War/Conflict: Battle of Britain, WWII
Date: 24/25 August 1940
Event: A small group of German bombers miss their intended night-time target and accidentally drop their bombs on London, destroying homes and killing British citizens.
Impact: Air superiority was a prerequisite for invading Britain. Without it, an invading force would be vulnerable to British air and naval power. In an attempt to achieve superiority, the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) had concentrated its airpower during the early stages of the Battle of Britain against the Royal Air Force (RAF). The Germans were on the cusp of defeating the RAF and ruling the skies when the accidental bombing of London occurred. Up to that point in the war, a tacit ‘gentleman’s agreement’ had existed between Britain and Germany that civilian targets were off limits to bombing raids, especially targets in each other’s capitals. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill interpreted this unintentional bombing of the capital as a deliberate strike against defenceless civilians and, in reprisal, ordered a series of bomber attacks against Berlin. Enraged, Hitler ordered the Luftwaffe to switch from their successful attacks against RAF airfields and facilities and conduct a ‘Blitz’ bombing of London and other British cities. While ‘the Blitz’ resulted in tens of thousands of British civilian casualties and vast destruction, from a military perspective, the purely revenge attacks relieved the pressure on the RAF and allowed it to recover. Not only did the Germans lose the Battle of Britain, but they were prevented from invading Britain, and Britain subsequently became the essential platform for massive unrestricted aerial bombing of Germany and for the Allied invasion of Europe.
World War I was to be ‘the war to end all wars’. In reality, it did little more than lead to another global conflict just over two decades later. While the Treaty of Versailles signed in June 1919 prohibited Germany’s rearmament, the Germans surreptitiously worked on military aircraft development under the guise of civil aviation.
Following his assumption of power as Chancellor of Germany in January 1933, Adolf Hitler openly pursued militarisation in violation of the treaty, and the existence of the German air force, the Luftwaffe, was formally acknowledged in 1935, under the leadership of Reich Aviation Minister Hermann Göring.
Four years later, on 1 September 1939, Europe was at war. Initially, US President Franklin D Roosevelt issued a plea to the belligerents to confine their air raids to military targets. The British and French acquiesced, with the caveat that such an agreement was contingent on Germany doing the same.
While it was understood that aerial bombing against military targets and transportation infrastructure could result in inadvertent civilian casualties, the British government disavowed the intentional bombing of civilians.
The war on the Continent did not go well. By 25 May 1940, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had fallen back to the vicinity of Dunkirk, a small coastal port located in the north of France, on the shores of the North Sea near the Belgian–French border. To the west, 21 miles across the English Channel’s Straits of Dover, lay the British Isles.
The BEF’s evacuation started on 27 May. By the time ‘the Miracle of Dunkirk’ was completed on 4 June, more than 338,000 men, including a large number of French troops, had escaped, nearly 86% of those trapped on the beaches. However, in addition to the 57,000 soldiers left behind, there was a complete army’s worth of heavy equipment. Consequently, while England had an army of men ready to fight another day, it had virtually no artillery, tanks, or trucks.
The French signed an armistice and cease-fire that went into effect on 25 June. The Battle of France had ended in a swift and overwhelming German victory. With the fall of France and much of western Europe, Hitler now looked to the subjugation of Britain. ‘The Battle of France is over,’ Churchill had told the House of Commons on 18 June 1940. ‘I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin.’
While German historians date the Battle of Britain from mid August 1940 to the end of May 1941, when Luftwaffe units were moved east in preparation for the invasion of the Soviet Union, the British date the battle from 10 July to 31 October 1940, the most intense period of German bombing.
In either case, the battle was the first major campaign waged entirely by air forces, with the Luftwaffe employing a mixture of bombers and fighter escorts, and the RAF relying on fighter aircraft.
Following France’s surrender, Hitler hoped Churchill would be compelled to seek an armistice. He did not. Consequently, on 16 June, Hitler issued a directive ‘to prepare a landing operation against England’. The operation was codenamed Sea Lion (Seelöwe).
