The Battle of Britain was the largest and most famous air battle in history. By day and night the combatants from Britain’s Royal Air Force and their enemies in the German Luftwaffe (with some limited late support from Italy) fought in the skies over Britain between July 10th, 1940 and October 31st, 1940. France had fallen to the might of the German Blitzkrieg (“Lightning War“) by June 1940 and the Luftwaffe commanded by Hermann Goering now planned to knock out the Royal Air Force in preparation for the German invasion of Britain.
Operation Sea Lion
The planned invasion, code-named: Operation Sea Lion was to be a joint amphibious and airborne assault (approximately 1,000 ships and barges were prepared for the invasion). Adolf Hitler the Führer of Germany issued ‘Directive Number 16’ in July 1940 which stated: “The aim of this operation is to eliminate the English motherland as a base from which war against Germany can be continued, and, if this should become unavoidable, to occupy it to the full extent“. The Germans needed to have control of the air space over the English Channel to prevent air and sea attacks on their invasion fleet to have any hope of success.
By early July 1940 the Royal Air Force had approximately 650 fighters on strength and 1,300 pilots (from Britain and other allied nations including Australia, Belgium, Canada, Czechoslovakia – the top RAF ace of the battle with 17 victories was a Czech – Sargeant Josef Frantisek, France, Ireland, New Zealand, Poland, South Africa and the United States – nearly 3,000 aircrew flew with RAF Fighter Command during the course of the battle of which 600 came from other countries). They were overwhelmingly pitted against 2600 bombers and fighters of the Luftwaffe. The British were up against it and Goering and Hitler did not doubt the might of their experienced and battle hardened Luftwaffe crews would prevail. The fighter boys of the Royal Air Force had different ideas though!
The Battle of Britain
The first month of the battle (July 10th, 1940 to August 8th, 1940) was mainly fought over the English Channel with Luftwaffe attacks on British shipping intended to draw out RAF fighters so they could be destroyed by groups of Luftwaffe fighters based in France. Few ships were sunk by the Luftwaffe and relatively few RAF aircraft were shot down (approximately 74 RAF pilots were lost and a further 48 wounded). Losses were occurring but these tactics were not going to cripple RAF Fighter Command.
Between August 8th and August 18th, 1940 the Luftwaffe started to step up attacks not only on British shipping but also coastal radar stations, ports and RAF airfields. Although again not highly effective in attack, the Luftwaffe believed they had the RAF on its knees and on August 13th, 1940 Aldertag (“Eagle Day“) began. This was the official start of the Luftwaffe’s attempt to totally destroy RAF Fighter Command. Initially hampered by bad weather, raids occurred during the day and night. Targets included aircraft factories and airfields south of London but damage was minimal and RAF resistance was stronger than expected. Overall it was not a highly successful day but the Battle of Britain was now truly in full swing.
Bombing raids continued and huge air battles ensued primarily involving RAF Supermarine Spitfire Mk.I and Hawker Hurricane Mk.I fighters against Luftwaffe Messerschmitt Bf-109E and Bf-110C fighters and Heinkel He-111, Junkers Ju-87 Stuka, Junkers Ju-88 and Dornier Do-17 bombers. Bombing raids occurred day and night. Aircraft losses were high on both sides. The Junkers Ju-88 was the best and fastest of the German bombers but it still got shot down in large numbers. Another RAF fighter used in the battle was the unique Boulton Paul Defiant which had a 4 gun rear turret that could be deadly against bombers, but fatefully it lacked forward guns and quickly became and easy target for German fighters. Many were shot down and it was relegated to night fighter duties where it proved more successful.
The primary German fighter in the Battle of Britain was the Messerschmitt Bf-109E Emil. Now while it was a great combat aircraft and could hold its own against the British Spitfires and Hurricanes, it lacked a sufficient range to provide adequate long-range escort coverage for the German bombers and the bombing targets in southern England were at its maximum fuel range. They could only stay to protect the bombers for a short period of time before needing to head back to their bases in France. This left the Luftwaffe bombers highly vulnerable to fighter attacks.
