The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 8 No 4 - December 1990


by J H A Speir

A cynic once remarked that 'there are lies, damned lies and statistics' and this statement may well be applied when researching the numbers and types of aircraft which took part in the battle of Britain.

In addition to the vast discrepancies which constantly occur between claims of aircraft shot down, losses admitted by the enemy and figures finally produced long afterwards, it is also necessary to contend with false ideas which constantly arise in the minds of the public at large and which, with the passage of time, become enshrined as historical facts. One such myth surrounds the romantically named Spitfire to which is attributed the victory of the RAF in the battle. Possibly because of the attractive, aggressive sound of the name, this aircraft has been beatified as almost the sole contender on the British side, completely ignoring the fact that the efficient and reliable Hurricane formed the equipment of more than half of the squadrons engaged.

Each source consulted offers different figures of the numbers and types of aircraft involved on both sides. The Luftwaffe's effort was predominantly shared between Luftflotte 2 and 3 but Luftflotte 5 flew a small number of sorties and is thus often listed as part of the overall German strength. Further, the Italian Air Force, hovering like a jackal near the 'kill' of a larger predator, actually sent a number of squadrons to north-west Europe and flew a total of over 1 400 sorties over Britain during the month of October. However, the Italian effort was so ineffective that it would be ludicrous to include their men and equipment in the Axis order of battle.

On the British side, apart from the main RAF Fighter Command units, there were some from both RAF Coastal Command and the Fleet Air Arm who took very minor parts in the battle and who have, therefore, not been listed in the main order of battle. It must also be remembered that not the whole of Fighter Command was committed on a daily basis as units had to be maintained to cover the whole of the British Isles including the naval base of Scapa Flow in the extreme north of Scotland. So, the numbers of aircraft and pilots available to the RAF commanders in the south would generally have been less than the serviceable strengths listed in the order of battle. Units were transferred up and down the country as they became battle-weary and under strength and were sent to less active areas to re-group and re-equip. It is largely due to the incredible efforts of the factories and repair units, as well as the training stations, that the RAF did not run out of either aircraft or pilots, although the attrition of the latter assumed grave proportions towards the end of the battle.


LUFTFLOTTE 2 (HQ Brussels)

Long-range bombers (Heinkel 111, Dornier 17, Junkers 88)
Strength 764 Serviceable strength 484

Dive bombers and Ground Attack aircraft (Junkers 87, Dornier 17, Messerschmitt 109)
Strength 163 Serviceable strength 120

Single-engined fighters (Messerschmitt 109 various marks)
Strength 669 Serviceable strength 533

Twin-engined fighters (Messerschmitt 110)
Strength 63 Serviceable strength 51

Coastal Reconnaissance and Minelaying aircraft (Dornier 18, Heinkel 115)
Strength 28 Serviceable strength 16

First photo

Messerschmitt Bf 110 c. 3


Long range bombers (Heinkel 111, Junkers 88, Dornier 17, Focke-Wulf 200)
Strength 527 Serviceable strength 40

Single-engined fighters (Messerschmitt 109 various marks)
Strength 118 Serviceable strength 90

Twin-engined fighters (Messerschmitt 110)
Strength 48 Serviceable strength 22

Long-range reconnaissance aircraft (Heinkel 111, Junkers 88, Dornier 17, Messerschmitt 110)
Strength 90 Serviceable strength 58

Total aircraft strength (Theoretical) 2 698
Total aircraft strength (Serviceable) 1 835

Additionally, a few sorties were flown by LUFTFLOTTE 5 (HQ Kristiansund) with a total (theoretical) of 106 aircraft, chiefly reconnaissance and minelaying, of which 66 were serviceable.


10 GROUP, south-west England.

Hurricanes 4 squadrons *Strength 64 *Serviceable 48
Spitfires 4 squadrons Strength 64 Serviceable 48
Blenheims 1 squadron Strength 16 Serviceable 12
+Gladiators 1 flight Strength 5 Serviceable 4

* Figures quoted are theoretical supply of aircraft (Strength) and theoretical numbers of aircraft available for combat (Serviceable).
Neither of these figures were regularly maintained under combat conditions during the battle.

+ Obsolete bi-plane fighters totally outclassed.

