A major campaign of World War II, the Battle of Britain is the name for the attempt by Germany's Luftwaffe to gain control of British airspace and destroy the Royal Air Force (RAF). Secondary objectives were to destroy aircraft production and intimidate the nation into neutrality or surrender. The campaign was launched as preparation for a planned invasion of Britain called Operation Sea Lion.
For almost a thousand years, the island of Britain had never been invaded, which gave rise to its name "Fortress Britain." But during the Battle of Britain doubts were raised as to the survival of the small island; continuous attacks on the RAF and later the civilian population caused tremendous damage (damage that has only recently been fully recovered from). Many people both at home and throughout the world feared for Britain's survival for if Britain fell then the whole Empire could fall under German contol.
The Battle of Britain brought the once mighty country to its knees; Buckingham Palace and Westminster had both been bombed and the great fires that came with the bombings spread throughout the capital and almost destroyed St Paul's Cathedral. Tens of thousands had been killed and almost as many injured with no end in sight, but throughout the whole battle Britain stood alone with no allies and dwindiling resources but eventually the country pulled through as the tactics of the enemy changed and Hitler turning his attention to Russia. (It was not until later in the war that the United States joined the UK in its fight; however, it should be noted that the US only joined Britain in its struggles after the UK was forced to sell much of her interests to the US and accept vast loans with huge interest rates that have not been paid off to this day. There were deep feelings of betrayal by many British people at the time.)
British historians state the battle ran from 10 July to 31 October 1940, which was the most intense period of daylight air raiding. However, German sources begin the battle in mid-August 1940 and end it in May 1941 on the withdrawal of the bomber units in preparation for the attack on Russia.
The Battle of Britain was not the first major battle to be fought entirely in the air, as the British mainland had already suffered a campaign of attacks by Zeppelins and long range bombers during World War I. However, the battle was the largest and most sustained bombing campaign yet attempted and the first real test of the strategic bombing theories that had emerged since the previous World War.
Following the British evacuation from Dunkirk and the French surrender in June 1940, the Germans were uncertain what to do next. Hitler believed the war was over and that the British, defeated on the continent, would come to terms soon. However, he was to be frustrated by British intransigence. Though there was a strand of public and political sentiment that favoured a negotiated peace with Germany, Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, refused to countenance an armistice with the Nazis. His skillful use of rhetoric hardened public opinion against a peaceful resolution and prepared the British for a long war. In a speech to the House of Commons on 18 June 1940 he stated: "What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin."
Britain's rejection of German terms was emphatic. In an effort to finish the war in the West, Hitler ordered preparation of an invasion plan on 16 July. He hoped to frighten Britain into peace before the invasion was launched and used the invasion preparations as a means to apply pressure. The plan was prepared by the OKW (Armed Forces High Command). The operation, code-named Seelöwe (Sealion), was planned for mid-September 1940 and called for landings on Britain's south coast, backed by an airborne assault. All preparations were to be made by mid-August.
Sealion was a deeply flawed plan, suffering from a lack of resources—particularly sea transport—and disagreements between the German Navy and Army. With the threatening bulk of the Royal Navy within a day's steaming of the English Channel, it seems unlikely in hindsight that the plan could ever have worked. On one thing all the German services agreed: the plan was impossible unless the Luftwaffe could win air superiority. With control of the air the Royal Navy could be beaten off and the British defences pummelled into submission. So the first task at hand was to win air superiority by destroying the RAF as a fighting force. A plan was hatched to attack RAF airfields and aircraft production centres. The Luftwaffe commander, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring called his plans Adlerangriff (Eagle Attack), which would begin on 11 August, or Adlertag (Eagle Day), with an all-out attack.
Before the start of Adlertag there was a month of attacks on convoys in the English Channel. This period of fighting was called Kanalkampf (Channel Battle) by the Germans and was used as an opportunity to test the RAF's defences and lure their fighters up to fight. The RAF dates the beginning of the battle from the first convoy attacks on 10 July 1940.
