Battle of Britain
A major campaign of World War II, the Battle of Britain is the name for the attempt by Germany's Luftwaffe (air force) to gain air superiority of British airspace and destroy the Royal Air Force (RAF). Neither Hitler nor the German Wehrmacht perceived it possible to carry out a successful amphibious assault on the British Isles until the RAF had been knocked out. Secondary objectives were to destroy aircraft production and to terrorize the British people with the intent of intimidating them into seeking an armistice or surrender. The campaign was launched as preparation for a planned invasion of Great Britain called Operation Sea Lion.
British historians state the battle ran from July 10 to October 31, 1940, which was the most intense period of daylight air raiding. However, German sources begin the battle in mid-August 1940 and end it in May 1941, on the withdrawal of the bomber units in preparation for Operation Barbarossa, the attack on Russia.
The Battle of Britain was the first major battle to be fought entirely in the air. It was the largest and most sustained bombing campaign, yet attempted and the first real test of the strategic bombing theories that had emerged since the previous World War. Without winning this battle in the skies about the island nation, the British would have lost to Germany. Its democracy, and that of the whole of Europe, would have been replaced by Nazi domination, and many freedoms lost. “Never was so much owed by so many to so few,” Winston Churchill said, summing up his countries debt to the men and women of the Royal Air Force.
The battle was won both by the skill of the pilots in the air and by the engineering effectiveness of those who designed and built the aircraft and the eventual superiority of the British machines was a blow to the German claim to be technologically superior. It is generally recognized that the RAF was inferior at the time, “both in technology and in number.” During this dark hour of the nation's history, its people derived a sense of pride and purpose from the somewhat romantic reporting of heroics in the air and from their Prime Minister's inspirational speeches. “Together,” writes Hough, the men and women of the RAF during the months July to October 1940 “enabled Britain to escape the devastating clash of armies and the horrors of Nazi occupation." The United States may not have sided with Britain, despite its President's personal friendship with Winston Churchill, if this battle been lost. It was therefore a decisive turning point in World War II.
Following the British evacuation from Dunkirk and the French surrender in June 1940, the Germans were uncertain what to do next. Hitler believed the war was over and that the British, defeated on the continent, would come to terms soon. However, he was to be frustrated by British intransigence. Though there was a strand of public and political sentiment that favored a negotiated peace with Germany, Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, refused to countenance an armistice with the Nazis. His skillful use of rhetoric hardened public opinion against a peaceful resolution and prepared the British for a long war. In a speech to the House of Commons on June 18, 1940 he stated:
What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin.
The UK's rejection of German terms was emphatic. In an effort to finish the war in the West, Hitler ordered preparation of an invasion plan on July 16. He hoped to frighten the UK into peace before the invasion was launched and used the invasion preparations as a means to apply pressure. The plan was prepared by the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (Armed Forces High Command). The operation, code-named Operation Sealion (Seelöwe), was planned for mid-September 1940 and called for landings on Great Britain's south coast, backed by an airborne assault. All preparations were to be made by mid-August.
Sealion was a deeply flawed plan, suffering from a lack of resources—particularly sea transport—and disagreements between the German Navy and Army. With the threatening bulk of the (British) Royal Navy within a day's steaming of the English Channel, it seems unlikely in hindsight that the plan could ever have worked. All the German services agreed on one thing: the plan would not work unless the Luftwaffe (German air force) could win air superiority over the RAF. With control of the air, the Royal Navy could be beaten off and the British defenses pummeled into submission.
The first task at hand was therefore to win air superiority by destroying the RAF as a fighting force. A plan was hatched to attack RAF airfields and aircraft production centers. The Luftwaffe commander, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring (1893-1946), called his plans Adlerangriff (Eagle Attack), which would begin on August 11, or Adlertag (Eagle Day), with an all-out attack.
