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Intelligence and National
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The role of intelligence in
deciding the Battle of Britain
Samir Puri
Published online: 25 Oct 2006.
To cite this article: Samir Puri (2006) The role of intelligence in deciding
the Battle of Britain, Intelligence and National Security, 21:3, 416-439, DOI:
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The Role of Intelligence in Deciding
the Battle of Britain
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The successful employment of German air power in the Battle of Britain
was greatly hindered by abysmal intelligence. The Luftwaffe never
developed an accurate picture of enemy strengths and weaknesses, and
this contributed to preventing it from bringing force to bear at the decisive point of battle. Although certain aspects of British intelligence
were equally flawed, it ultimately proved itself to be an indispensable
adjunct to the operational success of Fighter Command. This article
focuses on the contribution made to Luftwaffe and RAF operations
during the Battle of Britain by their respective intelligence gathering
institutions. It is an investigation into the extent to which activities in
the realm of intelligence can explain the eventual British victory.
In 1944 the German Air Historical Branch published a retrospective report on
the Battle of Britain. It offered the following judgement: ‘One may draw the
conclusion that the decisive factor in this war is not so much the weight of the
material used, as a High Command who knows how to use it best’.1 Had this
message, that the direction of force can be as vital as force itself, been heeded
four years earlier then Luftwaffe efforts may not have floundered as they did.
This article will investigate the extent to which the Battle of Britain was
determined by the use and misuse of intelligence. It will do so by investigating the German and British experiences in turn. The first step will be to
consider how the type of combat operations being undertaken by each
combatant determined their respective intelligence needs. The Luftwaffe and
the RAF were faced with contrasting intelligence priorities, and establishing
these will provide an important measure for subsequent success and failure.
Next, the strength of each side’s intelligence gathering institutions will be
examined, and then evaluated through their contribution to the planning and
undertaking of operations. In conclusion, the experience of both combatants
will be considered in order to answer these questions: How influential were
activities in the intelligence realm on the respective performance of each
Intelligence and National Security, Vol.21, No.3, June 2006, pp.416 – 439
ISSN 0268-4527 print 1743-9019 online
DOI: 10.1080/02684520600750661 ª 2006 Taylor & Francis
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combatant in the Battle of Britain? And to what extent does this explain the
eventual repulsion of the Luftwaffe by the RAF?
The Battle of Britain has been the subject of numerous historical studies
over the years. The intelligence dimension has received some strong
treatments, especially during the flurry of academic activity that surrounded
the Battle’s fiftieth anniversary.2 This article builds upon past research, but
will also emphasize the thematic worth of the episode as a case study for the
intelligence audience. The Battle of Britain was something of a peculiarity in
that combat occurred exclusively in the air and was fought by two tiny
airborne military elites, albeit with extensive ground support apparatus. It
was a struggle of attrition: if either side suffered unsustainable losses in pilots
or planes it would be forced to suspend operations. If this fate were to befall
the RAF then Britain would be invaded, but if the Luftwaffe were rendered
incapable of sustaining offensive operations, then the German invasion would
be suspended. The Battle presents us with clearly defined notions of offence
and defence, and, as such, is an incisive illustration of the contrast between
the intelligence requirements of an attacking force and a resisting force.
The Battle of Britain is also an excellent illustration of how, in certain
circumstances, intelligence can exert a very significant impact upon martial
activities. The words of Michael Handel are a succinct description of the
potential impact that intelligence can have on military operations:
Overall, good intelligence will act as a force multiplier by facilitating a
more focused and economical use of force. On the other hand, when all
other things are equal, poor intelligence will act as a force divider by
wasting and eroding strength. In the long run, therefore, the side with
better intelligence will not only use its power more profitably but will
also more effectively conserve it.3
It is worth spelling out the finer point made in the quotation: however
accurate the flow of information may be, it is useless without sufficient force
to exploit it. Good intelligence can facilitate the deployment of military assets
on favourable terms, but it cannot fight the battle. Although this assertion is
undeniable, this study will argue that the specific characteristics of the Battle
of Britain scenario amplified the effect intelligence could have on the conduct
of both combatants. Neither possessed a favourable enough position to
simply steamroller its way to success: while the RAF suffered welldocumented constraints in its front line resources, the Luftwaffe faced major
operational difficulties of its own that will be explained below. Both air
forces were hard pressed to bring decisive force to bear, resulting in a narrow
margin between the two belligerents. This meant that successes and failures
in the intelligence realm could potentially exert a greater influence than
normal on proceedings. As the Battle wore on, British victories in the
intelligence sphere altered the balance between the two air forces by tipping
the odds in favour of the RAF. Firstly, the element of German surprise was
overcome, and, secondly, the thinly stretched resources of the RAF were
husbanded. Although it is vital never to overstate the importance of
intelligence, the following analysis will make the case that its impact on the
outcome of the Battle of Britain was a very significant one.
