Grim Statistics: Rookie RAF Pilots Often Killed In First Aerial Combat During the Battle of the Britain

Me109_G-6_D-FMBB_1

Messerschmitt Bf 109 G-2.  A deadly foe to RAF Fighter Command

 

 
90% of pilots had only a 50% chance of making it through their first combat sortie.
After five combat encounters with enemy aircraft their survival chances increased by a factor of 20.
5% of pilots scored five or more victories and became ‘aces’.
Further, the aforementioned 5% shot down 40% of enemy aircraft downed in air to air combat.

 

These figures are from a statistical review of a sample of records of air combat in World War One, World War Two and Korea by From “Systems Analysis Problems of Limited War” by Herbert K. Weiss, a paper presented to the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in 1966 and cited in The Most Dangerous Enemy : A History of the Battle of Britain by Stephen Bungay. This is the best history of the Battle of Britain I have ever read and if you are going to read only one book about the battle I suggest this one. 

Writes Bungay, “The sky contains two very different groups of pilots: a small group of hunter-killers and the majority who are the hunted. Amongst the hunted are the experienced who know how to get away from the hunter-killers, and who also hunt themselves without often killing. And there are the novices who either learn survival fast or provide the hunter-killers with targets.”

The ability to perform aerobatics and fancy flying did not help you survive. Four out of five fighter pilots shot down never saw their attacker. “Beware the Hun in the Sun,” advice from World War One, became standard in World War Two. As critical was what we now call “situational awareness. Either you were good at it or you weren’t. No one could train you in it since it had not been identified in that era as a specific mental capability.

Basically, the hunter-killers flew at a higher altitude while scouting for enemy planes. Once found, the hunter-killers would maneuver so they were coming at the enemy planes with the sun directly behind them which made them almost impossible to see. And then they dived on the other aircraft or “bounced” them as the expression went.

The hunter-killers got as close as possible, the optimum being about two hundred yards, opened fire for a few seconds on the enemy plane and it went down. Either the machine gun fire killed the pilot, or disabled the controls or in some cases hit the fuel tanks and the plane exploded.

Says Bungay,  “the essence of air-fighting in the pre-electronic age was not the duel but the ambush. Sustained dogfighting was exhausting and rare. The large aerial melees which took place during the Battle of Britain consisted of numerous short engagements during which pilots would shoot at numerous different opponents.”

 

 

16 second clip of restored Me 109 taking off then doing barrel rolls. Note how the wheels fold outboard into the wings and not inboard to the fuselage. Both Spitfire landing gear and Me 109 landing gear did this because the fuselage was too narrow for the landing gear to fold inboard. This was a weak point on both planes since the landing gear was not robust. Pilots, and new pilots especially, often hit the runway too hard and the landing gear collapsed. And most of these aircraft were using grass airstrips so you can see the landing gear really was fragile. It took a sure touch to fly both of these planes.

[Photo and video credit: a license-built Messerschmitt Bf 109 G-2. Rebuilt by the ADS/Messerschmitt Foundation, Germany with a Daimler-Benz DB 605 engine as a G-6. Photo taken 9.3.05 by Kogo and placed on Wikipedia under a share and share alike license with attribution only required.) en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Me109_G-6_D-FMBB_1.jpg

 

 

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/