The Battle of Britain
The Battle of Britain
In the summer and autumn of 1940, a battle for national survival was waged in the skies over Britain. Not only would this struggle, the first to be fought primarily in the air, decide the fate of the United Kingdom, but on it also rested the freedom of Europe and the outcome of the Second World War.
By the end of June, 1940, the United Kingdom stood alone. The forces of Nazi Germany and her allies had conquered or dominated the rest of Europe from Norway to Sicily and the British Expeditionary Force and its allies had undergone a humiliating retreat back across the Channel under Operation Dynamo. In early July the German leader, Adolf Hitler, turned his attention to the British Isles, the last bastion of European democracy. His intention was to force the surrender of Britain through blockade, bombing, or, as a last resort, invasion.
To achieve this end, Hitler knew that the Germans would need superiority in the air. Only if they controlled the skies could a heavy enough bombing campaign be mounted, or an invasion force cross the English Channel. While the Royal Navy would still pose a severe threat to an invasion force, they could not prevent aerial attacks on Britain’s ports, industries or people, and were vulnerable to German air attack.
The German Air Force (the Luftwaffe) consisted of three Luftflotten (“Air Fleets”), spread in an arc from the Normandy peninsula to the South of Britain, through northern France, Belgium and Holland, to Denmark and Norway in the North. Between them they could muster some 2,800 aircraft, two-thirds of them bombers, and would be able to draw on large reserves in Germany. The Luftwaffe had already defeated the air forces of Poland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and the RAF contingent in France. Veterans of all these campaigns had also served during the Spanish Civil War. They were experienced and confident. Their commander, Reichsmarshal Herman Goering, was as optimistic as his men and predicted that victory would take a few days.
Britain’s air defence rested principally on the Royal Air Force. While Bomber Command and Coastal Command would both make a significant contribution to the Battle by attacking the German invasion preparations and airfields across the Channel, and the Army’s anti-aircraft guns would inflict losses on any raiders, only the pilots of Fighter Command, under Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, could meet the Luftwaffe head on.
Split geographically into four ‘Groups’, 11 Group, under New Zealander Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park, in the South-East would bear the brunt of the Battle. Many RAF squadrons had taken heavy losses in the fighting on the continent, and Fighter Command now stood at around 650 aircraft, and 1,300 pilots. This number would be reinforced through the course of the Battle by volunteers from other RAF Commands, the Fleet Air Arm, by pilots from overseas, and by replacements passing out of the training schools. Even so, Dowding’s greatest concern would prove to be the struggle to keep sufficient pilots in the front line.
Nearly 3,000 aircrew would serve with Fighter Command in the course of the Battle, of whom nearly 600 (around 20%) were from the British Dominions, and occupied European or neutral countries. To compensate for the lack of numbers, the RAF had the advantage of a highly efficient and advanced command and control system. At various levels in the command structure, Operations Rooms gathered and collated information gleaned from the radar sites that looked out from Britain’s coastline, from the volunteers who staffed Observer Corps posts further inland, from aircraft in the air, and other sources to build a remarkably accurate and near ‘real-time’ picture of the situation in the skies above. This allowed the commanders to direct their sparse resources towards the points where they were most needed, rather than wasting effort guarding empty skies.
The Battle of Britain began in early July, 1940, and can be roughly divided into four phases. By the start of the first phase, on 10 July, the Luftwaffe had been attacking shipping in the English Channel for some weeks. This campaign was now stepped up, with the intention of cutting Britain’s coastal supply lines, and drawing the RAF’s fighters into battle over the Channel where they could be destroyed.
On 16 July, Adolf Hitler issued Directive No. 16, calling for preparations to be made for Operation Sealion, the invasion of Britain. As a pre-requisite, he demanded 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.” German attacks now hit the British mainland, with scattered attacks on airfields, and attempts to knock out the string of coastal radar stations known as Chain Home.
By 1 August, little progress was being made by the Luftwaffe, and so Hitler issued Directive No. 17, calling for the Luftwaffe to “overpower the English Air Force with all the forces at its command, in the shortest possible time”. This, along with the other invasion preparations, was to be achieved by 15 September.
