An alternative Blitz

Last year I talked about J. M. Spaight's The Sky's the Limit (here, here and here), and how its account of the then-developing Battle of Britain was somewhat surprising to anyone familiar with the standard narrative of the summer of 1940. Which is not at all to say that the standard narrative is wrong, just that things quite naturally looked different while the Battle was still in progress.

Now I'm looking at press accounts of the beginning of the Blitz, September and early October 1940, and again I'm finding things which don't seem to have made it into the received picture. One very striking one is the apparently near-universal opinion that the Me 109 fighter was inferior to British fighters: not just a little bit, but greatly; not just to the Spitfire, but to the Hurricane as well.1 So for example, the Manchester Guardian's air correspondent confidently reported that

That Göring's air force has had no single-seat fighter that could compare with the Spitfire or the Hurricane is a fact that has been obvious since the very start of the war in the air against Britain and the replacement of the Messerschmitt 109, that has suffered so heavily at the hands of R.A.F. fighter squadrons, by something better was to be expected.2

Nearly seventy years later, reasonable people still can and do disagree over the relative merits of these fighters. But I think you would be hard-pressed these days to find anyone who would claim that the Me 109 was not comparable in air combat to the Spitfire, and substantially (though certainly not overwhelmingly) superior to the Hurricane. The reason for the underrating of the Me 109 is not hard to find, when British claims for German losses were routinely too high by a factor of two or three. But I suspect Fighter Command pilots wouldn't have been so sanguine, regardless of the numbers!

The second story was put out by official German sources: that Hermann Goering personally flew a bomber on a raid over London on the evening of 15 September!

Government quarters said that Göring piloted a Junkers 88 bomber, escorted by two Messerschmitt destroyer 'planes3 on either side of his 'plane. After returning to his headquarters at a small village in Normandy, Göring, according to these spokesmen, declared that he was most impressed by the effect of the German bombing of London.4

I don't think I've ever heard this story before, and I don't think it's actually true. Goering was of course a pilot during the First World War, a fighter ace in fact, and flew as a commercial pilot in the early 1920s, but he didn't take a lot of interest in flying thereafter. This is despite his becoming head of the Luftwaffe in 1933; at that point he hadn't flown since 19225 and it seems unlikely that he would have found time to get much practice in, what with all his hunting, gourmandising, and whatnot. Presumably, then, this story was concocted to show Goering as a vital man of action, willing and able to lead his troops into action.

The third story -- actually a pair of stories -- was about the German invasion. Not just the one which, it was feared, was about to take place, but the one which had already taken place and been repulsed! These stories originated from Americans who had recently been in France or who had received letters from there.

The invading German fleet is said to have started from St. Malo, Brittany, with the expectation of landing on the West Coast of England. Reports received, it is said, indicate that the result was "nothing short of suicide."6

A couple of days later, a different source (an American surgeon, late of Paris) claimed that 'The Germans have already attempted to invade England several times at different points and each time have failed'.7 He also 'told of seeing "hundreds of German bodies in the water near Cherbourg"'8 (presumably something to do with invasion exercises, rather than the real thing, though he said these were not being conducted near there). Of course, none of this actually happened: Operation Sealion was never attempted. I have actually heard these stories before, as James Hayward discusses them in a fascinating little book, The Bodies on the Beach: Sealion, Shingle Street and the Burning Sea Myth of 1940 (Dereham: CD41, 2001).9 These rumours and others, such as ones regarding the charred bodies of German soldiers washing up on the English coast, came at the height of the invasion danger period in mid-September, when high tides at dawn provided optimal conditions for an amphibious landing. So it's hardly surprising that people would fixate on every little scrap of information, no matter how dubious (and to its credit, the Manchester Guardian made no great play of the failed invasion stories, burying them way down the page). What's more surprising is that some people still believe such things, such as the claim that a German invasion was turned back at Shingle Street, Suffolk, in late August 1940. I don't think so.

Here's a final tidbit. In 1940, at least, it seems that it wasn't "Fighter Command" or "Bomber Command" -- they were nearly always "the Fighter Command" and "the Bomber Command". For example, in Churchill's tribute to Fighter Command, which began: 'Yesterday eclipses all previous records of the Fighter Command'.10 At some point during the war the definite article was dropped. It's jarring at first, but soon makes sense.

So there it is: in September 1940 the Fighter Command was thrashing those useless Me 109s all over the sky, although unfortunately not doing much to stop old Hermann earn his combat pay; while below the Navy and the Home Guard were busy beating back invasion after invasion. That's if you believe everything you read in the papers, of course!

