The Battle of Britain


23 September 2022
Spitfire Mk.Vb, of the RAF's 303 Kosciuszko Polish Fighter Squadron Spitfire Mk.Vb, of the RAF's 303 Kosciuszko Polish Fighter Squadron
It was the defining air campaign of WWII, when the RAF held off the Luftwaffe and kept Britian in the war against Nazi Germany.

On the same day in May 1940 that Winston Churchill became Prime Minister of Britain, Hitler began the Battle of France. His Wehrmacht drove swiftly through Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands before sweeping across France, the German army proving strategically and tactically superior to their opponents, as well as better equipped and organised. By the 22 June 1940, the British had been forced to pull off a miraculous escape at Dunkirk, the French army had surrendered and Churchill told the House of Commons, "What General Weygrand called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin."

Of course, he was right and everyone knows how that turned out, but it was not just the skill and courage of the RAF's fighter pilots which broke the Luftwaffe and smashed Hitler's cherished dream of an invasion of Britain. At least as important was abysmally poor Nazi intelligence work and indecision on the part of Goering, which led to massive strategic errors in August 1940. Although this gave the RAF a chance to ruthlessly exploit a much needed breathing space, internal dissension within Fighter Command might even then have frittered away this opportunity, as a consequence of the Big Wing controversy.


Distribution of Fighter Command and Luftwaffe groups and the limits of radar coverage, c.1940



Left: Distribution of Fighter Command and Luftwaffe groups and the limits of radar coverage, c.1940




After the fall of France, Hitler seems to have concluded initially that his best option was to force Britain to agree a negotiated peace, thus sparing his army and navy the necessity of an invasion. However,many of his staff privately saw as having little chance of success. The first stage in this process was for the Luftwaffe to gain complete control of British skies by destroying the RAF, which then consisted of four major divisions, designated: Fighter, Bomber, Coastal and Training Commands.


Hugh Dowding had been appointed commanding officer of Fighter Command three years before the start of WWII and, ignoring the dogmatic thinking then current that insisted bombers could not be stopped before they reached their targets, he introduced the Dowding interception system, along with fast, heavily armed fighters like the Hurricane and Spitfire which could easily catch enemy bombers and shoot them down. His was the first integrated air defence system which combined radar, augmented by human observers filling the information gaps left by the early RDF and Chain Home systems (particularly the altitude of incoming aircraft) and raid plotting, a combination which would subsequently direct RAF fighters on to the incoming bombers, often with a success rate of 100%. Significantly, although the Germans knew about British radar developments and even had a system of their own, they had not realised how it was integrated into Dowding's system for early detection and rapid interception.


Hawker Hurricane from the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (Courtesy: Cpl. P Major ABIPP/MOD)


Left: Hawker Hurricane from the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (Courtesy: Cpl. P Major ABIPP/MOD)





In terms of aircraft the two sides were fairly well matched. Fighter Command had 754  Hurricanes and Spitfire, together with 149 slow, obsolete Bolton Paul Defiants and about 1,000 aircraft in Bomber and Coastal Command. Germany deployed approximately 2,500 aircraft for the Battle, with a fighter contingent consisting of 934 Me Bf109 fighters and 289 Me Bf 110 fighter-bombers. Their bomber force was composed of four main types: the Heinkel He111, Dornier Do17, Junkers Ju88, giving them a medium bomber force of 1,482 aircraft, and 327 Junkers Ju87 Stuka dive bombers. The Stukas and Bf 110s were withdrawn from service over Britain after the RAF destroyed their formations in the aftermath of Eagle Day.


A fully restored, airworthy Me (BF) 109 G-10



Left: A fully restored, airworthy Me (BF) 109 G-10







Much has been written about the relative merits of the fighter aircraft in this battle but their characteristics were perhaps best summed up by Alfred Price in the Spitfire Story, when he said: 'The differences between the Spitfire and the Me 109 in performance and handling were only marginal, and in a combat they were almost always surmounted by tactical considerations of which side had seen the other first, which had the advantage of sun, altitude, numbers, pilot ability, tactical situation, tactical co-ordination, amount of fuel remaining.'


Both sides were organised into squadrons sized units which were in turn part of larger strategic formations. The Luftwaffe consisted of three Luftlotten (Air Fleets): Luftflotte 2, commanded by Albert Kesselring, which attacked sites in south-east England and London, Luftlotte 3, under Hugo Sperrle, targeted the West Country, Wales, the Midlands and Northern England and Luftlotte 5, led by Hans-Jurgen Stumpf, was responsible for raids on the far north of England and Scotland. Opposing them were 6 RAF Groups: Nos 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 and 14, each having responsibility for the defence of specific areas of the country. London and the south-east was protected by Keith Park's No. 11 group, which bore the brunt of the air combats during the summer of 1940. They were supported by Leigh-Mallory's No. 12 group and Quintin-Brand's No. 10 Group, both these Groups also coming in for their share of the action.


