On the German side, no plans had been made for an invasion of Britain before the Germans launched their offensive against France, nor were any made even when the collapse of France was assured. The German army was given to understand that the war was over; leave was granted, and the Luftwaffe was shifted to other quarters.
It was not until July 2 that Hitler even ordered a consideration of the problem of invading England , and he still seemed to doubt its necessity when at last, on July 16, he ordered preparations to begin for such an invasion, christened Operation Sea Lion. Hitler stipulated that the expedition be ready by mid-August. The German army was in no way prepared for such an undertaking. The staff had not contemplated it, the troops had been given no training for landing operations, and nothing had been done to build landing craft for the purpose.
All that could be attempted was a hurried effort to collect shipping, bring barges from Germany and the Netherlands, and give the troops some practice in embarkation and disembarkation.
The German generals were very apprehensive of the risks that their forces would run in crossing the sea, and the German admirals were even more frightened about what would happen when the Royal Navy appeared on the scene. They had no confidence in their own power to stop the enemy, and they insisted that the responsibility for doing so be placed on the Luftwaffe. Beginning with bomber attacks against shipping on July 10 and continuing into early August , a rising stream of air attacks was delivered against British convoys and ports.
The British disposed slightly more than frontline fighters to defend the country. The Germans meanwhile made available about 1, bombers and dive-bombers and about single-engine and twin-engine fighters. These were based in an arc around England from Norway to the Cherbourg peninsula in northern coastal France.
For the defense of Britain, Fighter Command was divided into four groups, of which the most hard-pressed during the Battle of Britain were Number 11 Group, defending southeastern England and London and headquartered at Uxbridge, Middlesex; and Number 12 Group, defending the Midlands and Wales and headquartered at Watnall, Nottinghamshire. The other two groups were Number 10, defending southwestern England, and Number 13, defending northern England and all of Scotland. Each group was divided into sectors, which received reports from group headquarters about approaching Luftwaffe formations and mobilized squadrons of planes from numerous airfields to fight them off.
The British radar early warning system , called Chain Home, was the most advanced and the most operationally adapted system in the world. Even while suffering from frequent attacks by the Luftwaffe, it largely prevented German bomber formations from exploiting the element of surprise.
The British thus found themselves fighting with the unexpected advantage of superior equipment. German bombers mostly lightly armed twin-engine planes such as the Heinkel He and Junkers Ju 88 lacked the bomb load capacity to strike permanently devastating blows, and they also proved, in daylight, to be easily vulnerable to the British fighters.
Nevertheless, Fighter Command was losing badly needed fighters and experienced pilots at too great a rate to be sustained. In addition to technology, Britain had the advantage of fighting against an enemy that had no systematic or consistent plan of action. At the beginning of September, the Germans dropped some bombs, apparently by accident, on civilian areas in London , and the British retaliated by unexpectedly launching a bombing raid on Berlin. This so infuriated Hitler that he ordered the Luftwaffe to shift its attacks from Fighter Command installations to London and other cities.
Beginning on September 7, London was attacked on 57 consecutive nights.
The bombing of London, Coventry , Liverpool , and other cities went on for several months, but it had the immediate benefit for the RAF of relieving the pressure on Number 11 Group and also bringing more German bomber formations into the sectors of the formidable Number 12 Group. By mid-September, Fighter Command had demonstrated that the Luftwaffe could not gain air ascendancy over Britain.
British fighters were shooting down German bombers faster than German industry could produce them. Shortly before 5am on Friday the 1st September , German forces stormed the Polish frontier. Tanks and motorised troops raced into the country over ground baked hard by a glorious summer. Supported by screeching Stuka dive-bombers, a total of 1.
Berlin radio carried a threatening proclamation by Hitler as early as hours that morning, but many Germans first heard of the invasion at breakfast.
It was a beautiful morning, with a tinge of autumn in the air. Germany is at war! Families ran out onto the pavements. Later on that Friday morning Hitler addressed the Reichstag in Berlin, informing the assembly of the resent events.
Feverish diplomatic activity followed these events, and it was only when all ultimatums had failed that Britain declared war on Germany. All over the nation families gathered around their sets. At His voice was tired and strained. Britain had called for an undertaking from Hitler to withdraw his troops from Poland. Only a few minutes later, sirens wailed out all over London and many other parts of the country, as far north as Sheffield. People hurried to their air-raid shelters. An eerie relaxation spread.
The situation was accepted soberly: there were no outbreaks of flag waving hysteria as there had been at the start of the First World War. So too did France, whose government declared war at 5pm. Indeed, throughout Europe, even nations not yet involved in the conflict became nervous. Sweden and Norway, determined to remain neutral, nevertheless red alert. They were stuck on the idea that manoeuvrability in banking was the determining factor in aerial combat. The initial successes he was to achieve were to confirm that he had been right and undoubtedly strengthened his opinion still further.
With regard to aerial warfare, therefore, the Stuka idea must have had a fascination for him.