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  1. Since we're talking day fighters, technically this probably should be classified as the Battle of Britain, not the Blitz, but in some ways this is is an artificial and unhelpful distinction. []
  2. Manchester Guardian, 19 September 1940, p. 5. The 'something better' was the mythical He 113. []
  3. I.e., Me 110s. []
  4. Manchester Guardian, 17 September 1940, p. 5. []
  5. According to James S. Corum, The Luftwaffe: Creating the Operational Air War, 1918-1940 (Lawrence: University of Kansas, 1987, 124-5. []
  6. Manchester Guardian, 12 September 1940, p. 2. []
  7. Manchester Guardian, 14 September 1940, p. 10. []
  8. Ibid. []
  9. CD41 are worth checking out, particularly for their music and spoken world CDs relating to the First and Second World Wars. []
  10. The Times, 17 September 1940, p. 4. []

13 thoughts on “An alternative Blitz

  1. That Shingle Street website is hilarious! All the half-truths and special pleading you'd expect from a conspiracy theorist. I especially liked the "detailed eye-witness account" from someone who didn't actually claim to have seen what happened.

    On fighters, don't some people say that the Hurricane was better than the Spitfire in 1940?

  2. Post author


    I know, I'm surprised this wasn't pointed out in the article (there was a sceptical postscript, but only on the question of whether he would be so foolhardy as to fly over London, not whether he flew at all).


    It's good stuff, isn't it? It might be worth a post on its own one day, though I might have to reread Hayward's book first (which to my mind thoroughly debunks Shingle Street). What I can't understand is why Shingle Street was supposedly covered up. You would think that in the circumstances of 1940, the British government would crow about annihilating a German landing. What's not to like about that? This page suggests three reasons, only one of which is remotely plausible: yes, maybe even an unsuccessful German raid could have caused panic. But that's no reason to keep it a secret two generations later. The other two reasons are both ridiculous (Chamberlain was dying of cancer at this time; Baldwin wasn't ever in Churchill's government) and non sequiturs -- I don't understand what they have to do with Shingle Street, in fact I don't understand the third one ("The monarchy") at all. But that's all part of the charm of a good conspiracy theory :)

    On Hurricanes vs Spits, I don't know. Tony may be able to answer that better than me, actually. I think it depends how you define "better". Certainly it has been argued that, overall, the Hurricanes made a greater contribution to winning the Battle than the Spitfire -- they were easier to build (no elliptical wing nonsense) and maintain, so there were more of them. They had some advantages over Spitfires -- widely-spaced landing gear meant that they were less likely to have take-off or landing accidents; they were a more stable gun platform; and could absorb more damage. And I'm sure that some pilots had a personal preference for Hurricanes. But purely in terms of air-to-air combat, I don't think there's any question that Spitfires were faster and more maneuverable than Hurricanes, on just about every measure. There was a reason, after all, why when given the choice the Hurricanes would head for the bombers while the Spitfires took on the escorts.

    Having said all that, I found this site which compares the Spitfire I and the Me 109E (see also here and here), quoting many pilots from both sides as well as reports on trials using captured aircraft. In several places there it's claimed that the Hurricane was superior to the Me 109, so maybe the Manchester Guardian's claim was not as silly a suggestion as I thought.

  3. Well, the claims may have been too high, but the actual results were higher on our side than the Germans'! Which suggests we must have been doing something right.

    I think it's probably true that the Hurricane was near the end of its useful life in 1940. Despite the various updates, like the four-20mm cannon version, it became a liability in 1941 with the first Focke Wulf 190s and the Me109-F, and was flushed out of squadrons in the UK in favour of Spitfires (which were struggling to deal with the 190s themselves until the VIIIs and IXs arrived).]

    The Spitfire airframe, though, had much more potential for further development.

    Also, you have to see capability in the round - the Me109 was badly shortlegged throughout its existence, and the cockpit was tiny and afforded less of a view than the British types. And however good the rate of turn and top speed, it's useless if you don't have the time-over-target to be there for the battle, and worse if you don't see the other guy!

  4. Post author

    Ah yes, but then more than half of the Luftwaffe's losses were bombers. Just in terms of fighters, they only lost around 870 fighters to the RAF's 1020, and so in those terms the Me 109 and Me 110 did better than the Spitfire and Hurricane! :) Of course it's not that simple ... the German bombers had a share of the kills, but then the fighters were hampered by having to escort the bombers, and so on ... there are so many variables, it's hard to make a "pure" calculation just on the combat figures.