11 GROUP, south-east England.

Hurricanes 14 squadrons Strength 224 Serviceable 168
Spitfires 7 squadrons Strength 112 Serviceable 84
Blenheims 2 squadrons Strength 32 Serviceable 24

12 GROUP, Midlands of England

Hurricanes 6 squadrons Strength 96 Serviceable 72
Spitfires 6 squadrons Strength 96 Serviceable 72
**Defiants 1 squadron Strength 16 Serviceable 12
Blenheims 2 squadrons Strength 32 Serviceable 24

13 GROUP, north of England & Scotland

Hurricanes 7 squadrons Strength 112 Serviceable 84
1 flight Strength 5 Serviceable 4
Spitfires 3 squadrons Strength 48 Serviceable 36
**Defiants 1 squadron Strength 16 Serviceable 12
Blenheims 1 squadron Strength 16 Serviceable 12

**Defiants were relegated to night fighter duties early in the battle due to their vulnerability to attack from the front.

Total aircraft strength (Theoretical) 954
Total aircraft strength (Serviceable) 716


The objective of the Luftwaffe was the annihilation of the RAF and the attainment of total air superiority to enable safe cover to be provided for Hitler's planned invasion of Britain. The air onslaught was fondly hoped to be of such severity that Britain would be forced to sue for peace without the necessity for the Germans to undertake the perilous cross-Channel invasion. Such was the confidence exuded by Göring that plans to mount the invasion were delayed in the expectation of peace initiatives from Britain.

To achieve his object, Göring had at his disposal three main bomber types, the Heinkel 111, the Dornier 17 and the Junkers 88. In addition, he employed a number of Junkers 87 dive-bombers in the earlier part of the battle until their vulnerability proved too costly for the results they achieved. The Luftwaffe placed a great deal of faith in the dive-bomber, having proved in Spain as well as in the first twelve months of the war that this type of aircraft could offer accuracy in bombing that could not be achieved by level bombing techniques. The United States Army and Navy air arms had also spent much time and effort in perfecting this technique in the 1930s and the result of their work was widely known. The consequence of this was an over-emphasis on dive-bombing which resulted in the debasing of the Junkers 88 which had promised to become as fast, efficient and maneouverable as the De Havilland Mosquito which it preceded by several years. The insistence by the Reichsluftfahrtministerium (RLM) in equipping the Junkers 88 for dive bombing resulted in an increase in the weight of the aircraft from 6 to 13 tons with the consequent reduction in performance. Whilst it was undoubtedly the best all-round aircraft produced in Germany during this period, it was denied the capability of equalling the Mosquito in range, speed and performance and this considerably reduced its contribution to the Luftwaffe's war effort.

The German bombers were designed with a minimum armour protection for the crew and for vital equipment and had poor defensive armament that generally consisted of single machine guns of rifle-calibre mounted on swivels. Since they faced little opposition in early stages of war, the Luftwaffe crews did not feel the need to call for heavier weapons, more of them or for the sort of power-operated turrets used by the RAF. During the battle of Britain, when the main body of the Luftwaffe came up against eight-gun fighters in a serious way for the first time, their crews soon began demanding armour in the cockpit at least to protect the pilot, and for their single machine guns to be changed for twin mountings, or for larger calibre cannon which could fire effectively at ranges outside those of their opponents' rifle-calibre weapons.

Whereas the RAF bombers were designed to place their gunners in positions where they could defend the most vulnerable areas of the aircraft e.g. rear gunners behind the aircraft's tail unit, the Luftwaffe's policy was to concentrate their crews as close together as possible for morale-boosting, for ease of communication and possible interchange of duties in the event of casualties. This policy resulted in inadequate coverage of the most important arcs of fire on most bombers.

The Heinkel 111 of this period was a five-seat bomber armed with five 7.9 mm single machine guns not all of which could be manned simultaneously. It carried a normal bomb-load of 1 000 kg and had a cruising speed at operational height of around 304 km/h when fully loaded. Its range of 1 920 km enabled it to cover most of the British Isles once bases had been established in the occupied countries of Western Europe. Combat tested over Spain during the Spanish Civil War, the Heinkel 111 enjoyed almost total immunity from attack then due to its ability to out-perform most opposing fighters of the era.

