The Man Who Saved Western Civilization & Never Gets Credit For It–Fighter Combat Part III

Hugh Dowding–Saved Every One of Us.  Doesn’t have a Queen song.

When last we left this journey through aerial mayhem, France had just been knocked out of the war, the British Army was busy thanking every boat owner in Southern England while wringing out their clothes, and the Luftwaffe had just learned how to say “Acthung! Spitfire!”  In the (wholly apocryphal) words of Hermann Goering, “Don’t worry, this will be quick.”

*pause*  Yeah, just like Hermann was a little premature in his boasting, I’m going to tell you up front I have no idea how long this one’s going to be.  The Battle of Britain has probably been responsible for literally millions of gallons of ink being spilled.  With so many authors out there choosing the final three books is going to be a bit, um, interesting. On one hand, you have the view that the Battle of Britain was the decisive battle of World War II.  In the middle there’s the theory that the Germans could have pulled it off, but it would have required the luck equivalent of a strong run at the craps table.  As in, hitting so many die rolls that the casino’s staff tells the gambler in question “Don’t come back here if you like your internal organs…”.  Finally, there’s the school of thought that the Germans were never serious about Sea Lion, the British knew this, and it was all a propaganda stunt.

As for your humble host, I fully believe the German High Command was capable of saying, “Hey, here’s a great idea!  Let’s take our tactical / operational air arm and try to set the conditions for an amphibious debacle that will make Gallipoli seem like a Sunday tram ride!” These are the folks who brought you Operation Barbarossa, so high stakes gambles were sort of baked into the cake.  Similarly, given that France threw in the towel with most of its army still in the field and the Germans far from possessing overwhelming force, Great Britain was certainly capable of getting a case of the yips in mid-1940.  Ergo, without further ado, let me tell you how Air Marshal Hugh Dowding was responsible for saving Western Civilization.

*angry murmur from other historians*  What’s that?  You think I’m disrespecting ol’ Winston “Foggy” Churchill, Wielder of the Tommy Gun and Chewer of the Cigar?  Mmm, maybe.  I mean, don’t get me wrong–Winston Churchill is certainly the reason that Great Britain didn’t say, “Oh eff this noise, we’re done…” in May 1940.  Indeed, despite Churchill beating out Lord Halifax for the post of Prime Minister, half of his cabinet wanted to cut a deal in the interest of preserving the Empire…



*glare at internal editor*

the British Empire.  To which Churchill gave a long, blunt reply that basically broke down to:

“They are fucking Nazis.  Negotiating with Nazis is like negotiating with a hungry lion.  Have you bloody idiots not been paying attention for the last two years?”

Winston then followed this up with telling Parliament something about “fight them on the beaches, blah, blah, blah.”  Subsequent to that speech, he regularly advised the womenfolk in his social circle that maybe they should resign themselves to taking out one last Nazi while ol’ Hans was ‘in the saddle.’  (I’m not kidding about that part.  Seriously.) Finally, to demonstrate England’s resolve to the rest of the world, Winston proceeded to have the Royal Navy blast the living crap out of whatever French fleet units that did not immediately surrender, erm, I mean go into “internment.”

All this makes great history and does show a head of state that is, in the vernacular, not messing around.  Buuuuuuttt, it ignores the fact that Churchill had not been Prime Minister from 1938-1940, was not particularly air minded and, despite his meddling nature, was not secure enough in his position to start meddling around with aerial defense of Great Britain.  That job resided with one man: Air Marshal Hugh Dowding, head of Fighter Command.

Hugh Dowding was not a dashing fellow.  Indeed, he is generally described as giving off the air of a particularly boring school principal who did not necessarily mix with those under his command.  If there is a spectrum of leadership styles for aerial generals, Dowding is likely on the opposite side from Curtis Lemay.  This is part of the reason he gets one or two sentences in most general histories, with the other being that he was cursed with back stabbers for subordinates (more on that later).

However, one of the things Dowding was good at was organization.  Another was remaining calm.  Both of these were necessary in May 1940 as everyone in London was running around going “Holy shit, holy shit…the Germans are right across the bloody Channel.  Holy shit!” like they’d just witnessed a horrible car crash.  In the final years of peace, Dowding had already begun putting together what would later be called an integrated air defense system (IADS).  This defensive network relied on radar to provide early warning (Chain Home), guns to keep the the Lufwaffe from coming over at too low of an altitude, interceptors to deal with the German aircraft and, most importantly, a series of control command posts to make sure said Spitfires, Hurricanes and *gulp* “other fighters” were in the right place at the right time.  In large part, Dowding was calmer because, unlike France and Poland, geography meant that he didn’t have to worry about panzers on his runways.

 The British defense system looked like this:


Now, if you’re looking at that map and thinking, “Whoa, the guys in 11 Group sure look like they’ve drawn the short straw…”, you would be absolutely correct.  After a last, “Okay, are we really doing this?” check from Adolph Hitler, the pilots in southern Kent got to find out how annoying it is to get the notice to scramble…then end up with Bf-109s in your takeoff queue.

