Winston Churchill’s address to the House of Commons had made it abundantly clear to the British public that there would be no negotiation or agreement with Germany. Virtue would now have to triumph over evil. And it would have to do so alone...
“We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds, in the fields, in the streets and in the hills. We shall never surrender…”
This meant that by the middle of 1940, there was a real sense of foreboding among the average Briton. It wasn’t hard to see why. Poland had fallen, followed by Denmark and Norway. Next was the Netherlands and Belgium. And then went France. In his thirst for a unified, fascist Europe, Hitler’s armies were making light work of any resistance they faced, with Britain itself having been beaten back from the beaches of Dunkirk in June 1940. Germany’s war machine was conquering all that stood before it. Now Hitler turned his attention to the British mainland.
With Hermann Göring’s Luftwaffe having easily destroyed the airfields, aircrafts and runways of their conquered European adversaries, both he and Hitler agreed that an air campaign should pave the way for an invasion across the English Channel. Their policy wasn’t misplaced – by July 1940 the Nazis had at their disposal 1,100 fighter planes and 1,800 bombers. The RAF? 591 fighters and just 275 bombers. Göring, perhaps rightly, thought he could sustain the greater losses and still win.
Directive No. 17 - Eagle Day: August 13th 1940
Following Directive No.16, which marked the beginning of operations against British interests in the Channel, Hitler’s Directive No.17 fixed August 13th as the so-called Eagle Day – the start of the Battle of Britain. Despite some delays due to bad weather, Göring expected this strategic air war to destroy RAF Fighter Command inside four days, but by the 18th August the Luftwaffe had lost 236 planes to the RAF’s 95. It was a reality check for the arrogant Bavarian. Rebuking his pilots, Göring asked what they needed to secure victory, to which ace flyer Adolf Galland replied, “Give me a squadron of Spitfires.”
You could see his point. The RAF had the right type of aircraft to ‘hold their own’ in a defensive battle. The two main protagonists were 19 squadrons of Vickers Supermarine Spitfires and the 32 squadrons of Hawker Hurricanes, both of which were powered by Rolls Royce Merlin engines. They were slower and boasted less armament than the German Messerschmitt 109 but, crucially, both had much tighter turning circles. This proved crucial during the numerous dogfights that raged over Britain’s cities, towns, villages and fields.
The firsthand account of Squadron Leader Peter Townsend of 85 Squadron perfectly illustrated the superior manoeuvrability of the British planes:
“A dozen Me. 110s cut across us and immediately formed a defensive circle. ‘In we go,’ I called over the R/T, and a moment later an Me. 110 had banked clumsily across my bows. In its vain attempt to escape, the machine I was bent on destroying suddenly looked pathetically human. It was an easy shot – too easy. For a few seconds we milled around with the Me. 110s. Then down came a little shower of Me. 109s. Out of the corner of my eye I saw one diving for me, pumping shells. A quick turn toward it shook it off, and it slid by below, then reared up in a wide left hand turn in front of me. It was a fatal move. My Hurricane climbed round easily inside its turn. When I fired the Me. 109 flicked over and a sudden spurt of white vapour from its belly turned into flame. Down came another. Again a steep turn and I was on its tail. He seemed to know I was there, but he did the wrong thing. He kept turning. When I fired, bits flew off, the hood came away and then the pilot bailed out.”
Accounts like Townsend’s helped paint a picture of a vastly outnumbered RAF battling courageously in an unequal fight. Images of a handful of British fighters piercing an endless wave of German bombers became an indelible one. In many instances it was also accurate. The reality, however, was that the RAF didn’t have it all their own way. Far from it.
The Luftwaffe Change Air Raid Tactics
Having endured something of a hiding prior to the 19th August, a period of bad weather until the 23rd gave the Luftwaffe an opportunity to reassess its tactics. It was an opportunity they seized with both hands. Subsequent attacks seriously damaged the fighter stations at Manston, Hornchurch and North Weald, while the policy of luring the RAF into the air for a first strike, before hitting them with a second wave as they refuelled and rearmed also proved very successful. And fake attacks served to exhaust the RAF pilots who were forced to ‘scramble’ without knowing when and where the ‘real’ attack would take place.
The real targets were usually the RAF’s fighter stations, and with the Luftwaffe’s new tactics proving hugely successful, these stations were incapacitated on a daily basis. In fact, such was the damage to runways and support facilities, ground crews simply couldn’t repair and replace at a quick enough rate. The Luftwaffe was not only gaining the upper hand, but stretching the RAF to breaking point.
Soon enough, the RAF experienced its worst day of the campaign when, on August 31st 1940, 39 planes were shot down with the loss of 14 pilots. It was an unsustainable ratio and, with British pilots on the cusp of total exhaustion, the outlook was bleak. The Germans were winning the air war. Hitler and Göring were delighted and with victory seemingly a certainty, the Führer authorised new tactics in a final effort to force Britain into surrender. His decision would change the face of the war.
