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Clipping the Eagle’s Wings: Explaining Failure and Success in the Battle of Britain, 1940

Clipping the Eagle’s Wings: Explaining Failure and Success in the Battle of Britain, 1940 Clipping the Eagle’s Wings: Explaining Failure and Success in the Battle of Britain, 1940
To cite this article: Gray, Colin S., “Clipping the Eagle’s Wings: Explaining Failure and Success in the Battle of Britain, 1940”, Infinity Journal, IJ Special Edition, “Strategic Misfortunes”, October 2012, pages 5-11.

The most fundamental reason for the German defeat was a failure in strategy. Most of the decisions which determined the outcome of the Battle had been made before it began. Given the defence systems, the aircraft, the training and the plans, all put in place by the decisions of a few people in leadership positions on each side, the odds were stacked heavily against the Luftwaffe from the first.

Stephen Bungay[i]

Bungay is right in his unequivocal claim, quoted above. But, is it more correct to register the outcome of the Battle of Britain as a failure of strategy on the German part, rather than as a success for British strategy? When scholars and others choose to focus on the behaviour and misbehaviour of only one side to a conflict, balanced judgment is likely to fall victim as a consequence. Clausewitz insists that war is a duel and every PowerPoint presentation on strategy more or less faithfully restates the obvious important truth that the enemy votes on how well we need to do.[ii] And yet, somehow, the duelling nature of strategic affairs frequently escapes proper notice and attention.

If one asks ‘why did the Luftwaffe lose the Battle of Britain?’ the question encourages a biasing emphasis upon German performance that is anchored in the fact of defeat. Although the Luftwaffe made many mistakes in the summer of 1940, it would be a serious mistake to attribute its defeat to strategic misfortune – it was not bad luck. Similarly, it would not be useful or persuasive to argue that a different German choice here or there should have made all the difference between defeat and victory. The Luftwaffe failed strategically in summer 1940 because Britain, and especially its Fighter Command, was too good for it in the geostrategic context of the conflict at that time.

Undoubtedly, the Germans did not conduct a sufficiently effective campaign against Fighter Command, but it needs to be appreciated that the German weaknesses and errors were not, in the main, misfortunes (i.e. instances of bad luck), rather were they the products of a system that was not capable of fighting with strategic sense. The Battle of Britain in the summer and autumn of 1940 was a struggle that has to be understood as a unity, not only as a German defeat or a British victory (pick one). However, as an exemplary tale of strategy, or its absence, in action, the Battle is much better explained as a British victory than as a German defeat. History records many cases of ‘fighting and winning ugly’, but the evidence of 1940 shows unmistakeably that the Luftwaffe, fighting ugly or not, was never likely to prevail. RAF Fighter Command strictly did not require good fortune in order to win, but one cannot deny that German folly certainly was welcome. The Battle of Britain serves as one of history’s clearest examples of the rewards and the costs of both good and poor strategy.

Theory and Practice for 1940

There is an intellectual key to the understanding of strategy that is not difficult to present. Simply stated: a strategy should achieve desired political ends by using appropriate means in effective ways. There are usually good reasons why ends, ways, and means fail to mesh as cooperatively as one would like, but the practical ambition is only to function with strategic sense well enough, not to perform perfectly. In the military realm one has to expect to fight under less than perfect conditions, which is why one should strive to learn from unfolding experience, and be sufficiently flexible as to be able to adapt to unwelcome developments and yet survive and even succeed.[iii] Because of its super-reductionist simplicity, the ends, ways, and means formula enables us to test historical experience fairly reliably for strategic sense.[iv]

To the strategic trinity just cited one needs to add the intellectually and evidentially challenging factors of assumptions and also of context.[v] The people and the machines of 1940 had to perform in action then, but they were very substantially the products of the circumstances of a British context for homeland air defence that had form from 1916, and of a German context rooted only in 1933 (and then not for an air campaign against Britain at home). The rival air forces had to fight in 1940, but each was made in the preceding years. Most of the RAF’s system and the Luftwaffe’s advantages and disadvantages can be traced to pre-war circumstances and concerns. RAF Fighter Command in 1940 was the product of a fairly consistent focus on homeland air defence traceable back to 1915-16, while the Luftwaffe’s close attention to Britain was a novel phenomenon in the summer of 1940. One side was long prepared for the battle of the day, the other was not.[vi] These are facts.

