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Battle of Britain

History -- Military history -- List of battles -- History of the United Kingdom-- World War II

A major conflict of World War II, the Battle of Britain covers the attempts of the German Luftwaffe to gain control of British airspace and destroy the Royal Air Force (RAF), and, later to demoralise the British population in the hope of either obtaining neutrality or, if that did not occur, make possible the invasion of Britain through the English Channel.

The Battle of Britain began on August 1940. After the French collapsed under the Blitzkrieg and surrendered in June, the Germans were not exactly sure what to do next. Adolf Hitler (and the German people) believed the war was over and the Britons would come to terms very soon. Patriotic myth states that stubborn as they are, Albion refused to give in. In reality there was a considerable section of the public and politicians who believed it was time to negotiate with Hitler. Winston Churchill, however, was the master of the Cabinet and would not countenance peace, putting Lord Halifax (one of the pro-peace members of the Cabinet) on the air to reject Hitler's terms.

More direct measures were thought of, but it was not until July that an invasion plan was prepared by the OKW (Armed Forces High Command). The operation, code-named Seelöwe (Sea-Lion), planned for an invasion sometime in mid-September. The plan called for landings in the Dover area, first with two airborne divisions, and then with another nine delivered by sea. All preparations were supposed to be made by mid-June to late-August.

Much of the plan relied on makeshift solutions, including the use of river barges as troop transports, and using discarded aircraft engines for motorizing them. Others were better thought out, like swimming tanks or using snorkels on the heavier tanks so they could be landed further out on sea and march to land on the seabed.

Hindsight suggests that the entire operation was not seriously planned with actual execution in mind, especially when compared to the careful planning of Operation Barbarossa. Regardless it was patently impossible to prepare for the invasaion in two months. Indeed Churchill did not take the invasion threat seriously, sending troops to Africa in the summer of 1940, but he was concerned over the potential air threat and energetic in securing resources for the RAF.

But before Seelöwe could begin the Luftwaffe had to destroy the British RAF -- otherwise the ships for the sea invasion would have been destroyed by British aircraft. Thus a plan was hatched to directly attack the RAF airfields and aircraft production centers, Hermann Göring called his plans Adlerangriff (Eagle Attack), beginning on August 11 with Adlertag (Eagle Day). But even before this there was to be a month of attacks on Channel convoys and the RAF out over the water. This period of fighting was called Kanalkampf by the Germans.

The British were fully aware of the German goals, strategy, and often even tactics due to their ability to read the German Enigma cypher, which was used for most high-security German military radio communications. This fact, not revealed until the 1970s, was crucial in forming British tactics. They had also killed or turned all German agents in Britain.

The Germans didn't keep using any single strategy, even when it was on the verge of defeating the RAF largely because they didn't have any real idea of its success, but also because Hitler's style encouraged competing interests in the High Command to try their pet theories in tactics.

The Battle can be crudely divided into four sections:

  • July - August 11: Kanalkampf
  • August 12 - August 24: Adlerangriff
  • August 25 - September 6: German's attack RAF planes and airfields almost exclusively. The critical period of the battle
  • September 7 onwards: London and other major cities are bombed.

Adlertag began with the Luftwaffe bombing ports, airfields, aircraft industries, radar installations, etc. Over the course of the next weeks, they flew 12,039 sorties and dropped over 11,000 tons of high explosive bombs and over 616 tons of incendiary bombs.

At first, the main targets for the German Luftwaffe were radar installations and airports, in an attempt to destroy (either on the ground, or in the air defending the ground targets) or render useless the British fighter planes.

The attacks against the radar installations were not seen as very successful, and appears that Göring continued to underestimate the value of the radar to the RAF, and so eventually called off attacks on the stations. In fact the radar was absolutely vital to the RAF and the attacks were generally succeeding -- a fact the RAF masked with a successful deception campaign. Attacks on the airbases and factories were also successful, but it was largely impossible for the Luftwaffe to assess the damage on these inland targets.

