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Color profiles: Janusz Światłoń, Arkadiusz Wróbel,captions: Mariusz Łukasik
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In June 1940, after the fall of France, ground operations in Europe came to a halt. Henceforth, only the battles taking place in the sky and at sea would provide evidence that a war was still being fought. For the first time in modern history, naval and air forces alone would determine the outcome of a large-scale armed conflict. Whilst the opposing warships clashed only occasionally, the air war began to dominate events due to its intensity and the numbers involved.
Following the defeat of the Allies on the continent, two armies faced each other – the battered remnant of the British Expeditionary Force and the hitherto invincible German war machine. The two were separated by the English Channel, a strip of open water approximately a dozen kilometres in width at its narrowest point. Realizing that they stood little chance at sea against the mighty Royal Navy, the Germans knew that the key to defeating Great Britain lay in achieving air superiority. There was no doubt on either side of the Channel that victory in the forthcoming battle would go to whichever side controlled the airspace over the contested area.
The Battle of Britain proved to be a turning point in the war for Europe. It was the Luftwaffe’s first major failure, and a portent of things to come. Although not entirely defeated, it suffered an unacceptably high rate of attrition, and the morale of its personnel suffered accordingly. No fewer than 2,500 German airmen were killed or captured in the battles over the Channel. They constituted the core of the Luftwaffe’s most experienced and best-trained cadres. Such crippling losses were never made good, despite the Germans implementing a massive and competent training program.
Officially, the Battle of Britain, as it came to be known, lasted from 10th July to 31st October 1940. Obviously, clashes took place both before and after that timeframe, albeit on a reduced scale. Most sources agree on four main phases of the battle:
– Phase I (known to the Germans as the Kanalkampf) started on 10th July 1940 with the first major Luftwaffe air raids against coastal shipping;
– Phase II, commencing on 12th August, saw the Luftwaffe focus on airfields and industrial targets;
– Phase III heralded the bombing of civilian targets, including London;
– Phase IV, dated from 7th to 31st October, witnessed the Luftwaffe daylight offensive fizzle out in favour of night bombings.
On 17th October 1940 Hitler decided to postpone the invasion of Great Britain indefinitely. However, German air operations across the Channel continued. Having been curtailed by unfavourable weather conditions during the winter of 1940/41, the air war over the Channel front flared up again in May 1941. During that month the Luftwaffe launched its last massive air raid against London, despatching some 700 aircraft. Shortly afterwards the Germans shifted their attention to the east by starting the war with the Soviet Union.
By July 1940 the Luftwaffe had amassed some 2,700 frontline aircraft for the imminent air battle with Great Britain. Sources vary as to the actual composition of this formidable force. Len Deighton mentions 1,260 bombers, 316 Ju 87 dive-bombers, 893 Bf 109 single-engined fighters and 280 Bf 110 twin-engined fighters. The Germans were supported by a somewhat token contingent sent by the Italian Regia Aeronautica, amounting to 180 aircraft.
Reichsmarschall Herman Göring slated three of his five Air Fleets (Luftflotten) for the task. Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring’s 2nd Luftflotte was to bear the brunt of the fighting, being assigned to cover the London area and counties along England’s southern coast. Generalfeldmarschall Hugo Sperrle’s 3rd Luftflotte was to operate over the southwestern coast, mainly against the port areas of Bristol, Plymouth and Southampton. Furthermore, Generaloberst Hans-Jürgen Stumpff’s 5th Luftflotte was to add its weight to the onslaught by launching attacks from Norway and Denmark against the eastern coasts of England and Scotland. All the participating units had been resupplied after the campaign against France; most were rearmed with the latest equipment, and their personnel rosters were up to their authorized strength. The fighter units (Jagdgeschwadern) were to rely on their combat-tested Messerschmitt Bf 109 Es and Messerschmitt Bf 110 Cs. The bomber units (Kampfgeschwadern) had a wider variety of types on strength: Dornier Do 17s (mainly of the Z variant), Junkers Ju 88s and Heinkel He 111s. The dive-bomber units were equipped with Junkers Ju 87s. The notorious Stukas were to suffer devastating losses in the forthcoming battle, a fact that would effectively end the legendary status they had acquired during the early phase of the war. The Luftwaffe sporadically deployed other types of aircraft throughout the battle, but their importance was marginal.
