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On September 7, 1940, 300 German bombers raided London in what would be the first of 57 consecutive nights of bombing. This "blitzkrieg" would continue until May 1941.
One of the Biggest Air Battles in History – the Battle Of Britain in 38 Great Images
It may be almost impossible to imagine today, but not long before the Nazi campaign against Britain got underway, Hitler mused that England might capitulate to Germany without putting up much of a fight at all.
Apparently he underestimated Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, much the same way he would later underestimate Josef Stalin, when he invaded the Soviet Union in 1941.
Britain wasn’t about to give up control of the skies easily, quietly or quickly. Although Germany had the Luftwaffe, which was equipped with excellent aircraft, when up against the fighter planes of the Royal Air Force (RAF) it was no contest.German Heinkel He 111 bombers over the English Channel. 1940. [Bundesarchiv, Bild 141-0678 CC-BY-SA 3.0]
Nonetheless, Hitler ordered the bombing of Britain to commence on July 10 th , 1940, and the two countries fought almost constantly until October 31 st , when victory went decidedly to Great Britain. It became known as the Battle of Britain, an aerial campaign that was, in some respects, a fight for Britain’s very soul as a military champion on the right side of history.
By the time the conflict subsided, almost 3,000 civilians had lost their lives.
It was a gruelling campaign for both sides. But the RAF had Spitfires and Hurricanes and skilled pilots to steer them, and it wasn’t long before Germany’s fantasies of an easy fight evaporated like so much dust in a sandstorm.
The Battle of Britain is not only an example of the RAF’s skill. It was the first battle fought solely in the air, a battle that cost Germany more than 1,500 fighter planes. Hermann Goering, chief of the Luftwaffe had mistakenly, just like his boss, thought that Britain would be quickly and easily defeated.
He soon realized Germany was in for the fight of its life, a fight that of course it wound up losing, in 1945 when it completely surrendered to the Allies.
A still from camera-gun film taken from a Supermarine Spitfire Mark I of No. 609 Squadron RAF, flown by by Pilot Officer J D Bisdee, as he dives on a formation of Heinkel He IIIs of KG 55 which had just bombed the Supermarine aircraft works at Woolston, Southampton. 1940. [© IWM (CH 1826)] A still from camera gun film shows tracer ammunition from a Supermarine Spitfire Mark I of No. 609 Squadron RAF, flown by Flight Lieutenant J H G McArthur, hitting a Heinkel He 111 on its starboard quarter. These aircraft were part of a large formation from KG 53 and KG 55 which attacked the Bristol Aeroplane Company’s works at Filton, Bristol, just before midday on 25th September 1940. [© IWM (CH 1823)] Messerschmitt Bf110 fighter of Zerstörergeschwader 76 heavy fighter squadron over the English Channel, Aug 1940. These were the first fighters with the shark’s mouth that inspired the RAF in Africa and the AVG in China.
A flight of German Do-17 Z bombers of Kampfgeschwader 3 over France or Belgium, possibly en route to Britain, September-October 1940. [Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-343-0679-14A / Gentsch / CC-BY-SA 3.0] Supermarine Spitfire Mark Is of No. 610 Squadron based at Biggin Hill, flying in ‘vic’ formation, 24 July 1940. [© IWM (CH 740)] Hawker Hurricanes of No 1 Squadron, Royal Air Force, based at Wittering, Cambridgeshire, followed by a similar formation of Supermarine Spitfires of No 266 Squadron, during a flying display for aircraft factory workers, October 1940. [© IWM (CH 1561)] A still from camera-gun film taken from a Supermarine Spitfire Mark I of No. 609 Squadron RAF, flown by by Pilot Officer J D Bisdee, as he dives on a formation of Heinkel He 111s of KG 55 which have just bombed the Supermarine aircraft works at Woolston, Southampton. The rearmost aircraft of the leading ‘staffel’ receives a burst of machine gun fire from Bisdee, as shown by the streaks of light from the tracer bullets. Its port engine is also on fire. [© IWM (CH 1827)] A still from camera-gun film taken from a Supermarine Spitfire Mark I, flown by the Commanding Officer of No. 609 Squadron RAF, Squadron Leader H S Darley, as he opens fire amongst a formation of Heinkel He 111s of KG 55 which have just bombed the Supermarine aircraft works at Woolston, Southampton. [© IWM (CH 1829)] A still from camera-gun film taken from a Supermarine Spitfire Mark I of No. 609 Squadron RAF, flown by Flying Officer Tadeusz “Novi” Nowierski (formerly Polish Air Force) as he closes in on a formation of Dornier Do 17Zs of KG3 south-west of London at approximately 5.45 pm on 7 September 1940, the first day of the Blitz. Tracer bullets from the intercepting Spitfires can be seen travelling towards the enemy aircraft which were heading back to their base after bombing East London and the docks. [© IWM (CH 1820)] A Dornier Do-17 medium bomber dropping a string of bombs on London. 20 September 1940.
A portrait of Air Vice Marshal Sir Keith Park while commanding RAF squadrons on Malta, September 1942. In Germany, he was supposedly known as “the Defender of London”. [© IWM (CM 3513)] A Spitfire aircraft going down after being hit by a German Heinkel III in a dog fight. [© AWM 044727] A Spitfire pilot of No. 610 Squadron recounts how he shot down a Messerschmitt Bf 110, Biggin Hill. September 1940. [© IWM (HU 104450)] Bf-109 after an emergency landing on its way back to France across the English Channel. 1940. [Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-344-0741-30 Röder CC-BY-SA 3.0] Bomb with sign Extra-Havanna für Churchill. August 1940. [Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-342-0615-18 Spieth CC-BY-SA 3.0] British fighter Supermarine Spitfire flies in front of the cab of the German Heinkel He 111.