Aerial photograph of invasion barges at Boulogne, c.1940



Right: Aerial photograph of invasion barges at Boulogne, c.1940





The Luftwaffe began their campaign on 26 June 1940, with mine laying and isolated nuisance raids, mainly on British coastal towns and on 30 June, Goering opened a new phase, issuing an operational directive ordering the wholesale destruction of the RAF. Consequently, in this second phase, lasting from 17 July to 12 August, systematic attacks on Channel shipping, armaments and aircraft industries began in an an attempt to lure the RAF fighters into the air where they could be destroyed piecemeal. Goering intended this operation to so weaken Fighter Command that gaining air superiority would be a sinecure for the Luftwaffe, but the RAF lost only 74 aircraft during this period and significantly, in light of later events, Goering never became aware of this strategic failure. After the vigorous rejection of his peace proposals by Churchill and the Cabinet on 16 July, Hitler changed his mind about invasion and subsequently issued his Directive No. 16, ordering preparations for the invasion of England (Operation Sea Lion) to begin. Sea Lion was wholly dependent upon the destruction of the RAF and Goering confidently assured his Fuhrer that within days or at most, weeks, the RAF would cease to exist. 


Chain Home radar installation at Poling, Sussex, c.1945


Left: Chain Home radar installation at Poling, Sussex, c.1945







Goering had previously received intelligence from Joseph Schmid, the commander of the Luftwaffe's Military Intelligence Branch, which grossly under-estimated the RAF's operational capabilities. As a consequence of this wholly inaccurate information, he finalised plans with the commanders of his three Luftlotten on 6 August for Operation Eagle Attack (Unternehmen Adlerangriff), which became the third phase of the Battle. Thinking that Fighter Command had been significantly weakened in the previous phase, Eagle Attack could now target their airfields and radar installations which would, according to Goering, result in the total destruction of the RAF within four days. In the next phase,  unescorted bomber raids over the whole of England would destroy the country's war industry and infrastructure, thus paving the way for the early completion of Sea Lion. Unfortunately for Fat Herman, nobody had explained this to Fighter Command.


Ju87 Stuka dive bomber in its attacking dive


Right: Ju87 Stuka dive bomber in its attacking dive






Germany's first attempt to disrupt Dowding's system came on 12 August with attacks on four radar stations, resulting in minor disruption but no loss of operational coverage. The main assault began on 13 August with major raids against RAF airfields sited inland and coastal radar stations, although damage was slight and all of these sites were operational by the following morning. Raids on airfields and the radar chain continued until 19 August with relatively little effect on Fighter Command's operational capacity, when Goering, wrongly believing the enemy to be close to defeat, ordered the Luftwaffe to stop their attacks on the radar stations and airfields and begin the second phase of his plan, concentrating instead on ports and industrial centres.


Formation of German Heinkel He III medium bombers during the Battle of Britain




Left: Formation of German Heinkel He III medium bombers during the Battle of Britain




It was at this point in the battle that the Nazi's faulty intelligence played a decisive role. Schmid's reports had concluded that British fighter production was only 200–300 machines each month (the true figure was nearly 500), claiming that these levels could not be maintained and also failing to appreciate the quality of RAF maintenance operations, which were quickly returning damaged aircraft to operational readiness. He went on to assure Goring not only that Fighter Command could not respond effectively to the Luftwaffe's attacks, but that the number of RAF airfields in southern England was severely limited. Most crucially, he did not mention radar or the Dowding system at all.

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So the Luftwaffe failed to properly target the radar stations and also bombed the wrong airfields, many of those attacked on Eagle Day and in subsequent raids belonging to Bomber and Coastal Commands. More importantly, having badly underestimated the extent of the RAF's resources in terms of men, aircraft and airfields, Goering and his senior colleagues moved to the second phase of preparations for Sea Lion before even temporarily incapacitating Fighter Command.


Women workers building Hawker Hurricanes. Most workers in the aircraft factories were women



Left: Women workers building Hawker Hurricanes. Most workers in the aircraft factories were women





There was also dissension at the top, senior figures in the Luftwaffe holding widely differing views on the strategy their air force should adopt. Sperrle wanted to destroy Britain's air defence infrastructure by bombing raids, while Kesselring advocated attacking London directly to either draw the RAF's fighters into a decisive battle where they could be destroyed or alternately, bomb Churchill and his government into submission. Goering failed to resolve this disagreement between his commanders, apparently being unable to decide which strategy to pursue and thus leading to the major tactical and strategic errors which the RAF were able to effectively exploit.


Raids on civilian targets, manufacturing centres and ports continued until 24 August, allowing Fighter Command to re-equip and regroup. When attacks on the airfields resumed, the Luftwaffe finally acted as they should have done previously, staging 24 raids against airfields in the next 14 days, with main aerodromes like Biggin Hill and Hornchurch being hit repeatedly and thus significantly affecting Fighter Command's ability to respond to the bomber raids. As if this danger were insufficient, an argument now broke out  between Parks, Dowding and Leigh-Mallory over Leigh-Mallory's insistence on using part of his No. 12 group as a Big Wing, a collection of three squadrons operating together under Douglas Bader. The system was untried, poorly organised and never as successful as its advocates claimed and it also allowed the Luftwaffe to stage successful raids on No. 11 Group airfields which could have been prevented, if aircraft from No. 12 Group had been better deployed.


