THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN – Strategic Thinking

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Serious German aircraft losses from the spring campaign greatly weakened the Luftwaffe before the Battle of Britain. Had that been the only disadvantage under which the Luftwaffe operated, German strategic problems would have been daunting enough, given the difficulties of mounting a major combined arms operation. Unfortunately for the Germans, the strain that recent battles had imposed on their military structure represented only a small portion of the problem; a whole host of strategic, economic, tactical, and technological problems had to be faced and surmounted before the Reich could solve the “British question.”

What made an inherently complex task impossible was the overconfidence that marked the German leadership in the summer of 1940. Hitler, basking in a mood of preening self-adulation, went on vacation. During a visit to Paris after the signing of the armistice, tours of World War I battlefields, and picnics along the Rhine, the last thing on Hitler’s mind was grand strategy.” The high command structure, however, was such that without Hitler there was no one with either the drive or strategic vision to pick up the reins-a state of affairs precisely in accord with the Fuhrer’s wishes.

Until mid-July 1940, Hitler believed that England would sue for a peace that he would have happily extended to her. As early as May 20, Hitler had remarked that England could have peace for the asking. Nothing in British behavior in the late 1930’s suggested that Hitler’s expectation was unrealistic. In fact, there were still some within the British government who regarded Churchill’s intransigence with distaste. In late May, Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, expressed his alarm at the relish with which Churchill approached his task, while “Rab” Butler, Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, told the Swedish minister in London that “no opportunity would be neglected for concluding a compromise peace if the chance [were] offered on reasonable conditions .”

But the mood in Britain had changed. Churchill, furious at Butler’s indiscretion, passed along a biting note to Halifax. Butler’s whining reply that he had been misunderstood and had meant no offense indicates how much things had changed since Churchill had assumed power.” But one must stress that Churchill’s toughness as the nation’s leader reflected a new mood in Britain. In late June 1940, Admiral Dudley Pound told the French liaison officer at the Admiralty that “the one object we had in view was winning the war and that it was as essential for them [the French] as for us that we should do so. . . . All trivialities, such as questions of friendship and hurting people’s feeling, must be swept aside.” Indeed they were, when for strategic reasons, the British government ordered the Royal Navy to attack and sink the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir .

The Germans missed the new British resolve almost completely, and Hitler’s strategic policy from the summer of 1940 through 1941 sought a method, whether it be military, diplomatic, or political, to persuade the British to make peace. The mood in Berlin was euphoric, since the Germans believed that the war was nearly over. All that remained, from their viewpoint, was to find the right formula for ending hostilities. Confirming this perspective was a strategic memorandum of late June in which Alfred Jodl, the number two man in the OKW, suggested that “the final victory of Germany over England is only a question of time.’ Jodl’s approach to the English “problem” reflected a general failing within the officer corps of all three services. As the campaign in the west in 1940 had shown, the tactical and operational performance of German military forces was without equal. The problem lay on a higher level: that of strategy. The Germans, if they had mastered the tactical and operational lessons of World War I, had not mastered the strategic lessons of that terrible conflict. While the French failure to learn from the last war had immediate consequences in May 1940, in the long run German unwillingness to face that war’s strategic lessons had an even more catastrophic impact on their history.

German strategic planning and discussions throughout the summer of 1940 reflect, in glaring fashion, a failure to grasp the essentials of strategy. The navy had squandered its battle cruiser assets in strategically meaningless operations off Norway in the late spring. The army drew up a plan for the proposed cross-channel invasion, code named “Sea Lion,” that one can charitably describe as irrelevant to and ignorant of the general state of available naval strength . The Luftwaffe throughout the summer, following Goring’s lead, paid minimal attention to the operational problems of a channel crossing by the army in the belief that its victory over the RAF would make an invasion unnecessary.

