Battle of Britain

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Battle of Britain
Part of the Second World War
Battle of britain air observer.jpg
An Observer Corps spotter scans the skies of London.
Date 10 July – 31 October 1940[nb 1]
Location United Kingdom airspace
Result Decisive British victory
[nb 2][2][nb 3][nb 4][5][6][nb 5][nb 6][9][10][nb 7][nb 8]
Participants
 United Kingdom[info 1]
 Canada[nb 9]
Nazi Germany Germany
Italy Italy
Commanders and leaders
United Kingdom Hugh Dowding
United Kingdom Keith Park
United Kingdom Trafford Leigh-Mallory
Nazi Germany Hermann Göring
Nazi Germany Albert Kesselring
Nazi Germany Hugo Sperrle
Strength
1,963 serviceable aircraft[nb 10] 2,550 serviceable aircraft. [nb 11]

[nb 12]

Casualties and losses
544 aircrew killed[3][18][19]
422 aircrew wounded[20]
1,547 aircraft destroyed[nb 13]
2,698 aircrew killed[21]
967 captured
638 missing bodies identified by British Authorities[22]
1,887 aircraft destroyed[nb 14]
  1. The RAF was the only sovereign Allied air force; the Polish Air Force was not given sovereignty until June 1944[13]
Heinkel He 111 bombers during the Battle of Britain

The Battle of Britain[23] was an attack by the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) on Great Britain during the summer and autumn of 1940.[24]

The first objective of the campaign was to gain air superiority over the Royal Air Force (RAF), especially Fighter Command.

The name comes from a famous speech delivered by Prime Minister Winston Churchill in the House of Commons: "The Battle of France is over. I expect the Battle of Britain is about to begin..." [25][26]

The Battle of Britain was the first major campaign to be fought entirely by air forces, and was also the largest and most sustained aerial bombing campaign to that date.

Part I: Strategic targets[change | change source]

From July 1940 coastal shipping convoys and shipping centres, such as Portsmouth, were the main targets. A month later the Luftwaffe shifted its attacks to RAF airfields and infrastructure (other useful war targets). As the battle progressed the Luftwaffe also targeted aircraft factories and ground infrastructure.

Coastal radar stations were bombed, so that at one point only one radar mast was standing. The British used a back-up system of human observers to get information to the operational centres of Fighter Command. Most historians agree this part of the campaign went in Germany's favour.[27]

Part II: Civilian targets[change | change source]

Eventually the Luftwaffe switched to attacking population centres, such as towns and cities, as well as factories. After the RAF bombed Berlin, and German air force bases in France, Adolf Hitler withdrew his directive not to bomb population centres and ordered attacks on British cities.[27]p305 The attacks on civilians was terror bombing tactics designed to cause panic and damage morale.

On 7 September 1940, a massive series of raids with nearly four hundred bombers and more than six hundred fighters targeted docks on the Thames in London, day and night.

The RAF 11 Group rose to meet them, in greater numbers than the Luftwaffe expected. 12 Group's Big Wing took twenty minutes to gain formation, missing its intended target, but encountering another formation of bombers while still climbing. They returned, apologetic about their limited success, and blamed the delay on being requested too late.[28][29]

The Luftwaffe began to abandon their morning raids, with attacks on London starting late in the afternoon for 57 consecutive nights of attacks.[30]

Fighter Command had been at its lowest ebb, short of men and machines, and the break from airfield attacks allowed them to recover. This meant that, week by week, the defenders were getting stronger, and the losses suffered by the Lutfwaffe were growing.

On 15 September two massive waves of German attacks were decisively repulsed by the RAF, with every aircraft of 11 Group being used on that day. The total casualties on this critical day were 60 German and 26 RAF aircraft shot down. The German defeat caused Hitler to order, two days later, the "postponement" of preparations for the invasion of Britain. Henceforth, in the face of mounting losses in men, aircraft and the lack of adequate replacements, the Luftwaffe switched from daylight to night-time bombing.

On 27 September, a Junkers Ju 88 returning from a raid on London was shot down in Kent.[31] The German airmen survived to fight a battle against British troops stationed locally. It is said to be the first time in nearly 300 years that armed invaders had fought with British soldiers on British soil.[31]

The Dowding system[change | change source]

The keystone of the British defence was the detection, command, and control which ran the battle. This was the 'Dowding System', after its chief architect, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, the leader of RAF Fighter Command.

The core of Dowding's system was the use of Radio Direction Finding (RDF, later called radar, for radio detection and ranging).[32] Its use, plus by information by the Royal Observer Corps, was crucial. It allowed the RAF to intercept incoming German aircraft.[33] Radar operators were linked via telephone (whose wires were laid deep underground with concrete anti-bomb protection)[33]p47 to an operational centre. This centre was Fighter Command control at Bentley Priory.[33] During the Battle several Coastal Command and Fleet Air Arm units came under Fighter Command control.

