3d History

Battle of Britian - the air defence of Britain in 1940

The Supermarine Spitfire Mk I was well known for its participation in the Battle of Britain during 1940.
1940 Event

Opening moves. Attacks on coastal shipping, airfields and radar stations.

August 13th Adler Tag (Eagle Day) the first day of the Main German offensive attacking inland airbases in force
September 7th First German bombing raids on London
September 15th Height of the air battle over London and the South East of England
September 17th Operation Sealion cancelled.

"What General Weygand called 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 civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad sunlit uplands, but, if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and it's Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, "This was their finest hour". ..............

Winston Churchill (June 18th 1940)

What Winston Churchill described as The Battle of Britain took place during August and September 1940. Following the surrender of France and the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk, Britain faced the German Wehrmacht on her own without an effective army to oppose them. The only thing preventing the German army from occupying Britain was the English Channel.

The Germans needed to secure air superiority over the English Channel to invade Britain otherwise the Royal Navy would be allowed to attack and sink the invasion fleet. The code name the Germans used for the invasion was Operation Sealion.

To control the air the German Luftwaffe had to defeat the RAFs Fighter Command led by Sir Hugh Dowding. The RAF had lost over 900 aircraft during the Battle of France roughly half being fighters. There had also been a considerable loss of aircrew. Dowding had replacement aircraft available but the loss of trained pilots was a devastating blow.

 Before the war Dowding had ordered that a special high-octane fuel pioneered by RAF Air Commodore Rod Banks in the 1930s, that gave his fighters a higher top speed, be stockpiled for use when the expected war finally came.

The Luftwaffe had around 3,500 aircraft based in Norway, the Low Countries and France, of which about 2,200 would be serviceable on any given day. Around 1,300 of these were twin-engine bombers and single engine Stuka dive-bombers. The other 900 or so were single engine Messerschmitt bf109s and twin engine Messerschmitt bf110s. The single engine aircraft had only a short range, which was to be a significant factor in the coming battle.

The RAF had around 660 single engine fighters to oppose the Luftwaffe. Of these 400 were Hurricane and 200 were Spitfire fighters. The others included Boulton-Paul Defiants, that had a turret mounted behind the pilot, and old Gloster Gladiator biplanes; these were withdrawn from the battle early on as the were quite unsuitable for this type of combat.

Contrary to popular belief, Hurricanes actually achieved a greater number of kills than Spitfires during the Battle of Britain.

Despite having fewer aircraft the RAF still had a number of important advantages over the Luftwaffe. The RAF could monitor British airspace using RADAR, an early warning system that could detect approaching aircraft using radio waves. RADAR was supplemented by the Royal Observer Corps (ROC), a network of posts manned by civilian volunteers equipped with binoculars. This information was all co-ordinated by the various sector commands of the RAF Fighter Groups so that Fighter Command had a very good picture of what was actually happening over Britain and the Channel. This meant that the RAF only had to put aircraft into the air when they were needed and did not have to waste materials and effort in maintaining constant patrols. Because they were operating close to home, British fighters could spend more time in combat than the German fighters, which were operating at the limit of their range. When the Luftwaffe attacked targets further inland, and in particular London, the bombers lost a lot of their fighter cover and became very exposed to attack by British fighters. Many British pilots that bailed out landed in friendly territory and could return to duty; Luftwaffe aircrew were captured and ended up as prisoners of war.

The first phase of the battle took place during June and July 1940 when the Luftwaffe tried to establish dominance over the Straits of Dover in the English Channel. The German strategy was to attack shipping, airfields and Radar stations along the coast in an attempt to entice the RAF into battle where their advantages would be minimised.

Junkers 87 Stuka Dive bombers peel off to attack a target in the English Channel

The Luftwaffe lost more aircraft than the RAF, many of which were Junkers 87 Stuka dive-bombers that were easy prey for the faster British fighters.

During August the Luftwaffe switched the attack to Fighter Commands airfields and installations. The airfields of No 11 Group, responsible for the defence of the South East of England, were the primary targets. The intention was to deny fighter command the use of airfields close to the battle zone so that they too would have only sufficient fuel for a short time in combat. Without the command infrastructure to process information from Radar and the Royal Observer Corps the RAF would find it difficult to maintain an efficient air defence.

German Junkers 87B Stuka Dive Bomber was withdrawn early in the battle due to its vulnerabilty to fast fighters.

