From the bookshelf: ‘To defeat the few’
31 Aug 2021|

The Battle of Britain was the attempt by Hitler’s Luftwaffe in August and September 1940 to neutralise the island nation’s air defences. The aim was to achieve German air superiority over the English Channel and Southeast England in advance of launching a cross-channel invasion. One could be forgiven for asking whether we really need another book about the ‘battle’ (which was really a campaign). After all, never in the field of human conflict has so much been written by so many about so few. But the authors of this new work, Douglas C. Dildy and Paul F. Crickmore, manage to find a new angle.

Perhaps surprisingly, they seem to be the first (at least in English) to update a point of view that is almost 80 years old. In 1943, the Air Historical Branch of the Royal Air Force compiled a narrative of events during the battle, while memories were relatively fresh and British data was readily available. At the time, the lead author noted that there was a ‘requirement to refine his work once access to German records becomes possible’. To defeat the few: the Luftwaffe’s campaign to destroy RAF fighter command, August–September 1940 does just that, drawing on German archives to provide a much more balanced blow-by-blow account of the world’s first major strategic air campaign than the many books focusing mainly on the RAF’s experience.

Co-author Dildy brings a career US Air Force officer’s perspective to the subject and analyses the battle in modern terms. For example, he emphasises the groundbreaking nature of the British ‘integrated air defence network’, which included a series of coastal radar sites, ground-based observers and the radio command-and-control network. Similarly, the German offensive is described at various stages in terms of ‘offensive counter air’ and ‘destruction of enemy air defences’. The advantage of using modern language is that it makes the key events and drivers more readily understandable by a contemporary audience. The danger is that the reader can forget that the actors of the time wouldn’t have been thinking in those terms. It’s probably a matter of taste, but I found it less jarring here than when I encountered an ‘OODA loop’ in a book on the 1940 Blitzkrieg.

There’s also a good discussion of the shortcomings of German command and control, including the absence of a strategic-level headquarters staff. The Luftwaffe was designed to operate in support of the army and did so very effectively on the continent prior to launching a sustained attack on Britain. But it wasn’t structured to conduct a strategic campaign, and opportunities were missed due to a lack of strategic appreciation and appropriate leadership.

For me, one of the most interesting aspects was the detailed discussion of loss rates of both sides, here broken down to engagement level. Over the course of the battle, the advantage swung strongly from the Luftwaffe to the RAF. One of the reasons for that was the initial RAF practice of directing single Spitfire or Hurricane squadrons (of 10 to 14 aircraft) to intercept incoming raids, when they would often encounter superior numbers of Messerschmitts. Later in the campaign, multiple squadrons would be vectored together to bolster the defender’s numbers. It took longer to assemble larger formations, but the results repaid the effort.

That outcome conforms to the long-established military principle of concentrating forces for maximum effectiveness. The authors recognise that and explain that it also helped reduce the constraints of the RAF’s limited radio channels by allowing more than one squadron to be commanded on the same channel. They also explain how evolving tactics allowed the RAF’s fighter pilots to engage on a more equal footing.

But in this instance it’s possible to be more quantitative about the change of fortunes than perhaps the authors realise. As I’ve explained in a previous Strategist post, effectiveness in air-to-air combat is well described by Lanchester’s equations for aimed fire. That’s especially true in cases where the aircraft has to point at the adversary to shoot at it. Each aircraft can only engage one other at a time, and adding numbers to the fight increases the chances of getting into a shooting position. The key mathematical result is that doubling the number of fighters—as the RAF did in September 1940—quadruples the combat effectiveness of the formation.

The data bear that out. In fighter-on-fighter engagements in August, the Luftwaffe’s Messerschmitts were shooting down almost twice as many RAF fighters as they lost. By the end of September, the loss rates had turned favourable to the defenders, sometimes running two to one the other way—a factor of four reversal, as Lanchester predicted. Much as the Royal Navy had to relearn the value of convoys in the face of a submarine threat, the RAF had to relearn the approach the Royal Flying Corps had taken two decades earlier.

Ultimately, the Luftwaffe had to give up its aim of achieving local air superiority. It found that the RAF fighter defence was getting stronger rather than weaker with more fighters being encountered and the defences being better organised as time went by. In every respect, the RAF was better able to cover its losses, despite the constant loss of men and machines.

The situation looked grim at times from the British perspective, but in a battle of attrition—and it’s sobering to be reminded page after page of the number of pilots killed or wounded—sometimes it’s a matter of hanging tough and hoping that the other side is hurting more. The fog of war often prevents both sides from gathering an accurate picture, so it often won’t be obvious who will break first.

As this book makes admirably clear, the Luftwaffe found itself in a position of taking progressively greater losses against an unexpectedly resilient enemy. In the end, it was forced to turn to much less accurate night bombing and ‘nuisance’ raids by fighter-bombers. At that point, the campaign had failed to achieve its strategic aim of securing the air over the putative invasion site.

I can’t finish this review without getting on a hobby horse about the colourised images of people and aircraft scattered among the many fine (if sometimes familiar) black-and-white photographs. Most of the colourised images conform to the consensus view on colours and markings of the period, though the baby-blue underside on the 19 Squadron Spitfire should be good for a few internet arguments. Given the potential for introducing errors of interpretation, I don’t know why this has become a thing in serious history books, in which documentation should be more important than decoration. That’s why museums are wary about the practice.