The Messerschmitt 109 first flew in October 1935, powered by British Rolls- Royce Kestrel engines. The aircraft entered Luftwaffe service in spring 1937 and received its baptism of fire in the Spanish civil war. By the beginning of World War II, the aircraft existed in a number of variants, and 1,000 were deployed against Poland in September 1939. The 109 was superior to most other fighters at the outbreak of the war but was fairly evenly matched with the British Spitfire and Hurricane in the Battle of Britain. It did have one very significant advantage over these rivals, however. Its fuel injection system allowed for a constant fuel flow even in negative-g conditions, which meant that a pilot could dive or shear away much more quickly than his opponents. This added significantly to the plane's survivability. Counterbalancing this advantage, however, was the 109's limited range-a 300-mile operating radius for the 109G. This gave the fighter precious little combat time over relatively remote targets such as those in England.
Some 109 variants had a cannon placed in the hollowed-out nose cap. In early models, this created an unacceptable level of vibration, which, however, was eliminated in later versions. Additionally, most of the fighters were fitted with two wing-mounted cannons and two machine guns mounted on the top of the nose cone that were synchronized to fire through the propeller arc. The 109G, introduced in 1942, was powered by a Daimler- Benz DB605 1,475-horsepower engine to a top speed of 387 miles per hour at 23,000 feet. Wingspan was 32 feet 6 ½ inches. The backbone of the Luftwaffe, some 30,000 109s were built before the end of the war.
Hawker Hurricane 1.
Although less celebrated than the Supermarine Spitfighter, the Hawker Hurricane, not the Spitfire, was responsible for 80 percent of the German aircraft shot down in the Battle of Britain. Designed in 1935, the Hurricane was introduced into RAF service in 1937. At the beginning of the Battle of Britain, the RAF had 32 squadrons of Hurricanes versus only 19 squadrons equipped with Spitfires. Less agile than the Spitfire and slower than Germany's premier fighter, the Messerschmidt Bf109, the Hurricane was deployed against German bomber formations, whereas the Spitfires were used against German fighters.
At the start of the war, the RAF had 497 Hurricanes. Before the end of the war, the Hawker company delivered 10,030, the Gloster company 2,750, and the Canadian Car and Foundry Company 1,451. Powered by a single 1,030-horsepower Rolls-Royce Merlin III 12-cylinder engine, the Hurricane had a wingspan of 40 feet and a top speed of 328 miles per hour at 20,000 feet. It was armed with eight wing-mounted .303-inch Browning machine guns.
Introduced in 1938 and produced in some 40 variants, the Supermarine Spitfire became the single most celebrated fighter aircraft of World War II. Driven by a Merlin Mk III engine making 1,030 horsepower, the version that first entered service had a top speed of about 360 miles per hour and was armed with eight .303-inch machine guns. The Spitfire XIV, introduced in 1944, had a ceiling of 40,000 feet and a top speed of 440 miles per hour and was responsible for shooting down more than 300 German V-1 buzz bombs. The XIV version and several earlier versions as well also had increased armament: two 20-millimeter cannon were added either to the four .303-inch machine guns or to two .50-inch machine guns. Some versions also carried one 250- or 500-pound bomb under the fuselage and one 250-pound bomb under each wing. The Spitfire survived the end of the war and was used by the RAF for photoreconnaissance until 1954. Wingspan for all versions was 36 feet.
An aesthetically beautiful aircraft, the Spitfire incorporated a light-alloy monocoque fuselage and a single-spar wing with stressed-skin covering and fabric-covered control surfaces. The aircraft proved highly maneuverable and was more than a match for the best German fighters during the Battle of Britain, where it earned its first and most enduring glory. Some 20,334 Spitfires (all versions) were produced during the war, and a naval variant, the Sea fire, was produced in a quantity of 2,556.
Following the fall of France in the Battle of France, Adolf Hitler contemplated launching Operation Sealion, the cross-channel invasion of England. Encouraged by the claims of Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring, Hitler believed that bombing raids on principal English cities and industries would, at the very least, prepare the way for the invasion and, even more important, might well render the invasion unnecessary by bringing Britain to its knees.
At Hitler's disposal were the forces of the Luftwaffe now based on French and Belgian airfields. The available forces amounted to approximately 2,679 aircraft, including 1,015 medium bombers, 350 Stuka dive bombers, 930 fighters, and 375 heavy fighters. These included some of the most advanced aircraft of the war at this time. To oppose these forces, the British Royal Air Force (RAF) could muster no more than about 600 Hurricane and Spitfire fighters. Outnumbered as they were, these were excellent planes, and they were manned by superbly trained, highly skilled, and extraordinarily motivated pilots under the command of the venerable Air Chief Marshall Hugh Dowding.