That being said, the Germans found out a few things very quickly.  One, while the RAF would still have village idiot squadron commanders flying in vics throughout the battle, self-preservation and attrition helped weed many of these men out.  Ergo, it started becoming harder and harder to find quacking fighters with roundels.  That’s not to say squadrons rotated in from No. 12 and 13 group didn’t occasionally get smacked around due to inexperience, but as June became July, the RAF started figuring out what in the Hell it was doing.

Helping this process was the innate advantage of fighting over home turn.  Although the British air/sea rescue process over the Channel was criminally negligent, things were far better inland.  If a Fighter Command pilot ‘took to the silk’ in the morning and was not injured, it was not unheard of for him to be sitting in another Hurricane or Spitfire within forty-eight hours.

“Sucks to be that guy!  Hope I get home in time for tea.”

This fact underscores another point–the Luftwaffe, for the first time, found itself in an even fight.  There are various ways of counting  airframes at the beginning of the Battle of Britain, and most sources will choose a method that suits the historian’s overarching thesis.  (We’re sneaky like that.)  However, only recently have folks started taking into account things like German pilot fatigue, high engine hours, and the operational wear and tear of operating very far forward from their depots into account.  As June turned to July, the Jagdwaffe was sucking wind like a welterweight that had been throwing nothing but haymakers for ten rounds.

This analogy is particularly apt when one looks back at the map above.  Notice that blue line that indicates the 109s’ maximum range?  Yeaaaaahhh, that’s kind of important.  Like most bomber disciples, Hermann Goering and his chief of aircraft development, Ernst Udet, had not invested in the development of a long-range, single-engine fighter.  (In this they were not alone–you’ll get to hear how the Americans dropped this ball in a later post.)  This made sense, as the Luftwaffe was a tactical / operational air arm.  Long story short, this meant most of the German fighter pilots had to keep one eye on the fuel gauge as they started mixing it up with Hurricanes and Spitfires.  Once the red light started glowing, it was time to head for home…or figure out how long one could tread water.

“Wait a second, James.  In the last blog post you told us there were two German fighters.  What about the Bf-110?!”  Well, funny thing about radar–it tells people you’re coming. At that point, things like slashing attacks from upsun become problematic, and people end up having to actually dogfight.  The 110, which had seemed quite capable on the continent, quickly found itself the equivalent of a station wagon in an Indy race.  Although it still occasionally managed to surprise an unwary RAF fighter or two, by June it became apparent the 110 could not even look after itself, much less escort German bombers.

Speaking of escorting, also hindering the Jagdwaffe were tactical decisions forced upon them by higher headquarters.  As the German Kampfgruppen began getting repeatedly mauled, they began to complain to higher headquarters that the Jagdwaffe were off hunting kills rather than actually, you know, escorting.  This would be a common bomber refrain throughout the war for all sides.  The Luftwaffe head shed, horrified at their losses, were the first to make the critical error of tying their fighter pilots to within visual range of the bombers as opposed to giving them free rein.  This was a major error, as it meant that the 109s could no longer “free hunt,” but were forced to fly fuel drinking weaving patterns above their slower bomber brethren.  I’ll let Adolf Galland sum up the problem:

“[The fighter pilots’] element is to attack, to track, to hunt, and to destroy the enemy. Only in this way can the eager and skillful fighter pilot display his ability. Tie him to a narrow and confined task, rob him of his initiative, and you take away from him the best and most valuable qualities he posses: aggressive spirit, joy of action, and the passion of the hunter.”
— General Adolf Galland, Luftwaffe.


The change in tactics allowed the RAF the respite of largely taking off and forming up in peace rather than having to worry about “fights on” from the moment their wheels left the grass.  Moreover, it often allowed the Spitfires and Hurricanes to gain advantageous positions and seize the initiative.  It was a rude awakening for the Jagdwaffe, and a harbinger of things to come for them later in the war.

As opposed to Goering, Dowding managed his end of the Battle of Britain like a maestro.  Ever cognizant of the fact that he just had to keep the issue in doubt until September 30th at the latest, Dowding conducted an aerial economy of force operation.  Despite Churchill’s pressures, Dowding refused to overly commit to protecting Channel convoys when the same resources could be moved by rail.  Squadrons were committed as they became available, with the initial combatants wearing down the 109s so that later entries had free runs at bomber formations.  Despite the temptation to meddle in squadron tactics, Dowding let leaders figure their own methods.

As time went on, the respite from German bounces as the RAF climbed to altitude, the winning of the production war, and the German decision to switch to targeting cities all contributed to Dowding’s victory.  After getting through the critical period of mid-July to early August when Fighter Command was losing pilots quicker than they could replace them, by August 31st Dowding had actually started getting enough pilots to flesh out the squadrons he’d rotated north due to their losses.  When Hermann Goering got the bright idea to go after London in order to force Fighter Command into a final series of battles, the new numbers ensured that didn’t go well.  To follow our earlier analogy, the hard swinging welterweight found out that their opponent not only had one hell of a corner man, but had somehow put on 20 pounds in between bells.

By September 30th, it was clear to everyone involved that the Luftwaffe would not be obtaining air superiority in 1940, if ever.  Hitler, not having really wanted to force England to the negotiating table through invasion, began to look east.  The Luftwaffe would continue to send fighter-bombers by day and their medium bombers by night for several months, but quickly became consumed in preparations for Operation Barbarossa.  A couple of day fighter Gruppen remained in the West, but by March 1941 the majority of the Jagdwaffe were gathering in eastern Germany and Poland for a date with the Red Air Force.

