The Battle of Britain was the first large-scale military campaign in history to be fought exclusively in the air. It was part of World War II with the Royal Air Force (RAF) defending the United Kingdom (UK) against attacks by the German air force, Luftwaffe. The battle took place between July 10 and October 30, 1940, and contrary to what many analysts believed, the RAF won against a seemingly formidable German side, the Luftwaffe.
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The major contributing factor of the battle was the view that from the very beginning of World War II, Hitler wanted a peace treaty or neutrality with Britain. In other words, Germany wanted Britain not to interfere with its ventures in Europe as it sought to expand its territories. Lord Halifax, the then British Foreign Secretary together with some section of the British public supported the idea of an armistice.
However, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, with the support of the majority of members of his cabinet opposed this idea (Bungay, 2000). Therefore, Hitler’s only option was to invade Britain and force it into an agreement. With the surrender of France to the Germans on June 22, 1940, the focus turned to England. The choice to use air attacks was informed by the logistical nightmare that Germany would face by launching seaborne attacks because Britain, through its Royal Navy, controlled the entire North Sea and the English Channel. As such, an air attack, which characterized the Battle of Britain, was the only viable option at the time for Germans.
This paper’s objectives are:
- To discuss air strategy applied by Royal Air Force (RAF) and Luftwaffe in the battle.
- To identify the implications of air strategy by both forces to the battle.
- To highlight lessons that can be learned from the military strategy for the current operating environment and future operations.
Strategy Applied by RAF to Counter Luftwaffe’s Air Threat
RAF’s strategy to counter the seemingly formidable Luftwaffe was a combination of military maneuvers including the novel Dowding system, robust intelligence gathering, and various tactics, such as v-shaped fighter formations. However, the most significant strategy by RAF was the use of the hitherto unknown Dowding system. Before the start of World War II, the RAF had started building radar stations along its coast to detect, track aircraft, and send early warnings in case of an invasion.
These stations were known as Chain Home and they were the first early warning radar systems at the time (Neale, 1985). However, the transfer of information from these CH radar networks to aircraft was slow and ineffective, and thus fighters mostly missed their targets. Therefore, RAF created the Dowding system whereby a set of reporting chains were established to deliver timely and accurate information from the CH radars to combat pilots in their fighters.
Data collected from the various CH observation points would be relayed directly to the Fighter Command Headquarters, where it would be processed to inform decision-making. Through telephone, the useful information would be forwarded to the Group headquarters, and it would be used to recreate the attack maps. This process would be repeated in different areas, thus giving the Group level commanders the precise information needed to select squadrons suitable for a given target.
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Ultimately, Sector operators would guide fighters on how to arrange an interception, neutralize the enemy, and return to base. At the same time, anti-aircraft batteries were put in place whereby an army officer, seated beside every fighter controller, would give instructions to gun crews on when to open fire (Price, 1980). This precise coordination of air attacks from the ground captures the essence of the Dowding system and with improved flow of useful information, air fighters acted with speed and accuracy to intercept their targets.
Robust intelligence gathering, specifically by intercepting the Enigma cipher used by Germans was another part of RAF’s strategy to defeat Luftwaffe. RAF would intercept and decode high-level encrypted communications by the enemy to ultimately give British commanders an inside view of what Germans were planning. Specifically, the information gathered, which was designated ultra, allowed high-level British commanders to estimate the strength and composition of the enemy formations and objectives set by the Germans coupled with providing early warnings of raids in some cases (Winterbotham, 1975). As the battle progressed, the No. 421 (Reconnaissance) Flight RAF was constituted specifically to search and relay information about the formation of Luftwaffe aircrafts approaching England for an appropriate response.
Additionally, RAF used different tactics to counter the Luftwaffe’s attempts to reach England. The first tactic was to modify the inherently vulnerable v-shaped fighter formations where three aircraft would fly in a V-shape formation with the squadron leader in the front. This formation was weak because apart from the squadron leader, the rest of the fighters could not see the enemy and their first objective was to maintain their positions. Therefore, an adjustment was made to allow two aircraft to fly independently behind or above the v-shaped formation for improved observation and anterior protection (Price, 1980). Additionally, squadrons were deployed on a need basis to intercept raids by attacking incoming bombers continually to the point of breaking the tight Luftwaffe formation using a combination of Hurricanes and Spitfires.
Strategy used by Luftwaffe against RAF
The Germans adopted an ineffective battle strategy that while it had worked in other places in Poland, Belgium, and France, it failed in the Battle of Britain. First, Barley (2004) notes that Germany lacked clear military tasks, and thus planning became a problem. Consequently, instead of focusing on aircraft that could deliver the best results, the focus shifted to the ones that could be availed quickly.
