By early September 1940, the RAF’s Fighter Command was a hot mess and barely functioning as a fighting organization. In southern England, 11 Group was not only losing planes faster than industry could replace them, they were losing pilots faster than they could be trained. Pilot losses were extremely heavy among the experienced squadron and flight leaders, and training was curtailed to the point that new pilots had less than ten hours in their Spitfires or Hurricanes before being thrown into the fray. There were numerous examples of flight leaders, and even a squadron leader, with less than fifty hours in the cockpit of their fighter. Furthermore, all of 11 Group’s airfields were cratered and smoking disaster areas, to include the sector control centers which were offline almost as much as they were online. Air Marshal Dowding seriously considered abandoning 11 Group’s airfields (which would cede the Channel to the Germans, and subsequently lead to the invasion of the British Isles), and even scheduled a meeting with Churchill to discuss moving 11Group’s airfields out of range of the Germans.
Despite Dowding’s pessimism, assistance for the RAF would come from an unlikely source, Adolf Hitler. Totalitarian rulers, and those who make decisions based on emotion or rule primarily through manipulation of emotion, are they themselves more susceptible to having their own emotions and decisions manipulated. Adolf Hitler was no different. On the night of 25 August, a Luftwaffe bomber flew off course and accidentally bombed the East End of London. In retaliation, Churchill ordered RAF Bomber Command to strike targets around Berlin. On 5 September 1940, they did so, thus belying Herman Goering’s claim that enemy bombs would never touch the German capital. Hitler was infuriated and ordered the Luftwaffe to cease attacking British airfields and “flatten London”.
On the morning of 7 September 1940, British radar picked up the largest concentration of German fighters and bombers to date. Dowding scrambled everything that had wings to protect 11 Group’s airfields. The stage was set for the largest air engagement in history.
But it didn’t happen: the Spitfires and Hurricanes were greeted by clear skies. The RAF was in the wrong spot.
600 Luftwaffe bombers and fighter bombers had an uninterrupted flight directly to London where they set it ablaze, particularly the East End. It would be the first of 57 consecutive daily raids against the city, and the next months were dubbed “The Blitz” by Londoners. But London’s loss was the RAF’s gain. With the Luftwaffe’s focus shifted to the city, and not the airfields, Dowding had the time to reorganize the early warning system and repair the airfields. The shift also allowed the pilots to get some uninterrupted rest and training, and mechanics uninterrupted time to repair and maintain the aircraft. Finally, with the obvious target being London, 12 Group had time to form up its “Big Wings” and actually get into the fight en masse.
Hitler gave the RAF, and Britain, a second chance.