Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:53 am
15 September is Battle of Britain Day. It commemorates the legendary air battle that took place in Britain’s skies, mainly – though not exclusively – over southern England, during the long hot summer and early autumn of 1940. The conflict has achieved near mythical status in British history. With the fall of France in June, Europe was dominated by Germany’s depraved Nazi bully-boys and their lickspittle Italian fascist chums, whilst odious Stalin’s USSR had free rein in eastern Poland and the Baltic states. Britain’s forces had been forced to retreat from Belgium and France, rescuing what they could from the beaches of Dunkirk. However valiant and miraculous this achievement was, it was still a defeat. Now, with its army depleted and weak in materiel, Britain stood alone for freedom against the dictators. Some misguided souls talked of reaching a deal with Nazi Germany but, when it became clear that the United Kingdom intended to carry on the fight, Hitler planned to invade and sort the troublesome Brits out. The invasion, codenamed Operation Sea Lion, envisaged 125,000 troops landing in southern England by September. The success of the land assault depended on German air superiority in order to mitigate the threat posed by the Royal Navy and in order to support ground forces in Blitzkrieg – lightening war. So it was essential that the Royal Air Force be neutralised. But, outnumbered by at least 4:1, the RAF’s glamorous, gallant, pilots, flying the iconic Spitfire and Hurricane fighter aircraft, narrowly knocked the nasty Nazis out of the sky, thereby saving Britain and, probably, the Free World. Afterwards, Prime Minister Churchill ensured immortal memory for the heroic RAF flyers by declaring:
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
Aside from the irresistible observation that ‘sea lion’ seems far too cuddly and inappropriate a label for violent invasion, Britain in 1940 was not the bumbling amateur it so often pretends to be; and, of course, the full story of the Battle of Britain is far more complex, and darker, than its simplified legend suggests.
There is a remarkable monument to the Battle of Britain on London’s Victoria Embankment, between Westminster Bridge and the RAF Memorial. It was unveiled by Prince Charles as recently as 2005, cost £1.65 million and was funded entirely by public subscription. Among the donors was the Czech Republic – but not, apparently, the British Government. The monument is large – more than 80 feet (25 metres) long – and was the brainchild of the late Bill Bond MBE, founder of the Battle of Britain Historical Society. Unlike many other memorials, the Battle of Britain Monument is curiously tactile and lifelike, as well as being quite beautiful. Naturally, it primarily honours ‘the Few’, the RAF pilots who really were outnumbered and who really did save Britain in 1940. At its centre is a near life-size sculpture depicting these airmen scrambling – running to their aircraft in order to intercept the enemy. The figures are in motion, leaping out of the structure, intent only on reaching their cockpits and getting airborne as soon as possible. Around the monument are the names of the Few – actually 2,936 airmen from fifteen nations who took part in the battle on the Allied side. But the monument also starts to tell a bigger story, because its panels recognise some of the other participants and contributors to the Battle of Britain and ultimate victory – members of the Royal Observer Corps, who spotted enemy aircraft and fed details of numbers, height and so forth back to Fighter Command, the ground staff who kept the aircraft maintained, sometimes in dangerous conditions, technical staff, radar operators, munitions workers, civilians under attack. They were all heroes too – as were those whose leadership, vision and technical ingenuity helped ensure that the German air force, the Luftwaffe, failed.