Great Britain, bloodied and battered, had a brief moment where the cabinet once more suggested that the nation seek the best deal possible.  Churchill, as was his wont, quickly squashed this idea.  Possibly with physical violence.

(Note: I have no proof that anyone got DDT’d in that cabinet meeting…but I have visions of Winston Churchill coming across the table a couple of times.  “Winston!”  “I didn’t hit him in the face and he’s already had all the damn children he should!  Amazed I was able to actually find them to kick given how much he’s been crying about surrendering…”)

Air Marshal Dowding, despite having overseen the first successful defense of Britain proper in centuries, was forced out against his will in favor of the former commander of No. 12 Group, Trafford Leigh-Mallory.  Leigh-Mallory speciously claimed that Dowding had basically left kills on the table by not following his suggestions of forming RAF squadrons into “big wings” of multiple units prior to vectoring them against incoming German bombers.  Of course, Leigh-Mallory conveniently failed to discuss just how his “big wings” would have formed in the face of free hunting Jagdwaffe 109s.  Nor did Leigh-Mallory address the fact that said big wings, by virtue of being easier to spot, would likely have suffered mightily at the hands of even the bomber-bound German escorts.

In any case Churchill, unimpressed with Dowding’s lack of offensive spirit and demeanor, summarily sacked his head of Fighter Command in December 1940.  Forced to retire…

*loud klaxon*  Oh, hey, the Eschewing Easy Alarm is going off.  Better wrap this up before I kill someone through rhetorical bludgeoning.

Five Things

1.) For the first time, radar changed the course of a campaign.  Without Chain Home, Spitfires and Hurricanes would have been forced to fly standing patrols and been unable to mass against German attacks.  It wasn’t perfect, but after two decades of the aerial offense largely having its way, things appeared to have swung decisively towards the defense.

2.) The German Luftwaffe, for all its potency, demonstrated the perils of thinking all air power was the same.  For various reasons, the Germans found themselves attempting to kick Great Britain’s door in with twin-engine bombers and tactical fighter aircraft.  The 109 was arguably superior to both of the British front line fighters and had its way against just about everything else (e.g., the Defiant), but simply lacked the legs to gain air superiority over southern England.  As the British would find out when they went on the offensive, gaining air supremacy required range.

3.) The devil is in the pilot and airframe replacement program.  Whether one believes that Fighter Command was on the ropes or not (a topic of much recent debate), the fact remains that the Jagdwaffe could not regenerate fighters nearly as fast as the RAF could. Moreover, for the first (but certainly not the last) time, the Germans began to suffer decreasing effectiveness due to a lack of “bench.”  Although several individuals (e.g., Galland and Moelders) ran up impressive kill tallies, many more Experten from the Polish and French campaigns were either killed or became prisoners of war.  Concurrently, the Germans’ airframes also began to wear out due to a poorly organized depot system.  Both of these issues were the proverbial canaries in the coal mine for the Luftwaffe.

4.) Firepower improvement was relative.  The RAF’s decision to go to the “8-gun monoplane” was both vindicated and disproven by the Battle of Britain.  As the Hurricane and Spitfire‘s designers had expected, their battery of machine guns were quite destructive.  Unfortunately, all too often the level of damage tapped out at the “We’re going to need a firehose to wash the gunners’ blood out of the aircraft” versus the “Mein Gott, they just sawed off our wing…”-level.  As mentioned above, aircrew being wounded but alive to kvetch about poor fighter protection ultimately led to German errors…yet the RAF expedited cannon armaments after the Battle of Britain for a reason.

5.) Overclaiming influenced the course of the campaign.  Despite strenuous rules being put in place, the Jagdwaffe‘s victory claims led to less than optimal operational decision making by Lufwaffe leadership.  Many histories of the Battle of Britain discuss Goering constantly referring to Fighter Command’s “last few Spitfires.”  This is not hyperbole–the Germans actually believed it.  While no small part of this miscalculation was due to Lord Beaverbrook’s strenuous efforts, in the main it was because German pilots often mistook a fighter diving away on fire as one that actually crashed.

Three books for the masses:

The Most Dangerous Enemy by Stephen Bungay.  This one is borderline between a book for the masses versus the monkhood.  Bungay’s got an easy writing style, but it’s a really thick work.

Duel of Eagles by Peter Townsend.  If you’re a fan of The Crown, yes that Peter Townsend.

Fighter by Len Deighton

One book for the monkhood:

Luftwaffe Fighter Aces by Michael Spick.  Another “But wait, this one talks about the whole war…”-tome that I’m fitting in now rather than later.

Blitzkrieg Bop –Fighter Combat Part II

“The Axis have won the toss and will kickoff.”Aries, Head Referee, Great European Rematch, 1939-1945

Four things I’m going to assume with this blog post:

1.) You read the last blog post on aerial combat and liked it.

