The year 2020 saw the 80th anniversary of one the most pivotal conflicts in British history, The Battle of Britain.
It takes its name from the speech given by Prime Minister Winston Churchill to the House of Commons on 18th June 1940 when he said:
“What General Weygand called the ‘Battle of France’ is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin”.
Put simply, the Battle of Britain was a military campaign of the Second World War, in which the Royal Air Force (RAF) defended the United Kingdom against large-scale attacks by Nazi Germany’s air force, the Luftwaffe but it was in truth an extremely complex affair with many moving parts and one which the eventual victors could easily have lost.
It has been described as the first major military campaign fought entirely by air forces. Officially the battle’s duration is recognised as being from 10th July 1940 until 31st October 1940, which overlaps the period of large-scale night attacks known as “The Blitz”, which itself lasted from September 1940 to May 1941.
The Germans rapidly overwhelmed France and the Low Countries in early 1940, leaving Britain to face the threat of invasion by sea. The German high command recognised the logistical difficulties of a seaborne attack and its impracticality while the Royal Navy controlled the English Channel and the North Sea.
However, on 16th July, Hitler ordered the preparation of Operation Sea Lion as a potential amphibious and airborne assault on Britain, once the Luftwaffe had air superiority over the Channel.
Following the onset of war in September 1939 and their lightening victories across northern Europe in the Spring of 1940, the primary objective of the German forces in that early summer, was to compel Britain to agree to a negotiated peace settlement.
Adolf Hitler had expected the British to seek a peace settlement after Germany’s defeat of France in June 1940, but Britain was determined to fight on and so Hitler explored military options that would bring the war to a quick end, ordering his armed forces to prepare for an invasion of Britain – codenamed Operation ‘Sealion’.
However, for the invasion to have any chance of success, the Germans needed to first secure control of the skies over southern England and remove the threat posed by the RAF. A sustained air assault on Britain would achieve the decisive victory needed to make ‘Sealion’ a possibility – or so the Germans thought.
The Battle of Britain was ultimately a test of strength therefore between the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) and the RAF which had become an independent branch of the British armed forces in 1918.
Although it had developed slowly in the years following the First World War, the RAF went through a period of rapid expansion in the latter half of the 1930s – largely in response to the growing threat from Nazi Germany and in July 1936, RAF Fighter Command was established under the leadership of Air Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding.
The British developed an air defence network which would later give them a critical advantage in the battle, which became known as The Dowding System – named after Fighter Command’s Commander-in-Chief – and brought together technology such as Radar, ground defences and fighter aircraft into a unified system of defence.
Alongside that, the RAF organised the defence of Britain into four geographical areas, called ‘Groups’, which were further divided into sectors. The main fighter airfield in each sector – the ‘Sector Station’ – was equipped with an operations room from which the fighters were directed into combat.
Radar gave early warning of Luftwaffe raids, which were also tracked by the Observer Corps. Information on incoming raids was passed to the Filter Room at Fighter Command Headquarters at Bentley Priory, and once the direction of the raid was clearly established, the information was sent to the relevant Group’s headquarters.
From there it was sent to the Sector Stations, which would ‘scramble’ fighters into action. The Sector Stations received updated information as it became available and further directed airborne fighters by radio. The operations rooms also directed other elements of the defence network, including anti-aircraft guns, searchlights and barrage balloons.
The Dowding System could process huge amounts of information in a short period of time and allowed Fighter Command to manage its valuable and relatively limited resources, making sure they were not wasted.
In July 1940, the air and sea blockade began with the Germans attacking coastal targets and British shipping operating in the English Channel with the Luftwaffe mainly targeting coastal-shipping convoys, ports and shipping centres, such as Portsmouth.
Then on 1st August, the Luftwaffe was directed to achieve air superiority over the RAF, with the aim of incapacitating RAF Fighter Command; 12 days later, it shifted the attacks to RAF airfields and infrastructure. But they launched their main offensive on 13th August.
Attacks moved inland, concentrating on airfields and communications centres. Fighter Command offered stiff resistance, despite coming under enormous pressure and during the last week of August and the first week of September, in what would be the critical phase of the battle, the Germans intensified their efforts to destroy Fighter Command.
Airfields, particularly those in the south-east, were significantly damaged but most remained operational. On 31st August, Fighter Command suffered its worst day of the entire battle but the Luftwaffe was overestimating the damage it was inflicting and wrongly came to the conclusion that the RAF was on its last legs. Fighter Command was bruised but not broken.
As the battle progressed, the Luftwaffe also targeted factories involved in aircraft production and strategic infrastructure. Eventually, it employed terror bombing on areas of political significance and on civilians.