I do not wish to employ ends, ways, and means mechanistically in the analysis that follows, but readers are alerted to the value that of this gloriously inclusive yet still taut inherently holistic conceptual trinity. It permeates my argument. Although I will argue that RAF Fighter Command won a well merited strategic victory in 1940, it is necessary also that I explain why the Luftwaffe suffered strategic defeat. I must proceed thus, given the essential unity of strategic experience between rivals and enemies.

Preparation and Battle

Any military force can have a bad day or two, and the reasons for poor combat performance can be many and complex. That said, the history of military aviation shows that air forces tend to fail or succeed for reasons with paper trails over many years.[vii] The Battle of Britain was a struggle with two timelines. It mattered critically how effectively the rival air forces fought from July to October 1940, but that net effectiveness was influenced massively by the strategic events of the previous quarter-century. Typically, in popular histories and TV documentaries the strategic tale begins in Flanders in May-June 1940, and then proceeds at a galloping pace from the opening probing ‘round’ over the Channel in July, to the main event (in two or three ‘rounds’) in August and September. All too often, strategically vital differences between RAF Fighter Command and the Luftwaffe pass unflagged. Neglecting the contextual dimension to the air warfare of summer 1940 is probably the most punishing mistake one can make.

To explain, although now we know most everything that there is to be known about the air warfare of 1940, that very familiarity can function unhelpfully as a barrier to our understanding. We have knowledge, but we tend to lack empathy because we do not think about air warfare as people did in 1940. It would be hard to exaggerate the relevance of the strategic historical fact that the Battle of Britain was the first air battle in all of history effectively unconnected to on-going terrestrial warfare. This was an attempt to win well enough in and from the sky, leading either to terrestrial success with brute force in combat, or to political victory as a result of coercion from altitude. Could it be done?[viii] More to the point, could the Luftwaffe do it in August-September 1940? No-one knew, and in part they did not know because it had never been tried before, anywhere by anyone. Theory was plentiful, if not abundant, but reliable evidence was lacking.

The reality of 1940 was that only one air force, the RAF, knew what it had to do and, in principle, how to do it. The Luftwaffe, in contrast, was committed to the world’s first stand-alone air campaign. Moreover, the RAF, and the Royal Flying Corps before it, had been devoted to the strategic mission of homeland air defence since 1915 with some activity, and certainly since 1917 in the most careful detail.[ix] British air defence had a track record of considerable success in action in 1916-18,was reorganised twice in the inter-war years, albeit with large continuities, and it was always fit enough for its contemporary purpose – as far as one can judge for peacetime(!) – through the 1920s and 1930s. This is not to deny that there was a brief period in the very early 1920s when the air defence narrative seemed in peril, but this was fixed by 1924 (courtesy of anxiety occasioned by a perceived French air menace). More troubling was the delay in 1937-8 in reequipping with the new fast monoplane fighters, with the Luftwaffe’s Bf109 acquisition being two years in advance of the Hurricane and Spitfire. The Hurricanes were delivered for squadron service in November 1937, Spitfires on 4 August 1938. The Bf109 first flew on 28 May 1935, the Spitfire on 5 March 1936. The new first-generation monoplane Bf109s were fed into the Condor Legion’s war in Spain, but it was untried against a similarly equipped enemy until it met Spitfires over Dunkirk in late May 1940. The point of historical contextual significance, though, is that Britain had ready enough an organisation, peopled, trained, and equipped adequately for the task of the hour, homeland air defence – and Germany did not have sufficiently offsetting advantages on the offensive side.

