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Statistics show how the Luftwaffe could have won the Battle of Britain

Statistics show how the Luftwaffe could have won the Battle of Britain
A new study uses statistics to look at other possible outcomes of the Battle of Britain
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A new study uses statistics to look at other possible outcomes of the Battle of Britain

Whether the German Luftwaffe could have won the Battle of Britain in 1940 has been a matter of debate almost from the time the first shot was fired. Now, a team of mathematicians at the University of York has used a statistical technique to determine if Germany could have defeated Britain if different decisions had been made.

The Battle of Britain was one of the decisive battles of the Second World War. Between May and October 1940, Britain was still reeling from the fall of France and the Dunkirk evacuation, while the Luftwaffe, with overwhelming superiority in numbers, fought in the skies over England to destroy the RAF fighter wings and clear the path for a German invasion.

Owing to a number of factors, some of which remained a secret for decades after the war, Britain managed to fight off the waves of German bombers and fighter planes and Hitler had to abandon his invasion plans, but it was a very close-run thing. Since that time, the question remains, if the Germans had made better decisions, could they have won and ended up occupying the British Isles?

Of course, this is a classic example of an unprovable hypothesis because there's no way to replay those times in all their complexity, but the York team has come up with a new computer model that uses "weighted bootstrapping" to calculate the statistical probability of various alternative scenarios.

Essentially, they were looking at things like, what if Hitler had decided not to bomb London? What if Reich Marshall Göring's Luftwaffe had focused solely on knocking out RAF airfields and its fighter planes while on the ground? What if the campaign had begun in full force earlier in the year?

The researchers compare the weighted bootstrapping technique to putting balls representing the event of each day of the battle through a lotto machine. As the balls are drawn out, read and replaced, they calculate alternatives for the battle, but in a different order for events, with some occurring more often and some not at all.

"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," says Jamie Wood from the Department of Mathematics at the University of York. "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."

The results of the study couldn't produce a hard answer, but it did show that if the Luftwaffe had started bombing earlier and stuck to attacking airfields, they would have had a much higher probability of victory. In other words, if the chance of a British victory was 50 percent, these two decisions would have reduced the probability to 10 percent. If Britain was favored at 98 percent, it would have dropped to 34 percent.

Not good odds at all, but it does show the razor's edge that the outcome of a battle can rest on.

"Weighted bootstrapping can provide a natural and intuitive tool for historians to investigate unrealized possibilities, informing historical controversies and debates," says Niall Mackay from the Department of Mathematics at the University of York. "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."

The research was published in the Journal of Military History.

Source: University of York

Brian M
A fascinating what if - but of course it doesn't really deal with the resolve of the two sides. The UK was fighting for its very existence, which can often make what appears militarily impossible happen.

Although its probably true to say Germany lost the WWII mainly due to Hitler's lack of logic and military knowledge (history) plus his passionate hatred of the Soviets that resulted in a massive drain on the Nazi resources and the fighting of a war on two major fronts.

Plus Japan attacking Pearl Harbour - sealed the fate of Nazi Germany as the US enter the war.

David Wilson
I find this offensive to the memory of those who fought and died. For once in our history we had some great leaders Churchill, Dowding and Park made it possible for the British pilots to win on the day at great cost, the Germans had idiots and fools which lost them the battle, ENd off doesn't need rehashing by children with their know it all but really know nothing BS, children should be seen and NOT heard, As I said Offended!
KR R
This is an exercise in history and war knowledge and data crunching that reminds us of our history and how difficult those challenges were at that time. I appreciate being reminded of my history as I have family on both sides. This type of study is essential to help us prevent future wars on this scale. Knowledge is a powerful tool in life. Thank you for sharing this story.
Aross
A very interesting exercise. It shows that there are many factors in any situation that can affect the outcome of any event. Although developed as a tool to look at history, perfecting this type of analysis could greatly help in determining what can happen based on what potential decisions are made. Using a very dicey even from history and knowing the factors that lead to the result seems the only way to validate the math.

I don't understand DW's offence at this exercise. It certainly does not negate the heroics and sacrifice of the many that died to save the world from the madness that was AH. Being a child of post war Netherlands born to parents who lived under the yoke of the Nazis, I can only hope that this type of research will one day help to eliminate and/or defeat future maniacs and keep future generations safe from wars.
drBill
To me this shows more about the limited value of statistical analysis of complex multivariate factor processes in analyzing the outcomes in a larger venue. There's probably (a statistical estimation) someone out there who will present a report on the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin. Some of the Luftwaffe pilots no doubt hoped for glory and acclaim and were misled; the British were fighting for survival. Nothing about the statistics even addresses the issues beneath simple skill and training in mechanics.
Jose Gros-Aymerich
The question is somehow funny, as far as war can be funny, but makes little sense, if the number of victims in the bombings on Coventry didn't reach the 4 thousand, this was because it was a very strongly protected site, as it harbored a lot of War Industries, Hamburg, Dresden had not same fate.
What actually killed hebrew and other prisoners, all common criminals for the German government, was Euthanasia, as the strategic allied bombing left the system without enough food and other resources for the German population and the arrested delinquents, RAF passed an order for over 200 Wellington heavy bombers as early as June 1939. World Wars is a subject not to discuss in more than 150 years, specially by those who exerted the worse cruelty: the lands of the three psychopaths who parted the world in Yalta: Churchill, Stalin, Roosevelt. Agur.
David Ingram
Computer models don't have an element for this. Millions of people were scared and turned to God for help against people that thought they were gods. Divine intervention is great stuff.
Worzel
An article I read, decades ago, reported that a German bomber, which had failed to find its target over a 'Blackout Britain' had dumped its bombs when returning to Germany, and without realising it, dumped them over blacked out London. Up until then, bombing cities had been off limits. An outraged Churchill immediately ordered Berlin to be bombed in retaliation, which in turn caused Hitler to have to order London to be bombed in a 'tit for tat' reaction. This then caused more retaliation from Britain, and so on. The initiative of bombing airfields to destroy the RAF was then lost, as Hitler had to then switch to bombing cities. It was also reported that the crew of the bomber was court martialed, for their incompetence. It was this ''lucky'' distraction, that gave Britain time to rebuild its airfields and aircraft numbers. It was a very close thing, as the RAF's aircraft numbers, and its ability to fight Hitlers hoards of aircraft, had dropped to very dangerous low.
mcubik