German strategy was influenced by pre-war theories on strategic bombing, such as those espoused by Giulio Douhet. This stressed the air assault, the weakness of air defence, and the effects of terror bombing on public morale. After the Spanish Civil War the emphasis of German air operations had shifted toward a more tactical force. In Poland and France, the Luftwaffe had operated jointly with the Army, creating the Blitzkrieg or "lightning war". However, in the Battle of Britain the Luftwaffe had to operate alone, not as support for an advancing Army but as a decisive weapon in its own right. There remained a strong belief in the power of strategic bombing and the battle was seen by Göring as an opportunity to prove what his air force could do.
The Luftwaffe regrouped after the Battle of France into three Luftflotten (Air Fleets) on Britain's southern and northern flanks. Luftflotte 2, commanded by Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring was responsible for the bombing of southeast England and the London area. Luftflotte 3, commanded by Generalfeldmarschall Hugo Sperrle was responsible for the West Country, Midlands and northwest England. Luftflotte 5, commanded by Generaloberst Hans-Jurgen Stumpff from his headquarters in Norway, had responsibility for the north of England and Scotland. As the battle progressed, command responsibility shifted, with Luftflotte 3 taking more responsibility for the night Blitz while the main attack fell upon Luftflotte 2's shoulders. Late in the battle an Italian expeditionary force, the Corpo Aereo Italiano, briefly joined the fighting.
Initial Luftwaffe estimates of the duration of the campaign was for four days to defeat the RAF's Fighter Command in southern England, followed by four weeks in which bombers and long-range fighters would mop up the rest of the country and destroy Britain's aircraft industry. The plan was to begin attacks on airfields near to the coast, gradually rolling subsequent attacks inland toward London and the ring of Sector airfields defending it. Broadly, the Luftwaffe kept to this scheme, but its commanders had differences of opinion on strategy. The commander of Luftflotte 3, Hugo Sperrle, wanted to eradicate the air defence infrastructure by bombing. His counterpart in Luftflotte 2, Albert Kesselring, demanded to attack London directly—either to bombard the British government into submission or draw RAF fighters up into a decisive battle. Göring did nothing to clarify strategy between his commanders, obsessed as he was with maintaining his own powerbase in the Luftwaffe and indulging his outdated beliefs on air fighting which were later to lead to tactical and strategic errors.
The Luftwaffe was ill-served by their lack of intelligence on the British defences. The German intelligence services were fractured, riven by rivalries and their overall performance was amateurish. By 1940 there were few or no German agents operating in Britain and a handful of bungled attempts to insert spies into the country were foiled. This meant that the Luftwaffe had almost no recent knowledge of the workings of the RAF's air defences: in particular of the crucial command and control system that had been built before the war. Even when good information existed, such as 5th Abteilung's November 1939 assessment of Fighter Command strengths and capabilities, it was ignored if it didn't match received wisdom. For much of the battle the Luftwaffe operated 'blind', unaware of their enemy's true strengths, capabilities and deployments. Many times the leadership believed Fighter Command strength had collapsed, while raids against supposed fighter airfields fell instead on bomber or coastal defence installations. The results of bombing and air fighting were exaggerated, resulting in a Luftwaffe leadership that became increasingly disconnected from reality. This lack of leadership and solid intelligence meant that the Germans did not adopt any consistent strategy, even when the RAF had its back to the wall.
The Dowding System
The Battle of Britain campaign made the eight-gun monoplane fighters of the RAF—the Spitfire and Hurricane—into legends. However, the keystone of the British defence was the complex machinery of detection, command and control that ran the battle. This was known as the 'Dowding System' after its chief architect: Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, the leader of RAF Fighter Command.
Dowding's system began with early warning detection of incoming raids by radar. Radar stations codenamed Chain Home lined the coast, watching enemy raids form up over France and warning when they began to move. Raiders that penetrated the radar chain were picked up by the Observer Corps which would track the raids visually from a network of ground posts. Reports from radar and observers were passed back to 'filtering stations' that sorted and organised the information. This was then passed on to the Fighter Command headquarters at Stanmore and the HQ of each fighter Group. The information would appear on plotting tables: large maps on which counters marking the incoming raids would be moved. RAF officers known as Fighter Controllers could then order a response from their front-line squadrons.
