SECURING THE SKIES

Battle of Britain in Detail Part 6

Battle of Britain Day – 15 September 1940

On 15September, the date now commemorated by the RAF as Battle of Britain Day, the Germans lost more than sixty aircraft during massed attacks on London. Churchill appeared in Keith Park’s underground operations room at Uxbridge that morning and watched the aerial battle unfold. Successive 11 Group squadrons confronted massive columns of German aircraft stacked up from 14,000 to 25,000 feet as they struggled across South East England towards London. Then, once the Germans reached the capital, the famous 12 Group “Big Wing” from Duxford joined the fray. For the 11 Group pilots, committed one or two squadrons at a time, the odds appeared particularly daunting. However, the RAF were at less of a numerical disadvantage than is sometimes supposed. In the morning, approximately 250 British fighters fought with about 150 from the Luftwaffe. In a repeat performance in the afternoon, some 275 Hurricanes and Spitfires tangled with about 340 Messerschmitt 109s. Having been told that Fighter Command was on its last legs, the German aircrews were subjected to successive attacks by squadron after squadron of defending fighter aircraft and then by the mass formation of 50 fighters from Duxford. It was all too clear to those who survived that they still faced a formidable adversary.

The change in strategy proved catastrophic for the Germans. By scaling down attacks on the Sector airfields, they lifted their boot from Fighter Command's throat. At the same time, their large bomber formations proved more vulnerable to interception during their long haul across Kent and Sussex to London, and their extended approach provided ample time for Fighter Command to deploy reinforcements from Leigh Mallory’s 12 Group. Furthermore, the Messerschmitt109 proved less effective during raids on London, as the British capital lay at the very limit of its effective range. The 109’stactical flexibility was also reduced after the German fighter pilots were ordered to stay close to the bombers in an attempt to curb their mounting losses.

As the month drew on, the German bombers were increasingly diverted to night raids on British cities: the Blitz had begun and would be sustained without respite until May 1941. By day, later in September and throughout October, the Luftwaffe resorted to using their Messerchmitt 109s as fast fighter-bombers, which were very difficult to intercept. It was partly for this reason that the aggregate losses of fighters over the last two months of the battle slightly favoured the Germans. It mattered not, however, for Hitler had already recognised that the battle to achieve air superiority over the British Isleshad been lost. On 17 September 1940, he formally cancelled Operation Sea Lion, the plan for the amphibious invasion of Britain. Fighter Command, Churchill’s immortal “Few”, had triumphed.

The cost was high. Nearly 3,000 RAF Fighter Command aircrew from more than a dozen nations fought in the Battle, and 544 of them were killed. Fighter Command lost over 1,000 aircraft. The Germans lost nearly1,900 aircraft and more than 2,600 of their airmen were killed.

This was a victory won in the air but orchestrated from the ground. The pilots were the point of the spear; the shaft consisted of myriad essential supporting players. The full cast of characters included the radar scientists at Bawdsey, under Watson Watt, the WAAFs and airmen who manned the radars and the volunteers of the Royal Observer Corps at their posts, the plotters, tellers and controllers manning the operations rooms, the GPO’s largely unsung telephone engineers, who laid the telephone lines and kept them working, the production and repair workers in the aircraft factories turning out Hurricanes and Spitfires by the thousand, and the ground crews who kept the aircraft flying and fuelled and rearmed them on bomb-damaged airfields.

And then there were the Commanders, not just Dowding and his group commanders, notably the supreme tactician, Keith Park, but also those such as Sir Wilfrid Freeman and Sir Cyril Newall, who played a central role in the RAF’s expansion before the War, supported by politicians such as Lord Swinton and Sir Kingsley Wood. Nor should we forget the foundations laid by men such as Ashmore, way back in the First World War, when the basic principles underpinning the air defence system were identified and the foundations laid for a future generation to graft on the new technologies of radar and radio telephone. Without all these men and women playing their part, the valour of “The Few” would have availed the British nation little. The victory combined organisational mastery, governmental support, technological innovation, industrial capacity, and military skill with the valour and commitment of youth.