Date: From July 10, 1940, to October 31, 1940
Definition: A series of aerial bombings made by the Germans over British cities during World War II.
Significance: The Battle of Britain, designed to completely demoralize the British by destroying the nation's industrial and military infrastructure, was the first major battle to be fought almost entirely in the air.
By the end of June, 1940, the German army had conquered almost every country that had opposed it. Only Great Britain, protected by the English Channel, remained in the fight, even though it had lost much of its army on the Continent in fruitless support of its allies. Thus, when German chancellor Adolf Hitler offered peace to Britain, much of the world thought his offer would be accepted. When Britain refused, Hitler issued orders for an invasion, a vital preliminary to which would be the elimination of the British Royal Air Force (RAF).
To carry out the destruction of the RAF, the German Luftwaffe had 1,050 fighter aircraft and 1,600 bombers, based on airfields from Norway to the Atlantic coast of France. The actual number of these craft that were serviceable and available for operations varied from day to day. Against these, the RAF could field 550 single-seat fighters immediately available and serviceable, in about fifty squadrons stationed on airfields from the north of Scotland to the west of England. The figures of available aircraft for both sides varied as the battle progressed, but the proportions remained much the same.
Although the German bombers were the Luftwaffe's main agents of destruction, the fighters were the most important, because they could sweep away the RAF fighters to allow the bombers clear passage. Similarly, the fighters in service with the RAF were the only weapons that could stop the German bombers from ranging over the country.
The Luftwaffe's main fighter, the Messerschmitt Bf- 109E, could reach a speed of 355 miles per hour and an altitude of 36,000 feet, but it had an operating range of little more than 400 miles. This limitation meant that the Bf- 109E could spend a very small amount of time over the target area if it was to have sufficient fuel to return to base. The Luftwaffe also used the Messerschmitt Bf-110, a large twin-engine aircraft that was designed to fly long distances but could also take on defending fighters like its single-engine cousin, the Bf-109. However, the Bf-110 was quickly found to be more of a liability than an asset when confronted by the RAF's more nimble Spitfires and Hurricanes.
In defense of Great Britain, the RAF employed two types of single-engine fighter, the Spitfire and the Hurricane, of which the latter made up about three-fifths of the total. The Hurricane had a top speed of 330 miles per hour and could reach altitudes of 34,000 feet. It had a range of 500 miles and could absorb a great deal of battle damage while serving as a good, steady gun platform. The Spitfire was a slightly younger aircraft and benefited in its construction from slightly newer technology. It could reach a speed of 360 miles per hour and an altitude of 32,000 feet and had a range of 400 miles. Possessing great maneuverability, the Spitfire was armed much like the Hurricane, with eight 0.303-inch machine guns. Although these were perhaps outclassed by the armament of the Bf-109 and Bf-110, which carried 20-millimeter cannon, they were sufficient to shoot down Luftwaffe bombers. The range of the British fighters was not as critical as that of the Bf-109, because the Spitfires and Hurricanes had a critical advantage in the RAF's advanced and efficient fighter control system.
The best fighter aircraft flown by the finest pilots would have been to no avail if they had not known where their enemy was. The RAF, however, relied upon a combination of radar to warn of enemy formations approaching the coast, an observing organization to track the enemy over land, a system of control rooms, each responsible for a certain area, with radio communications between them, and the airborne pilots themselves to make the most efficient use of its resources. In this way, the outnumbered Spitfires and Hurricanes were able to intercept the incoming Luftwaffe directly, without wasting their efforts in flying patrols simply looking for the enemy.
The English Channel, one of the busiest waterways in the world, in 1940 served innumerable convoys carrying materials and supplies along the British coast. In early July, the Luftwaffe began attacking these convoys to force the RAF into battle to protect them. Over the next four weeks, the Spitfires and Hurricanes were in combat almost daily with the Luftwaffe. After a month, losses were almost two to one in favor of the RAF. However, the Luftwaffe's large superiority in numbers meant that it could hold out longer than the RAF, which would eventually lose. Shipping in the Channel was reduced, but never completely halted, in order to remove the potential target from the Luftwaffe's sight.
Attack of the Eagles
To some extent, the Luftwaffe's convoy battles had been merely a means of distracting the RAF while the Luftwaffe prepared and positioned its resources for the main battle. On August 13, called Eagle day by the Germans, the main attacks started, beginning four weeks of concentrated bombing designed to destroy the RAF and generally weaken the country's ability to resist an invasion. Attacks on airfields, ports, and dockyards by large formations of German aircraft set the scene for the next weeks and betokened hard, intense fighting for both sides. At the end of the day, the Luftwaffe had lost forty-six aircraft; the RAF had lost only thirteen fighters, but many of the fighter squadrons' airfields and communications were damaged. The Luftwaffe hit more and more airfields and also damaged several radar stations but, apparently not realizing the importance of the radar system, failed to follow up on these particular attacks.
