Luftwaffe ‘could have won Battle of Britain if they attacked earlier,’ new study suggests

Rob WaughContributor
Could the Luftwaffe have won the Battle of Britain? (Getty)
Could the Luftwaffe have won the Battle of Britain? (Getty)

Germany’s Luftwaffe could have won the Battle of Britain if they had attacked earlier and focused on bombing airfields, a new study has suggested. 

New simulations by York University researchers suggested that if they had started the campaign earlier, the RAF might have been defeated, paving the way for a German land invasion.

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Mathematical simulations show how the shift in tactics could have lowered the British chance of victory from 50% to just 10% in battles against Germany’s air forces.

Several historians have previously argued that this change in tactics could have brought the Luftwaffe victory in the summer of 1940 - but the new study offers statistical evidence.

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Researchers used a so-called ‘weighted bootstrap’ technique, a bit like taking a ball for the events of each day of the Battle of Britain and placing them in a lotto machine. 

Balls are then drawn, read and replaced to create thousands of alternative sets of days’ fighting. 

The researchers believe that the technique could be used to ‘settle’ other historical controversies. 

Co-author of the paper, Dr Jamie Wood from the departments of Mathematics and Biology at the University of York, said:  “The weighted bootstrap technique allowed us to model alternative campaigns in which the Luftwaffe prolongs or contracts the different phases of the battle and varies its targets.

Things could have been very different (Getty)
Things could have been very different (Getty)

“The Luftwaffe would only have been able to make the necessary bases in France available to launch an air attack on Britain in June at the earliest, so our alternative campaign brings forward the air campaign by three weeks. 

“We tested the impact of this and the other counterfactuals by varying the probabilities with which we choose individual days.”

According to the mathematical model, the impact of these two changes would have been dramatic. 

The study suggests that whatever Britain’s prospects, an earlier start and a focused targeting of airfields would have shifted the battle significantly in the Germans’ favour.

For example, had the likelihood of a British victory in the actual battle been 50 per cent, these two tactical changes would have reduced it to less than 10 per cent. 

If the real probability of British victory was 98 per cent, the same changes would have reduced this to just 34 per cent.

Co-author of the paper, Professor Niall Mackay from the Department of Mathematics at the University of York, said: “Weighted bootstrapping can provide a natural and intuitive tool for historians to investigate unrealised possibilities, informing historical controversies and debates.

“It demonstrates just how finely-balanced the outcomes of some of the biggest moments of history were. Even when we use the actual days' events of the battle, make a small change of timing or emphasis to the arrangement of those days and things might have turned out very differently.

“This technique can be used to give us a more complete understanding of just how differently events might have played out.”

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