On the 7th September, the Luftwaffe switched its focus to London. Göring was sure that by bombarding the capital, the RAF would be forced to switch all of its reserves to defending it and, in doing so, allow the superior numbers of the Luftwaffe to gain total control of the air. What’s more, he believed that demonstrating the RAF’s inability to defend the city would crush civilian morale and put huge public pressure on Churchill’s government to surrender.
The heavy bombing raids caught the RAF unaware, with huge chunks of the East End set ablaze. 448 civilians were killed and 1,600 injured. Fears of invasion grew greater. Shortly after 8pm on the 7th, British chiefs of staff sent the word ‘Cromwell’ to the army and Home Guard, readying them for the expected dawn invasion. It never came. Not on the 8th, the 9th, the 10th or the 11th. Instead, the Luftwaffe continued to batter London in an effort to completely eliminate the RAF. It proved a costly error in judgement. As ordinary Britons bore the brunt of German aggression, the RAF were given precious time to replace, repair and regroup – something they had been unable to do prior to Hitler’s focus on London.
It meant that by mid September the Luftwaffe were coming up against increasing RAF resistance. On the 8th, 200 German bombers attacked London’s power stations. 88 of them were shot down. Later that day 400 Luftwaffe aircraft crossed the English Channel and were met by more than 200 British fighters. Casualties on both sides were relatively light, but it illustrated how the RAF had climbed from its knees and was now fighting back. Within a week it was becoming clear that the RAF wasn’t being neutralised as Hitler had hoped – that was a fate befalling his air force. Indeed, on the 12th September Churchill proclaimed, “There is no doubt that Herr Hitler is using up his fighter force at a very high rate, and that if he goes on for many more weeks he will wear down and ruin the vital part of the Air Force.”
The Nazis First Major Set Back of The Second World War
As if to illustrate Churchill’s assertion, Göring had instructed his Luftwaffe to launch a huge campaign against London, Southampton, Bristol, Cardiff, Liverpool and Manchester on September 15th. Its aim had been to lay the groundwork for the land invasion, which Hitler had now postponed until the 17th. To Göring’s surprise, and no doubt his horror, German planes were met by wave after wave of attacking Spitfires and Hurricanes. Of the 930 German planes involved, 60 never returned home. On the 17th – the day originally earmarked for invasion – Hitler accepted defeat and postponed the invasion ‘until further notice’. It was Hitler’s first major setback of the war.
So how did Britain defeat the might of Hitler’s air force? As highlighted previously, the manoeuvrability of the British planes proved crucial during dogfights. But just as importantly, the RAF had RDF – Radio Direction Finding. This early form of radar gave the RAF the significant advantage of being able to not only detect German aircraft, but also plot the height and direction of the attacking planes. In fact, it gave the British pilots as much as 30 minutes to be fully fuelled, in position and armed above the flight line of incoming ‘bandits’. What’s more, Germany failed to recognise the importance of the technology, so although the Luftwaffe did bomb some RDF stations, they failed to do this on a sustained basis. In short, they never blinded the RAF.
It should also be noted that Nazi high command simply hadn’t allowed for Britain’s bulldog spirit. Throughout July, August and the first half of September, Hitler had maintained the hope that Germany’s military prowess would force the British government to heed to German offers. This, Hitler hoped, when coupled with the inevitable pressure applied to Churchill’s cabinet from a fearful populace, would ensure Britain’s surrender. This never happened. Churchill’s commitment to total war was accepted by the British public. Indeed, when Churchill visited the capital, one Londoner commented, “We can take it. Give it ‘em back.” Despite becoming the front line to German raids, ordinary Britons ‘got on with it’.
On this basis, morale on the ground gave an undoubted psychological boost to those in the air. British pilots were operating over home soil and fighting in sight of the very people and places they were risking their lives to protect. Perhaps as a result of this, the number of RAF pilots grew as the Battle of Britain rumbled on, while training was cut from one month to a fortnight. Crucially, the increasing pilot numbers were matched by the output of new aircraft. Indeed, despite German estimates that the British production rate was in the region of 180 fighters a month, the figure was actually 460.
Predictably, Germany was undeterred by defeat and the Luftwaffe soon switched its attention to night-time raids in a nine-month period that became known as the Blitz. This was Germany’s final attempt to end the war in the west before turning their attention to the east and the Soviet Union. Like the Battle of Britain, this policy depended heavily on terrorising the British public into rising up against their leaders and demanding peace. Like the Battle of Britain, Germany failed. In many ways, this failure owed to Fighter Command’s efforts during the summer of 1940. Without the RAF’s unlikely success in the Battle of Britain, the despotic forces of National Socialism would have invaded the British mainland that summer. Indeed, the RAF’s victory was both symbolically and strategically significant. It epitomised Britain’s fighting spirit and ensured the freedom necessary to execute the bombing offensive on Germany and the Allied invasion of Europe. As Winston Churchill famously said, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” Nazi Germany now knew what it was like to taste defeat. And they knew Britain would never give up.
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