During the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe experimented with new paint schemes, mainly for fighter aircraft. The RLM (Reichsluftfahrtministerium), the Reich Air Ministry, anticipated that it would be necessary to adapt German aircraft camouflage schemes to suit the new theatre of operations. The earlier scheme, devised in March 1938, featured RLM 70 Schwarzgrün and RLM 71 Dunkelgrün on the upper surfaces, with RLM 65 Hellblau on the undersides, separated by a low colour demarcation line. On factory-fresh machines delivered to operational units RLM 70 was
to be replaced by RLM 02 Grau, whilst the division line between the colours was moved up towards the spine, leaving the fuselage sides in RLM 65. During the interim period however, RLM 02 was in some cases used to replace RLM 71 (as can be seen on archive photographs). Furthermore, as might be expected under wartime conditions, older aircraft sometimes had their RLM 70/71/65 camouflage scheme “upgraded” at unit level by the simple expedient of raising the colour division line on the fuselage.
On the other hand, the Germans had noted during the Battle of France that large, light-coloured areas on an aircraft’s fuselage sides made it too conspicuous. Frequently therefore, such areas were toned down at unit level. This practice did not follow any particular scheme; rather, it reflected the whim of the individual workman and his paint spraying equipment. Generally speaking, the basic German camouflage paints – RLM 70, RLM 71, RLM 02 – were used for this purpose, singly or in various combinations. It is known that some units mixed the colours to make different shades of grey. Therefore, identifying the camouflage colours of individual aircraft is a task that can only be performed with a measure of uncertainty and speculation; all the more so because many aircraft were only partially photographed, usually from one side, and mostly in black and white. Although the British reports on captured German aircraft provide many interesting details, they tend to simplify and generalize on the issue of camouflage.
The camouflage schemes used on the Luftwaffe’s bombers are far less of a challenge to identify. Throughout the Battle of Britain the old RLM 71/70/65 colour set was operative. Only in the later phase of the battle was the colour scheme modified by painting the aircraft undersides in black for night operations. As for national insignia, some exceptions can be found as far as the exact location and shape of the designs are concerned. This was usually the case with machines that had been repaired using elements retrieved from older, unserviceable aircraft. Unit badges and pilots’ personal emblems abounded. In the course of previous air campaigns many Luftwaffe fighter pilots had amassed considerable victory tallies. They were proudly presented in the form of so-called Abschussbalken,
or victory bars, usually painted on the rudders (of Bf 109s and Bf 110s alike). Also common was the custom of painting the propeller spinners in Staffel-specific colours. Bright-coloured rudders and engine cowlings, in turn, helped to quickly distinguish friend from foe in the heat of an air battle.
Unlike the freely applied additional markings described above, the system for designating staff rank was far more precise. Combinations of chevrons and bars identified the machines flown by Geschwader and Gruppe commanders, as well as those allotted to officers of the HQ flights. Single-engined fighter units identified their individual machines by means of fuselage side numbers, which were painted in Staffel-specific colours. A notable exception were the Jabo (fighter-bomber) units formed during the course of the battle, which carried black triangles on the fuselage, and used single, block letters instead of digits to identify individual aircraft.
The Luftwaffe’s twin-engined fighter units, along with its bomber units, used a four-character code (known as Verbandskennzeichen – not to be confused with Stammkennzeichen, factory-applied letter codes), painted on both sides of the fuselage, to identify individual aircraft. The first two letters (or a letter and a digit) denoted a Geschwader, and were painted in black ahead of the fuselage cross. The third one, painted directly aft of the cross, was an individual aircraft letter. It was painted in the colour assigned to a particular Staffel. This letter was often repeated on the wing undersurfaces outboard of the crosses (usually in black), and sometimes also on the upper surface of the wings, outboard of the crosses, in black or in the colour of the individual aircraft letter. The fourth and last character, painted in black on the fuselage, identified which Staffel the aircraft belonged to. The following table shows how the system worked.
Apart from the aforementioned markings, additional graphic elements were sometimes used to help crews identify aircraft of their own unit while forming up. Good examples of such markings are the white rectangles, painted singly or in groups, on the tails and wing upper surfaces of some Ju 88s and He 111s. Another example of this type of marking can be seen in the narrow, white fuselage bands, painted directly aft of the wing trailing edge on some Do 17s. The opulence and variety of the camouflage and markings found on aircraft participating in the Battle of Britain make it a most intriguing subject to study and research. Fortunately for aviation enthusiasts, and modellers in particular, there are many photographs from the period. The authors of this book have done their best to analyse and verify available documentation to produce the following colour plates and descriptions.
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