Fighter-versus-fighter combat has always held a particular fascination for historians and aviation enthusiasts alike, and perhaps the ultimate aerial joust of the 20th century took place over the skies of southern England during the long, hot summer of 1940. The fate of the free world effectively rested on the shoulders of several thousand aviators (supported by thousands more groundcrew, radar plotters, fighter controllers and observers) who flew with RAF Fighter Command in direct defence of the British Isles. Their opponents, the battle-hardened Luftwaffe, had been given the job of neutralizing Britain’s aerial defences so that a seaborne invasion could be launched across the Channel from occupied France. At the forefront of the action were 19 Spitfire squadrons, charged with defending their more numerous Hurricane brethren from attack by Bf 109s as the Hawker fighters attempted to repel the hordes of medium bombers dispatched by the Luftwaffe to knock out key industrial and military targets.
The remarkable similarities in terms of performance between the Bf 109E and the Spitfire I/II, the predominant models used by the rival air forces, are highlighted in this volume. Both were the product of several years’ development during the 1930s as Britain and Germany rapidly re-armed, and they were the most advanced fighter types in frontline service in 1940. By examining the strengths and weaknesses of both aircraft, the technical nuances of each fighter are revealed, as is the reality of using the fighters within a combat situation. With both aircraft being so evenly matched, the battle really came down to the skill of the pilots involved, and their employment of superior tactics, to ensure victory. The Spitfire and Bf 109E had initially met over the evacuation beaches of Dunkirk in the final days of May 1940, and neither fighter managed to gain a clear advantage over the other. The German 4 fighter pilots, near exhaustion and at the end of an overstretched supply chain following the rapid advances of the Blitzkrieg through the Low Countries of Western Europe, were flying their favoured freelance sweeps into the areas patrolled by RAF Fighter Command. The British units were also experiencing operational difficulties of their own as their ‘short-legged’ fighters were operating at the extreme limits of their range.
Nevertheless, Spitfire and Bf 109E pilots that survived the bloody clashes over the French coast, gained a valuable insight into the strengths and weaknesses of their much vaunted opponents. Fighter Command’s tactics were quickly exposed as being terribly out of date, and therefore dangerous to those pilots ordered to adhere to them during the summer of 1940. The Spitfire more than held its own in combat with Europe’s all-conquering fighter, however, and the majority of RAF pilots serving in the frontline felt confident that they could prevail over the Bf 109E when engaged by the Germans over home territory.
The Jagdwaffe, in turn, was anxious to exploit the apparent weakness in British fighter tactics, and the more senior pilots in the German Bf 109E ranks were also quietly confident that they could defeat even the most aggressively flown Spitfire. They were fully aware that the Messerschmitt fighter’s endurance could pose problems, but they believed their preferred – and combat tested – slashing tactics, which meant that the Jagdflieger attacked with deadly accuracy from high altitude and then headed straight home, would alleviate any range issues. Eager to fight each other for the mastery of the skies over southern England, Spitfire and Bf 109E pilots prepared themselves for possibly the most important aerial clash of World War II – the Battle of Britain.