Battle of Britain: A Duel of Eagles


Battle of Britain

The Battle of Britain was the largest and most famous air battle in history. By day and night the combatants from Britain (along with pilots from other allied nations) and their enemies from Germany (with some limited support from Italy) fought in the skies over Britain between July 10th and October 31st, 1940. France had fallen to the might of the German Blitzkrieg (“Lightning War“) in 1940 and the Luftwaffe commanded by Hermann Goering now planned to knock out the Royal Air Force in preparation for the German invasion of Britain (code name: Operation Sea Lion, an amphibious and airborne invasion). The Germans needed to have control of the air space over the English Channel to prevent air and seas attack of their invasion fleet to have any hope of success. Goering and Hitler did not doubt the might of their experienced and battle hardened Luftwaffe crews would prevail.

Heinkel He-111 Battle Of Britain

Huge air battles ensued involving Spitfires, Hurricanes, Messerschmitts, Heinkels, Junkers and Dorniers. Bombing raids occurred day and night. Aircraft losses on both sides were high.

Battle Of Britain Supermarine Spitfire 1940
Spitfires 1940

The British had an effective fighter command system and the Chain Home radar system (around 50 radar stations in southern England) to direct fighter aircraft to incoming bombers which could be detected as they crossed the coast of France. The Germans were unable to destroy the majority of the radar stations (the ineffectiveness of the slow Stuka dive bomber against RAF fighters attacks meant there was really nothing capable of conducting pinpoint strikes on the radar stations) and this put them at a distinct disadvantage (Goering appears to have not fully appreciated the importance of the radar stations in targeting bomber formations and decided they were not necessary to be destroyed to achieve victory!), but by August 1940 despite the heroic efforts of British pilots the continuous bombing of airfields, ports and shipping was starting to take its toll on the Royal Air Force.

Chain Home Radar Battle Of Britain 1940
Chain Home Radar
Junkers Ju-87 Stuka Battle of Britain 1940
Junkers Ju-87 Stuka
RAF Fighter Command Battle of Britain 1940
RAF Fighter Command

During the early stages of the campaign under strict orders from Hitler, London had been more or less left alone by the Luftwaffe,  however on August 24th a group of lost German bombers “accidently” bombed the capital which resulted in a retaliatory bombing raids by the British on Berlin.  The raid incensed Hitler and he ordered the Luftwaffe to switch tactics to a “war of terror” with mass bombing raids on cities and factories. This became known as “The Blitz” and Luftwaffe intelligellience believed that there were less than 300 British aircraft left and with victory nearing they could deliver the knock out blow by bringing all the remaining fighters into battle over London, defeat them and crush the will of the British (this just hardened the resolve of the British people to win).

Heinkel He-111 bombing London Battle Of Britain
He-111 over London
Luftwaffe Dornier DO-17 bombing England in September 1940
Dornier DO-17 bombing England in September 1940

The reality was though that Royal Air Force actually had about 1,000 aircraft available and by mid September 1940 this switch in Luftwaffe tactics gave the Royal Air Force breathing space to repair airfields and radar bases and build more aircraft. Although the RAF fighter pilots were exhausted, the risk of defeat at the hands of the Germans was now lessening for Britain.

Battle of Britain Pilots Scramble 1940
Scramble!

Now large formations of Spitfires and Hurricanes (“Big Wings“) could be bought in to attack German bombers concentrated mainly over London. The RAF had the advantage of being close to their bases, ammunition and fuel allowing them to land and get back up in the air in a relatively short time frame, while for the Luftwaffe far from home the losses were mounting.

Hawker Hurricane Battle of Britain 1940
Hawker Hurricanes
Luftwaffe Heinkel He-111 Battle Of Britain
Another He-111 downed

The primary German fighter in the Battle of Britain was the Messerschmitt Bf-109. Now while it was a great combat aircraft and could hold it’s own against the British Spitfires and Hurricanes, it lacked sufficient range to provide adequate long range escort coverage for the German bombers and the bombing targets in southern England were at its maximum fuel range. They could only stay to protect the bombers for a short period of time before needing to head back to their bases in France, leaving the bombers highly vulnerable to fighter attacks. The long range fighter of the Luftwaffe was the twin engined Messerschmitt Bf-110 but it was ineffective against the more nimble and faster British fighters and it basically needed a fighter escort of it’s own! The Luftwaffe was designed to be a tactical air arm providing support to the German army, rather than a strategic long range force and this lack of forsight was taking its toll on the skilled German crews.