Hitler and his High Command understood that it would not be practicable to carry out a successful amphibious invasion of Britain as long as the Royal Navy protected the waters, and that the Royal Navy could not be defeated without the RAF, protecting the fleet overhead, being beaten first.
To overcome the RAF, the Luftwaffe had at its disposal a total of 2,550 serviceable aircraft. Of that number, 805 were single-seat fighters, primarily the Messerschmitt Bf109 (Me109), 224 two-seat fighters, 998 medium bombers, and 261 dive-bombers. For its part, the RAF had 1,960 aircraft in defence. Approximately 900 of those planes were single-engine fighters – Supermarine Spitfires and Hawker Hurricanes.
While the Luftwaffe had a fearsome reputation, it was a reputation gained by victories against Poland, the Netherlands, Belgium, France – and, to a degree, an unprepared Britain on the Continent. Relative pushovers.
A significant problem facing the Luftwaffe was that it was not really designed for the mission it was now called on to carry out. Until then, its specialism had been Blitzkrieg – fast, short war that primarily involved the Luftwaffe in dive-bombing and close air support (CAS).
The British mission would not only be more difficult given the Luftwaffe’s lack of long-range bombers, but, more critically, the RAF was a first-class opponent defending its homeland with a fully developed reporting network.
The Battle of Britain can be broken down into five phases of operations, with Phase 1, running from 26 June to 16 July, a series of small-scale, limited, day and night attacks against British forces along the English Channel.
Phase 2 commenced on 17 July and continued through 12 August, with the Luftwaffe increasing the size, number, and intensity of its daylight attacks against Channel shipping, ports, and coastal airfields.
Phase 3, 13 August to 6 September, saw continuing large-scale day-time and night-time attacks on the RAF’s forward airfields and aircraft-component factories, but now also attacks on radar stations, following the realisation of their unique value to the RAF’s fully integrated air-defence network.
While the Luftwaffe’s attempts to destroy the radar stations were sporadic, its unrelenting day and night attacks against RAF airfields and facilities were beginning to achieve significant results. With such around-the-clock bombing, the British were left with little time to repair damaged planes, airfields, or factories, and their pilots were utterly exhausted. As the days passed, Britain was running perilously short of aircraft and pilots.
In a speech on 20 August 1940, Churchill praised the RAF’s efforts with the immortal words, ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.’ What was not known by the general population at the time was that if the German attacks had continued against the airfields at the same rate, the RAF would most certainly have lost air supremacy.
The Butterfly Effect is a metaphor coined in 1972 by Edward Lorenz, an American mathematician, to describe the concept of sensitive and potentially profound dependence on initial conditions in chaos theory – the way a small change at one place in a complex system, such as the beat of butterfly wings, can ultimately, through a series of growing events, have a large impact elsewhere, such as affecting a tornado.
Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz refers in his classic treatise On War to such chaos and complexity as components of the ‘friction’ and ‘fog’ of war. When it comes to Butterfly Effects amid chaos and complexity, where are such history-changing variables more prevalent than on the field of battle?
The Luftwaffe’s bombing had been growing more intense and moving closer to London, as it sought to put RAF airfields and aircraft-production facilities out of commission. While Göring had issued a directive, passed down from Hitler, that London should only be bombed on his specific orders, there were a handful of instances where bombs had missed their intended targets in the outer towns and London suburbs and inflicted civilian casualties. The British, however, had accepted these as collateral damage.
Saturday 24 August 1940 marked a shift in German tactics. Opting to take advantage of its numerical superiority, the Luftwaffe began to launch feint attacks at varying altitudes to force the RAF to burn fuel chasing phantom raids. Then, after the dispersed British fighters were forced to land and refuel, fresh attacks that could not be met would be made. It was an innovative and effective tactic.
The first feint that day was launched at 08:30. About 100 aircraft flew over the Channel, drawing a dozen RAF squadrons into the air, before the Germans returned to their airfields without having dropped a single bomb.
Three more raids were launched during the late morning, afternoon, and early evening, hitting multiple RAF airfields, as well as the London Docks and the vital Thames Estuary. The RAF suffered heavy losses, while more than 100 civilians were killed.