Before the start of Adlertag, there was a month of attacks on convoys in the English Channel. This period of fighting was called Kanalkampf (Channel Battle) by the Germans and was used as an opportunity to test the RAF's defenses and lure their fighter aircraft up to fight. The RAF dates the beginning of the battle from the first convoy attacks on July 10, 1940.
German strategy was influenced by pre-war theories on strategic bombing, such as those espoused by Giulio Douhet. This stressed the air assault, the weakness of air defense, and the effects of terror bombing on public morale. After the Spanish Civil War the emphasis of German air operations had shifted toward a more tactical force. In Poland and France, the Luftwaffe had operated jointly with the Army, creating the Blitzkrieg or "lightning war." However, in the Battle of Britain the Luftwaffe had to operate alone, not as support for an advancing Army but as a decisive weapon in its own right. There remained a strong belief in the power of strategic bombing and the battle was seen by Göring as an opportunity to prove what his air force could do.
The Luftwaffe regrouped after the Battle of France into three Luftflotten (Air Fleets) on the UK's southern and northern flanks. Luftflotte 2, commanded by Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, was responsible for the bombing of southeast England and the London area. Luftflotte 3, commanded by Generalfeldmarschall Hugo Sperrle, was responsible for the West Country, Midlands and northwest England. Luftflotte 5, commanded by Generaloberst Hans-Jürgen Stumpff from his headquarters in Norway, had responsibility for the north of England and Scotland. As the battle progressed, command responsibility shifted, with Luftflotte 3 taking more responsibility for the night Blitz while the main attack fell upon Luftflotte 2's shoulders. Late in the battle, an Italian expeditionary force, the Corpo Aereo Italiano, briefly joined the fighting.
Initial Luftwaffe estimates of the duration of the campaign was for four days to defeat the RAF's Fighter Command in southern England, followed by four weeks in which bombers and long-range fighters would mop up the rest of the country and destroy the UK's aircraft industry. The plan was to begin attacks on airfields near to the coast, gradually rolling subsequent attacks inland toward London and the ring of Sector airfields defending it.
Broadly, the Luftwaffe kept to this scheme, but its commanders had differences of opinion on strategy. The commander of Luftflotte 3, Hugo Sperrle, wanted to eradicate the air defense infrastructure by bombing. His counterpart in Luftflotte 2, Albert Kesselring, demanded to attack London directly—either to bombard the British government into submission or draw RAF fighters up into a decisive battle. Göring did nothing to clarify strategy between his commanders, obsessed as he was with maintaining his own powerbase in the Luftwaffe and indulging his outdated beliefs on air fighting, which were later to lead to tactical and strategic errors.
The Luftwaffe was ill served by their lack of intelligence on the British defenses. The German intelligence services were fractured, driven by rivalries, and their overall performance was incompetent. By 1940 there were few or no German agents operating in the UK and a handful of bungled attempts to insert spies into the country were foiled. This meant that the Luftwaffe had almost no recent knowledge of the workings of the RAF's air defenses: in particular of the crucial command and control system that had been built before the war. Even when good information existed, such as 5th Abteilung's November 1939 assessment of Fighter Command strengths and capabilities, it was ignored if it did not match perceived wisdom.
For much of the battle the Luftwaffe operated 'blind', unaware of their enemy's true strengths, capabilities and deployments. Many times the leadership believed Fighter Command strength had collapsed, while raids against supposed fighter airfields fell instead on bomber or coastal defense installations. The results of bombing and air fighting were exaggerated, resulting in a Luftwaffe leadership that became increasingly disconnected from reality. This lack of leadership and solid intelligence meant that the Germans did not adopt any consistent strategy, even when the RAF had its back to the wall.
The Dowding System
The Battle of Britain campaign made the eight-gun monoplane fighters of the RAF—the Supermarine Spitfire and Hawker Hurricane—into legends. However, the keystone of the British defense was the complex machinery of detection, command and control that ran the battle. This was known as the 'Dowding System' after its chief architect: Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding (later 1st Baron Dowding) (1882-1970), the leader of RAF Fighter Command. This anticipated raids, often using accurate intelligence and used radio to coordinate pilots in the air. A grid system of bases up-and-down the country protected major cities. Dowding's strategic decision to keep squadron's in the North, too, “was brilliantly vindicated when the Luftwaffe struck there on 15 August.”