A downed Messerschmitt Bf-109E - September 1940 Battle of Britain
A downed Messerschmitt Bf-109E – September 1940
A Messerschmitt Bf-110 over the English Channel August 1940 Battle if Britain Luftwaffe
A Messerschmitt Bf-110 over the English Channel August 1940

Luftwaffe bomber attacks were then switched to mainly night raids which were more difficult to intercept (fighter bombers continued to conduct daylight raids). The destruction they unleashed on British cities and people were enormous, but British night fighters with radar were coming into service that started to make an impact on German night losses also. By October 1940 with the weather worsening, losses mounting and the failure to destroy British air defences,  air superiority was not achieved by the Germans (although they came close).

London Blitz Battle Of Britain 1940
St. Pauls Cathedral during the Blitz

Hitlers focus was now elsewhere and a German invasion was being prepared for Russia. Resources were going to be required on the Eastern Front, as such air raids were reduced. Britain could not be defeated in 1940 and the planned Operation Sea Lion invasion was cancelled.  The Battle of Britain basically petered out rather than ended and became the first failure for the German war machine in World War Two (there were to be many more to be had, but that’s another story). Night bombing raids continued on London and other cities until May 1941 but the Royal Air Force and the will of the British people were victorious in the end.

RAF pilots of No.19 and No.616 squadrons Battle of Britain
RAF pilots of No.19 and No.616 squadrons

At the start of the battle, Britain had a strength of 640 fighters and Germany had 2600 bombers and fighters. Although it is difficult to obtain accurate figures on aircraft losses due to exaggerations by both sides during the war, by the end of the battle, it is estimated (according to the BBC and RAF websites) that Britain had lost over 1000 aircraft (the majority were Hurricane fighters) and Germany lost nearly 1900 aircraft (mostly bomber aircraft and the Bf-109). During the period of the battle, British factories produced new aircraft at more than double the number of Royal Air Force losses, while Germany produced only enough aircraft to cover half the Luftwaffe losses, this also highlights why the Luftwaffe could not continue in the battle with the losses sustained.

Supermarine Spitfire Battle of Britain 1940 IWM Duxford
The Supermarine Spitfire more than proved its worth in 1940
Hawker Hurricane Battle of Britain 1940 IWM Duxford
The Hawker Hurricane brought down the most enemy during the battle (mostly bombers)

If Germany had not cancelled it’s four engined long-range heavy bomber program in the 1930’s the firepower they could have bought to the battle may well have changed things. This was an error in judgement that was to cost them greatly in the following years on the Eastern Front where the Russians “simply” moved their factories to the endless space of Siberia, safely out of the reach of the Germans!

By coincidence, I am half way through an old second-hand book titled “Duel of Eagles“, written in 1970 by former Hurricane pilot, Peter Townsend. The book details the history of the Royal Air Force and Luftwaffe, the lead up to the Battle of Britain and the battle itself from both the British and German point of view (including stories of the pilots involved). It’s very interesting as it discusses not only the battle, but also the technical development of aircraft, problems faced by both sides, the political issues, tactics etc. A good find in a Seattle second-hand bookshop!

Some of the latest technology and aircraft for the time were employed in the Battle Of Britain. Extremely skilled and brave pilots and aircrew went up against each other day and night in these machines, but ultimately a combination of strong will, luck, poor judgement, strong defensive strategy, poor offensive strategy and political meddling decided the outcome of the battle.

Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.

Winston Churchill – British Prime Minister, August 20th, 1940.

Winston Churchill UK Prime Minister Battle of Britain
Winston Churchill (1874-1965)

August 20th, 2011

The Flying Heritage Collection (in Everett, Washington) is a museum of historic aircraft mostly from World War Two that are immaculately restored and maintained as flight capable. Although some of the aircraft are too rare to risk and will never fly again, such as the Focke-Wulf FW-190D-13 Dora (the only example of this model left in the world), the majority do fly on scheduled flying days each summer (which also act as maintenance flights). Today happened to be their Battle of Britain flying day. Please read on for details on the flight display.

