Battle of Britain

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Britain stood alone, protected only by the Royal Navy, the moat of the Channel, an army almost devoid of guns, 59 Royal Air Force (RAF) fighter squadrons, and grim determination. While the German armies were defeating France, Hitler directed preliminary planning for the invasion of Britain (Operation Sea Lion). It soon became apparent that the defeat of the RAF was a vital preliminary to any invasion attempt. Although the Luftwaffe initiated strikes against coastal shipping early in July, it was the end of the month before the necessary bases could be built up in France and the Low Countries for the air offensive to begin in earnest. In an air battle that lasted until the end of October, the German object throughout was to destroy RAF fighter strength, thus providing a free field for German bombers. To achieve this goal, the Luftwaffe concentrated primarily against ports and shipping until August 12, and from August 13 to September 6 against airfields and aircraft factories.

As had been proved in the skies above Dunkerque, the British Spitfire fighters were superior to the German mainstay, the Messerschmitt 109, in maneuverability and armament and at least its equal in speed. Moreover, the Germans had to contend with the valor of British pilots and the efficiency of British radar and ground defenses. In the first phase of the battle, German fighters flew from 5,000 to 10,000 feet above their. bombers; this enabled part of the RAF fighters to make a holding attack against the German fighters while the others struck at the bombers. In the second phase the Luftwaffe switched tactics to provide fighter cover at lower levels, but the British countered by intercepting the attackers farther out. In both phases the RAF inflicted disproportionately heavy losses on the Luftwaffe. On August 16, for example, the Germans lost 144 of 1,000 planes, while the British lost only 18. Unrealistic claims by Luftwaffe pilots soon confused the Luftwaffe command: on August 16, the pilots erroneously claimed 65 British planes. When this led to the inevitable assumption that the RAF’s first line of defense had been broken, the Germans switched on September 7 to inland targets, including cities, in the hope of bringing to battle RAF reserves. Thus began the large-scale raids on cities like London and Coventry, which inflicted heavy damage and high civilian casualties but did little to change the ratio of British and German losses in planes.

By September 12, continued heavy air attacks and a concentration of barges in Belgian and French ports convinced many persons in Britain that invasion was imminent. Actually, no invasion was ever ordered or attempted. On September 17, Hitler tacitly admitted defeat in the Battle of Britain by postponing the invasion indefinitely. During the last week of September continued high German losses brought an end to large-scale daylight raids. As the Luftwaffe turned to night attacks, mainly against London, the battle took on the aspects of a siege. Although air attacks would continue through much of the. war, the Battle of Britain per se was over by mid-October as Hitler turned his attention toward the Balkans and the Soviet Union.

In the Battle of Britain the RAF lost a total of 790 fighters; the Luftwaffe, 1,389 planes of all types. As an indication of the thin margin on which the RAF operated, there were only 570 Hurricanes and Spitfires on hand at the height of the battle. “Never in the field of human conflict,” said Churchill, “was so much owed by so many to so few.” Britain had stood alone, and Britain had won.

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