflict, World War II being no exception, is the element of training soldiers have been given. The Allies recognised this and created the British Commonwealth Air Training Program (BCATP). The British Commonwealth Air Training Program was under the control of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and was a huge Canadian contribution to World War II and the Battle of Britain. Costing Canada $2 billion11 it trained 50,000 pilots, 25,000 navigators and 57,000 other aircrew members12. After the creation of the British Commonwealth Air Training Program, Royal Air Force pilots had a significant training advantage over the Luftwaffe pilots.
The most significant advantage the Royal Air Force had was their Early Warning capabilities. The Royal Air Force made use of radar. Invented by Robert Watson-Watt, it allowed the Royal Air Force to find the speed and vector of inbound air raids by bouncing radio waves off airborne objects.13 With a chain of radar stations along the southeast portion of England,14 it was very difficult, if possible at all, for the Luftwaffe to enter British airspace without being met by Royal Air Force fighter aircraft.
This allowed the pilots in the Royal Air Force to stay in the air longer because they no longer had to hunt for the Luftwaffe aircraft; 15 they were given specific bearings based on intelligence gathered from the radar stations. This also made a reduction in Combat Air Patrols (CAP) possible because the RAF knew when and where the Luftwaffe bombers were. This allowed readiness to be increased as planes could wait as long as necessary at an airfield with a full loadout and full of fuel until it was most efficient to attack the inbound raid. The most important advantage of radar was depriving the Luftwaffe of the element of surprise, always a very important aspect of war. With the Luftwaffe lacking the element of surprise, yet another tactical advantage was handed to the Royal Air Force.
The Luftwaffe had to fight the Battle of Britain with many disadvantages. These disadvantages included the Royal Air Force’s training, the Royal Air Force’s performance advantages, and having to fight away from home on another country’s ground. All of these factors led to the Luftwaffe’s defeat during the Battle of Britain, which ended officially on October 31, 1940.16 However, combat has its price. Mary Kay Ash was correct in saying, “People fail forward to success.”
1 Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965), 1940 during his first address as the Prime Minister of Britain.
2 Battle of Britain, www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/2WWbritainB.htm, May 29, 2004.
3 Truman, C., The Battle of Britain, www.historylearningsite.co.uk/battle_of_britain_statistics.htm, May 25, 2004.
4 Harrison, Nigel & Jackson, Andy, The Battle of Britain, www.battle-of-britain.com, May 25, 2004.
5 Chris Chant, Aircraft of WWII (Etobicoke, Ontario: Prospero Books, 1999), p. 110, 161, 197.
6 Ibid. p. 299
7 Ibid. p. 222
9 Battle of Britain, www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/2WWbritainB.htm, May 29, 2004.
i After the war, the Royal Air Force released the Supermarine Spitfire MkIXB which was superior to the Focke-Wulf FW190.
10 Battle of Britain, www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/2WWbritainB.htm, May 29, 2004.
11 Bolotta ,Angelo et al., Canada: Face of a Nation (Toronto: Gage Educational Publishing Company, 2000) p. 167
13 Truman, C., Radar and the Battle of Britain, www.historylearningsite.co.uk/radar_and_the_battle_of_britain.htm.
16 DeltaWeb International, www.raf.mod.uk/bob1940/bobhome.html, April 16, 2004.
17 The Quotations Page, www.quotationspage.com, May 29, 2004.
1. Bracken, Robert. Spitfire II. Erin, Ontario: Boston Mills Press, 1999.
2. Chant, Chris. Aircraft of WWII. Etobicoke, Ontario: Prospero Books, 1999.
3. Delta Web International Ltd. www.raf.mod.uk/bob1940/bobhome.html, April 16, 2004.
4. Gurney, Gene, Major, USAF. The War in the Air. New York: Bonanza, 1962.
5. Harrison, Nigel & Jackson, Andy. www.battle-of-britain.com, May 24, 2004.
6. Imperial War Museum. www.iwm.org.uk/online/battleofbritain/intro, April 20, 2004.
7. Meyer, Corky. “The Best WWII Fighter.” Flight Journal, August 2003, p.27-36.
8. Moncur, Michael et al. The Quotations Page, www.quotationspage.com, May 30, 2004.
9. Simkin, John. The Battle of Britain, www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/2WWbritainB.htm, May 29, 2004.
10. Truman. www.historylearningsite.co.uk/radar_and_the_battle_of_britain.htm, May24, 2004.
11. Truman, C. www.historylearningsite.co.uk/battle_of_britain_statistics.htm, May 24, 2004.