The long-range fighter of the Luftwaffe was the twin-engined Messerschmitt Bf-110 but it was ineffective against the more nimble and faster British fighters and it basically needed a fighter escort of its own! The Bf-110 was used more effectively later in the battle as a fast bomber (the Bf-109E was also used in this role). The Luftwaffe was designed to be a tactical air arm providing support to the German army, rather than a strategic long-range force and this lack of foresight was to eventually take its toll on the skilled German crews.
Chain Home Radar
The British had an effective fighter command system and Chain Home radar (around 50 radar stations in southern England) to direct fighter aircraft to incoming bombers which could be detected as they crossed the coast of France. Although damage was inflicted the Germans were unable to destroy the majority of the radar stations. The ineffectiveness of the slow Stuka dive bomber against RAF fighters attacks meant there was really nothing capable of conducting pinpoint strikes on the radar stations and this put them at a distinct disadvantage (RAF Spitfires and Hurricanes made a meal of the Stuka and without heavy fighter protection they were unable to operate effectively and by mid August 1940 they were removed from the air battle).
Goering appears to have not fully appreciated the importance of the radar stations in targeting bomber formations and decided they were not necessary to be destroyed to achieve victory! Despite the effectiveness of the radar system and the heroic efforts of British pilots, by August 1940 the continuous bombing of airfields, ports and shipping was starting to take its toll on the Royal Air Force.
During the early stages of the campaign under strict orders from Hitler, London had been more or less left alone by the Luftwaffe, however on August 24th a group of lost German bombers “accidentally” bombed the capital which resulted in a retaliatory bombing raid by the British on Berlin the very next night. The damage inflicted on Berlin was light but the raid incensed Hitler and he ordered the Luftwaffe to switch tactics to a “war of terror” with mass bombing raids on cities and factories. This became known as “The Blitz” and mass bombing attacks intensified over London in September 1940 (commencing September 7th), but German intelligence was often wrong during the battle and many of the targets hit were in reality of too low a strategic value to help win the battle. The Luftwaffe needed to strike more factories, airfields, docks, fuel storage areas and so on, not city buildings!
Battle of Britain Day
Luftwaffe intelligence believed that there were less than 300 British aircraft left and with victory nearing they could deliver the knock out blow by bringing all the remaining RAF fighters into battle over London, defeat them and crush the will of the British (in reality this just hardened the resolve of the British people to win). Sunday, September 15th, 1940 was a major turning point in the battle and is today commemorated as Battle of Britain Day.
The weather was fine and mid morning the Luftwaffe launched its most concentrated attack on London with some 1,500 Luftwaffe bomber and fighter aircraft participating in air battles that day. They planned to wipe out RAF Fighter Command that day but instead they discovered it was in fact far from over.
The reality was that the RAF Fighter Command actually had about 1,000 aircraft available (although probably only around 700 were fully serviceable at any given time) and by mid September 1940 this switch in Luftwaffe tactics gave the Royal Air Force breathing space to repair airfields and radar bases and build more aircraft. Aircraft were also brought in from all over England to protect London.
Now large formations of Spitfires and Hurricanes (“Big Wings“) could be bought in to attack German bombers concentrated mainly over London. Their role was to destroy as many Luftwaffe aircraft as possible. The RAF had the advantage of being close to their bases, ammunition and fuel allowing them to land and get back up in the air in a relatively short time frame, while for the Luftwaffe far from home the losses were mounting.
On September 15th the first wave of around 250 Luftwaffe bombers arrived over the English Channel at around 11am that morning. Although they came under heavy attack from RAF fighters at least half of them made it through to drop their bombs on London. A few hours later a similar sized raid came through to hit targets in south London and rail yards in Kent. The raids continued until dusk. Everything RAF Fighter Command had available was thrown into the battle. Winston Churchill later said “There was not one squadron left in reserve“.
