The Battle of Britain



On 18 June 1940, Churchill gave one of his most famous speeches to the British people, announcing:

"What General Weygand has called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.

But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. 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 their finest hour."

Given the strength of British naval forces, it was essential for the Germans to obtain air superiority over the English Channel and southern England before they could contemplate an invasion. Hitler instructed Hermann Goering, the head of the German Luftwaffe, that the RAF must be reduced to such an extent that it could no longer provide effective opposition to a German landing. Goering confidently predicted that given good weather, the task could be achieved within four days. The German invasion plan was code-named Unternehmen Seelöwe (Operation Sealion).

Goering's unwise boast ignored the fact that the Luftwaffe had significant weaknesses. Whilst numerically superior to the RAF and with much greater battle experience, it was predominantly a tactical air force principally designed to support German ground forces in their Blitzkrieg campaigns. In reality, it lacked the type of aircraft, accurate military intelligence and the training to wage an effective strategic air war over Britain. Its single-engine fighter, the Messerschmitt Bf109, had a limited operational radius that meant it was incapable of escorting the bomber formations beyond London and the south-east. In addition, its bombers were not capable of delivering large enough bomb loads to permanently knock out key targets and all of the bomber types were very vulnerable to high performance day fighters.

It was the Luftwaffe's misfortune to come up against RAF Fighter Command. Despite intense political pressure, Fighter Command's leader, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, had been careful not to fritter away its strength in the hopeless struggles in France. Although numerically inferior to its opponent in numbers of aircraft and pilots, the vast majority of its squadrons were equipped with modern fighters, i.e. the Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire. Critically, it also had effective radar and operational control systems which permitted early detection of enemy raids and a quick and effective response. The commanders of the Luftwaffe failed to appreciate the vital importance of radar to the defenders and this was to prove pivotal to the outcome of the battle. Finally, every German aircraft lost over the British Isles would mean the loss of the entire crew, whereas for the RAF, a pilot crash-landing or baling-out could often be back in action within a matter of hours.

The battle began in mid-July and initially the Luftwaffe concentrated on attacking shipping in the English Channel and attacking coastal towns and defences in an effort to draw the RAF into battle. In this regard, the tactic was largely unsuccessful; Dowding did not fully commit his resources and German losses were relatively high.

From 12 August, Goering shifted his focus to attacks on airfields and radar bases which he knew Fighter Command would be forced to defend. On the 15th August, the Germans mounted heavy attacks on the north and east of England in addition to large raids on a broad front from the Thames Estuary in the east to Weymouth in the south-west. The attackers inflicted only modest damage, but lost 75 aircraft in these operations, compared to the RAF losses of 34 machines. The German Air Fleet 5 based in Norway and Denmark suffered exceptionally heavy losses in the attacks on the north of England and was never used in force again during the Battle of Britain. Nevertheless, the Luftwaffe continued to maintain the pressure with major attacks throughout the remainder of August, predominantly focussed on airfields in southern and south-eastern England. The battle was descending into a war of attrition and the situation was becoming critical for the RAF as they were now losing pilots much faster than they could be replaced and a number of front-line airfields had been very badly damaged.

However, Goering was becoming frustrated at the dogged resistance being put up by Fighter Command, at a time when his intelligence services were incorrectly informing him that the RAF was on the verge of being wiped out. On 7th September, on Hitler's orders, the Luftwaffe switched their focus to London and other major industrial cities. The initial raid on London caught the defenders by surprise and large parts of the docks and warehouses in the East End were destroyed during attacks in the late afternoon and at night. The British Government, fearing that the raid was a prelude to invasion, issued the code word "Cromwell" to its armed forces, which was the warning that invasion was imminent.

Attacks on London continued, but the greater distance to the target put the Luftwaffe at a significant disadvantage. For the first time, it allowed the RAF sufficient early warning to assemble the combined resources of both No. 11 and No. 12 Group over the capital to meet the incoming raids. Secondly, the German Bf109 fighter escorts were operating at the extremes of their endurance and only had fuel for 10 minutes combat over London, if they were to be able to return to their bases in northern France. This meant that German bombers on their return journey were often left exposed to fierce RAF attacks as their escorts were forced to leave the combat zone. As a consequence, German losses in men and machines began to rise rapidly and meeting heavy resistance that they had not expected, their morale began to fall. The daylight battle over London culminated on Sunday 15th September (Battle of Britain Day), when three major attacks on London were repulsed with extremely heavy German losses. These were to be the last massed daylight raids on London.

It was now clear to Hitler that his air force had failed to gain air superiority so, on 17 September, he postponed his plans to invade Britain. His attention was now focused on the invasion of the Soviet Union. However, this was not the end of the Battle of Britain. The Luftwaffe continued large-scale bomber attacks on the capital and other industrial centres at night (the Blitz) and mounted lighter attacks, often using fighter-bombers, by day. British sources record the Battle of Britain as officially ending on the 31st October 1940. However, the German viewpoint is that the battle continued into May 1941, after which much of the Luftwaffe's strength was re-deployed for the invasion of Soviet Russia.

It's difficult to establish an exact figure of how many aircraft and aircrew were lost in the Battle of Britain. However, the most reliable estimates are that between 10 July and the end of October 1940, the RAF lost around 1,023 aircraft and 537 airmen killed, whilst the Luftwaffe lost 1,887 aircraft and 2,662 aircrew killed or missing.

To view a Luftwaffe uniform, please click here.

To view an RAF uniform, please click here.

To read the official RAF campaign diary click here.

To hear about the battle in the words of the RAF pilots click here.

To view German relics of the Battle of Britain, click here.

To view British relics of the Battle of Britain, click here.

To read about Cyril Bax (BEM), click here.

To read about the August 24th 1940 air raid on Ramsgate, click here.

To read about the British air defences, please click here.

To read about Operation Sealion, please click here.

To read about the Home Guard, click here.

To read about the preparations against invasion, please click here.

To return to the main museum menu, click here.

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