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The Luftwaffe
In the summer of 1940 the German military was on an undeniable high. Such
was the speed of their victory in France, all existing military timetables
assuming a prolonged and static Western European conflict had to be
scrapped. Hitler had planned no further than defeating France but, flushed
with such rapid success, his immediate expectation was for Britain to bow
before the new European power balance. Met instead by Churchill’s intransigence, General Halder observed in his diaries that ‘the Fuehrer is greatly
puzzled by Britain’s persisting unwillingness to make peace’.4 The Battle of
Britain was thus an unexpected and indeed undesirable tumour that had
sprung from the otherwise healthy Western campaign. On 16 July 1940,
Hitler issued a directive ordering the assault on Britain. Responding to their
new task, the German military concluded that air superiority over the Channel
and southern England was an essential prerequisite for a sea-borne assault.
This was a task Herman Goering welcomed with confidence. The destruction
of enemy air power by his Luftwaffe had opened each campaign from Poland
to France and there was little doubt that it would prove equally potent against
the RAF.5 General Quade, a former Air Staff college chief and a noted
authority on air strategy, captured this ebullient mood in a radio broadcast.
Germany had won through conquest the entire stretch of coastline from
Norway to the Bay of Biscay, leading Quade to conclude that:
The vital factors in aerial warfare are the distance from aerodrome to
objective and the nature of this distance . . . the situation as it presents
itself for our Air Force for the decisive struggle against the British is as
favourable as can be. Splendid isolation is a thing of the past. England
is an island no more.6
The reality of the task was quite different. The Luftwaffe was undertaking the
first dedicated strategic bombing campaign in the history of warfare, a task
for which it was materially and doctrinally unprepared.7 As with all great
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military-technical innovations in their formative years, initial confusion
surrounded the best employment of air power. Some argued that bombing
was the natural successor to the naval blockade, and that it ought to be used to
destroy an opponent’s industrial base. Others touted bombing as a terror weapon
that could be unleashed against enemy populations. Instead, the Luftwaffe
evolved as a close-support force to the Wehrmacht. Many of its air staff were
recruited from the army, bringing to it their unashamedly Clausewitzian
principles: ‘The foremost goal in war is to destroy the enemy armed forces . . .
it is the task of the air force in leading the war in the air within the wider
framework of the whole war, to serve this goal’.8 Subsequent investment
reflected this slant, with dive-bombers and medium bombers dominating
production. The first Luftwaffe Chief of Staff had in fact approached both
Junkers and Dornier to manufacture a prototype four-engined heavy bomber,
but the programme died with him in a 1936 flying accident.9 Even single-engine
interceptors suffered due to the tactical conception of airpower, and dogfighting ace Adolf Galland later complained that ‘the provision made for
fighters was insignificant’.10 The British were hence astute to report the coming
campaign over their skies as a something of a watershed for the Luftwaffe: ‘A
conspicuous feature of the war has been the close cooperation of all three
German services . . . the German Air Force has entered upon its supreme test . . .
acting as the spearhead of both the land and naval forces.’11
The intelligence requirement generated by a strategic air campaign would
be far greater than that of a cooperative tactical campaign. In an army-versusarmy engagement the target clearly presented itself as the opposing military,
and this had been the Luftwaffe experience when fighting on the continent.
Now it was faced with bombing a relatively tiny enemy air force that had
been dispersed throughout an entire country. The enemy centre of gravity was
far less obvious, and much planning would be required in order to determine
which targets ought to be struck, and with what intensity, in order to bring
about the British collapse. This would demand the judicious use of intelligence at every decision-making level: tactically speaking, so aircrews could
bomb as efficiently as possible; operationally speaking, so commanders could
direct the required level of force to the appropriate targets; and strategically,
so Hitler and Goering could monitor the aggregate effect of bombing. This
was not a task either the Luftwaffe or its meagre intelligence apparatus was
prepared for.
