Battle of Britain
Bombers and Pilots
The Luftwaffe’s four primary bombers were the Heinkel He 111, Dornier Do 17, and Junkers Ju 88 for level bombing, and the Junkers Ju 87 Stuka for diving attacks. The Heinkel He 111 was used in greater numbers than the others during the conflict and is better known, partly due to its distinctive wing shape. Each level bomber also had a few reconnaissance versions that were used during the battle.
Although successful in previous Luftwaffe engagements, the Stuka suffered heavy losses in the Battle of Britain, particularly on 18 August, due to its slow speed and vulnerability to fighter interception after the dive bombing. As a result of the losses and limited payload and range, Stuka units were largely removed from operations over England and concentrated on shipping instead until they were re-deployed to the Eastern Front in 1941. They returned on occasion, such as on the 13 September attack on Tangmere airfield.
The remaining three bomber types differed in their capabilities; the Heinkel 111 was the slowest; the Ju 88 was the fastest once its mainly external bomb load was dropped; and the Do 17 had the smallest bomb load.All three bomber types suffered heavy losses from British fighters, but the Ju 88 disproportionately so. The German bombers required constant protection by the Luftwaffe’s fighter force. There were not enough Bf 109Es to support more than 300–400 bombers on any given day. Later in the conflict, when night bombing became more frequent, all three were used. However, due to its reduced bomb load, the lighter Do 17 was used less than the He 111 and Ju 88 for this purpose.
On the British side, three bombers were mostly used on night operations against targets such as factories, invasion ports and railway centres; the Armstrong Whitworth Whitley, the Handley-Page Hampden and the Vickers Wellington were classified as heavy bombers by the RAF, although the Hampden was a medium bomber comparable to the He 111. The twin-engined Bristol Blenheim and the obsolescent single-engined Fairey Battle were both light bombers; the Blenheim was the most numerous of the aircraft equipping RAF Bomber Command and was used in attacks against shipping, ports, airfields and factories on the continent by day and by night. The Fairey Battle squadrons, which had suffered heavy losses in daylight attacks during the Battle of France, were brought up to strength with reserve aircraft and continued to operate at night in attacks against the invasion ports, until the Battle was withdrawn from UK front line service in October 1940.
Before the war, the RAF’s processes for selecting potential candidates was opened to men of all social classes through the creation of the RAF Volunteer Reserve in 1936 which “…was designed to appeal, to…young men…without any class distinctions…” The older squadrons of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force did retain some of their upper class exclusiveness but their number were soon swamped by the newcomers of the RAFVR and by Sept 1 1939, 6646 pilots had been trained through the RAFVR.
By summer 1940, there were about 9,000 pilots in the RAF for approximately 5,000 aircraft, most of which were bombers. Fighter Command was never short of pilots, but the problem of finding sufficient numbers of fully trained fighter pilots became acute by mid-August 1940. At all times, new pilots had “almost no chance at all” of surviving their first five sorties because of inexperience, because they received the most-damaged and least-reliable planes, and because they were likely to be their formations’ “tail-end charlie”s and thus most vulnerable. For the survivors, the odds of survival rose during the next 15 sorties as their skill and confidence grew. After 20, however, the odds again decreased to zero.
With aircraft production running at 300 each week, only 200 pilots were trained in the same period. In addition, more pilots were allocated to squadrons than there were aircraft, as this allowed squadrons to maintain operational strength despite casualties and still provide for pilot leave. Another factor was that only about 30% of the 9,000 pilots were assigned to operational squadrons; 20% of the pilots were involved in conducting pilot training, and a further 20% were undergoing further instruction, like those offered in Canada and in Southern Rhodesia to the Commonwealth trainees, although already qualified. The rest were assigned to staff positions, since RAF policy dictated that only pilots could make many staff and operational command decisions, even in engineering matters. At the height of fighting, and despite Churchill’s insistence, only 30 pilots were released to the front line from administrative duties.
For these reasons, and the permanent loss of 435 pilots during Battle of France alone with many more wounded, and others lost in Norway, the RAF had fewer experienced pilots at the start of the battle, and it was the lack of trained pilots in the fighting squadrons, rather than the lack of aircraft, that became the greatest concern for Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding, Commander of Fighter Command. Drawing from regular RAF forces and the Auxiliary Air Force and the Volunteer Reserve, the British could muster some 1,103 fighter pilots on 1 July. Replacement pilots, with little flight training and often no gunnery training, suffered high casualty rates.
The Luftwaffe could muster a larger number (1,450) of more experienced fighter pilots.Drawing from a cadre of Spanish Civil War veterans, they had comprehensive courses in aerial gunnery and instructions in tactics suited for fighter-versus-fighter combat. Training manuals also discouraged heroism, stressing the utmost importance of attacking only when the odds were in the pilot’s favour. However, German fighter formations did not provide a sufficient reserve of pilots to allow for losses and leave, and the Luftwaffe was unable to produce enough pilots to prevent a decline in operational strength as the battle progressed.