British air defences had defeated three German air campaigns conducted from 1915 to 1918 (2 by Zeppelin airships and one by Gotha aircraft), and then had prepared for the threat that materialised by and in 1940. The Germans had to improvise most aspects of their air campaign against Britain in 1940; the British needed to improvise hardly anything. The Luftwaffe fought with the weapons it had, ones acquired and then employed briefly in relatively short-range continental warfare. This is not to suggest that the Germans could not succeed in the air in 1940, but it is to highlight the abundantly evidenced fact that only one belligerent in 1940 had prepared over time and in depth for an air battle across the Channel over Britain.

The literature on the Battle of Britain is abundant, vastly repetitive, and typically innocent of much strategic sense. There are, however, two exceptional readable yet scholarly studies which tell the story of 1940 as well as one needs to have it told. Without qualification, I recommend Richard Overy’s The Battle of Britain: Myth and Reality (2010), and Stephen Bungay’s The Most Dangerous Enemy: A History of the Battle of Britain (2000). Because of the excellence of the granular histories of the Battle in 1940, I will not waste space with more than a summary of the story arc of the most relevant combat in 1940.

  • May – June: German assault beginning on 10 May routs the French army and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). Most of the BEF (226,000) and some French soldiers (112,000) are evacuated from Dunkirk between 26 May and 4 June. The RAF in France is ineffective, but Fighter Command aircraft from British airfields provide a nasty shock to the Luftwaffe over Dunkirk. The 9 days of air combat associated directly with the Dunkirk operation cost the RAF 177 aircraft to 240 for the Luftwaffe.
  • 10 July – 11 August: The Luftwaffe tries to entice RAF Fighter Command into battle over the Channel. The Germans avoid crossing the Channel and instead probe British air defences by attacking shipping in a rather desultory fashion (the kanalkampf). 10 July – 11 August saw the RAF lose 115 fighters and 64 bombers, these 179 compare with Luftwaffe losses of 216. Both sides learnt from the fighting, but the Germans did not unravel the architecture and operational design of Fighter Command. In order to preserve assets and deny intelligence to the enemy, the Command deliberately limited its reactions to the German campaign against Channel shipping.
  • 12/13 August – 6/7 September: This brief period was the main event of the Battle, militarily considered (it included days when flying was either impossible or severely restricted by bad weather). Between these dates the Luftwaffe strove none too consistently to render RAF Fighter Command hors de combat. The Command was attacked directly on its principal airfields (the Luftwaffe was not well informed about dispersion to much rougher satellite fields), and in its specific industrial base (aircraft and engine manufacturing plants). The most vital target set, the coastal radar stations were attacked heavily on 12 August, but very little thereafter (the number of Chain Home and Chain Home Low radar stations grew from 51 in July 1940 to 76 by the end of September that year). The attritional combat was heavy, if somewhat episodic, but Fighter Command survived into early September, damaged but definitely not crippled. The operational air general, Keith Park commanding 11 Group (London and the South East), was not compelled to evacuate his airfields to the south and east of London.
  • 7-15 September: Desperate for a more speedy victory than they had achieved thus far, the Germans shifted strategy to bomb British urban targets (in daylight), especially London and its docks. The hope was that RAF Fighter Command would be obliged to ascend in the largest number it could still manage, where it could be attrited in greater numbers than before. This ‘round’ in the Battle, really the final one, concluded on 15 September, when the Luftwaffe sought to darken the sky over London with 965 aircraft (348 bombers and 617 fighters). The scale of the attacks, and the geographic depth of their necessary penetration, allowed Fighter Command the time to assemble a large enough near continuous defence as to inflict immensely demoralising damage on the German bomber crews in particular.
  • Late September — : The daylight ‘Blitz’ principally against London of the 7-15 period, was succeeded by a largely nighttime ‘Blitz’ through the autumn and winter, a campaign to which Fighter Command had no answers at that time (lacking airborne radar in 1940).

Hitler officially postponed sine die the planned invasion of Britain (Seelowe) on 17 September 1940.