2.) Everyone involved possesses a general knowledge of World War II, is willing to go to the Wiki article on it or, is so highly motivated they think Antony Beevor‘s or Max Hastings’ single volume histories are a worthwhile afternoon killer.  (Both are excellent.  Harsh, but excellent.)  So the apocryphal quote at the top of things hasn’t totally lost you.

3.) In this same vein World War II is, to quote a Prolific Trek catchphrase, “my jam.”  So I might occasionally throw out references to people, places, and things without a hyperlink.  Mea culpa in advance, but these blog posts (yeah, it’s going to be plural) will start looking like a Smurf infestation if I link every name I drop.

4.) Readers will realize that The Usurper’s War-series is fiction.  Meaning that I played with some things there that may not have reflected the actual history.  So when I start talking about “This didn’t happen until 1944…” and it’s something I made happen in 1943 in Acts of War or Collisions of the Damned…that’s why they call it alternate history.

Without further ado…

All That Passed Before

When last we left the aerial arena, people were flying around in biplanes blazing away at one another.  The Allies had been preparing to unleash a massive aerial armada, the Germans were going to valiantly try to stop it, and the war was going to end in bloody street fighting burg by burg.  Except…the Germans, their resolve weakened by the blockade and the realization that Americans apparently liked to make babies circa 1895-1900, tossed in the towel on 11 November 1918.

The war’s end had the perverse effect of flooding the market with aircraft.  People who had no business driving, much less flying a plane, plunked down good money to go break their necks.  Permissiveness was the rule of the day, and lots of people who had no business flying quickly found out Sir Isaac Newton holds veto power over all matters aeronautical.  Despite the appalling death toll, however, this period meant aviation captured the imagination the world over, with everyone from daring barnstormers to famous aviatrices keeping the public’s collective eye skyward.  Thus even in the midst of the Great Depression, people were still finding funds to press the proverbial envelope faster and higher.  However, in no way was this progression universal nor necessarily embraced by military establishments.

Ergo, when Great European Rematch began in September 1939, combatants had both single seat, high speed monoplanes in their inventory…and poor bastards who were puttering around in the sky in biplanes.  As in, if you flew fighters for the Royal Air Force or Fleet Air Arm, your war potentially started off with this beauty as you primary mount:


“Uh, excuse me, sir, but I think my father misplaced his plane…”

Meanwhile, the Germans, allegedly limited by the Versailles treaty, were licking their chops at the thought of facing Gloster Gladiators while tooling around in their brand new Bf-109s and Bf-110s.  They say a picture is worth a 1000 words (coincidentally where we’re at right now), so I’ll just put the 109 and 110 up for comparison:


The Western Front 1940

Thankfully for many British pilots, the Germans went east (Poland) then north (Norway) before coming west.  The Luftwaffe, having sent “volunteers” to fight in the Spanish Civil War in the mid-1930s, had learned some things.  First, without having the ability to really have an air force thanks to the Treaty of Versailles, they largely skipped bomber barons stifling fighter development to the degree that Royal Air Force and United States Army Air Corps (later United States Army Air Force) did.  Oh, don’t get me wrong–Herman Goering and Nazi hierarchy made Byzantine aircraft development into a way of life.  Buuuuuuuttt, there was no Trenchard (RAF) or Arnold (USAAC / USAAF) actively sacrificing single engine fighter developmental programs that would have saved lives in favor of heavy bomber programs.  (More on that in a later post…it’s not quite as much a jerk move as it sounds.)

This free fighter development and Spanish warm up match led to the Jagdflieger developing the four-aircraft flight (Schwarm) as the most flexible formation for combat.  In this flight, you had two leaders (#1 and #3) and their wingmen (#2 and #4), with each leader / wingman combination known as a Rotte.  Each leader could choose a target, with the wingman making sure no one showed up and disturbed the leader while he went about his killing.  Given the high closing speeds brought about by the advances in air technology, the Germans discovered that this was the best blend between not having a bunch of yahoos throwing themselves around the sky and formations so rigid they were basically a squadron leader looking for stuff to kill and his eleven subordinates trying not to run into him.

*pause as the reader goes through that last paragraph again*

“What?  No one would be so stupid as to fly around like tha…”

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the Royal Air Force.  When the Germans turned west in May 1940, the standard Royal Air Force tactics were to fly around in squadron formation. These squadron formations, in turn, were divided into ‘vics’ of three.  In practice, this was supposed to mean that the squadron technically had four groups by which to attack opposing bombers.  Upon seeing the enemy, RAF squadron leaders were expected to call out a target, then a numbered attack.  At this point, the vics would then proceed to attack said target in a proscribed, organized manner in sequence.  Imagine a great waltz, except the orchestra is playing the “Death by Machine Gun, Aerial Movement” from the Spandau Ballet school of composition.


To be fair, in September 1939 this was a reasonable supposition.  Fighters, at least to the RAF, were not supposed to be a primary concern.  No one in the RAF had been informed that they’d be fighting in continental Europe (see part about Versailles Treaties, War to End All Wars, Appeasement, etc.) in the 1930s.  Ergo, the good folks in Fighter Command drew a radius from Germany, looked at their own monoplanes’ performance, and said, “Well there’s no way the bloody Germans are getting their fighters here.  At least, not more than once.” Thus, it was easy to see how the war could have been started still flying these formations, even with various individuals writing report after report about operations in Spain.