The UK's airspace was divided up into four groups.
- No. 10 Group RAF defended Wales and the West Country and was commanded by Air Vice-Marshal Sir Christopher Quintin Brand.
- No. 11 Group RAF covered the southeast of England and the critical approaches to London and was commanded by Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park.
- No. 12 Group RAF defended the Midlands and East Anglia and was led by Air Vice-Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory.
- No. 13 Group RAF covered the north of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland and was commanded by Air Vice-Marshal Richard Saul.
At the headquarters of each group (e.g. for 11 Group RAF Uxbridge) information from Fighter Command headquarters would be noted on plotting tables, large maps on which counters marking the incoming raids would be moved, and RAF officers known as fighter controllers could then order a response.
The Group areas were subdivided into Sectors, each commanding between two and four squadrons. Sector stations, comprising an aerodrome with a command post, were the heart of this organization, though they also had satellite airfields to disperse squadrons to. When ordered by their Group HQ, the sector stations would 'scramble' their squadrons into the air. Once airborne, the squadrons would be commanded by radio-telephone (R/T) from their sector station. Squadrons could be ordered to patrol airfields or vital targets, or be 'vectored' to intercept incoming raids.
Though it was the most sophisticated air defense system in the world at that time, the Dowding System had many limitations. The RDF radar was subject to significant errors and the Royal Observer Corps had difficulties tracking raids at night and in bad weather. R/T communications with airborne fighters were restricted because of the RAF's use of High-Frequency (HF) radio sets. HF radio was limited in range and even with a network of relay stations the squadrons could not roam more than one or two sectors from their airfield. It was also restricted to a single frequency per squadron, making it impossible to communicate between squadrons. Finally, the system for tracking RAF fighters, known as HF/DF or "Huff-Duff", restricted sectors to a maximum of four squadrons in the air.
In spite of this RAF Fighter Command was able to achieve high levels of efficiency, at times achieving interception rates greater than 80 percent. The R/T problems were solved late in the battle with the adoption of Very High-Frequency (VHF) radio sets that gave clearer voice communications, had longer range and provided multiple channels. For all its faults the RAF had a system of ground control that allowed its fighters to be where they were needed. The Luftwaffe, with no such system, was always at a disadvantage.
Effect of Signals Intelligence
It is unclear how much the British intercepts of the Enigma cipher, used for high-security German radio communications, affected the battle. Ultra, the information obtained from Enigma intercepts, gave the highest echelons of the UK's command a view of German intentions but it seems that little of this material filtered down to Hugh Dowding's desk. However, the 'Y' radio listening service, monitoring the patterns of Luftwaffe radio traffic, contributed considerably to the early warning of raids.
Battle of the beams
However, while the British were using radar more effectively than the Germans realized for air defense, the Luftwaffe had their own electronic means to increase their air attacks' effectiveness. One of the systems was called Knickebein ("crooked leg"), a system where carefully positioned radio transmitters in friendly territory broadcast specially targeted navigational beams that intersected over specific bombing targets in enemy territory. Bombers specially equipped with technology to detect these beams could be guided towards a target and receive a special signal to drop their bombs when they were (roughly) overhead. This allowed for somewhat more accurate bombing at night, when British air defense was at its weakest.
Although British intelligence had heard of proposals for this system, its actual existence was not taken seriously until a British science adviser to MI6 (British security/secret service agency), Reginald Victor Jones, gathered evidence of its existence and its threat. He then managed to convince high command of the menace and confirmed it with special reconnaissance flights. Jones was then put in charge of developing countermeasures that often involved interfering with the beams to make attacking aircraft go widely off course. Although the Germans resorted to other navigational systems, Jones and the Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE) were able to neutralize each in turn. The result was markedly reduced precision bombing effectiveness for the Germans.
