The Battle of Britain between the Royal Air Force (RAF) and Germany’s Luftwaffe took place in the skies over Britain and the English Channel during the summer and early autumn of 1940.
The battle began on 10 July when Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering ordered attacks on shipping in the waters between England and France, as well as ports in southern England. The movement of Allied vessels in the English Channel was soon restricted as a result of British naval and aircraft losses.
The clash was Germany’s attempt to achieve air superiority over southern England. With this accomplished, the Nazis then hoped to be able to force Britain to the negotiating table or even launch a ground invasion across the Channel, a risky proposition for which air superiority was a precondition.
But the Germans underestimated the RAF and this, coupled with some serious miscalculations, would prove to be their undoing in the battle for Britain’s skies.
A battle of different phases
The battle consisted of several phases, with Germany’s widespread attacks designed to lure British fighter planes into action and inflict heavy losses upon the RAF.
Following several weeks of raids that focused on British ports and shipping, the Germans moved inland in mid-August, turning their attention to airfields and other RAF targets. By early September, the Nazis believed the RAF was on the out and so changed focus again, this time concentrating their raids on London and other cities.
The Luftwaffe’s aircraft totalled more than 2,500, outnumbering the RAF’s by several hundred. On 7 September – the day the Germans shifted their focus towards London – 1,000 Luftwaffe aircraft took part in a single attack.
Ultimately, however, the battle would prove to be about more than who had the most aircraft.
What Britain had going for it
Britain’s fate largely rested upon the bravery, determination and skill of its fighter pilots – men who were drawn from across the British Empire as well as North America, Czechoslovakia, Poland and other Allied nations.
But Britain also had some key technological advantages over Germany, including its Hurricane and Spitfire fighter aircraft, and a highly innovative early warning system, which made use of radar, a very new invention. This system enabled fighter planes to quickly respond to enemy attacks.
The RAF also benefitted from the fact that its aircraft could stay in the skies longer as they were operating over their own territory, unlike German aircraft which had already had to fly some distance to reach British skies. In addition, British crews who baled out were able to resume fighting, unlike their opponents who were forced to parachute into captivity.
Germany’s big mistake
After weeks of bloody and seemingly inconclusive aerial fighting, Germany made a grave strategical error.
By switching to concentrate on the bombing of British cities, the Nazis finally gave the beleaguered RAF some much-needed respite. As the Germans suffered unsustainable losses during these raids, it was clear that the British air force was far from defeated; air superiority over southern England remained an unattainable goal.
On 31 October, after 114 days of aerial combat, German conceded defeat, having lost 1,733 aircraft and 3,893 men. The RAF’s losses, though heavy, were far fewer in number – 828 aircraft and 1,007 men.
The RAF had won the battle for the skies above southern England, keeping Britain in the war and ruling out the possibility of a German invasion.