Explaining the Defeat

Why did RAF Fighter Command win in 1940? The answer is only two-fold when stated bluntly and minimally: because of Britain’s 25 year record of competent professional attention to homeland air defence, and because of the superior performance of Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding as the strategic leader and military commander of British air defence. The whole story is of course complex and contains as much detail as anyone finds tolerable. However, these two reasons – 25 years of dedicated practice, and Dowding – comprise the heart of the matter. Because my argument is advanced so confidently in praise of the RAF and Dowding, it is only prudent to lead this part of the analysis with a summary of the reasons why Germany lost the Battle.

Germany’s problems

  1. Ignorance of the enemy: Thinking in German terms of RAF Fighter Command as a target set, it would be difficult to improve on this judgment by Stephen Bungay: “The core problem for Kesselring and Sperrle was that they literally did not know what they were doing.”[x] Luftwaffe intelligence, to ignore the glaring irony, correctly understood little that was vitally significant about Fighter Command. Oberst Beppo Schmid, the catastrophically incompetent head of Luftwaffe Intelligence, persistently underestimated RAF Fighter Command. This goes a long way towards explaining why Luftwaffe morale suffered heavily, following aircrew puzzlement, when their enemy continued resisting into September in numbers not visibly much if at all reduced, despite the cumulatively high ‘kill’ rates claimed. In every aspect of the Battle the Germans were hampered severely by acute, literally lethal, ignorance of the enemy.[xi] They knew about British radar, but they did not know how the RAF used it. In fact, Luftwaffe Intelligence had no comprehension of RAF Fighter Command as the world’s first, and then only integrated air defence system. Because the Luftwaffe in 1940 did not centralize its radar data and filtering, it did not occur to them that Fighter Command was truly a network, which is to say a system with integrated sub-systems (thanks to Post Office land lines). A key part of the German ignorance was their lack of comprehension of the existence and role of the 7 Sector Stations that Air Vice Marshal Keith Park was using as instruments of his operational air generalship. Naturally, since the Luftwaffe did not know of what Fighter Command consisted and how it functioned, bombardment for strategic effectiveness – identified by Giulio Douhet as the “most delicate and difficult task in aerial warfare … defined as aerial strategy” – had to be a substantially haphazard affair.[xii]