Spitfire pilots at RAF Hawkinge c. July 1940


Right: Spitfire pilots at RAF Hawkinge c. July 1940




Raids continued for two weeks until 7 September when Goering, having received orders from Berlin four days previously, directed his pilots to ignore the airfields and return to bombing civilian targets, beginning that day with a four hundred bomber raid on the East End of London, as a reprisal for attacks on Berlin by Bomber Command. This allowed Fighter Command to undergo a second, even more essential period of recovery and then set about decimating the bomber formations, which only had fighter protection on their way to a target, the fuel endurance of the Bf109 fighter escorts never allowing them more than 10 minutes over London. This period culminated in a raid on 15 September which saw every aircraft in Keith Parke's 11 Group in the air and 60 German aircraft shot down for the loss of 26 RAF machines. Two days later Hitler postponed Sea Lion and the Luftwaffe switched from their expensive day time raids to focus on a nightly strategic bombing campaign. For the RAF, the Battle of Britain was over, 15 September being commemorated as Battle of Britain Day, although this new phase of the air campaign, known in Britain as the Blitz, was to continue until 11 May 1941, killing more than 40,000 civilians and involving attacks on London, Liverpool and other major cities in Britain and Northern Ireland.


A RAF control room at the height of the Battle. The individual in army uniform on the far right is responsible for coordinating the AA guns


Left: A RAF control room at the height of the Battle. The individual in army uniform on the far right is responsible for coordinating the AA guns






Although the men of Fighter Command are usually perceived as playing the pivotal role in events during the summer of 1940, the contributions of both Bomber and Coastal Command were equally important. Night raids by RAF bombers began on 11 May 1940, the Cabinet authorising a full strategic bombing campaign four days later against suitable military objectives even where there could be civilian casualties. It was a raid on Berlin which so enraged Hitler that, crucially, he ordered attacks on RAF aerodromes to cease on 3 September, redirecting the bombers to concentrate on civilian targets in retaliation for the Berlin raid. Bomber Command's destructive attacks on the invasion barge concentrations at Ostend and Dunkirk were also a major factor in persuading Hitler to cancel Sea Lion.


Receiver hut of the radar station at Ventnor, Isle of Wight, during the Battle of Britain, with  RAF airmen and Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) operators at work


Left: Receiver hut of the radar station at Ventnor, Isle of Wight, during the Battle of Britain, with  RAF airmen and Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) operators at work





As well as these attacks on civilian targets, RAF squadrons raided German-occupied airfields between July and December 1940, causing significant damage but also incurring heavy casualties. Some raids resulted in the loss of almost every aircraft and similar casualties occurred during long-range reconnaissance missions over Germany and German-occupied territories. Coastal Command operated against enemy shipping as well as protecting British vessels and as the threat of invasion loomed, its crews bombed German-occupied harbours and airfields in France, laid mines and mounted reconnaissance missions over the enemy coast. Bomber Command flew approximately 9,180 sorties between July and October 1940, with bomber crews suffering more fatalities than Fighter Command, who achieved 80,000 sorties in that period (544 killed in Fighter Command, 718 in Bomber Command and 280 in Coastal Command).


Sightseers inspecting a Me (Bf) 109 in a Sussex field


Left: Sightseers inspecting a Me (Bf) 109 in a Sussex field





Luftwaffe General Werner Kreipe described the result of the Battle of Britain as: 'A strategic failure and the turning point in the Second World War.' Adding that: 'The German Air Force was bled almost to death, and suffered losses that could never be made good throughout the course of the war.' Statistics certainly support his conclusions. Britain began the Battle of Britain with 1,963 serviceable aircraft of all types, opposed by the Luftwaffe with 2,550 usable machines. By the end of October, the RAF had lost 1,744 aircraft with 1,964 personnel killed or wounded, compared to German losses of 1,977 aircraft destroyed from all causes and 4,245 aircrew killed, wounded or captured.


RAF aircraft technician at work on a Hurricane


Right: RAF aircraft technician at work on a Hurricane





Fighting alongside the 2,535 RAF pilots from the UK were 147 Poles, 135 New Zealanders and 112 Canadians, as well as Free French, South Africans, Americans and Czechs, a total of 574 pilots from countries other than Britain. Although the role of the aircrews in winning the Battle was undoubtedly vital, their efforts would have come to nothing if they had not been ably supported by the riggers, fitters and armourers of the ground crews. Alongside the servicemen were factory workers who maintained aircraft production, volunteers from the Observer Corps who reported the raids and most vital of all, the control room staffs, radar operators and plotters, many from the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), who tracked those raids, all of whom played an essential part in winning what has come to be seen as the first air war.

RAF personnel in a sector control room, c.1940


Left: RAF personnel in a sector control room, c.1940







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