  5. Okay, all this is written mainly off the top of my head, as I don't have time to go into the literature.

    The Hurricane certainly made a significant contribution to winning the Battle of Britain, simply because the RAF had more of them - if I've counted right, there were 35 Hurricane squadrons to only 19 of Spits. So Hurricanes certainly shot down more German aircraft in the Battle (indeed, it is apparently the case that Hurricanes shot down more enemy aircraft than Spitfires in the war as a whole). The numerical balance comes about because Hurricanes got into production and out to units quicker (the first Hurricane squadron was equipped a full ten months before the first Spitfires arrived), which is down to a number of factors, part of which was the difficulty of manufacturing the Spitfire's wing, but another part is that Sydney Camm and his Hawkers team had plenty of experience in fighter development, whilst Mitchell and Vickers-Supermarine were more starting from scratch. In the actual Battle, production difficulties didn't matter - IIRC there was only a very short period in August when production of new fighters was outstripped by attrition, and there were enough planes in reserve to cover that.

    As for the relative merits of the single-seat monoplane fighters involved in the Battle, this debate has been going on for a long time. When I first got interested in the early 1970s, the general view was that the Hurricane I was almost a match for the 109E, with the Spitfire some way in front of both. Nowadays, more credit is given to the 109, which is seen as a match for the Spit (if with some disadvantages, such as a very cramped cockpit), and the gap between Spitfire I and Hurricane I has narrowed. The Hurricane certainly had advantages - pretty much those that Brett mentions. But Alex is right that the Hurricane, being basically a biplane fighter with the top wing removed, was approaching obsolescence in the summer of 1940, and after 1941 Hurricanes largely disappear from Fighter Command, to be sent to other theatres (the Middle and Far East).

    The Spitfire, on the other hand, had plenty of life in it, and continuned to be developed throughout the war. As did the 109, though this is partly due to the odd way in which the Germans frittered away resources on development projects that never went anywhere, whilst keeping pre-war designs in production long past their sell-by date. Nevertheless, though the 109Gs and Ks were undoubtedly outclassed by the end of the war, the 109F of 1941 was as good a fighter as anyone had until the first Fw 190s appeared.

    What the Spit also has, of course, is that it looks beautiful, and so is a priceless gift to a skillful propaganda machine. Hence why it, not the Hurricane, has become symbolic of the Battle.

    And in the end, the differences in performance between the Hurricane I, Spitfire I and 109E are quite marginal. The most significant factor in the outcome of an individual combat would be not the qualities of the machines, but those of the pilots.

  6. It has to be understood that performance differences between aircraft types in this era was very marginal. Indeed, performance differences between aircraft of the SAME TYPE was often greater than these margins.

    The top speed of a Spit I tested at Boscombe Down was around 362 mph at height (around 16,000 or so, I forget exactly what). But service Spit Is in the Battle of Britain had great difficulty sustaining speeds greater than 300 mph (I have some anecdotal evidence on this). Once you had a few hours on the engine and airframe it just didn't perform as well as it should, and the manufacture of the aircraft was shoddy enough to add variation. (One friend of mine had his riggers spend tens of hours using filler on all the cracks and holes and bad joins on his Spit V, then polishing her up to a shine, and put 30 mph on its top speed.)

    So the performance differences between these aircraft types only came into their own when used by experten, who could exploit them. For sure, on the whole a Me109 had enough speed that it could extend away from a Hurricane in a fight, and the Hurricane didn't have the same advantage. But all this nonsense about turn rates and carburettors and suchlike obscures the fact that only a small number of pilots made the most of these margins. The workaday fighting was done by pilots not experienced enough or good enough to leverage these differences.

    Other than those odd occasions where biplanes matched up with monoplanes, it wasn't until the jet era that true dissimilar combat could take place. Where aircraft with vastly different performance profiles would battle it out. Other than that, WW2 was notable for the fighters maintaining a rough parity of performance throughout the war. Or at least close enough for discussion to be mostly in the realm of quibbling.

  7. Post author

    Thanks for that, guys. It's a very good point that real-world performance with real-world pilots doesn't necessarily have much to do with the arcane arguments about turning circles and so on, and that the performance figures quoted in books don't necessarily have much to do with anything. I'm surprised that a Spitfire I couldn't go much faster than 300 mph -- but what about the Hurricane I and Me 109F? Were they handicapped by a similar margin from their theoretical best?

