Goering and the Battle of Britain

On June 5, the day after Dunkirk had fallen, Milch joined Goering in his train, which was drawn up in a tunnel near the Channel coast, and proposed that a carefully co-ordinated series of mass parachute landings should be made on the R.A.F. fighter stations in England. Goering agreed to put this to Hitler.17 Further meetings to discuss it were held on June 18 and 27, by which time France had capitulated.

Hitler, however, still hoped for peace, and he gave another, and this time a political, reason, which Halder duly noted, why he did not want the decisive battle against the Allies to take place on Flemish soil; he regarded the Flemish as cousins to the Germans, and he wanted to keep their land intact. Also he was beginning to think he could persuade the British to accept peace now that Germany was dominant in Western Europe. He seems to have accepted Goering’s failure in good part, perhaps for this reason. He invited Mussolini to join in the final defeat of France once the French Air Force had been liquidated. Mussolini entered the war on June 10, but his forces made no headway in the south, while the French high command refrained from any offensive action against Italy. The victory was Hitler’s, and the armistice terms that he dictated to France were entirely of his making. On June 18 Hitler said to Goering, “The war is finished. I’ll come to an understanding with England.” Goering, greatly moved, beamed and said, “Now at last there will be peace.”

When Churchill rejected Hitler’s propagandist peace offer, the problem was thrown back to Hitler and his commanders whether or not to proceed with the invasion of Britain. Both Kesselring and Student, like Milch, were said to have been in favor of invasion after Dunkirk, but Goering rejected this immediately. If Britain was to be beaten, bombing must come first. So Air Fleets 2 and 3 were concentrated along the newly captured Channel coast during June and July, when Hitler was turning over in his mind the various ways in which Britain could be brought to the point of negotiation or capitulation.

Hitler hated the sea. As Halder noted, he thought crossing the Channel would be very hazardous, and the German high command had had no experience in naval operations, except for the none-too-encouraging action in Norway which had seriously depleted Germany’s small Navy. All the preliminary, theoretical planning in 1939 for Operation Sea Lion, the projected invasion of Britain, had led to doubts from one source or another, and now when the time had come to take advantage of Britain’s weakness (in July Britain could have armed only some six divisions on her own soil, whereas arms were available for twenty by September), controversy and indecision dominated Hitler’s headquarters. Goering had a habit of trying to curry favor with Hitler by showing up the deficiencies of the other commanders. The feud between Raeder and Goering, which had started over the Scandinavian invasion, intensified. Goering had sent Raeder a grossly insulting telegram telling him to mind his own business, in reply to the Admiral’s request that a strong air force be kept to protect the German naval base at Trondheim. Because of the uselessness of the Navy during the western campaign, Raeder came to Hitler’s headquarters bursting with plans for transporting German troops to the shores of England. Rundstedt’s counterproposals were unacceptable to the Navy. Milch mulled over the idea of dropping paratroopers on the English airfields, and Kesselring, convinced that landings would be possible on the beaches he could see with the naked eye from Cap Gris-Nez, chafed at the inaction forced upon him. With Hitler’s and Goering’s approval, “deception drops” of fake paratroop materiel, maps and instructions were made by the Luftwaffe to unnerve the British and give them rumors to publish in the press. When, in late June, the R.A.F. sporadically bombed Germany, Goering wanted to strike back, but Hitler still restrained him, though very minor operations over England were outlined in a directive issued by Goering on June 30. By mid-July, Hitler had approved the final invasion plan, and at a conference convened by Goering on July 21 he told his staff that they now had a new task ahead of them: inflicting damage on the British Navy in the United Kingdom. By the end of July Hitler was persuaded by Raeder to consider giving up the idea of invasion during 1940, but meanwhile to unleash the Luftwaffe against Britain. The order was issued on August 1. Sea Lion, over which the Army and the Navy continued to wrangle, would depend on the results.

Meanwhile, on July 24, Goering had cordially entertained another peacemaker at Carinhall—Dr. Albert Plesman, head of the Dutch K.L.M. airline, in which Goering’s nephew, Peter Goering, had served as a pilot. Plesman wanted to do precisely what Dahlerus had done, fly between Germany and England as an informal negotiator between the governments. He had his own plan for peace, with neatly defined spheres of influence extending to Africa. Goering smiled and promised to talk to Hitler when the Führer returned from Berchtesgaden. The plan reached Lord Halifax by late August and was rejected; by September Goering was at pains to dissociate himself from it when Dr. Plesman ran him to earth in The Hague and tried to stop him from making London the target for mass raids.

