There’s a particular genre of book, military history book specifically, called the “unit history”. It may have a desultory title like “The History of the 1st Infantry Division in World War II” or a slightly jazzier name like “The Big Red One: Crusade in Europe”. It’s usually a catalog of where a unit was on each day of a campaign, what it did, and a lot of name-checking and shout-outs to people who served in that unit, along with photos and other memorabilia. It’s both a historical and personal record, meant to preserve the unit’s memory and standing, and take due (or undue) credit along the way.
There isn’t anything inherently wrong with this, except that as an outsider I don’t have any attachment to any particular military organization or unit, so there’s nothing to grab my attention. I’m not a “fan” of any tank division in the same way that I am a fan of — for example — the Detroit Red Wings. I generally find this kind of stuff boring, despite my interest in military history. Someone once gave me, as a gift, a copy of Comrades to the End: The 4th SS Panzergrenadier Regiment “Der Fuhrer” 1938-1945. I’m not sure what kind of comment that is on him or me, and I probably shouldn’t think about it too much. It’s on my bookshelf somewhere, but I don’t particularly care what a bunch of Nazis did on, say, 14 October 1943, or any day before or after that, unless they died, in which case I’m good with the outcome.
So it’s weird that I just spent thirty bucks plus shipping on a copy of Messerschmitt Bf-110 Bombsights Over England: Erprobungsgruppe 210 in the Battle of Britain.
After the jump, eat your heart out, Detroit Red Wings
Even with the number of books on my bookshelf and all the library books I’ve ever read in my life while I should have been studying for something else, I had never heard of Erprobungsgruppe 210 until I started reading things for this series. I didn’t even know what Erprobungsgruppe meant. It’s one of those long words that agglutinative languages like German create to amuse the rest of us.
If you haven’t already Googled “Erprobungsgruppe German translation” because it was pissing you off that I hadn’t explained what it meant, it just means test group. It was a group of pilots, some drawn from Stukas and some from fighters, who were assembled into three Staffeln (roughly squadrons) of fighter-bombers flying the much-derided twin-engined, twin-crewed Bf 110 Zerstorer (Destroyer) which was designed as a “heavy fighter” but was found to be totally inadequate against single-seat aircraft and later ended up being relegated to a night-fighter role (where it performed quite well, with its second crewman serving as a radar operator). It also employed one Staffel of Bf 109 single-engine fighters in the Jagdbomber (fighter-bomber) role. If you were paying attention, I mentioned it in a quote earlier from Stephen Bungay, when I was talking about German air strategy. Here’s another quote from Bungay that is one of the main recurring themes in his excellent book.
The Luftwaffe probably flew something like 13,500 sorties from Eagle Day to 6 September, and the 20 or so aircraft of Erprobungsgruppe 210 probably accounted for no more than 2-3% of them. Yet the damage they did in putting out the radar system, damaging Biggin Hill, rendering Manston unserviceable and damaging the Vickers works at Weybridge represented a greater threat than almost everything else put together. As far as the rest of the bombing was concerned, there was a great deal of sound and fury, but its military significance was almost nothing.
Talk about a game designer’s fantasy: in the midst of a giant battle involving thousands of aircraft to decide the fate of the world, there was this elite unit of twenty guys most people have never heard of who could have changed history. Fortunately for us, they didn’t. But they were like a team of dark wizards, wielding enormous power that their evil lord Goring didn’t appreciate or understand, and it eventually led to his ruin.
That’s if you buy Bungay’s assertion. James Holland, author of the recent popular history entitled Battle of Britain: Five Months That Changed History, claims completely otherwise.
One of the most effective attacks had been by a lone Junkers 88 on Middle Wallop on 14 August, because it had dropped its bombs from a very low height. Moments later, however, it had been shot down. Therein lay the crux of the problem: accurate bombing was extremely risky.
What all this showed was that precision bombing was not really possible. If the Luftwaffe wanted ‘bombs on England’ to make an impact, it needed to forget its obsession with precision bombing and send over massed formations instead, at night when the fighters were not around, and carpet-bomb whatever target it was going for with as many bombs as it could possibly drop. If it dropped enough, some would inevitably hit their mark. Then Knickebein and X-Gerat [German direction-finding systems] would prove their worth.