It is unclear how much the British intercepts of the Enigma cipher, used for high-security German radio communications, affected the battle. Ultra, the information obtained from Enigma intercepts, gave the highest echelons of Britain's command a view of German intentions but it seems that little of this material filtered down to Hugh Dowding's desk. However, the 'Y' radio listening service, monitoring the patterns of Luftwaffe radio traffic, contributed considerably to the early warning of raids.
Britain's airspace was divided up into Groups. 10 Group defended Wales and the West Country and was commanded by Air Vice-Marshal Sir Quintin Brand. 11 Group covered the southeast of England and the critical approaches to London and was commanded by Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park. 12 Group defended the Midlands and East Anglia and was led by Air Vice-Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory. Finally, 13 Group covered the north of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland and was commanded by Air Vice-Marshal Richard Saul.
The Group areas were subdivided into Sectors, each commanding between two and four squadrons. Sector stations, comprising an aerodrome with a command post, were the heart of this organization, though they also had satellite airfields to disperse squadrons to. Group HQs would pass filtered information down to the sector stations and instruct them to 'scramble' their squadrons into the air. Once airborne, the squadrons would be commanded by radio-telephone (R/T) from their sector station. Squadrons could be ordered to patrol airfields or vital targets, or be 'vectored' to intercept incoming raids.
Though it was the most sophisticated air defence system in the world at that time, the Dowding System had many limitations. The RDF radar was subject to significant errors and the Observer Corps had difficulties tracking raids at night and in bad weather. R/T communications with airborne fighters were restricted because of the RAF's use of High-Frequency (HF) radio sets. HF radio was limited in range, preventing sector stations from commanding squadrons flying near the coast. It was also restricted to a single frequency per squadron, making it impossible to communicate between squadrons. Finally, the system for tracking RAF fighters, known as HF/DF or "Huff-Duff", restricted sectors to a maximum of four squadrons in the air.
In spite of this RAF Fighter Command was able to achieve high levels of efficiency, at times achieving interception rates greater than 80%. The R/T problems were solved late in the battle with the adoption of Very High-Frequency (VHF) radio sets which gave clearer voice communications, had longer range and provided multiple channels. For all its faults the RAF had a system of ground control that allowed their fighters to be where they were needed. The Luftwaffe, with no such system, was always at a disadvantage.
The Luftwaffe varied their tactics considerably to try to find a way through the RAF defences. They launched many free-roving fighter sweeps, known as Freie Jagd or "Free Hunts" to try to draw up RAF fighters. However, the RAF fighter controllers were often able to detect the free hunts and manoeuvre squadrons around them. The Luftwaffe also tried using small formations of bombers as bait, covering them with large numbers of escorts. This was more successful, but escort duty tied the fighters to the bombers' slow speed and made them more vulnerable. Casualties were greatest amongst the escort units.
Standard tactics for raids soon became an amalgam of techniques. A free hunt would precede a raid to try and sweep any defenders out of the raid's path. The bombers would penetrate at altitudes between 10,000 and 16,000 feet, sometimes closely escorted by fighters. A 'detached' escort, or 'top cover' would fly above the bombers and maintain a distant watch.
Luftwaffe tactics were influenced by their fighters, which were divided into single-engined Me 109 and twin-engined Me 110 types. The Me 110 Zerstörer (Destroyer fighters) soon proved to be too vulnerable to the nimble single-engined RAF fighters. Soon, they had to be given escorts of their own and were eventually restricted in their employment. This meant that the bulk of fighter duties fell on the Me 109. Fighter tactics were then complicated by the Luftwaffe bomber crews, who demanded more close protection against the RAF. They had the ear of Göring who after the hard-fought battles of 15 August and 18 August was only too pleased to order an increase in close escort duties. This shackled many more Me 109s to the bombers, and though they were more successful at protecting the bombing forces, casualties amongst the fighters mounted.
The weight of the battle fell upon the RAF's 11 Group. Keith Park's tactics were to dispatch individual squadrons to intercept raids. The intention was to subject attackers to continual attacks by relatively small numbers of aircraft and try to break up the tight formations of bombers. Once formations had fallen apart, straggling bombers could be picked off one by one. Where multiple squadrons reached a raid the procedure was for the slower Hurricanes to tackle the bombers while the more agile Spitfires held up the fighter escort. However, this ideal was not always achieved and sometimes the Spitfires and Hurricanes reversed roles.
