The Battle of Britain, Part 1 - Aircraft

by Jim "Twitch" Tittle

Article Type: Military History
Article Date: September 06, 2002

Prelude to the Battle of Britain

We all know that World War Two officially began in September of 1939 with the German invasion of Poland. It was Hitler’s idea that all Germanic peoples live under the German flag. As he expanded the “living space” of Germany to encompass greater area he noted that Poland had many Germanics and targeted it next. Like the Borg of Star Trek he assimilated it too, but this integration finally provoked France and Great Britain to honor pacts with Poland and declare war on Germany.

German and British propoganda posters.

We know that Germany advanced into France with their superior troops, equipment and weaponry outclassing the French. The English made their last Continental stand at Dunkirk. The evacuation of the French and British personnel across the Channel by anything that could float was fortuitous. Hermann Göring’s Luftwaffe was simply not able to move forward and deploy fast enough to be effective in destroying the cornered Allies at Dunkirk. This was the first of many shortcomings that the Luftwaffe would endure in the coming war.

As Churchill stated, “The Battle of France is over and the Battle of Britain is beginning.” The stage was set for Göring to redeem himself to Hitler for the Luftwaffe’s failure to smash Dunkirk before 338,226 vital Allied fighting men were evacuated to England by June 4, 1940. Hitler now owned most of Europe.

And now is when the war switched to all aerial in combat nature. With the Luftwaffe soon entrenched in forward French airdromes they could pop across the Channel night and day to mix it up with the RAF. Even the short-range Bf 109 could make it though with little fuel to spare. The planes of the RAF’s Fighter Command were over home territory and had the advantage of that plus long loiter time in patrols and intercept duties that would not tax the fuel consumption of any plane.

Luftwaffe Hardware

Do 17
At night the bombers roamed the British Isles to bomb their targets. The Dornier Do 17, Heinkel He 111 and Ju 88 carried the weight of the bomber role with the Ju 87 Stuka used in daylight attacks for pinpoint bomb placement on British targets.

The first Do 17 took flight in autumn of 1934. After eighteen months the plane gestated through ten prototype airframes and in early 1936 the designation Do 17E and F were decided acceptable for production. Service trials of the E, long-range bomber, and the F, long-range recon-bomber, commenced and the types were evaluated in combat condition during the Spanish Civil War through 1938. M, P and Z models soon followed. Though the Do 17 later saw more use in the East it was used during The Battle of Britain.

The Do 17Z was in the thick of the fighting in France equipping KG 2, 3 and 76 (Kamphgeschwader). KG 2 and 3 attacked the fleeing Allies at Dunkirk on May 27, 1940 and opened the Battle of Britain with Channel convoy attacks in July.

Do 17 & Ju 88

The Do 17Z had excellent strength and maneuverability and could make shallow dives exceeding 370 MPH. Despite its nickname “the flying pencil” from its slim fuselage, it was strong and could take punishment. The Z was a 4-seater. The now chunkier 51.75-foot fuselage tapered to its slim, twin rudder tail. Its broad, round-tip wings measured 59 feet across. Even at maximum loaded it weighed but 18,931 lbs.

Typical offensive ordnance consisted of twenty 110-lb. or four 551-lb. bombs. With a 2,205-lb. bomb load the Z could travel 205 miles. With 1,100 lbs. and extra fuel it could manage 720 miles. The ceiling was 26,900 feet with weight at 17,730 lbs. At that weight maximum speed was 255 MPH at 13,120 feet. Power came from two Bramo 323P 9-cylinder radials rated at 1,000 HP.

Defensively the ship carried two 7.9 mm MG 15s on flexible side-window mounts with another rear facing weapon for dorsal coverage and a forth flexible MG 15 in the lower glazed nose.