If you’re at all a gamer, you probably feel like Stephen Bungay and James Holland should just sit down and play an email game of Eagle Day. But as I said about War in the East, this wouldn’t prove anything except that Gary Grigsby’s design model happens to support one perspective and not another. On the other hand, maybe they would just get annoyed with all the clicking.
But if you’re a wargamer, this is exactly the kind of question you want answered. Because if you accept a game like R.A.F., you’re basically saying that the Luftwaffe could have won the Battle with exactly the tactics they used. The British just have to stop them. Both Bungay and Holland pretty much state that conventional daylight raids of the type the Germans employed from mid-August through the first week of September were useless.
Eagle Day seems to agree with me. Historically, August 30th and 31st saw some of the heaviest attacks on RAF bases so far, with Biggin Hill being hit four times in two days, Hornchurch twice, and Debden and North Weald also being bombed. That’s roughly where I am in the game, but I’m not duplicating those efforts. Because in the game, I’m not sure if this helps.
It’s all about the numbers.
If the RAF has 700 operational aircraft, I need to score 5,600 points to win (given the 8:1 ratio criterion). Since I’m at 4,800 points right now, that means I can either try and score 800 more points through damage, or reduce the RAF to 600 planes. That’s more difficult to evaluate than it sounds. As I’ve mentioned before, each point of damage to airfields counts as three points, so that’s really only 270 or so points of damage and I win and go home (and turn the lights out on Europe and freedom). Those 270 points are still a lot more than 100 aircraft. But if it’s three times harder to destroy aircraft than it is to inflict airfield damage, then I’m better off going after the airfields, especially since I’m losing points every turn as the airfields get repaired and I lose “credit” for damage.
However, bombing missions increase Luftwaffe casualties. Yet I still need to whittle down enemy fighter strength, because they’re producing replacements every turn: I have to destroy a certain number of planes just to break even. So maybe I should attack aircraft factories to reduce the replacement rate? That doesn’t score me any points, though, and also doesn’t reduce the British point total. It just keeps it from increasing, which means I’m back to trying to figure out whether to try and destroy aircraft, or bomb the airfields to score points.
Was that really confusing? If it wasn’t, you’re a genius. If it was, I think that just shows how well Eagle Day recreates the German dilemma regarding the Royal Air Force. The Luftwaffe’s fundamental objective was to keep the RAF from contesting a cross-Channel invasion. The best way to do that would have been to deny them any planes with which to do it. The problem is that on bombing missions, the Germans lose a lot more planes than the British do. The Germans tried to solve this problem by flying fighter sweeps to entice the RAF to come up and fight without the hindrance of vulnerable bombers and escorts, but the RAF ignored them.
This, of course, should have led to the Luftwaffe strafing the airfields and destroying the British planes on the ground. But it didn’t. Bungay explains.
The RAF’s policy of dispersing planes round an airfield perimeter, and protecting them with simple but effective E-shaped blast pens Dowding had ordered in 1938, meant that even if the planes were on the ground, a direct hit was needed to destroy each machine. The Luftwaffe’s happy days of gaining air superiority in a few hours were not to come again until June 1941, when the Russians offered them even longer rows of aircraft lined up as if for target practice, and they wiped out thousands of them before they even took off.
Less than twenty fighters were destroyed on the ground. Only four Hurricanes were lost at Kenley, though others were damaged, and a handful were written off at Biggin Hill and Hornchurch. A few squadrons, such as 65 at Manston on the 13th, 615 at Kenley on the 18th or 85 at Croydon on the 31st, were taking off when the raids began and had narrow escapes. The only squadron to lose aircraft this way was 54 at Hornchurch, but all three pilots had miraculous escapes. The only case of a squadron caught on the ground refuelling was of 266 at Manston on the 18th, and this was due to the unusual initiative of a single officer at I./JG52.
I looked up Bungay’s reference for the twenty fighters claim, and it turned out to be Alfred Price’s book, Sky Battles, from 1993, which I don’t own but appears to be a collection of true accounts of air battles from World War I to the present day, at least when the present day was still 1993. I’m not sure how reliable this reference is, or why an author like Bungay, who based much of his research on both original British and German archive material, would hang such a crucial number on a secondary source which looks like an obscure combat narrative.
Richard Overy wrote a slim (fewer than 150 pages) volume entitled The Battle of Britain: The Myth and the Reality which makes a slightly different claim, but seems to support the idea that planes on the ground were not significant casualties.
