The Battle of Britain
The key causes for the German defeat in the Battle of Britain
8 minutes read.
The Battle of Britain is a vast subject. It was fought for almost four months, witnessed by millions, and was documented widely and in detail.
Let's focus here on one topic, the key causes for the German defeat in the Battle of Britain.
These causes were bad senior leadership, and bad intelligence analysis, and they cursed the Luftwaffe (German Air Force), and the German war effort, for the rest of World War 2.
The German Grand Strategy
Adolf Hitler originally intended to conquer the world one enemy at a time.
He also trusted that continued European appeasement, and American isolationism, would allow him that.
He wanted to conquer Eastern Europe first (Poland, then Russia), and then to exploit its vast resources to convert Germany, over one decade, from a European power to a global super-power,
and then to turn West, conquer Western Europe, then defeat Great Britain, and finally fight against the United States of America for global domination.
The first setback for Hitler's grand strategy was when Great Britain and France surprised him by declaring war in response to his invasion of Poland.
Hitler's response was to attack in the West, temporarily he hoped, in order to settle that unexpected problem, and then be able to turn back East.
His 1st step was to secure his northern flank, Scandinavia, which was a vital source for war materials.
His 2nd step was to defeat and conquer France.
And the result of that, he believed (and wrote to his generals), was that Great Britain, remaining alone at war against Germany, and at a "militarily hopeless situation", would prefer to negotiate
an end to the war.
The second setback for Hitler was when Great Britain, then led by a new prime minister, Winston Churchill, refused to negotiate an end to the war.
This forced Hitler to a 3rd step in his war in Western Europe, making preparations for an invasion of Britain, in hope that either that would convince the British to negotiate an end to the war, or, if necessary,
What was at stake from the German strategic point of view was that with Hitler's inevitable war against Russia waiting to start,
failing to end the war with Britain one way or another, meant that Germany would once again find itself fighting a major war in two fronts, which it was again likely to lose, as in World War 1.
Preconditions for invasion
Faced with the task of planning to invade England, the German military planners faced the same problem previously faced by Napoleon and earlier European land army powers:
- Britain is an island. The English Channel separates it from Europe, making a land army irrelevant unless it can safely cross the channel to England.
- Strong British Navy, if present, makes crossing the channel a practically impossible mission. And in 1940 the Royal Navy's Home Fleet was strong and present.
There was also the new dimension, of air war, which didn't exist at Napoleon's time. So:
- In order to have a chance to safely transfer an invasion army across the English Channel, the Germans had to neutralize both British naval power and air power, at least locally, near the invasion routes.
- Since the German Navy was no match for the Home Fleet, the Germans could only hope to sink the Home Fleet from above, with the Luftwaffe's bombers.
- The only way that the Luftwaffe could hope to sink the Home Fleet without being itself decimated by Royal Air Force fighters, was by eliminating them first, at least locally.
It meant that the entire prospect for a German invasion of England, and for the entire German strategy of avoiding war in two fronts,
depended on the precondition that the Luftwaffe had to achieve air superiority over South-East England and the English Channel.
German intelligence failure
The story of German military intelligence during World War 2 is one of continued and widespread complacency and mediocrity, with catastrophic results.
The Germans did make intelligence efforts, tactical, strategic, and technological, both in attack and in defense, but these efforts were far less than what was needed to make a difference.
They repeatedly failed to properly analyze the information they did have,
repeatedly answered or dismissed critical intelligence questions offhand, intuitively, based on assumptions, without seriously analyzing or validating,
and too often they did not even ask or suspect. This systematic failure of German intelligence also significantly affected the German effort and results in the Battle of Britain, at all levels:
- Hitler and his advisors totally misjudged British resolve, before, during, and after the Battle of Britain.
- The Luftwaffe did not try, before or during the Battle of Britain, to seriously analyze the Royal Air Force's fighter command and control system,
which was far more sophisticated than they imagined, and efficient.
The Germans knew that RAF used RADARs, and gathered electronic intelligence about their locations and technical characteristics, and during the battle they understood that RAF used RADARs
more efficiently than they previously thought, but they did not analyze the system as a whole, even after they repeatedly faced it in battle, and continued to assume that RAF's Fighter Command was sending its last remaining forces at them.
- German intelligence significantly underestimated British aircraft production rates, based mostly on offhand estimates.
Luftwaffe leadership failure
The Luftwaffe was commanded by Hermann Goering, who at the same time was also the deputy head of state and a senior government minister, with tremendous political power.