Additionally, Hitler, as the head of the armed forces, practiced a dictatorial form of leadership, and thus he was surrounded by sycophants who could not question his decisions even if when on the wrong. The Luftwaffe’s strategy in this battle was entirely based on Germany’s air doctrine hinged on the ideas of the Chief of the Air Command Office, Major General Walter Wever. As Barley (2004) posits, Wever believed that the Luftwaffe should not engage in wars on its own; on the contrary, it was supposed to offer support to the army and the navy. Consequently, Luftwaffe was not fully prepared for the Battle of Britain, which was purely an airborne encounter.
Therefore, Luftwaffe did not have a clear strategy on how to attack Britain. It thus relied on past experiences in Poland and Western Europe whereby airstrikes were used mainly to support ground troops. Additionally, Luftwaffe did not have ground support for its fighter pilots unlike the case with the RAF. As such, one bomber, Luftflotte 2, would attack Britain from southeast England and London. Luftflotte 3 and Luftflotte 5 would attack Wales, northwest England, and Midlands on the one side, and Scotland and North England, respectively. As part of its strategy, Luftflotte 3 would carry out attacks during the night while Luftflotte 2 would focus on the daytime (Bungay, 2000).
It was estimated that RAF would be subdued in four days, which would be followed by a one-month offensive to demolish all military installations in Britain. However, the leading commanders in executing the plan differed on the best way to implement the strategy with one side preferring the bombing of air defense infrastructure, while the other side opted for attacking London directly. This indecision negatively affected Luftwaffe’s ability to launch any meaningful assault against the RAF.
Additionally, tactics on the battlefront kept on changing due to the underlying unpreparedness. Initially, Luftwaffe deployed two-pack fighters flying at a distance of about 200 meters between them. This formation allowed the pilots to focus on hitting their targets as opposed to maintaining their positions. However, this formation was changed to address the arising challenges caused by the RAF fighters. When on the defensive, the Luftwaffe aircraft would form a defensive circle with each guarding the tail of the aircraft ahead. Unfortunately, the ever-changing formation during attacks led to massive losses (Bungay, 2000).
Ultimately, the commanders settled on one tactic whereby one aircraft would go before the bombers to draw out the RAF fighters, but this strategy failed because, with the Dowding system, the RAF could easily determine the Luftwaffe formation.
The Impact of Strategies used by RAF and Luftwaffe on the Battle
The differing strategies employed by the two sides directly contributed to the battle’s outcome. On the one side, the RAF was highly organized, and with ground support for its fighters through the Dowding system, its precision in hitting targets and intercepting the enemy improved significantly. The robust Dowding system ensured that RAF had the right information at the right time to act swiftly and counter any assault from the Luftwaffe. Even when four radar stations of the Dowding system were attacked on August 12, 1940, three of them resumed working in less than six hours (Bungay, 2000). Therefore, the RAF continued to collect vital information through its CH radars before being processed and relayed to fighters for a highly organized operation.
On the other hand, Luftwaffe was unprepared for exclusive air combat because initially, Hitler thought that Britain would agree to an armistice. Therefore, the Germans lacked a comprehensive plan on how to proceed when it became clear that Britain would not back down. As Barley (2004) argues, “The impact upon the Luftwaffe of Hitler’s ambivalent attitude towards Britain was some confusion over the tactical and technical orientation that the Luftwaffe should adopt” (p. 398).
Additionally, Hitler was dictatorial even in leading the armed forces, and thus there was little room for making adjustments to address the situation at hand. Grattan (2005) summarizes Luftwaffe’s strategic failure by saying, “The prime principle of war is selection and maintenance of the aim and another principle is the concentration of force. However, the German high command adhered to neither during this battle” (p. 1435). The overreliance on past successes in Poland, Belgium, and France gave Luftwaffe a false sense of achievement, which led to widespread unpreparedness.
Therefore, because the RAF was highly organized with clear goals and an execution plan, it won the battle. The RAF was not a superior air force to Luftwaffe – it only won because it had a better strategy and with sound military and political leadership as offered by Churchill, it defeated a seemingly formidable Luftwaffe side. The difference between winning and losing during this battle was purely a question of the strategy used. Even with superior capabilities and resources to the RAF, Luftwaffe failed mainly due to poor strategic planning.
Basic Military Strategies
Various basic military strategies could be used to disarm the enemy or diminish the resolve to fight. The basic strategies considered in this section include extermination, exhaustion, annihilation, intimidation, and subversion. Extermination in this context is used to describe a strategy to annihilate the enemy. According to Bowdish (2013), this strategy is rarely used because on top of being amoral to kill everyone on the enemy’s side, it is against modern international laws on human rights. However, in ancient times, this strategy was used absolutely or selectively depending on the nature of the target.
In modern times, the Holocaust serves as a good example of this strategy as Hitler and his Nazi adherents sought to exterminate Jews. The strategy of exhaustion is based on the idea that gradual erosion of the enemy’s power would eventually break the will to resist or fight. This approach is mainly used by the weaker side in a war as it does not require the use of excessive force. However, the side deploying this strategy should be prepared to persevere and have the unparalleled resolve to win.
