Written by Alan Chanter

10 Things You Should Know About The Battle Of Britain

Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister

The Battle of Britain

Introduction (An overview of battles in WW2, emphasizing the particular importance of the Battle of Britain and how it influenced the course of the war. Pointing out that there are 10 most important things that people should know about this battle and asking the general question of the battle was so important.)

As a precursor to ‘Operation Seelöwe (Sealion)’, the planned German invasion of southern England, the first battle in history waged almost exclusively in the air, German strategists needed to ensure that the Luftwaffe first achieved air superiority over the Royal Air Force. Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, the arrogant Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe, promised Hitler that he would bomb England into the ground, and with the Führer's agreement, on 30 June, 1940, ordered the Luftwaffe to build up bases in northern Europe in preparation for a general air offensive. German air strength was indeed impressive; analyst of German records after the war showed that Göring was able to commit the resources of three Air Fleets (Luftflotte) which possessed a total of 2,820 aircraft. Impressive though the Luftwaffe strength was, it was never intended to be a force with which to bomb a nation into submission - it had neither suitable aircraft capable of delivering large quantities of high explosives (typically an average of 500 tons of bombs per raid), nor the accuracy to hit priority targets from high level.

Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe

Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe

Obsessed with the Blitzkreig doctrine, the Germans had not developed a long-range tactical bomber force; preferring a strategy involving Stuka dive-bombers supporting the rapid advances of ground troops. Nor had the earlier campaign in Poland and France given their fighter pilots an opportunity to develop skills, which they were now being asked to pitch against the virtually untouched British defenses.

Air-Chief-Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, RAF Fighter Command

Air-Chief-Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, RAF Fighter Command

Against this vast armada, Air-Chief-Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, the crusty head of RAF Fighter Command could muster only 666 combat-ready fighter (with a further 513 in various states of repair at maintenance units) in 55 fighter squadrons to defend the country. Initially the majority of the British fighters were Hawker Hurricanes - only one-fifth of Fighter Command's establishment having the faster Supermarine Spitfire Mk.I. Six squadrons were equipped with twin-engine Blenheim night-fighters, two with ineffective Defiant and one with the Gladiator biplane, but these played very little part in the battle. The Hurricane was soon revealed to be outclassed by the superb German Messerschmitt Bf.109E fighter and were therefore ordered to engage only German bombers, leaving combat with the formidable Bf.109s to be engaged by the Spitfire squadrons.

One of The Earliest Uses of Radar

In one respect the British held an advantage which would prove crucial to the battle. This was in the Radar stations which gave the RAF advanced warning of any approaching enemy. The Germans had developed an experimental form of Radar, but had allowed themselves to become so preoccupied with offensive operations that they had failed to develop it further. Fighter Command’s superb Command and Control organisation that linked the coastal early-warning Radar stations with modern fighter aircraft, Observer Corps posts and anti-aircraft batteries would ensure that incoming raiders could be met by an immediate and accurate response.

Sir Robert Watson Watt, British Radar Pioneer

Sir Robert Watson Watt, British Radar Pioneer

The first encounters of the Battle of Britain occurred shortly after 0510hrs on 10 July, 1940, when a Dornier Do.17P-1 tasked with a reconnaissance mission was badly shot up by three Hurricanes from No.145 Squadron. The damaged German aircraft returned home at around 0600hrs with some 250 bullet holes in its fuselage, its observer dead and radio operator wounded. Ten minutes after this action another Do.17Z of 4/KG3 was intercepted by Spitfires from Red Section of 66 Squadron and shot down into the sea 20 miles east of Winterton. Three survivors from Oberleutnant Bott’s crew were seen in the water but all four airmen were later recorded by the Germans as missing. That morning, at about 10.50 a.m. another German reconnaissance Dornier was intercepted by six Spitfires of No, 74 Squadron from RAF Hornchurch and, soon after, Biggin Hill's No. 610 Squadron's Spitfires became engaged in combat over the English Channel.

