Battle of Britain

Germany's Blitzkrieg overwhelmed Poland in September 1939, then, after a pause, crushed Denmark, Norway, and the Low Countries in April-May 1940, and finally France in June 1940. With the fall of France, and the neutralization of other weak countries, the Allies had no base on the continent. Surrounded and falling back from the German advance, more than 338,000 exhausted English and French troops were evacuated from the French coast at Dunkirk between 26 May and 3 June 1940, leaving all their equipment behind. Now only Great Britain stood opposed to Germany in all of Western Europe.

The Battle of Britain was one of the first major battles of World War II, launched by Germany on 10 July 1940 and continuing until 31 October 1940. The successful British defense was the first setback to Hitler's plans to conquer Europe and the world.

RAF pilots run to planes on the flight line, 1940
RAF pilots run to planes on the flight line, 1940.

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Opening Phase of the Battle of Britain

On 18 June 1940, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill stated in the House of Commons:

What General Weygand has called the Battle of France is over. The Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war.

Germany was now poised to deliver the final blow to Great Britain, to either defeat her utterly or drive her to war neutrality. Hitler's generals believed that Blitzkrieg would make short work of the English, but the English Channel stood in the way as a formidable natural defense.

Hawker Hurricane IIA with RAF serial Z2963 at NACA Langley, 25 November 1941.  32 Squadrons of RAF Hawker Hurricane Mark I and Mark II fighters contributed mightily to the British victory
Hawker Hurricane IIA with RAF serial Z2963 at NACA Langley, 25 November 1941. 32 Squadrons of RAF Hawker Hurricane Mark I and Mark II fighters contributed mightily to the British victory.

The German Navy was too small to control the Channel waters, so the Luftwaffe was given the assignment to interdict all shipments to Britain, to destroy the Royal Navy, British coastal defenses, and British airfields and aircraft industry. Hitler's undefeated generals planed Operation Seelöwe (Sea Lion), a mid-August invasion of Great Britain, when 260,000 German troops would be landed along the English coast and quickly move to capture London. Their success with Blitzkrieg on the continent made them overconfident of the Luftwaffe's ability to fight longer range, strategic battles over the Channel and England.

For Germany's plans to succeed, the Royal Air Force (RAF) had to be quickly crushed. Hermann Göring, newly promoted to Reichmarschall and in charge of the Luftwaffe, believed that the RAF was weak and demoralized after Britain's losses in France and could be destroyed in just three weeks, in time for Operation Seelöwe. But during June 1940, Churchill stalled the Germans with feigned interest in peace talks while RAF Fighter Command (especially 11 Group, responsible for the southern England airspace) scrambled to get ready, producing planes and pilots at an unprecedented rate.

Their Finest Hour

In his 18 June 1940 speech, Winston Churchill concluded with:

Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, 'This was their finest hour.'

His words proved prophetic.

English RAF pilots were joined by men from the Commonwealth nations of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa along with Allies including Frenchmen, Poles, Czechs and Americans who came as experienced volunteers. These men flew under appalling conditions, yet performed beyond any expectation and literally saved the free world. The rest of the British military and industry worked around the clock to support the RAF as best they could.

The battle began on 10 July 1940 with German attacks on naval targets in the English Channel. The Germans, operating from bases close by in France, did relatively well in these attacks over water since their bomber escorts usually outnumbered the convoy escort aircraft. The British were forced to reroute convoy traffic away from the English Channel.

The main phase of the Battle of Britain began on 13 August (Adlertag or 'Eagle day') when the weather cleared. The Germans mounted a series of attacks on nine RAF airfields and the primitive but effective British radar systems. The Adlerangriff (Eagle Attack) raids were countered by the RAF and no radar station was permanenty knocked out. Superior Command and Control systems developed by the British allowed Fighter Command to have the right number of planes at the right place and time, accounting for much of their ability to frustrate the German onslaught. 15 August was the peak day for Luftwaffe sorties, including bombing in the North of Britain, and 18 August was the day of most casualties on both sides of the campaign. The RAF lost almost 25% of their pilots during these weeks and the survivors were exhausted from days when a few hundred pilots flew over 1,000 flights.

German losses in this period were much higher than anticipated as Göring's boasts about the weakness of the English proved hollow indeed. The valiant RAF drove off the best the Germans could throw at them and delivered punishing losses to German men and planes. Göring began to withdraw certain aircraft from the campaign as their weaknesses were revealed, leaving the remainder to fight on unsupported. Göring also stopped attacking the radar stations failing to understand how close to collapse they were, leaving the RAF with the technological upper hand.

From 24 August onwards, the Luftwaffe concentrated their attacks on Fighter Command with 33 heavy attacks in the next two weeks, primarily against airfields. The multinational pilots of the RAF took horrendous losses. Barely trained volunteers took to the air in hastily assembled aircraft, only to be shot down in minutes. One bright note was that many of the RAF men were able to bail out. Since they were over England they could be rescued and returned to their units. German pilots who survived being shot down became POWs.

Appearing in the House of Commons on 20 August, Churchill was moved to say:

“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."

During one attack, on 24 August, German bombers hit London, probably an accident. Nonetheless, the RAF mounted a risky but successful raid on Berlin on the night of 25-26 August in reprisal. This raid shocked the German leadership who had been assured by Göring that such a raid was impossible.

By early September the Germans were winning the battle of attrition, wearing down the thinly stretched RAF. It was harder and harder to raise a defense to the relentless German raids. But the Germans did not know this and continued to be amazed that the RAF was still in the air and taking a tremendous toll on the German attackers. They were also thrown off balance by the Berlin raid, expecting to see it repeated. Their overestimataion of the British position led to Hitler's fatal error.

The End of the Battle of Britain

On 4 September Hitler lifted all restrictions on bombing London. This strategy change was intended to panic British civilians into surrender, or at a minimum to bring out the RAF into decisive battles of annihilation. Following Hitler's decision, on 7 September the Blitz began, with German bombing for 57 consecutive nights over London and other cities.

Hitler's attempt to break the will of the British people was an historic blunder. Instead of panic and surrender, Londoner's and the rest of Great Britain rose to the challenge, took their losses, fought the fires, and stiffened their resistance. Paradoxically, this shift in German strategy took the pressure off Fighter Command and its bases, effectively putting an end to the Battle of Britain. Around the clock Luftwaffe raids on 15 September 1940 brought the Germans no closer to victory over England and finally convinced Hitler that they could not succeed. Even though the Battle of Britain went on until the end of October, on 17 September Hitler postponed Operation Seelöwe, effectively ending the concentration on Britain. From July to October 1940, the Luftwaffe lost a total of 1,733 aircraft against RAF losses of "only" 915.

Although the Battle of Britain between the RAF and the Luftwaffe was over, during the Blitz (September 1940 to May 1941) German aircraft delivered more than 35,000 tons of bombs to targets in Great Britain, with the loss of 650 aircraft. London was attacked 19 times during that period. with 18,800 tons of bombs.

The RAF and all who supported it had stopped the German war machine at the English Channel. England henceforth became the forward base for Allied efforts that ultimately led to the D-Day invasion and, combined with the Red Army advance from the east, the end of Hitler's Third Reich.

Recommended Books about the Battle of Britain

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