Still, by May 1940 the Germans’ methods should not have been totally a surprise.  There were Polish pilots who had fled across Europe and were providing first hand testimony about how the Jagdwaffe just might know what it was about.  British pilots had danced with their German counterparts during the so-called Phony War as well as in Norway prior to the storm breaking over France in May 1940.  So perhaps even a circular or a “Hey chaps, the Germans tend to come in groups of four, with two of those four having every intent of collecting scalps.  Might be time to throw out these stilted attack plans and get your heads on a swivel…” would have saved lives.


Instead, the RAF and their French counterparts got an aerial skull dragging.  As in, most fights went pretty much like this clip from the miniseries “A Piece of Cake”:

Except, rather than Spitfires, the RAF was flying the slower Hurricane.  Having been slow to make changes in the eight months of relative peace, a few weeks of penning “We’re sorry your son got blasted to kingdom come because his eyes were on his leader…” letters made some folks change their methods.  They decided it was a good idea to put a “rover” up behind the squadron vic’s, with this position intended to give the rest of the squadron some warning that they were being stalked by approaching German fighters.

*momentary pause and cut to Jagdflieger laughing uncontrollably while discussing how they blew the “rover” out of the sky, then proceeded on down to flame a couple more of remaining British fighters*

So dangerous did this position become, there were documented cases of squadron commanders having to write up officers for “lack of moral fiber” and insubordination.  Which is a polite way of saying that pilots were starting to tell squadron commanders where to get off, they weren’t serving as the flaming canary in the proverbial coal mine.  As many Hurricane pilots found out, having an unsealed fuel tank in front of the cockpit could end very, very poorly when 109s were about.  Listen to your buddy scream the whole 10-15,000 feet down, suddenly “I will see to it that you are transferred to the infantry…” doesn’t seem so threatening.

From the German perspective, the Fall of France reinforced the Spanish Civil War’s lessons.  The Schwarm had been validated as the base formation that allowed a squadron to put the maximum number of shooters forward.  Almost as importantly, it allowed the maximum visual coverage of a given airspace, meaning that if everyone was doing their job it was very hard to surprise German fighters.  The 109, even with its flaw such as poor landing characteristics, limited firepower, and short range, was proven to be more than capable to defeating anything it ran into.  The 110, although not quite as effective as they had hoped, was also capable of conducting effective slashing attacks and escaping French and British fighters attempts to get it into a dogfight.  Both fighters proved extremely capable bomber destroyers, with the British Fairey Battle and Blenheim along with everything in the French arsenal proving easy prey. As the German Army chased the British off the continent then proceeded to “march in the shade” when they got to Paris, the Jagdwaffe had achieved its primary mission of gaining then maintaining air superiority.

In some ways, the RAF got a blessing in disguise by just how quickly the Germans blitzkrieg rolled over the Allied ground forces.  France fell so quickly and decisively that it took the Chamberlain government with it.  Winston Churchill, being a much cold-blooded bastard than his predecessor, ignored French pleas to send the more advance Spitfire to try and retrieve the situation.  As a result, the first time the Jagdflieger got a good look at the most advanced British fighter, it was over Dunkirk.  Moreover, it was after Fighter Command had belatedly started telling squadron leaders “Hey, those numbered attacks?  Maaaaayyyybeee not the best idea.”  Being prewar officers rather than combat technicians, many of these leaders were loathe to change…but at least they’d been told.  With the Luftwaffe now right across the Channel rather than well outside of fighter range, the crucible of combat would provide a lot more motivation for innovation.

What Changed, What Stayed the Same

1.) As noted in the last post, most kills were by surprise.  Especially the poor bastards flying as rovers/weavers/sacrificial lambs.  But even for the Germans, the cases where someone was not doing their job often led to a British Hurricane or French fighter getting their licks in and away before anyone knew what was coming.

2.) A big change was air combat’s speed.  At the end of World War I, fighters topped out at 150 miles an hour.  At the beginning of World War II, most fighters were either at or right around 300 miles per hour.  Well, except for the Gladiators.  *shudder*  In any case, that dot on the windscreen turned into an angry fighter with its nose and wings twinkling much, much faster than it had in World War I.  Conversely, this meant that combats took place over a much wider area.  This could rapidly lead to what several pilots referred to as “empty sky syndrome,” i.e., a fight going from “Oh my God, we’re all gonna die in collisions…” to “Where the f__k did everyone go?” in a matter of seconds.

3.) Firepower relative to World War I made a massive increase.   Not only did fighters now have to worry about bringing down heavily armored bombers, but the speed of combat meant a maneuvering target was only in the sights for a fleeting moment.  More due to the first than the second, interwar designers had started hanging more and more machine guns on fighters (Britain) or switched to cannon / machine gun combinations (Germany).  Whether it was the 8 x .303s (SpitfireHurricane) or 1 x 20mm / 2 x MGs (Germany) armament, World War II fighters opened the dance hitting way harder.  Things would only get heavier as the war went on.

