We’re in the middle of the 70th anniversary of this (it lasted several months) so its seems appropriate to write it up now.
Name: The Battle of Britain
The War: World War Two
When: Mid-July – Early November 1940
Where: The skies of Great Britain and its surrounding seas
Force/Commanders: Just under 2’000 aircraft and crews for the RAF under Hugh Dowding, Keith Park, Trafford Leigh-Mallory among others against 2’500 aircraft and crews for the Luftwaffe under Herman Goring, Albert Kesselring, Hugo Sperrle among others.
“…if the British Empire and its Commonwealth lasts for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.'”
“…the German Air Force was bled almost to death, and suffered losses that could never be made good throughout the course of the war.”
Britain was in a bad spot in the summer of 1940. It’s allies, France, Poland, the Benelux, had all been crushed by the German war machine. It’s army had received a hiding, barely managing to escape intact from Dunkirk. And now, the country was waiting for what seemed an inevitable cross-channel attack.
Hitler understood that for any amphibious invasion of the British Isles to be succesful, Germany first had to have control of the skies.
The Luftwaffe operation and the resulting battle in the skies is now usually viewed as four separate phases. The first, the Channel battles, saw the opposing air forces engage over sea convoys. These early engagements, while not critical, favoured the Luftwaffe as British pilots were overly concerned with protecting the ships below them. Both sides gained crucial experience during this period.
The second phase, “Eagle Attack”, saw the Luftwaffe target coastal airfields and radar stations, the key technological edge of the RAF. The fighting became ever bloodier as the Luftwaffe struck further and further inland with diversionary operations taking place in the north of the country. The heaviest casualties of the battle happened in this phase as the dogfighting became routine, interrupted only by adverse weather.
The British Spitfire and Hurricanes faced German Messerschmitts and Stukas. The British planes were more nimble and manoeuvrable and lacked the fuel deficiency of the Luftwaffe. It was soon discovered that some of the Messerschmitt models, like the Bf 110, were unsuited for aerial combat against the RAF, while the Stukas, following horrific losses during this phase, played little part in the remainder of the battle.
The third phase saw Goring order the Luftwaffe to start hitting aircraft factories and airfields. It was now August, and the battle had become a conflict almost solely between the two opposing fighter groups. The constant raids began to exhaust both sides with attrition becoming the crucial factor..
In terms of material, the British began to manufacture replacement parts and planes at a faster rate, making up for their losses. The RAF was also boosted by the inclusion of numerous foreign airmen, Polish and Czech squadrons, who were among the most succesful pilots.
The Luftwaffe, despite attacking ceaselessly, was unable to effect “the Dowding system”, the complex web of radar, early detection, radio grids and other communication networks that coordinated the entire defence. Goring’s men could not do lasting or critical damage to the airfields or factories and were losing out in the skies.
Hitler moved for what he thought to be his last option: the strategic bombing of civilian targets, in an attempt to terrorize Britain into surrender. In September, the fourth phase, the beginning of what we now call “the Blitz” began. The Luftwaffe committed to mass bombing of London and other cities.
But the change in target backfired. Aside from the now-known limitations of strategic bombing (see below), the RAF airfields were allowed some breathing room to recover for the first time in months. German fuel problems with the longer ranges also plagued the attacks. Many of the bombing wings were unprotected by fighter escorts for much of their flights, allowing the RAF to engage them at will. The Luftwaffe continued to take a disproportionate share of casualties.
After a particularly costly day on 15 September, Hitler ordered the postponement of the invasion plans. Great Britain was saved. The bombings continued but Germany would never realistically threaten the island with invasion again, resorting to blockade and gurre de course tactics to starve the country out.
It didn’t work. Four years later British troops were landing in France, with complete dominance of the skies. The Battle of Britain was the first step in that turnaround.
Why It’s Decisive – Impact On That War
Huge. It was Nazi Germany’s first major defeat, and spared Great Britain from any attempted invasion. The RAF was shown to be superior to its German counterpart. British morale soared after the lows of the French invasion, with the royal family refusing to leave London during the bombing, and Churchill rallying the country with some of the most famous words of recent times.
Britain showed the world, especially the U.S, that they could stand up tho Germany and win. The Blitzkreig machine was not unstoppable. Britain’s survival allowed the country to become the bastion of the western democracies from which the liberation of Europe was launched.
If the Germans had been succesful, it is not assured that the resulting invasion would have been a success. But it would have happened.
The Battle of Britain was the first solely aerial campaign in the history of warfare, a fight that firmly set in place the importance of the sky as a tactical battlefield. Only a few thousand men on either side decided the fight, but the area of battle was gigantic. The battle illustrated the importance and effectiveness of early detection systems like radar when used in conjunction with fighter groups, something the Luftwaffe failed to grasp.
The latter part of the battle also served to begin the process by which the idea of strategic bombing became discredited. The idea, first theorized properly by the Italian airman Giulio Douhet, was that by extensive, large-scale bombing of civilian targets, a nations people would not be psychologically capable of carrying out a war and would force their leaders to surrender. It was an idea that many proponents of the time believed in.
Only, it’s not true. One of the most accurate maxims you will ever hear is “Strategic Bombing doesn’t work”. It’s effect is frequently the polar opposite of its intent.
I’ll put this way, by relating a story told to me by a teacher. His Grandfather lived in London during the Blitz. He was married and had three children. One day, returning home from work, he found his house a pile of rubble, and his wife and two of his children dead. According to Douhet, he should have had enough of the war and would beg his leaders to end he fight.
Instead, he dropped his one remaining child off with his sister and joined an artillery unit so he could kill some Germans.
Strategic Bombing doesn’t work. All it does is harden resolve. It would take a while for the message to get through (the Allies bombing campaign of Germany was equally ineffective in its goals) but the concept is no longer as prevalent as it once was. The Battle of Britain was the beginning of that process.
Debatable. The planned invasion of Britain was dealt a killer blow, but the success of such an attack could never be ensured. The Luftwaffe could have taken the RAF out of the picture but the Royal Navy would still have been the power on the waves.
But Hitler would have launched the attack and it could have succeeded. If Germany had effected a beachhead, the paltry British Army wouldn’t have had much of a shot in stopping them. By stopping the Germans, Britain began the turning of the tide in the conflict. The airplane was defined as the new crucial technological development in war.
In National Consciousness
Immense. For Britain, this fight encapsulates everything about the country. The story of a few brave, resourceful soldiers stemming the tide of the evil dictator. For a nation that would very soon be eclipsed by the United States and Soviet Russia, the Battle of Britain was its last great singular contribution to the war effort. It is remembered today as a titanic clash in the skies, one of Britain’s greatest moments.
For Britain, it the story of a people become united in the face of a terrible threat, of making sure that freedom did not disappear from western Europe.
For more of NFBs Decisive Battles check out the index here.