The Battle of Britain

A Supermarine Spitfire (front) and Hawker Hurricane (rear). The two fighter plane variants were the RAF’s main weapons during the Battle of Britain. (Wikimedia Commons)

In the summer of 1940, things looked very, very bad for the Allies of WWII. Poland and most of Eastern Europe were in Axis hands; France had just capitulated; and the Japanese were gobbling up huge swaths of Pacific islands. In fact, the Allies as we now call them – England, America, China, and the USSR – barely existed. The USSR was still technically an ally of Nazi Germany, and the Americans were nervously watching developments like a kid with his phone out during a highschool fistfight. As German panzers (tanks) rolled into Paris, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill knew that England was the next logical step. As German troops of the Wehrmacht (army) gazed across the English Channel – the stretch of water between England and France, 33.3 km (20 miles) at its narrowest point – they were probably pretty confident after steamrolling the massive French army.

ASAP: Overconfident German air forces tried to wipe out the RAF, but were unable to match British determination and industrial output.

Read on for details!
Operational regions during the Battle of Britain. (Wikimedia Commons)

Operation Sea Lion

Adolf Hitler, the German Fuhrer (leader), actually liked England. In his convoluted racist ideology, the English – people of a (then) very white colonial power – were near the Germans in terms of racial purity, and would have made an important ally against communism. But since Churchill refused to consider peace terms, Hitler ordered the OKW (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, or army command) to draft up Directiver no. 16: plans for Operation Sea Lion, or the invasion of England. Hitler planned to invade the USSR in spring of 1941 (what?! Hitler betraying an ally?), and he wanted England out of the war by then. The Kriegsmarine (German Navy) lacked sufficient ships to blockade England successfully, and the Wehrmacht was not yet ready to launch a massive amphibious invasion; so the task of bringing England to its knees would have to start in the air with the Luftwaffe (air force) under Commander Hermann Göring, a WWI fighter ace. Since water separated the two combatants, the Battle for Britain – and for the fate of the Allied war effort – would be fought in the air. If the Germans won air superiority over the Brits, they would be able to launch operation Sea Lion without much trouble.

A Messerschmitt ME-109. (Wikimedia Commons)

By that point, the Royal Air Force (RAF) was a relatively young organization and its posh upper-class pilots lacked experience. They were supplemented by pilots from Poland, Canada, and several other Allied countries – but their counterparts in the Luftwaffe had years of experience in air-to-air combat (and ground support missions) from the Spanish Civil War to Poland and France. They also had the Messerschmitt ME-109, a fast and agile fighter plane heavily armed with machine guns and 20mm cannons. Luckily, the RAF had been at the cutting edge of warplane development and was churning out hundreds of Supermarine Spitfires – advanced planes capable of taking on the ME-109 – which supplemented the older Hawker Hurricanes already in service. Leading the RAF was Air Marshal Hugh Dowding. Like Göring, Dowding was a veteran of WWI; but unlike Göring, Dowding was not a raging morphine addict and lunatic.

German pilots discuss tactics. (Pinterest)

The Lead-up to Battle

Beginning in May, RAF units began blowing up Wehrmacht targets in Europe in order to disrupt production of ME-109s and hamper their overall war effort. Shortly after, a series of small battles – AKA Kanalkampf, or Channel Struggles – took place over the English Channel. Luftwaffe Do 17 scout planes began running intelligence-gathering ops and harassing the RAF. Stuka Dive Bombers – which made a horrifying wailing “siren” sound when diving at their targets – began knocking out Royal Navy transport vessels. The Kanalkampf – a part of the phony war, where both sides were technically fighting but not full-on yet – allowed the RAF to gain experience and hone their tactics. RAF Command pioneered the “Dowding System”, a network of advanced radar units that gave up-to-date info to fighter squadrons and ended up giving them an edge over Luftwaffe formations.

A depiction of the interior of a Spitfire cockpit from Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk”, 2017. (Warner Bros.)

Aerial combat generally consisted of dogfights in which fighter pilots attempted to get above and behind their prey and chase them till they managed to get a burst of machine gun or 20mm cannon fire into the rear of the enemy plane (in much the same way as dogs like to mount one another and spray each other with machine-gun fire, presumably). Fighter wings – groups of aircraft – needed to get high up above their enemy, but not too high up, or else their machines wouldn’t function properly. Dogfights were viewed as glamorous and gentlemanly by the media – a sort of duel between upper-class officers – but the reality of the situation was impossible to ignore for the pilots: every successful “hit” could result in the death of another human being. Pilots would attempt to eject from their planes and parachute to the earth, but often they were killed in their cockpits by bullets, flames or glass shards – or machine-gunned as they hung powerless beneath their parachutes.