British pilots running towards their fighters (Spitfires) on the air-raid alarm.
Camera gun footage of a Ju 87 Stuka being shot down by an RAF fighter, 1940. [© IWM (C 2418)] Destroyed German bomber Heinkel HE 111 [Av Franz Hollerweger CC BY-SA 2.0] German Do 17 bomber and British Spitfire fighter in the sky over Britain. December 1940. [Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1969-094-18 Speer CC-BY-SA 3.0] German Heinkel He 111 flying towards their targets in the United Kingdom.
German Heinkel He 111s which went into service in 1937. Some 6000 Heinkel He 111s were built but were found to be a poor match for Hurricanes and Spitfires during the Battle of Britain.
German Officer examines the bullet holes on the fuselage of Heinkel He 111. The damage was caused by 7.69mm machine guns of British aircraft. [Via] Ground staff refueling a Messerschmitt Bf 110. [Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-404-0521-19A Koster CC-BY-SA 3.0] Hawker Hurricane Mk I aircraft of No 85 Squadron, Royal Air Force on patrol during the Battle of Britain. [© IWM (CH 1510)] Hawker Hurricane Mk Is of No. 242 Squadron during the Battle of Britain, 1940.
Hawker Hurricanes of No. 85 Squadron RAF, October 1940. [© IWM (CH 1500)] Heinkel HE-111 aircraft of the Luftwaffe being shot down during the Battle of Britain. [Canada. Dept. of National Defence Library and Archives Canada PA-] Hurricanes of No. 85 Squadron in flight in search of the enemy, October 1940. [© IWM (CH 1499)] Sergeant Schnell Siegfried of the 4.JG2 Squadron presents the marks of victories on the tail of his Messerschmitt fighter Bf 109E. [Via] KG 76 on their way to the target, 18th August 1940.
Pattern of condensation trails left by British and German aircraft after a dog fight. [© IWM (H 4219)] Spitfire pilots pose beside the wreckage of a Junkers Ju 87 Stuka, which they shot down as it was attacking a Channel convoy, 1940. [© IWM (CH 2064)] Supermarine Spitfire Mark Is of No. 610 Squadron based at Biggin Hill, flying in ‘vic’ formation, 24 July 1940. [© IWM (CH 740)] Supermarine Spitfire Mk VBs of No. 131 Squadron RAF being prepared for a sweep at Merston, a satellite airfield of Tangmere, Sussex. June 1942. [© IWM (CH 5879)] The Crew and a ground staff of the Luftwaffe prepare the start of the bomber Junkers Ju-88. [Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-402-0265-03A Pilz CC-BY-SA 3.0] The front of a Heinkel He-111 medium bomber in flight during a bombing mission to London. November 1940.
Two Dornier Do 17Z of the KG76 Squadron on London’s West Ham sky.
Battle of Britain: A German Perspective
Much has been written about the Battle of Britain from the perspective of the victorious British but this is obviously not the only side to the story. The experiences and views of the Germans differed greatly, even to the extent that their Battle of Britain veterans are not celebrated. In contrast Britain pays homage to its veterans on September 15 at the Battle of Britain day.
In the decades since the duel in the skies, German veterans of the Battle of Britain say that its importance is exaggerated and that it is ‘insignificant’ to the war in general. Julius Meimberg, Battle of Britain veteran said, ‘It’s all exaggerated, Churchill succeeded in creating this myth that so few did so much for so many. When you look at how we fought against the Americans later, the Battle of Britain was very little in comparison.’ Reports support recent suggestions by some historians that the Battle was in fact a British Naval victory, rather than an aerial one. It is argued that the German armed forces, which had only been fully reconstituted in 1935, could never have secured a bridgehead or defeated the Royal Navy.
Evidence suggests that German Luftwaffe were massively underprepared for battle. Pilots had little time to engage with the enemy as a Messerschmitt Bf.109 had only enough fuel to remain over England for 20 minutes. Fear of ditching in the Channel haunted the pilots. By the first week of September they had an even more serious problem: a severe shortage of aircraft. Each fighter staffel – or squadron – was supposed to have 12 aircraft, but according to the extracts from the diary of Bethke, a German fighter pilot, he had just five left in his. His 1st Gruppe, with just 18 aircraft in all, was now half-strength the 2nd and 3rd Gruppen had only 12 aircraft each instead of 36 – in other words, they were operating at between a third and half strength. It was the same for those fighter units in the Pas de Calais. In complete contrast, RAF Fighter Command’s numbers were steadily rising, despite the heavy air battles of recent weeks.
German military intelligence also left a lot to be desired. Its sources said radar stations were unimportant and should not be targets. It also misreported strength, weapons, and losses. The faulty intelligence resulted in poor strategy. The Luftwaffe consistently varied its tactics in its attempts to break through the RAF defences, but according to a German fighter pilot ‘we can almost never surprise them’. Clearly there were tactical errors.
There are a few organizations in Germany, for example the German Fighter Pilots’ Association, who attempt to keep the traditions of the Battle of Britain pilots alive and take care of veterans who find themselves in difficult circumstances. In general, however, it seems that the German public has little interest in the defeated soldiers of this battle. From their perspective the Battle of Britain highlights flaws in the Luftwaffe’s organization and tactics. In addition it does not seem to them to be a turning point in World War II, but rather just an embarrassing defeat not down to the great skill of the celebrated British RAF, but rather the mistakes of the German Luftwaffe and Britain’s control of an impressive Royal Navy.
This is an article from Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.
The Few: who exactly were the heroes of the Battle of Britain?
