The Battle of Britain was a struggle between the German Luftwaffe (commanded by Hermaan Göring) and the British Royal Air force (headed by Sir Hugh Dowding’s Fighter Command) which raged over Britain between July and October 1940. The battle, which was the first major military campaign in history to be fought entirely in the air, was the result of a German plan to win air superiority over Southern Britain and the English Channel by destroying the British air force and aircraft industry. Hitler saw victory in the battle as a prelude to the invasion of Britain (codenamed Operation Sealion).
In May 1940, German forces had overrun Belgium, the Netherlands and northern France using Blitzkrieg (‘Lightening War’) tactics. With the USA and the Soviet Union both still mired in hesitant isolationism, and the French ally toppled, Britain now stood alone against Nazi Germany. Yet as Hitler turned his attention to the British Isles in the summer of 1940, directing a force of over 1,350 bombers and 1,200 fighters first against shipping, airfields, and finally against towns, it became apparent that the Luftwaffe had the odds stacked against it.
The Luftwaffe’s first disadvantage was that it was neither trained nor equipped for the long range operations which became part of the battle. Its tactics were based upon the concept of close air support for ground forces; they were therefore ill-suited to the circumstances of the new campaign. The technical differences between the fighter aircraft employed by two sides were negligible: the RAF’s main fighter planes were the Spitfire and the Hurricane, whilst the Germans relied primarily on Messcherschmitt fighters and Junkers dive bombers. Yet to swing the odds in Britain’s favour, the tactical advantage that German fighters had developed in earlier conflicts was negated once fighter aircraft were ordered to provide close escort to the German bomber formations. These formations had discovered to their own extreme cost that they were unable to defend themselves.
During the battle, the RAF enjoyed the advantage of defending against attacks launched from widely separated airfields, thus profiting from what strategists call ‘interior lines’. This advantage was optimised by Britain’s system of radar tracking and guidance. Furthermore, the added comfort of fighting over friendly territory meant that pilots who crash-landed or parachuted out of their aircrafts could return to battle. British fortunes were also helped by the fact that the Luftwaffe had never subscribed to a concept of strategic bombing. British anti-aircraft and civil-defence preparations were inadequate in the summer of 1940, yet the Luftwaffe was unable to wreak the devastating effects feared by many.
The climax of the battle came on 15 September, a day in which the Luftwaffe lost 56 planes and the RAF 28. During the twelve-week battle, 1,733 German aircraft had been destroyed, compared with 915 British fighters. On 17 September, Hitler recognised the growing futility of the campaign and postponed indefinitely the invasion of Britain. Yet this did not mean an end to the bombing terror. German tactics were changed again and the Luftwaffe resorted to indiscriminate bombing of larger cities, including London, Plymouth and Coventry.