In the early phases of the battle the RAF was hamstrung by its reliance on obsolete fighting drills. These restricted their squadrons to tight formations of three aircraft (or 'vics') and by-the-book attacks. The German pilots dubbed the vics "Idiotenreihen" ("rows of idiots") because they left squadrons vulnerable to attack. They employed the looser and more flexible four-ship 'finger four' developed in the Spanish Civil War. Eventually RAF pilots began to adopt the German formation with some success.
The fact that 'sweeps' by German fighters not escorting bomber were often ignored by fighter command seems to reinforce the idea that Dowding sought always to preserve his fighter force to fight another day.
During the battle, some commanders, notably Trafford Leigh-Mallory of 12 Group, proposed that squadrons should be formed into Big Wings to attack the enemy en masse. Proponents of this tactic claimed that interceptions in large numbers caused greater enemy losses while reducing their own casualties. Opponents pointed out that the big wings would take too long to form up, and that the strategy ran a greater risk of fighters being caught on the ground refuelling. Post-war analysis agrees that Dowding and Park's approach was best for 11 Group. However, the controversy affected Park's career after the battle, and contributed to Dowding's eventual dismissal from Fighter Command.
The Battle can be roughly divided into four phases:
- 10 July - 11 August: Kanalkampf, the Channel battles.
- 12 August - 23 August: Adlerangriff, the early assault against the coastal airfields.
- 24 August - 6 September: The Luftwaffe targets the airfields. The critical phase of the battle.
- 7 September onwards: The day attacks switch to London.
The Kanalkampf comprised a series of running fights above convoys of freighter vessels running through the English Channel. In general, these battles off the coast tended to favour the Germans whose bomber escorts massively outnumbered the convoy patrols. Eventually the number of ship-sinkings became so great that the British Admiralty cancelled all further convoys through the Channel. However, these early fights provided both sides with experience. They also gave the first indications that some of the aircraft, such as the RAF's Defiant turret-fighter and the Luftwaffe's Me 110 were not up to the intense dogfighting that would characterize the battle.
The weather, which was to prove an important feature of the campaign, delayed Adlertag until 13 August. But on the 12th the first attempt was made to blind the Dowding system when aircraft from the specialist fighter-bomber unit Erprobungsgruppe 210 attacked four radar stations. Three stations were briefly taken off the air but were back working within six hours. The raids appeared to show that the British radars were difficult to knock out for any length of time. But the Luftwaffe's failure to mount repeated attacks on them allowed the RAF to get the back on the air.
Adlertag opened with a series of attacks on coastal airfields, used as forward landing grounds for the RAF fighters. As the week drew on the airfield attacks moved further inland and repeated raids were made on the radar chain. 15 August saw "The Greatest Day" when the Luftwaffe mounted the largest number of sorties of the campaign. This day saw the one major intervention by Luftflotte 5 in the battle with an attack on the north of England. Believing the strength of Fighter Command to be concentrated away in the south, raiding forces from Denmark and Norway ran into strong resistance. Inadequately escorted by long-ranged Me 110 Zerstörers, the bombers were shot down in large numbers. As a result of the casualties Luftflotte 5 would not appear in strength again in the campaign.
18 August, which saw the greatest number of casualties to both sides, has been dubbed "The Hardest Day". Following the grinding battles of the 18th, exhaustion and the weather reduced operations for most of a week, allowing the Luftwaffe to review their performance. The "Hardest Day" had sounded the end for the Ju 87 Stuka dive-bomber in the campaign. This veteran of the Blitzkrieg was simply too vulnerable to fighter attack over Britain and to preserve the Stuka force Göring withdrew it from the fighting. This removed the Luftwaffe's main precision-bombing weapon and shifted the burden of pin-point attacks on the already-stretched Erprobungsgruppe 210. But Göring was not finished: the Me 110 Zerstörer had proven itself too fragile for dogfighting with single-engined fighters and its participation would also be scaled back. It would only be used when range required it or when sufficient single-engined escort could be provided.