Ahead of the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, military historian Patrick Bishop reflects on the experiences of the ‘fighter boys’ of the RAF, lionised by Winston Churchill as the Few, and how they succeeded in defeating the Luftwaffe
This competition is now closed
Published: July 7, 2020 at 2:00 pm
Eighty summers ago, the inhabitants of the Home Counties witnessed something the world had never seen before and never would again. Day after day, above their heads, air armies waged a gigantic battle – one that would have a decisive effect on the outcome of World War II.
For the first time in British history, a life-or-death struggle was fought out in view of large numbers of the nation’s citizens. The combat took place over the stalwarts of everyday life – above houses, streets and fields.
Those below had only to look up to see an amazing sight: huge flocks of German bombers and escorts crawling across the sky while the RAF’s fighters swirled around them, scribbling chalky condensation trails in the blue and stitching it with the gold and red of tracer ammunition and cannon.
The British people watched with a mixture of fear and excitement and, above all, admiration for the pilots upon whose skill and bravery the fate of the nation so obviously depended.
Your guide to the Battle of Britain: how the RAF turned back the Luftwaffe
The Battle of Britain (10 July – 31 October 1940) was the first major military campaign in history to be fought entirely in the air, described by Churchill as the RAF’s finest hour. What exactly happened, how was the battle won, and what did it mean for Hitler? Get the answers to these questions and more in our full guide to the Battle of Britain.
The story so far
In the summer of 1940, Britain seemed finished. France, with its huge armed forces and the seemingly impregnable defences of the Maginot Line along its German border, had been overwhelmed by Hitler’s forces in just a matter of weeks. The British army had only avoided complete destruction by what seemed like a miracle, when hundreds of thousands of men escaped from the beaches of Dunkirk.
The Germans thought they were invincible. Hitler was convinced that, having seen what had happened to first Poland, then Belgium, Holland and France, the British would soon come to their senses and make peace. And there were plenty of people in Britain’s government – including the Foreign Minister, Lord Halifax – who believed it was time to start negotiations.
But not Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Soon after Dunkirk, he made a fiery speech laying out the grim situation facing the country: Britain had to fight. Otherwise it, along with Europe, would “sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age”.
The Battle of France was over, he told the nation, before proclaiming: “The Battle of Britain is about to begin.” These were chilling words. But instead of cowing his listeners, it created a mood of stubborn determination. Most of all, it inspired the small band of airmen who would determine whether Britain fell.
Adolf Hitler had not yet made a serious plan to invade Britain. He didn’t think he would have to. If the British government was stupid enough not to sue for peace, then it would not take long for the German air force to persuade them. The Luftwaffe was strong and drunk on victory. The Germans believed that the Royal Air Force would be no match for them.
In this they were very much mistaken. Although very little money had been spent on the British military between the world wars, the lion’s share had gone to the RAF. Some far-sighted planners had ordered modern fighter aircraft – the famous Spitfire and Hurricane – to counter the German threat. They had also invested in the new technology of radar, so they could detect enemy aircraft and direct their fighters to intercept them.
Once Churchill had signalled defiance, the Luftwaffe offensive began. The battle played out in three main phases. In early July, the Germans attacked shipping in the Channel, trying to force the British fighter squadrons based along the coast of southeast England to come up and be chopped down by the supposedly superior Luftwaffe. When that didn’t work, in mid-August they targeted the fighter airfields themselves. Having failed to knock them out, the Germans switched to bombing raids on London.
By mid-September, it was clear they had failed – Hitler would never win control of Britain’s skies, nor invade its islands. This was the first time since the war began that the Germans had been beaten anywhere. It was a great moment, showing that the tide of the war could be turned by determination and skill.
The battle was a victory for British technology – in the shape of the Spitfire and Hurricane as well as radar – and of the leadership provided by Churchill and the head of Fighter Command, Hugh Dowding. But above all, it was a triumph for the young men – called ‘the Few’ by Churchill – who flew the aircraft. They were the real stars of the Battle of Britain.
Credit for famous victories typically goes to commanders: Agincourt belonged to Henry V, Trafalgar to Horatio Nelson, and Waterloo to the Duke of Wellington. This time, though, the glory went to a small but very unusual group. Significantly, its members were not drawn exclusively from the upper classes. They came from every level of society and were, as proclaimed by the newspapers and radio of the time, “ordinary people doing extraordinary things”.
Listen: historian James Holland describes how the Luftwaffe and RAF fought to control the skies over Britain in 1940
What was Fighter Command?
In the summer of 1940, the pilots of Fighter Command were the nation’s poster boys. People spoke of them as if they were their own sons. They were the ‘fighter boys’ – a term that reflected the fact the pilots were, on average, only 20 years old. Many were still too young to vote. The media was fascinated by them, and the government was only too eager to play along, building up their image in lots of interviews and photo ops.
Did you know?
Combat fatigue was a real problem, with British pilots facing 15-hour shifts and heavy bombardment of their airfields. Pilots had to take to the skies and fight several times a day, and some turned to amphetamine pills to stay alert.
The young aviators played their part perfectly, conveying just the right mixture of boyish exuberance and strength of purpose. The coverage presented them as modern-minded and competent. This was just as well, as the army’s performance to date had created exactly the opposite impression. In Norway and France in the spring of 1940, defeat had followed defeat, and the courage of the troops was betrayed by shoddy equipment and poor leadership.
The army still believed that you had to be a gentlemen to be an officer. Those who had led soldiers into the war all belonged to the same military caste. They went to the same schools, boasted the same moustaches, and married one another’s sisters. But the RAF was different. The technical nature of the service meant that the net had to be cast wider than the military’s traditional recruiting base – for officers and men alike.
Who were the pilots who became ‘the Few’?
In 1936, when the war was still looming, the doors to the world of flying were thrown open. The Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR) was formed to provide a pool of trained pilots to replace those who were expected to fall in the first phase of combat.