The day was not over. At 22:50, another large formation of German bombers was tracked heading north from Cherbourg in France. Crossing the Channel, the approximately 170 Heinkel He111s of Kampfgeschwader 1 flew 140 miles towards the general vicinity of London.
The Luftwaffe’s targets were a factory of the Short aircraft company at Rochester in Kent and the Thames Haven oil-storage tanks, each approximately 25 miles east of central London.
The Germans employed a radio guidance system called Knickebein (‘Crooked Leg’) that the British could deceive by using false radio signals that sent them off course.
Navigational errors, British counter-measures, and air-crew exhaustion prompted the bombers to overshoot their targets and mistakenly fly on towards blacked-out London in the early morning hours of 25 August. While most of the bombers dropped their explosives around the docks of East Ham and West Ham, justified military targets, there were a scattering of others that mistakenly bracketed central London with their bombs – 16 miles west in Staines, 12 miles south-west in Esher, and 8 miles north in north London.
Additionally, there was one lone Heinkel that just so happened to drop its payload of approximately eight bombs, totalling two tons, directly on the financial heart of London: Fore Street in the Barbican. For the first time since the Zeppelin raids in World War I, in addition to factories and other military targets, the night sky of London glowed red from the flames of hundreds of burning homes.
Interpreting the attack as deliberate rather than accidental, Churchill immediately and forcefully responded to the London bombing with a ‘massive’ retaliatory strike against the Nazi capital. Ordered to execute a bombing that same day, the RAF Bomber Command launched 95 Hampden and Wellington twin-engine medium bombers on the evening of 25 August to strike two targets – Tempelhof Airport, two miles south of central Berlin, and Siemensstadt, six miles west.
Fighting heavy headwinds, 81 bombers made it to the cloud-covered area around Berlin and dropped their payloads, with unspectacular results. RAF bomber accuracy was beyond pitiful in the early years of the war, and Churchill’s massive retaliation resulted in only a handful of bombs falling within Berlin’s city limits. In total, the ‘massive’ retaliatory raid destroyed a summer house located in Rosenthal, a Berlin suburb five miles north of the city centre, and struck the Berlin Zoo. A total of two Germans were slightly injured at the summer house, and one elephant was killed at the zoo.
Given the pathetic results of the first bombing, Churchill ordered Bomber Command to repeat the Berlin raid. Over the next two weeks, there were five more raids – though with similarly meagre results.
While it was reported that Hitler was furious when he learned of the inadvertent bombing of London on 24/25 August, he was even more enraged over Churchill’s growing number of retaliatory strikes against Berlin, despite their relative ineffectiveness.
Totally disregarding the stunning tactical success of the Luftwaffe’s attacks against RAF airbases up to that time, an incensed Hitler ordered Göring to shift the air-war strategy from neutralising the RAF airfields to reprisal raids on British cities, London in particular.
On 7 September, history was forever changed when Phase 4 of the Battle of Britain, the London ‘Blitz’, commenced.
Hitler’s focus on ‘erasing’ British cities started on 7 September, a day that would be labelled in Britain ‘Black Saturday’. It was late afternoon on a beautiful sunny day when London’s air-raid sirens sounded at 16:43 hours as 300 German bombers appeared overhead. By the time the all-clear was given, approximately 12 hours later, more than 625 tons of explosives and tens of thousands of incendiary devices – a single bomber could carry 700 of these combustible bomblets – had been dropped on the city. A total of 430 Londoners had been killed and 1,600 seriously injured. It would be the first of 57 consecutive days and nights of bombing.
Göring did not oppose Hitler’s change in strategy, believing that RAF Fighter Command was on its last legs and would commit and sacrifice its remaining fighters to defend London.
He was correct regarding the RAF’s response, but overlooked the fact that in attacking London, the extreme distance placed the bombers’ Me109 fighter escorts at a serious disadvantage.
By the time the force arrived over the city, the German fighters – because of their limited 410-mile range – had only minutes of loiter time to defend the bombers before being forced to turn back to the Channel. This left the slower moving and lightly armed bombers exposed and vulnerable to RAF fighters. German losses grew substantially greater with each passing mission.
