In the sky over southern England between the summer and autumn of 1940, the first major air battle in history was a defining event of World War II. France had just fallen victim to the inexorable advance of the Wehrmacht, which overwhelmed all of Europe with its tactical and operational superiority. And Adolf Hitler faced a new challenge: defeating the United Kingdom. It was the goal of the Nazis and their Luftwaffe to achieve air superiority Destruction of the British Royal Air Force to violence, Winston Churchill surrender, or pave the way for a land invasion.
Day after day, from early July to late October, German Heinkel and Junkers bombers, protected by Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighters, launched their raids on harbors and coastal infrastructure, airfields, and finally over London. in the famous lightning For the British, the clash was an agonizing containment operation, waiting for the onset of winter, bad weather that would make flights impossible, and a rain of enemy bombs.
The final victory of the defenders is explained by the success of the tactics developed by New Zealand commander Keith Park, one of the chiefs of RAF Fighter Command, which consisted of sending one or two Spitfire and Hurricane squadrons to attempt to sabotage German attacks to ward them off as quickly as possible—a pragmatic strategy imposed on the “Big Wing”, i.e., it depended on the radar.
A Spitfire attacks a German bomber during the Battle of Britain. Federal Archives
But could the outcome of the Battle of Britain really have been different? An innovative analysis applied to military history combines historical studies with mathematics. We are not talking about a uchronia, but about a methodology developed by a number of researchers that examines other possible outcomes of historical battles such as that of Jutland (1916) and war events such as the US intervention in the Vietnam War or the crisis between the two superpowers of the Cold War that unfolded as a result of the Able Archer 83 military exercise.
The team of historians and mathematicians made up of Brennen Fagan, Ian Horwood, Niall MacKay, Christopher Price, and Jamie Wood just presented the results of their research in the book Quantifying Counterfactual Military History (Routledge). Regarding the Battle of Britain, they used a statistical tool called Bootstrap, a simulation method by resampling Based on the available data—the 112 days of fighting, the number of flights and losses of aircraft and pilots on each side, weather conditions, objectives, etc.—to find out what Nazi Germany should have done to defeat it
The mistakes most blamed on Herman Goering, Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe, were that the strategy was to start bombing London and try to isolate the UK economically by sinking the ships crossing the Channel. Hitler’s ambiguity about the tactics with which Churchill was to be defeated was also highlighted. If hostilities had broken out on June 16, shortly after the retreat in Dunkirk, instead of July 10, the RAF would have had 165 fewer pilots to organize its defense.
The counterfactual model used by the researchers consists of combining the quick conclusion of the Leader that a military victory over Britain should be won by invasion, preceded by an air victory, with the Nazi bombers in command attacking a clear target: RAF Fighter Command airfields and infrastructure and no British commercial or Royal Navy ships. In this scenario, the statistical method ensures that The British would not have had enough pilots and planes and that the Germans would have been victorious in the air battle as a step before occupation.
“We can say with valid arguments that it was materially possible that the UK lost the battle and was therefore attacked,” the authors summarize. “The methodology Bootstrap It allows us to quantify comparisons between opposing viewpoints on different decisions, providing a starting point for qualitative analysis rather than reducing the debate to mere disagreements. That’s what mathematics does: its truth lies in the argument that connects the assumptions to the conclusions, not in the conclusions themselves.”
And what would have happened if the Nazis had managed to win the Battle of Britain? Historians have debated the feasibility of a hypothetical German invasion of the British Isles and its eventual failure given the Royal Navy’s superiority over the Kriegsmarine. In any case, it was not a superficial idea but a plan ratified by a directive he signed on July 16, 1940. The code name used for the operation was “sea lion.” And there were material preparations, such as the conditioning of river boats for the Wehrmacht to cross the English Channel. But mathematics can no longer answer this question.
“When you write history, you always have to keep in mind that a historical fact is simply one of countless possibilities until the historical actor moves or an event occurs and then becomes real,” the researchers explain, explaining the usefulness of their work. “To understand this possibility that has become evidence, we must also Understand the ones that ultimately didn’t happen”.