The Battle of Britain was a battle in World War Two fought between the German Luftwaffe and the British Royal Air Force (RAF), after France and the Low Countries had fallen to the armies of Nazi Germany. The battle was fought between 10 July and 31 October 1940, and is regarded as the Nazis' first major defeat.
The Battle of Britain was essentially a contest for air superiority. German air superiority was considered a necessary prelude for the planned land invasion (Operation Sea Lion). The Germans initially attempted to destroy British airfields. They did not succeed in this: RAF 'Hurricane' and 'Spitfire' aircraft piloted by 'The Few' (Winston Churchill's name for RAF fighter pilots) caused them to have heavy casualties, in spite of the Luftwaffe's superior numbers. The Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter that the Luftwaffe had as its main escort for the twin-engined Heinkel, Dornier and Junkers bombers was at the limit of its range. In addition, the German fighters were restricted by the need to stick close to their bombers, while the British pilots had more tactical flexibility.
In September, the Luftwaffe switched to targeting British cities. London and many other cities suffered air raids in The Blitz and Coventry, an historic city in the English Midlands, was almost destroyed by a firestorm. This strategy caused heavy civilian casualties, but took the pressure off the RAF air bases, giving Fighter Command vital breathing space.
By the end of May 1941, the RAF had lost 788 aircraft, while the Luftwaffe's losses were 1294 aircraft, mostly bombers.
The Battle of Britain was not the totality of German air operations against Britain, but it was of utter strategic significance after the fall of France. Germany believed that it could defeat Britain only by physical invasion, codenamed Operation Sea Lion. The British Army rescued its soldiers at Dunkink but lost most of its equipment and weapons, and was no match for the fully equipped German army.
German capabilities to launch an invasion were primitive—many small boats and transport ships with a very thin layer of naval warships. The German Army and Navy realized an invasion could succeed only if the Luftwaffe could guarantee the Royal Navy would not be able to attack the landing force. To do so, the Royal Air Force had to be defeated. The Battle of Britain decided whether an invasion was possible.
Radar was the secret weapon that made possible effective RAF counterattacks against invading Luftwaffe planes. The British had multiple radar chains that streached up and down the English coast. The Germans were several years behind in development, and in any case radar was a defensive weapon and would not be much help top German bombers.
Battle of Britain
The Battle of Britain, August to September. 1940, was fought for air supremacy over Britain. After the fall of France in June, 1940, Germany believed that it could defeat Britain only by physical invasion, codenamed Operation Sea Lion. Hitler at least wanted to threaten an invasion, perhaps to force a peace. German amphibious warfare tactics and capabilities were primitive, and the German Army and Navy believed an invasion could succeed only if the German Air Force could guarantee the Royal Navy would not be able to attack the landing force. To do so, the Royal Air Force had to be defeated. The Luftwaffe used 1300 medium bombers guarded by 900 fighters; they made 1500 sorties a day from bases in France, Belgium and Norway. The RAF had 650 fighters, with more coming out of the factories every day. Thanks to its new radar system, the British knew where the Germans were, and could concentrate their counterattacks. The Germans used their strategic bombing doctrine to focus on RAF airfields and radar stations. After the RAF bomber forces (quite separate from the fighter forces) attacked Berlin and other cities, Hitler swore revenge and diverted the Luftwaffe to attacks on London. The success the Luftwaffe was having in rapidly wearing down the RAF was squandered, as the civilians being hit were far less critical than the airfields and radar stations that were now ignored. The last German daylight raid was September 30; the Luftwaffe was taking unacceptable losses and broke off the attack; occasional blitz raids hit London and other cities from time to time before May 1941, killing some 43,000 civilians. The Luftwaffe lost 1733 planes, the British, 915. The British showed more determination, had better radar, and better ground control, while the Germans violated their own doctrine with wasted attacks on London.
The British surprised the Germans with their high quality airplanes; flying close to home bases where they could refuel, and using radar as part of an integrated air defense system, they had a significant advantage over German planes operating at long range. The Hawker Hurricane fighter plane played a vital role for the Royal Air Force (RAF) in winning the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940. A fast, heavily armed monoplane that went into service in 1937, the Hurricane was effective against both German fighters and bombers and accounted for 70-75% of German losses during the battle. The Germans immediately pulled out their Stukas, which were so slow they were child's play for the Hurricanes and Spitfires. The Battle of Britain showed the world that Hitler's vaunted war machine could be defeated. Churchill's tribute to the Royal Air Force is eloquent:
- Never, in the course of human events, have so many, owed so much, to so few.
But it was misleading. The Battle of Britain was won by hundreds of thousands of factory workers, mechanics, engineers. technicians, radar operators, generals and colonels, sergeants and privates, both men and women—and not merely the heroic RAF pilots.
Factors in the British Victory
The British worked feverishly in the 1930s to invent and install a network of radar stations. Through radar they knew exactly where the German formations were, and could send fighter interceptions to the optimal location, not wasting precious minutes looking for the German aircraft.
The German fighter planes had much smaller fuel capacities than the German bombers, and it was estimated that they could only spend five minutes in a dogfight with the British before they had to turn around for home. Often the German bombers were left unescorted for the last stretch to the target, leaving them vulnerable to attack from British planes.
Poor German Leadership
Goering was in charge of the Luftwaffe. Not interested in tactics or strategy, he was surrounded by visions of a glorious great battle in which the RAF was completely destroyed by the Luftwaffe's superior numbers. He did not realise the significance of radar. He finally got his wish - a great battle above the skies of Britain - and it did not go as he expected. In order to create a massive formation of aircraft, the German fighters were left circling in the air above their airfields waiting for the bombers to arrive - wasting more precious fuel, which Goering failed to realize. In the battle which was to follow, not only was the RAF not destroyed, but the bombers failed to hit their targets. After their fighter escort were either destroyed or forced to turn back early, many of the bombers were either shot down or jettisoned their bombs and joined their escorts in flight back to the coast of France.
Fighting over Home ground
The British had a major advantage in this, because if a RAF pilot was shot down, he could be put in another plane and back up in the air in a matter of hours, also parts could be salvaged from the crashed fighter, whereas if the Luftwaffe were shot down, they were lost. Also, they had more to lose (family, friends,freedom) as opposed to the German pilots.
- The Seventy Great Battles in History, by Jeremy Black, 2005
- An invasion was unlikely to succeed; over a third of the days were bad flying weather that grounded most flights. On those days the Royal Navy battleships could plow through the storms and sink the entire invasion fleet.
- Civilian deaths were 300 to 600 a day, plus 1000 to 3000 injured. London was not a factory city and aircraft production went up.