    By the way, I'm chuffed to see Lee turn up here! Lee is a wargame designer -- most pertinently, he's responsible for a very fine Battle of Britain game, The Burning Blue. Despite buying it nearly 18 months ago, I'm sad to say that the counters remain unpunched -- I haven't had the time to actually play it :( That hasn't dimmed my enthusiasm for getting Bomber Command if and when it eventually appears, though!

  8. CK

    I love these discussions.

    To quote from the website:

    Oberleutnant Gerhard Schöpfel, Gruppenkommandeur of III./JG 26 wrote of the Me 109 E:

    "It was superior to the Hurricane and above 6,000 metres, faster than the Spitfire also. I believe that our armament was the better, it was located more centrally which made for more accurate shooting. On the other hand, the British fighters could turn tighter than we could. Also I felt that the Messerschmitt was not so strong as the British fighters and could not take so much punishment."

    Oblt Hans Schmoller-Haldy of JG 54 commented:

    "My first impression was that it had a beautiful engine. It purred. The engine of the Messerschmitt 109 was very loud. Also the Spitfire was easier to fly, and to land than the Me 109. The 109 was unforgiving of any inattention. I felt familiar with the Spitfire from the start. That was my first and lasting impression. But with my experience with the 109, I personally would not have traded it for a Spitfire. It gave the impression, though I did not fly the Spitfire long enough to prove it, that the 109 was the faster especially in the dive. Also I think the pilot's view was better from the 109. In the Spitfire one flew further back, a bit more over the wing.

    "For fighter-versus-fighter combat, I thought the Spitfire was better armed than the Me 109. The cannon fitted to the 109 were not much use against enemy fighters, and the machine guns on top of the engine often suffered stoppages. The cannon were good if they hit; but their rate of fire was very low. The cannon had greater range than the machine guns. But we were always told that in a dogfight one could not hope to hit anything at ranges greater than 50 metres, it was necessary to close in to short range. "

    Günther Rall, who served with III./JG 52 during the Battle of Britain, reflected on the strengths and weaknesses of the adversaries at that time:

    "The elliptical wings of the Spitfires had fantastic characteristics, great lift. They were very maneuverable. We couldn't catch them in a steep climb. On the other hand they could stall during inverted maneuvers, cutting off the fuel because the force of gravity prevented the flow of fuel. But they were still a highly respected enemy. In contrast, our Bf 109s had shortcomings. I didn't like the slats and our cockpits were very narrow, with restricted rear visability. Fighter pilots need a good all-round field of vision and we didn't have it. "

    Adolf Galland wrote of the matchup: "the ME-109 was superior in the attack and not so suitable for purely defensive purposes as the Spitfire, which although a little slower, was much more manueuverable" and in a fit of frustration uttered the famous passage to Göring "I should like an outfit of Spitfires for my Squadron".

  9. JohnM

    I hardly think it surprising that the wartime Manchester overstated the relative strength of British equipment. At that time it was broadly accepted by journalists that the war had a morale element that had to be won too.

    It's quite possible (although by no means certain) that the writer knew the reality, but felt it better to promote the success. Can you find, for example any wartime newspaper articles, highlighting the inferiority of the British tank?

  10. Post author

    Yes, that could be part of it. Certainly people would want to have confidence in the weapons that are defending them, and workers wouldn't want to be told that the aircraft they've been pouring their blood, sweat, tears and toil into were actually deathtraps. But I don't think that's the main reason here. It's aviation journalists who are making these statements, which don't come across as simple-minded patriotic bravado. The thing is, there was actually evidence that British fighters were better -- the large numbers of German aircraft being shot down (plus the early technical evaluations mentioned in the comments, though these may not have been known to journalists). That these were inflated by a factor of two or so doesn't matter, at this wasn't known at the time. It was plausible that British fighters were better than German ones.

    Can you find, for example any wartime newspaper articles, highlighting the inferiority of the British tank?

    That's a good question, but it's not quite parallel. A parallel question would be: did the press claim that British tanks were superior to German tanks? I don't do tanks, so I don't know, but I doubt it, given how rum they actually were. (Though the Matilda wasn't too bad, IIRC.) I don't think British press/propaganda outfits (presumably, journalists would mostly get this type of information from official sources) were much given to outright lies; it was more a matter of exaggerating the positives and passing over the negatives in silence (where possible).