Fighters[change | change source]

The Luftwaffe's Messerschmitt Bf 109E and 110C squared up against the RAF's workhorse Hawker Hurricane Mk I and the less numerous Supermarine Spitfire Mk I. The Bf 109E had a better climb rate and was 10 to 30 mph faster than the Hurricane, depending on altitude.[27]p266 In September 1940 the more powerful Mk IIa series 1 Hurricanes started entering service although only in small numbers.[34] This version was capable of a maximum speed of 342 mph, some 25 to 30 mph faster than the Mk I.[35]

The performance of the Spitfire over Dunkirk came as a surprise, although the German pilots retained a strong belief that the 109 was the superior fighter.[36] However, the Bf 109E had a much larger turning circle than either the Hurricane or the Spitfire.[27] The two British fighters were equipped with eight Browning 303 machine guns, while most Bf 109Es had two machine guns and two wing cannons. The Bf 109E and the Spitfire were superior to each other in key areas; for instance, at some altitudes, the Bf 109 could out-climb the British fighter.

Consequences[change | change source]

The failure of Nazi Germany to achieve its objectives of destroying Britain's air defences, or forcing Britain to negotiate an armistice or an outright surrender, is considered its first major defeat and one of the crucial turning points in the war.[27]p388

If Germany had gained air superiority, Adolf Hitler might have launched Operation Sea Lion, a planned amphibious and airborne invasion of Britain.

References[change | change source]