4.) Deflection shooting became a thing.  This was not totally different than World War I.  However, the amount of lead to blast someone crossing front to left at a relative velocity of 50-60 miles per hour is a whole different world than that of 300 mph. To quote German ace Hans-Joachim Marseille (who would later go on to fame in North Africa after the Battle of Britain)

“As long as I look into the muzzles, nothing can happen to me. Only if he pulls lead am I in danger.”

That’s right, if you were looking right into someone’s guns and your both in a turn, he couldn’t hit you.  Or more correctly, if he was so close that he would be able to actually to hit without pulling the necessary lead, you needed to worry less about machine guns and more about the imminent collision. In some cases, pilots had to pull so much lead to account for the drop of their bullets that their target wasn’t even necessarily in sight beneath the nose of their aircraft.  Although some services (e.g., the USN/USMC and Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) had practiced this task as a course du jour, none of the European powers had given it much thought.  Why?  Bombers don’t maneuver (RAF) and the Jagdflieger generally assumed one either had it or they didn’t.  By and large, the gunnery syllabi for these two services wouldn’t change much throughout the war.

5.) Despite heavier armament, most kills still happened at short range.  This was partially a factor of the “never saw what hit him” as well as the lack of deflection training.  How short is short?  In ground combat, the average machine gun was capable of shooting out to 1000 meters, with most shooting taking place at 4-500 meters depending on line of sight.  In the initial stages of World War II, the British set the convergence point of their guns, i.e. the point where all 8 streams should meet, at 300 meters…and found that people were just flat out missing targets at that range.  With a few exceptions, most Experten (German aces) and their RAF counterparts found that shooting over 200 meters didn’t accomplish much other than warning your prey.  This fact did not change even when engaging with 20mm cannon versus the British .303 machine guns.

6.) The bomber, contrary to what interwar pundits had speculated, did not “always get through.”  In fact, beginning with the British daylight attack on Wilhelmshaven and going all the way until the French capitulated, bombers often took a mauling on both sides.  Given the Germans achieved air superiority fairly on, this lesson didn’t quite have time to sink…okay, who am I kidding?  Despite irrefutable evidence that bombers were vulnerable, everyone kept thinking unescorted bombing attacks had a chance.  This…well, let’s just say this is going to become important next post.

Overall, fighter combat was largely taking up where it had left off in World War I, just faster, more lethal, and with new formations.  The Schwarm was as revolutionary to the profession as the the forward pass was to North American football and was a large part of the reason Britain found itself alone.  However, as will be shown in my next post, there was something to be said for playing a home versus away game when it came to vying for air superiority.  Geography, in the form of the English Channel, was about to flip the script for the Jagdwaffe.

Three books for the masses:

The Story of Air Fighting by Johnnie Johnson

Me109 by Martin Caidin

Horrido by Trevor J. Constable and Raymond F. Toliver

One book for the monkhood:

Fighter Tactics and Strategy, 1914-1970 by Edward H. Sims  As can be seen by the dates, this encompasses much more than the last two blog posts.  But given the overwhelming number of books to choose from, I figured I’d slip this one in at this point.


“Everything Else Is Rubbish…”–Fighter Combat– Part I

“The fighter pilots have to rove in the area alotted to them in any way they like, and when they spot an enemy they attack and shoot him down, anything else is rubbish.”–Manfred von Richthofen, a.k.a. “The Red Baron”

It’s hard to believe that aerial warfare has only been going on for a little over 100 years. That we’ve gone from folks getting around in glorified tractor engines with wings…


to multi-million dollar jet fighters:


To put this in perspective, from say 1715-1815, the basic mechanics of ground warfare did not change all that much.  Some battle captain who got a little too frisky with a mage’s second wife and was teleported 100 years into the future from 1715-1815 would still be able to give a decent account of himself.  Sure there’d be some moderate nuances about Napoleonic maneuver, but after about 5 days of intense study, he’s not going to make too much an idiot of himself at Waterloo.  Put that guy flying the Vickers Gun Bus up top in the cockpit of the SAAB Gripen below at 10,000 feet?  Well, you’re gonna get about 30 seconds of video to add to that YouTube of “Greatest Air Crashes.”

So why should people care about fighters?  Well, because air superiority sort of makes the military world go round since ~1914.  Although bomber combat did technically start a couple years earlier with the Italians chucking some bombs at folks in North Africa, the “big show” of aerial bloodletting got its start with The Great War.  Don’t get me wrong–the shenanigans didn’t start off right way.  There are myriad accounts of reconnaissance pilots from both sides during the Battle of the Marne waving at each other as they went about their trade.  Many pilots likely felt that it was dangerous enough getting from Point A to Point B that it would not be prudent to add the degree of difficulty of, you know, kill each other.  I imagine it was like seeing a rival cabbie at the gas station:

*joyful early 20th century chamber music*

“Oh!  Guten Tag, Byron!”

“Bloody hell Wilhemn, haven’t seen you in a couple of weeks!  How’s trade?”

“Oh you know, the usual—taking pictures so our artillery chaps can blow the living hell out of your infantry again!”

*music screeches to a stop*

That’s right, either someone didn’t have enough coffee some morning, a pilot’s sibling got blown to a bloody mess or, more likely, higher headquarters realized maaaaaaayyyybbbee they should encourage their reconnaissance chaps to go after the other side’s reconnaissance chaps in a most impolite way.

