** World War II air campaign -- Battle of Britain the Blitz war and social upheaval: World War II air campaign -- Battle of Britain the Blitz








World War II Air Campaign: Battle of Britain Overview (July-November 1940)


Figure 1.--The symbol of London during the Blitz an fierce air battles took place over the city. St. Pauls was hit and incendiaries dropped by the Luftwaffe very nearly set the great cathedral afire. It was saved by a hard-pressed staff fighting the fire.

With the fall of France (june 1940), Germany achieved control over the entire coat of France. The Luftwaffe rapidly began taking over French air bases and building new ones close to the coast. Britain was now exposed to Luftwaffe attacks. The resulting Battle of Britain was one of the crucial engagements of World War II. The ufolding of the Battle of Britain is somewhat different than often presented in popular histories. Many believe that the Blitz on London began because of a British attack on Berlin in September. In fact the British had begun attacks on Berlin, albeit with only small formations, before the August 25-26 raids that are often cited and there is considerable accuracy to the German claim that the Blitz was begun as a retalitory raid. It is true, however, that the German Blitz was the turning point of the Battle of Britain in that it releaved pressure on Fighter Command.

German Western Offensive (May-June 1940)

The German Western Offensive in May and June dramtically changed the complexion of the air war. The Luftwaffe was primarily used in a tactical role during the German offensive. The success of Blitzkrieg made attack on cities unecessary. There were some attacks on cities, most notably Rotterdam. The Germans threatened further attacks, leading to the Dutch capitulation. After the fall of France (June 1940), German cities were no longer as vulnerable to Allied attacks. The distances involved in raids rom Britain made attacks difficult for Britain's existing bomber force.

Launching the British Strategic Bombing Campaign (May 10-11, 1940)

The first German city to suffer a severe raid was Freiburg (May 10, 1940). Considerable controversy surrounded the attack. There were 57 people killed, many of whom were children in a playgrond. The Germans charged the city was bombed by the British or French. In fact it was the Luftwaffe. Luftwaffe pilots mistook Freiburg for Mühlhausen in Alsace. [Rumpf, p. 24.] The opening of the strategic bombing campaign against Germany can be dated to this time. The RAF bombed München-Gladbach/Mönchengladbach (May 10-11). The raid was conducted at night, meaning that secific tagets other than the city could not be targetted. The French strenuously opposed the raid, but 36 bombers struck the city. Little was gained and the British as the Allied position in France detrirated did not have the capav=bility to immediately persue the campaugn, but this was the first raid in what was to become the Allied strategic bombing campaign. [Spaight]

First Phases of the Battle of Britain

With the fall of France (june 1940), Germany achieved control over the entire coat of France. The Luftwaffe rapidly began taking over French air bases and building new ones close to the coast. Britain was now exposed to Luftwaffe attacks. The first attacks were on coastal shipping, a German tactic to draw the RAF out to battle. Then the Luftwaffe began hammering the RAF bases in southeastern England (Kent and Surrey. The objective was to gain air superority over the landing potential beaches. Here the Luftwaffe by late August had achieved considerable success.

Popular Senario

Off-course German bombers accidentally bombed London on August 23-24, 1940. RAF Bomber Command on August 25-26 directed a small reprisal raid against Berlin. The British raid August 25-26 was not the first raid on Berlin, but one of several as well as raids on other German cities.

The Blitz

Hitler growing inpatient with the air battle and troubled by the losses of planes and crews was furious over the British raids. A strong believer in terror tactics, he was outraged that such attacks should be used against Germany. He called the British "night gangsters" and ordered an immediate change in Luftwaffe tactics. Rather than completing its offensive against the RAF infrastructure, Hitler ordered a "Blitz" on British cities which began in earnest on September 7. Goering was disturbed because the RAF resistance was making him look bad in frnt of Hitler. He had promissed an swift victory to his Führer. For the new phase of the battle he had brought his personal train to Pas-de-Calais to take charge from his Luftwaffe commanders. [Gilbert, p. 339.] (Goering was a fighter ace in World War I and Hitler had made him the Commander of the Luftwaffe. He had none of the training or technical capabilities of the highly professional Luftwaffe command.) The attack on September 7 included 300 bombers and 600 escorts. The target was the London docks, but the surronding residential area waslso heavily hit. The followup day a smaller attack on September 8 hit electrical power plants and railway stations. The 200 attackers were swarmed over by FAF fighters and 88 were shot down, devestating total. The attacks on London rather than the forward air fields in Kent and along the coast brought the Luftwaffe bombers in range of Lee Malory and 12 Group's big wing. This was a shock to Luftwaffe pilots who had been told that RAF Fighter Command had been reduced to less than 200 fighters.