The Luftwaffe varied its tactics considerably to try to find a way through the RAF defenses. It launched many free-roving fighter sweeps, known as Freie Jagd or "Free Hunts" to try to draw up RAF fighters. However, the RAF fighter controllers were often able to detect the free hunts and maneuver squadrons around them. The Luftwaffe also tried using small formations of bombers as bait, covering them with large numbers of escorts. This was more successful, but escort duty tied the fighters to the bombers' slow speed and made them more vulnerable. Casualties were greatest amongst the escort units.
Standard tactics for raids soon became an amalgam of techniques. A free hunt would precede a raid to try to sweep any defenders out of the raid's path. The bombers would penetrate at altitudes between 10,000 and 16,000 feet, sometimes closely escorted by fighters. A 'detached' escort, or 'top cover' would fly above the bombers and maintain a distant watch.
Luftwaffe tactics were influenced by their fighters, which were divided into single-engine Messerschmitt Bf 109 and twin-engine Messerschmitt Bf 110 types. The Me 110 Zerstörer (“Destroyer” fighters) soon proved to be too vulnerable to the nimble single-engine RAF fighters. Soon, they had to be given escorts of their own and were eventually restricted in their employment. This meant that the bulk of fighter duties fell on the Me 109. Fighter tactics were then complicated by the Luftwaffe bomber crews, who demanded more close protection against the RAF. They had the ear of Göring, who, after the hard-fought battles of August 15 and August 18, was only too pleased to order an increase in close escort duties. This shackled many more Me 109s to the bombers and though they were more successful at protecting the bombing forces, casualties amongst the fighters mounted.
The weight of the battle fell upon the RAF's 11 Group. Keith Park's tactics were to dispatch individual squadrons to intercept raids. The intention was to subject attackers to continual attacks by relatively small numbers of aircraft and try to break up the tight formations of bombers. Once formations had fallen apart, straggling bombers could be picked off one by one. Where multiple squadrons reached a raid the procedure was for the slower Hurricanes to tackle the bombers while the more agile Spitfires held up the fighter escort. However, this ideal was not always achieved and sometimes the Spitfires and Hurricanes reversed roles.
In the early phases of the battle the RAF was hamstrung by its reliance on obsolete fighting drills. These restricted their squadrons to tight formations of three aircraft (or 'vics') and by-the-book attacks. The German pilots dubbed the vics "Idiotenreihen" ("rows of idiots") because they left squadrons vulnerable to attack. They employed the looser and more flexible four-ship 'finger four' developed in the Spanish Civil War. Eventually RAF pilots began to adopt the German formation with some success.
The fact that 'sweeps' by German fighters not escorting bombers were often ignored by fighter command seems to reinforce the idea that Dowding sought always to preserve his fighter force to fight another day.
During the battle, some commanders, notably Trafford Leigh-Mallory of 12 Group, proposed that squadrons should be formed into Big Wings, consisting of at least three squadrons, to attack the enemy en masse, a method pioneered by the legless pilot Douglas Bader. Proponents of this tactic claimed that interceptions in large numbers caused greater enemy losses while reducing their own casualties. Opponents pointed out that the big wings would take too long to form up, and that the strategy ran a greater risk of fighters being caught on the ground refueling. The big wing idea also caused pilots to over-claim their kills, due to the confusion of a more intense battle-zone. This led to the media belief that the big wings were far more effective than they actually were.
The issue caused intense friction between Park and Leigh-Mallory, as Leigh-Mallory's 12 Group were tasked with protecting 11 Group's airfields whilst Park's squadrons intercepted incoming raids. However, the delay in forming up Big Wings meant that this air cover often did not arrive until after German bombers had hit 11 Group's airfields. Post-war analysis agrees that Dowding and Park's approach was best for 11 Group. However, the controversy affected Park's career after the battle and contributed to Dowding's eventual dismissal from Fighter Command.