Thanks to radar and the intelligence from the decoded Enigma messages the RAF reacted very effectively to the German raids. Hugh Dowding's communications and infrastructure linking radar and other information sources to the decision makers was arguably as important as radar. Rather than sending up large numbers of fighters to meet German raids (and thus running the risk of of having all the planes on the ground for refueling and repairs when another raid arrives), British commanders (such as Keith Park[?] of 11 Group[?]) ordered that only a very few fighters up to meet each raid, harassing the German bombers enough to make accurate bombing very difficult and causing far more British losses than German.

Despite the success of Dowding's measured response, soon after the Battle of Britain some proponents of the Big Wing[?] theory would complain that large numbers of RAF fighters should have been gathered together to strike German attacks with greater force. Because the reasons behind their strategy, the Enigma decrypts, were still secret, Dowding and Park could not defend their actions as they needed to, and were given much lower positions, Keith Park[?] eventually climbing back to lead Malta's air strategy.

Both sides suffered horribly, but British pilot losses were smaller since most of the fights were fought over British soil, whereas every German crew that had to bail out was lost to the German war effort. Also R.J. Mitchell had designed the Spitfire with a lot of thought for pilot safety when attacked.

Thanks to the seemingly endless numbers of planes the Germans had at their disposal, the Fighter Command began to lose this battle of attrition. This remained largely unknown to the Luftwaffe, which was growing desperate to deliver on the original timetable. What they could see is that for some reason the RAF always had at least a small number of planes to attack with, no matter how many times they sent in a raids. Something needed to be done to force the RAF to commit all of their planes -- or so they thought.

One thing that was sure to force their hand would be to attack a large, very public target. That target was London. The first such raid on 7th of September was intended as revenge for the British attack on Berlin on 25th/26th August, which in turn was a response to a German bomber accidentally dropping bombs on London. Although the docks of London were the main target attacked, the British suffered 448 dead and more than 1,300 wounded.

Together with the change of targets came a change in strategy. The success in the Battle of Britain was no longer seen as prerequisite for Seelöwe, but was meant to be decisive in itself. Göring believed that the British would surrender as soon as the RAF was beaten.

On 16th of September the Germans estimated British fighter strength to be no more than 300 planes, when they actually had 572 Spitfires and Hurricanes. What was even less clear was that switching off of the airfields would allow the RAF to work on their aircraft and allow their pilots rest.

But without a doubt the most damaging aspect of the switch to London was the ranges involved. By the time the German fighters arrived over the city, they were already so low on fuel as to have to turn home. This left all too many raids completely undefended as their fighters turned for home after minor combat on the way to target.

The result was a series of disastrous raids. On September 19th Operation Seelöwe was postponed indefinitely. But the battle of Britain was not over. From October 1940 until the beginning of Operation Barbarossa, almost 40,000 additional sorties were flown and more than 38,000 tons of high explosive bombs and more than 3,500 tons of incendiary bombs were dropped. Between August and September the RAF stated German losses at 1600 aircraft destroyed and over 500 probables, however despite most of the fighting occurring over land only 315 wrecks were identified. British Fighter Command lost between 900 and 1900 Hurricanes and Spitfires (depending on which figures you care to believe).

Overall the Battle of Britain was a British victory, although on a small scale compared to later battles it was significant, especially in increasing American anti-Nazi opinion. Although the Germans came very close to beating the RAF and thus setting the prerequisites for Seelöwe, the switch to terror strategy allowed the RAF to recuperate and to defend against the attacks. The terror strategy in itself could not force the British to surrender. Even though the Germans launched some spectacular attacks against important British industries, they could not destroy the British industrial potential.

Total British civilian losses from July to December 1940 were 23,002 dead and 32,138 wounded with one of the largest single raids occurring on December 29, 1940 in which almost 3000 civilians died.

See also:


Battle of Britain is also the title of a 1969 film with Michael Caine - see Battle of Britain (film).



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