By STEPHEN BUNGAY
In June 1940, having defeated France in one of the most spectacularly decisive land battles in military history, the German Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) expected his remaining adversary, Great Britain, to make peace. His expectation was reasonable. The British Foreign Minister, Lord Edward Frederick Lindley Wood Halifax (1881–1959), saw no point in continuing the war, and in May had been one of only two candidates to replace Neville Chamberlain (1869–1940) as prime minister. The other candidate was Winston Churchill (1874–1965), who got the job by the narrowest of margins. Churchill regarded Nazism as a malevolent evil that had to be defeated, whatever the cost, in order to safeguard the West.
In order to put pressure on Britain to come to terms, Hitler ordered preparations to be made for an invasion. As a necessary precondition, the German Air Force, the Luftwaffe, was to establish air superiority over southeast England. The head of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Göring (1893–1946), did not take the invasion plans seriously, but thought the Luftwaffe alone could bring Britain to the negotiating table. The Luftwaffe was never clear about exactly what it was trying to achieve.
The odds were stacked against the Germans from the outset. Under the leadership of Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding (1882–1970), Fighter Command of the Royal Air Force (RAF) had created the most fearsome air-defense system in the world, designed to foil just such an assault. Its heart was a unique and extremely robust command and control network—the world’s first intranet—that made use of radar to locate hostile aircraft. The British Hurricane and Spitfire were the only fighters in the world in 1940 to match the German Messerschmitt Bf 109. At the time, however, the German threat appeared to be overwhelming.
As the Luftwaffe moved to improvised bases along the coast of northern France, it began attacking British convoys in the English Channel. Air battles over convoys reached a new level of intensity on 10 July. This date generally marks the beginning of what Churchill called ‘‘the Battle of Britain,’’ now identified with the defensive battle fought by Fighter Command. As this battle went on, the rest of the RAF bombed the invasion barges gathering in French ports and the canals that led to them.
The campaign against Britain itself began in earnest on 12 August with attacks on radar stations, followed on 13 August by ‘‘Eagle Day,’’ a series of attacks on mainland targets including fighter airfields. They continued until 18 August, after which there was a pause as the Luftwaffe reorganized before beginning again on 24 August. Believing that they were failing to put the radar stations out of action, the Germans concentrated on airfields. However, they were failing to put those out of action as well.
Under the brilliant leadership of the New Zealander Keith Park, Fighter Command’s 11 Group, which covered the main battle area, preserved itself and inflicted heavy losses on its assailants. Despite superior tactics in the air, the German fighter force never came close to achieving the kill ratios it needed in order to defeat the RAF. The bombing of the RAF’s infrastructure was neither effective nor sustained enough to cripple it, for the system was designed to withstand many isolated blows. Dowding maintained a reserve throughout the battle, and Fighter Command was able to oppose every major raid. British fighter production outstripped Germany’s by two to one, and aircraft were always in good supply. The RAF was strengthened by many pilots from the British Commonwealth and Europe, notably Poles and Czechs. Although replacing losses entailed the sending of many vulnerable novices to frontline squadrons, Fighter Command had more pilots in September than in July. The Luftwaffe could not replace all of its losses, and its strength slowly declined.
Some German commanders had always believed that the Luftwaffe should attack London in order to produce a rapid result. Hitler had forbidden this, but in late August the RAF managed to drop a few bombs on Berlin. This demanded a political response, so Hitler publicly announced that British cities would also be attacked. On 7 September the Luftwaffe launched a mass raid on the London docks, and returned that night, beginning what the British call the London ‘‘Blitz.’’
The following week the weather was bad. There was little flying, and when there was, interceptions were scrappy because the raiders were hard to locate in the clouds. Misled by false intelligence estimates of British strength and buoyed by the optimistic claims of their pilots, Luftwaffe commanders concluded that one more big push would make Fighter Command collapse. When Sunday 15 September dawned fine and clear, they launched two large raids on London. The defenders met them in strength, finally revealing that for the previous four weeks the Luftwaffe had been getting nowhere. Two days later, Hitler postponed the invasion preparations until further notice.
Daylight bombing raids continued until the end of September, after which the Luftwaffe restricted itself to fighters. By that time it was all a bluff, and as the year wore on, daylight air activity died down. While the Battle of Britain is usually taken to have ended on 31 October 1940, the night Blitz continued through May 1941. The RAF’s strategy of denying the enemy air superiority had succeeded.
The consequences of the British victory were far more momentous for the rest of the world than for Britain itself. From June 1941 the war was largely fought out between Germany and the Soviet Union. British belligerence forced Germany to fight in the West, provided a base for American forces from 1942, and was the precondition of the invasion of Normandy in 1944. This meant a Western presence in postwar Europe. Had Britain lost and made peace—a far more likely outcome of defeat than an invasion—it would have survived largely intact, but Europe from the Urals to the Atlantic would eventually have come under either Nazi or Soviet domination. Either result would have meant at best widespread impoverishment and human degradation for decades, or at worst the displacement and slaughter of millions and the descent of Europe into an age of barbarism.
BIBLIOGRAPHY Bungay, Stephen. The Most Dangerous Enemy: A History of the Battle of Britain. London, 2001. The author’s own full account of the background, events, and consequences of the battle, which has now become a standard work. Orange, Vincent. A Biography of Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park, G.C.G., K.B.E., M.C., D.F.C., D.C.L. London, 1984. The authoritative biography of the key operational commander on the British side, of whom it was said, ‘‘if ever any one man won the Battle of Britain, he did.’’ Price, Alfred. The Hardest Day: Battle of Britain, 18 August 1940. London, 1979. A brilliantly detailed account of a single day’s action that gives new insights into the battle as a whole. ———. Battle of Britain Day, 15 September 1940. London, 1999. A companion work to the above covering the events of 15 September 1940, still celebrated as ‘‘Battle of Britain Day.’’ Ray, John. The Battle of Britain: Dowding and the First Victory, 1940. London, 2000. A scholarly but readable analysis of Dowding’s role that sheds new light on what went on behind the scenes and illuminates some of the more controversial aspects of the battle. Steinhilper, Ulrich, and Peter Osborne. Spitfire on My Tail: A View from the Other Side. Keston, U.K., 1989. The only firsthand account written by a typical German fighter pilot. Wellum, Geoffrey. First Light. London, 2002. One of the best written of the many autobiographies by British pilots, vivid and moving. Wood, Derek, with Derek Dempster. The Narrow Margin: The Battle of Britain and the Rise of Air Power. Washington, D.C., 1990. First published in 1960, this was for many years the standard work and is still valuable for its explanation of the RAF system and its day-by- day account of the fighting.