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War: World War II
Dates: 10th July – 31st October 1940
Place: The Skies Over the UK
Belligerents: The Royal Air Force & The Luftwaffe
Described as the first major battle fought entirely in the air, the Battle of Britain holds the odd distinction of being named before it was fought. It was mentioned in a speech given by the Prime Minister three weeks before it started.
‘What [French military commander] General Weygand called ‘The Battle of France’ is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. 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 our finest hour.’
Winston Churchill, 18th June 1940
The prelude to battle
After the Germans’ swift and decisive blitzkrieg (literally, ‘lightening war’) of France and the subsequent collapse of the French government in early June 1940, Britain was left alone as the last man standing against the ‘menace of tyranny’.
During this time there were factions within the British government who – less than a year into the war – were willing to negotiate favourable peace terms with Hitler. The German hierarchy was under the impression that the war was effectively over given their clean sweep of western Europe, so much so that leave was granted and the Luftwaffe were redirected elsewhere. Even when Churchill made it abundantly clear that war was most certainly not over, Hitler maintained his position that it was a bluff and that Britain must recognise ‘her militarily hopeless position’.
Hitler didn’t want a long, protracted and expensive war. He wanted Europe. All of it, but standing in his way was plucky little Britain.
However, for a massive land invasion codenamed Unternehmen Seelöwe (Operation Sealion) to work, the Germans needed to secure control of the skies over southern England and dissolve the threat posed by the RAF. Head of the Luftwaffe, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring was confident his men would be victorious in the air and that alone would therefore be enough to force a peace agreement without the need for Operation Sealion, of which he was less confident of success.
The odds were stacked heavily in favour of Göring’s men but Britain was prepared. More so than anyone thought, thanks in large part to Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh ‘Stuffy’ Dowding, the man credited – SPOILER ALERT – for the decisive Allied victory at the Battle of Britain.
At RAF Bentley Priory in a leafy northwest London suburb, he created what became known as the Dowding System, the world’s first wide-area ground-controlled interception network. The network of telephone landlines allowed for information to be called in and collated very quickly, subsequently allowing Fighter Command to build up an accurate picture of the UK’s airspace. The combination of early detection and speed of dissemination meant that the fighter squadrons could be used at exceptionally high rates of effectiveness and this proved key to the Allied success.
Beyond the importance of the Dowding System, ‘Stuffy’ and his officers meticulously prepared Britain’s air defences, marshalled resources including additional and replacement planes and aircrew and maintained a significant reserve, in turn allowing his subordinates to run the minutiae of the battle.
Notwithstanding Britain’s preparedness, the Germans had a poor intelligence network giving them little or no idea of where Britain’s vulnerabilities lay. They also wasted close to a month waiting for a surrender from Churchill which was never forthcoming and they were left woefully short of naval hardware after their costly conquest of Norway.
Let battle commence
Many Battle of Britain historians have broken down the battle into four distinct phases although for the past 70 years the dates and elements of each phase have been very much open to debate…
Phase 1: Mid-July to Mid-August 1940
The Luftwaffe began their kanalkampf (Channel fight) by attacking coastal targets – ports and radar stations – and shipping convoys operating in the Channel. They also attacked much of the southern coast during night-time sorties in what were essentially training flights in preparation for the main assault. On July 16th, Hitler suggested that ‘the British Air Force must be eliminated to such an extent that it will be incapable of putting up any sustained opposition to the invading troops’. He wanted the swastika flying over Big Ben by Christmas.
Phase 2: Approximately 13th – 20th August 1940
Adlerangriff, or ‘Eagle Attack’ was designed to take out the RAF operationally, both in the air and on the ground, in four days. The Luftwaffe targeted airfields, radar stations and communication centres across the south of the country and then the strategic bombing of military and economic targets extended up to the Midlands. Once that was complete, daylight attacks would proceed unhindered across the whole country with the culmination being an all-out attack on London. While they did some serious damage, the Wehrmacht over-estimated what damage they had done and assumed the RAF was on its last legs. Quite wrongly as it turned out.
Phase 3: 20th August – 6th September 1940
Back to the battle in the sky and in an error of what came to be of critical importance (and potentially cost the Germans the entire war), the Germans moved the weight of their attacks to London rather than continuing to cripple airfields and infrastructure. The capital was attacked on 57 consecutive nights. While the Blitz had a devastating effect on the city and its residents, it did little to advance Göring and Hitler’s original purpose – air superiority – but crucially gave the RAF time to recover and it drew more German bomber formations into the sectors of the formidable No. 12 (Fighter) Group under the command of Commander Trafford Leigh-Mallory.
The German Messerschmitt Bf 109E and 110E fighter planes lacked the range to escort their Heinkel He 111, Dornier Do 17 and Junkers Ju 87 ‘Stuka’ and 88 bombers deep into the British mainland. Their bombers were taken care of thanks to the durability and firepower of the RAF’s Hawker Hurricanes and their fighter escorts by the speed and agility of the Supermarine Spitfire, at the time unrivalled as an interceptor by any other plane in any of the world’s air forces.
The Luftwaffe’s assault was quickly becoming increasingly unsustainable. The RAF were downing German planes faster than their war machine could produce them. It was now abundantly clear that with each downed plane, the Germans had dramatically failed to secure the required air superiority for a massive ground invasion.
On the 15th of September, the Battle of Britain reached its inevitable climax. Commemorated ever since – in the UK at least – as Battle of Britain Day, it was the day the RAF downed 56 German planes in two dogfights and not coincidentally, the day where the Wehrmacht high command realised once and for all that the Luftwaffe didn’t get what they came for. Brazen daytime attacks were replaced with smaller night-time sorties to reduce Luftwaffe casualties and as a concession of defeatBoth Churchill and Hitler knew that the German tactics had failed and two days later the Führer called off Operation Sealion. Another bluff suggested he was only postponing for the winter but very quickly he decided to focus his attentions east, towards Russia…
The Luftwaffe was dealt a lethal blow from which they never really recovered. It was the first major defeat of Germany’s military forces and according to former RAF aircrew officer Dr Alfred Price, ‘Neither by attacking the airfields, nor by attacking London, was the Luftwaffe likely to destroy Fighter Command. Given the size of the British fighter force and the general high quality of its equipment, training and morale, the Luftwaffe could have achieved no more than a Pyrrhic victory.’
He went on to say that ‘In the Battle of Britain, for the first time during the Second World War, the German war machine had set itself a major task which it patently failed to achieve, and so demonstrated that it was not invincible. In stiffening the resolve of those determined to resist Hitler the battle was an important turning point in the conflict.’
American journalist Ralph Ingersoll went as far as suggesting that Britain’s victory would ‘go down in history as a battle as important as Waterloo or Gettysburg’.
Both sides played the propaganda game, claiming two to three times more downed planes than was actually true but more fundamentally, wrote historian Sir Richard Evans:
‘Irrespective of whether Hitler was really set on this course, he simply lacked the resources to establish the air superiority that was the sine qua non of a successful crossing of the English Channel. A third of the initial strength of the German air force, the Luftwaffe, had been lost in the western campaign in the spring. The Germans lacked the trained pilots, the effective fighter aircraft, and the heavy bombers that would have been needed.’
Britain and its Allies were able to stay in the war despite suffering heavy losses in terms of airpower, military and civilian deaths but victory allowed Britain to quickly rebuild its air defences which served as the solid base for the liberation of Western Europe and onto a decisive victory in 1945.