Fw-190D Dora Flying Heritage Collection
Focke Wulf FW-190D-13 Dora

The collection is owned by Paul Allen the co-founder of Microsoft with Bill  Gates and includes aircraft from:

Britain: Avro Lancaster bomber (nose section only), Hawker Hurricane Mk.XIIA (an unusual fighter, it used WW1 construction techniques matched to 1930’s monoplane technology, a rugged plane it was credited with shooting down the most German aircraft in the Battle of Britain – although it did mostly go up against bombers, it is often argued which fighter was more important the Hurricane or the Spitfire) and a Supermarine Spitfire Mk.Vc (probably the most famous fighter plane in the world, it had the classic lines, the powerful Rolls Royce Merlin engine and firepower to take on anything).

Hawker Hurricane Flying Heritage Collection
Hawker Hurricane Mk.XIIA
Flying Heritage Collection Supermarine Spitfire
Supermarine Spitfire Mk.VC

Germany: Fieseler Fi-156 C-2 Storch (Stork – an observation and liaison aircraft that could take off/land in an incredibly short distance – one was used by the Germans led by their famed commando Otto Skorzeny to rescue Italian dictator Benito Mussolini from captivity atop an Italian mountain in 1943), Focke-Wulf FW-190A-5 (called the “butcher bird” due to its high kill rate; it was so deadly in the right pilots hands), Focke-Wulf FW-190D-13 Dora (the long-nosed version of the “butcher bird”), Messerschmitt BF-109E Emil (more than 35,000 BF-109’s of various models were produced during the war, the most of any fighter plane. Erich Hartmann nicknamed “Bubi” by the Germans and “Black Devil” by the Russians, the greatest air ace of all time with 352 kills flew a late-model BF-109G. At war’s end he had flown 1404 missions and was only 23! He would spend 10 years in a Soviet prison, released in 1955 he eventually rejoined the modern-day Luftwaffe) and a Messerschmitt ME-163B Komet (the rocket powered, cannon armed interceptor that was probably more lethal to it’s pilot than the enemy due to its highly volatile rocket and corrosive fuel!).

Fiesler Fi-156 Storch Flying Heritage Collection
Fiesler Fi-156 Storch
FW-190A Flying Heritage Collection
Focke Wulf FW-190A-5
Messerschmitt Bf-109 E-3 Flying Heritage Collection
Messerschmitt Bf-109 E-3
Me-163 Komet Flying Heritage Collection
Messerschmitt Me-163 Komet

Japan: Mitsubishi A6M3-22 Reisen (the legendary Zero – not on display, this was the plane that initially could outfly any aircraft the Allies could put up against it in the Pacific, but it had virtually no armour for protection and they were eventually totally outmatched by fighters such as the US Hellcats and Corsairs) and a Nakajima Ki-43b Hayabusa (Oscar – used widely by the Japanese, despite it being poorly armed and pretty slow it managed to shoot down a high number of allied aircraft, and eventually became the platform of choice for the dreaded Kamikaze pilots. So in a way it is lucky to have one still in flying condition!).

Ki-43b Hayabusa Flying Heritage Collection
Nakajima Ki-43b Hayabusa (Oscar)

Russia: Polikarpov I-16 Type 24 Rata (Rat – the worlds first monoplane with a retractable undercarriage, a tough little fighter that the Soviets often used to ram enemy aircraft! But it was hopelessly outclassed by superior German fighters) and Polikarpov U-2/Po-2 (a biplane as used by the “Night Witches” – female Soviet pilots who made daring nighttime raids, gliding in with engines turned off to drop light bombs on German forces).

Polikarpov U-2 PO-2 Flying Heritage Collection
Polikarpov U-2/PO-2
Polikarpov I-16 Flying Heritage Collection
Polikarpov I-16 Rata

USA: Curtiss P-40C Tomahawk (not on display – as used by the famed Flying Tigers squadron in China fighting the Japanese), Grumman F-6F Hellcat (not on display – considered the best all round fighter in the Pacific theatre of war, they mostly served on aircraft carriers and were designed to outlcass the Japanese Zero), North American P-51D Mustang (probably the most famous fighter plane along with the British Spitfire, also fitted with a Rolls Royce Merlin engine, it ws such a capable plane and it finally allowed allied bombers to be escorted all the way to Germany, it was one of the most feared aircraft of WW2 and it continued to fight on in the 1950’s Korean War until jet fighters finally became the mainstay. This particular example is known to have shot down a German Me-262 fighter jet in WW2), North American B-25 Mitchell bomber (the famed medium bomber, of which earlier versions took part in the Doolittle Raid to bomb Japan for the first time, it was used in all theatres of the war to great success) and a Republic P-47D Thunderbolt (a huge fighter plane, known as the “Jug”, with a long-range and massive fire power, considered almost unbreakable by its pilots, it along with the Mustang would escort allied bombers into the heart of Germany. The Thunderbolt was a particularly devastating ground attack aircraft also, so as Mustangs started to take over the bombing escort role, the “Jug” was more used in the attack role).