The qualifications required were modest, and suddenly the dreams of a legion of lower-middle class lads brought up on the adventures of the fictional fighter ace James ‘Biggles’ Bigglesworth came true, as they set off at weekends to learn to fly at government expense.
“I’d always wanted to fly, from when I was a small boy,” remembered Charlton Haw, who left school at 14. “I never wanted to do anything else, but I never thought there would ever be a chance for me. Until the RAFVR was formed, for a normal schoolboy it was almost impossible.” He joined up in York aged 18, went solo in half the average time and flew Hurricanes with No. 504 Squadron.
The reservists joined their squadrons as sergeant pilots, and as such they would make a vital contribution to victory. More than one-third of the 2,946 men who flew in the Battle of Britain were non-commissioned officers (NCOs). However, they were paid less, lived in poorer accommodation and enjoyed fewer privileges than their officer comrades.
Looking back from the standpoint of today, it seems unfair that men who fought and died together in the air should eat in different ‘messes’ on the ground, but in my conversations with survivors over the years, I rarely heard any complaints.
“We were all very close,” said Maurice Leng, who flew as a sergeant with No. 73 Squadron. “There was no sort of officers versus sergeants ballyhoo. We were all in the same boat, and there was marvellous camaraderie.” By the later stages of the engagement, death and injury had done much to even things up. Almost every NCO pilot ended up with a commission, and the amateurs of the RAFVR soon proved they were the equal of the pre-war professionals.
‘The Few’ were bound together by a shared passion. They were drawn to the RAF because they were fascinated by flying – still a glamorous and mysterious activity – by a willingness to take risks, and an eagerness for fun and adventure.
While researching my various books on the Battle of Britain, I was struck again by how closely the popular image of ‘the Few’ matched the reality. “We were young and had great confidence in our abilities and in our planes, so we all, quite joyfully, joined in the absurd race to death and destruction,” recalled Charles Fenwick, who flew with No. 610 Squadron.
Life between missions
The pilots constructed their own reality in which the possibility of death, although ever present, was rarely mentioned. Off duty, life was lived to the full who knew how much time was left?
At the end of a long day’s fighting, pilots jumped into their jalopies and headed through the green lanes and ripening cornfields to their favourite pub, such as the White Hart at Brasted, Kent, which was frequented by the squadrons based at the nearby RAF base, Biggin Hill.
Station commander Group Captain Dick Grice often led the charge to the watering hole. “Dick Grice had a tannoy speaker mounted on his car you could hear him a mile away,” remembered Pete Brothers, a flight lieutenant with No. 32 Squadron. “‘This is the CO, and I want three scotches and two pints of bitter.’ He’d got a bunch of chaps in the car and was calling up the bar.”
As the battle gathered pace, girls didn’t feature much in the airmen’s lives. There was no time, and many thought it was not fair to form emotional bonds when they knew they might well die tomorrow.
More like boys than warriors
Many of those fighting were barely out of adolescence and sounded more like boys than warriors in their letters home.
“Dear Mum and Dad,” wrote 19-year-old Pilot Officer John Carpenter of No. 222 Squadron on 29 August, just before his unit moved base to Hornchurch and into the thick of the fighting. “I am writing this at five in the morning, we are leaving at eight and should be there by nine. I hope to be shooting Jerries down by ten.”
Three days later, his parents received an update: “Sorry I haven’t written in the last 24 hours, but my time has been rather occupied. So far I have one Messerschmitt 109 and one 110 to my credit, but in getting the 110 I was shot down and had to bale out… Lots of fun here – just what we’ve been waiting for.”
The next letter was from Maidstone Hospital, where he was recovering after being downed again – this time by friendly anti-aircraft fire. “I am not shooting a line when I say that the machine just disappeared from under me in one big BANG… I must have got a hit over the head somewhere, because I could not see coming down…”
What common myths still surround the Battle of Britain?
One enduring belief is that the Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göring was incompetent, and his unfortunate decisions placed the Luftwaffe in an unnecessarily difficult position. Christer Bergström dispels this fallacy and five other Battle of Britain myths.
The light-heartedness was to some extent put on. Robin Appleford of No. 66 Squadron described how, as an 18-year-old Spitfire pilot waiting for the order to scramble, he “got that sort of sick feeling all the time. I think most people if they were honest would confirm this”. But it was considered bad form to show it.
The airmen believed that they were simply doing their jobs and were often surprised at the reception they got from the public. On 18 September, Sergeant Ian Hutchinson’s Spitfire was hit over Canterbury, and he bailed out. He was taken to hospital where his shrapnel wounds were bandaged up, and as there was no transport, he had to make his own way back to Hornchurch by rail.
“I had to change trains somewhere,” he recalled. “I was standing on the station with a bandage on my leg … I was carrying a parachute under my arm, and everyone was coming up and shaking my hand, and I wished the ground would have opened up and swallowed me.”
Perhaps those shaking hands with the sergeant weren’t simply thanking him: they wanted to show their solidarity. Everyone was in this battle together, and those on the ground were demonstrating the same courage, selflessness and determination as those in the air.
It was an attitude that made a return to the pre-war order of social injustice and class privilege unthinkable. The memory of those days and the example of the airmen would find political expression when the shooting finally stopped, and the country set about constructing peace from the ruins of the conflict.
Patrick Bishop is a military historian who has worked extensively with veterans. His books include Air Force Blue: The RAF in World War Two (2018) and Fighter Boys (2020)
Five Incredible & Inspiring Tales of Bravery from the Battle of Britain
The Battle of Britain was an intense test of aerial superiority between the British Royal Air Force (RAF) and the German Luftwaffe.
Following the conquest of France, Hitler’s next big plan was an invasion of the United Kingdom, codenamed Operation Sea Lion. He had hoped that the British government would be bedazzled by the fall of France to the point of reaching out for peace talks. But because the British maintained their composure, much to Hitler’s disappointment, the invasion would be his last resort.
