The Battle of Britain took place in the skies over England during the summer of 1940.
Hitler’s aim was to force England into conceding Nazi domination of Europe, and at that time the German High Command had every reason to suppose that Britain would capitulate: the French army had collapsed, the British Expeditionary Force had suffered a catastrophic mauling at Dunkirk, America had not yet entered the war and the Nazi-Soviet Pact still held. Further, the British government was in disarray – Neville Chamberlain had resigned his position as Prime Minister and Winston Churchill declared his successor on May 10th that year. Some members of the German military machine did have their doubts, however, in particular Grand Admiral Raeder. He argued that since the British fleet had nearly crippled the Kriegsmarine during the Norwegian campaign at the battle of Narvik, Germany could not mount a complex amphibious invasion without having total control of the skies. Goring, chief of the German airforce (the Luftwaffe) was confident he could deliver this with ease, though.
In hindsight, it can be argued that the Luftwaffe’s campaign was strategically flawed. Over the course of the summer the Luftwaffe concentrated on three broad objectives: first, to destroy coastal shipping, convoys and port facilities such as Portsmouth, and second to neutralise coastal defences so that German troops could establish secure beach-heads. The Luftwaffe then switched targets to attack airfields, aircraft factories and industrial installations inland. Finally, aerial attack was again switched in August and September, to concentrate on areas of political and administrative significance (the terror-bombing of London that would become known as the Blitz). The failure to concentrate on one type of target at a time, the failure to appreciate the importance of radar and the failure to detect that Bletchley Park was reading all German wireless signals, all enabled Britain to survive the protracted struggle.
German aircraft and pilots were certainly not inferior to their British counterparts. Indeed, the Luftwaffe’s primary fighter plane, the Messerschmitt, was marginally faster than both the Hurricane and the Spitfire, its two most common opponents. German pilots were battle-hardened from participation in the Spanish civil war, too. By contrast, British pilots were young and had far fewer hours flying experience. But, due to tactical decisions made by Goring, these rookie pilots had three small advantages over the enemy: firstly they benefited from superior octane fuel. Then they had the Merlin engine, which gave the Hurricane and Spitfire both greater acceleration and more maneuverability in a dogfight.
During the critical stages of the battle, German fighter escorts were ordered to stay close to their bombers at all times, hence they could not use their speed or rate of climb to maximum advantage. German planes also used up fuel getting to their targets, circling and, having dropped their bomb-load, running for home. Tight, evasive maneuvering used up fuel reserves – hence they were vulnerable to attack on their way back to France – a situation which Air Marshall Leigh Malory took full advantage off.
By September 15th, it was virtually over. Operation Sea Lion (the invasion of Britain) was postponed; Hitler attacked Russia. England had survived. In Churchill’s words: “Never has so much been owed by so many to so few.”
Terry Jones taught History to adult students taking Foundation courses at a College of Higher Education prior to their entry into full-time degree courses at Warwick and Coventry Universities. Since taking early retirement, he has travelled widely in Eastern Europe, pursuing a life-long interest in 19th and early 20th century European history. He has been a GCSE and “A” level tutor with OOL since 1996.