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The idea of annihilating the enemy from the air, of stifling any resistance by terrific bombing, approached his concept of Blitzkrieg. The enemy had to be beaten, and all his means for a possible counteroffensive must be destroyed, before one was compelled one day to go over to the defensive. The fighters played a subordinate role from the start. They were, so to speak, only tolerated as a necessary evil, a concession to the unpopular act of defence. The strategic concept current in Germany was to regard the Luftwaffe as an instrument off attack. Luftwaffe ground personnel wait to board transport ships that will carry them into a Polish port, September Once in Poland, their tasks will include the creation and defence of airfields as well as the maintenance of aircraft.
The pilot and gunner of a Dornier Do 17 P reconnaissance aircraft are photographed in the cockpit during the campaign in Poland. The men are clearly posing for the camera and are probably not even airborne. As the Polish Air Force had fewer than aircraft, which included reserves, at its disposal in , against which the Germans could field Luftwaffe and 30 Slovak machines, the majority of which were modern, battle-tested designs, the chances of satisfying such a doctrine seemed high.
By midday, only 5 or 6 Gruppen had carried out their missions, hitting pre-selected airfields around Warsaw, only to find that the bulk of the Polish Air Force had dispersed. Nevertheless, some close air support attacks were mounted, despite the lack of safety guarantees, and German ground units soon began to advance deep into western Poland. As the early morning mist clears on a Polish airfield in September , a Luftwaffe sentry stands guard over a pair of Junkers Ju 87 Stukas. The white cross just ahead of the cockpit was a recognition symbol used by the Wehrmacht in Poland.
They enjoyed some success. Attacks on the Polish railway system between the 2nd and the 5th September, for example, led to bottlenecks, which were then bombed mercilessly.
In other Luftwaffe victories, the Polish 13th Division was virtually destroyed en route to the frontline, while Cavalry Brigade Kresowa was badly hit as it detrained. At the same time, airfields continued to be attacked, undermining the overall effectiveness of the Polish Air Force by disrupting its support elements, and Polish aircraft, outnumbered and outclassed, were gradually neutralised.
By the 5th September, the Luftwaffe was running out of worthwhile target. The Germans do not have it all their own way in Poland, as this shot-down Heinkel He P bomber shows. As can be seen, it has undergone some changes to design since the Spanish Civil War, most notably in the heavily glazed nose. But the campaign was not free from problems. On the 8th September, for example, just as the tanks of 1st Panzer Division were about to cross the River Vistula, Stukas swooped down to destroy the bridges in front of them.
Equally significantly, Luftwaffe support units, trained to cover about 8km five miles a day to set up new airfields and communications posts, suddenly found themselves lagging behind an advance that was covering five times that distance. Fuel shortages were one of the results, curtailing the number of sorties that could be flown, and Junkers Ju 52s had to be utilised to deliver jerry cans of petrol to forward airstrips.
Even so, the advance into Poland continued at a lightening pace, and once the Soviets had joined the fray, advancing from the east on the 17th September in accordance with the terms of a pact with Hitler signed the previous month; there was little the Poles could do to stave off disaster and ultimate defeat. By then, the Luftwaffe had lost aircraft destroyed and badly damaged, with personnel killed or missing. In return, its reputation as a ruthless and effective arm of the German war machine had been considerably enhanced. Luftwaffe armourers work to prepare a Messerschmitt Bf long-range fighter for offensive operations, Poland, September The belts of ammunition are being checked before they are loaded into the nose cavity that house the main armament of four 7.
It is a laborious process.
Such a reputation was invaluable in the West, where Britain and France had declared war on Germany on the 3rd September, for it helped to deter any attacks on Germany from that direction while the Polish campaign continued. Politicians in London and Paris, fearful of Luftwaffe raids on cities that it was believed could not be adequately defended, remained cautious, restricting their own airpower to leaflet drops over Germany and attacks on shipping in the North Sea.
In the latter process, Allied air forces suffered significant losses. On the 18th December , for example, 14 Royal Air Force Wellington bombers were lost out of a force of 24, all of them falling to Messerschmitt Bf twin-engined fighters. This merely reinforced existing fears about Luftwaffe strength. Henschel Hs a single-seat dive-bomber and close-support aircraft, photographed in pre-war livery, Henschel Hs As were still in front-line service with the Luftwaffe in , operating as part of Luftflotte 4 in Poland.
They achieved some ground-attack success despite their obvious obsolescence. Though nations were geared up for mass confrontations, nobody seemed in a hurry to start fighting on land. But Hitler was not one to rest on his laurels. As early as the 27th September, he announced his intention to carry out an immediate attack on the West, exploiting the momentum of victory.
The date for the assault was initially to be the 12th November, but a combination of factors, including poor weather, production delays and opposition from the Generals, led to postponements. On the 27th December, Hitler insisted on the attack taking place sometime between the 9th and the 14th January , and for once it looked as if this would be the case.