Second photo

Dornier Do 17

Dornier's Do 17 was originally designed as a high-speed passenger aircraft and its slim lines and small cross-section gave it performance figures far in excess of any current bomber and close to the speeds of the fighters of the mid-1930s. Flying both on reconnaissance and bomber duties, the Dornier 17 was fully combat-tested in Spain and this completed the conversion from passenger to bomber aircraft. With a crew of four and armed with up to eight rifle-calibre machine guns, the Dornier 17 was one of the most successful German bombers during the battle of Britain since its structural strength and manoeuvrability helped it to evade the RAF fighters. Bomb load, speed and range were in the same class as the Heinkel 111 and it was also capable of shallow dive-bombing attacks. Junkers' contribution to the Luftwaffe's strength was two very different aircraft - the Junkers 87 and 88 bombers. The Junkers 87 was by that time an outdated design with cranked wings and a fixed undercarriage. It had enjoyed considerable success in Spain, Poland and western Europe not only because of its ability to bomb to an accuracy of 30 metres but also for the adverse psychological effect which its attacks had on both troops and civilians alike. The scream of its engine, often augmented by sirens and screamers' attached to both aircraft and bomb, had a devastating effect on personnel being attacked. However it was 'easy meat' for well-handled fighters, and the casualties amongst Junkers 87 squadrons led to its withdrawal from the front line during the second half of the battle of Britain. Two fixed forward-firing machine guns and a pair of swivel-mounted in the rear cockpit made up the defensive armament but the crew had the advantage of quite extensive armour in their cockpits due to the need for their protection from ground fire when pulling out from a bombing run at low altitude. Up to 1 000 kg of bombs could be carried.

In the Junkers 88, the Luftwaffe had an aircraft of enormous potential which was never fully realised once the design was altered to provide the strength necessary for dive bombing. Fast and manoeuvrable, it combined a useful bomb load of up to 2 000 kg for a top speed close to 480 km/h which was little short of that of the single-engined fighters of the day. During the period of the war, the Ju 88 was used for a very wide variety of tasks ranging from bomber to night fighter to ship buster and photo-reconnaissance and the type saw service on every front where German forces were engaged. It was also the most heavily armed German bomber with a normal defensive armament of eight machine guns and the ability to carry substantial armament 'packs' under the fuselage as well as vertical-firing Schrage Musik cannon for night fighting.

Third photo

Heinkel He 111 H-2


The first lesson learned by the Luftwaffe in western Europe was that their bombers could not defend themselves against modern fighters flown by well-trained pilots - a lesson the RAF also learned soon after the outbreak of war. Whilst the RAF switched most of its attack to night operations, Göring decreed that the Luftwaffe must remain on daylight offensive operations and so the bombers required fighter escorts.

The backbone of the Luftwaffe fighter force during the battle of Britain was the single-seat Messerschmitt Bf 109. This aircraft remained in production in several different countries for longer than any other aircraft type in history. Over 33 500 were built up to 1945 and production (albeit with the Merlin engine of the Spitfire replacing the Daimler-Benz engine of 1940) continued in Spain for several years after the war. Apart from the drawback of its small fuel capacity, the Bf 109 remained competitive with the best RAF fighters throughout the war with the priceless advantage of a fuel-injected engine which enabled the Bf 109 to take violent evasive action if 'jumped' by the Merlin-powered RAF fighters. Since the Merlin engine used a carburettor instead of fuel injection, it was subject to momentarily cutting out if the aircraft was forced into a sudden dive.

Armament on the Bf 109 varied from squadron to squadron but during the battle, the normal guns fitted were two 7.9 mm machine guns in the fuselage and one 20 mm cannon in each wing. A number of variations on this armament were available and used according to tasks to be performed. The 20 mm cannon allowed engagement at ranges well outside that of the rifle-calibre machine guns of the RAF fighters. With a range of only 656 km, the Bf 109 was normally only able to remain in combat for about 15 minutes over England during the battle.

In the mid 1930s the concept of 'strategic fighter', first envisaged during the First World War, was resurrected. Known in Germany as the Zerstörer, the strategic fighter was to be a multi-purpose aircraft of high performance and long range, capable of clearing a path through the enemy's defensive fighters for the following bomber force. It would need to have a performance equal to a single-seat fighter with heavy armament, large fuel tanks and would probably be multi-engined with a crew of two or three. This concept was soon dropped by most world aviation authorities in favour of the high speed bomber idea as typified by the Junkers 88 and the Mosquito but the idea had captured the imagination of Göring and the Luftwaffe were forced to put out tenders for designs of such an aircraft.

The outcome of this was the Messerschmitt Bf 110, a design which fell short of the required performance but which incorporated the heavy armament that was missing in other German fighter designs. Originally blooded against the obsolete aircraft of the Polish air force in 1939, the shortcomings of the Bf 110 were soon revealed in combats with the more nimble Hurricanes and Spitfires of the RAF. In combat it proved to be far less manoeuvrable and was vulnerable to attack from the rear which it could neither avoid by evasive tactics nor fight off with its single, rear-firing machine gun.

Outclassed by the RAF aircraft, the Bf 110 was forced to fly escorted by its more agile brother the Bf 109 and, when attacked, would form a defensive circle where each aircraft covered the rear of the one in front.