An He 111 Heinkel bomber of the Luftwaffe is hit by tracer bullets, as seen from an RAF Spitfire’s “gun camera”. (Imperial War Museum)

In the early days of August 1940, there weren’t many reasons to be optimistic. The RAF – charged with defending the last Allied stronghold – prepared to face off against over 2,550 enemy aircraft with a little over 1,900 of their own.

The Main Attack

Adlertag (Eagle Day) began on August 13th, 1940. Luftwaffe units attacked radar stations; the Dowding system was blinded briefly but, crucially, was operational within 6 hours. As the week wore on, fighter squadrons flying out of Denmark and Norway took on determined Allied defenders in the air over England. The Luftwaffe strategy was an attempt to destroy RAF planes on the ground at various airfields to cripple their fighting ability. As Göring had correctly guessed, the Battle of Britain would be won by whichever side could sustain the heaviest losses of men and machines. On August 15th, Luftflotte 5 attacked apparently-undefended airfields in Northern England. Using the Dowding System, the RAF managed to surprise the enemy and took out a total of 75 Luftwaffe aircraft – most of them bombers without their usual “escort” of ME-109 fighters.

Spitfire pilots rest during missions, joined by their canine mascots. Many actual dog-fights took place between the pilots’ mascots, presumably. (Wikimedia Commons)

During lulls in the battle, Allied pilots waited in folding chairs near the runway, sipping tea and trying to take cat-naps. When the alarms went off, the “Scramble” began and a mad dash to ones’ plane resulted. The sooner the RAF could scramble its planes, the better: every 30 seconds wasted on the ground meant they would be 1,000 feet lower than their opponents. And ME-109s liked to attack from above. As the battle wore on, the pilots got used to sleeping fully-kitted and ready to go; but as more young men were killed, the age and experience level of the average pilot lowered. For both sides, the Battle of Britain was quickly becoming unsustainable.

An He 111 Heinkel bomber over the Isle of Dogs in London. (German Air Force)

August 18th – the Hardest Day – was a turning point. This was the Luftwaffe’s last-ditch main effort. The Brits were exhausted and having trouble producing enough planes and pilots to keep up with the rate of attrition. The Germans, too, were having similar troubles, and Göring needed the fight over quickly as Hitler’s childish impatience grew. In a series of air raids, hundreds of worn-out Germans attempted to overwhelm the similarly exhausted young Allied men in their aircraft. Throughout the day and into the night, the Luftwaffe attacking force – comprising hundreds of aircraft – was whittled down. All over the country, German pilots were falling from the sky and many were captured by townsfolk wielding pitchforks and knives. By the end of the 18th, the RAF had lost roughly 30 planes and 10 pilots killed; but they’d forced over 70 Luftwaffe planes out of the air and killed nearly 100 enemy pilots – a huge loss of experienced fighters which the Luftwaffe never recovered from. The Hardest Day was over, and the tide had finally been turned in the favour of the Allies.

Never was so much owed by so many to so few.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill on the “Hardest Day”

The Blitz

The fighting on August 18th massively degraded the Luftwaffe’s ability to fight. Forced to withdraw their remaining ME-109s to protect Axis France, Göring now shifted his focus from attacking airfields to bombing cities. British civilians all over the country were murdered in the street and in their beds by bombs from Luftwaffe aircraft. London – previously a verboten target – was bombed by mistake, and the RAF immediately retaliated by striking Berlin. Some of the most savage air-to-air combat took place in the early days of September as massive flights of Luftwaffe bombers streaked towards England and were desperately machine-gunned (and even rammed) by Spitfires.

London firefighters during the Blitz. (Wikimedia Commons)

Raids continued throughout the summer, killing hundreds civilians but ultimately strengthening the British resolve. The Royal family remained in London during the worst of the Blitz and helped inspire confidence amongst Londoners. Although German air raids caused untold suffering in England, they ultimately did not succeed in breaking the Allied will to continue fighting. At an OKW meeting in September, Hitler officially called off the effort to obtain air superiority over England. By December, 23,002 British civilians had been killed and many towns had been flattened.

An ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) spotter keps watch for Luftwaffe bombers. Vast amounts of women signed up for military service and were an invaluable part of the battle. (Imperial War Museum)

Aftermath

In the end, mathematic factors ensured the Allied victory during the Battle of Britain. Both sides suffered similar losses in terms of aircraft and pilots (although the Brits, of course, lots many thousands of civilians as well); but the British were able – through intensive industrial efforts and support from the United States – to produce more aircraft and more pilots. By November of 1940, the RAF had 40% more pilots than they did in July. By contrast, the Luftwaffe lost 25% of their pilots in September alone. German pilots, unlike the Brits and Allies, were never allocated periods of rest and as a consequence, burned out more quickly and made more mistakes in combat. Their training pipeline was longer, and the British had access to pilots from all around the world to supplement their pool of recruits.

Londoners take shelter in the tube. The Blitz became an ordinary part of life during WWII. (Wikimedia Commons)

Perhaps the most disturbing development of the Battle of Britain – and the ensuing Blitz – was the normalization of “strategic bombing” of population centres by both sides. As soon as kids going to school and milkmen in the streets became fair game, all bets were off. Any Allied claims to fighting “the good fight” became a little bit murkier after the first strikes on Berlin.

One of the most important factors for the Allies was that, simply put, the British were fighting for their lives. There was a sense that the battle was the last stand of the “free world”, and, as Churchill warned, defeat would result in a return to “a new Dark Age.” During the Battle of Britain, the few hundred Allied pilots in their Spitfires fought tremendously hard – but they had essentially the entire world behind them. Women of the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) scanned the skies for ME-109s, factory workers churned out planes and radar operators of the Dowding System ensured “their boys in the sky” knew when and where “bandits” would strike. For England, the Battle of Britain was a hugely significant victory that reinvigorated the war effort after the disastrous withdrawal from Dunkirk. And for the world at large, it was the first sign of cracks in the facade of Nazi invulnerability.

ASAP Notes

In a hurry? Here are the ASAP notes on this topic.

  • Who? The Royal Air Force or RAF (commanded by Air Marshal Hugh Dowding) with pilots from England, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Canada, Australia, America, South Africa, and elsewhere. They faced off against the Luftwaffe (German air force, commanded by Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring). The RAF started with 1,900 aircraft, and the Luftwaffe with 2,550.
  • Where? Over the English Channel and various cities and airfields in England. RAF missions also took place over France and Germany.
  • When? From July 10th to October 31st of 1940 – nearly 4 months.
  • What? German command ordered the Luftwaffe to destroy British air assets and ensure air superiority. In August, the Luftwaffe attempted to destroy RAF airfields but were eventually beaten back; in September, they began bombing civilians. Massive aerial battles took place throughout the summer and autumn.
  • Why? Hitler perceived that the RAF was his main barrier to invading England and he wanted the force wiped out prior to his planned Operation Sea Lion. The British perceived this threat (correctly) as an existential threat to all Allied powers and fought back with surprising savagery and persistence for such a young and untested force. They were also supported by the United States and other Allied nations.
  • Result: British victory. Although brutal, the battle resulted in a massive growth of the RAF and a weakening of the Luftwaffe. It also inspired fierce determination amongst the English and kickstarted the war effort against the Axis everywhere. 23,002 British civilians were killed along with 1,542 members of the RAF; 2,582 Luftwaffe crewmen were killed or went missing.

Food for Thought

Like what you’ve read? Here are a couple essay questions/prompts to get you thinking. Good writing is all about answering questions the reader didn’t know they had, after all. These questions are to inspire further research, help with an academic paper, or maybe just get you thinking more about the topic.

  • Was the Luftwaffe actually ready to take on the RAF? What significant disadvantages did they face?
  • Assess the leadership on both sides of the fight. What advantages did the British have at an institutional level?
  • What was life like for civilians during the Blitz? Compare this to the German experience.
  • How did German treatment of the English differ from its treatment of “inferior” peoples like the Poles?
  • What impact did the Battle of Britain have on its Allies?

Further Reading & Citations

Here are a couple useful sources for further reading or using to flesh out an essay. Remember to cite everything properly!

  • Foreman, John. 1988. Battle of Britain: the forgotten months, November and December 1940. New Malden, Surrey: Air Research Publications.
  • Birdwell, Russell. 1942. Women in battle dress. New York: The Fine Editions Press.
  • Chambers, Matthew. “S. P. MacKenzie. The Battle of Britain on Screen: ‘The Few’ in British Film and Television Drama. Societies at War Series. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007. 
  • Cumming, Anthony J. “Did Radar Win the Battle of Britain?” The Historian 69, no. 4 (2007): 688-705.
  • SUGARMAN, MARTIN. “More than Just a Few: Jewish Pilots and Aircrew in the Battle of Britain.” Jewish Historical Studies 38 (2002): 183-204. 

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