    1. Comprehensive failure of strategy: Germany’s political ends did not sit comfortably well enough with its selected ways or its enabling means. In short, Germany needed its Luftwaffe either to assist its navy and army to win the war by a successful invasion, or to coerce the British government by air action alone into acquiescence in German political leadership (which may not have required many German boots on Britain’s green and pleasant land). In failing to suppress the RAF the Luftwaffe effectively thwarted the political ‘end’ of a compliant, possibly even friendly, government in London. The political guidance to the Luftwaffe’s operational level commanders (Generalfeldmarschall Alfred Kesselring – Luftflotte 2, Brussels; Generalfeldmarschall Hugo Sperrle – Luftflotte 3, Paris) was minimal. Indeed, Hitler showed little interest in the air campaign, while Hermann Goring did not function strategically in military perspective).
  2. Inadequate military means: The Luftwaffe of 1940 was the world-leading air force of the day – it was truly formidable. It had the finest medium, light and dive bombers, and arguably the finest single-seat fighter, the Bf109. However, the Luftwaffe was a relatively short-range force and it was always on the edge of crisis over spare parts and replacement aircrew and aircraft. The service was a near miracle of hasty construction, but it had been built as a Nazi political and cultural showcase, as a coercive instrument against those likely to be easily shaken, and if need be, as a force enhancer of swift terrestrial continental victory. It was not built to be able to sustain and recover from recurring heavy losses, or to fight across seas against an enemy over his home. Numbers are arguable because of the problems of dating the audit and selecting what really were the “serviceable” numbers. Nonetheless, a good enough count for the balance holds that RAF Fighter Command and the Luftwaffe joined serious combat in summer 1940 with orders of battle at approximately 754 Hurricanes and Spitfires in 48 squadrons versus 1,107 Bf109s. Single-seat fighters were the significant combatants. By and large, everything else in the air was only a potential ‘kill’. Fighting literally overseas, the Bf109s were too few, with their margins of numerical superiority inadequate. To illustrate: by my calculation between 1 June and 1 November 1940, Britain built 1,367 Hurricanes and 724 Spitfires (average per diem works out at 8.9 and 4.7 respectively). Compare those numbers with the total (operational) loss rate, which for the longer period 10 May to 4 November averaged 4.4 (Hurricanes) and 2.7 (Spitfires) per diem, and it is not hard to appreciate why the Luftwaffe failed to clear the air of annoying British aircraft. Among the many things that Oberst Schmid did not know was the non-trivial fact that in the summer and autumn of 1940 Britain was out-producing Germany in fighter aircraft (nor did he know about the superb RAF organisation for recovery and repair). Numbers abound in military aviation history and sometimes they are strategically meaningful. On the launch day for the great German air assault on Fighter Command, which is to say 13 August (to ignore the attacks on the radar system on 12 August), the Luftwaffe (Luftflotten 2 and 3) could commit only 871 Bf109s, against a Fighter Command total in the 640s. There were too few first-line operationally ready German single-seat fighters. As for the enemy, not only was Britain out-producing the Germans in fighters, but the relevant operationally available pilot numbers also tell the tale of strategic defeat for the Luftwaffe. On 6 July Fighter Command could call on 1,259 pilots, on 1 September 1,142 pilots and on 2 November, 1,797 pilots. This is the arithmetic of German strategic defeat. The dependable Bungay provides suitable closing metrics on the most relevant aircraft holdings. Apparently, on 17 August Schmid told Luftwaffe commanders that RAF Fighter Command had only 300 serviceable fighters in its active force. The real numbers for Fighter Command were “855 with operational squadrons, 209 at storage units, and another 84 at training units, a total of 1,438 twice as many as in the beginning of July.”[xiii]
  3. Poor campaign adaptiveness: German aircrew and aircraft were excellent for their place and day, but that place and day was not over Britain in 1940. Error is inevitable and unavoidable in the practice of strategy, so the unarguable fact of German mistakes cannot itself be an issue of interest here. Rather, the question is ‘how did the Luftwaffe adapt to correct for the errors which experience was revealing?’ Could it be flexible and immediately find ways to fight more effectively against Britain? The short answer, and even a long answer, is simply ‘no’. Germany lacked intelligence on most vital aspects of British air defence, and it could not possibly correct for aircraft production rate mistakes in real-time in August and September 1940. One can identify many crucial errors that could have been avoided or mitigated, had only nazi Germany in the mid to late 1930s known what historians today know. Hindsight is wonderful. The German political leadership was thoroughly disengaged from the Battle of Britain at all levels of performance: tactical, operational, and certainly strategic. Luftwaffe officers, high and low, were not formally educated at all in strategy. But, notwithstanding the many zones of German error, had the intelligence picture been far more accurate, even the physical inadequacies of the bomber force (range and/or payload) might not have been so constraining of achievement. For example, if the Luftwaffe had known what sector stations were and what they did, and if the medium bombers had attacked persistently even with their poor bomb sights, real damage with value might well have been done. Fortunately, the Luftwaffe in 1940 was not an organisation capable of improvised adaptations to the challenge from strategic hell that was the Fuhrer’s call about Britain.

Why did Britain win the Battle?

