Air war over the Low Countries

 The Air Forces

The principal air forces involved in this campaign were the Royal Air Force (British), the Armeé de l'Air (French) and the Luftwaffe (German). The much smaller air forces in the Netherlands and Belgium were largely wiped out in the first few days of the German invasion in May 1940.

The Royal Air Force.

At the end of WW1, the Royal Air Force with 23,000 aircraft was the largest in the world. Astonishingly, within a single year, government spending cuts had reduced the number of operational aircraft to 371! Fortunately at that point, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Trenchard was appointed RAF Chief of Air Staff. He was convinced that future wars would be won by air supremacy and set about influencing the politicians of the day to retain an independent air arm and encouraged investment in high-quality training of RAF personnel.

However, the economic problems and the the lack of political appetite in Britain the late 1920's and early 1930's curtailed expansion of the RAF and these same constraints hampered the development of the country's aviation industry. Hence, by the time Hitler came to power in 1933, the RAF was still a relatively small force and its aircraft were outdated. In 1934, the deteriorating political situation in Europe and the rise of the Nazis finally forced the British Government to approve a major expansion programme for the RAF. The plan was to increase the home defence force to 75 squadrons and front line strength from 488 to 1,304 aircraft by 1939. Critically, during this period, Air Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding, Commander in Chief of Fighter Command, was instrumental in devising, implementing, testing and refining a revolutionary integrated air defence system for the UK. This incorporated fighter squadrons, RDF network (Radar), ground control, anti-aircraft guns, searchlights and Observer Corps.

Encouraged by the influx of government investment, the aviation industry developed rapidly after 1934, embracing new concepts and engineering developments. During 1935-36, the prototypes of the Supermarine Spitfire, Hawker Hurricane, Bristol Blenheim, Fairey Battle and Vickers Wellington were first flown. It was these aircraft types which were to prove the mainstay of the RAF during its first year of war. However, by the time of the 'Munich Crisis' of September 1938, the British fighter force numbered only 759 machines to confront over 1,200 modern German bombers. The issue was further compounded by the fact that the only modern fighters were two squadrons of Hurricanes, the remainder of the force being outdated bi-plane fighters such as the Hawker Fury and Demon and Gloster Gladiator and Gauntlet models. The Munich agreement bought the RAF valuable time and by the outbreak of war some 12 months later, there were around 600 Hurricanes and Spitfires in service.

 The Armeé de l'Air.

The French air force had been the most powerful in Europe, but political and economic uncertainty and under-investment in the inter-war years left it woefully short of modern aircraft by the time of the Munich Crisis in 1938. Emergency measures were implemented and a rapid influx of modern machines, particularly fighters, were seen over the next 12 months. However, critically, the bomber force and many of the observation squadrons were still operating obsolete aircraft at the outbreak of war. The length of time it took to convert units to more modern aircraft and the training of new aircrew meant that the French air force was at a serious disadvantage against the well equipped, well trained and combat experienced Luftwaffe.

The command structure was also strange, with senior Army officers commanding the air units within their zones of operation. The Army also had the ability to direct the remaining reserve units which were nominally under the control of the Chief of the General Staff of the Armeé de l'Air, General Vuillemin. The concept was fundamentally flawed, as in the heat of battle, the split command structure made rapid and concentrated deployment of the French air force almost impossible.

To compound matters further, France, unlike Britain, had no co-ordinated air defence system. Hence, its fighters and those of the RAF in France, were forced to fly standing patrols of a few aircraft and rely on observations from the ground and outdated sound detection systems, to direct them to formations of enemy aircraft. Such standing patrols were woefully inefficient, quickly wearing out men and machines alike and meant that if the enemy was encountered, the Allied fighters were invariably heavily outnumbered.

The Luftwaffe.

Between the wars, Germany possessed a flourishing aviation industry centred on key manufacturers such as Messerschmitt, Heinkel, Dornier, Junkers and Focke-Wulf. Germany's national airline, Lufthansa, was the best equipped airline in Europe and its commercial flying training programme was an effective front for training a large reserve of military aircrew. These factors, combined with Germany's aggressive rearmament programme from 1933 onwards, meant that the Luftwaffe was in a far stronger position than its equivalents in France and Britain at the start of the war. At the time of the Munich Crisis, the Luftwaffe had around 2,900 combat aircraft available.

The Luftwaffe was conceived as a modern tactical air force designed to support fast-moving ground forces. Critically, its aircraft and aircrews had been 'blooded' in the Spanish Civil War and Polish campaigns. The experience and tactical doctrine learned in those combat environments were to provide the Germans with a crucial advantage during the opening phases of the war.

The Luftwaffe had aircraft ideally suited to this air-support role, featuring medium and dive bomber types and fast short-range fighters. The German Panzer divisions all possessed Luftwaffe liaison officers, who were in direct radio contact with Luftwaffe forward bases and could call in air support to direct the bombers onto their targets.

The shortcomings of the Luftwaffe were only exposed once it was forced to embark upon a strategic air campaign during the Battle of Britain. It was ill-equipped for such a campaign, lacking the heavy bombers and long-range single-engine fighters required. Over Britain, when confronted with an integrated air defence system supported by modern-day fighters and well trained pilots, the losses incurred of men and machines became unsustainable.

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