The number of aircraft destroyed on the ground was remarkably small, and declined quickly once serious efforts were made to disperse and camouflage aircraft. Air patrols were instituted to protect refuelling squadrons from a sudden surprise attack. In total, 56 aircraft were destroyed on the ground, 42 of them in the first week of the attack, but only seven in the whole of September.
That’s footnoted to Air Historical Branch, Ministry of Defence, London, “Battle of Britain” narrative, Appendix 34 II, “Fighter Command Aircraft Destroyed or Damaged on the Ground”. No offense to Stephen Bungay and Alfred Price, but it seems like a more reliable reference than “Sky Battles”.
It may all be a battle of semantics. Bungay says “less than twenty fighters” while Overy refers to “aircraft” which might also refer to bombers or aircraft not connected to Fighter Command. Whatever. The question is: did the Luftwaffe destroy a lot of British aircraft on the ground?
The implication of the answer is huge. On the August 30th turn of Eagle Day alone I destroyed 31 planes on the ground, part of the over 300 aircraft the RAF has lost so far sitting on the digital tarmac in this increasingly nightmarish alternate history. Furthermore, I’m destroying a significant number of planes as they’re landing. Bungay’s comment about a single officer’s initiative refers to a raid on Manston on 18 August.
As the raiders streamed back to France, Ulrich Steinhilper’s unit, I./JG52, was diverted to strafe Manston again. Their signals officer had been listening in to the British radio frequencies and realised that a lot of fighters were using Manston for re-fuelling. Crossing the coast over Margate, they headed south and came in low over the long-suffering airfield. They destroyed two Spitfires of 266 Squadron and a Hurricane of 17 Squadron, whose pilots had just landed and only narrowly escaped.
Attacking planes as they landed was certainly an effective strategy, and the Allies used it at the end of the war against the German fleet of Me-262 jet fighters, which were too fast to catch in the air but extremely vulnerable on landing. In fact, the late-war Luftwaffe had to resort to covering its jet airfields with patrols of conventional fighters to protect the aircraft as they landed, when they were essentially sitting ducks.
Bungay does a lot of analysis at the end of his book, much of which is quite good. But he tries to be a complete revisionist by going after essentially every popular claim about the Battle. One of these is the well-known “the Bf 109 was crippled by its short range” assertion, which inevitably leads to speculation like “if only the Luftwaffe had had a long-range fighter like the P-51 Mustang”.
I’m not a big fan of speculative alternate history. The P-51 Mustang was an extraordinary plane, but it didn’t show up until late 1943 for a reason. If you’re giving the Luftwaffe a Mustang-equivalent in 1940, why stop there? What if the Germans had learned that the Allies had cracked the Engima code? What if the Germans had the atomic bomb? What if Steve Bartman hadn’t interfered with Moises Alou in the 2004 NLCS?
Suppose the Bf-109 had in fact had the range of a Mustang. What would the Luftwaffe have done with it? The Mustangs needed the range in order to get from East Anglia to Berlin and back. Similar endurance in the 109 would have allowed the Luftwaffe to send escorted bombers to John O’Groats. Why would they have wanted to do that? Given the goal of establishing local air superiority, there was no point whatever in attacking any target north of London, indeed precious little point in attacking London. A bit more endurance would have helped in raiding Hornchurch, North Weald and Debden, but unless the British could be caught on the ground, attacking airfields in itself wasn’t going to win the Battle.
Designing a historical wargame requires that you distinguish between events that couldn’t have happened (Hitler dropping an atomic bomb on London), and events that didn’t happen, but could have. Everything I’ve read leads me to put catching RAF fighters while landing or refueling into the latter category. Just because it didn’t happen doesn’t mean that with the right combination of circumstances portrayed in the game, the Luftwaffe couldn’t have had more success against RAF fighters at their most vulnerable moment: coming in to land.
The problem is that because the Germans didn’t have a radar surveillance system over the British airfields, they couldn’t or didn’t know where RAF planes would be landing, unless (a) they were tipped off by radio intercepts, or (b) they got lucky. They could have also had my advantage of watching little plane icons move across the computer screen and observing where they landed, but unfortunately Hitler bought an Amiga.