The airfield damage, however, was soon felt by the RAF squadrons, and a reduction in their fighting strength and efficiency became apparent. It was clear that if the Germans continued to attack in this fashion, they might achieve victory, an outcome which had not previously been considered by the British. The RAF continued to shoot down German aircraft at a greater rate than it lost its own aircraft and achieved notable success on some occasions. German bombers based in Norway attacked northern England without a fighter escort, on the assumption that all RAF fighters would have been drawn south to the Channel coast. At a cost of fifteen bombers, the Germans discovered they were wrong.
After another month, the Luftwaffe had lost some 670 aircraft, and the RAF had lost about 400 fighters. Damage to British airfields increased, whereas production of Spitfires and Hurricanes began to fall behind their losses. Pilots also were being injured and killed faster than the training system could replace them. It could be only a matter of time before the RAF became exhausted.
Air Raids on London
On September 7, the Luftwaffe changed tactics, turning their bombers away from British airfields and factories and heading for London. Nearly 1,000 German aircraft crossed the Channel and headed for the capital, to be met by some 250 British fighters that struggled to break through the fighter escort and attack the bombers. Many German bombers did get through, however, and heavily bombed London's East End, starting many fires in the docklands area. The RAF fighters had some success, shooting down thirty-six of the German raiders, but they also lost twenty-six Spitfires and Hurricanes of their own. Similar raids continued for another week, and the RAF used the time to repair and strengthen itself while intercepting the Luftwaffe at every opportunity. Then, on September 15, the Luftwaffe attacked with the largest number of aircraft ever, more than 1,000 aircraft headed for London once more, only to be intercepted and their formations broken up before they reached the city. In the fighting, the RAF again lost twenty-six fighters, but the Germans lost sixty aircraft. This date was the high point of the battle for the RAF and has since been known as Battle of Britain Day. Two days later, Hitler postponed the invasion of Britain indefinitely.
The battle continued through the remainder of September and most of October, as the Luftwaffe increasingly turned its efforts toward night bombings. From time to time, it mounted large raids during the day but mainly flew small, high-altitude raids, often with bomb-carrying Bf-109's rather than bomber aircraft. These stood a much greater chance of hitting their targets and flying away again without being shot down, but their effect was minimal. Finally, at the end of October, the battle fizzled out as autumn rain set in, but the people of Britain still had months of night bombing to endure. The German effort to defeat the RAF, however, had failed.
As the air battle progressed, the Germans prepared finally to invade Britain. As part of this effort, they had gathered from the canals of Europe a vast number of barges in which to transport their troops across the Channel. These barges, assembled in the Channel ports of France, were quickly spotted by RAF bombers, who regularly attacked them, causing considerable damage both to the barges themselves and to the port facilities that would be needed to mount the invasion. The bombers were also active against the Luftwaffe, attacking airfields from which the German aircraft flew, often at considerable loss to themselves.
From the beginning of July to the end of October, the two air forces had fought a massive battle, which neither had anticipated and which only the RAF had been designed to fight. Although both sides suffered severely, the Luftwaffe's losses were sufficient to make it realize it could not achieve its objectives. The RAF was able to absorb its losses and inflict upon the Germans their first defeat of the war.
The RAF lost 1,023 aircraft, including aircraft destroyed in air raids, and 537 men. The Luftwaffe's losses were much higher: 1,887 aircraft and 2,662 men. The differing ratios of aircraft to men is accounted for by the fact that the RAF losses were almost exclusively single-seat fighters, whereas the Luftwaffe losses included many bombers carrying crews of four or five. Also, an RAF pilot who bailed out unhurt was over his own country and might be back in the air the next day, whereas any Luftwaffe airman who bailed out was inevitably taken prisoner.
Bibliography Bungay, Stephen. The Most Dangerous Enemy. London: Aurum Press, 2000. A modern history that examines new information together with a fresh interpretation of old sources. Mason, Francis K. Battle Over Britain. London: McWhirter Twins, 1969. Probably the best overall account of the battle to be compressed into one book with a good background to developments in scientific aids used. Overy, Richard. The Battle of Britain: The Myth and the Reality. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001. A modern debunking of some of the popularly held notions of the Battle of Britain and celebrating the very real accomplishments of the RAF. Ramsey, Winston G., ed. The Battle of Britain: Then and Now. London: Battle of Britain Prints International, 1989. A very detailed, day by day diary of the battle showing losses for both sides with, in many cases, photographs of the men concerned