It is a myth that Britain was wholly unprepared for war. In fact, the groundwork for one of the decisive factors in Germany’s failure to invade was laid during the 1930s. This was RAF Fighter Command’s integrated command and control system, which was the best in the world and later known as ‘the Dowding System’ after the Head of Fighter Command from 1936, Air Chief Marshal Hugh Caswall Tremenheere ‘Stuffy’ Dowding. Dowding determined the flow of information from Britain’s new early warning RDF (Radio Detection Finding, later known as RADAR) system – a network of 21 stations around south and east Britain known as ‘Chain Home’ – to Fighter Command HQ at Bentley Priory near London. Chain Home, which was expanded throughout the war, enabled enemy aircraft to be identified as they were forming up across the English Channel and, together with information from 30 supporting ‘Chain Home Low’ stations and the Royal Observer Corps, provided Fighter Command with a complete evolving picture of the skies. This information was filtered and cascaded to four fighter groups: 11 Group in the South East (which bore the brunt of the air battle), 12 Group covering the Midlands, 13 Group protecting the North, including Scotland and Northern Ireland and 10 Group looking after the West. Each group was sub-divided into sectors with their own commanders. Operations rooms at group and sector level provided a comprehensive plot of local air activity and controllers were able to direct RAF aircraft, which were fitted with an IFF device (Identification Friend or Foe) by the time of the battle (not before some tragic friendly fire incidents) to locations under threat.
Dowding also championed pilot recruitment and the development and procurement of modern, fast, manoeuvrable, fighter aircraft, rather than prioritising bombers and relying on cumbersome aeroplanes like the Defiant, which, like the German Ju 87 ‘Stuka’, proved hopelessly outclassed in combat. The first Hawker Hurricanes became operational in 1938, followed a few months later by RJ Mitchell’s Supermarine Spitfire. During the battle for France, Fighter Command lost 25% of its strength – 100 aircraft and 80 irreplaceable pilots. Dowding successfully resisted demands to commit further fighter aircraft across the Channel, particularly the precious Spitfires, when it became clear that defeat there was inevitable, thus preserving valuable resources for the conflict he knew would come at home. Even then, Dowding was always careful to concentrate resources where they could inflict the most damage and took care not squander them. The frustrated pilots of 12 Group, for example, were held back until they were needed to help defend 11 Group’s airfields, and London. If anyone was the architect of victory during the Battle of Britain, it was Hugh Dowding. Further outstanding leadership was provided by the individual group commanders during the conflict, but particularly the AOC (Air Officer Commanding) 11 Group, Air Vice Marshall Keith Park. Victims of politics or differences over strategy, it is still controversial that Dowding was retired and Park moved sideways soon after the Battle of Britain was won.
“What General Weygand 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 free 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.” “
As well as its command and control capabilities, which the Luftwaffe fortunately failed to grasp, the RAF enjoyed several other significant advantages. Despite initial inferiority in numbers, Britain’s defenders were fighting over their own homeland. This almost certainly made a difference to pilot morale, but it had practical benefits too. Fuel limitations meant that German aircraft had a restricted amount of time over Britain and any trained aircrew that were shot down were either killed or taken prisoner, whereas surviving RAF pilots could be returned to battle. British intelligence was also superior to the Germans’, who not only did not fully understand the importance of some potential targets, but also consistently underestimated RAF strength. This had a demoralising effect on Luftwaffe personnel, who found themselves up against aircraft that weren’t meant to exist in ever-increasing numbers as British aircraft production – another success for the home team – increased. Ultra, the intelligence product from the secret Government Code and Cipher School at Bletchley Park, was of some, but limited, use to British intelligence during the Battle of Britain; but good information was obtained by other means, including captured spies and prisoners of war.
Of course, ultimate success or failure depended on operational factors, such as battle performance, tactics and equipment. The Spitfire and Hurricane gave the RAF at least technical equality with the Luftwaffe, whose Messerschmitt 109 fighter could match earlier versions of the Spitfire. Though the Me 109s generally outperformed the more numerous Hurricanes, the latter could turn tighter and, by preference deployed against the slower German Heinkel, Dornier and Junkers bombers, in fact claimed more ‘kills’ than the Spitfire during the battle.