Intelligence and the Third Reich
The fortunes of German Air Intelligence, formally the 5th Department of the
Luftwaffe General Staff (D5), are a stark illustration of the dubious position
intelligence held within the Third Reich. Established in January 1938 and
headed by Colonel Josef Schmid, D5 generated a woefully inadequate flow of
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operational information during the Battle of Britain. In making sense of its
failures, one must appreciate that D5 was very much a product of its
By virtue of Germany’s unfavourable geostrategic position – surrounded
by potential foes to the east and west – its military thinkers believed that
victory would be granted by taking the fight to their foes. The strategic
doctrine that evolved was based upon their interpretation of Clausewitz, that
the offensive must be used to overpower the enemy. Here lay the doctrinal
roots of Blitzkrieg warfare. It was a concept that did not profess to require a
major intelligence input. Whilst knowledge of the enemy could be useful, it
could also be substituted with sheer physical strength.12 This was exemplified
in planning the French campaign, where military instinct and genius exerted
a greater input than hard facts.13 The institutional bias against intelligence
had two important consequences. Firstly, intelligence became a vastly underfunded enterprise because men and munitions were always seen as a far
sounder monetary investment. Secondly, intelligence was frequently relegated to the role of a bargaining chip in the bureaucratic anarchy of the Third
Reich. Rival departments ‘hoarded it and peddled it’ to justify their own
worth in the face of competition for the Reich’s more prestigious mandates.14
Seeking the truth for truth’s sake had become secondary to reflecting the will
of the Fuhrer, and intelligence was often gathered with the intention of
transforming his often vague policy utterances into reality.
The 5th Department was very much a casualty of this environment. It
was reliant on numerous rival agencies for much of its input, including
the German Signals Intelligence Service, the Foreign Air Armaments
Branch for technical information, and so on. This bewildering array of
departments worked with frequent duplication and much rivalry, and there
existed no over-arching authority to collate their work. Size was also a
concern. The D5 office was far too small to serve the needs of the largest
air force of its day, and consisted of a mere 29 individuals at the outset of
the war. They were often seconded from other duties on the sole basis of
their linguistic skills. They did not receive any substantial re-training for
their new job because a basic manual in intelligence work did not exist.
Schmid himself was formerly an army officer and had no air force,
intelligence or even languages experience. He had been recruited on the
strength of his party connections, belonging to the ‘old guard’ present at
Hitler’s legendary 1923 Putsch in Bavaria. However, most damning of all
was the subordination of intelligence officers by rank to the operational
staff they served. A clear pecking order emerged in which field officers
made their decisions based on tactical expertise and consulted intelligence
if and when they wanted. No official mechanism existed to regulate this
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The Luftwaffe was conceived as an offensive military asset and there was
considerable neglect of the auxiliary elements essential to constructing a
balanced and flexible force.16 Logistics, science, economics, industrial
production and other such factors were derided as civilian concerns and
intelligence was dumped into the same category. Indeed, D5 was often also
tasked with press releases, propaganda censorship and even troop welfare.
Truly, they were ‘the maids of all work’ within the Luftwaffe.17 This being
the case, it was inconceivable that intelligence would ever directly assist
decision-making at any level. The intelligence cycle of accumulation,
analysis, dissemination and policy formulation simply was not institutionalized into the functioning of the Reich at any level. Militaristic antiintellectualism saw to its diminished role. A totalitarian monopoly on
policymaking also contributed to this climate, in that grand strategy was the
domain of Hitler alone.18 Dissenting voices were not welcome.
Planning the Battle
Blissfully unaware of such debates, D5 set about its job of gathering data on
foreign air forces. Schmid divided the officers under his charge into three
groups to study a range of countries, and created a fourth group to study
aircraft types. As the war clouds thickened, D5 was tasked with compiling
folders of potential bombing targets. The major sources for these reports were
officially published maps and handbooks from the country under examination, and the monitoring of its media outlets.19 Photographic reconnaissance
and signals intelligence often had to be appropriated from other departments.
The use of spies was virtually absent – British authorities successfully broke
the German spy ring and even arrested some individuals as they parachuted
onto the island.20 Let us analyze the preparatory efforts of D5 by considering
each of its three major pre-Battle publications.
The Studie Blau was published in July 1939 and was the first real attempt
to collate all available information on Britain. At 94 pages long it achieved a
wide coverage of topics. It would be the first and last report D5 produced in
consultation with trade, industry, and technology experts, owing to future
personnel shortages.21 Such an impressive basis of expertise could not
prevent the report’s military observations from being rampantly optimistic.
The air capacity of the Western powers was described as ‘inadequate to catch
up with the major advance in the expansion of the air forces achieved by
Germany during the next 1–2 years’. This was proved quite false as early as
1940 when Britain produced 15,049 aircraft compared to just 10,247 in
Germany.22 Britain was judged ‘very vulnerable from the air’, since its air
defence would be stretched to ‘expose . . . the rest of the country for the
complete protection of the air defence region of Greater London’. There
was no information about radar or the nature of the Dowding system at all.
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The overall conclusion pulled no punches: ‘the German Luftwaffe is at
present superior to any single European air force’.23
For Goering the messag …
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