Initial attempts were pretty much improvised, as pilots and observers started shooting pistols, unloading shotguns, and even tossing bricks at one another.  It was like a big gang fight in the sky until…well, until someone brought a machine gun to the party.  This, in retrospect, likely took a bit longer than it should have, even given how heavy and unwieldy machine guns were at this point.  Once that first step was taken, however, the race was on…except pilots quickly realized that propellers and machine guns didn’t mix and observers were unconscionably heavy.  This meant most of your early fighters were two seater, open air types in which one bloke flew, and the other blazed.

The problem with the above set up was that two seat aircraft were far less maneuverable than single seat aircraft.  Moreover, a well-handled single seater could get someplace far faster than a two seater.  However, despite those advantages, there was the one major disadvantage with most single seaters–machine gun fire + own propeller = glider.  This simple equation led to smart guys like Roland Garros (Allies) and Anthony Fokker (Central Powers) to apply thought on how to “interrupt” a firing machine gun so it didn’t blow the prop off.  Depending on what account you read, the following events occurred between April-July 1915 in this general sequence:

  • Garros came up with a semi-reliable system first
  • Fokker came up with a less reliable system second
  • Garros was uber motivated to get to the German killing, so he simply reinforced his prop blades with steel wedges to deflect the “oopsies”
  • German commanders, angry that Garros was conducting a winged spree shooting, told Fokker he better either figure crap out or he was going to get an all expense ticket stamped for someplace muddy, rat-infested, and within British artillery range
  • Garros got a little greedy going after kills and ended up shot down behind German lines.  Due to wet conditions, Garros could not get his plane to burn before capture.
  • Fokker examined Garros’ system and realized that the Frenchman and he had solved different pieces of the puzzle
  • Fokker perfected interruptor gear, calling it a synchronization mechanism due to it synchronizing the machine gun’s firing with the propeller’s movement.

Regardless of the exact timing or veracity of the above, the end result is not in dispute.  By July 1915 the Germans were able to put interruptor gear and forward mounted machine guns on their fighters.  Thus began what was called “The Fokker Scourge,” i.e., the point where Fokker fighters had a marked advantage over their British opponents and started blasting the Royal Flying Corps out of the sky.

“Well this is just going to be an unsightly bad day at the office…”

Now, if you’re imagining a huge cloud of swirling multi-colored biplanes at this point, along with one conspicuous flying doghouse…you’re a bit early.  As you can see from the above painting, early pilots hunted prey the same way George Thorogood drank: Alone.  As in, “Hey, I’m going to go patrol this sector.  If I happen to see something flying, I’m gonna shoot it.  So don’t fly your happy behind over this creek here, because I don’t want to turn you into a flaming comet on accident.”

This isn’t as crazy as it seems at first blush.  Take a look at early World War I monoplanes, then consider that visibility wasn’t always your friend.  Plane comes out of a cloud bank, a pilot didn’t want to spend precious seconds trying to figure out if it’s his good buddy Hans or some guy named Jacques.  On top of that, aircraft mass production still had not hit its stride.  These were still machines that, by and large, a bunch of folks were putting together with canvas and glue in a glorified garage.  That translated to not that many numbers at the front line.  Combine this with the large amount of frontage from the North Sea to the Swiss Border, and you start to understand why men could fly for literally hours without seeing anything.

Horrified by the carnage of the trenches, belligerents’ populations began to lionize these winged “knights of the air” for their allegedly more noble existence.  The dashing “ace” (designated after five kills) was born, and everyone just ignored the fact that men were puttering around in flying canvas fire sacks.  Because, hey, blasting holes in one another until someone hits a powerplant, ignites a fuel tank, or incapacitates the other pilot is way cooler than…

*pause*  Okay, fine, it beats life in a trench, but not by much. Lest there be any confusion, parachutes in fighter aircraft were not a thing until 1918, and then only for the Germans.  In some ways, catching a volley of .303 to the head was the best outcome, as then at least the lights just went out.  All too often, bullets cut a fuel line, petrol caught a hot engine, and the unlucky pilot became the next contestant on Mr. Newton’s Flaming Fireball of Funtime.  It was not unheard of for men in this situation to decide they’d rather jump to their doom than sizzle all the way down.  Less common, but not at all apocryphal, were reports of men who decided to blow their brains out rather than wait around to see rather kinetic or thermal energy would be their undoing.

Around the winter of 1915-1916, as the Fokker Scourge started to wind down, this solitary or extremely small group method of hunting started to change.  There were many reasons for this that I won’t get into.  Just know that by the Battle of Verdun, both sides were operating in at least 3-6 ship formations.  As the numbers increased on both sides, committing flying manslaughter started to get complicated.  The old hands, like Oswald Boelcke and Max Immelmann had previously noted patterns to their engagements.  As they began fighting a dual battle between combat fatigue and training new pilots (“Oh my God, you guys are a bunch of newbs!”—translated from the original German), these first generation aces started writing down rules  and passing along maneuvers.  A similar movement was started on the Allied side, and in this manner the first attempts at professionalization rather than just flying around shooting were begun.  This is critical, as this tactical thinking soon led to operational theory.

