In the summer of 1940 Britain battled for survival against Hitler’s war machine, as the full might of the German Luftwaffe attempted to gain air superiority over Britain, hoping to force the country to surrender or to weaken its air defences sufficiently for an invasion.
Around 1,500 Allied pilots perished during the Battle of Britain. Their sacrifice was immortalised by Churchill himself, who declared:
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”.
The planes of the Battle of Britain are among the most iconic in British and German history. Famous aircraft like the Spitfire, Messerschmitt, Hurricane, Junkers Ju 88 and lesser known designs clashed.
Here are 11 types of aircraft which fought in the Battle of Britain:
1. Hawker Hurricane
Hawker Hurricanes accounted for 60% of German losses in the Battle of Britain. They were the most numerous fighter aircraft which the RAF deployed, partly owing to their rapid turn-around time (it took them only 9 minutes to be refuelled and re-armed).
They were devastating against heavier aircraft, being faster than German bombers and armed with front-firing .303 Browning machine guns. They could also perform well against very quick German fighters like the Messerschmitt bf 109s.
The first Hurricane’s maiden flight was on 6 November 1935, and 14,487 of them had been built by the time production ceased in July 1944.
2. Supermarine Spitfire
The Spitfire remains one of the most iconic aircraft of the Second World War. Although their turnaround time was longer than the Hurricane (29 minutes), they were faster. This made them a good match for the Messerschmitt bf 109s. In an attack on a German formation, the Hurricanes would focus their fire on the bombers while the Spitfires dealt with the fighter escort.
The Spitfire was helped in aerial dogfights by a tight turning circle, which meant they could sometimes outmanoeuvre Messerschmitts. However, the two aircraft were very evenly matched, so their engagements were decided by the tactics and skill of the pilots.
Many Spitfires were bought by private individuals or communities after the war, and around 60 are still in airworthy condition.
3. Messerschmitt bf 109
The Messerschmitt bf 109 was the most numerous and dangerous of the Luftwaffe’s fighter planes. It was built to an extremely advanced design, with retractable landing gear and a liquid-cooled inverted-V-12 engine.
The Messerschmitt’s speed and manoeuvrability made it the standard against which other fighter planes were compared. They protected German bombers from Allied fighter attacks, predominantly engaging British Spitfires and Hurricanes. The Messerschmitt had a ‘gentle stall’, which allowed the aircraft to perform tight turns close to the actual stalling point of the engine.
The main flaw of the Messerschmitt was that they had limited fuel capacity, with a 410 mile maximum range. This meant that they often had only 10 minutes of flying time when they reached their target before they needed to return home.
4. Messerschmitt bf 110
The Messerschmitt bf 110 was a long-range destroyer; it was hoped that it would escort bomber fleets and engage in air combat with one-man fighters. It was fast and well-designed, but simply lacked the acceleration and manoeuvrability of the Spitfire and the Hurricane.
Hermann Göring called them his ‘Ironsides’, but in reality they suffered some of the highest casualty rates in the Battle of Britain. In one attack on North Eastern England, seven of the 21 aircraft deployed were shot down.
5. Boulton Paul Defiant
The RAF expected the Boulton Paul Defiant to be an effective anti-bomber craft. They considered that a movable gun turret would provide greater flexibility in attack than the single-seat fighters had. These planes, like the Spitfire and Hurricane, could only fire straight ahead, so theoretically were less able to shoot at bombers for an extended period of time.
The ‘Daffy’, as the Defiant came to be known, actually had some major flaws. The extra weight and drag of the gun turret slowed the plane, and it couldn’t fire directly forward. If the Defiant’s electrics were disabled, its gunner was not able to escape from the turret as it was operated entirely by electricity.
As a result, the Defiant was soon withdrawn from day-time operations in the Battle of Britain. It was later found to be much more effective as a night-fighter, shooting down the most enemy planes during the Blitz of all British aircraft types.
6. Fiat CR.42
The Fiat CR.42 was an older Italian fighter used by the Corpo Aereo Italiano. They made only one mission during the Battle of Britain, a raid on Ramsgate, as the biplanes were not equal to modern fighters.
On 11 November 1940, four CR.42s were shot down by Hurricanes without losing a craft. The Luftwaffe had difficulty even flying in formation with CR.42s owing to their low top speeds.
7. Dornier Do 17
The Dornier Do 17 was a Luftwaffe ‘fast bomber’. It was hoped that it would be able to evade British fighter aircraft. Known as the ‘flying pencil’ because of its streamlined design, the Do 17 had very good handling at low altitudes. This made them much less vulnerable than cumbersome bombers.
The Do 17 also benefited from an air-cooled BMW engine which was much harder for British fighters to disable, as there was no vulnerable cooling system to destroy.
However, the Do 17, like all German bombers, suffered from a lack of accuracy. It was extremely difficult for them to hit small, important targets like radar stations. It also had a low bomb carrying capacity of only 2,205lbs.
8. Junkers Ju 88
The Junkers Ju 88 was thought by the RAF to be the most difficult bomber to shoot down. Its handling was responsive and it had a high top speed; without its bomb load even Spitfires struggled to catch it. The forward turret could also be locked in a front-facing position for strafing runs.
However, only smaller bombs could be carried inside the craft, with large bombs causing drag on external racks.
The Ju 88 could be used as both a dive-bomber and a level bomber. Early in the Battle of Britain it replaced the Junkers Ju 87 Stuka, the most accurate German dive-bomber, as the Stuka lacked effective defensive weaponry.
9. Heinkel He 111
The Heinkel He 111 was the most numerous bomber which the Luftwaffe deployed during the Battle of Britain. It was capable of storing and delivering large bombs (250kg) and had state-of-the-art gyroscopic sights to improve its accuracy. The He 111 was protected armour plating and self-sealing fuel tanks which made them difficult to shoot down.
Being nearly 100mph slower than the Spitfire, the He 111 was frequently caught by British fighters. Aircraft often returned to base with hundreds of bullet holes in their fuselage.
10. Fiat BR.20
This Italian twin-engined bomber could carry 1,600kg of bombs. When it was developed, the BR.20 was considered one of the most advanced bombers in the world. However, it participated in the latter stages of the Battle of Britain to limited effect.
Italian bombers flew over 100 sorties in the Battle of Britain, with only one notable success: the destruction of a canning factory in Lowestoft.
11. Junkers Ju 87
More famously known as the ‘Stuka’, the Ju 87 is perhaps the most recognisable dive bomber of the Second World War, made famous by its infamous Jericho trumpet.
During the Battle of Britain, squadrons of Stukas gained some success destroying ground targets. On 13 August 1940 – Eagle Day – Stukas attacked RAF Detling and inflicted a high level of damage on the airfield.
The Junkers Ju 87s were highly-susceptible to heavy losses if opposed by enemy fighter aircraft. If the Luftwaffe had won the Battle of Britain, these dive bombers would have played a vital role in disabling the British fleet as the German invasion force attempted to cross the Channel.