Phases of the Battle
The Battle can be roughly divided into four phases:
- July 10 – August 11: Kanalkampf, the Channel battles.
- August 12 – August 23: Adlerangriff, the early assault against the coastal airfields.
- August 24 – September 6: the Luftwaffe targets the airfields; the critical phase of the battle.
- September 7 onwards: the day attacks switch to London.
The Kanalkampf comprised a series of running fights above convoys of freighter vessels running through the English Channel. In general, these battles off the coast tended to favour the Germans whose bomber escorts massively outnumbered the convoy patrols. Eventually the number of ship-sinkings became so great that the British Admiralty cancelled all further convoys through the Channel. However, these early fights provided both sides with experience. They also gave the first indications that some of the aircraft, such as the RAF's Defiant turret-fighter and the Luftwaffe's Me 110, were not up to the intense dog fighting that would characterize the battle.
The weather, which was to prove an important feature of the campaign, delayed Adlertag until August 13. But on August 12 the first attempt was made to blind the Dowding system when aircraft from the specialist fighter-bomber unit Erprobungsgruppe 210 attacked four radar stations. Three stations were briefly taken off the air but were back working within six hours. The raids appeared to show that the British radars were difficult to knock out for any length of time. The Luftwaffe's failure to mount repeated attacks on them allowed the RAF to get the radar stations back on the air. On August 14, Göring estimated it would take only 14 days to “clear the way for invasion.”
Adlertag opened with a series of attacks on coastal airfields, used as forward landing grounds for the RAF fighters. As the week drew on, the airfield attacks moved further inland and repeated raids were made on the radar chain. August 15 saw "The Greatest Day" when the Luftwaffe mounted the largest number of sorties of the campaign. This day saw the one major intervention by Luftflotte 5 in the battle with an attack on the north of England. Believing the strength of Fighter Command to be concentrated away in the south, raiding forces from Denmark and Norway ran into strong resistance. Inadequately escorted by long-ranged Me 110 Zerstörers, the bombers were shot down in large numbers. As a result of the casualties, Luftflotte 5 would not appear in strength again in the campaign.
August 18, which saw the greatest number of casualties to both sides, has been dubbed "The Hardest Day". Following the grinding battles of the 18th, exhaustion and the weather reduced operations for most of a week, allowing the Luftwaffe to review their performance. The "Hardest Day" had sounded the end for the Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive-bomber in the campaign. This veteran of the Blitzkrieg was simply too vulnerable to fighter attack over Great Britain and to preserve the Stuka force, Göring withdrew it from the fighting. This removed the Luftwaffe's main precision-bombing weapon and shifted the burden of pinpoint attacks on the already stretched Erprobungsgruppe 210. But Göring was not finished: the Me 110 Zerstörer had proven itself too fragile for dog fighting with single-engine fighters and its participation would also be scaled back. It would only be used when range required it or when sufficient single-engine escort could be provided.
Göring made yet another fateful decision: to order more bomber escorts at the expense of free-hunting sweeps. To achieve this the weight of the attack now fell on Luftflotte 2 and most of the Me 109 forces in Luftflotte 3 were transferred to Kesselring's command, reinforcing the fighter bases in the Pas de Calais. Stripped of its fighters, Luftflotte 3 would concentrate on the night bombing campaign.
Finally, Göring ordered the attacks on the radar chain stopped. The attacks were seen as unsuccessful and neither the technically inept Reichsmarschall nor his subordinates realized how vital the Chain Home stations were to the defense. It was known that radar provided some early warning of raids, but the belief amongst fighter pilots was that anything that brought up the 'Tommies' to fight was to be encouraged.