Complementing these individual attempts and theorizing were decisions made about unit organizations.  The German Imperial Air Arm, due to the growing discrepancy in numbers between the Allies and Central Powers, started to organize into squadrons (Jastas).  These Jastas, in turn, began being shuffled from one point to another along the line like a traveling carnage troupe, with each unit having distinctive color schemes.  It was thus the term “Flying Circus” was born, as if you got a whole bunch of Jastas together it started to look like Ringling Brothers (see here for color schemes—) in the sky.  The Allies, in contrast, had sufficient numbers to maintain squadrons in a given sector, dressed their planes in plain drab, and  seldom shifted except in preparation for major offensives.  In any case, rather than the blundering street fights or serial murders of the earlier phases, by 1917 aerial forces were often being employed to create certain operational effects in support of ground operations.  Want your enemy’s observation balloons to get lit up so you could shift a few battalions in relative peace?  Send a squadron of Camels to get it done.  Royal Flying Corps getting a little uppity in your sector?  Jasta 2 will be on the next train. Slowly, principles like concentration of force and air superiority / supremacy began to be born in practice if not formally elucidated (yet).

World War I Dogfight 2.jpg

The Tao Of Dogfighting Part I

Some eternal truths began to emerge as the war wore on.  (This is James’s way of saying that Bloody April and Plan 1919 are kinda important, but we’re not touching them here.) I’ll hit the long-term high points here:

1.) The majority of folks who got shot down never knew what hit them.  Those who were lucky enough to survive crash landings often said something akin to, “One second I’m flying along, doing my thing, trying not to run into anybody in the formation.  Next? I’ve got my bloody observer’s brains all over my neck and the wing’s about to fall off.”  Boelcke initially and von Richtofen after him were particularly notorious for passing up kills if the poor bastard they were about to blast showed any signs of seeing them coming.  While this extreme was frowned upon in later wars, the fact remained many, many pilots got to see St. Peter before seeing their assailant.

2.) A majority of the killing was done by a minority of the pilots.  Michael Spick, a noted aviation author, made lots of money off a book called The Ace Factor in which he tried to explain this phenomenon.  Spick tied it to “situational awareness,” which was the buzzword du jour of the time he was writing.  Basically SA (as situational awareness is often shortened to) was the ability to keep track of the moving chess pieces of an aerial flight much better than the guy who may be doing well to keep from ramming someone else in his own formation.  I’m simplifying a bit, but Mr. Spick is both right and wrong.  While SA is always important, what is almost as critical is a proficiency in the weapons of a pilot’s particular era.  Or put another way, the reason aces are, well, aces is that they’re able to effectively employ their given weapons system.

Note that I said “employ,” not shoot accurately.  As will be discussed later, some of the best aces of World War I and II were terrible shots.  As in, Aaron Burr crossed with Elmer Fudd terrible shots.  Aiming in three dimensions at speeds the human body was not designed to attain while simultaneously being stalked oneself is not a recipe for accurate shooting.  This also contributed to a disturbing tendency for people to open fire well outside of their weapons’ “envelope,” i.e. the parameters were a chance to hit were particularly high.

3.) In aerial combat, it is better to carry through a miscalculated action with great zeal than to have the slightest hesitation under optimal circumstances.  Put in modern terms, “go big or go home.”  World War I aircraft did not have what modern parlance deems “energy,” i.e. the combination of engine power, aerodynamics, and maneuverability to engage in extended dogfights.  With a  few exceptions (Richtofen versus Hawker comes to mind), most pilots engaging in a turning battle quickly overstepped their aircraft’s parameters, stalled out, and then became sitting ducks for whomever they were facing.  Get in, get blasting, and get out is a mindset that would carry through to the next few European contretemps and beyond.

We’re Over 2,000 Words and Eyes Are Glazing Over

Many important things happened in the last year of the war, but that’s basically what Wikipedia is for.  The big takeaway for fighters is that, like all aircraft, by the end of the war they’d gotten bigger, faster, and more lethal.  That Fokker Eindecker causing RFC pilots to wet themselves in 1915?  It was armed with a single machine gun and had a top speed of 86 mph.  By 1918, a German fighter pilot could strap into a Fokker D VIII with two synchronized machine guns and a blazing speed of 127 mph.  The Allied fighter pilot having to fight him?  Tooling around in a SPAD fighter with a top speed of 135 mph and similar armament.  Combat had become massive furballs and often involved bombers running around in large formations.  Sometimes the poor bastard at the controls would be expected to do his job at night and versus large airships at altitudes where breathing was difficult.  By the last six months of 1918, aerial encounters were occurring in numbers that presaged future events.  When the guns finally fell silent in November of that year, all parties involved recognized how far all aircraft had come and how far they could potentially go.  Even as the idealistic spoke of “The War to End All Wars,” the cynical began to wonder what would happen the next time young men had to duel for control of the skies.

As I’m doing each of this series, I’ll do a recommended reading list.  There will be three books for the casual reader on the topic, followed by one you probably only want to read if this is something you really love.

Three books for the masses:

The Canvas Falcons by Stephen Longstreet

They Fought for the Sky by Quentin Reynolds

 Aces Falling by Peter Hart

One book for the monkhood:

No Parachute by Arthur Gould Lee.