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The strategy of annihilation sets out to “attack the armed forces and destroy them and to impose the will of the conqueror on the conquered” (Delbrück, 1990, p. 109). This strategy is based on the assumption that the enemy will resist as long as the means to do so exist, and thus the best way to win under such circumstances is to overcome and disarm the enemy. On the other hand, the strategy of intimidation involves compelling the enemy to agree on something or deterring the enemy from a certain action by using threats of violence. In other words, the enemy is bullied into agreeing to a predetermined course without engaging in a real fight.
Finally, under the strategy of subversion, the aggressor seeks to undermine the loyalties of people on the enemy’s side to transfer their allegiance. Once supporters’ allegiances are swayed and their support for the enemy is weakened, the aggressor could easily achieve the set objectives without much resistance from the enemy. According to Bowdish (2013), this strategy is a high reward-low cost approach as “it can potentially return a political objective, anywhere from a favorable trade policy up to the political control of an entire state, at the cost of the establishment and maintenance of influence agents and propaganda institutions” (p. 230). This strategy was widely applied during the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union with each side using propaganda to sway the enemy’s support base.
Basic Military Strategies Applied by RAF and Luftwaffe
The first strategy applied by both sides during this battle was a combination of subversion and intimidation. Both Britain and Germany resorted to propaganda before even the war could start officially. For instance, Luftwaffe carried small daylight raids against RAF as a way of testing the enemy’s resolve and intimidating Britain into an armistice. In response, Britain leveraged the media to increase news coverage on airstrikes. Radio channels, newspapers, magazines, and all other available means of communication were filled with news about the adventures and achievements of the Air Ministry (Campion, 2008). Germany responded similarly, and through its OKW communiqués, it spread the news that it had the upper hand against Britain.
Before the start of the war, Germans used intimidation extensively by relying on their past successes particularly in France. Hitler wanted an armistice with Britain and thus he resorted to threats of violence if his demands were not met. After defeating France on June 22, 1940, Hitler issued a series of threats and demands stating what he wanted and promising that an armistice would avert any form of physical aggression against Britain. This strategy almost worked because the British Foreign Secretary and some sections of the public supported a peace deal with Germany. However, Churchill together with his cabinet was opposed to the idea of an armistice, which leads to the next strategy, annihilation.
After it became clear that Britain would not agree to a peace deal, Germans started preparing for a military confrontation with the objective of annihilation. This strategy had worked elsewhere in Europe with Hitler emphasizing that each “country needed to be taken quickly and decisively to present a fait accompli to frustrate any potential intervention by outside powers” (Bowdish, 2013, p. 218). In the Battle of Britain, Hitler sought to subdue British forces, and impose his will on Britons by ultimately making Britain part of his protectorate, which is the underlying concept of annihilation as a basic military strategy.
The Battle of Britain, as the pioneer air military confrontation, presents numerous lessons that could be applied in the current environment and future operations. The first lesson is to never underestimate the enemy regardless of size or experience. Hitler was blinded by his past successes in France and other parts of Europe and thought that he would easily conquer Britain. The Germans thus underestimated Britain’s capabilities, which led to unpreparedness.
The second lesson is that strategic preparedness is an important part of any military undertaking because this aspect could be the deciding factor of win or lose as seen in the Battle of Britain. While Germans were superior to their enemy on almost all fronts including resources and experience, they lacked strategic planning. Hitler lacked clear objectives perhaps due to the assumption that Britons would be intimidated into an armistice.
On the other side, despite being inferior, Britain leveraged clinical strategic planning to improve efficiency and derive maximum utility from the available limited resources. The use of the Dowding system was part of this strategic planning and the concerted coordination of ground and air support proved to be one of the key determining factors of winning this battle. The third lesson is that everything rises or falls on leadership.
On the one hand, Hitler was a dictator and thus he was unwilling to listen to any advice from those experienced enough to see flaws in his strategies. This kind of poor leadership permeated every level of the military leading to unwarranted disagreements over what strategy to be applied in different situations. On the other hand, Churchill offered the needed leadership by separating politics from military ventures. He was willing to listen to military commanders and make the appropriate changes as part of strategic planning. Ultimately, RAF triumphed over a seemingly formidable Luftwaffe and these lessons could be applied today and in the future.
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Bowdish, R. G. (2013). Military strategy: Theory and concepts [Doctoral Dissertation]. University of Nebraska – Lincoln.
Bungay, S. (2000). The most dangerous enemy: A history of the Battle of Britain. Aurum Press.
Campion, G. (2008). The good fight: Battle of Britain wartime propaganda and the few. Palgrave Macmillan.
Delbrück, H. (1990). History of the art of war (J. Walter & Jr. Renfroe, Trans.). University of Nebraska Press.
Grattan, R. F. (2005). Strategy in the Battle of Britain and strategic management theory. Management Decision, 43(10), 1432-1441.
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