German Luftwaffe Dornier Do.17P-1 Bomber

German Luftwaffe Dornier Do.17P-1 Bomber

At 13.31 Radar plots indicated that a build-up of a heavy raid was massing over Northern France. This materialised when 26 Dornier Do.17Z-1 bombers escorted by Messerschmitt Bf 110C-2 fighters attempted to attack a convoy of ships in the English Channel. Three Squadrons were immediately scrambled to intercept; resulting in a major dog fight off North Foreland, near Ramsgate involving over 100 aircraft. By the end of the day the Royal Air Force reported that it had made some 600 sorties and had destroyed 13 enemy aircraft for the loss of seven British fighters and one ship sunk by German Stukas. This action is generally regarded as the start of the opening phase of the Battle of Britain although the major air-battles over southern England did not really get under way until early August. Between 10 July and 10 August, the Germans lost 217 planes to Fighter Command’s 96. This loss of RAF aircraft in the run-up to the main conflict causing great concern to Sir Hugh.

 German Bf 109 vs British Spitfire

German Bf 109 vs Hawker Hurricane

The Battle of Britain Consisted of Several Phases

The heaviest days fighting occurred from 11th to the 16th of August. On the 13th Göring launched ‘ Operation Adlertag ’ (Eagle Day), with elements from all three Air Fleets (Luftflotte 2 in the Low Countries and north-east France, Luftflotte 3 in north-west France and Luftflotte 5 in Scandinavia). In airfields from France to Norway, attacks were launched to primarily destroy the RAF on the ground. The main effort, on 15th August, saw seven massed attacks on the Thames estuary and Kent, East Anglia and northern England. Duxford (which was thwarted by the intervention of No.111 Squadron's Hurricanes), Debden and North Weald airfields in particular were targets for heavy Luftwaffe attack with both high explosive and incendiary bombs. More serious raids developed later in the day with attacks on Croydon, Biggin Hill and Horncastle. The latter airfield suffering severe damage from low flying Ju.88s and Bf.110s. Royal Air Force losses on this day amounted to 29 fighters and 17 bombers, with Luftwaffe records later disclosing that they had lost 36 fighters and 40 bombers.

 Messerschmitt Bf 109 German Fighter

Messerschmitt Bf 109 German Fighter

As the German bombers returned to their bases on the fourth day after Adlertag it was clear that Göring’s boast that he would destroy the RAF in four days hadn’t been achieved. Another attack on the 18th cost them another 71 planes for 27 British. At this moment the Luftwaffe began to lose confidence in its strategy. During this phase of the battle 363 German aircraft were destroyed against 181 British fighters in the air and 30 on the ground. But the battle was beginning slowly to turn in Dowding’s favour, Churchill in a speech, delivered to the House of Commons on the 20th August at 3.40pm delivered the immortal words “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”.

Spitfire Squadron No. 610

Spitfire Squadron No. 610

Germany and British Pilots Were Exhausted

Despite the fortitude of its airmen, the RAF was losing control of the skies over South-east England, and that was all the Germans needed. Air-Vice-Marshal Keith Park understood the gravity of the situation. He issued orders to 11 Group that in the event of invasion they should be prepared to fly eight sorties a day, landing only to refuel and rearm. The Battle for Britain’s existence was about to enter its decisive phase. It was a desperate time, and it called for desperate measures. Between 24 August and 6 September, in 33 major raids, Fighter Command lost 286 aircraft with 103 pilots killed and 102 wounded out of a total strength of just over 1000.

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth

The RAFs worst day of the battle came on August 31 when thirty-nine RAF fighter aircraft were lost, along with fourteen pilots killed, in return for forty-one enemy aircraft destroyed. Despite losses in men and machines, the British held on. Lord Beaverbrook, put in charge of aircraft production by Churchill managed to increase output massively; sufficient to keep enough fighters in the air to inflict ever more serious losses on their foe. By mid-September, Dowding was not only winning the battle (which would drag on for another month) but had increased his strength to some 59 tired, but still resolute, squadrons. Shortage of trained aircrew became a much bigger problem than shortage of aircraft. The numbers had to be made up by disbanding Army Co-operation squadrons and pitching into the fray pilots with little or no experience of flying high-speed attack aircraft. No front-line aeroplanes could be spared for them to train on, and they had to learn on the job; there was more than one novice who died on the same day that he reported for duty. More than a third of all RAF aircrew who took part in the battle had been little more than "part-time aviators" before the outbreak of the war.