Churchill wears a helmet during an air raid warning in the Battle of Britain in 1940
As a prelude to Sea Lion, the Luftwaffe was sent in numbers over the airspace of Great Britain in a bid to destabilize the RAF and secure aerial superiority. Concentrated airstrikes began all over the United Kingdom. Thus, the Battle of Britain was in full swing, with the RAF doing all they could to keep Britain from falling.
Several acts of bravery emerged from this, as the men and women of the RAF gave their all to protect their nation. Below are five remarkable stories of heroism and bravery culled from the Battle of Britain.
Eric Lock: Short Pilot, High Morale
Eric Lock’s friends called him “Sawn-off Lockie” owing to the fact that he was really short. However, when the moment came for him to make history, his morale did not fall short.
Erick Stanley Lock. A British 26-victory ace.
On August 15, 1940, as the RAF’s No. 41 Squadron engaged the Luftwaffe in northern England, Lock scored his very first victory. He fired at a Messerschmitt BF 110 at 20,000 feet, then followed it all the way down to 5,000 feet as he rained hell on the aircraft. He also struck a Junkers Ju 88 formation and effectively downed one of the planes.
On September 5, during aerial combat over southern England, Lock gunned down two Heinkel He 111s and a Messerschmitt BF 109. During his engagement with the BF 109, his Spitfire was hit, and he suffered an injury to his leg. The next day, he took his plane back into the air despite his injuries, and scored his seventh victory for the RAF.
A Bf 109G-6 of JG 27 in flight, 1943
Through a refined combination of good composure and skill, Lock served till the end of the Battle, scoring a total of twenty-six victories. With this achievement, Eric Lock became the most successful Allied aviator in the Battle of Britain.
However, Lock did not live to see the rest of WWII. In August 1941, his Supermarine Spitfire was shot down by enemy ground-fire and crashed in the English Channel. His body was never found.
Bill Millington: Choosing to Save a Village Over his Own Safety
On August 31, 1940, a group of RAF pilots caught sight of a massed formation of Dornier and Messerschmitt planes during a patrol over Kent.
German propaganda photo purporting to show a Spitfire I flying very close to a Dornier 17Z Photo by Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-662-6659-37 / Hebenstreit / CC-BY-SA 3.0
The German planes were immediately engaged by the RAF and during the attack, Bill Millington’s Hurricane caught one of the bombers in its gunfire, effectively damaging it. However, he came under heavy fire from three Messerschmitt fighters. Responding rapidly, he maneuvered his way out of the line of fire and managed to gun down one aircraft.
He then became the target of a concentrated attack from the other Messerschmitts. Although dealing with an enemy force that outnumbered him, he refused to withdraw and instead kept his guns roaring.
A Spitfire pilot recounts how he shot down a Messerschmitt, Biggin Hill, September 1940
He continuously outmaneuvered them, gunning down another Messerschmitt. However, his Hurricane was hit by a cannon shell that set his plane ablaze and inflicted an injury on his thigh. With his plane on the verge of exploding, he needed to bail if he was to survive. But beneath him lay a small village.
He knew that by bailing out of his Hurricane at that moment, he would be letting the plane crash into the village, putting civilian lives in danger.
Hawker Hurricane Mk I P3522 of No. 32 Squadron, flown by Pilot Officer Rupert Smythe, taxying at RAF Hawkinge, 29 July 1940
He therefore stayed in the burning plane, steering it as it cascaded from the sky until it crash-landed on a farm close to the village. Injured and severely burned, he managed to leave the plane before it exploded.
His bravery and determination to save others from harm earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross on October 1, 1940. On October 30, he was killed in action.
Pattern of condensation trails left by British and German aircraft after a dogfight.
Peter Brothers: Fighting 100 Luftwaffe Fighters
Peter Brothers was already a very skilled and experienced pilot by the time the Battle of Britain began. This was due to the fact that he had always been interested in flying and had begun to learn how at the age of 16.
He had his first combat flight during the Battle of Britain, and distinguished himself through exceptional gallantry in offensive flight operations.
Peter Brothers (left) in Surrey during the Battle of Britain
In August 1940, Brothers was leading a flight on an offensive patrol when they encountered a group of 100 enemy aircraft. Although the Luftwaffe substantially outnumbered his group, Brothers led the flight towards the enemy for a spell of aerial combat. However, before he could fully launch his attack, a group of Messerschmitt 110s engaged him.
He faced them squarely, but then his aircraft stalled. Employing refined maneuvering tactics, he spun his aircraft out of the stalled position and quickly took on a Dornier 215. After downing the Dornier, he later scored another victory against a Messerschmitt 109.
Dornier Do 215 in flight
By the end of the Battle of Britain, Brothers had scored ten aerial victories against the Luftwaffe.
Gordon Cleaver: Flying with Eye Injuries
Gordon “Mouse” Cleaver was already rich with combat experience by the time the Battle of Britain began. He had flown with RAF’s No. 601 Squadron over northern France, downing German aircraft in Merville, Douai and Dunkirk.
During the Battle of Britain, Cleaver’s base RAF Tangmere came under heavy attack by the Luftwaffe. All personnel fought to defend the base from the Germans, including Cleaver, who had eight kills to his credit by that time.
Two 601 Sqn Spitfire Vb over Djerba Island in early 1943, led by W/Cdr. I.R. Gleed in his personal Spitfire marked IR-G.
As he flew his section on combat over Winchester, Cleaver’s Hurricane received a hit from cannon shells. The impact shattered the Hurricane’s perspex canopy, blowing the fragments into his face. Cleaver, unfortunately, was not wearing goggles.
Although mostly blinded, his Distinguished Flying Cross citation states that “he refused to leave his aircraft and effected a successful landing.”
