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The Battle of Britain

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The Battle of Britain was a fight for the control of airspace over Great Britain.

    The Battle of Britain in World War II was between Britain's Royal Air Force (RAF) and the German Luftwaffe and was the first battle in history fought solely in the air. From July 10 through October 31, 1940, the fight was for the control of the airspace over Great Britain. Britain stood alone against Germany after the fall of France and now Hitler had his sights on the Soviet Union, but he still had to contend with Great Britain. Operation Sea Lion, a massive amphibious invasion was planned against Britain, but the RAF needed to be defeated first. Although the German army was unprepared to invade Britain, Herman Goering, Commander in Chief of the Luftwaffe, was confident the Luftwaffe could quickly destroy the RAF.

    On July 10, 1940, the Luftwaffe attacked Britain, performing reconnaissance missions and targeting coastal defenses, ports and radar stations, however, little damage was inflicted on the RAF. Worn by its long string of European victories, Germany could deploy only 2,550 serviceable aircraft against Great Britain that included 998 bombers, 261 dive-bombers, 224 Messerschmitt Bf 110s and 805 single-engine Messerschmitt Bf 109. There were some 260 plus other types, including reconnaissance and excellent air-sea rescue aircraft, but they became pilot pools to replace combat losses.

    The RAF could put up 704 operational fighters, of which 620 were Hurricanes and Spitfires. The rest were Gloster Gladiators and Bristol Blenheims, which were severely outmatched by Bf 109s. Production of both aircraft and pilots was increased, and nearly a quarter of the RAF pilots who participated in the Battle of Britain were from other countries including Poland, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, France, the United States and South Africa.

    Fliegerkorps VIII, headed by Goering's WW I squadron mate, Generaloberst Bruno Loerzer, was tasked to gain air superiority and close the English Channel to shipping. With about 75 Dornier Do 17s, 60 Stukas and 200 fighters, they sank some 40,000 tons of shipping. The RAF loved the Stukas, which were easy targets, especially after pull-out, shooting down 59 and damaging many more. Consequently, the Stuka was wisely withdrawn from the battle. In this first phase of the battle, the Luftwaffe lost 192 aircraft, while the RAF lost 70. Many British pilots survived to fly again.

    Hitler ordered Goering to destroy the RAF, and orders were issued on August 8, for "Operation (Eagle) Adler". The attack began on August 13 with assaults on British fighter fields and radar installations. Using mostly Bf 109 combat planes, the Luftwaffe began attacking Britain's airfields, air fighter production sites and targeting RAF Supermarine Spitfires and Hawker Hurricanes in the air. From August 24th to September 6th, Goering wisely decided to order mass attacks on airfields in the extreme south and southeast of England, but this maximized the range capabilities of the hard-pressed Bf 109s. The Luftwaffe made approximately 1,500 sorties on August 13, losing 39 aircraft while the RAF lost 15. Two days later, on August 15, "Black Thursday," the Luftwaffe made a series of widely spaced attacks and feints. Night attacks included perhaps eighty aircraft on various targets. The Luftwaffe lost a morale-shattering 75 planes, while the RAF lost 34 fighters with 17 pilots killed. By the end of this phase, the Germans lost 350 aircraft while the RAF lost 295. Goering gave up any hope of extending his fighter airfield tactics further. Had the attacks been sustained, Goering might have finished off the RAF.

    Goering exceeded even his low level of leadership by chastising the Luftwaffe for a lack of fighting spirit and the growing bomber losses. In a front-line general officer briefing on Luftwaffe tactics, Goering asked what his fighter pilots needed to win the battle. Werner Molders replied that he would like the Bf 109 to be fitted with more powerful engines. Galland replied: "I should like an outfit of Spitfires for my squadron." which left Goering speechless with rage. Galland still preferred the Bf 109 for offensive sweeps, but he regarded the Spitfire as a better defensive fighter, owing to its maneuverability.

    Goering made two monumental blunders. The first was to remove the radar sites from the target list, allowing the British to recover their greatest advantage. The Dowding System, named after Sir Hugh Dowding, Commander in Chief of the RAF Fighting Command made pioneering use of radar, which could warn the RAF of enemy attacks. This ground defense system gave Great Britain a competitive advantage. The second blunder was to order the fighters to fly close escort with bombers, giving the British the initiative. By the end of this stage, the Luftwaffe had lost 403 planes, including about 200 fighters. The RAF lost 175 aircraft, and was running a pilot deficit.

    On 25 August 1940, 81 bombers of Bomber Command were sent out to raid industrial and commercial targets in Berlin. Clouds prevented accurate identification and the bombs fell across the city, causing some casualties among the civilian population as well as damage to residential areas. Continuing RAF raids on Berlin led to Hitler to retaliate against London. "The Blitz" against London, Liverpool, Coventry and other major cities was intended to decimate the morale of the British people. To ensure massive casualties and to avoid aerial dogfights between the RAF and the Luftwaffe, German bombing was carried out at night.

    The Germans sent nearly 1,000 bombers on September 2 to attack London. They came at above 16,000 feet, and killed more than 300 people. That night they returned, killing another 300. They lost 34 bombers, while 28 RAF fighters went down. Most important, it signaled the shift from the Luftwaffe's successful attacks on fighter fields. The "big day" was September 15, when the Germans sent 277 bombers in three waves against London, and another 18 against Southampton. The RAF shot down 35 bombers and 20 fighters. That defeat broke the back of Luftwaffe resources and morale, and Hitler postponed his invasion plans forever.

    The Battle of Britain transitioned into an entirely new form of combat: the "Blitz." By most sources, the Battle had cost the Luftwaffe 1,733 aircraft and 3,000 aircrew while the RAF lost 1,017 aircraft and 537 aircrew. Bomber and Coastal Commands also lost 248 aircraft and 1,000 crew members during the same time frame.

    By the end of October 1940, Hitler called off his planned invasion of Britain and the Battle of Britain was over. Both sides suffered enormous loss of life and aircraft. Still, Britain weakened the Luftwaffe and prevented Germany from achieving air superiority. It was the first major defeat of the war for Hitler. The Battle of Britain was a turning point in World War II; if the RAF had not held off the Luftwaffe, Hitler would have likely moved forward with his Operation Sea Lion land invasion of the British Isles. By holding out against Germany, this allowed the Americans to establish a base of operations in England, which ultimately led to the Normandy invasion on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

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Created December 30, 2022. Updated January 20, 2003.