Goering, as always, was optimistic about the destruction the Luftwaffe would inflict on Britain. In an order dated July 11, he directed that when the time came both the British air armament industry and the Royal Air Force must be destroyed “at the earliest possible moment by the first blows of the attack.” The defenses of southern England, he estimated, would last only four days and the R.A.F. four weeks; Goering felt the Luftwaffe could underwrite the invasion for Hitler within a month, and on July 21 he sent a message to Hitler in Berchtesgaden that he would like “to be given freedom to launch attacks against Britain’s fighter pilots, Air Force, aircraft industry, ports, industries, oil centers, and the Channel area.” Goering even thought his success might make invasion unnecessary, and by September he was reported as saying that he did not believe Operation Sea Lion would ever take place.

Nevertheless, plans for paratroop landings were prepared during August, and raids on the ports were carried out along with the other targets. On August 2, following Hitler’s directive, Goering issued his orders for the destruction of the R.A.F. Nothing had happened by August 10, however, because by the time the Luftwaffe was ready to undertake its first major raid the fine weather had passed. Raeder could not let this chance go; the Naval War Staff put on record that, for reasons not known to them, the Luftwaffe had “missed opportunities afforded by the recent favorable weather.” Meanwhile, Goering at his headquarters near Paris raged at the weather reports that were spoiling his major operation. The heavy raids on the ports began eventually on August 11, and the attacks on airfields on August 13 and 14. On the fifteenth, 801 bomber and 1,149 fighter sorties were flown. The Battle of Britain had begun, but in such difficult weather conditions that Goering was driven to despair.

Goering was based on his famous wartime railway cavalcade, the mobile headquarters which were called by the code name Asia. His personal train was preceded by a pilot train of normal coaches together with cars for the transport of automobiles; this was followed by Goering’s own train, which had open cars at either end on which antiaircraft gun crews were stationed. The coach in which Goering traveled had two bedrooms, a small study and luxurious toilet arrangements and was joined immediately to a second coach, designed as a sitting room, with film projection facilities. A third coach held Goering’s command post and operations room, and a fourth was his dining saloon. Other coaches were attached for the comfort of guests and senior staff. The trains were normally stationed where they could easily be shunted into a tunnel in the event of air raids. Goering took with him Kropp, a staff doctor and his devoted nurse, Christa Gormanns, who had charge of his medicines; Hitler was constantly on the telephone, demanding progress reports, and Goering was often driven to a state of nervous exhaustion.

The story of the blitzkrieg on Britain has been told from every point of view, describing the experiences, excitements and sufferings of men and women in the air and on the ground. It lasted in its full extent from mid-August 1940 to mid-May 1941, with a brief period of relief in the height of winter, from January 18 to March 8, when only a few comparatively light raids took place. The raids began on the ports, the airfields, the radar stations and the aircraft plants; experiments in night bombing, although they affected the civilian population, missed for the most part the targets for which they were intended. German superiority in numbers kept the British fighter pilots working round the clock at an appalling strain; on average, Goering sent about a thousand aircraft a day over Britain, six hundred or more of them fighters which were intended to keep the R.A.F. at bay.

Goering was deeply dissatisfied with the progress made; there was no question by now that the Spitfires were more than a match for the Stukas as well as the twin-engine and even the single-engine Messerschmitts, and that the bomber losses were becoming serious. The R.A.F. could not be tempted to commit the majority of its planes to the air at one time, a move which could have led easily to its disintegration, nor could it be destroyed on the ground. The Royal Air Force remained intact in spite of the efforts of the Luftwaffe to destroy it. On August 18 Goering summoned his leaders and told them with heavy sarcasm to attack the aircraft industries and “not the lightship off Dover,” and then sent them back to their bases. He summoned Galland to Carinhall. Galland flew to Berlin and noted with some disgust how little the pleasure-loving capital seemed to care about the struggle on the coast in which so many young men were losing their lives. Then he was driven to the luxurious Carinhall, was decorated by Goering with the Gold Pilot Medal with jewels and was told that younger blood was needed in the command to improve the fighter service. He was promoted a group commodore. Later, when Goering was at the front grumbling at his men, Galland told him that what was needed to carry out his wishes was “an outfit of Spitfires.”