Cleaver’s flying career was over, but studies of the Perspex fragments in his eyes directly contributed to the development of the first intraocular lens, made from clinical quality Perspex.
Jack Adams: Flying on Empty
Jack Adams became a part of the RAF in 1936 and completed several night patrols from the outset of the war. He earned recognition for outstanding commitment to his duties.
Heinkel He 111 bombers during the Battle of Britain
During a night patrol on August 20, 1940, Jack Adams spotted a German aircraft a mile away. He quickly went after the aircraft in his Blenheim bomber in what became a 50-minute chase.
As he followed the Luftwaffe flier, he lost communications with his base. However, this did not deter him. He kept chasing after the aircraft until he caught up with it over the south coast, close to the Isle of Wight.
In the exchange that ensued, Adams successfully shot the airplane down before heading back to his base.
There was just one astonishing detail about the chase that left his comrades dumbstruck: throughout it, Adams’ fuel tank had been empty.
5. Boulton Paul Defiant
Boulton Paul Defiants in formation.
The RAF expected the Boulton Paul Defiant to be an effective anti-bomber craft. They considered that a movable gun turret would provide greater flexibility in attack than the single-seat fighters had. These planes, like the Spitfire and Hurricane, could only fire straight ahead, so theoretically were less able to shoot at bombers for an extended period of time.
The ‘Daffy’, as the Defiant came to be known, actually had some major flaws. The extra weight and drag of the gun turret slowed the plane, and it couldn’t fire directly forward. If the Defiant’s electrics were disabled, its gunner was not able to escape from the turret as it was operated entirely by electricity.
As a result, the Defiant was soon withdrawn from day-time operations in the Battle of Britain. It was later found to be much more effective as a night-fighter, shooting down the most enemy planes during the Blitz of all British aircraft types.
Your guide to the Battle of Britain: how the RAF turned back the Luftwaffe
By the end of June 1940, the forces of Nazi Germany and its allies dominated Western Europe. In July, Adolf Hitler turned his attention to Britain which, despite the seeminly hopeless military situation it was in, had refused to surrender. We bring you the everything you need to know about what followed – the Battle of Britain
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Published: September 15, 2020 at 9:20 am
Described by prime minister Winston Churchill as the RAF’s finest hour, the Battle of Britain (10 July – 31 October 1940) was the first major military campaign in history to be fought entirely in the air. It was one of Britain’s most important victories of the Second World War and is credited with preventing Germany from invading Britain. Historian Julian Humphrys takes us through some of the biggest questions and facts surrounding this pivotal aerial campaign…
When and why was the Battle of Britain fought?
Adolf Hitler aimed to force Britain to submit by bombing, naval blockade or, if necessary, invasion. But to achieve this, he needed air supremacy. So, in the summer and autumn of 1940, a few thousand airmen waged a dogged battle in the skies over Britain. Next to the later conflicts of World War II, it was a tiny affair. But the stakes were huge – resting on the result was the survival of Britain and the outcome of the entire war.
What happened during the Battle of Britain? Here are 5 key dates…
10 July 1940: Official start of the battle of Britain
The battle begins with the Kanalkampf, or Channel Battles phase, when the Germans launched sustained attacks against British shipping to prevent much-needed supplies from reaching the beleaguered British Isles.
13 August 1940: Eagle Day
With the outcome of the Kanalkampf phase of the battle inconclusive, Luftwaffe commander-in-cheif Hermann Göring makes plans for an all-out assault against Fighter Command on the British mainland.
18 August 1940: The Hardest Day
Both sides suffer their greatest number of losses so far: 69 German aircraft versus Fighter Command’s 29.
7 September 1940: The Blitz begins
Dismayed by the failure to destroy Fighter Command and incensed by a British bombing raid on Berlin, Göring turns his attention to London.
15 September 1940: Battle of Britain Day
Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park famously orders all his aircraft into the air to defend the capital, abandoning his own policy of deliberate, smaller attacks by individual squadrons.
Read more details about each date in Kate Moore’s 5 key dates in the Battle of Britain
What led to the Battle of Britain?
Within a few hours of each other, on 3 September 1939, Britain and France declared war against Nazi Germany following its invasion of Poland. With the exception of a brief French incursion into Germany, a few notable naval actions and some small-scale bombing raids, the opening months of the conflict were remarkably quiet. As such, the period gained the nickname ‘the Phoney War’. In the spring of 1940, all that changed.
In April, the Germans began their conquest of Norway and then, on 10 May, they invaded France and Belgium. Bypassing the heavily fortified Maginot Line, which ran along the Franco-German border, and employing fast-moving Blitzkrieg (‘lightning war’) tactics they swept through the Ardennes before turning for the coast, cutting off hundreds of thousands of French and British soldiers at Dunkirk. Operation Dynamo, the Allied evacuation from those beaches, brought over 300,000 of them back to England. But France had been knocked out of the war, and the British had been forced to leave most of their equipment behind.
Hitler expected the British to come to terms but Winston Churchill – the new British Prime Minister – was having none of it. Scorning surrender, he demonstrated to the world (and to the US in particular) Britain’s ruthless determination to fight on by attacking the fleet of its former ally, France, to prevent it from falling into German hands.
Faced with what he saw as stubborn intransigence on the part of Britain, Hitler planned to force its surrender by bombing, naval blockade or, as a last resort, invasion. But to do this he needed to gain mastery of the skies over Britain, which meant knocking out the Royal Air Force (RAF).
Only then could a large-enough bombing campaign be mounted to force the British to the negotiating table, or an invasion force have any chance of crossing the English Channel in the face of the powerful Royal Navy.
What did the Battle of Britain mean for Hitler’s plans?
