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The Battle of Britain - a brief account

A formation of Spitfires are seen in this classic shot above the clouds.

Unfortunately, many people especially students are of the opinion that the Battle of Britain was Britain's involvement in the Second World War and the continued bombing that had been sustained from late 1939 until the end of 1944. In actual fact, the Battle of Britain was one of the first major battles of WW2 that lasted officially from July 10th until October 31st 1940.

The Battle of Britain will be known for two very important reasons in the annals of modern history. First it was the only battle to be staged in military warfare that was ever to be fought entirely in the air, even to this day. Secondly it was to turn the tide for the whole future of the Second World War, because if the Battle of Britain had been lost German forces would have invaded Great Britain and would then have had total domination of Northern Europe and possibly have succeeded in being a world power. But, because of the outcome, we shall never know.

After continued successful 'Blitzkrieg' invasions of Poland, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium and France, Germany, under Adolf Hitler's Nazi rule need only to defeat and complete a successful invasion of Great Britain to stand fast as a world power to be taken notice of. As the last of the tired and exhausted allied personnel had been taken from Dunkirk, Hitler's armies were busy marching towards Paris and the claim that France had been defeated and now belonged to Germany. The British Prime Minister included in his speech at the fall of France:

"....the Battle of France is over, I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire."

Germany's swift 'Blitzkrieg' attacks so far had a devastating effect on the enemy and gave them successes in a very short period of time. Hitler and his Generals believed that the same methods would work for an invasion of Great Britain, the only difference being that because the English Channel formed a natural defence between the French and British coasts the Luftwaffe would have to destroy the Royal Air Force both in the air and on the ground. Reichmarschall Hermann Göring, believing that the RAF was weak and demoralised after the defeat in France could be destroyed in just three weeks. Hitler gave him four weeks and made plans for an invasion of Great Britain by mid-August.

Göring's plan was to attack British convoys in the English Channel thus demoralizing the British people, and depriving them of food, coal and supplies while at the same time it would lure the fighters of the RAF into the air where they could be attacked by, what Göring thought to be his superior Messerschmitt Bf109 fighter. Those early days of July 1940 saw many hard fought combats in the air and casualties were high on both sides. As well as the convoys, the Luftwaffe also attacked Britain's Channel ports as well as spasmodic bombing attacks in the west, the Midlands and along the east coast.

"I believe that, if an adequate fighter force is kept in this country, if the fleet remains in being, and if Home Forces are suitably organized to resist invasion, we should be able to carry on the war single-handed for some time, if not indefinitely. But, if the Home Defence Force is drained away in desperate attempts to remedy the situation in France, defeat in France will involve the final, complete and irremediable defeat of this country."
May 16, 1940

Fighter Command responded well, even though at this stage there was a shortage of fighter aircraft and a desperate shortage of good pilots. At first, a number of pilots from the Fleet Air Arm had been transferred to Fighter Command but this was not enough to bring them up to full strength. Soon, Fighter Command was strengthened by Belgian, Polish and Czechoslovakian pilots that had fled their respective countries that had been taken over by Germany. The training period for new pilots was shortened to boost squadron strength, but this was to place further burdens on squadron commanders who had to teach 'green' pilots the art of combat and how to survive.

Luftwaffe pilots were now complaining that convoys and ports could have been successfully attacked, but the British fighters were always there. Often they were being scattered by squadrons of Hurricanes and Spitfires before they could attack their targets. Reichmarschall Göring believed that it was this radar that the British were using was informing them of any enemy activity, and that before any attack could be mounted on RAF airfields and other targets inland, this radar would have to be destroyed.

Now into August and the preparation of an invasion drawing even closer, the Luftwaffe was no where near to destroying the RAF as it was in early July. On August 12th at 0730 hours the Luftwaffe made its first all out attack on the radar stations along the southern English coast. Bombs fell on Dover, Pevensey and Rye, while Ju87 dive bombers attacked two convoys in the Thames Estuary. Six radar stations were attacked, but only Ventnor was put out of action. It had been the busiest day since the Battle began with Fighter Command flying 732 sorties.

August was now the height of activity. Squadrons were flying four or five sorties a day, combat action was relentless day after day. Pilots were now becoming exhausted, often being transferred north for rest, but this was not always the case as they were often called into combat to intercept enemy activity that were targeting northern airfields and industry. Down south, came the first signs of attacks on Fighter Command aerodromes. Manston, Hawkinge Lympne, Croydon, Hornchurch, North Weald, Kenley and Biggin Hill all suffered extensive damage with many lives lost.

The four weeks that Göring had thought that he could destroy the RAF was now well past, and the Luftwaffe was again no closer to achieving victory. The invasion date for mid August now had to be put back to mid-September, after that the unfavourable weather conditions of a British winter would set in. The Luftwaffe was loosing superiority in the air, the young pilots of Fighter Command was now proving far too good a match for them. German aircraft and pilot casualties were now three times greater than that of Fighter Command, but although AVM Keith Park was pleased with these results, he was very much concerned that many enemy aircraft were still getting through and reaching their targets.