He 111
The He 111 flew in early 1935. Four prototypes followed before the He 111 A was produced in small numbers. More models quickly evolved and Bs was used in the Spanish Civil War also. Though the H and P models came into being the H was put into production later that the H. Many bomb groups used the P model during the Polish campaign carried out the first British raids in 1939 before the official commencement of the Battle of Britain. By the height of the Battle in August 1940 all but four groups, KG 26, 27, 53 and 55, had converted to the Ju 88.

The He 111P-4 was the sub-model used. It housed a crew of five in the 53.75-foot round fuselage. Two Daimler-Benz DB 601A-1 V-12s with 1,100HP each were mounted in the elliptical 74-foot wings. At maximum weight it tipped the scales at 29,762 lbs. Four 551-lb. bombs could stow internally with up to two 1,102-lb. bombs externally. At maximum weight the P-4 could only do 200 MPH though un-laden it reached 247 MPH at 16,400 feet. Normally range was 1,224 mile but with extra fuel 1,490 moles could be flown.

A bevy of MG 15s was its defense. One flexible mount was in the greenhouse nose along with a fixed firing weapon. Two more attached to side beam windows while a dorsal station covered the rear above. Another was housed in the ventral gondola for lower rear defense and a fixed gun was often mounted in the tail cone.

Ju 88
One of the Luftwaffe workhorses was the Junker Ju 88. It saw many adaptations and model later in the war. With much learned from the above-mentioned bombers the Junkers ship was better yet. It took to the air in December 1936 for the first time. Ten prototypes progressed to the A-1, which saw its first combat in September of 1939 against British naval units. The carrier Ark Royal was hit in this engagement and the battleship Hood took a hit but the bomb was a dud.

Ju 88s took only a small role in the Battle of France and the Low Countries. Ju 88s did attack shipping during the Dunkirk evacuation. By the beginning of the Battle of Britain a large number of groups had equipped with the Ju 88A-4. The A-4 had a bit larger span and wing area plus upgraded engines. The A-5 participated in the Battle differing in that it could tote an additional pair of 551-lb. bombs on wing racks.

The Ju 88A-4’s wings now spanned 65.5 feet while the 4-man crew operated in the forward section of the 47-foot fuselage. Ten 110-lb. bombs were internally stowed with four 551-lb. bombs externally. Alternatively up to four 1,105-lb. bombs could attach externally for shorter runs. Loaded weight was only 26,686 lbs. but could max out 30,865 owing to the additional bombs.

The two Junkers Jumo 211J-1 or J-2 V-12s provided 1,350 HP each allowing a healthy 292 MPH top speed at 17,390 feet while weighing 27,557 lbs. Ceiling was 26,900 feet. Range was excellent with more gas and fewer bombs at 1,696 miles though normal was 1,112 miles.

The A-4 mounted a 7.9 mm MG 81 and a 13 mm MG 131 in forward flexible mounts though sometimes the 7.9 was fixed for pilot fire-ability. A pair of MG 81s could be trained from the aft upper cockpit and one MG 131 or two MG 81s were trainable from the ventral gondola.

Ju 87
The Ju 87 Stuka was designed in 1933 but the Reich Luft Ministry didn’t issue its specification until 1935. The Ju 87 V1 followed in just three months using A Rolls-Royce Kestrel for power. After the last prototype, the V4, production was ordered. With the B model in use during the Polish campaign Stukas began their legacy of pinpoint accurate bomb delivery. Their success continued in fighting right through to Dunkirk and into the Battle of Britain with attacks on radar stations, naval targets and airfields.

Ju 87 & He 111

During the BoB the Stuka was found out. It was poorly armed, slow and couldn’t maneuver. With forty lost to the RAF the plane made its last large BoB sortie with II/S.G.1, II/St.G.2 and I/St.G.3 on August 30, 1940.

The Ju 87B-1 used a Junker Jumo 211Da V-12 of 1,200 HP. It was heavy at its maximum 9,560 lbs. The 45.25-foot inverted gull wing had a fixed undercarriage protruding from it though it was housed in streamlined spats. This gave the machine a top speed of just 238 MPH at 13,410 feet. Of course ordnance placement was its forte and dive brakes rimmed the trailing edges of the huge wings to make vertical dives at slow, accurate aiming speeds possible. It could mount a 1,105-lb or 551-lb. bomb on centerline plus four 110-pounders under the wings.