  1. Note: The British date the battle from 10 July to 31 October 1940, which represented the most intense period of daylight bombing. Foreman 1988, p. 8. German historians usually place the beginning of the battle in mid-August 1940 and end it in May 1941, with the withdrawal of the bomber units in preparation for Operation Barbarossa, the campaign against the Soviet Union, which began on 22 June 1941. Foreman 1988, p. 8
  2. Quoting Luftwaffe General Werner Kreipe: Terraine states the outcome as "decisive", Kreipe describes it as a strategic failure and turning point in the Second World War. Kreipe also states the "German Air Force was bled almost to death, and suffered losses that could never be made good throughout the course of the war". Quoting Dr Klee "The invasion and subjugation of Britain was made to depend on that battle, and its outcome therefore materially influenced the further course and fate of the war as a whole".[1]
  3. Fighter Command's victory was decisive. Not only had it survived, it ended the battle stronger than it had ever been. On 6 July its operational strength stood at 1,259 pilots. On 2 November, the figure was 1,796, an increase of over 40%. It had also seriously mauled its assailant. In a lecture held in Berlin on 2 February 1944, the intelligence officer of KG 2, Hauptmann Otto Bechle, showed that from August to December 1940 German fighter strength declined by 30% and bomber strength by 25%.[3]
  4. "The Battle was one of the great turning points in the Second World War—a defensive victory which saved the Island base and so, once Russia and the United States became involved, made future offensive victories possible."[4]
  5. "As it was, the pragmatism of Dowding and his Fighter Command staff, the self-sacrifice of their pilots and the innovation of radar inflicted on Nazi Germany its first defeat. The legacy of that defeat would be long delayed in its effects; but the survival of an independent Britain which it assured was the event that most certainly determined the downfall of Hitler's Germany."[7]
  6. "Given the ambiguous results of subsequent air campaigns against Germany. Japan, North Korea, and North Vietnam, it is probably fair to say that the Battle of Britain was the single most decisive air campaign in history."[8]
  7. "A decisive battle has been defined as one in which a 'contrary event would have essentially varied the drama of the world in all its subsequent stages'. By this reckoning, the Battle of Britain was certainly decisive."[11]
  8. Bungay quoting Drew Middleton in The Sky Suspended: In 1945 the Soviets asked Gerd von Rundstedt which battle of the war he considered to be most decisive. Expecting him to say "Stalingrad", he said "The Battle of Britain". The Soviets left immediately.[12]
  9. 1 RCAF Squadron was not formed under Article XV because the unit was formed in Canada in 1937. When it was sent to Britain in 1940, it was manned by RCAF (including some American) officers, paid at Canadian pay rates, and its Canadian built Hurricanes were supplied by the Canadian government. In effect 1 RCAF Sqn. was a sovereign Canadian unit under the operational control of the RAF.[14][15] By contrast the Polish and Czech manned squadrons were formed as RAF units and fell completely within the RAF's administrative and operational structure.
  10. 754 single-seat fighters, 149 two-seat fighters, 560 bombers and 500 coastal aircraft. The RAF fighter strength given is for 0900 1 July 1940, while bomber strength is for 11 July 1940.[16]
  11. Figures taken from Quartermaster General 6th Battalion returns on 10 August 1940. According to these, the Luftwaffe deployed 3,358 aircraft against Britain, of which 2,550 were serviceable. The force was made up by 934 single-seat fighters, 289 two-seat fighters, 1,481 medium bombers, 327 dive-bombers, 195 reconnaissance and 93 coastal aircraft, including unserviceable aircraft. The number of serviceable aircraft amounted to 805 single-seat fighters, 224 two-seat fighters, 998 medium bombers, 261 dive-bombers, 151 reconnaissance and 80 coastal aircraft.[17]
  12. The Luftwaffe possessed 4,074 aircraft, but not all of these were deployed against Britain. The force was made up of 1,107 single-seat fighters, 357 two-seat fighters, 1,380 medium bombers, 428 dive-bombers, 569 reconnaissance and 233 coastal aircraft, including unserviceable aircraft. The Luftwaffe air strength given is from the Quartermaster General 6th Battalion numbers for 29 June 1940.[16]
  13. 1,023 fighters, 376 bombers and 148 aircraft from Coastal Command.[source?]
  14. 873 fighters and 1,014 bombers destroyed.[3]
  1. Terraine 1985, p. 219.
  2. Shulman 2004, p. 63.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Bungay 2000, p. 368.
  4. Hough and Richards 2007, p. xv.
  5. Overy 2001, p. 267 in Addison and Crang's The Burning Blue quotes A.J.P Taylor "a true air war, even if on a small scale and had decisive strategic results".
  6. Deighton 1980, p. 213.
  7. Keegan 1997, p. 81.
  8. Buell 2002, p. 83.
  9. Terraine 1985, p. 181.
  10. Shirer 1991, p. 769.
  11. AJP Taylor 1974, p. 67.
  12. Bungay 2000, p. 386.
  13. Peszke 1980, p. 134.
  14. "World War II: The RCAF Overseas." airforce.forces.gc.ca, 3 April 2009. Retrieved: 6 February 2010.
  15. "No 1 (R.C.A.F.) Hurricane Squadron." the-battle-of-britain.co.uk. Retrieved: 6 February 2010.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Bungay 2000, p. 107.
  17. Wood and Dempster 2003, p. 318.
  18. Ramsay 1989, pp. 251–297.
  19. "Battle of Britain RAF and FAA role of honour." raf.mod.uk. Retrieved: 14 July 2008
  20. Wood and Dempster 2003, p. 309.
  21. Bungay 2000, p. 373.
  22. Overy 2001, p. 113.
  23. German: Luftschlacht um England or Luftschlacht um Großbritannien
  24. In practice, Northern Ireland and Scotland were out of reach by virue of their greater distance from airfields in Europe.
  25. "Battle of Britain 1940." battleofbritain.net. Retrieved: 28 June 2010.
  26. "Audio Clip of Churchill's speech." bbc.co.uk. Retrieved: 28 June 2010.
  27. 27.0 27.1 27.2 27.3 27.4 Bungay, Stephen. 2000. The most dangerous enemy: a history of the Battle of Britain. London: Aurum Press. ISBN 1-85410-721-6 (hardcover) ISBN 1-85410-801-8 (paperback)
  28. Putland, Alan L. "7 September 1940." Battle of Britain Historical Society. Retrieved:12 August 2009.
  29. Putland, Alan L. "7 September 1940 - The Aftermath." Battle of Britain Historical Society. Retrieved: 12 August 2009.
  30. Putland, Alan L. "8 September - 9 September 1940." Battle of Britain Historical Society. Retrieved: 12 August 2009.
  31. 31.0 31.1 Green, Ron and Mark Harrison. "Forgotten frontline exhibition tells how Luftwaffe fought with soldiers on Kent marshes." KentOnline, 30 September 2009. Retrieved: 21 August 2010.
  32. "RADAR means: Radio Detection and Ranging." NASA, 14 October 20017. Retrieved: 12 September 2010.
  33. 33.0 33.1 33.2 Korda, Michael. 2010. With wings like eagles: the untold story of the Battle of Britain. New York: Harper. ISBN 978-0-06-112536-2
  34. Ramsay, Winston, ed. 1989. The Battle of Britain then and now: Mk V. London: Battle of Britain Prints International Ltd. ISBN 0-900913-46-0.
  35. Mason, Francis K. 1991. Hawker aircraft since 1920. London: Putnam. ISBN 0-85177-839-9
  36. Holmes, Tony. 2007. Spitfire vs Bf 109: Battle of Britain. Osprey, London. ISBN 978-1-84603-190-8.