On this day in 1940, Nazi Germany begins the first in a long and bloody series of bombing raids against England, known as the Battle of Britain, which together with civilian attrition bombing known as The Blitz, lasts from July 10, 1940 until June 1941. Whilst much is said, written and depicted of US and USSR valor at Normandy and Stalingrad, respectively, it is this writer’s humble opinion that the near-irrational courage demonstrated by British women, men and children in all great likelihood saved humanity.
Shortly after the withdrawal of British forces from the European continent in the Dunkirk evacuation (late May–early June 1940), Germany’s armored forces completed their blitzkrieg invasion of France. The French government collapsed on June 16 and was replaced by a Vichy regime that immediately sued for peace. This left the British suddenly alone in their “island home” as the last bastion against “the menace of tyranny,” in the words of Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
At this juncture, Adolf Hitler apparently counted on the British government’s acquiescence to a compromise peace on favorable terms he was prepared to offer; he had no desire to immediately press the conflict to a decisive conclusion. The German army was given to understand the war was over, leave was granted, and the Luftwaffe was shifted to other quarters. Even when Churchill’s determination to continue the war was made manifest, Hitler still clung to the belief that it was merely a bluff, feeling that Britain must recognize “her militarily hopeless situation.”
By July 2, Hitler realized his assessment was off, and preparations for Operation Sea Lion, the amphibious invasion of Britain, began with emphasis on German air superiority. Over the tips of their skis, the Huns were hastily contemplating the ad hoc use of barges and decking to get them on English soil, and Air Marshal Hermann Goring expressed high confidence that his planes could check British naval interference and drive the RAF out of the sky; the invasion attempt would be slated for mid-September.
Beginning with bomber attacks against shipping on July 10 and continuing into early August, a rising stream of air attacks was delivered against British convoys and ports. Then, on August 13, the main offensive, called Adlerangriff (“Eagle Attack”) by Hitler, was unleashed initially against air bases, but also against aircraft factories and radar stations in southeastern England. Although targets and tactics were changed in different phases, the underlying object was always to wear down Britain’s air defense, and indeed the effort severely strained the limited resources of Fighter Command, under Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding.
Dwindling British pilots had to overwhelm German counter parts at a rough kill rate of four to one; approximately 2,500 Luftwaffe aircraft pitted against 650 English. To fend off the bombers, Fighter Command employed squadrons of durable and heavily armed Hawker Hurricanes, preferring to save the faster and more agile Supermarine Spitfire, unsurpassed as an interceptor by any fighter in any other air force, for use against the bombers’ fighter escorts. Radar and the “Dowding system” proved invaluable.
In addition to technology, Britain had the advantage of fighting against an enemy that had no systematic or consistent plan of action. At the beginning of September, the Germans errantly dropped loads on civilian areas in London, and the British retaliated by unexpectedly launching a bombing raid on Berlin. This so infuriated Hitler that he ordered the Luftwaffe to shift its attacks from Fighter Command installations to London and other cities. Beginning on September 7, London was attacked on 57 consecutive nights. The bombing of London, Coventry, Liverpool, and other cities went on for several months, but it had an immediate benefit for the RAF; stressed fighter groups were relieved in lieu of fresh ones, gaining more stick time and skill.
By mid-September, RAF Fighter Command had demonstrated that the Luftwaffe could not gain air ascendancy over Britain. British fighters were shooting down German bombers faster than German industry could produce them. To avoid the deadly RAF fighters, the Luftwaffe shifted almost entirely to night raids on Britain’s industrial centers. The “Blitz” was to cause many thousand deaths and great hardship for the civilian population, but it contributed little to the main purpose of the air offensive; to dominate the skies in advance of an invasion of England.
On September 3, the date of German invasion had been deferred to September 21, and then on September 19 Hitler ordered the shipping gathered for Operation Sea Lion to be dispersed. On October 12 he announced that the operation was off for the winter, and long before the arrival of spring he decided to turn eastward against Russia. Plans for an invasion were definitively discarded; the evidence was clear that Goring’s Luftwaffe had greatly exaggerated the extent of their successes against the RAF, and Hitler postponed Sea Lion indefinitely. The campaign continued at a reduced but deadly level into June of 1941, with a total 14,286 civilian souls lost to German bombs.
Within the shank of the battle, PM Winston Churchill remarked “Never, in the field of human conflict, was so much owed by so many to so few.” 1,542 such few gave their lives in the course of air combat; as of February, 2019, six of The Few from the RAF are still with us.