Defense of the air?

At the end of the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe remained intact as an effective fighting force and so did Fighter Command. By April 1945, the Luftwaffe had virtually be destroyed. Does this result suggest a ‘best practice’ method of conducting a defensive counter-air campaign?

An interesting approach, attempting to compare a fairly localised battle (the Battle of Britain was only really the opening of the Seelowe campaign) that last only a few months and a campaign that lasted three years and which ranged across Western Europe.

That both, one or neither force survived the Battle of Britain is largely irrelevant – the key issue is whether they achieved their objectives or not. The the answer to that is probably that neither actually did. The Luftwaffe was charged to clear the RAF from the skies over southern England and the Channel to enable the invasion of Great Britain to commence. The RAF’s mission was to prevent this occurring, and while neither the attainment of control of the air by the Luftwaffe nor the invasion of Great Britain occurred, it is a big ask for the RAF or indeed the Allies to take credit for this (except under the victors’ right to write history as they see it. The key determinator of the outcome of the Battle of Britain was Germany’s decision to switcvh its targeting from the RAF’s forward airfields, where it was without question winning the battle, to a strategically-(mis?)focussed attack on major industrial targets. This provided the RAF a vital respite to regroup and recover and then focus on defeating the Luftwaffe whiule not being under attack itself. It is more true to say that the Battle of Britain was lost by Germany than it was won by the RAF.

It is also not particularly correct to say that the Luftwaffe was virtually destroyed without applying a broader context to the statement. The Luftwaffe continued to fly operationally right up to the last day of the war and hundreds if not thousands of operational aircraft were captured at the war’s end. Not only did German aircraft production increase as the war progressed, it also continued to introduce new technological capabilities into 1945, for the example, operational jet aircraft far in advance of anything that the Allies had on the drawing board. The death knell for the Luftwaffe was not a lack of aircraft or pilots to fly them, but simply places to fly them from (as Allied armies advanced from the West, East and South) and, in the end, fuel to put in them.

We have to be very careful in our use of terminology in this kind of question. There is a major difference between a defensive counter-air campaign, a defensive air campaign and the air component of a defensive campaign. I would contend that defensive counter-air is what we planned on doing in Western Europe should 8 Guards Army ever been so rash as to step across the border casting covetous eyes at the Channel ports, that is, striking deep across the curtain to dislocate and disrupt Warsaw Pact aviation capabilities; a defensive air campaign is what the RAF conducted over southern England in the summer of 1940, and which the Luftwaffe conducted over Western Europe from the end of the Battle of Britain until D-Day; and the air component of a larger defensive campaign is what the Luftwaffe was doing on the Eastern Front from 1943 (probably since the Battle of Kursk) and over Western Europe after D-Day.

Referring back to Seminar Three though, it might seem that the ‘best practice’ that arises from both the Battle of Britain and the air defence of Germany is doctrinal. I remember noting when I read Command of the Air that it must have been a key informing document for the rebirth of the Luftwaffe. But as I read, I started to get the impression that perhaps the creators of the Luftwaffe had only read as far as Part One and not fully grasped the full scope of Douhet’s thoughts. Thinking further on the subject, it was apparent that nor had they grasped the Principle of War relating to the setting and maintenance of the aim; nor that Mahan had attached considerable importance to the need to ensure that any national intent to control any environment must be fully backed up by the capability to apply that control.

The best practice to be taken away is that, if you have an objective, stick to it. Germany failed to do so during the Battle of Britain; and the Allies did in pursuing Germany’s unconditional surrender in May 1945.

Might it remain true that a successful defence for the control of the air between 1939 – 1945 depend on:

a. Early detection.

b. Interpretation of enemy intent.

c. Successful interception.

d. Destruction or deterrence?

Douhet struck the nail fair on the head when he identified the difficulties facing a nation attempting to defend against a like (in terms of capabilities) adversary. Of the four factors listed above, only two are really relevant: successful interception and deterrence. Both the RAF in the Battle of Britain and the Luftwaffe (all arms) had both early detection and relatively interpretation of enemy intent (tactically to strategically) but this clearly did not provide a suitably large advantage over their adversaries. Both failed to successfully intercept attacking forces – success interception being defined as adequate to turn back or neutralise e.g. force them to jettison their payloads, the attacking force.