P-51 Mustang Flying Heritage Collection
North American P-51D Mustang
B-25 Mitchell Flying Heritage Collection
North American B-25 Mitchell
P-47 Thunderbolt Flying Heritage Collection
Republic P-47 Thunderbolt

Other WW2 equipment on display includes a Russian T-34/85 and German Jagdpanzer 38(t) Hetzer tank, along with the deadly German 88mm anti-aircraft gun, a German Feisler Fi-103 V-1 “buzz bomb” (guided missile) and the manned version of this the Feisler Fi-103R Reichenberg (launched from an aircraft, the pilot was meant to bail out at the last-minute! Needless to say these did not enter operational service). Again these were immaculately restored and maintained.

Hetzer T-34 Flying Heritage Collection
Hetzer & T-34
Fi-103 Flying Heritage Collection
Fiesler Fi-103 Rechenberg
V-1 Fi-103R Flying Heritage Collection
V-1 and Fi-103R

Two aircraft on display which do not fit the WW2 theme are the Curtiss JN-4D Jenny a US WW1 trainer built in 1918 and SpaceShipOne which in 2004 became the first privately funded manned spacecraft to enter suborbital flight. SpaceShipOne was a joint venture between Paul Allen and the aviation company Scaled Composites.

SpaceShipOne Flying Heritage Collection
SpaceShipOne
Curtis JN-4D Jenny Flying Heritage Collection
Curtis JN-4D Jenny

There is no charge to attend the flying days, but if you want to enter the museum there is a very reasonable $12 charge. The admission price is well worth it to see such a fantastic collection.

Battle of Britain Flying Day

The flying day they had planned for this particular saturday was something very rare to see, the museums Messerschmitt Bf-109E Emil and Supermarine Spitfire Mk.Vc, and a Supermarine Spitfire Mk.IX (owned by the Historic Flight Foundation also at Piane Field) flying in formation to commemorate the Battle of Britain (I am not sure why the museum Hurricane didn’t fly instead of the second Spitfire?). Unfortunately the Bf-109E had a technical issue and had to abort its display early (too rare an aircraft to risk), history repeats and the Spitfires had their day once again (they put on a great display)!

Supermarine Spitfire Bf-109 E-3
Spitfires and Bf-109E-3

In addition two WW2 bombers were in attendance – a Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress “Sentimental Journey” and a North American TB-25N Mitchell “Maid in the shade”, both were visiting from the Arizona Wing of the Commemorative Air Force. They were providing joyflights to those willing to pay the $435 and $395 fee respectively for approximately 45 minute flights (both aircraft were full with passengers).

B-17G Flying Fortress
Boeing B-17G “Sentimental Journey”
TB-25N Mitchell
North American TB-25N Mitchell “Maid in the Shade”

An interesting sight out near the runway where the flying day was taking place was the sight of a Messerschmitt ME-262A Schwalbe (“Swallow”) sitting on the tarmac outside a nearby hanger (the first operational jet fighter of WW2)! This is one of the projects of Legend Flyers, a group that reproduced a number of these airframes (majority are flight capable) to the exact production standards of WW2 right down to rivet placement (not a mere replica)! The only key difference is that the original Jumo 004 jet engines have been replaced with more reliable and easy to come by General Electric J-85 engines (modified to be the same shape as the originals to not change the look of the aircraft).

Messerschmitt ME-262A
Me-262A
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9 Comments Add yours

  1. Good read , I am going to spend more time learning about this subject

    1. Deano says:

      It was a fascinating battle, so apparently one sided, yet victory was achieved against the odds! Also the mistakes that were made are very interesting in their own right

  2. Always interesting to recall that if the Germans had not switched to bombing cities and stuck with military targets, things might have turned out differently in 1940.

    1. Deano says:

      Too many strategic errors were made to mention!

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