In July 1940, Hitler ordered plans to be put in place for a seaborne invasion of Britain, which was given the code name Seelöwe or ‘Sealion’. The invasion plan was seen very much as a last resort. Hitler hoped that through blockade, bombing and the threat of an invasion, he could break the British will to fight.
Had Operation Sealion actually gone ahead, it would have been an incredibly risky undertaking. For a start, a long spell of calm weather was needed for the fragile invasion barges to cross the Channel – anything more than a mild swell and they risked being swamped. And lurking in the wings was the fearsome Royal Navy.
There was a real danger that it might attack the invasion fleet as it crossed the Channel, or cut off the German ground forces once they’d landed. Only victory in the air would have given the invasion any prospect of success, but it seems highly likely that, though it may well have suffered heavy losses from bombing, mines and U-boats, the Royal Navy would have been able to intervene decisively had the invasion been attempted.
Could Operation Sealion ever have succeeded?
The RAF’s Battle of Britain heroics are credited with saving the nation. But, argues Nick Hewitt, it was the Royal Navy’s savaging of the German fleet in the battle of Norway in the spring of 1940 that scuttled Hitler’s grand invasion plans.
“In truth, there’s little chance that Germany could have invaded England, even if the RAF had been defeated in the Battle of Britain,” he says. “That’s because, some weeks earlier, Britain had already, in effect, been saved.”
How strong were the RAF and Luftwaffe in July 1940?
The German Air Force, or Luftwaffe, consisted of three Luftflotten (‘Air fleets’), deployed in an arc round Britain from Normandy to Scandinavia. During the Battle of Britain they had about 2,800 aircraft, two-thirds of which were bombers. The Luftwaffe had already defeated the air forces of Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, and the RAF contingent prior to Dunkirk. Its crews were experienced and confident and its commander predicted it would only take a few days to knock out the RAF.
In 1936, the RAF had been organised into four separate Commands: Training, Coastal, Bomber and Fighter. Fighter Command was organised geographically into four ‘Groups’. Air Vice-Marshal Park’s 11 Group, in the South East, would bear the brunt of the fighting. It had about 650 aircraft and 1,300 pilots at its disposal at the start of the Battle.
Fighter Command had suffered heavy losses during the Battle of France and its commander Hugh Dowding controversially refused Churchill’s request for more squadrons to be sent there, arguing that every plane was needed for the forthcoming fights over Britain.
Listen: historian James Holland describes how the Luftwaffe and RAF fought to control the skies over Britain in 1940
Who were the key players?
Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding
The commander-in-chief of Fighter Command, Dowding modernised Britain’s aerial defences, encouraged the design of modern fighter planes and supported the development of radar.
Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring
A WWI flying ace who took over the fighter wing once led by the Red Baron, Göring was Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe during the Battle. In 1946, he committed suicide before he was due to be executed for war crimes.
Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park
A flying ace in WWI, New Zealand-born Park commanded the Number 11 Fighter Group – responsible for the defence of London and the Southeast, and bore the brunt of the fighting.
Generalfeldmarschall Hugo Sperrle
Sperrle was commander of Luftflotte III, which was heavily engaged during the Battle. He had previously commanded the German Condor Legion, which flew on the side of the Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War.
What was the Luftwaffe’s plan?
The aims of the two sides were relatively straightforward. The Germans planned to bomb key British military, industrial and, later, civilian targets, thus devastating Britain’s ability and willingness to fight. They also reasoned that, as the RAF would have to respond to these attacks, its fighter force would be worn down until the numerically superior Luftwaffe enjoyed supremacy in the skies over Britain. Then, an invasion might just be possible.
In order to get at the bombers, the RAF first had to fight its way through a protective screen of enemy fighters. And here, the Germans enjoyed a tactical advantage.
The RAF had always liked close formation flying. Its three-plane V formations looked impressive, but were not very agile in battle. The Germans, on the other hand, had learnt from their experiences in the Spanish Civil War. They replaced the V with a pair of planes – one would lead while the other acted as its wingman, watching its back. Two pairs often worked together and, until the British adjusted their own tactics, these looser formations gave the Germans an edge in close combat.
However, the Germans consistently underestimated how many planes the RAF had, and how quickly it could replace those it had lost. And, like the RAF, they usually overestimated how many planes they’d shot down. As a result, they never really had a clear picture of how the battle was going.
In August, they began attacking RAF airfields, which did, in fact, put Fighter Command under severe strain. But when, in early September, they switched their sights to British cities, they did so at just the wrong time. They believed Fighter Command was on its last legs. They were wrong. When large numbers of RAF fighters inflicted heavy losses on the raids of 15 September, it was a devastating blow to Luftwaffe morale.
What common myths still surround the Battle of Britain?
One enduring belief is that the Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göring was incompetent, and his unfortunate decisions placed the Luftwaffe in an unnecessarily difficult position. Christer Bergström dispels this fallacy and five other Battle of Britain myths.
Who were ‘the Few‘?
RAF fighter pilots were a cosmopolitan bunch, very different to the public school ‘Tally Ho’ chaps they’re popularly seen as.
In fact, of the almost 3,000 pilots that flew during the Battle of Britain, fewer than 200 were public-school educated. The rest came from a wide variety of backgrounds – bank clerks, shop assistants and factory workers all served as fighter pilots.
What they did have in common was their youth. While a few ‘old sweats’ were over 30, the average age of an RAF fighter pilot was just 20, and many were as young as 18. At the time, you had to be 21 to vote so many of these young men were risking their lives in defence of a democracy they were not yet old enough to participate in.
Not all of the Battle of Britain pilots were British
About 20 per cent of Fighter Command’s aircrew came from overseas: New Zealanders, Canadians, Australians and South Africans took part in the Battle of Britain, and they were joined by volunteers from a variety of nations including neutral countries like Ireland and the US.
