The Battle of Britain took place between August and September 1940. After the success of Blitzkrieg, the evacuation of Dunkirk and the surrender of France, Britain was by herself. The Battle of Britain remains one of the most famous battles of World War Two.
An original “Never was so much” poster
The Germans needed to control the English Channel to launch her invasion of Britain (which the Germans code-named Operation Sealion).
They needed this control of the Channel so that the British Navy would not be able to attack her invasion barges which were scheduled to land on the Kent and Sussex beaches.
To control the Channel the Germans needed control of the air. This meant that they had to take on Fighter Command, led by Sir Hugh Dowding, of the Royal Air Force.
The main fighter planes of the RAF were the Spitfire and the Hurricane.
The Germans relied primarily on their Messcherschmitt fighters and their Junkers dive bombers – the famed Stukas.
At the start of the war, Germany had 4,000 aircraft compared to Britain’s front-line strength of 1,660. By the time of the fall of France, the Luftwaffe (the German air force) had 3,000 planes based in north-west Europe alone including 1,400 bombers, 300 dive bombers, 800 single engine fighter planes and 240 twin engine fighter bombers. At the start of the battle, the Luftwaffe had 2,500 planes that were serviceable and in any normal day, the Luftwaffe could put up over 1,600 planes. The RAF had 1,200 planes on the eve of the battle which included 800 Spitfires and Hurricanes – but only 660 of these were serviceable. The rate of British plane production was good – the only weakness of the RAF was the fact that they lacked sufficient trained and experienced pilots. Trained pilots had been killed in the war in France and they had not been replaced.
Britain had a number of advantages over the Luftwaffe. Britain had RADAR which gave us early warning of the approach of the German planes. By the Spring of 1940, fifty-one radar bases had been built around the coast of southern Britain. We also had the Royal Observer Corps (ROC) which used such basics as binoculars to do the same job. By 1940, over 1000 ROC posts had been established. British fighter planes could spend more time in the air over Kent and Sussex as we could easily land for fuel whereas the German fighters could not. German bombers could fly for longer distances than their fighter planes could cover and therefore, the bombers could not always count on fighter cover for protection. The German fighters were also limited in that they could not reload their guns if they ran out of ammunition while over Kent etc. Our fighters could. Without sufficient fighter cover, the German bombers were very open to attack from British fighter planes.
The battle started on July 10th 1940 when the Luftwaffe attempted to gain control of the Straits of Dover. The aim of the Luftwaffe was to tempt the RAF out for a full-scale battle. By the end of July, the RAF had lost 150 aircraft while the Luftwaffe had lost 268. In August, the Luftwaffe started to attack Fighter Command’s airfields, operation rooms and radar stations – the idea being that the RAF could be destroyed on the ground so that the Luftwaffe need not fight them in the air. Without radar the RAF would be seriously hampered in terms of early warning and the destruction of operation rooms would cut off communications between fighter bases and those at the heart of the battle controlling the movement of fighter planes. Destroyed runways would hamper the chances of a fighter plane taking off.
Bad weather stopped the Luftwaffe from daily raids in August but August 15th is seen as a key date as nearly all the Stuka dive-bombers were destroyed by this date as they fell easy prey to the British fighter planes. Therefore, pin-point bombing of radar stations was all but impossible.
From August 23rd to September 6th, the Luftwaffe started night time bombing raids on cities. The RAF was also badly hit with 6 out of 7 main fighter bases in south-eastern England being put out of action. Biggen Hill was wrecked. However, for all this apparent success, the Luftwaffe was losing more planes than the RAF was – 1000 German losses to 550 RAF.
One event did greatly aid the British. The head of the Luftwaffe – Herman Goering – ordered an end to the raids on radar bases as he believed that they were too unimportant to matter. Albert Speer – a leading Nazi throughout the war – claimed in his book “Inside the Third Reich” that a number of important decisions were made based on Goering’s ignorance. As Goering did not understand the importance of something, it was dismissed as unnecessary for success. As a result of this, the radar station at Ventnor on the Isle of Wight functioned throughout the battle and gave Fighter Command vital information regarding German targets.
The change to bombing the cities also gave Fighter Command time to recover from its losses and for pilots to recover from the many hours a day they operated which took many to the brink of exhaustion.
On September 15th came the last major engagement of the battle. On that day, the Luftwaffe lost 60 planes while the RAF lost 28. On September 17th, Hitler postponed indefinitely the invasion of Britain though the night time raids – the Blitz – continued. London, Plymouth and Coventry were all badly hit by these raids.
Recent research indicates that Hitler’s heart was not in an attack on Britain but that he wanted to concentrate his country’s strength on an attack on communist Russia. However, no-one in Britain in the autumn of 1940 would have known about this and all indications from April 1940 onwards, were that Hitler did intend to invade Britain, especially after his boast to the German people – “he’s coming, he’s coming!”
In a continuation of the propaganda war, the British government claimed that the RAF had shot down 2,698 German planes. The actual figure was 1,100. The RAF lost 650 planes – not the 3,058 planes that the Luftwaffe claimed to have shot down – more than the entire RAF!
Why were the Germans defeated ?
| 1. The Germans fought too far away from their bases so that refueling and rearming were impossible. The German fighters had a very limited time which they could spend over Britain before their fuel got too low.
2. British fighters could land, refuel and rearm and be in the air again very quickly.
3. The change of targets was crucial. It is now believed that Fighter Command was perhaps only 24 hours away from defeat when the attack on the cities occurred. The breathing space this gave Fighter Command was crucial.
4. The Hurricane and Spitfire (above) were exceptional planes – capable of taking on the might of the Luftwaffe.
At the end of the battle, Winston Churchill said: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”