On 20 August, 1940, at the height of the Battle of Britain, Winston Churchill made his famous speech in the House of Commons, containing the immortal line:
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”
The “few” referred to the brave pilots of Fighter Command, on whose shoulders rested the fate of a nation. The concept of “the few” has come to symbolise the nature of Britain’s struggle in the summer of 1940. A plucky little nation, outmatched and alone, facing the prospect of invasion, and surviving by the skin of its teeth.
But is this accurate? How close did Britain really come to losing the Battle of Britain and being swept beneath the boot of Nazi Germany?
In a railway carriage near Compiègne on 22 June, 1940, France signed an armistice with Germany. With Winston Churchill unwilling to consider terms, Hitler turned his attention to ejecting Britain from the war by force. The result was Operation Sealion, a plan for the invasion of the British mainland. But any invasion required air superiority, and that meant defeating Britain’s air force.
If Britain lost the battle, and Germany was able to manufacture a successful invasion and capitulation, then the last realistic launchpad for the liberation of Europe would be gone.
The challenge for the Luftwaffe
The defeat of Fighter Command was just one part of the Luftwaffe’s role in Operation Sealion. It would also be expected to defend the invasion force itself. The Royal Navy was unlikely to stand by and watch a flotilla of barges packed with German soldiers head into port at Ramsgate. The Luftwaffe had to preserve enough of its own strength to provide sufficient protection.
The Luftwaffe was originally given just five weeks to complete their task. This meant destroying large numbers of RAF aircraft in a relatively short period of time, without losing too many of their own machines. They were set the target of 5:1 – five RAF aircraft downed for every loss. At best an unlikely goal.
In terms of aircraft and pilot quality, the two sides were quite evenly matched in the Battle of Britain. But the RAF enjoyed several key advantages. Chief among them was the Dowding System, an integrated air defence system developed under C-in-C Fighter Command, Air Chief Marshall Hugh Dowding.
The system brought together detection, ground defence, and fighter aircraft to effectively deal with incoming attacks. At the heart of the Dowding System was radar, a technology that the Germans critically underestimated and misunderstood.
Fighter Command had other factors working in their favour. They were fighting over home turf. If a German pilot was forced to parachute out of his aircraft then he would be captured. But if a pilot of Fighter Command did the same then he could be returned to his station and rejoin the fight.
The Germans also had to fly further before engaging Fighter Command, meaning their pilots spent longer in the air and their aircraft suffered more wear and tear.
British aircraft production far outstripped that of Germany. Fighter production in the summer of 1940 peaked at more than 1000 aircraft a month. This meant Fighter Command emerged from the battle with more aircraft than they started with.
Though Fighter Command may, at the outset, have appeared outnumbered and outgunned, these advantages worked toward evening the odds.
The idea that Britain’s fate rested on a few hundred pilots – however skilled – fails to acknowledge the contribution of thousands of others. From the eagle-eyed spotters of the Royal Observer Corps, who tracked German attacks once they crossed the coast, to the WAAF who remained at their posts even as their airfields were bombed, and the ground crew who kept the pilots in the air.
Dowding’s system worked like a well-oiled machine, powered by a vast team of courageous individuals.
Hitting the airfields
After the Channel battles and unsuccessful German attempts to target radar, at the end of August, the Luftwaffe switched to attacking airfields. The attacks were intended to cause damage to the airfields themselves and destroy aircraft on the ground. But also to force Fighter Command to get more aircraft in the air, where the Me109s could destroy larger numbers of aircraft more quickly in big air battles.
The attacks on the airfields certainly caused significant damage. But nowhere near enough to have any critical impact on the ability of Fighter Command to fight. Aircraft on the ground were dispersed around the airfield and protected by blast pens, meaning relatively few were destroyed in the attacks.
Bomb craters in runways could be repaired in hours and pilots could be billeted or fed in the local village if their accommodation was hit. Only a handful of airfields were left unable to operate at any point during the battle.
Where the Luftwaffe might have caused serious damage was by attacking the Sector Operations Rooms, a crucial element in the Dowding System where information was collated and fighters dispatched according to need. But the Germans, knowing nothing of this system, failed to put any of these sector stations out of action for more than a few hours.
In September, the Luftwaffe shifted its focus to bombing London – the start of the Blitz. This is often painted as Germany’s critical mistake, given that Fighter Command was on the brink of collapse. But this is not the whole picture.
The shift undoubtedly brought relief, but even if the attacks on airfields had continued it is highly unlikely that Fighter Command would have been defeated in this way. The Luftwaffe’s losses, however, were becoming unsustainable.
In the air
To achieve their goal of degrading Fighter Command’s strength, the Luftwaffe needed to achieve a consistently high number of kills each day over the course of the battle. Yet, during the period of intense air combat, the Luftwaffe only managed a higher number of kills than losses on five days. On every other day, the Luftwaffe lost more aircraft than they downed.
The pilots of Fighter Command were highly skilled and well trained. The British owed much to the talents of the foreign pilots who joined the fight from as far afield as Rhodesia and Barbados. The second largest national contingent were the Poles – experienced, battle hardened pilots who escaped occupied Poland and France.
Two Polish squadrons, 302 and 303 Squadrons, took part in the Battle of Britain. 303 Squadron accounted for more kills than any other squadron, whilst also incurring the lowest loss rate.
A decisive victory
Britain did not merely survive the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe was decisively defeated by Fighter Command and never came close to achieving its goal of destroying it. In fact, Fighter Command ended the battle stronger than when it began, with about 40% more operational pilots, and more aircraft. The Luftwaffe meanwhile emerged battered and depleted, having lost 30% of its operational strength.
Operation Sealion was doomed from the start. Not only was the Luftwaffe’s attack on Fighter Command defeated, Bomber Command carried out raids against the barges and other vessels being assembled across the Channel in preparation for the invasion, while Coastal Command swept the Channel and hit German industry.
Even if Fighter Command had yielded, it is extremely unlikely that the invasion force could have made it across the Channel in the face of opposition from the Royal Navy – with or without air support.
Far from being a vulnerable little island nation, Britain’s defence in the summer of 1940 was determined, robust and more than capable of withstanding its greatest test.
Bungay, Stephen 2001 The Most Dangerous Enemy: A History of the Battle of Britain London: Aurum Press
Overy, Richard 2014 The Battle of Britain: Myth and Reality London: Penguin