The Battle of Britain

How did the battle get its name?
On 18 June 1940, days after German forces had occupied Paris, and two weeks after Dunkirk, Winston Churchill delivered his “finest hour” speech in the Commons. “The battle of France is over,” he said. “I expect that the battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation.” In the first year of the War, Germany had conquered Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Low Countries and France. Having gained control over the Atlantic coastline, Hitler expected Britain to seek a peace agreement. But Churchill declined – and Hitler set about launching “Operation Sea Lion” in a bid to conquer the UK and bring the war on the Western Front to a quick end. But despite their military and aerial strength, the Nazis were acutely aware of Britain’s naval superiority – and realised the clear risks an amphibious invasion entailed.

What was the German strategy?
Hitler knew that for an invasion to succeed, Germany would have to gain control of the skies over Britain and the English Channel. The Luftwaffe, led by Hermann Göring, enjoyed clear advantages over the RAF: in July 1940, it had a corps of experienced pilots and at least 750 battle-ready fighter aircraft (primarily the excellent Messerschmitt Bf 109E). The RAF’s Fighter Command had 600 – mostly Hurricanes, slower and less nimble than the Bf 109E, and a smaller number of Spitfires. The RAF dates the start of the Battle of Britain to 10 July, with the Kanalkampf (Channel fight) – when German formations began to attack shipping in the Channel, to force Fighter Command to battle, and initiating what is now seen as the first major campaign fought entirely by air forces. On 1 August, Hitler issued Directive No. 17, to “establish the necessary conditions for the final conquest of England”.

How did the assault unfold?
Göring’s all-out assault on the mainland began on 13 August, dubbed Adlertag (Eagle Day). It was designed to destroy Fighter Command within four weeks. Wave after wave of aerial attacks were launched: 1,485 sorties on 13 August, and 2,000 two days later, attacking ports, airfields and factories from Dover to Dundee. Despite severe damage to its southern bases, Fighter Command resisted fiercely. 15 August was known as Black Thursday to Luftwaffe pilots, because they lost 76 aircraft, to Fighter Command’s 34. There were, however, blows to both sides: Biggin Hill airfield in Kent was badly damaged on 18 August, when 31 RAF fighters were destroyed and ten pilots killed. Overall, German losses were much heavier. Between 8 and 23 August, the RAF lost 204 aircraft, the enemy, 397.

Why did the RAF have the edge?
The “Few” (see box) performed heroically, outfighting the Germans in the air, despite flying planes which were mostly slower and had considerably less firepower than their opponents’. However, they were never as outnumbered as British propaganda has suggested. British aircraft factories produced more than Germany’s, meaning that the RAF’s fighter numbers actually grew during August, while the Luftwaffe’s shrank. It also had the home advantage: downed German pilots were captured, but the RAF’s could return to the fight; German fighters had a limited range. Britain also, crucially, had the world’s most advanced early-warning radar network. By contrast, German intelligence was very poor. And while Fighter Command is generally deemed to have been sensibly, if unimaginatively, led, Göring made some major blunders.

What mistakes did Göring make?
During the second half of August, the Luftwaffe made a series of focused attacks on Fighter Command’s airfields, radar stations and infrastructure. Many military historians believe that if Göring had continued this, he might have won the Battle of Britain. On 7 September, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding of Fighter Command warned the Air Ministry that his force was “going downhill”, due mostly to pilot losses. But in early September, the Nazis, frustrated by the lack of success and enraged by Bomber Command’s sporadic retaliatory attacks on Berlin, turned their energies to large-scale attacks on Britain’s cities. Designed to force the RAF to commit its reserves, these reached a climax on 15 September – remembered as Battle of Britain Day – when the Luftwaffe sent 600 fighters and 500 bombers to attack London. In the most dramatic encounter of the campaign, the RAF rallied in large numbers for dogfights in the skies above the capital.

What was the outcome?
Fighter losses were about equal on both sides, but German bombers were downed in unsustainable numbers: the vast invading formations looked awe-inspiring, but they were ripped apart by the RAF: 56 German planes were shot down. Bombing raids, meanwhile, had seriously damaged the Nazi invasion fleet. On 17 September, Hitler – who was always doubtful about invading Britain, and determined to attack Russia – gave the order to postpone Operation Sea Lion indefinitely. Instead, the Luftwaffe turned to night bombing: the Blitz.

How significant was the victory?
The Battle of Britain was not the David and Goliath struggle it is often portrayed as: the UK, after all, was a leading industrial power with a vast empire; and Hitler never committed anything like the resources to it that he devoted to invading Russia. But it was Nazi Germany’s first military setback, and most historians see it as a decisive one. Between 10 July and 31 October, the RAF lost 1,547 aircraft and 500 crew; the Luftwaffe, 1,887 planes and 2,700 crew. James Holland concludes in his 2010 history of the battle that “the myth does largely hold true”: it was one of the War’s “key turning points”, which confined Germany to “a long, attritional war on multiple fronts” that, ultimately, it could not win.