British Airmen and Women’s Auxiliary Radar Service

British Airmen and Women’s Auxiliary Radar Service

Then, on the afternoon of September 7th, there was a surprising change in German tactics. The Germans believed that, by this point, the RAF possessed only 200 front line aircraft and that the time was ripe to finally bring the stubborn British to the peace table through a campaign of terror bombing. It was to be a huge strategic error on their part, for although the RAF's resources had been stretched to the limit, this change of tactics would actually permit damaged runways to be patched up and depleted Squadron's reorganized. That day some 1,000 German aircraft assembled across the English Channel and began to move towards London with their fighter squadrons ordered to keep in close proximity to the bomber.

British Airmen and Women’s Auxiliary Radar Service

Downed German Messerschmitt Bf 109

It was to be a serious and dreadful mistake. As the German squadrons made their way towards the Capital they were met by swarms of defending fighters (Bader ‘Big Wing’ experiment from Duxford). Göring’s order actually lost his fighter pilots the initiative. Instead of allowing his pilots to hit the rising Spitfires and Hurricanes before they got anywhere near the bombers these now became easy prey for the RAF pilots. During the day, 53 German bombers were shot down, as were 21 Bf. 109 fighters, the British lost 27 fighters. That night, German bombers attacked London’s docks and East End, causing considerable building damage, together with 490 civilians killed and 1,200 wounded. This attack would mark the first of fifty-seven consecutive nights of German bombing which became known as ‘The Blitz’.

Hitler’s Bombing of London Turned The Tide

On the morning of 15th September the massed German formations once again set out to bomb London. Every available RAF fighter was scrambled and by lunchtime the enemy had been scattered. Churchill, watching the RAF’s performance from No.11 Group’s Operation Centre at Uxbridge asked Air-vice-Marshal Park how many reserves were still available, received the blunt but honest answer ‘None’. Attacks continued throughout the afternoon but, when met by RAF opposition, many of the bombers just jettisoned their bombs and fled for home. Later that day, Churchill congratulated Dowding on the day’s victory and afterwards, addressed the House of Commons, describing the day as “the most brilliant and fruitful of any fought upon a large scale up to that date, by the fighters of the Royal Air Force”. From that date the 15th of September has always been commemorated annually as ‘Battle of Britain Day’.

Londoner’s Shelter In The Tubee

Londoner’s Shelter In The Tube

On 17th September Hitler resolved to postpone Operation Sealion indefinitely. He realised, more clearly than Göring, that the Luftwaffe had failed to defeat the RAF, and that he could no longer maintain his vast concentration of barges, troops and military stores in the Channel ports in the face of devastating attacks by Bomber Command. He gave orders for the remaining barges and stores to be dispersed, and the troops moved away from the danger areas around the ports. On 13 October Hitler postponed Operation Sealion until the spring of 1941, but in reality the plan was dead. The Battle of Britain had been fought and won.

Battle of Britain Memorial

Battle of Britain Memorial

p> Having utterly failed to achieve its aim of breaking Fighter command, and having suffered heavy losses during the battle, the Luftwaffe turned entirely to the night bombing of British Cities, with an average of 200 bombers per raid. On October 15, London, alone, was showered with 380 tons of high explosives and 70,000 incendiary devices causing considerable damage and many casualties. Although ‘The Blitz’ continued well into 1941, (until Hitler withdrew much of the Luftwaffe from the west to participate in his invasion of the Soviet Union). During the Battle, RAF Fighter Command had lost 481 men killed or listed as ‘missing’, while a further 422 were seriously injured or wounded. Total aircraft losses, whether destroyed or written off charge due to unrepairable damage, amounted to 1,140. But, in return, Fighter Command had destroyed at least 1,733 German aircraft, and damaged a further 643 in varying degrees. Its prime objective - the prevention of a German invasion – had been achieved conclusively with the battle ending in Germany suffering its first major defeat of the war. British civilians would suffer dreadfully during ‘The Blitz’ however. Some 12,696 Londoners were killed, but the concentrated fire from the 2,000 mobile anti-aircraft guns and the barrage balloons that surrounded London eventually compelled the bomber formations to fly ever higher making them more vulnerable to attack by RAF Radar-equipped night-fighters.

Conclusion

In the deadliest war in history, a time filled with heroic battles, the Battle of Britain stands out as one of the most memorable. This titanic struggle between two titans was fought almost exclusively in the air. With their freedom teetering on the brink the people of the UK rose to the occasion and collectively saved their nation. As Prime Minister, Winston Churchill historically noted ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.’