Time and again, in Dunkirk, in the Battle of Britain, in the Stalingrad siege, in the air defense of Germany from allied bombers,
and in many operational and technical aspects of the command, management, and development of German air power,
Goering made decisions based on his ego and intuition, with little consideration of the sound advise and factual information provided to him by his subordinates,
especially by Luftwaffe wing and fleet commanders, who knew better than him what was really happening in the battlefield, and were often ignored by Goering when what they told him was not
what he liked to hear.
Goering's leadership was disastrous for the Luftwaffe, but although Hitler understood it after the German failure in the Battle of Britain, he continued to allow Goering, his loyal friend and deputy,
free hand in managing the Luftwaffe, and based on similar ego, and wishful thinking, Hitler backed some of Goering's worst decisions, during and after the Battle of Britain, with catastrophic results.
Goering is not the only one to blame for the Luftwaffe's leadership failure in the Battle of Britain, but he made the key decisions, and was backed by Hitler.
The key errors and failures of Goering and the Luftwaffe High Command in the Battle of Britain were:
- Drop tanks - Germany was a land army power, and its Air Force was designed as a tactical Air Force intended to support the army's land campaigns.
Because of that, German aircraft, and particularly their fighters, were short-ranged.
In the Battle of Britain this was a very serious impediment to Luftwaffe operations, with a heavy cost in losses.
The Luftwaffe deployed its fighters in bases as close to the channel coast as they could, but that wasn't enough.
The obvious solution was to equip fighters with extra fuel drop tanks, but although the Luftwaffe was aware of drop tanks since before the war,
and equipped its short-range bombers with drop tanks since early 1940, it did not make an effort to quickly equip its fighters with drop tanks in the weeks before the Battle of Britain started, or during the battle.
They began equipping new production fighters with drop tanks as a lesson from the Battle of Britain, but that was too late.
- Bomber escorts - although it may intuitively appear that fighter aircraft should stay close to the bombers they escort and protect from the enemy fighters, that's actually wrong,
because it denies the escorting fighters most of their efficiency as fast and highly maneuverable air units.
Yet during the Battle of Britain, and despite the factual evidence from the daily combat engagements, Luftwaffe High Command insisted that the fighters should stay with the bombers.
- Attacks on RADARs - the Luftwaffe knew that RADARs were critically important to the RAF's fighter defense against them, and they obviously decided to attack the RADARs.
But instead of a properly planned and decisively executed series of attacks on RAF's RADARs array, they attacked a few RADAR stations offhand,
then quickly and prematurely concluded that the attacks were inefficient, and left it at that.
- Bombing London instead of the RAF - then came the main phase of the Battle of Britain, when the Luftwaffe concentrated its effort on bombing the RAF's fighter bases.
That put a serious and direct pressure on RAF's fighter command.
But instead of persisting with that and pushing Fighter Command to the breaking point, the Luftwaffe changed its strategy.
In response to a Luftwaffe bombardment which unintentionally hit residential areas in London, the RAF sent its long range bombers to their first attacks on Berlin during the war.
Goering was furious. His personal reputation was 'under attack', and so he decided, and Hitler supported that, to shift the Luftwaffe's effort from bombing the RAF's fighter bases to bombing London
as retaliation for the bombardment of Berlin. They rationalized this irrational decision, their most famous error during the Battle of Britain, by assuming that Fighter Command will lose
what they assumed were its last remaining forces, in air combats while trying to protect London.
Outcome and aftermath
But RAF Fighter Command was not down to its last remaining forces.
It was actually still strong and efficient, and rapidly recovered from the damages it suffered when it was directly and consistently attacked.
So when the Luftwaffe shifted its attacks to London, it suffered even greater losses, and the increased distance from its bases further increased its losses due to its fighters range problem.
Finally, on 17 September 1940, Hitler and Goering had to accept the fact that the side that was losing this dramatic battle of attrition, was their side, not the British side.
The precondition for a German invasion of England was not achieved, and no longer seemed achieveable, so Hitler decided to "postpone" that invasion, indefinitely.
Hitler then decided to shift Germany's war effort back East, to invading Russia, as he originally intended, but now it meant fighting a war in two fronts.
The Luftwaffe shifted its remaining effort against Britain from day bombardments to night bombardments,
but despite the cost in lives of British civilians, this was now just a harassment effort, no longer a major effort, since most of the Luftwaffe's remaining force was transferred to Eastern Europe.
The British people won the Battle of Britain, and knew it, and it boosted their morale and confidence.
For nine more months they still stood alone in the war against Nazi Germany, but they remained standing, and increasingly stronger.
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