Göring made yet another fateful decision: to order more bomber escorts at the expense of free-hunting sweeps. To achieve this the weight of the attack now fell on Luftflotte 2 and most of the Me 109 forces in Luftflotte 3 were transferred to Kesselring's command, reinforcing the fighter bases in the Pas de Calais. Stripped of its fighters, Luftflotte 3 would concentrate on the night bombing campaign.
Finally, Göring ordered the attacks on the radar chain stopped. The attacks were seen as unsuccessful and neither the technically inept Reichsmarschall nor his subordinates realized how vital the Chain Home stations were to the defence. It was known that radar provided some early warning of raids, but the belief amongst fighter pilots was that anything that brought up the 'Tommies' to fight was to be encouraged.
Luftwaffe targets RAF airfields
From 24 August onwards, the battle was essentially a slugging match between Kesselring's Luftflotte 2 and Keith Park's 11 Group. The Luftwaffe concentrated all their strength on knocking out Fighter Command and made repeated attacks on the airfields. Of the 33 heavy attacks in the next two weeks, 24 were against airfields. The key sector stations were hit repeatedly: Biggin Hill and Hornchurch four times each, Debden and North Weald twice each. Croydon, Gravesend, Rochford, Hawkinge and Manston were also attacked in strength. No less than seven attempts were made against Eastchurch, which was not a Fighter Command aerodrome but was believed to be by the intelligence-starved Germans. At times these raids knocked out the sector stations, threatening the integrity of the Dowding system. Emergency measures had to be taken to keep the sectors operating.
These were desperate times for the RAF, which was also taking many casualties in the air. Aircraft production could replace aircraft but replacement pilots were barely keeping place with losses, and novice flyers were being shot down in droves. At this point the multinational nature of the RAF came to the fore. With many pilots from the Dominions already serving in Fighter Command—Australians, South Africans, New Zealanders and Canadians—they were bolstered by the arrival of fresh Czechoslovakian and Polish squadrons. In addition there were other nationals, including Free French, Belgian and some American pilots serving amongst the squadrons.
The RAF at least had the advantage of fighting over home territory. Pilots who bailed out of their shot-down aircraft could be back at their airfields within hours. For Luftwaffe aircrews, a bail out over England meant capture, while parachuting into the English Channel often meant drowning or death from exposure. Morale began to suffer and kanalkrankheit or 'Channel Sickness' – a form of combat fatigue – began to appear amongst the German pilots. The replacement problem was even worse than the British. Though the Luftwaffe always maintained its numerical superiority, the slow appearance of replacement aircraft and pilots put increasing strain on the resources of the remaining attackers.
And yet, the Luftwaffe was winning this battle of the airfields. Another fortnight of this pounding and the RAF may have been forced to withdraw their squadrons from the south of England. This was not clear to the Luftwaffe command, which had watched its bomber force start to waste away and had grown desperate to deliver on the original timetable. They could not understand why the RAF hadn't yet collapsed, or how they were always able to get fighters to the place they were needed, no matter how many raids were sent. Something needed to be done to force the RAF into a decisive battle.
On 4 September Hitler lifted his restriction on bombing London, following RAF raids on Berlin on the night of 25 August/26 August, itself a reprisal for an accidental bombing of the British capital. The Berlin raid had hurt Göring's pride, as he had previously claimed the British would never be allowed to bomb the city. Kesselring seized his chance and proposed a strategy change. In the face of Sperrle's arguments that attacks on the airfields should continue, Kesselring persuaded the Reichsmarschall to attack London. The raids would either panic the British population into submission, or it would force the "last fifty Spitfires" into the sky where they could be annihilated. This attack was no longer seen as a prerequisite for Seelöwe, but was meant to be decisive in itself.
Raids on London
On 7 September, the first London raid was launched, attacking docks in the East End of the city. Over the coming days massive raids were launched again and again: some targeting the docks but others bombing indiscriminately. The RAF did come up but in greater numbers than the Luftwaffe expected. The 12 Group Big Wing was deployed for the first time, giving the German pilots a fright. Over the coming days the attacks on London continued. The break from bombing the airfields gave the RAF critical breathing-space. It was the turning-point.