The Blitz as a German Reprisal

The unfolding of the Battle of Britain is somewhat different than often presented in popular histories. Many believe that the Blitz on London began because of a British attack on Berlin in September. In fact the British had begun attacks on Berlin, albeit with only small formations, before the September raids that are often cited and there is considerable accuracy to the German claim that the Blitz was begun as a retalitory raid. A British historial of the air war writes, ":The Germans were strictly justified in describing this (the Blitz) as a reprisal, especially as they had, prior to our sixth attackon Berlin announced that they would take such action if we did not stop our night bombing of Berlin. Moreover, it must be admitted that, notwithstanding their bombing superiority, they took the initiative a few weeks later in proposing a mutual agreementthat would put a stop to such city bombing. Moreover, several times they discontinued their attacks when there was a pause in tghe much lighter British raids, thereby showing their desire for a truce in the inner-city bombing competition." [Hart, p. 72.]

British and German Policies

It seems difficult to understand at this point why Hitler sought to end the bombing of cities when he had a bombing force in place and why Churchill refused to consider the offer. As far as I know Hitler never explained his motivation. NAZI propaganda posed the offer in humanitarian terms. This obviously was not an importan consideration to Hitler. It seems likely that once it was clear that the Blitz was not going to force the British to capitulate that ending strategic bombing would be a step to negotiating an end to the war with Britain so he could concentrate on Russia. And as a German historian explains, "The Luftwaffe's first defeat came in the Battle of Britain. Even then Germany's leadrs were not greatly cast down by this set-back; they were confident that once Russia had been defeatedthey would have plenty of time to deal with Britain--once and for all this time." [Rumpf, p. 39.] Strangely at this stage of the War, it was Hitler who wanted peace and Churchill who was preparing Britain for a total war with NAZI Germany. British bombing while at this stage was only nusiance raids, was an embrassment to the NAZI regime--especially as they Hitler was tring to convince the world and especially the Soviets and Spanish that the War was essentially over and won. Churchill has written extensively on the War, but as far as I know has not explained his failure to respond to Hitler's overtures. Churchill describes how he and the War Cabinent were intent on defying Hitler and striking back. [Chuchill, Finest, p. 342.] At this stage of the War, strastegic bombing was the only way to do this. He does not, however, discuss the German overtures. Here I think he saw that any effort to negotiate with Hitler was a step to negotiating an end to the War. Some in the British Government were willing to reach a deal with Hitler after the fall of France. And some might have accepted the German offer. Churchill and others in the British Government understood that there was no way to negotiate with Hitler. Munich had shown what Herr Hitler's signature was worth. In addition the ruins of Warsaw, the images of which were widely distributed by German news services and engrained on the British public that this was how NAZI Germany conducted war.

Significance of the Blitz

It is true, however, that the German Blitz was the turning point of the Battle of Britain in that it releaved pressure on Fighter Command. And a regrouped Fighter Command inflicted severe casualties on the Luftwaffe which eventually forced it to shift to night time raids. Flying at night the Luftwaffe was no longer a threat to RAF bases protecting the Channel beaches. The Luftwaffe at night could hit cities, but not specific military targets. Thus shifting to the Blitz on London and other cities meant that an onvasion was no longer possible. There is considerable debate over how serrious Hitler was about an invasion. Hrre there is some doubt. What is knwn is that the British Army came back from Dunkirk without its equipment. A German invasion in September would have encountered a largely disarmed British Army. Weather made an incvasion impossible after October and by 1941 the Germans would have faced a well armed British defense force.

Importance

The Battle of Britain was compared to other campaigns a rather small operation, but in many ways the key battle of World War II. The significance of the Battle of Britain was at the time was not fully appreciated. Even after the success of the RAF in staving off invation, Hitler still controlled virtually all of Western Europe and it was the startling German successes that still dominated headlines. Britain continued to be bombed and soon the Wehrmacht would launch the titalic struggle with the Soviet Union with another series of spectacular successes. The Luftwaffe was bloodied over Britain, but not seriously damaged. What did occur was the Germans experienced not only superiot tactics, but for the first time an opponent was able to match German technology. Even more importantly, the British scored a not fully appreciated stategic victory. Hitler's strategy was based on destroying his opponents quickly before they could unite and produce modern armaments. He succed with Poland, France, and the small countries of Western Europe (Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxenburg). Brtains's survival meant that it would not be a short war, but a longer struggle in which superior Allied resources could gradually be brought to force on Germany. The failure to defeat Britain meant that he would have a dangerous enemy in the west when he launched his invasion of the Soviet Union. It also mean that America would have time to rearm and a key ally when it entered the war. If Britain had fallen, not only could Germany focused the full force of its arms on a single ememu, but America would have had no Euroean bases from which it could strike at Germany.

Sources

Churchill, Winston. Their Finest Hour (Houghton Mifflin: Boston, 1949), 751p.

Hart, B.H. Liddel. The Revolution in Warfare (Faber & Faber:London, 1946).

Rumpf, Hans. Edward Fitzgerald, trans. The Bombing of Germany (Holt, Rinehart and Winston: New York, 1962), 256p.

Spaight, J.M. Bombing Vindicated (London, 1953-55).






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Created: 4:16 AM 8/14/2005
Last updated: 5:31 AM 3/24/2008