Even though it appeared that Fighter Command was getting the upper hand, the experience of flying in battle was playing on the minds of they young pilots as one father stated:

He (son) wondered just how much longer he could take it. Each day someone fails to return, often another empty seat at the table. He was relieved when often they would turn up, apparently they had safely baled out, or injured in a crash landing. But many died horrific deaths, slowly burnt alive being trapped in their cockpits. He thought that he would rather have died instantly, or went in nose first into the ground rather than being burned alive.
He was a changed lad, time took care of that taking him from a young man with a bright future before the war to a man that seemed full of hatred, he said that he felt as if he was a human killing machine and said that if he ever dies, then put on his headstone "Here Lies Another Human Killing Machine".
On leave he could not sleep, or he would scream out in the night. How he died we will never know, he went out on a mission, and never came back, and that's the sad part, we do not even have a grave where we know that he is at last resting in peace.
The Battle was now taking its toll. Although the number of pilots was increasing in numbers those that had fought with Fighter Command since the Battle of Britain began were tired, Hurricanes and Spitfires were being destroyed as fast as new ones were being delivered, and airfields had not recovered since the attacks on the bases had begun. But if anything, there was one glimmer of hope.....the Luftwaffe had not destroyed them as they had planned, late August was the lowest ebb for Fighter Command.

Then, on September 7th 1940 the Luftwaffe turned its attacks on London itself. One hundred plus Heinkel's, Dornier's and Junkers, fully laden with bombloads and escorted by as many Bf109 fighters headed the capital. From 1115 hours until the morning of the next day wave after wave of enemy bombers came across the Channel, the night operations being guided by the huge fires in London's East End. Fighter Command scrambled squadron after squadron but they were outnumbered on every raid. London docks suffered terribly, Silvertown was a blazing inferno, the oil tanks at Thameshaven and Purfleet were ablaze and so was every borough along the Thames to London. This day goes down as the first day of "The Blitz" which was to continue well into 1941.

AVM Keith Park did not like what he saw, but he was a relieved man. "At least they're leaving my airfields alone." The opportunity came to make all the necessary repairs to the Fighter Command aerodromes. Communications were restored, water and gas mains repaired and in the days that followed it gave ACM Hugh Dowding and AVM Keith Park time to build up the squadrons to combat strength with pilots and aircraft. Within a week, Fighter Command was back to almost full strength.

"I soon found another target. About 3,000 yards ahead of me, and at the same level, a Hun was just completing a turn preparatory to re-entering the fray. He saw me almost immediately and rolled out of his turn towards me so that a head-on attack became inevitable. Using both hands on the control column to steady the aircraft and thus keep my aim steady, I peered through the reflector sight at the rapidly closing aircraft. We opened fire together, and immediately a hail of lead thudded into my Spitfire.
One moment the Messerschmitt was a clearly defined shape, its wingspan nicely enclosed within the circle of my reflector sight, and the next it was on top of me, a terrifying blur which came out of the sky ahead. Then we hit."
AL DEERE, 54 Squadron July 9th 1940.

On September 15th 1940, the largest concentration of enemy aircraft ever seen came across the English coast from all directions. One pilot searching for the invaders called out upon sighting them; "It's the whole bloody Luftwaffe!!" The raids continued throughout the day with the Luftwaffe flying over 1,000 sorties against London. 11 Group put up its entire force of squadrons and called for assistance from 12 Group and 10 Group. In all nearly forty fighter squadrons, that's 480 aircraft that were in the air in fierce combat between London and the Thames Estuary, south of London to the South Coast and in areas north of the capital. Luftwaffe bombers were seen scampering in all directions, releasing their bombs at random. Most of the bombers were without fighter escort as they were forced to return back to their bases. The Luftwaffe lost 59 aircraft further adding to their frustration while Fighter Command lost 26 aircraft and 13 pilots. Considering the days events, this was a good result giving the pilots greater confidence for future combats.

Within two days Adolf Hitler realised that an invasion of Great Britain was now impossible. His Luftwaffe had failed to destroy the Royal Air Force and any landing in Britain was now out of the question. Fighter Command had proven themselves masters of the air, young and inexperienced, outnumbered in both men and machines they added another yet another chapter to the history of WW2, as this was the very first time that Germany had failed to accomplish what it had set out to do, they had been defeated.
September 15th is now celebrated each year in Britain and the commonwealth countries as Battle of Britain Day. Dedicated and courageous, sometimes tired and exhausted they would not be beaten and turned the tide in favour of the Allied forces.

The Battle of Britain was to continue through until October 31st 1940, but after September 15th most raids were on a far lesser scale. The "Blitz" continued with constant night attacks for 57 consecutive days after September 7th, but the bombing of British towns and industrial centres continued until 1944. 2,936 pilots were to take part in this historic Battle of which 544 of them lost their lives, young lives taken in the call of duty. Those that have no known grave are remembered on the RAF Runnymede Memorial near Windsor.

We must never forget what these men did for the cause of freedom, to play their part to rid the world of dictatorship powers. We must teach today's generation that a handful of men fought for the freedom enjoyed today. Wars and conflicts, whether political or religious will continue to happen, but our western world is a place of freedom and democracy.

You can read the full story of the Battle of Britain in our Educational Section
It contains details of Leaders - Pilots - Squadrons - Airfields
A Full chronological history

The Battle of Britain Historical Society aims to uphold the memory of the 2,936 pilots of Fighter Command, for their gallantry, determination and courage in the course of their duty. But we must not forget that their achievement would not have been possible had it not been for the support that they got from the armourers, refuellers, engineers, fitters, mechanics and other members of the RAF ground crews. Also the support from such services as the gas, electricity, water and telephone companies. We must also make mention of the radar operators, the plotters, wireless operators, the Observer Corps, anti-aircraft batteries, barrage balloon operators and many more who played such an important part in the success of the Battle of Britain. These people are so often forgotten.