The Battle of Britain is generally regarded as lasting from 10 July to 31 October 1940 and consisting of three, distinct, phases. In Phase One, when roughly 640 British fighter aircraft faced 2,600 enemy bombers and fighters, the Germans attempted to lure the RAF into combat by attacking shipping in the English Channel. By early August, the Luftwaffe had lost 248 aircraft to Fighter Command’s 148. Phase Two saw a concerted attempt to knock out Britain’s RDF stations and fighter airfields. Aerial dogfights between the RAF and Luftwaffe became a daily occurrence in the skies over southern England. On 9 August, the Germans launched 300 aircraft against the UK; more attacks followed on 11 August and again on 12 August. Radar stations at Dover, Pevensey, Rye and Ventnor were hit, along with front-line airfields such as Manston and Hawkinge. On 13 August, designated Adlertag – the Day of the Eagle – by Hitler and Luftwaffe Commander in Chief, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, almost 1,500 German aircraft crossed the Channel: 45 were shot down; the RAF lost 13. Attacks continued; to some extent, it was a cold game of numbers. On 15 August, 520 German bombers and 1,270 fighters struck throughout the day; 75 were lost to the RAF’s 34; the following day it was 70 to 27; on 18 August, 71 to 27. However, German attacks began to focus on vital sector airfields, like Biggin Hill, Tangmere and Kenley. Moreover, even though the RAF seemed to be winning the numbers game, the attrition of experienced pilots was unsustainable. Aircraft were being replaced – it was actually cheaper and quicker to replace one than train a new pilot. But pilots were in short supply. There was no choice but to send young pilots with alarmingly few hours logged on Spitfires or Hurricanes, and with woefully inadequate combat experience, into battle. Predictably, many of them did not last long; those that did became hardened, and survived. The strain was beginning to tell on everyone: pilots deprived of proper rest, standing at readiness and sometimes flying several sorties a day; ground crew working round the clock to re-fuel, re-arm and repair aircraft…But, still, the Luftwaffe’s objective of breaking the RAF had yet to be achieved.
Göring had been targeting Britain’s aircraft industry and harbours for some time. And the traffic was not all one-way, because RAF Bomber Command had been attacking similar German facilities. Bombing was notoriously inaccurate at this stage in the war, however, and these raids caused a degree of what we might now call collateral damage. In late August, Germany upped the ante, carrying out raids as far apart as the London suburbs, Bristol and Aberdeen. On the night of 23/24 August, 200 bombers attacked the Fort Dunlop rubber works in Birmingham. The following day, targets over the Thames estuary and Kent were hit and an enormous raid on Portsmouth killed 100 people. That night, in defiance of orders that came from Hitler himself, bombs dropped for the first time on central London, killing 9. The story goes that this was a mistake, that the bombers were lost. In any event, retaliation was swift and, the following night, 70 RAF bombers attacked Berlin. Little damage was caused – and no British aircraft were lost – but Berliners had been told that their homes would not be bombed. Hitler was furious and, following further British raids, promised to “raze their cities to the ground.” It was to be a turning point as Phase Three of the Battle of Britain morphed into the Blitz – the German bombing campaign against the United Kingdom.
A desperately needed lull in the attacks against British fighter bases allowed Fighter Command to repair damage and regroup – though attacks on 30 and 31 August were ferocious. But, late in the afternoon of 7 September, everything changed. The Luftwaffe switched tactics away from airfields and radar installations and struck London’s dockland with 300 bombers escorted by 600 fighters. This area of the East End contained some of the capital’s most deprived housing. 448 residents died and 13 RAF fighter pilots were killed trying to prevent it. The same day, intelligence gathered from captured German spies suggested invasion was imminent. Church bells rang out in warning and defences were brought to a state of readiness. But invasion still depended on air superiority, which still lay with the RAF. The following day, 400 German aircraft crossed into British airspace but, unbelievably, raids on airfields were virtually abandoned. It was the respite the RAF needed. During a raid on Berlin on 10 September, the RAF (unintentionally) dropped a bomb into the garden of Nazi Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. On 11 September, Bomber Command attacked German invasion barges in French ports. On 12 September, the Luftwaffe attacked Liverpool, Swansea and Bristol. Things came to a head on 15 September. That day, Göring launched attacks against Southampton, Bristol, Cardiff, Liverpool and Manchester, as well as London. 11 Group scrambled ten squadrons in the morning and were supported by 12 Group’s ‘Big Wing’ of five squadrons – 60 Spitfires and Hurricanes – led by the extraordinary Douglas Bader. Many of the bombers scattered. A larger raid was intercepted in the afternoon. Prime Minister Churchill happened to be visiting 11 Group’s operations room and, watching the unfolding drama on the plotting table, asked Park how many fighters he had in reserve. “None”, came the reply. 150 Hurricanes and Spitfires met the raiding force over Kent, and 12 Group’s Big Wing again attacked the invaders further north. In all, it is estimated that some 1500 aircraft took part in the day’s battles. The RAF shot down 56 German aeroplanes and lost 27 of their own. By now, it was obvious that German tactics had failed. The Luftwaffe had made a fatal tactical error in switching attacks away from airfields and had not gained the air supremacy needed for invasion. 15 September is seen as the culmination of the Battle of Britain and a decisive moment when it was clear that the Luftwaffe had been defeated; hence, it is celebrated in the UK as Battle of Britain Day.