The Battle of Britain reached its zenith on 15 September, the very day by which Göring had earlier assured Hitler that the RAF would be destroyed. Perhaps not coincidentally, then, the Luftwaffe launched a massive raid of more than 1,100 aircraft – 400 bombers and 700 fighter escorts – in an all-out attack.
By mid-afternoon, the RAF had committed every fighter from its reconstituted airfields that could take to the air. By the day’s end, the Luftwaffe had lost 56 aircraft shot down over the island, with many others ditching in the Channel or limping back to their bases with major battle damage. RAF losses were placed at 28, half that number. Britain would remember 15 September as ‘Battle of Britain Day’.
Unable to sustain such continued losses, the Luftwaffe would never again seek to engage RAF Fighter Command with such large numbers. Two days later, Hitler indefinitely postponed Operation Sea Lion. The invasion of Britain was off.
Phase 5, the last and final one, began on 3 October as the Luftwaffe gradually moved to smaller day-time and larger night-time attacks. This transition resulted in fewer losses but significantly reduced accuracy. It was a concession by the German air force that it had, in effect, lost the Battle of Britain.
While the British considered the battle over by the end of October 1940, when the Luftwaffe essentially changed tactics again to all night-time raids, German historians place the date seven months later, at the end of May 1941, when the Luftwaffe, unable to support a two-front war, repositioned its forces to the east in preparation for Operation Barbarossa.
As history would later reveal, the accidental attack of a single flight of bombers that fateful night of 24/25 August 1940 led to a singular, short-term consequence and a series of long-term tertiary strategic effects.
The immediate, short-term impact of the raid was the salvation of the RAF. Until that night in late August 1940, the Luftwaffe’s operational tactic of intensely concentrated air strikes against RAF airfields and installations had nearly brought Fighter Command to its knees. A majority of experts are in agreement that just an additional week or two of similarly sustained attacks would have resulted in the RAF’s defeat and Hitler’s air victory.
With the Royal Air Force beaten and no aircover, the Royal Navy’s defence of the Channel would have been severely compromised, perhaps opening the British Isles to invasion.
Given the British Army’s post-Dunkirk lack of heavy equipment, Churchill’s plan to ‘fight on the beaches, … on the landing grounds, … in the fields and in the streets’ would most likely not have gone well.
Churchill’s retaliatory response against Berlin for this accidental strike, and Hitler’s subsequent furious Blitz vengeance against British cities, saved the RAF from defeat.
In addition, aside from the long-term impact of the British Isles remaining free of Nazi occupation, the accidental raid of 24/25 August resulted in another long-term critical outcome – unrestricted strategic bombing. The ‘eye for an eye’ reprisal bombings of August and September 1940 led to indiscriminate carpet bombing of civilian populations by both sides. Unfortunately for the Germans, they would become Europe’s primary victims.
The survival of Britain as an independent belligerent was also of vast strategic significance in the land-based struggle to destroy Hitler’s continental empire: Britain became the military platform from which the Second Front was, in due course, launched.
The Battle of Britain was the first serious defeat experienced by Hitler in the Second World War and, arguably, a crucial turning-point of the conflict. The Luftwaffe’s failure to defeat the RAF set in motion a series of events that would eventually lead not only to the Nazi war machine’s defeat, but also to the near-total destruction of Germany’s entire civil infrastructure.
Though Britain regards 15 September as the turning-point, perhaps it should really be the wee hours of 24/25 August 1940, when a handful of aircraft out of a flight of 170 Luftwaffe Heinkel bombers missed their assigned military targets and accidently bracketed or struck central London, thus provoking Churchill into breaking the agreement between the two warring countries and ordering a strike against the German capital that set in train a series of events that perhaps determined the outcome of World War II in Europe. •
John D Lock, Lieutenant-Colonel, US Army (ret’d), is a graduate and former assistant professor of the United States Military Academy, West Point. A Ranger-qualified Master Parachutist and honour graduate from many of the Army’s premier leadership courses, his assignments included the 1st Armored and 82nd Airborne Divisions, as well as serving as the chief NATO SFOR engineer in the Balkans during the Kosovo Campaign.
All images: WIPL, unless otherwise stated.