Fighting the Blue: The Battle of Britain

James Holland presents the lesser-told German point of view and highlighting the role of those who supported 'The Few' during the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940

battle of britarn

The Battle of Britain was the first major battle to be fought entirely in the air. It was the largest and most sustained bombing campaign attempted by the Luftwaffe to terrorise the people, destroy aircraft production and gain control of British airspace ahead of a planned invasion.

CHURCHILL FOREWARNS

After the British evacuation of Dunkirk and the French surrender in June 1940, Hitler was confident the war was won. But this wasn't to be. Winston Churchill refused to negotiate an armistice and to give in. Churchill foresaw the danger and prepared the British for a long war in a speech to the House of Commons in June 1940 stating: "What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin."

FROM OPERATION SEA LION TO EAGLE ATTACK

Hitler prepared an invasion plan to pressurise Britain into submission. The OKW, the German Armed Forces High Command devised Operation Sea Lion scheduled for mid-September 1940, aiming to attack the south coast, with airborne back up. But this wasn't the best plan. Lacking sea transport, the divided German Navy and Army agreed only on one thing: the Luftwaffe would have to gain control of British airspace before they launched their attack. Their first mission dubbed the 'Eagle Attack' by Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring was to raid RAF airfields and aircraft production centres from 11 August.

THE LUFTWAFFE STRATEGY

For the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe abandoned more tactical and swift Blitzkrieg approach in favour of heavy bombing. They planned to defeat the RAF, and destroy the aircraft industry within a month by splitting up into three Luftflotten covering different geographical locations.

SMALL EXPECTATIONS

Although the Luftwaffe had tested British fighter planes' capacities during fighting in the Channel in July, they lacked real intelligence on the British operations. The Luftwaffe operated almost blindly throughout the Battle of Britain with very little knowledge of the RAF's air defence capacity or command and control systems.

THE DOWDING SYSTEM

Everyone knows that the legendary Spitfire and Hurricane eight-gun monoplane fighters were the pride and joy of the RAF, but the real hero of the defence was the Dowding System.

Named after its creator, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, the leader of RAF Fighter Command, the early detection system was invaluable. Although it wasn't fool proof, the detection radar system and control chain enabled Fighter Command headquarters to spot raiders, monitor their progress and dispatch response squadrons. The information was used in conjunction with the 'Y' radio listening service picking up Luftwaffe radio traffic patterns, and the Enigma Cipher. However the system was wrought with problems, from poor radar tracking at night and bad weather and the lack of radio communications between command and squadrons.

RAIDS ON LONDON

Following RAF raids on Berlin in late August, the ban on London raids was lifted and the focus switched from bombing airfields to the city. The plan was that the raids would panic the British population into submission, or simply force the last Spitfires into the sky to be destroyed. The first raid came on 7th September hitting the docklands, and East End. Indiscriminate raids continued over the next few days and, despite heavy civilian casualties, the RAF was given an opportunity to regroup.

A CRUCIAL VICTORY

The battle may seem small in terms of combatants and casualties but its impact was key. It gave Britain time to rebuild its military forces and set itself up as an Allies stronghold. It showed the flaws in Hitler's war machine and proved to the world, and especially America that Britain could survive. The tide had turned. The victory was as much psychological as physical. Churchill summed up the effect of the battle and the RAF's role with the words:

Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few

NOT ALONE...

Short of pilots, the RAF welcomed foreign aid. 139 Poles, 98 New Zealanders, 86 Canadians, 84 Czechoslovakians, 29 Belgians, 21 Australians, 20 South Africans, 13 French, 10 Irish, 7 Americans, a Jamaican, a Palestinian and a South Rhodesian joined the RAF in the fighting. Josef Frantisek, flying with 303 Polish Squadron, was the most efficient allied ace of the Battle of Britain, with 17 kills. The Battle of Britain claimed 498 RAF pilots.

IMPORTANT DATES ON THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN

10 July - 11 August: Kanalkampf, the Channel battles.
12 August - 23 August: Adlerangriff, the assault against the coastal airfields.
24 August - 6 September: Luftwaffe airfield attacks
7 September onwards: daytime attacks on London.
15 September: Celebrations of "Battle of Britain Day" today

KEY FACTS

WHEN?

10 July, 1940 to 31 October 1940 with main daylight battles from August.

WHERE?

British airspace, mostly over Southern England
WHO? British and Allies vs. Germany.
Total: 700 fighters,1,260 bombers; 316 dive-bombers; 1,089 fighters

WHAT?

A major part of World War II. The attempt by the German Luftwaffe to gain control of British airspace and destroy the Royal Air Force in order to launch an amphibious invasion of Britain, codename Operation Sea Lion.

BRITISH CASUALTIES:

1,547 aircraft; 27,450 dead civilians, 32,138 wounded civilians; 498 RAF pilots

GERMAN CASUALTIES:

1,887 aircraft