It had taken Germany less than two months to invade and conquer most of Western Europe. After the defeat of France in June 1940, only the English Channel stood between Nazi Germany and Britain.
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 first battle in history fought solely in the air.
It 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 Britain. 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 (Operation Sea Lion), 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.
1. Over-confidence from the Luftwaffe
The odds were stacked in the Nazis favour, having assembled the largest and what many viewed as the most formidable air force in the world – their fearsome reputation enhanced by Germany’s easy victories in Poland, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. The Luftwaffe estimated it would be able to defeat the RAF’s Fighter Command in southern England in 4 days and destroy the rest of the RAF in 4 weeks.
2. The Luftwaffe’s unstable leadership
The Luftwaffe’s commander in chief was Reichsmarschall Hermann W. Goering. Despite showing great skill flying in World War One, he had not kept up with changes in airpower and had limited knowledge of strategy. Goering was prone to impulsive and erratic decisions, not helped by Hitler’s interventions.
3. The Luftwaffe’s fighting strength was Blitzkrieg
It worked best in the short, fast “lightning war”, supported by air strikes – dominating Britain at length was not the kind of mission it was experienced in conducting.
The Battle of Britain consisted of several phases, with Germany’s widespread attacks designed to lure British fighter planes into action and inflict heavy losses upon the RAF.
Initially, the Luftwaffe’s aircraft totalled more than 2,500, outnumbering the RAF’s 749, though Britain managed to step-up the production of fighter planes, building them faster than Germany. Ultimately, however, the battle would prove to be about more than who had the most aircraft.
4. The Luftwaffe focused too much on using dive-bombers such as the Ju 87 Stuka
As dive-bombers were so accurate in putting bombs directly on compact targets, Ernst Udet, the technical chief of the Luftwaffe, insisted every bomber have dive-bombing capability. However, this added extra weight and slowed the speed from many aircrafts.
By the time of the Battle of Britain, Germany had no long-range bombers, and only an assortment of twin-engine medium bombers. Whilst these had been able to supplement Stuka dive-bombers earlier in the war, they weren’t sufficient for the Battle of Britain.
Germany’s best plane, the Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters, only had limited range in 1940, and were much slower and less maneuverable than its opponents. By the time they reached Britain from bases in France, they were often near the end of their fuel, and only had about 10 minutes of fighting time over London, which also meant they couldn’t easily head much further north.
5. The winning combination of the Spitfire and the Hurricane
Britain’s fate largely rested upon the bravery, determination and skill of its fighter pilots – men drawn from across the British Empire as well as North America, Czechoslovakia, Poland and other Allied nations. Just 2,937 Fighter Command Aircrew took on the might of the Luftwaffe, with an average age of only 20. Most had only received two weeks’ training.
It also had some key technological advantages, including its Hurricane and Spitfire fighter aircraft. In July 1940, the RAF had 29 squadrons of Hurricanes and 19 squadrons of Spitfires.
The Hurricanes had sturdy frames, enabling them to take on the German bombers. The Mark I Spitfires, with their superior speed, manoeuvrability and firepower (armed with 8 machine-guns) were sent up to shoot down German fighters. The Spitfire’s ground-breaking design meant it could be upgraded with new engines and armaments as technology developed during the war.
The Stuka was far less fearsome when it had to deal with Spitfires and Hurricanes. It’s top speed was 230mph, compared to the spitfire’s 350mph.
6. Britain’s use of radar
Britain also made use of a highly innovative early warning system, The Dowding System, and it’s pioneering use of radar (which the British named ‘RDF’ at the time, radio direction finding), a new invention. This system enabled fighter planes to quickly respond to enemy attacks. The German Navy made limited use of radar, but it was largely rejected for the Luftwaffe in 1938 as it did not fit with Ernst Udet’s (technical chief of the Luftwaffe) notions of air combat.
Britain had a chain of 29 RDF stations along its southern and eastern coastlines, effective for more than 100 miles
The Royal Observer Corps could track Luftwaffe formations when they crossed the England’s coastline, enabling the RAF to know when and where to respond, and delay deploying its fighters until the last moment.
Once the Luftwaffe recognised the value of the radar sites, it tried to destroy them, but did so by aiming bombs at the radar towers. However, these were nearly impossible to hit, and also easy for the British to replace.
7. The RAF’s aircraft could stay in the skies longer
The RAF benefitted from the fact that they were operating over their own territory with planes full of fuel, unlike German aircraft which had already had to fly some distance to reach British skies. RAF pilots also came to the fight better rested, so whilst they had fewer planes, those planes spent more time in useful action.
In addition, British crews who bailed-out were able to resume fighting, unlike their opponents who were forced to parachute into captivity as prisoners of war, meaning a greater drain on German manpower.
Britain was defending its home territory, so were more motivated to succeed, and also knew the local geography better than the invading Germans. The pilots of the RAF, who became known as “The Few”, stood up to wave after wave of German fighters and bombers sending a clear message to Hitler that Britain would never surrender.
9. Goering consistently underestimated the RAF
In early August 1940, Goering was sure that Britain had around 400 to 500 fighters. In fact, on 9 August Fighter Command had 715 ready to go and another 424 in storage, available for use within a day.
10. Germany’s grave strategical error
Following several weeks of raids that focused on British ports and shipping, the Germans moved inland, turning their attention to airfields and other RAF targets.
Between 24 August and 6 September, Britain fought its “desperate days”. Despite the Luftwaffe receiving heavier losses, British production of Hurricanes and Spitfires could not keep up with losses, and there weren’t enough experienced pilots to replace those who had been killed.
In August, two German pilots had dropped their bombs on London, having flown off-course at night. In retaliation, the RAF bombed the Berlin suburbs, enraging Hitler. Hitler ordered a change in strategy, concentrating their raids on London and other cities. 1,000 Luftwaffe aircraft took part in a single attack the first day on 7 September.
By switching from targeting airfields to concentrate on the bombing of British cities such as London (the Blitz), the Nazis finally gave the beleaguered RAF some much-needed respite – straying from their key objective of the destruction of the RAF, which would have helped facilitate their wider plan for an invasion of Britain.
The Germans suffered unsustainable losses during these raids. The most decisive moment came on 15 September (now celebrated as Battle of Britain Day) when 56 enemy aircraft were shot down, dealing a lethal blow to the power of the Luftwaffe. It became 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.
The RAF’s victory in the Battle of Britain was indeed a turning-point in the Second World War, fatally weakening Germany’s airforce, dealing a psychological blow to Hitler and laying the groundwork for the Allies’ return to France on D-Day 4 years later.
But what if Britain had lost in 1940? Would Churchill have gone down fighting? Could Britain have struck a peace deal with Hitler? Dan Snow investigates…