The British Expeditionary Force had left France. Britain’s neighbours were almost entirely occupied by Nazi Germany. The next step for the opposition: to gain air superiority and invade Britain.
The events of 1940 might have been remembered as the next step in the expansion of the Third Reich. Instead, because of a combination of heroic pilots, iconic aircraft and an incredible network on the ground, the Battle of Britain is celebrated as a victory of the Royal Air Force over the Luftwaffe.
Here are the key dates of this momentous battle.
The Luftwaffe was engaged in Störangriffe – the small scale, sporadic bombing of Britain. These nuisance raids intensified during July, when daylight bombings began to target shipping in the English Channel. This ‘Kanalkampf’ involved attacks on convoys and of shipping ports such as Dover.
After poor weather caused a delay, RAF airfields and radar stations in the south of Britain came under attack. The Luftwaffe bombers, escorted by fighter planes, attacked their targets in quick succession.
The German strategy, code-named Adlerangriff, meaning ‘Eagle Attack’, was to destroy the RAF Fighter Command first. The resulting air supremacy would allow for systematic bombing of military and economic targets further inland.
In this first attack on British ground organisation, they targeted the airfields to destroy the RAF aircraft, and the radar systems in an attempt to blind the British Dowding interception system. Of the radar stations attacked, all but Ventnor on the Isle of Wight were in use again by the next day.
On this German Adlertag – ‘Eagle Day’ – a ten hour series of attacking waves focussed on the South East of England. With their 1,485 sorties, the German forces were testing the British ability to direct their resources against simultaneous – and widely dispersed – attacks. The RAF responded with 727 sorties of their own.
The Luftwaffe bombings missed their main three targets – Odiham, Farnborough and Rochford. They did hit Detling airfield in Kent, but this was not key to the battle and had been attacked as a result of faulty intelligence.
The Luftwaffe launched their largest number of sorties in one day in an attempt to deliver the knock out blow which ‘Eagle Day’ had failed to provide. The German forces flew over 2,000 missions to attack airfields and lure the British forces into a battle.
The north east of England was attacked for the first time from bases in Norway and Denmark after intelligence suggested that the bulk of the RAF fighter defences had been moved south.
This intelligence was incorrect, however, and the day became the Luftwaffe’s ‘Black Thursday’. 75 of their aircraft were shot down. Churchill named the day as ‘one of the greatest days in history.’ The RAF had lost 34 planes in their 974 sorties.
On this – ‘The Hardest Day’ – both sides suffered huge casualties. The RAF lost 68 aircraft. The Luftwaffe, 69. The German Junker 87 ‘Stuka’ dive bombers were withdrawn from the battle after this, having proved too vulnerable to British fighters.
In a raid on RAF Kenley all 10 hangars were destroyed, alongside several of the aircraft. Biggin Hill, Kenley, Croydon and West Malling airfields were also targeted. A radar station on the Isle of Wight was destroyed entirely.
Winston Churchill made a speech to the House of Commons declaring that:
The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the World War by their prowess and their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.
He paid tribute to the efforts of fighter pilots and bomber crews, and emphasized that Britain was far better equipped for modern warfare than in the previous war.
The Luftwaffe bomb London. By accident. On a mission to attack military targets outside London, the bombers instead destroyed several homes in the West End and kill civilians.
A retaliatory attack on Berlin was ordered for the next day. The 80 aircraft strong attack stunned German civilians, who had been assured by Göring that this would never happen.
The RAF flew 1,054 sorties from 22 squadrons. The Luftwaffe flew 1,345. Telephone lines, gas, electricity and water mains were cut, and one of the last remaining hangars is destroyed at Biggin Hill airfield.
This was the first day that a non-English speaking pilot engaged fully in battle. Flight Officer Ludwik Witold Paszkiewicz attacked a German aircraft during a training flight.
39 RAF aircraft were shot down during this day and 14 pilots were killed. The German forces flew over Kent and the Thames Estuary and attacked airfields at North Weald, Debden, Duxford, Eastchurch, Croydon, Hornchurch and Biggin Hill. This was just one of the six attacks which Biggin Hill suffered in three days.
The Blitz began. In response to the bombing of Berlin and to flawed intelligence which suggested that the RAF were weaker than in reality and would engage entirely in protecting the capital, the Luftwaffe commenced the targeted bombing of London. It continued for 57 consecutive nights.
Some historians see this change in focus as the moment when the Germans lost the Battle of Britain.
In the hope of drawing the RAF into an all out battle in the skies in which they could be annihilated, the Luftwaffe launched its most concentrated attack on London. The battle lasted until dusk and involved up to 1,500 aircraft. By the end of the day, German High Command were convinced that the Luftwaffe could not attain the air superiority required to invade Britain.
Hitler postponed Operation Sealion two days later, and daylight attacks were replaced with night time bombings. The final daylight raid by the Germans took place on 31 October. Whilst the Blitz was an affront to the populations in the cities, it gave the RAF a much needed chance to rebuild airfields, train pilots and repair aircraft.