The Bf 110, like the RAF Defiant, eventually found its niche as a night fighter in the defence of the Reich and proved successful against heavy night bombers especially after it was fitted with airborne interception radar.

The Bf 110 of the battle of Britain carried an offensive armament of two 20 mm cannon and four 7.9 mm machine guns in the fuselage nose with a single defensive 7.9 mm machine gun in the rear cockpit. It had a crew of three (more usually reduced to two for fighter escort operations), a cruising speed of 352 km/h and a range of 1 088 km which was considerably longer than that of the Bf 109 and enabled it to penetrate further into Britain and remain over the target longer.


Having lost many of its Hurricanes in the abortive battle of France and the subsequent retreat from Dunkirk, many RAF squadrons were in the process of re-equipping and re-training when the first Luftwaffe attacks of the battle of Britain commenced. Fortunately, this coincided with the appointment of the newspaper magnate, Lord Beaverbrook, as Minister of Aircraft Production - a post that involved not only the production of new aircraft but also that of repairing damaged ones and returning them to battle in as short a time as possible. This human dynamo was able, by his efforts, to ensure that the flow of new and repaired fighters never fell below the rate of attrition and, in fact, to allow the RAF to end the battle of Britain in a stronger position in aircraft than that with which it had started.

Due to the foresight of the directors of the Hawker Aircraft Company, the RAF was equipped with a considerable quantity of these eight-gun fighters at the outbreak of war in 1939 as a production line had been established before any firm orders had been received for the aircraft. First units received their Hurricanes from 1937, a full year before the initial deliveries of the most famous Spitfire began.

The first of the series of monoplane eight-gun fighters, the Hurricane proved to be the finest gun platform of all the battle of Britain fighters. Slightly inferior in speed and rate of climb to the German Messerschmitt Bf 109, it was more manoeuvrable in combat and proved to be a most efficient destroyer of enemy bombers - the duty to which it was usually assigned leaving the Spitfires to hold off the German fighters, a role for which they were more suited. The whole story of the battle of Britain is one of a superb partnership between these two makes of aircraft.

Powered by the famous Rolls Royce Merlin engine, the Hurricane had a top speed of between 496 and 520 km/h and was armed with four 0.303-inch Browning machine guns in each wing. With a combat range of 1 440 km, they were able to stay in action for considerable periods which allowed them to be deployed immediately the radar chain identified an enemy raid en route. No finer tribute could be written about this immortal aircraft than that paid by the famous writer Paul Gallico: 'She was loved and trusted by every man who ever knew her. She was unique in the heavens. She had no vices. In the hands of the young men who mastered her and become her lovers she saved England and all the rest of the world that cherished the right of freedom. She was the Hawker Hurricane'. (The Hurricane Story).

Partner to the Hurricane, the gracefully beautiful Spitfire was the direct descendant of the Supermarine S5 and S6 floatplanes which captured the Schneider Trophy for Britain in the years between 1927 and 1931. Designed by R J Mitchell who did not live to see the final triumph of his aircraft, the Spitfire only entered RAF service in late 1937 and only a handful of squadrons were equipped at the outbreak of war. The speed, rate of climb and high altitude performance of the Spitfire equalled and, in some cases, surpassed that of the Messerschmitt Bf 109s and the Spitfire was chiefly allocated the unenviable task of holding off the German escort fighters to allow the Hurricanes freedom of action against the German bombers.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, Commander-in-Chief of Fighter Command and his main subordinate commander, Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park both realised that the German fighters did not pose any threat to the outcome of the battle of Britain and concentrated their efforts on attacking the German bomber force. Thus the role of the Spitfire was directed to creating a favourable situation for the Hurricanes to do their job rather than building up a formidable 'score sheet' for themselves. The confirmed victories of the RAF were thus divided 60/40% in favour of the Hurricanes which does not accurately reflect the comparative effectiveness of the two aircraft.

Armed with eight 0.303-inch Browning machine guns in the wings and powered by the famous Rolls Royce Merlin engine, the Spitfire had a top speed of around 576 km/h and a range of 960 km.

The Spitfire captured the imagination of the people of Britain and, indeed, of the free world in a way which the Hurricane never did. Towns, villages, local councils, overseas countries and many other organisations raised funds to pay for a Spitfire to carry their name into battle - the figure of R5 000 was the required amount to name an aircraft although it is very doubtful if this was, in fact, the correct cost of building.

