The following is an excerpt from our full interview with Stephen Badsey in issue 7 of All About History.
What would have happened if Germany had won the Battle of Britain?
Badsey: Most people define winning the Battle of Britain as the defeat of RAF Fighter Command and achieving air superiority over Southeast England. That was considered the essential first step for the planned German invasion called Operation Sea Lion. However, they didn’t only have to defeat Fighter Command; they would also have had to defeat the Royal Navy, which would have sailed into the English Channel and cut off the German invading forces. And that the Germans could not win. They had not nearly big enough a navy. The Luftwaffe [German Air Force] could have attacked the Royal Navy but it couldn’t be everywhere at once, so while it was doing that it couldn’t be supporting the invasion. After three or four days the German force that makes it across the Channel and lands, and it’s pretty certain they could have done that, has its communications across the Channel cut and runs out of fuel and ammunition. If you want an actual successful German invasion and a defeat of Britain, it can’t be done purely in military terms; you have to look for some reason the British would have surrendered.
What were Germany’s main aims with the Battle of Britain?
Badsey: The Germans were trying to do two things simultaneously with the air battle. One was to achieve air superiority over Southeast England, and they were getting close in the course of the battle. They had forced the RAF to abandon some of its critical airfields in Southeast England, and that’s more important than it sounds, because these were pre-war established airfields. But [the Germans] were also working on a theory that was very popular before World War II, that bombing by itself would so frighten an enemy civilian population that they would rise in revolt and demand their government makes peace. Now that theory turned out not to be true, even with the massive bombings that took place in World War II, but nobody knew if that was true or not [at the time].
What was the turning point in the battle?
Badsey: Critically, in the middle of the battle there was this German decision to switch from attacking the fighter airfields to bombing London. There’s always been a strong theory and suspicion that cannot be proven that this was a fundamental error. It was based very much on the [mistaken] idea that Fighter Command had been worn out and that now was the time for the shock tactic of bombing the civilian population. One of the things they neglected and weren’t very good at is what’s called military intelligence, which is understanding what the other guy is doing, and they could never get an accurate count on how many aircraft the British actually had and what kind of losses they were suffering. One of the reasons they couldn’t do that is that Fighter Command kept harbouring its reserves, feeding them into battle in small units, so the Germans thought RAF losses were much higher than they were. There’s a lovely comment by one hard-bitten German fighter pilot toward the end of the battle, watching yet another RAF formation come up to meet them. He said over his radio [exhaustedly]: “Here they come, the last 50 Spitfires.” It’s got that kind of feel to it.
What would it have taken for Britain to lose?
Badsey: First of all, at some unspecified time before the war, the Germans could have developed a real amphibious capability, which they didn’t have. If the Germans had developed proper landing craft and all the doctrines and training that go with them so they could actually mount a major amphibious assault quickly and effectively with well-trained troops, that would have made a big difference. Then, as I said, the German Navy was much smaller than the Royal Navy, but you can construct scenarios in which it’s a bit stronger. They lose some ships in the invasion of Norway, and of course the British sank the French Mediterranean fleet when France surrendered in French North Africa. If that hadn’t happened and the Germans had been able to get hold of the French battle fleet, it’s still not enough to defeat the Royal Navy, but that would improve the German chances. Then if the invasion does take place, you’ve got a matter of days to come up with some kind of political shock to convince a British government that it has to surrender.