On Sep. 3, 1940, while RAF sector aerodromes and fighter control were again being pounded, Hermann Goering summoned Kesselring and Sperrle to the Hague for a council of war. The Reich Marshal wanted to turn his bomber fleets on to London, the political and spiritual center of the British Commonwealth and Empire. Pressing his two Air Fleet chiefs hard, Goering wanted to know if the RAF had been badly enough stricken to permit the bombing of London with bearable losses.
As explained by Col. Raymond F. Toliver & Trevor J. Constable in their book Fighter General: The Life of Adolf Galland: The Official Biography, Goering’s sudden urge to switch strategy and targets had an overriding political dimension. RAF bombers had attacked Berlin at night on Aug. 25 and 29, 1940. Minimal damage was inflicted, but the raids sent Hitler into a fury. Until these Berlin attacks, Hitler had personally ordered, under pain of court martial, that London was not to be bombed. Approximately 10 off-course German bombers on the night of Aug. 24, 1940 had mistakenly bombed London when haze and fog blanketed southeastern England. Prodded by Churchill, the RAF struck at Berlin in reprisal. A mighty nocturnal holocaust, lasting four and a half years, was thereby ignited.
Hitler canceled his restraining order. London was to be wiped out. Goering got the word from the Fuehrer. Eager to please Hitler, and impatient to smash Britain quickly in view of the planned invasion of Russia, Goering passed all this pressure down on to Kesselring and Sperrle. The Reich Marshal’s historic question was, could London be bombed without prohibitive losses, and was the RAF now hurt sufficiently to permit the London assault?
The towering, monocled Hugo Sperrle was among the most experienced leaders in the Luftwaffe. Command of the Condor Legion had taught him plenty about tactical air power. In Spain he had shown himself oblivious to personal risk and shrewd in assessing his enemy. He recommended that Goering continue assaulting the RAF airfields, pressing the attack until the weakening of Fighter Command became a collapse.
Albert Kesselring was not as experienced in war command as Sperrle, but he was a former Chief of the Luftwaffe General Staff and an officer of great prestige in the service. Kesselring told Goering that in his view London could be attacked without excessive losses. In Kesselring’s opinion, RAF forward airfields were expendable. Enemy fighters could be moved to bases on the far side of London. He argued that only by going for the heart of Britain could they provoke RAF fighters up in force and thus destroy them. Sperrle strongly disagreed.
Like all men of action, Goering’s career abounded with mistakes, but his biggest was deciding to attack London. He sent a teletype to Kesselring on Sep. 5, 1940, ordering a raid on the London docks with full fighter escort. The Ultra decrypting teams delivered this key message to Dowding almost as quickly as it reached its official addressee. The hardpressed head of Fighter Command saw in it the deliverance of his battered sector aerodromes and their vital fighter control facilities.
Blasted and reeling, they were operating marginally with improvised hookups from emergency quarters. Another dozen big raids would have done them in, and the history of the world altered. Now a new phase of the Battle of Britain was beginning, with the removal of this lethal and direct pressure from Fighter Command. The Londoners were going to catch hell, but Fighter Command would be able to come back from the brink.
Across the Channel in the Pas de Calais, the black-maned Adolf Galland pondered the problems of escorting bombers over London. His fighters would have no more than ten minutes for combat before turning back to base. This meant that the entire force, bombers and fighters, would have to fly in a straight line from the French coast to London and then straight back. This unvarying approach route made interception even easier for the RAF. The Luftwaffe was also aware that British radar was now picking up German formations as they assembled over France. Bombers and fighters would now have to mass during the climb, en route to the target.
Just before the big bomber assault on London, the strategic error that was to cost him victory, Goering came up to the French coast to put some more fire into his fighter leaders. Galland and Werner Moelders stood facing an abrasive and reproachful Reich Marshal. “Fighting spirit” was lacking in the Fighter Arm, where it should be greatest, according to Goering. They were supposed to be fighters. Railing against his fighter pilots, Goering stalked up and down with his Marshal’s baton poking, waving, digging home his vilifications against the brave men Galland and Moelders were leading.
The new Kommodore of JG 26 stood seething with rage. In his soldier’s mind, he saw the struggle not only in terms of strategy, tactics, and technical deficiencies, but also in terms of the men he had led and lost. As unjustified allegations of cowardice poured out of Goering, Galland’s mind swept over the shoals of letters he had written to the families of his fallen pilots. He thought about all the letters he had still to write. He saw their faces as surely as he knew their sacrifices. For Goering to accuse such valiant men of cowardice was monstrous.
With the bomber crews claiming that they were not being closely enough escorted, an adversary relationship had developed between fighter pilots and bomber pilots. Goering sided unreservedly with the bomber pilots. He returned now to the necessity for close escort, in view of the imminent use of hundreds of bombers in the London assault. Galland choked down his anger, and tried again to explain to Goering some of the fighters’ difficulties.
“Herr Reich Marshal, our Me 109 is superior to the Spitfire in the attack. That is the way we should use our fighters, hunting down the RAF and attacking them. We have a clear advantage in such operations.”
“Galland, the size of your personal bag of enemy lighters is unimportant compared with the protection of my bombers. I am telling you what is important.”
“Sir, the Spitfire is an excellent defensive fighter because it is more maneuverable than our Me 109, even if a little slower — especially in acceleration. Such a fighter is much better suited to close escort than our Me 109, which is handicapped in that role.”
“I reject your arguments categorically, Major Galland. The bombers must be protected at all costs. You’ve got to get some fighting spirit into these pilots, instead of giving me reasons why you cannot protect my bombers.”
Goering followed with more scathing criticisms, but when he glanced at his wrist watch and realized his time was short, his mood changed abruptly. From reproachful abuse, he turned suddenly amiable, like the sun coming from behind a cloud.
“Now then, Moelders” he said, “what can I help you get for your Geschwader?”
Moelders asked for a new series of Me 109’s fitted with the more powerful DB 605 N engines. Goering said he would get them, and turned to Galland.
“And you? What do you want’?”
“l’d like an outfit of Spitfires for my Geschwader!”
Galland heard his impudent request go blurting out of himself as though coming from a third party. The words rushed out, propelled by his rage over Goering’s vilifications of his pilots. Goering’s amiable facade disappeared. The second greatest orator in Germany, he stood speechless at the insolence of the young Kommodore he had just promoted. Scowling and growling, he went stomping off to his train.
Galland’s request would survive down through the decades as one of his most famous and oft-quoted remarks. In social gatherings and lectures all over the world, his request for Spitfires always surfaced. The full background to the remark is rarely understood, and it should be recorded that Galland definitely preferred the Me 109 to the Spitfire, not only in September 1940, but also later after he had personally flown the British thoroughbred.
He was seeking to emphasize with Goering that it was a disadvantage to fly the Me 109 and use the tactics suited to the Spitfire in escort missions. The advantage of the Me 109 became a disadvantage under these conditions. When Galland and Moelders put their heads together and adopted hit-and-run tactics with their speedy Me 109s – avoiding the dogfight where the Spitfire was superior – both their units did much better against the RAF fighters.
Fighter General: The Life of Adolf Galland: The Official Biography is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: Unknown, Crown Copyright, Air Historical Branch-RAF and German Federal Archive via Wikipedia
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