When a high probability of successful interception is attained or is perceived to have been attained, a state of deterrence may have been achieved. This state existed over most of England from 1941 onwards; in the Mediterranean from the end of 1942; and over the Pacific as the US advanced north from the Solomon Islands. Where desperation or perhaps learning difficulties deny acceptance of a state of deterrence, we have situations like those of the air bridge that attempted to supply the Afrika Korps in Tunisia in 1943; and many of the Japanese (non-kamikaze) air attacks in the latter part of the war.

And has modern technology rendered this quartet of questions obsolete?

As already alluded to above, the advance of time and technology has not altered the response to the question above. Ultimately, while early detection AND accurate interpretation of enemy intent are important enablers, the critical objective is successful interception. Robin Olds’ Bolo tactic against North Vietnamese air defences relied on early detection of US aircraft but equally depended on an inaccurate North Vietnamese interpretation of his intentions to enable successful interception of North Vietnamese defending aircraft. In the Falklands War, it still remains unclear to what extent the British received early warning from the mainland of impending Argentinian attacks. Regardless, the key to maintaining the fleet in San Carlos Bay and other key areas, and ultimately the success of the campaign to retake the islands, was successful interception. Deterrence also played a part in defence of the task force as the sinking of the General Belgrano early in the campaign effectively deterred Argentinean use of its aircraft carrier in the defence of the Malvinas.

The state of deterrence described under the previous over the Gulf can also be seen in DESERT STORM; and over Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003 and 2001 respectively. It may also be why there were no offensive North Vietnamese air operations 1965-73: while the NVAF proved to be a capable defender over its own territory, it was under no illusions as to the outcome had it attempted offensive action against US bases in Thailand, South Vietnam or sailing off the coast. This state of deterrence is one reason why there have been no air incursions into Iraq or Afghanistan and why all incursions have been by land and, for the most part, below the general detection threshold of coalition forces.

The so-called Principles of War include the concept of the offensive. In short, this means to act rather than react, to dictate the time and place, purpose, scope and intensity, pace of operations. It implies the initiative must be seized, retained and fully exploited. From the British and German experience of moulding a defensive counter-air campaign, would such a principle apply equally well to the Defensive!?

Excuse me? “So-called” Principles of War? This questions would indicate that the Principles aren’t that well understand at all…

To understand the concept of the offensive, more so from an air perspective, one only needs to read the early parts of Command of the Air where Douhet lays out the dilemma of the defender. A defensive campaign does not win a war: at best it gains some breathing space. Wellington still had to thump Napoleon at Waterloo, ten years after the defensive victory of Trafalgar; the Allies still had to defeat Germany after the Battle of Britain, otherwise there was little to prevent Germany regrouping and having another crack, especially had it postponed BARBAROSSA; and the Task Force still had to kick the Argies off the Falklands after gaining control of the air over the theatre.

Is an examination of the Battle of Britain and the German defence of the Reich irrelevant to the study of the modern air power applications?

Absolutely but only so long as they are considering within the context within which they occurred: neither can be usefully considered in isolation. What ‘won’ the Battle of Britain was not the RAF but Germany’s decision to not apply the Principle of Selection and Maintenance of the Aim to its air campaign against Britain in 1940. Similarly, Germany’s defeat was a given once America entered the war: regardless of the skill and capability of the Luftwaffe, Germany, like Japan, could simply not compete with America’s industrial and economic horsepower: a lesson the Soviet Union would also learn in 1989.

Why does the Battle of Britain appear to occupy such an important position in the history of air power?

There is much about the Battle of Britain that supports a good myth ranging from Churchill’s words at the time (we will fight them on the beaches,blood sweat and tearsso much to so few, etc); the Arthurian connection to the Merlin; the perception of the under-dog standing up to the local bully; of a few against the many a la Thermopylae, Agincourt, Rorke’s Drift, etc. It was also the first time that the defence of a nation relied so heavily upon an air force and not more traditional land and naval forces but as stated above, it was not the first time that an air force changed the course of a campaign: the Doolittle Raid, Malta or Crete would be better candidates for this distinction. Like Midway and Coral Sea, the Battle of Britain does mark the limit of the Axis advance, noted by Churchill in his ‘end of the beginning’ speech on 10 November 1942.

NJG 1 by Michael Turner



1 thought on “Defense of the air?

  1. Pingback: Defense of the air? (via The World According to Me…) « Calgary Recreational and Ultralight Flying Club

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