During the summer and early autumn of 1940, the German Air Force (the Luftwaffe) mounted an all-out attempt to overcome the British Royal Air Force (RAF). Britain’s ultimate victory in the skies stopped a German invasion and signified a turning point in World War Two.
Here are 10 facts about the battle that saved Britain.
1. It was part of a longer-term invasion plan by the Nazis
Hitler ordered planning to begin for an invasion of Britain on 2 July 1940. But the Nazi leader specified air and naval superiority over the English Channel and proposed landing points before any invasion.
2. The British had developed an air defence network that gave them a critical advantage
In an effort to improve communication between radars and observers and aircraft, Britain came up with a solution known as the “Dowding System”.
Named after its chief architect, the RAF Fighter Command’s commander-in-chief, Hugh Dowding, it created a set of reporting chains so that aircraft could take to the skies quicker to react to incoming threats, while information from the ground could reach aircraft quicker once they were airborne. The accuracy of the information being reported was also greatly improved.
The system could process huge amounts of information in a short space of time and made full use of the Fighter Command’s relatively limited resources.
3. The RAF had around 1,960 aircraft at its disposal in July 1940
That figure included around 900 fighter aircraft, 560 bombers and 500 coastal aeroplanes. The Spitfire fighter became the star of the RAF’s fleet during the Battle of Britain though the Hawker Hurricane actually took down more German aircraft.
4. This meant its aircraft were outnumbered by the Luftwaffe’s
The Luftwaffe could deploy 1,029 fighter aircraft, 998 bombers, 261 dive-bombers, 151 reconnaissance planes and 80 coastal planes.
5. Britain dates the start of the battle as 10 July
Germany had begun carrying out daylight bombing raids on Britain on the first day of the month, but attacks intensified from 10 July.
In the initial stage of the battle, Germany focused their raids on southern ports and British shipping operations in the English Channel.
6. Germany launched its main offensive on 13 August
The Luftwaffe moved inland from this point, focusing its attacks on RAF airfields and communication centres. These attacks intensified during the last week of August and the first week of September, by which point Germany believed the RAF to be nearing breaking point.
7. One of Churchill’s most famous speeches was about the Battle of Britain
As Britain was bracing itself for a German invasion, Prime Minister Winston Churchill made a speech to the House of Commons on 20 August in which he uttered the memorable line:
Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.
Ever since, the British pilots who took part in the Battle of Britain have been referred to as “The Few”.
8. The RAF’s Fighter Command suffered its worst day of the battle on 31 August
Amid a large German operation, the Fighter Command suffered its heaviest losses on this day, with 39 aircraft shot down and 14 pilots killed.
9. The Luftwaffe launched around 1,000 aircraft in one single attack
On 7 September, Germany shifted its focus away from RAF targets and towards London, and, later, other cities and towns and industrial targets also. This was the start of the bombing campaign that became known as the Blitz.
On the first day of the campaign, close to 1,000 German bomber and fighter aircraft headed to the English capital to carry out mass raids on the city.
10. The German death toll was far higher than Britain’s
By 31 October, the date on which the battle is generally considered to have ended, the Allies had lost 1,547 aircraft and suffered 966 casualties, including 522 deaths. The Axis’ casualties – which were mostly German – included 1,887 aircraft and 4,303 aircrew, of whom 3,336 died.
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…