Over 70 years ago an epic conflict took place between allied and axis powers. It was one of the defining moments of World War II and changed the nature of armed conflict forever.
The Battle of Britain was an exclusively aerial campaign between allied and axis forces which began in the summer of 1940 and culminated in May of 1941. The objective of the German-led aerial assault on Britain was to completely destroy the Royal Air Force (RAF) and render Fighter Command useless, so a planned land invasion of Britain could begin. The Luftwaffe (Germany’s air force) was ordered by Hitler to drive the RAF from the skies in ‘the shortest possible time’, and led by notable First World War veteran fighter pilot Hermann Wilhelm Goring, the then Reich Minister of Aviation, what was to follow was a costly – in terms of human life and financially- battle of attrition.
At the head of Britain’s defence was Hugh Dowding, the then Air Chief Marshal of the RAF and Fighter Command, which had been set up in 1936 to oversee and manage Britain’s emerging modern air force.
Fighter Command led its RAF-based defence of Britain from Bentley Priory, London, communicating with airfields, radar stations, pilots and other communications headquarters over the south east (where the majority of the battle took place) and other regions of the country.
At his disposal was a well-ordered yet numerically inferior air force to that of the Germans, with many pilots lacking valuable experience.
Contrary to Dowding, Goring inherited a Luftwaffe of great numbers and experience, with many of its pilots having gained valuable flight experience in WWI. This allowed Goring and his commanders to launch large raids on Britain – one of the most notable being a 500-strong assault on 15 September 1940 – causing large damage to a wide variety of areas and military buildings as well as, by the end of the war, 43,000 civilian deaths. Despite Goring’s leadership, his other commanders held differences of opinion in how the RAF should be toppled – a factor that Dowding also had to deal with among Britain’s commanders in how to defend the country.
Despite their experience and numbers, Germany failed to gain air superiority over Britain and by the end of the Battle they had lost 1,152 aircraft and 1,144 crew, compared to Britain’s losses of 1,085 aircraft and 446 crew. Retrospectively, this result was caused by a single piece of state-of-the-art technology, as we find out over the page.
The men who led Britain’s resistance
Hugh Dowding, Air Chief Marshal – An experienced officer, Dowding was set to retire shortly before WWII, only to be persuaded to stay on until the situation had stabilised. He is often credited as the mastermind behind Britain’s success in the Battle of Britain.
Keith Park, Air Vice Marshal – In tactical command during the Battle of Britain, Park was in-charge of protecting London from attack. Flying a personalized Hurricane, Park held a reputation as a shrewd tactician.
Trafford Leigh-Mallory, Air Officer Commanding – The commander of 11 Group RAF had open disagreements with Park and Dowding over the tactics to counter the German threat. He was credited as creating the ‘Big Wing’ fighter formation to hunt German bombers.
The men who led the German attack
Hermann Wilhelm Goring, Reich Minister of Aviation – The last commander of legendary ace fighter pilot ‘The Red Baron’, Goring was responsible for German Luftwaffe, in his youth he had flown in the First World War and was respected by the Germans as a notable commander.
Hugo Sperrle, General Field Marshal – General Field Marshal of the Luftwaffe, Sperrle advised Hitler that the destruction of Britain’s air force was key to winning the war. Air Fleet 3, which he commanded, played a major role in the battle but suffered heavy losses.
Albert Kesselring, General Field Marshal – Kesselring orchestrated combat in Poland, France and at the Battle of Britain. He is credited with the Coventry Blitz of November 1940 and won the respect of allied powers with his military accomplishments.
How the battle was won
Thanks to the skilful implementation of the emerging technology of radar, allied forces were better equipped to counter German attacks.
The importance of radar in the Battle of Britain was massive, something that its then leader Hugh Dowding knewall too well. Britain was facing larger numbers of enemy aircraft, pilots with more flight experience and frequent bombing runs in the dead of night – the favoured time for German attacks.
Radar then was key, allowing enemy airborne movement to be tracked from across the Channel and, crucially, allowing Britain’s smaller air force to be managed more acutely.
The main advantage that radar gave was the ability to launch intercepting attack aircraft at the right time. Not too early -forcing planes to reland for refuelling, leaving them vulnerable to attack and costing cash-strapped Britain in fuel bills -and equally not too late – giving the German planes a crucial height advantage in the proceeding dogfight and allowing them to reach inland areas of Britain.
Dowding, operating his stringent Fabian Strategy, used this to great effect, having information on approaching aircraft sent from coastal stations to Bentley Priory (Fighter Command headquarters) with great haste so that finessed tactical plans could be quickly drawn up and relayed to air force bases.
The system did have drawbacks however. While radar was excellent and highly accurate in detecting aircraft movement, it was quite poor in expressing the numbers of aircraft and their formations, two factors crucial in decision-making if an effective resistance was to be mounted. Because of this, Dowding’s system also incorporated RDF-based detection – which allowed formations to be determined as they formed over France – and the pre-existing Observer Corps, groups of mainly volunteer civilians dotted throughout Britain, visually relaying information on approaching aircraft numbers and formations to Fighter Command. Indeed, many historians argue that without the Observer Corps, no matter how refined Britain’s radar-based systems became, the Battle of Britain would’ve been lost – an opinion vocalized by Dowding when he said that “they constituted the whole means of tracking enemy raids once they had crossed the coastline. Their works throughout [the war] was quite invaluable.”
Importantly, despite the benefits radar was providing Britain’s air force, Goring and his commanders underestimated its ability and importance in what was going to be the deciding factor in the Battle of Britain. While initially the Luftwaffe were ordered to attack RAF radar stations (an activity they completed with little success, knocking out only one radar station on the Isle of Wight for under 24 hours), their attention was soon turned to the towns and cities of Britain, as their grip on the conflict slackened. It is generally agreed by historians that if Goring had persisted with his targeting of Britain’s radar stations, Germany would have had considerably more success than they historically achieved.
The Battle of Britain saw over a thousand enemy aircraft shot down by British RAF squadrons, and none more so than the famous Polish 303s. No. 303 Polish Fighter Squadron was one of 16 Polish squadrons in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War and won acclaim for their marksmanship and aerial ability during the conflict. Scoring higher than any other squadron, 303 competed with other RAF squadrons in a competition as to who could shoot down the most enemy aircraft. By the end of the Battle of Britain they had won unequivocally, recording an immense 808 hits. In fact, the top three places in this competition’s leaderboard were taken by three of the 12 Polish squadrons, outgunning the best British squadron by far, who only racked up 150 hits.
Battle of Britain facts
Baron – Reich Minister of Aviation Hermann Goring was the last commander of the legendary World War I fighter ace Manfred von Richthofen, aka ‘The Red Baron’.
Speech – The naming of the Battle of Britain originated from a speech by Winston Churchill, when he said: “The Battle of France is over. I expect the Battle of Britain is about to begin.”
Axis – Joining the Luftwaffe in the attack on Britain during the battle was a small section of the Italian Air Corps, which saw much action in late 1940 but with limited success.
Eagle – The first main attack on Britain by Germany was code-named ‘Eagle Attack’, and it was designed to knock out numerous allied radar stations.
Celebration – The Battle of Britain is commemorated each year in the United Kingdom on 15 September, where it is referred to as Battle of Britain Day.