After twelve days of preparation and poor weather, the second phase of the Battle began on 13 August, a day that Goering lauded to his men in typical bombastic style as “Eagle Day”. The principle targets were now the radar sites, to blind the RAF, and the airfields of southern England, with the intention of driving the RAF from the skies. These airfields, particularly those in the South-East, suffered particularly badly. The raids not only destroyed valuable aircraft, but the damaged airfields made it difficult for aircraft to operate.
The RAF and Women’s Auxiliary Air Force ground staff showed great dedication and courage as they strove to keep stations open, despite the continuing attacks. Casualties mounted on both sides, and Fighter Command was increasingly short of pilots, and although a steady stream of overseas personnel were now joining front-line squadrons, many were inexperienced. While the Luftwaffe also suffered heavy losses, the senior RAF commanders were fearful that they were beginning to lose the war of attrition.
By 6 September, Fighter Command was on the back foot. Although squadrons were being rotated around the country, with battered units being withdrawn to the North to rest and the fresher squadrons moving from north to south, the pilots were becoming increasingly worn out. The losses in aircraft and pilots, and damage to the airfields, were making the situation appear increasingly grim. If the squadrons of 11 Group pulled back to north of London, it would make their airfields easier to protect, yet would also cede control of the air over the English Channel and South-East England to the Luftwaffe. However, the Germans were also suffering and their early optimism was now severely strained. Hitler and Goering were both growing impatient and now turned their attention away from the airfields, and on to London.
Although day and night raids had been mounted against various British towns and cities throughout the campaign, London had been left alone on Hitler’s express orders. However, on the night of 24/25 August, a lost bomber formation had dropped bombs on the capital by mistake. Churchill reacted and the following night, in retaliation, Bomber Command aircraft were sent to attack Berlin.
Hitler was incensed, and lifted his prohibition on the bombing of London. This also suited the Luftwaffe. Their intelligence was reporting that Fighter Command had only 150-300 aircraft left, and they were hoping that an attack on the capital would draw out the last few fighters to be destroyed. This was just one of many intelligence blunders that the Luftwaffe would make during the Battle. In fact, although 11 Group was on the edge of exhaustion, the RAF as a whole had more than a thousand fighters available across the country.
On 7 September, 1940, the third phase of the Battle opened as the Luftwaffe began what would become a nine-month long campaign against London. The mass daylight raids that afternoon caused widespread damage, and continued through the night. On the other hand, they also took the pressure off Fighter Command, and allowed them vital time to rebuild their strength. It also made it easier to bring the squadrons to the north of London to bear against the German attacks.
By 15 September, Hitler’s deadline for the invasion preparations to be finished, Fighter Command had been able to rotate many of the units in the South-East, and had recovered its balance and nerve. In fact, they were now stronger than ever before. 15 September would see a series of heavy Luftwaffe raids across southern England and London throughout the day, and each was met with renewed ferocity by Fighter Command.
The experience of such a response from defence forces which, they had been told, had been almost completely destroyed, shattered German morale. Although the fighting that day was far from the heaviest or most desperate of the Battle (although the Luftwaffe would lose around 60 aircraft destroyed and another 20 damaged, and Fighter Command would lose 26 aircraft), 15 September was still a turning point. The Luftwaffe now realised that it had miscalculated, and it became increasingly clear that they could not win the air superiority that they needed. Two days later, Hitler suspended Operation Sealion indefinitely.
The Battle still continued. British towns and cities were attacked day and night, and increasingly German fighter-bombers were sent on hit and run raids across the Channel. On 30 September the Luftwaffe launched their last major daylight raid, and from 1 October the fourth phase of the Battle began: the Germans resorted to fighter bomber attacks by day and a ferocious Blitz on British cities by its bomber forces at night. The night area bombing of London and other towns and cities by the Luftwaffe would continue until May 1941.
Both sides took heavy casualties during the Battle of Britain. The Luftwaffe lost nearly 1900 aircraft and more than 2,500 aircrew killed. Fighter Command had lost 544 pilots killed, about one in six of those who fought. Bomber and Coastal Commands had also taken heavy losses. Their attacks on German airfields, invasion barges, supply dumps and, later, cities had severely hampered preparations for Operation Sealion.