On 17 September, Operation Sea lion was ‘postponed indefinitely’.
So, the Battle of Britain campaign did not so much end as evolve into something else – the Blitz, which carried on until Spring 1941 and in which some 50,000 civilians perished. The threat to Britain continued, not least through the Blitz, but particularly through the Battle of the Atlantic which threatened the supplies our island needed to survive. However, the Battle of Britain was Hitler’s first major setback and helped ensure the United Kingdom could not only continue the fight, but also provide a springboard for ultimately freeing the rest of Europe from tyranny in 1944. Additionally, it was the first major battle to take place almost entirely in the air.
I have found it difficult, without spending a disproportionate amount of time researching it, to pin down statistics for the Battle of Britain. Both sides made exaggerated claims at the time. According to Wikipedia, the RAF lost 1,744 aircraft of all types to the Luftwaffe’s 1,977 from 10 July to 31 October 1940. About 2,500 Luftwaffe personnel died and 925 became prisoners of war. The RAF lost 544 fighter pilots, but an additional 700 aircrew in Bomber Command and 300 in Coastal Command (total 1,544). It is to some extent inevitable that Luftwaffe losses were higher, because bombers had a crew of 4 or more.
The efforts and courage of the Few are, I think, unique. The average age of an RAF fighter pilot in 1940 was just 20 and they were the idols of their day. Their accounts make fascinating, often sobering, reading. In that regard, I recommend books like Max Arthur’s Last Of The Few, as well as classic biographies like Reach For The Sky (Douglas Bader’s story) and or Fly For Your Life (Bob Tuck’s story) – all to be found on Amazon. It surprises many people that 20% of RAF Battle of Britain pilots came from overseas, not only from allies but also from neutral Ireland and the USA.
|British and Allied Pilots engaged in the Battle of Britain|
|United States of America (neutral)||9|
“We never, ever, for one moment had the slightest doubt that we would win. Defeat just simply didn’t occur to us.”
One of the Few, Tom Neal (1920-2018)
As well as the Battle of Britain Monument in London (fascinating website, even though some of the links do not work), there is the Battle of Britain Memorial at Capel-le-Ferne in Kent, near Folkestone, the Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede and a raft of other tributes around the country. Among many wonderful aircraft museums in Britain, the RAF Museum at Hendon has contemporary aircraft on display and there is a dedicated Battle of Britain exhibition at Duxford, near Cambridge, where many of the photographs in this article were taken. Duxford was a 12 Group sector airfield during the Battle of Britain and was later used by the USAF 8th Air Force, who flew fighters from it. It now houses the aircraft and large vehicle collection of the Imperial War Museum (IWM). Visiting Duxford is always fascinating and includes the added frisson that you might actually see some of these famous aeroplanes in flight.
Personally, I find most of the aircraft of this era interesting, but there is something special and graceful about the Hurricane and Spitfire that belies their purpose. And the sound of the Merlin engine gives me goosebumps. I’ll leave you with this clip: