Battle of Britain

Battle of Britain
Part of World War II

Heinkel He 111 over London, 7 September 1940
Date: July, 1940 – May, 1941
Location: United Kingdom airspace, mostly over southern England
Result: British victory

United Kingdom

Hugh Dowding Hermann Göring
Albert Kesselring
700 fighters 1,260 bombers, 316 dive-bombers, 1,089 fighters
1,547 aircraft, 27,450 civilian dead, 32,138 wounded 2,698 aircraft
Western Front (World War II)
France - The Netherlands - Dunkirk - Britain - Dieppe - Normandy - Dragoon - Arnhem - Scheldt - Hurtgen Forest - Aachen - Bulge - Plunder - Varsity

One of the major campaigns of the early part of World War II, the Battle of Britain is the name commonly given to the attempt by the German Luftwaffe to gain air superiority over the Royal Air Force (RAF), before a planned sea and airborne invasion of Britain (Operation Sealion). An Italian expeditionary force called Corpo Aereo Italiano also took part in the latter stages of battle.

Neither Hitler nor the German Wehrmacht believed it possible to carry out a successful amphibious assault on the British Isles until the RAF had been neutralized. Secondary objectives were to destroy aircraft production and ground infrastructure, as well as terrorising the British people with the intent of intimidating them into seeking an armistice or surrender and attacking areas of political interest.

British historians regard the battle as running from 9 July to 31 October 1940, which represented the most intense period of daylight air raiding. German historians begin the battle in mid-August 1940 and end it in May 1941, on the withdrawal of the bomber units in preparation for Operation Barbarossa, the attack on the USSR. The failure of Nazi Germany to destroy Britain's air forces to allow for an invasion or to break the spirit of either the British government or people is widely considered the Third Reich's first major defeat.

The RAF recognises 2440 British and 510 overseas pilots who flew at least one authorised operational sortie with an eligible unit of the Royal Air Force or Fleet Air Arm during the period 10 July to 31 October 1940. 498 RAF pilots were killed during the battle. The Battle of Britain was the first major battle to be fought entirely in the air. It was the largest and most sustained bombing campaign yet attempted and the first real test of the strategic bombing theories that had emerged since the previous World War.


Following the British evacuation from Dunkirk and the French surrender in June 1940, the Germans were uncertain what to do next. Hitler believed the war was practically over and that the British, defeated on the continent and without European allies, would quickly be forced to come to terms. He was wrong. Although there was a strand of British public and political sentiment that favored a negotiated peace with a clearly ascendant Germany, the recently-installed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill steadfastly refused to consider an armistice with the Nazis. Churchill's skillful use of rhetoric hardened public opinion against a peaceful resolution and prepared the British for a long war. Coining the name for the ensuing battle, Churchill stated in a speech to the House of Commons on 18 June 1940, that:

What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, "This was their finest hour."

Hitler planned a negotiated peace agreement which would see Britain retaining her overseas Commonwealth territories and sea power in return for Germany's domination of mainland Europe. The British rejection of German terms was emphatic. Recognising this - and in an effort to finish the war in the West - Hitler ordered the rapid preparation of an invasion plan against Britain on 16 July. Hitler hoped perhaps to bluff Britain into peace negotiations before an actual invasion was launched, and used the invasion preparations as a means to apply pressure. The plan was prepared by the OKW (Armed Forces High Command). The operation, code-named Seelöwe (Sea Lion), was planned for mid-September 1940 and called for landings on the south coast of Great Britain, backed by an airborne assault. All preparations were to be made by mid-August.

Sealion was a deeply flawed plan, suffering from a lack of resources, particularly specialized sea transport and escorting naval ships, and disagreements between the German Navy and Army. With the threatening bulk of the Royal Navy within a day's steaming of the English Channel it seems unlikely that the plan could ever have worked. All the German services agreed on one thing: an invasion would not succeed unless the Luftwaffe could win air superiority over the RAF. With control of the air, the Royal Navy could be driven off and the British defences pummeled into submission.

The first task at hand was therefore to win air superiority by destroying the RAF as a fighting force. A plan was hatched to attack RAF airfields and aircraft production centres. The Luftwaffe commander, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring called his plans Adlerangriff (Eagle Attack), which would begin on 11 August, or Adlertag (Eagle Day), with an all-out attack. The attack had been initially scheduled to begin on the 2nd, but bad weather conditions postponed it.

Before the start of Adlertag, the Luftwaffe initiated a month of attacks on convoys in the English Channel. This period of fighting was called Kanalkampf (Channel Battle) by the Germans and was used as an opportunity to test the RAF's defences and lure their fighter aircraft up to fight a battle of attrition. The RAF dates the beginning of the battle from the first convoy attacks on 10 July 1940.

Luftwaffe strategy

The German strategy was influenced by pre-war theories of strategic bombing, with specialised fighters, that stressed the weakness of air defence and the effects of terror bombing on public morale. After the Spanish Civil War the emphasis of German air operations had shifted toward a more tactical force. In Poland and France the Luftwaffe had operated jointly with the Wehrmacht, creating the Blitzkrieg or "lightning war". In the Battle of Britain, however, the Luftwaffe had to operate alone, not as support for an advancing army but as a decisive weapon in its own right. There remained a strong belief in the power of strategic bombing and the battle was seen by Göring as an opportunity to prove what his air force could do.