Unless an alternate history provided option (c) greater endurance, which would allow Luftwaffe fighters to loiter over RAF airfields long enough that they would have to catch planes landing eventually. This where I think Bungay could have benefited from playing Eagle Day. In my game, British fighters are often escaping to northern airfields such as Bibury which are at the far edge of the Me-109’s range. Catching any planes while landing there would require an extraordinary amount of luck as the German fighters would have to arrive at the exactly right time, because they would need to turn right around and go home again or run out of fuel.
But the computer RAF also uses the forward airfields an awful lot. I am sending three sweeps a day to each of Manston, Hawkinge, and Lympne, and damaging or destroying a lot of aircraft. In the actual Battle, the British actually abandoned Manston and only used it as an emergency airfield because it was being raided so often, and undetonated bombs were becoming a serious problem.
In fact, I think I’ve hit upon a pretty good strategy in this game, which is to send up just enough raids to get the RAF in the air. This usually involves a raid against a 10 Group airfield like Middle Wallop, and some target in 11 Group, like Biggin Hill, North Weald, or Hornchurch. Then, I saturate the British airfields with fighter sweeps, timed to start around 30 minutes after the bombing raids hit their targets. As the British fighters land, I either catch them in the process, or just afterward while they’re on the ground. Nothing I’ve learned about the Battle strikes me as ruling this out as a real possibility. Bungay actually mentions it in his appraisal chapter,
Manston is the only airfield to be repeatedly strafed by Bf 109s. It worked there, but there are very few examples of Bf 109s being used in this way anywhere else.
You can’t just use the Me-110 Zerstorer force in Eagle Day as fighter-bombers, because this would have required a huge doctrinal and training commitment on the part of the Luftwaffe which just didn’t happen. Erprobungsgruppe 210 was a special unit for a reason, one of which was that there weren’t any others. But the Germans could and did use fighters to strafe airfields. They simply didn’t use them enough.
Erprobungsgruppe 210’s commander at the beginning of the game is Walter Rubensdorffer, which is very historically accurate. The unit itself is really good for taking out radar installations, which is maybe a bit more historically accurate than it should be. My first task for Erpro. 210 was to take out the coastal radar stations. It did the job well, but unfortunately, Rubensdorffer didn’t make it back.
Low-level attacks work well in Eagle Day as long as you’re not flying too far inland, because while flying under the radar helps a lot over the Channel, once you’re over England you’re vulnerable to being spotted by the Observer Corps unless there’s a lot of cloud cover which will likely keep you from effectively bombing your target anyway. But in the actual Battle, Erpro. 210 was used against airfields not just along the coast, and paid the price for it. (Rubensdorffer lost his life in an attack on Croydon, on the periphery of London.) I’ve tried various strategies with my Erpro. specialists, but even when I’m able to occupy the RAF with a large raid to the east and one to the west and then run my Test Group up the open middle, the bombing results don’t seem to pay off.
That’s the lesson Eagle Day decided to teach us. The low-level specialists of Erprobungsgruppe 210 would have been much better employed keeping the radar stations under pressure, flying in just above the waves and then disappearing back over the Channel before the British fighter defense system could react. Flying further inland robbed them of their advantage, and they suffered accordingly. They should have left the airfield attacks to strafing attacks by the single-engine fighters. Knock down the radar, let the airfield attacks run amok for a few hours, then withdraw.
If the resources devoted to the attacks on the radar chain had been inadequate, their execution had been brilliant. Erprobungsgruppe 210’s first operation against the British mainland fully vindicated their methods. They were as accurate as Stukas at their best, but far less vulnerable, and flying afst aircraft at low level had achieved surprise against there coastal targets. For all that, they had not achieved their goal. They needed to go back again and again to do that.
Erprobungsgruppe 210 lived to regret its failure in the Battle of Britain. Redesignated Schnellkampfgeschwader 210 (Fast Bomber Wing 210) it was shipped to the Eastern Front, where it participated in that nightmare until it was absorbed into Zerstorergeschwader 1 (Destroyer Wing 1) in January 1942. There’s a book about it entitled Sting of the Luftwaffe: Schnellkampfgeschwader 210 and Zerstorergeschwader 1 “Wespengeschwader” in World War II, written by John Vasco, an Englishman with an interest in all things Luftwaffe who also wrote the book I mentioned at the beginning of this piece. Stephen Bungay even shouts out to Vasco’s scholarship in the Prologue to his book.
I ordered it yesterday.