Jodl’s June memorandum posed two possibilities for German strategy against England: (a) “a direct attack on the English motherland; (b) an extension of the war to peripheral areas” such as the Mediterranean and trade routes. In the case of a direct strategy, there existed three avenues: (1) an offensive by air and sea against British shipping combined with air attacks against centers of industry; (2) terror attacks by air against population centers; and (3) finally, a landing operation aimed at occupying England. The precondition for German success, Jodl argued, must be the attainment of air superiority. Furthermore, attacks on British aircraft plants would insure that the RAF would not recover from its defeat. Interestingly, Jodl suggested that air superiority would lead to a diminishing capacity for the RAF bomber force to attack Germany. It is in this context that German attacks in the coming struggle on Bomber Command’s bases must be seen. By extending the air offensive to interdict imports and to the use of terror attacks against the British population (justified as reprisal attacks), Jodl believed that the Luftwaffe would break British willpower. He commented that German strategy would require a landing on the British coast only as the final blow (“Todesstoss”) to finish off an England that the Luftwaffe and navy had already defeated.

On June 30, 1940, Goring signed an operational directive for the air war against England. After redeployment of its units, the Luftwaffe would first attack the RAF, its ground support echelons, and its aircraft industry. Success of these attacks would create the conditions necessary for an assault on British imports and supplies, while at the same time protecting German industry. “As long as the enemy air force is not destroyed, it is the basic principle of the conduct of air war to attack the enemy air units at every possible favorable opportunity-by day and night, in the air, and on the ground-without regard for other missions.” What is apparent in early Luftwaffe studies is the fact that the German air force regarded the whole RAF as the opponent rather than just Fighter Command. Thus, the attacks on Bomber Command bases and other RAF installations partially reflected an effort to destroy the entire British air force rather than bad intelligence. Parenthetically, the losses in France directly influenced Goring’s thinking. He demanded that the Luftwaffe maintain its fighting strength as much as possible and not allow its personnel and materiel to be diminished because of overcommitments.

In retrospect, the task facing the Germans in the summer of 1940 was beyond their capabilities. Even disregarding the gaps in interservice cooperation-a must in any combined operations-the force structure, training, and doctrine of the three services were not capable of solving the problem of invading the British Isles. The Norwegian campaign had virtually eliminated the Kriegsmarine as a viable naval force. Thus, there were neither heavy units nor light craft available to protect amphibious forces crossing the Channel. The lack of escorting forces would have made “Sea Lion” particularly hazardous because it meant that the Germans possessed no support against British destroyer attacks coming up or down the Channel. The Admiralty had stationed 4 destroyer flotillas (approximately 36 destroyers) in the immediate vicinity of the threatened invasion area, and additional forces of cruisers, destroyers, and battleships were available from the Home Fleet.” Even with air superiority, it is doubtful whether the Luftwaffe could have prevented some British destroyers from getting in among the amphibious forces; the Navy certainly could not. The landing craft that circumstances forced the Germans to choose, Rhine River barges, indicates the haphazard nature of the undertaking as well as the tenuous links to supplies and reinforcements that the Germans would have had across the Channel. Just a few British destroyers among the slow moving transport vessels would have caused havoc.

Air superiority itself represented a most difficult task, given Luftwaffe strength and aircraft capabilities. Somewhat ironically, the strategic problem confronting the Germans in the summer of 1940 represented in microcosm that facing Allied air forces in 1943. Because of the Bf 109’s limited range, German bombers could only strike southern England where fighter protection could hold the loss rate down to acceptable levels. This state of affairs allowed the RAF a substantial portion of the country as a sanctuary where it could establish and control an air reserve and where British industrial power, particularly in the Birmingham-Liverpool area, could maintain production largely undisturbed. Moreover, the limited range of German fighter cover allowed the British one option that they never had to exercise: Should the pressure on Fighter Command become too great, they could withdraw their fighters north of London to refit and reorganize; then when the Germans launched “Sea Lion,” they could resume the struggle. Thus in the final analysis, the Luftwaffe could only impose on Fighter Command a rate of attrition that its commanders would accept. The Germans were never in a position to attack the RAF over the full length and breadth of its domain. Similarly in 1943, Allied fighters could only grapple with the Germans up to a line approximately along the Rhine. On the other side of the line, the Luftwaffe could impose an unacceptable loss rate on Allied bombers. Not until Allied fighters could range over the entire length and breadth of Nazi Germany could Allied air forces win air superiority over the continent.

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