By 21 September some 214 barges had been sunk or damaged amounting to nearly 10% of the total number gathered for the invasion, although at a punishing cost. On several occasions attacking formations suffered 100% casualties, and between them, Bomber and Coastal Commands would lose nearly 1,000 aircrew.
By 31 October the British were confident that there would be no invasion in 1940. The Blitz, however, continued unabated and would eventually result in nearly 40,000 civilian deaths. Nevertheless the battle for control of the air over Britain had been decisively won by the RAF, and in particular Air Marshals Dowding and Park.
Victory in the Battle of Britain not only saved the United Kingdom from invasion, but also in the long-term saved Europe too. For the first time, Nazi Germany had been unable to impose its will on the rest of Europe through threat or military might, and its vaunted Luftwaffe had tasted defeated in battle. Britain would remain as a bastion of freedom and hope off the coast of occupied Europe.
When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, Britain was able to send the armaments and supplies that would prove vital as Russia teetered on the edge of defeat for the first eighteen months. When the United States of America entered the war in December, 1941, the British Isles acted as a stronghold and launching pad from which the United Nations could take the war back to Germany; initially through the Combined Bomber Offensive, and later as the springboard for Allied armies to re-enter the continent and begin the liberation of western Europe.
A National Memorial to the Battle of Britain stands at Capel-le-Ferne near Dover in Kent. It was the idea of Geoffrey Page, who had been shot down and badly burned as a Hurricane pilot during the Battle. The Memorial, whose centrepiece is a sculpture of a seated airman looking out across the Strait of Dover, was unveiled by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in July 1993. Geoffrey Page died in August 2000, shortly after attending the annual Memorial Day.
The National Memorial site today also features replicas of a Hurricane and a Spitfire from the Battle, as well as the Christopher Foxley-Norris Memorial Wall (named in memory of a former Hurricane pilot and Air Chief Marshal who was first President of the Memorial Trust) which contains the names of all the airmen who fought in the Battle.
In addition a Battle of Britain Monument was unveiled in 2005 on Victoria Embankment near the RAF Memorial in London in memory of all who took part in the Battle, civilian and military. The names of all the aircrew who were awarded the Battle of Britain clasp are recorded. 15 September is Battle of Britain Day and is marked by Services of Remembrance, including one at the Central Church of the RAF, St Clement Danes, in Strand, London and on an appropriate Sunday close to the date at Westminster Abbey.
Battle of Britain VCs:
Three RAF personnel were awarded the Victoria Cross during the Battle of Britain:
Flt Lt James Nicolson VC DFC AFC:
On 16 August, 1940, while on a patrol near Southampton, Nicolson’s Hawker Hurricane was attacked and set on fire. Despite being severely wounded and burned, he stayed with his aircraft long enough to attack the aircraft which had attacked him, before baling out.
Flt Lt Roderick Learoyd VC:
On 12 August, 1940, during a raid on the Dortmund-Ems Canal, Learoyd encountered heavy and concentrated flak. Despite severe damage to his Handley-Page Hampden, he pressed home his attack at very low level, before managing to bring his badly damaged aircraft, and crew, home safely.
Sgt John Hannah VC:
On 15 September, 1940, Sgt Hannah was a wireless operator on a Handley-Page Hampden attacking invasion barges at Antwerp when it was hit by flak and set ablaze. Two of the crew of four baled out, but Sgt Hannah remaining with the aircraft, putting out the fires with extinguishers and then his hands, allowing the pilot to bring the aircraft home.
Top scorers of the Battle of Britain:
Sgt Josef Frantisek (Czech): 17
Plt Off Eric Lock (UK): 16½
Sgt James Lacy (UK): 15½
Fg Off Brian Carbury (NZ): 15½
Plt Off Robert Doe (UK): 15
Fg Off Witold Urbanowicz (Poland): 15
Plt Off Paterson Hughes (Australia): 14 & 3x½
Plt Off Colin Gray (NZ): 14 & 2x½
Flt Lt Archie McKellar (UK): 14½
Flt Lt Carl Davis (UK): 11½