Luftwaffe targets RAF airfields
From August 24 onwards, the battle was essentially a slugging match between Kesselring's Luftflotte 2 and Keith Park's 11 Group. The Luftwaffe concentrated all their strength on knocking out Fighter Command and made repeated attacks on the airfields. Of the 33 heavy attacks in the next two weeks, 24 were against airfields. The key sector stations were hit repeatedly: RAF Biggin Hill and Hornchurch Airfield four times each, RAF Debden and North Weald twice each. Croydon, Gravesend, Rochford, Hawkinge and Manston Airport were also attacked in strength. No less than seven attempts were made against Eastchurch, which was not a Fighter Command aerodrome but was believed to be by the intelligence-starved Germans. At times these raids knocked out the sector stations, threatening the integrity of the Dowding system. Emergency measures had to be taken to keep the sectors operating.
These were desperate times for the RAF, which was also taking many casualties in the air. Aircraft production could replace aircraft but replacement pilots were barely keeping place with losses, and novice flyers were being shot down in droves. Most replacements had as little as nine hours flying time and no combat training. The Luftwaffe referred to these pilots as "cannon fodder." At this point, the multinational nature of the RAF came to the fore. With many pilots from the Dominions already serving in Fighter Command —Australians, South Africans, New Zealanders and Canadians—they were bolstered by the arrival of fresh Czechoslovakian and Polish squadrons. In addition there were other nationals, including Free French and Belgian pilots serving amongst the squadrons.
The RAF at least had the advantage of fighting over home territory. Pilots who bailed out of their shot-down aircraft could be back at their airfields within hours. For Luftwaffe aircrews, a bail out over England meant capture, while parachuting into the English Channel often meant drowning or death from exposure. Morale began to suffer and kanalkrankheit or 'Channel Sickness'—a form of combat fatigue—began to appear amongst the German pilots. The replacement problem was even worse than the British. Though the Luftwaffe always maintained its numerical superiority, the slow appearance of replacement aircraft and pilots put increasing strain on the resources of the remaining attackers.
And yet, the Luftwaffe was winning this battle of the airfields. Another fortnight of this pounding and the RAF might have been forced to withdraw their squadrons from the south of England. This was not clear to the Luftwaffe command, which had watched its bomber force start to waste away and had grown desperate to deliver on the original timetable. They could not understand why the RAF hadn't yet collapsed, or how they were always able to get fighters to the place they were needed, no matter how many raids were sent. Something needed to be done to force the RAF into a decisive battle.
On September 4, Hitler ordered to bomb London, following RAF raids on Berlin on the night of August 25–August 26, itself a reprisal after London was bombed by accident. The Berlin raid had hurt Göring's pride, as he had previously claimed the British would never be allowed to bomb the city. Kesselring seized his chance and proposed a strategy change. In the face of Sperrle's arguments that attacks on the airfields should continue, Kesselring persuaded the Reichsmarschall to attack London. The raids would either panic the British population into submission, or it would force the "last fifty Spitfires" into the sky where they could be annihilated. This attack was no longer seen as a prerequisite for Seelöwe, but was meant to be decisive in itself.
Raids on London
On September 7, the first London raid was launched, attacking docks in the East End of the city. Over the coming days massive raids were launched again and again: some targeting the docks but others bombing indiscriminately. The RAF did come up, but in greater numbers than the Luftwaffe expected. The 12 Group Big Wing was deployed for the first time, giving the German pilots a fright. Over the coming days the attacks on London continued. The break from bombing the airfields gave the RAF critical breathing space. It was the turning point in the battle.
Without a doubt, the most damaging aspect of the switch to London was the longer range. The Me 109 escorts had a limited fuel capacity, and by the time they arrived over the city, they had only ten minutes of flying time before they had to turn for home. This left many raids completely undefended by fighter escorts.
Both sides in the battle made exaggerated claims of numbers of enemy aircraft shot down. In general claims were two to three times the actual numbers, due to confusion in the whirling air battles. However, post-war analysis of records has shown that between July and September the RAF lost 1,023 fighter aircraft to all causes, while the Luftwaffe losses stood at 1,887, of which 873 were fighters. Polish pilots scored 201 out of that number. To the RAF figure should be added an additional 376 Bomber Command and 148 Coastal Command aircraft that conducted vital bombing, mining and reconnaissance operations in defense of the country.