The Bristol Blenheim, like some of the German bombers, started life as a design for a high speed civil transport. When the prototype proved to be most successful, the originator of this project, Lord Rothermere, presented the design to the nation as a gift and, after fairly extensive modifications, the Blenheim fast day bomber was born. With a top speed of 443 km/h and a range of 1 864km, the Blenheim could outperform the German bombers of the day and a fighter version was designed with a ventral pack of four 0.303-inch Browning machine guns in addition to the bomber type's defensive armament of one wing-mounted 0.303-inch machine gun and another in a dorsal turret.

Blenheim fighters were the first British aircraft to carry airborne interception radar. They were no match for the German fighters but were able to attack the heavy bombers and were particularly useful as night fighters as the Luftwaffe turned more and more to night bombing.

The Boulton & Paul Defiant was a radical development in fighter aircraft having no forward firing armament but a four-gun turret manned by an air gunner located immediately behind the pilot's cockpit. In the early days of the Defiant's operation, they were able to attack Messerschmitt Bf 109s with some success as, in silhouette, they strongly resembled the Hurricane. Bf 109s attacking in the traditional 'curve of pursuit' from behind were uncomfortably surprised to find four machine guns firing at them from a totally unexpected angle. However, it did not take the Luftwaffe pilots very long to realise that the Defiant was totally unprotected from attacks from the front and a number of other angles and once they had learned to identify this aircraft type, the Defiant casualties rose to an unacceptable level resulting in their withdrawal from day operations to night fighting.

Equipped with airborne interception radar, the Defiant had a fine record in night operations especially during the winter of 1940/41. Its performance was only slightly below that of the Hurricane with a top speed of 496 km/h and a range of 960 km.

Other British aircraft used in small quantities during the Battle of Britain were the obsolescent but beautiful Gloster Gladiator, last of the bi-plane fixed undercarriage fighters and the Fairey Fulmar, a two-seat Fleet Air Arm fighter. The Gladiator was flown by both the RAF and the Fleet Air Arm and one squadron from each took a minor part in the battle. Its armament was four 0.303-inch Browning machine guns, two of which were fitted in the fuselage firing through the propeller arc. Top speed was 405 km/h and cruising endurance was 2 hours. It had a good rate of climb and was manoeuvrable.

The Fairey Fulmar was a large aircraft designed for both land-based and carrier operations as a fighter bomber. It was armed with eight forward firing 0.303-inch Browning machine guns, had a top speed of only 340 km/h but a useful endurance range of 1 328 km. Number 808 Squadron, Fleet Air Arm, was stationed at Wick in the extreme North of Scotland during the battle of Britain and, although coming under the command of Fighter Command, took little part in the fighting.

In the final weeks of the battle of Britain, No 804 Squadron Fleet Air Arm was re-armed with United States built Grumman Martlet fighters and the USA was thus able to have a tiny share in the victory of the RAF albeit only over a period of one week. The Martlet was armed with four 0.303-inch machine guns and had a performance equal to the Spitfire.


Several other types of aircraft were involved in flying operations over and around Britain at this time but cannot really be said to have taken part in the actual battle of Britain.

Minelaying and coastal patrol aircraft from both sides occasionally found themselves on the fringes of the main combat zone and the Luftwaffe maintained patrols of seaplanes in the Channel and North Sea as part of their air/sea rescue operations designed to pick up pilots who were forced to bale out over water. The rescue of downed aircrew played an important part in the Luftwaffe's operations since most of the action took place over British soil where German aircrew who were shot down were certain to become prisoners whilst their British counterparts often resumed operations within hours of taking to their parachutes. The Luftwaffe maintained rescue buoys capable of housing several men in the Channel and operated float plane and motor torpedo boat patrols for rescue purposes.


Aircrew killed RAF 537
(mostly pilots)
Aircraft lost RAF 1 017
(all fighters)
(871 fighters 1 011 bombers)

The rate of attrition suffered by the Luftwaffe was enough to cause Göring to call off the daylight attacks and the attempt to destroy the RAF. It is a matter of conjecture whether he would have taken either of these steps if he had been accurately informed about the effects of the raids on the RAF stations and the units of the radar chain as well as the number of pilots killed or seriously wounded. Fortunately for Britain, the German spy network had been so neutralised that no accurate information was available to the German High Command during the battle.


The major deficiencies which Göring had to contend with were the lack of defensive capability on the German bombers and the short range of his best fighter, the small bomb load and comparatively short range of his heavy bombers frustrated his efforts. Unfortunately, he had been responsible for the decision taken as far back as 1937 to halt development of the proposed four-engined bombers, the Junkers 89 and Dornier 19 in favour of increased production of the Junkers 88, a move which deprived him of the capability of mounting an overwhelming bomber offensive.

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