It was out of revenge for a small raid on Berlin that Hitler agreed to launch the blitz on London, and this operation, so costly to the Luftwaffe, began on September 7.

Goering, who preferred to direct all his operations from his headquarters in Paris, went in person to the coast for the first time on September 7 to direct the flow of aircraft to London. He stood on the hillside near Cap Blanc-Nez, which was an air command post for Air Fleet 2, and broadcast to the nation about the destruction of London and the flight of the Luftwaffe to strike “right into the enemy’s heart.” Over six hundred bombers and six hundred fighters flew to London within twenty-four hours. He was prodigal with his aircraft, and he paid for it proportionately.

Goering took his nurse, Christa Gormanns, to the front with him, and on occasion she took messages and telephoned orders on his behalf. He began to vacillate in his attempts to avert the increasing losses inflicted on the Luftwaffe, mixing his changes of tactics with wishful thinking, such as his remarks on September 16: “Stick by the enemy; then, in four or five days, his fighters will be out! Then aircraft-producing centers must be eliminated. . . . Sea Lion must not disturb or burden the Luftwaffe operations.” Meanwhile, the R.A.F. was itself bombing the vessels and equipment assembled along the coast in preparation for Sea Lion. Hitler, blowing now hot, now cold, was beginning to think of Russia and the possibility of winning golden victories in the east while leaving England pinned down like a broken butterfly by the Luftwaffe.

On September 17 Hitler decided “to postpone Sea Lion indefinitely.” This was a bitter blow to Goering, who realized that this was Hitler’s formal acknowledgment of his failure. His staff, according to General Karl Koller, noticed the change in him. He ordered his train to be made ready to leave and told his commanders to bomb Britain mercilessly—but by night, when her fighters were immobilized.

Galland had a private conversation with Hitler on September 24 when he came to Berlin to receive the oak leaves to the Knight’s Cross, the highest award that could be given apart from the Grand Cross, which was reserved for Goering alone. He expressed his admiration for the R.A.F.; Hitler agreed with him and said it was tragic that the Germans and the British should be at war; the destruction of Britain would leave “a vacuum . . . which it would be impossible to fill.” Galland then went to Rominten to shoot with Goering, who met his young air commodore in his favorite leather jacket, silk blouse, and belt with the hunting knife. They stayed in Rominten with the stags for three days, during which time the Luftwaffe sustained one of its worst series of losses. At this time Goering permitted a release to the foreign press that he had himself recently flown over London, but this was withheld from the German papers. There was, in any case, no truth in the report.

Meanwhile Goering had continued the campaign from the air against Britain. The docks and the East End of London suffered during the first phase of the bombing of London in September. During this period the Luftwaffe learned that it paid to bomb by night rather than by day, and the dreaded periods during the autumn became the nights when “the bomber’s moon” was shining. On October 18 Goering decided to praise his young men: “Your indefatigable, courageous attacks on the head of the British Empire, the city of London . . . have reduced the British plutocracy to fear and terror.” The night raids continued on both London and the provincial centers until January 19; the heavy raid on Coventry took place on November 14. There was a lull until March 8, when the bombing of London and the provinces was resumed on a large scale and lasted until May. Neither the antiaircraft barrage nor the night fighters were at this stage very successful; on the other hand the bombing itself was frequently inaccurate, and the Luftwaffe sustained heavy losses through flying in bad weather. The Luftwaffe fighter pilots were angry when a third of their Messerschmitts were converted into fighter-bombers; Goering retorted by saying this had to be done because of their failure to protect the bombers from the R.A.F. The result was that the fighter pilots dropped the bombs anywhere merely in order to be rid of them; they did not regard themselves as cargo carriers. With an eye on morale and personal popularity, Goering gave all the pilots in the Channel area a free skiing holiday in the new year, withdrawing the units one by one for rest and refitment during the period of January and February when the ground was unsuitable for take-off. The British were able to recover some of their lost sleep.

When spring arrived the night fighters became increasingly successful, but Hitler was determined to keep the raids heavy for as long as possible before the Russian campaign began, if only as a reprisal for the growing number of raids the R.A.F. was now mounting against Germany. By the end of May 1941 the period of the great raids on Britain was over, and Kesselring was ordered to move Air Fleet 2 to Poznań in readiness for the assault on Russia on June 22.

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