In 1940, the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) was the largest and most formidable air force in Europe.
The organisation of the Luftwaffe was very different from that of the Royal Air Force (RAF), which was organised into ‘Commands’ based on function. The Luftwaffe was arranged into air fleets, or Luftflotten, which were self-contained formations complete with fighter, bomber and other elements.
Luftwaffe Commander-in-Chief Hermann Göring
Luftwaffe Commander-in-Chief Hermann Göring addresses a group of German pilots during the Battle of Britain. The Luftwaffe was officially created on 26 February 1935, with Göring as its commander-in-chief. He had been a celebrated First World War fighter pilot and was one of Hitler’s closest political associates.
The Luftwaffe enjoyed a rapid expansion in its first five years, in large measure due to Göring’s considerable political influence.
Three air fleets – Luftflotten 2, 3 and 5 – were deployed to face RAF Fighter Command from across the English Channel and the North Sea. Luftflotte 2, commanded by Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, undertook the main weight of operations against the south-east of England. Luftflotte 3, under the leadership of Field Marshal Hugo Sperrle, concentrated on targets in the western half of England and General Hans Stumpff’s Luftflotte 5 was to be used for diversionary attacks against northern Britain.
The Luftwaffe suffered various problems which hampered its effectiveness in the Battle of Britain. It was designed as a close-support weapon moving forward with ground troops, not as an instrument for a strategic bombing campaign against a determined opposing fighter force.
Heinkel He 111 bombers in formation
The He 111H was the mainstay of the German bomber force in 1940.
To escort and protect its bombers, the Luftwaffe had two fighters; the single-engined single-seat Messerschmitt Bf 109 and the twin-engined two-seater Messerschmitt Bf 110.
Its lack of heavy bombers made it difficult to inflict strategically significant damage on British targets. The Luftwaffe’s fighter force had no effective method of plotting the positions of Fighter Command aircraft and also lacked any means of ground-to-air control of its machines.
The Germans suffered from supply problems and a lack of aircraft reserves throughout the battle, largely as a result of underachievement in aircraft production. Their rapid advance through Western Europe in the spring of 1940 forced them to hastily establish a network of air bases across occupied Europe. More significantly, the Germans had difficulties establishing adequate local repair facilities, forcing the removal of damaged aircraft back to Germany for fixing.
There were similar shortages of German aircrew. German fighter pilots were well-trained and had significantly more combat experience than RAF pilots. However, it was difficult for the Luftwaffe to offset its losses of experienced pilots. Any RAF pilot who successfully bailed out after being shot down over British territory could, if not injured, fly again. By contrast, Luftwaffe pilots who survived being shot down became prisoners of war.
This article was edited by Jessica Talarico. Other IWM staff members contributed to writing an older version of this piece.