Without a doubt the most damaging aspect of the switch to London was the longer range. The Me 109 escorts had a limited fuel capacity, and by the time they arrived over the city, they had only ten minutes of flying time before they had to turn for home. This left many raids completely undefended as their fighters ran back to their airfields. The result was a series of disastrous raids, climaxing on 15 September when the RAF was able to inflict its greatest number of casualties on the enemy.
On 19 September, Operation Seelöwe was postponed indefinitely. But the Battle of Britain was not quite over. The daylight air offensive would trickle on until the end of the year. Fighters would be adapted as fast-raiding bombers delivering pinprick attacks across southern England, and the Italian expeditionary force would make a fleeting comic-opera appearance. From October 1940 until the beginning of Operation Barbarossa, almost 40,000 additional sorties were flown and more than 38,000 tons of high explosive bombs and 3,500 tons of incendiary bombs were dropped.
Both sides in the battle made exaggerated claims of numbers of enemy aircraft shot down. In general claims were two to three times the actual numbers, due to confusion in the whirling air battles. However, post-war analysis of records has shown that between July and September the RAF lost 1,023 fighter aircraft to all causes, while the Luftwaffe losses stood at 1,887, of which 873 were fighters. Polish pilots scored 201 out of that number. To the RAF figure should be added an additional 376 Bomber Command and 148 Coastal Command aircraft that conducted vital bombing, mining and reconnaissance operations in defence of the country.
Overall the Battle of Britain was a significant British victory. Though the battle was small in terms of combatants and casualties, had the Germans triumphed the war would have taken a very different path. The British victory marked the first failure of Hitler's war machine. It also signalled a shift in American opinion at a time when many Americans believed that Britain could not survive.
Modern military historians have suggested the battle was unwinnable for the Luftwaffe. Their numerical majority was not sufficient to achieve superiority. Dowding's and Park's strategy of choosing when to engage the enemy whilst maintaining a coherent force was totally vindicated.
The theories of strategic bombing, which hinged on the collapse of public morale, were undone by British defiance in the face of the day and night Blitzes. The switch to a terror bombing strategy allowed the RAF to recuperate and to defend against the attacks. Even if the attacks on the 11 Group airfields had continued, the British could have afforded to withdraw to the Midlands out of German fighter range and continued the battle from there. Post-war records show that British aircraft were being replaced faster than those of the Germans; the RAF maintained its strength even as the Luftwaffe's declined. This was due in part that the fighting was largely over British soil. Thus any German personnel who was forced to bail out was usually captured by the authorities and thus lost to Germany. In contrast, British and allied pilots in that situation typically bailed out in friendly territory which enabled them to quickly return to duty, sometimes on the same day. In terms of losses of aircraft and experienced aircrew the battle was a blow the Luftwaffe never fully recovered from.
The terror strategy in itself could not force the British to surrender. Even though the Germans launched some spectacular attacks against important British industries, they could not destroy the British industrial potential. But hindsight does not disguise the fact that the threat to the RAF was very real and for the participants it seemed as if there was a "Narrow Margin" between victory and defeat. The victory was as much psychological as physical. It turned a tide of defeats and heartened the enemies of Nazism.
Total British civilian losses from July to December 1940 were 23,002 dead and 32,138 wounded with one of the largest single raids occurring on December 29, 1940 in which almost 3000 civilians died.
Winston Churchill summed up the effect of the battle and the contribution of the RAF in the immortal words: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few" (speech to the House of Commons on August 20 1940). Pilots who fought in the battle have been known as The Few ever since.
September 15 is celebrated in Britain as "Battle of Britain Day", marking the climactic battles above London in daylight.
In British military tradition, the Battle of Britain is remembered with at least as much pride as Waterloo and Agincourt. In addition, the battle has entered popular legend around the world as an inspiring story of how a small island, standing alone against Nazi tyranny, managed to defeat a powerful enemy.
Most importantly, the end of the Battle of Britain allowed the UK to rebuild its military forces and establish itself as an Allies stronghold. Britain later served as a base from which Operation Overlord, aka the Battle of Normandy, was launched against Nazi forces in Europe.
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