On the blog today, Paul F. Crickmore, co-author with Douglas C. Dildy looks at how their fascinating title, To Defeat the Few, came about and outlines some of their discoveries and insights.
In the autumn of 2016, my wife Ali and I met up with our dear friends Doug and his wife Annie in Boston, Massachusetts. Over the following ten days, we marvelled at the striking beauty of the ‘New England Fall’ and as is always the case when Doug and I get together, ‘the boys’ conversation’ invariably turned to all matters aviation. One reoccurring subject was the Battle of Britain. Doug had recently finished a book on the subject for Osprey’s new Air Campaign series, and it was an air battle that fascinated us both. As our trip and discussions continued, we determined that much of our knowledge of that titanic air battle was based upon long-established ‘facts’ that were very ‘British-centric’, and that maybe it would be an interesting research project if we studied the battle from the Luftwaffe’s perspective – they after all, were the aggressors calling the shots and leaving the RAF defenders to respond to their initiatives.
Back in our respective homes, given the vast number of books that had been written about the battle during the intervening years, we were surprised to discover how little information from the German side other historians had incorporated into their work since the seminal study written in 1944 by one of the RAF Air Historical Branch’s historians of the time, T.C.G. James. James, in his preface to The Battle of Britain, noted that ‘The reader should bear in mind that there is much about the battle [of Britain] that is not yet certain. Details … reliable information … and authoritative explanations … are still not available.’
In fact, since T.C.G. James wrote those words, a vast amount of information has been made available to researchers in the largely untapped Luftwaffe post-war histories, known as the Karlsruhe Collection. The 42 volumes making up the collection were written by surviving high-ranking Luftwaffe officers from 1952 to 1958, and are on file at the US Air Force Historical Research Agency (HRA) located at Maxwell AFB, Alabama. Also at the HRA are the wartime Luftwaffe headquarters daily situation reports – which also do not appear to have been referenced well in previous histories. Fired up by these discoveries, we approached Marcus Cowper at Osprey, with whom we’d both previously worked on separate projects, with a synopsis. We’d decided that our narrative would record the Battle of Britain not only from the Luftwaffe’s perspective, but also from an operational level of warfare and that we’d use images to tell the story at a tactical level – ‘a picture being worth a thousand words’. Perhaps even more controversially, we wanted to use the best digital colour artists around to colourize half of the image content.
The result is To Defeat the Few – the Luftwaffe’s campaign to destroy RAF Fighter Command, August–September 1940. Its fourteen chapters provide the reader with a detailed context as to exactly why the Battle of Britain took place, its four stages and a final analysis.
Examining the Luftwaffe’s air campaign at the strategic and operational levels unearthed several important discoveries and new considerations in the conduct of this campaign. For instance, German sources make it clear that what has come to be regarded as the Battle’s ‘first phase’, known as ‘Kanalkampf’ (‘Channel Battle’) to the Luftwaffe, was actually a maritime air campaign mounted in concert with the Kriegsmarine, as part of an altogether separate, blockade or Handelskrieg strategy. It was not the ‘first phase’ of the Battle of Britain, but a completely different air campaign that was pursued by the Luftwaffe until it decided instead to attempt to destroy Fighter Command and attain air superiority over south-eastern England for a planned cross-Channel invasion. Kanalkampf is addressed in detail in To Defeat the Few even though this was not its intent.
At the operational level, many previously unidentified factors that played crucial roles in determining the outcome of the campaign were discovered and are described. For example, Luftwaffe fighter formations ‘out-gunned’ their RAF opponents at virtually the same ratio as their resulting ‘kill/loss’ records. This is because Fighter Command’s rigid, obsolete and patently inappropriate three-aeroplane engaged tactics permitted only one fighter in the section – the leader – to be the ‘shooter’ while the two wingmen guarded his tail. So, a 12-aeroplane RAF squadron had four ‘shooters’ at the outset of an engagement. The Luftwaffe – as is well known – used modern fluid ‘finger four’ formations where the flight leader and his deputy were both designated ‘shooters’. So a German 12-fighter formation had six ‘shooters’ – a 1.5 to 1 advantage in squadron-versus-squadron combat. Interestingly, the RAF’s overall loss-to-victory ratio in fighter-versus-fighter dogfights was 1.77:1, statistically virtually identical.
Other discoveries are described and assessed in To Defeat the Few. One of the most famous – and contentious – RAF debates was about the effectiveness of the so-called ‘Big Wing’ concept. In the final analysis, on the operational level it proved to be tactically ineffective because those Midlands-based formations couldn’t operate on the same radio frequencies as the southern sector controllers. Many have wondered why the devastating 7 September raid on London’s East End docks was not effectively intercepted before bombs rained down. The answer is found in the bureaucratic restrictions on the use of the fabled ‘Ultra’ decoded information gleaned from the Nazi’s ‘Enigma’ encoding machine, the devastating suppression of the crucial Biggin Hill Sector Operations Centre, and the difference between an ‘active defense’ versus a ‘static defense’ along the line of approach.
Many other factors – how the Luftwaffe actually planned their operations, why the Luftwaffe consciously chose to bomb airfields that were not Fighter Command bases and others – are also addressed.
What is most important is that To Defeat the Few provides a professional military account and assessment of what was history's first offensive counter-air campaign waged against the world's first integrated air defence system, thereby establishing the blueprint for all that followed it, from the Arab–Israeli Six Day War through Operation Desert Storm.
For this reason, the Battle of Britain – as told from an air campaign perspective – remains vitally relevant even 80 years after it occurred.
To Defeat the Few publishes today! Get your copy now.