THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
With the passing of America’s last surviving World War II veterans - the ‘greatest generation’ as journalist Tom Brokaw called them - the most expansive conflict in world history is passing from ‘living memory’ into the pages of history books and video snippets in historical documentaries.
For most Americans, the Second World War began with Pearl Harbor, the previous unfettered aggression by the German Nazis and Japanese militaristic imperialists being of little interest to a nation struggling to recover from the depths and hardships of the Great Depression. For those of us that came after the 'greatest generation', the impressions of these aggressions were formed by a plethora of 'war movies', usually from Britain. Foremost among these - in visceral excitement anyway - was MGM’s 1968 epic aerial combat drama entitled Battle of Britain. For generations following the 'baby boomers' even this classic has faded to irrelevance as WWII became, to our youth, 'ancient history'.
But to those who have an interest in WWII before Pearl Harbor, their understanding of the aerial contest that saved Britain from invasion by Hitler’s mighty Wehrmacht (armed forces) was formed by that movie and the shelf-sagging numbers of Battle of Britain histories that also narrated the struggle from the British perspective. These present a one-sided view of the campaign - a modern Arthurian legend not unlike Sword in the Stone and Knights of the Round Table. For far too long historians on both sides of the Atlantic have described and assessed the Luftwaffe’s (air force’s) campaign to destroy the British Royal Air Force (RAF) using little information from the German side - sometimes none.
In our book To Defeat the Few, we have corrected that pervasive omission. Using the Luftwaffe’s official histories - 42 volumes written by surviving high ranking Luftwaffe officers in 1952-1958 - and their headquarters' daily situation reports, we have correlated German strategy, operational plans and tactical missions with contemporaneous RAF reports to develop an accurate, balanced, and comprehensive account of what actually happened and why. The RAF still won, of course, but not because of the boastful and supercilious reasons presented in 'traditional' accounts regurgitating the Battle of Britain legend.
Examining the Luftwaffe’s air campaign at the strategic and operational levels unearthed several important discoveries and new considerations in the conduct of this campaign. For instance, German sources make it clear that what has come to be regarded by the British as the Battle’s 'first phase' - known as 'Kanalkampf' ('Channel Battle') to the Luftwaffe - was actually a maritime air campaign resulting from a separate and entirely different strategy on how to affect Britain’s strategic defeat. It was not the 'first phase' of 'the Battle', as traditional British accounts trumpet, but was a completely different air campaign altogether until superseded by the Luftwaffe’s attempt to destroy the RAF and attain air superiority over southeastern England, a prerequisite for Hitler’s planned cross-Channel invasion.
At the operational level, many previously unidentified factors that played crucial roles in determining the outcome of the campaign were discovered and are described. For example, our close and insightful examination of Luftwaffe fighter formations and tactics revealed that they 'out-gunned' their RAF opponents in squadron-versus-squadron combat. The Luftwaffe used modern fluid 'finger four' formations where the flight leader and his deputy were both employed as 'shooters', so a German 12-fighter formation had six 'shooters'. But the RAF’s rigid, archaic and inappropriate three-plane tactics permitted only the leader of the formation to be the 'shooter' while the two wingmen guarded his tail. So, a 12-airplane British squadron had only four 'shooters' at the outset of an engagement, a 1.5 to 1 disadvantage. Interestingly, the RAF’s overall loss-vs-victory ratio in fighter-versus-fighter dogfights was 1.77:1, statistically virtually identical to the German advantage in the number of 'shooters' in each squadron formation.
We also discovered that there was a technical limitation that imposed an operational restriction on the number of squadrons each RAF Sector Operations Center could control in defending its airspace. The innovative 'Pip Squeak'/'Huff-Duff' equipment for tracking the position of intercepting units could only accommodate four individual squadrons at one time - about 48 fighters - who were frequently overwhelmed by German raiders that often totalled twice that number. Under this restriction, the RAF was fighting the Luftwaffe to a draw (despite the unfavorable 'exchange ratio') until they began pairing squadrons together to meet the incoming raiders with equal or superior numbers of interceptors. With this major revision in operational tactics, after a series of dramatic German defeats during the concluding week of September 1940, the campaign, at least during daylight hours, became a British victory.
Other discoveries are described and assessed in To Defeat the Few. One of the most famous - and contentious - RAF debates was about the effectiveness of the so-called 'Big Wing' concept. In the final analysis, on the operational level it proved to be tactically ineffective because those Midlands-based formations weren’t on the same radio frequencies as the southern Sector controllers. Many have wondered why the devastating September 7 raid on London’s East End Docks was not effectively intercepted before 'bombs away'. The answer is found in the bureaucratic restrictions on the use of the fabled 'Ultra' decoded information gleaned from the Nazi’s 'Enigma' encoding machine, the devastating suppression of the crucial Biggin Hill Sector Operations Center, and the difference between an 'active defense' versus a 'static defense' along the line of approach.
Many other factors - how the Luftwaffe actually planned their operations, why the Luftwaffe consciously chose to bomb airfields that were not Fighter Command bases and others - are also addressed. While our narrative presents the operational aspects of this first-ever independent air campaign, its tactical facets are illustrated in over 300 images (many published for the first time) and their detailed and comprehensive captions.
What is most important is that To Defeat the Few provides a professional military account and assessment of what was history’s first Offensive Counter Air Campaign waged against the world’s first Integrated Air Defence System, thereby establishing the blueprint for all that followed it, up to and including the astounding American-led Coalition victory in Operation Desert Storm.
For this reason, the Battle of Britain - as told from an air campaign perspective - remains vitally relevant even 80 years after it occurred.
To Defeat The Few is published by Osprey Publishing, and is available to buy now from ospreypublishing.com/to-defeat-the-few.
Douglas C. Dildy is a retired US Air Force colonel who spent nine years of his 26-year career in Western Europe. He is also a USAF Academy graduate with a degree in history. He attended the US Armed Forces Staff College and USAF Air War College and holds a Master's Degree in Political Science.
Paul F. Crickmore is the author of the much-acclaimed Lockheed Blackbird: Beyond the Secret Missions. He is also an honorary member of several A-12 and SR-71 veterans' associations.