    The treatment of the ill-starred Boulton Paul Defiant is instructive here. I've discussed the high hopes held for this fighter early in the Battle of Britain -- which were plausible, being based on spectacular early results. The disasters suffered by Defiant squadrons early in the Battle were not, as far as I know, made public. Instead an announcement was made in November that Defiants had been switched to night-fighting, as that was their original purpose. (OK, that was a lie!) Why did the British propaganda machine not keep pumping stories about how the Defiants were helping defend British cities etc? Because it wasn't plausible: they were a bad design.

    Just FWIW, Flight's verdict on the Me 109 was that it had 'just missed being a success' ("Nazi fighter", 24 October 1940, 347):

    But the combination [of Me 109 plus pilot] has failed against the fighter pilots of the Royal Air Force, with their efficient and trustworthy Hurricanes and Spitfires, and some of the reason can be found in the Me 109 as a fighting aeroplane [...] So the Me 109 has become Germany's only fighter, and it does not seem that the choice has been a particularly happy one.

    I love this bit (in reference to cockpit instrumentation):

    It does look as though the Luftwaffe thought about its fighters as the air-raid shelters were thought about in this country. They wouldn't really be needed -- not very much at any rate -- so a second-class job was made to do.

    Oh, snap! Unfortunately, though the article goes on for a few more pages, it gets mired in detail and never gets into a serious comparison of the Me 109 with the British fighters.

  11. I believe that simple national prejudice may play a role as much as propaganda.

    For sure, propaganda is rarely a lie. More often it is the spin-doctored truth. But in a time of crisis, folks are likely to manufacture their own, comfortable version of the truth. If a piece of kit is inferior, it will be regarded as the enemy's equal when wielded by plucky British crews. For sure, the Cromwell tank was inferior in many respects to the Tiger and Panther--both of which held a fearsome reputation--but that didn't stop the tankers charging ahead with élan at Operation Goodwood. Clearly, they found some way to acc-en-tu-ate the pos-it-ive.

    In the case of fighter aircraft, where the difference is less clear, that positivity may edge into a sense of superiority. If you look for flaws in the enemy's kit, you will find them. For example, the Me109 was not a good airframe for future development. In 1940 a trained eye could see it was a developmental dead end with an airframe too small for improvement. That it soldiered on to the end of the war is an indictment of the German war economy and a tribute to the brilliance of the Messerschmitt engineers. But the 109 was increasingly outclassed in those final years and had become specialized as a bomber-killer.

    Look at the biplane. Even up to the beginning of the war you would have found some aviators (albeit a dwindling band) insisting that it held the edge on the new monoplanes because it was more manoeuvreable. Utter tosh, as it turned out. Just see how the Italian CR.42s were slaughtered by Hurricanes in the Battle of Britain. But contrast that reality with the RAF mythology that to this day holds a special affection for Faith, Hope and Charity over Malta, whose record was, at best, modest.

    You'll find examples of this sort of prejudice all over the place. Sometimes it is conflated with a conservative preference for the new over the new-fangled. The British Army's preference for the SLR rifle over the American M16, for example. In the '70s you would hear Ruperts sniff about the British soldier's traditional excellence at musketry and the wasteful antics of GIs handed automatic weapons. And this in spite of years of evidence about the firepower superiority of automatic rifles. It's interesting that even the Flight excerpt you quote carefully identifies the problem as being the machine/pilot combination, and not purely the machine.

    So bigotry, conservatism, national self-belief all serve to spin the picture. The propagandists often need to do little more than reinforce these prejudices.

  12. Post author

    Very interesting comment, thanks. Yes, it's probably that simple. There are other things in these sources which could just be national prejudice ... like the insistence that the German aircraft, while great in number, are shoddily manufactured; British aircraft are fewer but are the products of superb craftsmanship. But I don't know enough (or much, actually) about the respective aircraft industries to say whether it's true or just blather. The argument was that the Luftwaffe had been going for numbers over quality during its expansion, but the RAF had huge growing pains too. Could just be a way of paying tribute to British workers; could also be an echo of the "Made in Germany" scare of the 1890s. It's certainly odd to hear German engineering workmanship being so roundly rubbished given its post-war reputation.

    About Faith, Hope and Charity: I guess I'm not familiar with the way the RAF remembers them today, but I would have thought that it's precisely because they were inferior aircraft (and grossly outnumbered) that the story is valued today? Its the whole underdog thing, like the Battle of Britain itself, only more so. Much more so, in fact. So their actual combat record is beside the point as far as their myth is concerned -- they stayed in the fight. (Come to think of it, there could be national prejudice here too -- "Useless Eyeties, couldn't even shoot down a couple of old biplanes" whereas the British muddle through in the end, as always.)

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