5 facts about the Battle of Britain you might not have known

Army officers inspect the wreckage of Messerschmitt
Army officers inspect the wreckage of Messerschmitt, 1940 | Public Domain

On September 15th, 1940, the Luftwaffe launched their most ambitious aerial assault on Britain of the war yet. As hundreds of German warplanes made their way across the English Channel, squadrons across the south of England were scrambling to fight back the German advances for the eighth consecutive day in a row. Having fended off wave after wave of attack since July, the RAF squadrons of No. 11 Group (sectors across London and the South East of England) and No. 12 Group (sectors across the Midlands) had been outnumbered considerably by the Luftwaffe throughout the engagement. This final push from the Luftwaffe was the Axis power’s last push at the domination of Britain.

However, despite the might of the German airforce, the RAF sent the Luftwaffe limping back to Germany, having sustained considerable losses. Just two days later, Hitler suspended all plans to break the British military indefinitely instead of using the heavy bombing of Britain’s major cities to break the British spirit instead. Despite lasting for only four months, the Battle of Britain is remembered for Britain’s capability to defend its borders and pave the way for the Allied invasion of Europe later in WWII. It wasn’t all daring dog fights and aerial aces, however. Here are five facts about the Battle of Britain that you might not have known.

It was named the Battle of Britain before it had even happened.

Upon the success of Hitler’s invasion of France, British forces had to retreat across the channel at a frightening speed. In his speech following France’s surrender, Winston Churchill stated, 'What General Weygand called the "Battle of France" is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin.' A month later, the Battle of Britain was well underway.

The end of a nation

Expecting the British to settle a peace deal now that the Nazi occupation was a hop across the channel, Hitler was surprised when the British forces continued their resistance against the encroaching German army. When it became apparent that surrender wasn’t going to be an option, Hitler turned to a new tactic. The quickest way to end the war would be to neutralise the RAF as an opponent before they could invade. Codenamed Operation Sea Lion, Hitler’s invasion of Britain was the only feasible next step to end the war as quickly and as painlessly as possible. However, Operation Sea Lion would never be possible while the Royal Air Force remained intact.

Aviation history

Despite planes being used extensively in WWI, the Battle of Britain is the first battle in history to have been fought exclusively in the air. A landmark moment in aviation and military warfare, the Battle of Britain changed how we approached war forever.

'The Dowding System'

Despite all combat taking place in the skies, The Dowding System ensured that the RAF was a well-oiled machine that could maintain Britain’s defence throughout the barrage of German assaults. Named for Fighter Command’s Commander-In-Chief, Hugh Dowding, the Dowding system ensured that all parts of the Royal Air Force were working together, giving the RAF a fighting chance.

The Dowding System began with RADAR - a new invention that utilised radiowaves to pinpoint when enemy planes were approaching over the English channel. Once the invading planes had passed the RADAR boundary, their movements were tracked by the Observer Corps, who would report the height of formation, the number of aircraft, and the direction of travel back to RAF sector command centres (like RAF Northolt and RAF Duxford). Using tokens on a plotter, Command could monitor the locations of the aircraft, assess strategy, and filter relevant information through to the individual based throughout the sector. This process enabled information to move quickly, reliably, and safely through the channels with minimal confusion.

Bader’s Big Wing

Big Wing was an initiative that involved three to five squadrons of fighter planes that would meet the Luftwaffe head-on in a large wing formation. While the large volume of planes offered higher chances of success in deflecting German engagement, it wasn’t as effective a solution as many had hoped.

A complete Big Wing formation totalled nearly 60 aircraft which took time to get off the ground and into formation. Once airborne, there was little to no communication and much confusion. When reaching the enemy, the battle would descend into frantic chaos. More frustrating still, the Big Wing was stationed out of Duxford, which was designated No.12 Group. This meant that not only was it being deployed into sectors of a peer group, the delay in getting airborne and travelling south meant that the airfields of No. 11 Group would take considerable damage before Big Wing could intercept the Luftwaffe.

This delay, combined with the conflicting commands of No.12 Group and No. 11 Group, caused considerable friction and frustration at the use of Big Wing. However, while there were many teething problems, Big Wing had the support of higher command, which meant it was here to stay. Thankfully, the frustrations of Big Wing were short-lived as the Luftwaffe abandoned the assaults on the RAF and instead turned to the nighttime bombing raids of the Blitz.