On 15th September 2015, the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, one of the most defining moments of the Second World War, will be commemorated.
After Germany defeated France in June 1940, Hitler expected the British to surrender, but Britain was determined to fight on. The Germans began to prepare for an invasion of Britain, which they codenamed Operation Sealion. However, Hitler knew that for any invasion to be successful, Germany would first have to gain control of the skies over England.
The Battle of Britain was, then, a major air campaign fought largely over southern England, which ran between June and October 1940, and was ultimately a test of strength between the German Luftwaffe and the RAF. The battle is now remembered on 15 September, as the Royal Air Force’s most resounding victory was the destruction of a massive Luftwaffe assault launched on that date.
Winston Churchill called the 3,000 men of the RAF ‘The Few’ in honour of their bravery and the odds they had overcome. While most of the pilots were British, Fighter Command was an international force, and men from New Zealand, Australia, Canada, South Africa, Rhodesia, Belgium, France, Poland, Czechoslovakia, the United States, Israel and Ireland took part.
However, it is not just the pilots and crew who are remembered on Battle of Britain Day, but also the ground forces involved in ensuring those pilots could operate. The armourers, repair and maintenance engineers, and the factory workers who helped keep up aircraft production, are also recognised. As well as these men and women, there were those of the Observer Corps, who tracked incoming raids. Its tens of thousands of volunteers ensured that the 1,000 observation posts were continuously manned. Anti-aircraft gunners, searchlight operators and barrage balloon crews all played vital roles, too, as did the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, who worked as radar operators and plotters, tracking raids in operations rooms. Even the Home Guard (or Local Defence Volunteers), which had been set up in May that year, also helped, and by July it had nearly 1.5 million men ready to defend Britain should Hitler succeed.
During the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe was dealt an almost lethal blow by the strength of the RAF’s Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire fighter aircraft, despite the fact that they were far fewer in number. The Germans’ own primary fighter aircraft, the Messerschmidt ME-109, could not match, in particular, the maneuverability and speed of the Spitfire, and this contributed significantly to Britain’s eventual success. Germany’s failure to defeat the RAF and secure control of the skies over southern England made invasion all but impossible.
Triumph in the Battle of Britain was not only critical, it was a much needed boost to morale at home, and although it did not end the conflict, it did secure Britain one of its most famous victories of the Second World War.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.