Vital contributions were also made by pilots from Nazi-occupied countries – Poles, Czechoslovakians, Belgians, Frenchmen and Austrians all flew in the Battle. Many of them were experienced fighters, often motivated by an intense hatred of the country that was oppressing their own. Although it was only operational for six weeks, the Polish No 303 Squadron shot down more German planes than any other unit.
Is the Battle of Britain overrated?
Historian Sean Lang argues that this clash of aerial supremacy is among the nine most overrated battles in history – alongside Bannockburn, Bosworth and the defeat of the Spanish Armada.
RAF pilots generally received less training than their German counterparts
At this time, all German aircrew had to undergo at least six months of basic training British pilots rarely got more than a month. German aviators received up to 80 hours’ training at specialist bomber or fighter schools, and took part in simulation sorties and mock battles before seeing combat. RAF pilots were lucky if they got more than about 20 hours of actual flying before they were posted to an operational unit, such was Britain’s shortage of manpower.
Pilots on both sides rapidly learned that there was a world of difference between the flying they’d learned in training and flying in combat. You might have been the most elegant flier in the world but it counted for little if you couldn’t shoot straight.
Fighter planes normally had only enough ammunition for about ten seconds of sustained firing, and so often the best tactic was to get your plane as close as possible to an enemy – ideally without him seeing you – fire off a short burst of one or two seconds and then quickly move on.
Such deadly encounters often lasted moments and in these circumstances strong nerves, quick reactions and good eyesight were as important as technical flying ability.
The ‘many’ on the ground were as important as the ‘few’ in the air
“The Few, the pilots in their fighter aircraft, were one cog that made up the first fully co-ordinated air defence system in the world,” writes James Holland.
“This saw modern radar, an Observer Corps, radio and a highly efficient means of collating, filtering and disseminating this information being combined with a highly developed ground control to ensure that Luftwaffe raids such as those on 14 August were intercepted and harried repeatedly.”
Women played vital roles in the Battle of Britain
Many worked in factories building the aircraft that actually did the fighting while one out of every eight of the pilots in the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), which delivered planes to stations across the country, were female. One of these was the accomplished Amy Johnson, who died in 1941 when the aircraft she was flying crashed into the Thames estuary.
Members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) worked alongside the RAF as drivers, clerks, telephonists, cooks and orderlies. Some served at radar stations while others famously worked as plotters in the various Fighter Command operations rooms mapping friendly and enemy aircraft positions and helping to direct fighter planes. Many of the places they worked at were primary targets for German attacks. More than 750 WAAFs lost their lives during the war.
Meanwhile, women in the Army’s Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) worked as radar operators, and joined the crews of anti-aircraft guns and searchlight units. More than 250,000 women served in the ATS during World War II, including the future Queen Elizabeth II, who joined up while a princess at the age of 19, training as a driver and mechanic.
The Spitfire was not the only RAF fighter
For many, the sleek and slender Supermarine Spitfire is the enduring symbol of the Battle of Britain. Indeed, at the time, just a glimpse of its silhouette in the sky gave hope to those below, who knew that Fighter Command were on the scene, tackling the enemy over Britain.
But the Spitfire was not the most significant plane in the RAF: Britain’s number one fighter was the Hawker Hurricane. Solid, reliable and tough, it was the first monoplane fighter to enter service with the RAF, which it did in 1937. During the Battle of Britain, Hurricanes shot down more enemy planes than all the other types of Allied aircraft combined.
Was the Battle of Britain the country’s finest hour?
“One of them, certainly,” writes James Holland, “as it consigned Hitler to a long attritional war on multiple fronts – a conflict his forces were not designed to fight, and which materially meant they would always be struggling.”
The Battle of Britain overlaps with the Blitz
The Blitz is the name given to the sustained bombing of British cities that began with the first massed air raid on London on 7 September 1940. It continued in one form or other for eight months, only petering out in May 1941 when the Germans began to prepare their invasion of Russia.
London came under sustained attack – it was bombed for 57 consecutive nights and by the end of October more than 250,000 Londoners were homeless.
This content first appeared in the May 2015 issue of BBC History Revealed, and curated with content from BBC History Magazine and HistoryExtra published between 2010 and 2015
5. The winning combination of the Spitfire and the Hurricane
Britain’s fate largely rested upon the bravery, determination and skill of its fighter pilots – men drawn from across the British Empire as well as North America, Czechoslovakia, Poland and other Allied nations. Just 2,937 Fighter Command Aircrew took on the might of the Luftwaffe, with an average age of only 20. Most had only received two weeks’ training.
It also had some key technological advantages, including its Hurricane and Spitfire fighter aircraft. In July 1940, the RAF had 29 squadrons of Hurricanes and 19 squadrons of Spitfires.
The Hurricanes had sturdy frames, enabling them to take on the German bombers. The Mark I Spitfires, with their superior speed, manoeuvrability and firepower (armed with 8 machine-guns) were sent up to shoot down German fighters. The Spitfire’s ground-breaking design meant it could be upgraded with new engines and armaments as technology developed during the war.
The Stuka was far less fearsome when it had to deal with Spitfires and Hurricanes. It’s top speed was 230mph, compared to the spitfire’s 350mph.
Battle of Britain: German Intelligence Failures
As the bulk of Fighter Command's strength had been husbanded in Britain during the earlier fighting, the Luftwaffe had a poor estimate of its strength. As the battle began, Göring believed that the British had between 300-400 fighters when in actuality, Dowding possessed over 700. This led the German commander to believe that Fighter Command could be swept from the skies in four days. While the Luftwaffe was aware of the British radar system and ground control network, it dismissed their importance and believed that they created a inflexible tactical system for the British squadrons. In reality, the system permitted flexibility for squadron commanders to make appropriate decisions based on the most recent data.