Under such intense attack from the RAF fighters the Luftwaffe bombers were unable to remain in full formation during the raids and their bombing runs were not done with pinpoint accuracy, leading to scattered destruction that was far less effective than planned. RAF victory claims were exaggerated on the day with 186 Luftwaffe aircraft shot down but the actual number was 61 for the loss of 31 RAF fighters. This does not sound like enough to turn the tide of the battle but this was the highest losses for the Luftwaffe in a single day for over a month and attacks like this could not be sustained. Although the RAF fighter pilots were exhausted, the risk of defeat at the hands of the Germans was now lessening for Britain.
Following the heavy losses on September 15th, 1940 Luftwaffe bomber attacks were then switched to mainly night raids which were more difficult to intercept (the sporadic daytime bombing of London continued until September 30th, 1940 and fighter bombers also continued to conduct daylight raids). The destruction they unleashed on British cities and people were enormous, but British night fighters with radar were coming into service that started to make an impact on German nighttime losses also.
Hitler’s focus was now elsewhere and a German invasion was being prepared for Russia (Operation Barbarossa commenced on June 22nd, 1941). More and more resources were required on the Eastern Front, as such air raids were reduced. Britain could not be defeated in 1940 and the planned Operation Sea Lion invasion was postponed indefinitely on September 17th, 1940 (despite being heavily defended at least 214 ships and barges planned for use in the invasion had been destroyed and many German airfields were damaged in bombing raids by RAF Bomber Command and Coastal Command aircraft – this was achieved at great loss with many aircraft shot down and almost 1,000 RAF aircrew lost).
Italy’s involvement in the Battle of Britain
Italy joined their Axis ally, Germany in the war in June 1940. In September 1940 Benito Mussolini sent an air expeditionary force of the Regia Aeronautica (Italian Air Force) known as the Corpo Aereo Italiano (Italian Air Corps) to Belgium to assist in the Battle of Britain. Three wings of approximately 200 aircraft were formed but they did not participate in the battle until it was almost over. In a bad omen of things to come, several aircraft crashed and others were forced to land due to technical problems on the way! Once established in Belgium the Corpo Aereo Italiano had approximately 70 bombers and 98 fighters available for combat operations. They were supported by around 12 transport and communications aircraft along with 5 reconnaissance aircraft.
The first raid by the Corpo Aereo Italiano flying the Fiat BR.20 Cicogna (Stork) medium bomber was a failed night mission against Harwich on October 24th, 1940. This was followed by a daylight bombing raid on Deal on October 29th. Bombing missions (mainly at night) continued until January 1941 on targets more or less directly opposite Belgium including Harwich, Felixstowe and Ipswich (144 bombing sorties in total). Fighter sweeps were also conducted along the coast of the English Channel throughout November 1940 and fighter patrols continued until February 7th, 1941 (1640 fighter sorties in total). A small number of CANT Z.1007 Alcione (Kingfisher) aircraft were used to conduct reconnaissance missions from November 1940 to January 1941 (6 were sent but 1 was lost in September 1940 during the ferry flight to Belgium). Given the fact that the Luftwaffe had photographed so much of Britain the Italians only conducted around 5 reconnaissance missions during that period of operation.
In 1940 the Regia Aeronautica were flying outdated but maneuverable fighters like the biplane Fiat C.R.42 Falco (Falcon) and the lightly armed monoplane Fiat G.50 Freccia (Arrow – it had just 2 × 12.7 mm machine guns and a very short fuel range!). These fighters were really no match against RAF fighters but some of the more experienced Italian pilots could hold their own against better RAF aircraft through their own piloting skills. By February 1941 the majority of the Corpo Aereo Italiano returned to Italy (2 Squadrons of Italian G.50 fighters remained in Belgium until April 16th, 1941 conducting local coastal patrols).