The rear gunner sat with his flexible 7.9 mm MG 15 machine gun back-to-back with the pilot in the 36.5-foot fuselage. The pilot had only a pair of MG 15s in the wings. Though ceiling was 26,250 feet Stukas were rarely seen at any appreciable height.

Bf 109
The culmination of the Messerschmitt Bf 109 at the time was the E-3 model. The Air Ministry fighter requirement of 1934 saw the Bf 109V1 fly with a Rolls-Royce Kestrel in September 1935. More prototypes were built before the 109 was officially designated. Jumo engines were used in the A, B and C models as prototype and officially designated planes leapfrogged to the D model. Later Cs had the Daimler-Benz for power, as did all subsequent models. By late 1938 the E officially supplanted the D in production.

Helmut Wick's 109- Iain Wyllie art

The Bf 109B-2 had been tested in combat with the JG 88 in Spain so development to the E had good input from experience to go on. The E-1 reached squadrons in the spring of 1939 with the E-3 produced by fall on that year.

The E-3 was light and nimble weighing just 5,523 lbs. loaded. Its span measured 32.3 feet while length was 28.3 feet. The supercharged DB 601A V-12 put out 1,100 HP and was good for 354 MPH at 12,300 feet gave a 37,500-foot ceiling and yielded an initial climb rate of 3,510 FPM. Range of 410 miles was just enough for forward-based squads to make it to England, mix it up, and return home.

Besides the Bf 110, the Bf 109 was the only other participant in the Battle of Britain mounting 20 mm cannon. Two MG FFs with 60 RPG were mounted in the wings with a pair of 7.9 mm MG 17 machine guns in the upper cowl each with 1,000 rounds. Some E-4s made the Battle. They mounded third in the nose hub but vibration often caused their removal.

Bf 110
The Messerschmitt Bf 110 was a good idea for the 1930s but by the time of the Battle nimble RAF fighters had little problem with them. Conceived from Air Ministry requirements for a long-range escort fighter in 1934 it first flew in 1936. By 1940 it had progressed to the C model with a few Ds entering the fray in August. As General Adolf Galland stated in his writings, the 110s that were escorting the bombers needed 109s to escort them!

The Bf 110-C2 and C-4 differed little and were the two models used in 1940. The two DB 601A V-12s were mounted on the 53.3-foot wings. These were the same engine that the 109Es used but the result was far different. The two-man crew sat back to back in the 39.6-foot fuselage. All up weight was 15,300 lbs. making it roughly three times the weight of the 109E-3 but with only twice the power. Top speed was 349 MPH at 22.965 feet. Range at 301 MPH and 22,970 feet was 565 miles. And it could reach a ceiling of 32,000 feet.

Hans Jabs' 110- Iain Wyllie art

In theory it was a winner but in reality it simply was an underpowered twin-engine fighter that could not maneuver well. Allied pilots did attempt to stay out of its fire cone since with its two 20 mm FF cannon and four 7.9 mm MG 15 guns it had substantial firepower. With just one 7.9 handled by the rear gunner it was vulnerable from the six o’clock attack by Spitfires and Hurricanes so they were soon withdrawn from the Channel coast.

RAF Hardware

Hawker Hurricane
The Hawker Hurricane began as a private venture in 1934. Chief designer, Sydney Camm, reckoned the new Rolls-Royce PV-12 would give the Hurri some poke and with this design the British Air Ministry offered a contract with the specification that it be able to mount eight Browning .303s in the wings. The first prototype flew in late 1935. The Merlin II engine supplanted the Merlin I and though the aft fuselage was fabric- covered the rest of the plane used stressed metal skin. Experiments with four 20 mm cannon in the wings were met with official rejection. When the Battle began the RAF had a lot of Hurricane Mk Is.