On 7th September, the Germans shifted the weight of their attacks away from RAF targets and onto London, which would later prove to be an error of critical importance. The raids had devastating effects on London’s residents, but they also gave Britain’s defences time to recover. During September, RAF Bomber Command night raids also disrupted the German preparation of converted barges which had been drawn together ahead of a German invasion.
Then, on 15th September 1940 Fighter Command, outnumbered by almost 2 to 1, repelled another massive Luftwaffe assault, inflicting severe losses that were becoming increasingly unsustainable for the Germans.
Although fighting would continue for several more weeks, it had become clear that the Luftwaffe had failed to secure the air superiority needed for invasion and shortly after that fateful day, now known as “Battle of Britain Day”, Hitler indefinitely postponed Operation ‘Sealion’.
Nearly 3,000 men of the RAF took part in the Battle of Britain, who Winston Churchill called ‘The Few’. While most of the pilots were British, Fighter Command was an international force with men from all over the Commonwealth and occupied Europe – from New Zealand, Australia, Canada, South Africa, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Belgium, France, Poland and Czechoslovakia. There were even some pilots from the neutral United States and Ireland.
Two of the four Group Commanders, 11 Group’s Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park and 10 Group’s Air Vice-Marshal Sir Quintin Brand, came from New Zealand and South Africa respectively. The War Cabinet created two Polish fighter squadrons, Nos. 302 and 303, in the summer of 1940 and these were followed by other national units, including two Czech fighter squadrons.
Many of the RAF’s aces were men from the Commonwealth and the highest scoring pilot of the battle was Josef Frantisek, a Czech pilot flying with No. 303 (Polish) Fighter Squadron. No. 303 entered battle on 31st August, at the peak of the Battle of Britain, but quickly became Fighter Command’s highest claiming squadron with 126 kills
In should be recognised that many other people in addition to Churchill’s ‘Few’ worked to defend Britain during the battle too. Ground crew, including riggers, fitters, armourers, and repair and maintenance engineers, looked after the aircraft. Factory workers helped keep aircraft production up. The Observer Corps tracked incoming raids in fact, its tens of thousands of volunteers ensured that the 1,000 observation posts were continuously manned.
Anti-aircraft gunners, searchlight operators and barrage balloon crews all played vital roles in Britain’s defence. Members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) served as radar operators and worked as plotters, tracking raids in the group and sector operations rooms. The Local Defence Volunteers (later the Home Guard) had been set up in May 1940 as a ‘last line of defence’ against German invasion. By July, nearly 1.5 million men had enrolled.
The RAF’s internal organisation was also a significant factor. It was organised into different ‘Commands’ based on function or role, including Fighter, Bomber and Coastal Commands. While victory in the Battle of Britain was decisively gained by Fighter Command, defence was carried out by the whole of the Royal Air Force but Britain’s most senior military personnel understood the importance of the bomber in air defence.
They wrote on 25th May 1940, “We cannot resist invasion by fighter aircraft alone. An air striking force is necessary not only to meet the sea-borne expedition, but also to bring direct pressure to bear upon Germany by attacking objectives in that country”.
In other words, RAF Bomber Command would attack German industry, carry out raids on ports where Germany was assembling its invasion fleet, and reduce the threat posed by the Luftwaffe by targeting airfields and aircraft production.
RAF Coastal Command also had an important role. It carried out anti-invasion patrols, provided vital intelligence on German positions along the European coast and occasionally bombed German shipping and industrial targets.
Although Fighter Command suffered heavy losses and was often outnumbered during actual engagements, the British out-produced the Germans and maintained a level of aircraft production that helped them withstand their losses. The Luftwaffe by contrast, with its lack of heavy bombers and failure to fully identify critically important targets, never inflicted strategically significant damage and it suffered from constant supply problems, largely as a result of under-achievement in aircraft production.
Germany’s failure to defeat the RAF and secure control of the skies over southern England made invasion all but impossible. Whilst the British victory in the Battle of Britain was decisive, it was also ultimately defensive in nature and in avoiding defeat, Britain secured one of its most significant victories of the Second World War. It was able to stay in the war and lived to fight another day.
So why was the Battle of Britain important? Victory in the Battle of Britain did not win the war, but it made winning a possibility in the longer term. Four years later, the Allies would launch their invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe with Operation ‘Overlord’ from British shores, which would prove decisive in ultimately bringing the war against Germany to an end.
Historian Stephen Bungay cited Germany’s failure to destroy Britain’s air defences and thereby force an armistice (or even an outright surrender) as the first major German defeat in World War II and a crucial turning point in the conflict and during the battle the Luftwaffe was dealt an almost lethal blow from which it never fully recovered.
Our thanks to the Imperial War Museum for their help with much of the information for this article and to find out more, please visit their site at https://www.iwm.org.uk/