The reasons for Germany’s defeat are legion; indeed one is spoiled for choice. With respect to the RAF’s victory, it may be recalled that I staked a claim earlier for two essential , mutually complementary, explanations: the British air defence system which had a provenance of 25 years by 1940, and the performance of that system’s leader from 1936 until November 1940, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh ‘Stuffy’ Dowding. In 1940, the air defence system was Dowding’s. British air defence was a team effort, as it had to be, but Dowding’s contributions were by far the most significant to the team’s achievements.[xiv]

To summarise: in the early 1930s he had been the most important figure in decisions on research and development bearing upon air defence; his support was vital to the breakthrough on radar on 26 February 1935; his voice was reflected in the aircraft and armament steps taken crucially in early and mid decade; and after air defence was re-branded as Fighter Command in July 1936, with himself as the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, his was the dominant role over the tactics, operations, and strategy of British homeland air defence.[xv] The integrated air defence system won a team battle over Germany in 1940, but the team had an outstanding leader. Dowding designed what Fighter Command became: he established its procedures; he decided how it would function as a seamless network; and last but not least he selected the operational concept for engagement that made most strategic sense. The victory in 1940 was a victory for the system, but it was the ‘Dowding System’. The system was strong and had valuable redundancies, but had it been commanded by another brain and personality it might well have performed far less effectively. I conclude with an appraisal of Fighter Command’s success.

  1. Dowding’s strategic sense: Dowding functioned persistently and consistently in strategic mode; he understood that as the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Command his responsibility was for the strategy of air defence, inclusively considered. He committed to ensuring that each of the classic constituents of strategy – ends, ways, and means, and their underpinning assumptions – had integrity both in and of themselves and, no less important, as vital enablers for the others. This claim is so familiar as to risk appearing banal, but its frequent neglect in practice highlights its fundamental importance. Dowding modernised the system of air defence and its supporting infrastructure so as to ensure that the ways and means were sufficiently adaptable to cope with unpredicted, even unanticipated, circumstances. Moreover, Dowding had to ensure that the fighting power of his command – with its physical, moral, and conceptual components – could succeed in combat against the enemy on the day, whenever that day should dawn and for as long as it might last. Dowding possessed and consistently exercised strategic sense.
  2. Defence planning with ‘minimum regrets’: Dowding’s major equipment and research decisions over a ten-year period, including his long term on the Air Council from 1930-36, proved ‘right enough’. He passed the minimum regrets test. The strategist does not need to record flawless strategic performance, only one free of irrecoverable mistakes. Wherever one looks at the ends, ways, and means of British home air defence in the 1930s and into the 1940s, there is no serious room for doubt that Dowding was either right, or sufficiently correct, on the biggest decisions and in the ways in which they were to be implemented. His strategic sense enabled him to adapt to unanticipated circumstances.
  3. Adaptability: British air defence and its victory in 1940 were the result of a quarter century of preparation that was nearly always paced well enough to be combat competitive with the extant or anticipated threat of the period and its near future. Even in the short lifetime of air power, Fighter Command in 1940 enjoyed a lengthy provenance. Dowding the strategist did not have to improvise on many significant aspects of his Command’s capability. Exceptions clearly included combat tactics, which in practice were adapted (away from the lethal ‘vic’ formation) at the squadron level, and with respect to night fighting which Dowding insisted correctly could be improved only when airborne radar was ready, and suitable two-seat aircraft to carry and employ it.

    Dowding succeeded in preparing an architecture of air defence that could cope with a German air menace that evoled rapidly and altered markedly in quality and quantity of tactical and operational menace as a result of unpredicted, certainly unpredictable, geostrategic changes. Fighter Command was not created, developed, and then fine-tuned to deal with a Luftwaffe based in Northern France (meaning a radar assisted warning time cross Channel of 6 minutes!). RAF leaders had envisaged the German air threat in the 1930s primarily as a menace based in Germany, just possibly the Low Countries, and taking the form of medium bombers without single-seat fighter protection.

    Some might argue that Fighter Command was always likely to win, almost regardless of German choices. With Germany and its Luftwaffe as they were in 1940, one can make a persuasive case to the effect that the Luftwaffe’s campaign direction was not critically important. Given what the Luftwaffe did not know about Fighter Command, and what Clausewitz called the “grammar” of war (applied to 1940), one might argue that it did not much matter whether the Germans bombed airfields, cities, or both. Fighter Command was resilient against the kind of performance that the Luftwaffe was capable of imposing. In principle, Britain’s aircraft manufacturing industry was highly vulnerable to attack, as also were the coastal facilities of the Chain Home radar system(s). But, principle and practice were far apart. And one should not be seduced either by common sense or by imagination into believing that the Luftwaffe might well have made a different operational choice here and there, and as a consequence won the campaign.

