8 Things You Need To Know About The Battle Of
The Battle of Britain was a major air campaign fought over southern
England in the summer and autumn of 1940. Here are 8 things you need to
know about one of Britain’s most important victories of the Second World
1. Hitler wanted to invade
Britain in 1940
One of many German maps of the planned invasion of Britain.
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. Hitler explored military options that would bring
the war to a quick end and ordered his armed forces to prepare for an invasion
of Britain – codenamed Operation ‘Sealion’. But 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 Royal Air
Force (RAF). A sustained air assault on Britain would achieve the decisive
victory needed to make ‘Sealion’ a possibility – or so the Germans thought.
2. The Battle of Brtiain
saw the RAF take on the German Air Force
Luftwaffe Commander-in-Chief Hermann Göring with members of
the German armed forces, 1940.
The Battle of Britain was ultimately a test of strength
between the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) and the RAF. The RAF had become
an independent branch of the British armed forces in 1918. Although it
developed slowly in the years following the First World War, it went through
a period of rapid expansion in the latter half of the 1930s – largely in
response to the growing threat from Nazi Germany. In July 1936, RAF Fighter
Command was established under the leadership of Air Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding.
Germany had been banned from having an air force after the First World
War, but the Luftwaffe was re-established by the Nazi government and by
1940 it was the largest and most formidable air force in the world. It
had suffered heavy losses in the Battle of France, but by August the three
air fleets (Luftflotten) that would carry out the assault on Britain were
at full readiness. The RAF met this challenge with some of the best fighter
aircraft in the world – the Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire.
3. The British had developed
a highly effective air defence network
Group Headquarters, Uxbridge: radiolocation plotters, by Roland
The British developed an air defence network that
would give them a critical advantage in the Battle of Britain. The Dowding
System – named for Fighter Command’s Commander-in-Chief Sir Hugh Dowding
– brought together technology, ground defences and fighter aircraft into
a unified system of defence. 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. 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. It allowed Fighter Command to manage
its valuable – and relatively limited – resources, making sure they were
4. There were several
phases to the Battle of Britain
Contrails left by British and German aircraft after a dogfight during
the Battle of Britain, September 1940.
The Battle of Britain took place between July and
October 1940. The Germans began by attacking coastal targets and British
shipping operating in the English Channel. They launched their main offensive
on 13 August. Attacks moved inland, concentrating on airfields and communications
centres. Fighter Command offered stiff resistance, despite coming under
enormous pressure. 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 31 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. On 7 September, the Germans shifted the weight
of their attacks away from RAF targets and onto London. This would 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. On 15
September Fighter Command 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. Hitler indefinitely postponed Operation ‘Sealion’.
5. Not all of the pilots
Czech pilots of No. 310 Squadron at RAF Duxford in September 1940.
Nearly 3,000 men of the RAF took part in the Battle
of Britain – those who Winston Churchill called ‘The Few’. While most of
the pilots were British, Fighter Command was an international force. Men
came 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. 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 31 August, at the peak of the Battle of Britain, but quickly became
Fighter Command’s highest claiming squadron with 126 kills.
6. 'The Few' were supported
Anti-Aircraft Defences, 1940, by C R W Nevinson.
Many people in addition to Churchill’s ‘Few’ worked
to defend Britain. 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 – 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.
7. All of the RAF helped
Whitley bomber crews attend a briefing before a raid over Germany,
29 August 1940.
The RAF 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. Britain’s
most senior military personnel understood the importance of the bomber
in air defence. They wrote on 25 May: ‘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.
8. The Battle of Britain
was a defensive victory for Britain
Spitfire pilots pose beside the wreckage of a Junkers Ju 87 Stuka,
During the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe was dealt
an almost lethal blow from which it never fully recovered. Although Fighter
Command suffered heavy losses and was often outnumbered during actual engagements,
the British outproduced the Germans and maintained a level of aircraft
production that helped them withstand their losses. The Luftwaffe, with
its lack of heavy bombers and failure to fully identify critically important
targets, never inflicted strategically significant damage. It suffered
from constant supply problems, largely as a result of underachievement
in aircraft production. Germany’s failure to defeat the RAF and secure
control of the skies over southern England made invasion all but impossible.
British victory in the Battle of Britain was decisive, but ultimately defensive
in nature – 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. 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 – Operation
‘Overlord’ – from British shores, which would prove decisive in ultimately
bringing the war against Germany to an end.