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, invade Britain. 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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

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:

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.

Related essays:
Hermann Goering (6 minutes read)
World War 2 RADAR (6 minutes read)
Turning Points In World War 2 (6 minutes read)
When Did Hitler Lose The War ? (7 minutes read)
World War 2 Bombers (7 minutes read)

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