Overall the Battle of Britain was a significant British victory. Though the battle was small in terms of combatants and casualties, had the Germans triumphed the war would have taken a very different path. The British victory marked the first failure of Hitler's war machine. It also signaled a shift in American opinion at a time when many Americans believed that the UK could not survive, a view perpetrated by Joseph Kennedy, the U.S. ambassador in London (father of John F Kennedy).
Modern military historians have suggested the battle was not winnable for the Luftwaffe. Their numerical majority was not sufficient to achieve superiority. Dowding's and Park's strategy of choosing when to engage the enemy whilst maintaining a coherent force was totally vindicated.
The theories of strategic bombing, which hinged on the collapse of public morale, were undone by British defiance in the face of the day and night blitzes. The switch to a terror bombing strategy allowed the RAF to recuperate and to defend against the attacks. Even if the attacks on the 11 Group airfields had continued, the British could have afforded to withdraw to the Midlands—out of German fighter range—and continued the battle from there. Post-war records show that British aircraft were being replaced faster than those of the Germans; the RAF maintained its strength even as the Luftwaffe's declined. In terms of losses of aircraft and experienced aircrews, the battle was a blow from which the Luftwaffe never fully recovered.
The terror strategy in itself could not force the British to surrender. Even though the Germans launched some spectacular attacks against important British industries, they could not destroy the British industrial potential. But hindsight does not disguise the fact that the threat to the RAF was very real and for the participants it seemed as if there was a "Narrow Margin" between victory and defeat. The victory was as much psychological as physical. It turned a tide of defeats and heartened the enemies of Nazism. Many of the heroes, too, were the ordinary women and men who, as Angus Calder put it, “The front line troops were doctors, parsons and telephonists ... where the bombs fell, heroes would spring up by accident.”
The British triumph in the Battle of Britain was not without heavy cost. Total British civilian losses from July to December 1940 were 23,002 dead and 32,138 wounded, with one of the largest single raids occurring on December 29, 1940, in which almost 3,000 civilians died. Hough attributes the victory as much to “the superiority of Dowding as a commander-in-chief,” compared with “the increasingly self-indulgent and remote” German commander, as to any factors. In his “complete and dedicated professionalism, as in his quiet tastes and demeanor,” Dowding was the “antithesis of Goering.” Göring was a largely absentee commander. Overconfident, on one occasion (respondent in his own medals) he told his officer that the RAF only had 50 spitfires left.
Winston Churchill summed up the effect of the battle and the contribution of the RAF in the immortal words: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few" (speech to the House of Commons on August 20, 1940). Pilots who fought in the battle have been known as The Few ever since.
September 15 is celebrated in the United Kingdom as ‘Battle of Britain Day,’ marking the climactic battles above London in daylight.
In British military tradition, the Battle of Britain is remembered with at least as much pride as Waterloo and Agincourt. In addition, the battle has entered popular legend around the world as an inspiring story of how a small island, standing alone against Nazi tyranny, managed to defeat a powerful enemy.
Most importantly, the end of the Battle of Britain allowed the UK to rebuild its military forces and establish itself as an Allies stronghold. Great Britain later served as a base from which Operation Overlord, or the Battle of Normandy, was launched against Nazi forces in Europe.
From the very beginning of the war, the Royal Air Force accepted foreign pilots to supplement the dwindling pool of British pilots. The Royal Air Force recognizes 595 non-British pilots (out of 2,936) as flying at least one authorized operational sortie with an eligible unit of the RAF or Fleet Air Arm between 10 July and 31 October 1940. These included 145 Poles, 127 New Zealanders, 112 Canadians, 88 Czechoslovaks, 10 Irish, 32 Australians, 28 Belgians, 25 South Africans, 13 French, 7 Americans, 3 Southern Rhodesians and one from Jamaica.