    There were systemic reasons why the Luftwaffe of 1940 performed as it did in the way it did. Dowding was certainly fortunate in his enemy’s incompetence, but that is not to argue that he succeeded because he was lucky. It was true that he was the fortunate command legatee of two decades of high British competence in air defence. It is also true to say, however, that Dowding personally contributed very significantly to the future strength of that air defence by virtue of his enthusiastic endorsement of vital technical developments both before and after he assumed command in July 1936. Of course, the successful defensive performance in 1940 was won by a team of outstanding contributors to Fighter Command’s combat potency, but the overarching and most persuasive explanation for the victory was that the Command benefited from superior strategic leadership for long enough to give it decisive advantages over the Luftwaffe. It was not luck that in 1940 Fighter Command had excellent equipment when it mattered most, that it was settled in pursuit of the most prudent and effective master operational concept, that its battlespace general (Keith Park) truly was Dowding’s alter ego in military grasp and strategic sense, and that scientific and technical challenges consistently were addressed competently by the Command.

  4. Command: Dowding persisted with what history demonstrated to be the correct command philosophy and broad guiding concept of operations (near continuous engagement with the minimum force necessary to disrupt him – to limit British losses). He reserved for himself the role of strategist, delegating operational command to his exceptionally capable subordinate, Keith Park, at 11 Group, who played the role of Sherman to Dowding’s Grant.[xvii] Park, in his turn, delegated tactical command to his sector station controllers – up to the point of air-to-air contact, when squadron commanders aloft took charge. Because he adhered firmly to a strategic standard for his performance, Dowding selected a concept of operations for Park to follow that expressed the strategic purpose of the command at that time. Dowding never forgot that his goal was to deny the Germans a convincing narrative that would support the invasion option. He could not decide for Berlin how much damage his Command needed to inflict on the Luftwaffe. What he could do, however, was ensure that no rational, if optimistic, Luftwaffe briefing to the Fuhrer could claim credibly to have defeated the RAF. Overy is plausible when he writes: “It is evident that not a lot was needed to deter Hitler from the idea of invading Britain. Fighter Command tipped the balance.”[xviii] Dowding could not have known this at the time. He needed both to be able to continue to hurt the Luftwaffe seriously, all the while, in the process, never ceasing to demonstrate that Fighter Command remained alive and well enough. Dowding made his single greatest strategic contribution to British survival in 1940 in mid May over the burning issue of the immediate dispatch to France of many more Hurricanes from the home defence force. On 16 May Dowding wrote a 10 point memorandum to the War Cabinet, via the Undersecretary of State for Air, Harold Balfour, in which he explained the current strategic facts of life with characteristic exemplary bluntness.[xix] He wrote that if Fighter Command sent more planes to France (in a losing cause) they would not only fail to save the French, but their loss would all but guarantee the subsequent consequential defeat of Britain also. Dowding prevailed, Fighter Command (almost) ceased leaking Hurricanes to France, and the Command was not expended in a lost cause in May-June. Dowding was not afraid to tell Prime Minister Churchill what he did not want to hear – that we should not try to help the French anymore, even though they were still fighting.

One can summarise Dowding’s concept of operations as minimum effective response, to deny the Luftwaffe even the possibility of a decisive victory in the air (or against airfields). Many of Dowding’s critics could not understand why Fighter Command committed only a fraction of its total force, most especially of its best fighter aircraft, the Spitfire, to combat at any one time. His was not the most exciting of operational concepts, but it was far and away the most prudent, and it was a strategic victory by any plausible definition.