The Corpo Aereo Italiano campaign during the Battle of Britain was mostly ineffectual and too late to really help the Luftwaffe turn the tide (it also took valuable aircraft away from the Mediterranean theatre of war). Despite claims of success by the Italians there is no evidence to suggest they shot down any RAF aircraft (no doubt they damaged a few though, including at least 2 Hurricanes) and according to information from the RAF during their involvement in the Battle of Britain the Italians lost approximately 24 aircraft (shot down, crashed and forced landings). In some fairness to these gallant Italian aircrews, in addition to flying obsolete aircraft they were also hampered by poor weather, limited training and minimal combat experience. Mussolini had dreams of great conquests but outside of their navy, Italy was always battling their own inadequate and outclassed equipment for the majority of their involvement in World War Two.
The Battle Ends
By October 1940 with the weather worsening, losses mounting and the failure to destroy British air defences, air superiority was not achieved by the Germans (although they came close). On October 31st, 1940 the Battle of Britain basically petered out rather than ended and became the first failure for the German war machine in World War Two (there were to be many more to be had, but that’s another story). Night bombing raids continued on London and other cities until May 1941 and sadly nearly 40,000 British civilians died during “The Blitz” but the Royal Air Force and the will of the British people were victorious in the end.
At the start of the battle, Britain had a strength of approximately 650 fighters and Germany had 2600 bombers and fighters. Although it is difficult to obtain accurate figures on aircraft losses due to exaggerations by both sides during the war, by the end of the battle, it is estimated (according to the BBC and RAF websites) that Britain had lost over 1000 aircraft (the majority were Hurricane Mk.I fighters) and 544 valuable pilots were killed (1 in 6). Germany lost nearly 1900 aircraft (mostly bomber aircraft and the Bf-109E) and lost 2,400 aircrew. During the period of the battle, British factories produced new aircraft at more than double the number of Royal Air Force losses, while Germany produced only enough aircraft to cover half the Luftwaffe losses, this also highlights why the Luftwaffe could not continue in the battle with the losses sustained.
If Germany had not cancelled its four engined long-range heavy bomber program in the 1930’s the bomb payload they could have bought to the battle may well have changed things. This was an error in judgement that was to cost them greatly in the following years on the Eastern Front where the Russians “simply” moved their factories to the endless space of Siberia, safely out of the reach of the Germans! RAF Bomber Command and the USAAF later proved the devastating effect of round the clock bombing raids over Europe by heavy bombers that helped cripple the German war machine.
The Luftwaffe eventually operated the Heinkel He-177 Grief (Griffon) heavy bomber from 1942 onwards and although it was mainly used on the Eastern Front, this aircraft also participated in Operation Steinbock, the night-time bombing campaign of Britain from January to May 1944. The He-177 was introduced too late in the war, was plagued with engine problems (Luftwaffe crews gave it the nickname of Luftwaffenfeuerzeug “Luftwaffe’s lighter” or “Flaming Coffin“) and was too few in number to make any difference (obtaining engines, parts and fuel were a major issue later in the war due to the successful Allied bombing campaign).
“Duel of Eagles” written in 1970 by former Hurricane pilot Peter Townsend is a great read on the Battle of Britain. The book details the history of the Royal Air Force and Luftwaffe, the lead up to the Battle of Britain and the battle itself from both the British and German point of view (including stories of the pilots involved). It’s very interesting as it discusses not only the battle, but also the technical development of aircraft, problems faced by both sides, the political issues, tactics etc.
Some of the latest technology and aircraft of the time were employed in the Battle Of Britain. Extremely skilled and brave pilots and aircrew went up against each other day and night in these machines, but ultimately a combination of strong will, good luck, poor judgement, strong defensive strategy, poor offensive strategy and political meddling decided the outcome of the battle.
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.“
Winston Churchill – British Prime Minister, August 20th, 1940.
This blog is an expansion of the one I wrote on Deano In America in 2011.