At this time Hermann Goering, the Luftwaffe commander in chief, made the decision to call off attacks on the Radar stations in the mistaken belief that they were not contributing to the defence of Britain. This was a critical decision that enabled the RAF to continue to monitor the German bombers assembling over the Channel, providing the necessary time to scramble fighters to intercept them.

Never the less the RAF was in serious trouble. Despite shooting down more German aircraft than they had lost they were still losing the battle of attrition; the rate of destruction favoured the Luftwaffe. However, the German commanders didn't appreciate this and, based on the unforeseen high losses of German aircraft, concluded that they were actually losing. Consequently the Germans started to bomb during the night and, during one raid, accidentally dropped bombs on London. The British retaliated immediately with an air raid on Berlin. This infuriated Hitler so much that he ordered the Luftwaffe to attack London in force and flatten it. The first raid took place on September 7th and caught Fighter Command completely by surprise; raids on the airfields diminished immediately giving a grateful RAF time to recover its losses.

By September 15th it was clear that the RAF were not going to be beaten and on September 17th Hitler postponed Operation Sealion effectively ending the Battle of Britain.

The Luftwaffe now switched to night bombing the cities of Britain in a campaign that was to become known as The Blitz. London suffered nightly raids, especially around the dock area and the East end. Other British cities were also hit, one in particular being Coventry, which was the subject of repeated mass attacks by over 500 bombers on the night of November 14th that turned the city into a blazing inferno killing around 600 and injuring over 1,000.

The Blitz continued on into 1941 becoming less intense as German units were switched to the Russian front and allied resistance increased. A final desperate attempt was made to intimidate the British people using the V1 flying bombs and V2 rockets during 1944 and 1945.

Winston Churchill in a speech to the House of Commons on August 20th 1940 said:

The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the World War by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. All our hearts go out to the fighter pilots, whose brilliant actions we see with our own eyes day after day

Why did the Luftwaffe suffer defeat?

The Germans lacked the right equipment. The Luftwaffe was organised and trained to support the Army. Its aircraft were short range and not designed to conduct a strategic air campaign.

The Germans lacked information. The Luftwaffe could not measure the effectiveness of its strategy and kept on changing it in the belief that it wasn't working, whereas in truth it was and would have crippled the RAF if continued.

German politics dictated military operational strategy. Hitler was infuriated when the RAF bombed Berlin in retaliation for bombs being dropped on London. The Nazis had boasted that nothing could damage Berlin and to save face Hitler had to respond with an all out attack on London, which gave Fighter Command a much needed break from raids on its airfields.

The Battle took place over England. German fighters could only defend the bombers for a limited amount of time before having to return to France for fuel and ammunition. The RAF could attack the bombers for much longer. RAF pilots who bailed out landed on British soil and could return to duty, Luftwaffe pilots were taken prisoner.

Radar allowed the RAF to vector their fighters to intercept the German bombers without wasting time and fuel waiting for them.



RAF aircraft were identified by roundels on the main-plane and fuselage.


Name Type Max speed Armament
Supermarine Spitfire Single Engine Fighter 362 mph (584kph)
at 19,000 ft (5,790m)
8 x .303" Browning machine guns
Hawker Hurricane Single Engine Fighter 328 mph (529kph)
at 20,000 ft (6,095m)
8 x .303" Browning machine guns
Luftwaffe aircraft were identified by a black cross on the main-plane and fuselage. German    
Name Type Max speed Armament
Messerschmitt 109 Single Engine Fighter 357 mph (575kph)
at 12,300 ft (3,749m)
4 x 7.92 mm machine guns
Messerschmitt 110 Twin Engine Fighter 349 mph (563kph)
at 22,960 ft (6,998m)
2 x 20 mm cannon
4 x 7.92 mm machine guns
1 x 7.92 mm free mounted machine gun
Junkers 87 (Stuka) Single Engine Bomber 232 mph (374kph)
at 13,500 ft (4,114m)
1 x 1,102 lbs bomb
4 x 110 lbs bombs
Junkers 88 Twin Engine Bomber 286 mph (461kph)
at 16,000 ft (4,876m)
5,510 lbs of bombs
Heinkel 111 Twin Engine Bomber 247 mph (398kph)
at 16,400 ft (4,998m)
5,510 lbs of bombs
Dornier 17 Twin Engine Bomber 265 mph (427kph)
at 16,400 ft (4,998m)
2,210 lbs of bombs