[i] Stephen Bungay, The Most Dangerous Enemy: A History of the Battle of Britain (London: Aurum Press, 2000), p.379.
[ii] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, tr. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (1832-4; Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), p.76.
[iii] See Williamson Murray, Military Adaptation: With Fear of Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).
[iv] On the basics of strategy, see my “Strategy: Some Notes for a User’s Guide”; Infinity Journal, Vol.2, No.2 (Spring 2012), pp. 4-9.
[v] I address the importance and challenge of assumptions in my Perspectives on Strategy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2013), ch.1.
[vi] The two most essential English language studies of the Luftwaffe are James S. Corum, The Luftwaffe: Creating the Operational Air War, 1918-1940 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1997), and Williamson Murray, Luftwaffe (Baltimore, MD: The Nautical and Aviation Publishing Company of America, 1985). For British air defence one is grateful to John Ferris who published an exhaustive series of studies on the subject: to select but two, see Ferris, “Achieving Air Ascendancy: Challenge and Response in British Strategic Air Defence, 1915-1940”, in Sebastian Cox and Peter Gray, eds., Air Power History: Turning Points from Kitty Hawk to Kosovo (London: Frank Cass, 2002), pp. 21-50, and “Catching the Wave: The RAF pursues a RMA, 1918-39”, in Talbot C. Imlay and Monica Duffy Toft, eds., The Fog of Peace and War Planning: Military and Strategic Planning under Uncertainty (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2006), pp.159-78. Also see the official history: T.C.G. James, The Growth of Fighter Command, 1936-1940 (Restricted, 1942-3; London: Frank Cass, 2002).
[vii] See Robin Higham and Stephen J. Harris, eds., Why Air Forces Fail: The Anatomy of Defeat (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2006), esp. p.355.
[viii] Coercion from the air is discussed at length in Robert A. Pape, Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996). I do not find Pape entirely convincing. See Colin S. Gray: Understanding Airpower: Bonfire of the Fallacies, Research Paper 2009-3 (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air Force Research Institute, March 2009), pp.38-41, and Airpower for Strategic Effect (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 2012), pp. 296-8.
[ix] John Ferris, “Airbandit: C31 and Strategic Air Defence during the First Battle of Britain, 1915-18”, in Michael Dockrill and David French, eds., Strategy and Intelligence: British Policy during the First World War (London: Hambledon Press, 1996), pp. 23-66.
[x] Bungay, The Most Dangerous Enemy, p.236.
[xi] See Horst Boog “German Intelligence in the Second World War and Sebastian Cox “A Comparative Analysis of RAF and Luftwaffe Intelligence in the Battle of Britain, 1940”, in Michael I. Handel, ed., Intelligence and Military Operations (London: Frank Cass, 1990), pp. 350-424, and 425-43 respectively. Also see Paul Kennedy, “British ‘Net Assessment’ and the Coming of the Second World War’, and Williamson Murray, “Net Assessment in Nazi Germany in the 1930s”, in Murray and Allan R. Millett, eds., Calculations: Net Assessment and the Coming of World War II (New York: The Free Press, 1992), pp. 19-59, and 60-96.
[xii] Giulio Douhet, The Command of the Air (1927, 1942: New York: Arno Press, 1972), p.50.
[xiii] Bungay, The Most Dangerous Enemy, p. 224.
[xiv] In preparing this article, I have drawn upon my study written for the Office of Net Assessment (U.S. DoD, OSD) entitled “Dowding and the British Strategy of Air Defense, 1936-40”.
[xv] See Vincent Orange, Dowding of Fighter Command: Victor of the Battle of Britain (London: Grub Street, 2008). This is a useful biography that only strays occasionally into hagiography.
[xvi] Clausewitz, On War, p. 605.
[xvii] Vincent Orange, Park: The Biography of Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park (London: Grub Street, 2001).
[xviii] Overy, The Battle of Britain, p. 110.
[xix] Dowding’s famous memorandum is reprinted in James, The Growth of Fighter Command, 1936-1940, pp. 131-2.