On June 11, 1940, the Polish Government in Exile signed an agreement with the British Government to form a Polish Army in Great Britain and, specifically, a Polish Air Force in Great Britain. The first two (of an eventual ten) Polish fighter squadrons went into action in August 1940. In total four Polish squadrons took part in the battle (Polish 300 and 301 Bomber Squadrons; Polish 302 Fighter Squadron and Polish 303 Fighter Squadron) with 89 Polish pilots. Together with more than 50 Poles fighting in British squadrons, a total of 145 Polish pilots defended the British sky. Polish pilots were among the most experienced in the battle, most of them having already fought in the September Campaign in Poland and the Battle of France. One must also point out the very high level of pilot training in the pre-war Poland. 303 Squadron, named after the Polish-American hero General Tadeusz Kosciuszko, achieved the highest number of kills (126) of all the fighter squadrons engaged in the Battle of Britain, even though it only joined the combat on August 30. To put things in perspective, 5 percent of pilots were responsible for 12 percent of the total scores of the Battle.
There was also a significant input of Czech pilots in the Battle of Britain. Two Czech fighter squadrons, 310 and 312, took part in the battle. Together with Czech pilots serving in other allied units, a total of 87 Czechs defended the British sky. One of them, Josef Frantisek, flying with 303 Polish Squadron, was the most efficient allied ace of the Battle of Britain, with 17 confirmed kills.
Among the Irish pilots who flew in the battle was Brendan "Paddy" Finucane, an air ace who went on to down a total of 32 enemy aircraft before being shot down and killed in 1942. He become operational in July of 1940 and shot down his first Bf 109 on the 12th of August, getting a second Bf 109 the following day. In a 51-day period in 1941, he shot down 17 Me 109 fighters while flying with an Australian squadron. "Paddy" Finucane went on to become the youngest ever wing commander in the RAF, an appointment he received at the age of 21. Despite his early death, his score remains the second highest of the "home nation" RAF aces.
The RAF recognizes 7 Americans as having taken part in the Battle of Britain. Three squadrons of United States volunteers, known as Eagle squadrons, also fought with the RAF in this period, although the first became operational in February 1941, after the main daylight battles.
In terms of military strategy, the system of 'fighter control' developed by Dowding, an integrated grid of radar, raid plotting and radio control of aircraft, has become standard tactics. The immediate result of the battle was that it prevented the naval invasion of Britain and enabled the Allies, after the United States entered the war, to prepare for and launch the 'D-Day' landings in France. The technological consequences are also significant. Britain, where the Industrial revolution had started, achieved in its Spitfire and Hurricane a remarkable engineering success that surprised many, since Germany was widely thought to be technologically superior. Yet, after World War II, Britain ceased to be the major world power that it had been, yielding its place to the USA.
Sometimes referred to as Britain's 'finest hour,' the Battle can also be regarded as marking the nation's final hours as arguable the world's major power at the time. Having successfully staved off the possibility of a sea-invasion, Britain did not have the resources to defeat Germany without aid and it was the USA that would both provide that aid and assume the role of major world power.
- Chris Goss, The Luftwaffe Fighters' Battle of Britain: The Inside Story: July-October 1940 (Manchester, UK: Crecy Publishing, 2001, ISBN 0947554815).
- Richard Hough, The Battle of Britain: The Greatest Air Battle of World War II (New York: W. W. Norton, 2005, ISBN 0393307344).
- RAF Battle of Britain - Roll of Honour Retrieved December 1, 2014.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Addison, Paul and Jeremy A. Crang. The Burning Blue, London: Pimlico, 2000. ISBN 0712664750
- Bekker, Cajus. The Luftwaffe War Diaries. Translated and edited by Frank Ziegler. New York: Doubleday. De Capo reprint edition, 1994. ISBN 0306806045
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All links retrieved September 20, 2023.
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