Hurricane I's on patrol

This first Hurri was 32 feet long with a 40-foot wingspan weighing 6,600 lbs. normal loaded. The Merlin III was installed offering 1,030 HP making for a 324 MPH top speed at 16,250 feet. Climb was a modest 2,300 FPM as was range at 425 miles. With drop tanks this could be increased to 900 miles. The fighter’s ceiling was 34,200 feet. The eight .303s each had 334 rounds. One Hurricane Mk I did fly from North Weald with the experimental quartet of Oerlikon 20 mms during the Battle.

Supermarine Spitfire
Reginald Mitchell literally worked himself to death on the Spitfire. It was accepted in 1935 and the initial prototype flew in March of 1936. Over 1,500 Spitfire Is were in service when the Battle commenced and the Spitfire Mk Is began entering service as well. Armament was on par with the Hurricane Mk I using eight .303s. An experimental Spit with a pair of Hispano 20 mms did do in a Do 17 in March 1940 but cannon were a ways off for production aircraft.

Spitfire IB of George Unwin- Iain Wyllie art

The Spitfire IA and IIA were the same size—29.9 feet long with 36.9-foot wingspans. The IA weighed in at 5,784 lbs. loaded while the IIA was 5,900 lbs. The IA used the Merlin III with 1,030 HP giving 365 MPH at 19,000 feet while the IIA used the XII of 1,175 HP good for 357 MPH at 17,000 feet. The IA’s ceiling was 34,00 feet and the IIA’s was 37,200 feet. Power made difference in climb rate with the IA climbing to 20,000 feet at a 2,175 fpm average where the IIA did it at 2,857 FPM. Best range for the IA was 575 miles and the IIA could do 500 miles. Where the Spitfire IA had 300 rpg for its eight .303s the IIA had 350 RPG.

Think in general terms of a Hurricane with a power turret aft and you have Boulton Paul Defiant, which flew in August 1937 using the Merlin I for power. The concept was controversial but it seem vindicated when Defiant Mk Is gained thirty-eight kills around Dunkirk on May 29, 1940 with a grand total for the month of sixty-five. But when it flew during the Battle of Britain Luftwaffe pilots were aware of the rear firepower and made head-on attacks decimating them in large numbers forcing withdrawal from frontline combat.

The Defiant Mk I used the Merlin III 0f 1.030 HP to achieve 304 MPH at 17,000 feet, a ceiling of 30,350 feet and a range of 465 miles. Climb was a miserable 1,852 FPM. Loaded the plane weighed 8,318 lbs. Span was 39.3 feet and the 2-man crew rode close together in the 35.3-foot fuselage. The pilot had no guns while the turret gunner had four Browning .303s with 600 RPG.

Defiant & Blenheim

Bristol Blenheim
The multi-seat long-range fighter was as flawed for the British as it was for the Germans. Enter the Bristol Blenheim light bomber conversion. Without the bombardier the intercept fighter became a 2-seat night intruder involved in the first mission of that type of the war.

A pair of Merlin IIIs of 1,030 HP sat on the 39.3-foot wings instead of the bomber’s Bristol radials. Length was 35.3 feet making an overall small aircraft. At maximum the craft weighed 14,500 lbs. Performance was modest with a 278 MPH top speed 15,000 feet and an initial climb rate of 1,500 FPM. Range was long at 1,460 mile giving long loiter time to intercept night intruders. The ceiling was but 24,600 feet.

Armament was adequate of the time and type of job. Four Browning .303s with 500 RPG mounted in a ventral pack with another in the port wing with 400 rounds. The power turret had a single, Vickers .303.

There were other aircraft that participated in reconnaissance and liaison duties, of course, but these were the ones in the thick of it.

In Part II, next week, we will look at the men in the machines.


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    Doubleday & Co., 1960-61

  • Green, William
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