In the summer of 1940 Britain battled for survival against Hitler’s war machine; the result would define the course of the Second World War. It is known simply as The Battle of Britain.
By late May 1940 German forces were on the Channel coast. On the day France surrendered British Prime Minister Winston Churchill gave a speech that was as prescient as it was inspirational.
“What General Weygand called the ‘Battle of France’ is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin…”
On 16 July Hitler issued a Directive ‘On Preparations for a Landing Operation against England’. His forces prepared for invasion, but the German navy had been decimated at Narvik during the previous year’s battle for Norway. The Royal Navy was still the most powerful on earth and would destroy an invasion fleet as it crossed the Channel.
The only way an invasion might succeed was if the German air-force, the Luftwaffe, achieved total dominance of the skies above the Channel and formed an iron dome above the fleet. Any invasion depended on wresting control of the skies from the RAF. Dive bombers could pound the intercepting British ships and this might just give the invaders a chance to get across.
Hitler now turned to his air-force to knock Britain out of the war, preferably by a campaign of bombing that would destroy the British economy and their will to go on fighting. If that failed German High Command planned to eradicate the RAF, and create the necessary precondition for an invasion.
In mid-July 1940 the Luftwaffe stepped up attacks on British coastal shipping. The Battle of Britain had begun.
In early skirmishes it was clear that certain aircraft like the Defiant were totally outclassed by the German fighter, the Messerschmidt 109. But the Hawker Hurricane, and the newer Supermarine Spitfire proved up to the job. The problem was trained pilots. Requirements were loosened as more pilots were rushed onto the front line to replace those who perished.
On 13 August the Germans launched Adlerangriff or “Eagle Attack”. More than 1,400 German aircraft crossed the channel, but they met fierce RAF resistance. German losses were serious: forty-five aircraft were shot down, for the loss of only thirteen British fighters.
The next day, out of 500 attacking aircraft, around 75 were shot down. The British lost 34.
The third day saw 70 German losses, against 27 British. During this decisive phase, the RAF were winning the battle of attrition.
As the Battle intensified during August, pilots flew four or five sorties a day and came close to physical and mental exhaustion.
At one point, General Ismay, Churchill’s principle military assistant, was watching the battle as it was being plotted in a Fighter Command Operations Room. He later recalled:
‘There had been heavy fighting throughout the afternoon; and at one moment every single squadron in the group was engaged; there was nothing in reserve, and the map table showed new waves of attackers crossing the coast. I felt sick with fear.’
But the fact that Ismay was able to watch the battle unfolding at all was a miracle of planning. He was witnessing an operation that gave Britain a unique advantage. The waves of German bombers that Ismay was seeing on the plotting table were being detected by a brand new, top secret British weapon.
Invented and installed in the months leading up to the battle, Radar detected the German aircraft as they flew over the channel. Thousands of observers on the ground then confirmed the radar signal by calling in their sightings of enemy aircraft. This information was filtered to Operations Rooms, who then sent orders to airfields to intercept the raiders.
On receiving these orders, the pilots would scramble. The whole process, at its most efficient, could take less than twenty minutes.
Invented by Fighter Command Chief, Sir Hugh Dowding, Radar was the world’s first integrated air defence system, now replicated all over the world. It saw British planes and pilots used with maximum efficiency, only deploying them against an actual enemy raid.
The Germans meanwhile had little understanding of the role of Radar in the British defensive systems, and didn’t concentrate attacks on them. It was an expensive mistake.
The British had other advantages. German fighters were operating on the limit of their fuel tanks, and whenever German pilots were shot down, they became prisoners of war. British pilots could hop straight back into a replacement aircraft.
When Flight Sergeant Denis Robinson was shot down near Wareham, he was quickly delivered by locals to the pub, given a few drams of whiskey and the afternoon off, before flying several sorties the next day.
As August wore on, the RAF were suffering as incessant German raids tightened the screw.
German intelligence was poor, however. Its network of spies in Britain was compromised. They lacked a realistic picture of the strength of the RAF and failed to focus on the right targets, with the right intensity. Had the Luftwaffe really focused on bombing the airfields, they would have potentially succeeded in beating the RAF.
Nonetheless, the RAF was terribly stretched when suddenly, at the start of September, the German High Command made a catastrophic error.
In late August Churchill ordered an RAF raid on Berlin. A few civilians were killed and no targets of significance were hit. Hitler was enraged and ordered the Luftwaffe to unleash their full force on London.
On 7 September the Luftwaffe switched their focus to London to force the British government to capitulate. The Blitz had begun.
London would suffer terribly in the months ahead, but the German attacks on the RAF airfields largely came to an end. Dowding and his pilots had some vital breathing room. As the fighting moved away from the airfields, Fighter Command was able to rebuild its strength. Runways were repaired, pilots could grab some rest.
On 15 September a week of continuous bombing of London reached a climax as 500 German bombers, accompanied by more than 600 fighters pounded London from morning to dusk. Over 60 German aircraft were destroyed, another 20 were badly mauled.
The RAF was clearly not on its knees. The British people were not demanding peace. The British government remained determined to fight.
Hitler’s attempt to knock Britain out of the war through air power had failed; his attempt to defeat the RAF before invading had failed. Now the autumn gales threatened. The invasion plans would have to be now or never.
Following the bombing campaign on the 15 September, the resilience shown by the British meant Hitler postponed the invasion of Britain. Over the next few weeks, it was quietly abandoned. It was Hitler’s first decisive defeat.
The Luftwaffe lost nearly 2,000 planes during the battle. The RAF around 1,500 – these included the aircraft sent on suicidal missions to bomb the invasion barges in the Channel ports.
The RAF fighter pilots have been immortalised as The Few. 1,500 British and allied aircrew were killed: young men from Britain and its empire but also Poland, the Czech Republic, American volunteers and others. Compared to the later gigantic battles of the Second World War the numbers were small, but the impact was huge.
Britain remained committed to the destruction of the Third Reich. It would supply the Soviet Union with vital intelligence and material support. It would rearm, rebuild and act as a base for the allied nations to eventually launch the liberation of Western Europe.