To Defeat the Few, Douglas C. Dildy and Paul F. Crickmore

To Defeat the Few, Douglas C. Dildy and Paul F. Crickmore

The Luftwaffe’s Campaign to Destroy RAF Fighter Command, August-September 1940

The aim of this book is to look at the Battle of Britain from the German point of view, looking at the overall aim of the battle, what the Luftwaffe was attempting to achieve at each stage of the battle, how the Luftwaffe’s plans were formed and implemented, right down to the purpose of individual raids.

The prologue includes an explanation of how the authors have divided up the battle, which is largely based on the five stages used by German historians. These stages are compared to the ‘five phases’ of the standard British accounts, both in the text and in a very useful timeline, which includes key events on both sides, the RAF ‘phases’, and the planned and actual dates for the Luftwaffe’s stages of the battle. As one would expect when both sides are describing the same events, the dates of the British phases and German stages generally line up with each other, although what the British saw as phase one of the battle of Britain is the channel battle to the Germans.

Somewhat confusingly this clear framework, with two periods of the battle, each split into stages, isn’t actually followed in the chapter headings. The First Period, Stage 1 becomes Stage 1 and Stage 2 in the chapters. First Period, Stage 2 becomes Stage 3. Second Period Stage 1 is Stage 4, and Second Period Stages 2 and 3 aren’t given stage numbers. 

Early on there is a slight tendency to over-exaggerate the level of experience on the German side. Before May 1940 the majority of Luftwaffe crews had little more combat experience than their British and French opponents. Most had only been involved in the brief campaign in Poland. A limited number of them gained experience in Norway, but that campaign was still going on in May 1940. The one exception are the relatively small number of men who had fought in Spain during the Civil War. However the Germans had made good use of that experience, and did enter the battle with a more effective tactical doctrine for their fighters – flexible formations of four aircraft, compared to rather rigid ‘V’s of three for the RAF.

The focus on the German side means that we learn many things that aren’t mentioned in most books on the battle, starting with the problems caused by the Luftwaffe’s structure. It is well known that it was organised to support the army, but not so well known that it thus lacked an overall planning staff of its own, expecting its overall plans to come from individual army groups or armies. We are also reminded that the Luftwaffe did actually achieve some of its objectives – the early ‘kanalkampf’ did indeed close the English Channel to British shipping for some time. Sometimes the impact is more subtle – what appears as two separate raids in British sources emerges as a single operation here, while mysterious gaps in the attack often turn out to be caused by the Luftwaffe’s 48 hour planning cycle.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t get good material on the British side. There is an excellent section on the strengths and weakness of the Chain Home radar system, explaining how the different systems worked, what information they produced and how it was interpreted.

I do have one mathematical niggle – in the analysis the RAF are said to have over claimed by 238% on the two of the heaviest days (15 and 18 August), claiming 336 victories when they achieved 143. This is actually over claiming by 138%- over claiming by 100% is to claim double what you achieve, over claiming by 200% is to achieve treble, and 238% would have been a claims of 584.

On a more serious mathematical point, I would dispute the suggestion that the Luftwaffe ‘won the numbers game in combat’. If you only include fighter aircraft, the Luftwaffe did indeed shoot down more fighters than they lost, but the battle wasn’t between the two fighter wings – it was between the two air forces, and the German bombers were their key weapon. The simple figures for fighter loses also don’t tell the full story – aircraft could and were replaced – it was fighter pilots who counted, and many of the British and allied fighter pilots who were shot down survived to fight another day.

However this is a fairly minor quibble, and the overall analysis of the campaign, the German objectives and the reasons for their failure, is very convincing. The consistent focus on the German point of view means that we learn things that are normally only mentioned in passing, and I came away from the book feeling that I’d learnt a lot of new information.

1 – Westfeldzug: Why the Battle of Britain occurred
2 – Fall Gelb: Prologue to the Battle of Britain
3 – Dunkirk: Triumph without victory
4 – ‘Was nun?’: Hitler’s strategic options, July 1940
5 – The Luftwaffe’s Capabilities: Germany’s only real means to defeat Great Britain
6 – The Luftwaffe’s Opponent: RAF Fighter Command
7 – Kanalkampf (Channel Battle): The Luftwaffe’s maritime air campaign
8 – Seelöwe (Seelion): Hitler’s plan to invade Britain
9 – Adlerangriff Stage 1: 12-16 August 1940
10 – Adlerangriff Stage 2: 17-18 August 1940
11 – Adlerangriff Stage 3: 24 August to 6 September 1940
12 – Adlerangriff Stage 4: 7-17 September 1940
13 – Defeat Dies Slowly: 17 September through 31 October 1940
14 – Analysis: Assessing the Battle of Britain from the Luftwaffe’s persepective

Author: Douglas C. Dildy and Paul F. Crickmore
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 384
Publisher: Osprey
Year: 2020

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