The battle, the first in history fought entirely in the air, unfolded in three successive, albeit overlapping, phases, beginning on July 10, 1940, with a heavy German air raid. This signaled the start of the battle's first phase, which was directed at destroying the southern ports from Dover west to Plymouth. This area was the most likely site for invasion landings, and Hitler sought to neutralize its defenses. Almost every day, German medium bombers, escorted by fighters, crossed the English Channel and bombed ships as well as port installations. On August 15, the first phase of the battle reached its point of greatest intensity when approximately 940 German aircraft attacked in the south as well as in the north. The RAF managed to shoot down 76 of the German planes, losing 34 fighters in the exchange. The Germans also destroyed 21 British bombers on the ground.
Overlapping the first offensive phase was the second, which targeted airfields, aircraft factories, and radar installations. The objective was to achieve air supremacy by attacking Britain's airfields (and the aircraft there) and aircraft production as well as its highly advanced radar capability. In the space of two weeks, from August 24 to September 6, the Luftwaffe destroyed or severely damaged 466 Hurricane and Spitfire aircraft; 103 British pilots were killed and 128 wounded, representing a quarter of the RAF's entire fighter pilot strength. Yet the cost to the attackers was so heavy as to be a pyrrhic victory. The Germans lost more than twice the number of planes the British lost and more than twice the number of pilots. Worse, Hitler directed his bombers to cease their attacks on RAF facilities and aircraft factories and, beginning on September 7, to bomb civilian targets. The first objective was the air defenses of London, which was raided by some 300 German airplanes in a daylight mission. On September 15, more than 400 bombers attacked the British capital in what would be the largest daylight raid on London, with 56 of the bombers downed by RAF fighters or ground-based antiaircraft fire.
Göring was badly shaken by his losses on September 15 and concluded that daylight raids were too costly. This led to the opening of the third and final phase of the Battle of Britain, the exclusive concentration on night bombing. Historians generally identify September 7 as the beginning of the Blitz. For its first week, the Blitz included daylight and nighttime raids, but from September 16 on, only night raids were carried out. The Blitz portion of the Battle of Britain proceeded continuously, without intermission, for 57 nights. On average each night, 200 bombers dropped both incendiary and high-explosive ordnance on London. The worst night was that of October 15, when 480 bombers dropped 386 tons of high explosive and 70,000 incendiary bombs on the city. They were met by six squadrons of British night fighters and the massed fire of some 2,000 antiaircraft guns.
There is no question that the 57-night Blitz was devastating. More than 43,000 British civilians were killed, and some 200,000 were wounded. Property damage was staggering; ultimately, about 20 percent of London was destroyed. Food production was diminished, but no major food crisis was created. Nevertheless, the Blitz was futile. Hitler had made a disastrous and unrecoverable mistake in diverting the raids from the RAF facilities and factories, which turned out Spitfires and Hurricanes at an incredible rate. When Göring was forced to abandon daylight raids, he effectively conceded victory to the RAF. Although the Battle of Britain would not end until November 3, the Germans had lost it back in September.
Between July and November, the RAF lost 915 fighters, 481 pilots killed, missing, or taken prisoner, and 422 pilots wounded. The RAF claimed 2,698 kills against the Germans, but documented German aircraft losses amounted to 1,733-still a crippling number.
After the November 3 raid on London, the Battle of Britain proper ended, but the Blitz continued as the Luftwaffe turned to raids on industrial centers, especially the Coventry air raid (500 bombers dropped 600 tons of ordnance on the night of November 14) and Birmingham (hit mercilessly from November 19 to November 22). London was struck again on December 29, mainly in a massive incendiary attack that triggered more than 1,500 uncontrollable blazes. All through the winter of 1940-41, raids hit port cities, and on May 10, 1941, London was hit by an incendiary attack that was the worst and last of the Blitz. In the more than 2,000 fires started, some 3,000 were killed or injured. Defenders shot down 16 German bombers, the most shot down during any nighttime raid.
Rather than see his air force destroyed, Hitler broke off the Blitz after the May 10 raid and redirected the bulk of the Luftwaffe to the eastern front war against the Soviet Union. Operation Sealion, the invasion of Britain, would never be carried out.
Further reading: Bishop, Patrick. Fighter Boys: The Battle of Britain, 1940. New York: Viking, 2003; Bungay, Stephen. The Most Dangerous Enemy: A History of the Battle of Britain. London: Aurum Press, 2002; Clayton, Tim, and Phil Craig. Finest Hour: The Battle of Britain. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002; Wellum, Geoffrey. First Light. New York: Wiley, 2003. Gunston, Bill, and Chris Westhorp. The Illustrated Directory of Fighting Aircraft of World War II. St. Paul, Minn.: MBI Publishing, 2000; Jane's Information Group. Jane's All the World's Aircraft of World War II: Collector's Edition. New York: HarperCollins, 1994; Mondey, David. The Concise Guide to British Aircraft of World War II. London: Book Sales, 2002; Wilson, Stewart. Aircraft of World War II. Fishwyck, Australia: Australian Aviation, 1999.