At the same time, the Luftwaffe was facing an opponent the likes of which it had not met before: a sizable, highly coordinated, well-supplied air force, fielding aircraft every bit the match for the German Bf-109 and Bf-110. The majority of the RAF's fighting would rest upon the workhorse Hurricane Mk I, which had been improved notably since it had faced the Luftwaffe previously in France. More shocking to the German pilots was the newer Spitfire Mk I, which was quickly recognised as a nimble, world-class fighter. Though it had been accumulating exceptional experience as a fighting force as far back as the Spanish Civil War, the Luftwaffe's encounters with Spanish Republican I-152s, I-153s, and early I-16s, the Polish Air Force's limited PZL P.11s, and French Dewoitine D.520s and Hawk-75s--none of which, despite strong accountings by their pilots, truly measured up to the performance of the German Bf-109--ultimately did less to prepare the Luftwaffe and its leaders than it did to build their misimpression of not only what they would likely face, but also their own capabilities.

The Luftwaffe regrouped after the Battle of France into three Luftflotten (Air Fleets) on the UK's southern and northern flanks. Luftflotte 2, commanded by Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, was responsible for the bombing of southeast England and the London area. Luftflotte 3, commanded by Generalfeldmarschall Hugo Sperrle, was responsible for the West Country, Midlands, and northwest England. Luftflotte 5, commanded by Generaloberst Hans-Jürgen Stumpff from his headquarters in Norway, had responsibility for the north of England and Scotland. As the battle progressed command responsibility shifted, with Luftflotte 3 taking more responsibility for the night Blitz while the main attack fell upon Luftflotte 2's shoulders. Late in the battle an Italian expeditionary force, the Corpo Aereo Italiano, briefly joined the fighting.

Initial Luftwaffe estimates of the duration of the campaign was for four days to defeat the RAF's Fighter Command in southern England, followed by four weeks in which bombers and long-range fighters would mop up the rest of the country and destroy the UK's aircraft industry. The plan was to begin attacks on airfields near the coast, gradually rolling subsequent attacks inland toward London and the ring of Sector airfields defending it.

The Luftwaffe kept broadly to this scheme but its commanders soon had differences of opinion on strategy. The commander of Luftflotte 3, Hugo Sperrle, wanted to eradicate the air defence infrastructure by bombing. His counterpart in Luftflotte 2, Albert Kesselring, demanded to attack London directly—either to bombard the British government into submission or draw RAF fighters up into a decisive battle. Göring did nothing to clarify strategy between his commanders, obsessed as he was with maintaining his own powerbase in the Luftwaffe and indulging his outdated beliefs on air fighting, which were later to lead to tactical and strategic errors.

The Luftwaffe was ill-served by their lack of intelligence on the British defences. The German intelligence services were fractured, driven by rivalries and their overall performance was amateurish. By 1940 there were few or no German agents operating in the UK and a handful of bungled attempts to insert spies into the country were foiled. This meant that the Luftwaffe had almost no recent knowledge of the workings of the RAF's air defences, in particular of the crucial command and control system that had been built before the war. Even when good information existed, such as 5th Abteilung's November 1939 assessment of Fighter Command strengths and capabilities, it was ignored if it did not match conventional wisdom.

For much of the battle the Luftwaffe operated 'blind', unaware of their enemy's true strengths, capabilities, and deployments. Many times the leadership believed that the Fighter Command's strength had collapsed, while raids against supposed fighter airfields fell instead on bomber or coastal defence installations. The results of bombing and air fighting were exaggerated, resulting in a Luftwaffe leadership that became increasingly disconnected from reality. This lack of leadership and solid intelligence meant that the Germans did not adopt any consistent strategy, even when the RAF had its back to the wall.

The Dowding System

The Battle of Britain campaign made the eight-gun monoplane fighters of the RAF—the Spitfire and Hurricane—into legends. The keystone of the British defence, however, was the complex infrastructure of detection, command, and control that ran the battle. This was known as the 'Dowding System' after its chief architect, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, the leader of RAF Fighter Command. This was a masterpiece of technical and organisational planning, beyond anything else that existed at the time, and the principles are still used today for both commercial Air Traffic Control and military interception.


The UK's airspace was divided up into four Groups.

At the HQ of each Group (e.g. for 11 Group RAF Uxbridge) information from Fighter Command headquarters would be noted on plotting tables, large maps on which counters marking the incoming raids would be moved, and RAF officers known as Fighter Controllers could then order a response.


The Group areas were subdivided into Sectors; each Sector commanding officer was assigned between two and four squadrons. Sector stations, comprising an aerodrome with a command post, were the heart of this organisation, though they also had satellite airfields to disperse squadrons to. When ordered by their Group HQ, the sector stations would 'scramble' their squadrons into the air. Once airborne, the squadrons would be commanded by radio-telephone (R/T) from their sector station. Squadrons could be ordered to patrol airfields or vital targets, or be 'vectored' to intercept incoming raids.


Though it was the most sophisticated air defence system in the world at that time, the Dowding System had many limitations including, but not often stressed, its emphatic need for suitably qualified ground maintenance personnel, many of whom had received their training under the Aircraft Apprentice scheme instituted by Hugh Trenchard. The RDF radar was subject to significant errors and the Observer Corps had difficulties tracking raids at night and in bad weather. R/T communications with airborne fighters were restricted because of the RAF's use of High-Frequency (HF) radio sets. HF radio was limited in range and even with a network of relay stations the squadrons could not roam more than one or two sectors from their airfield. It was also restricted to a single frequency per squadron, making it impossible to communicate between squadrons. Finally, the system for tracking RAF fighters, known as HF/DF or "Huff-Duff", restricted sectors to a maximum of four squadrons in the air.


In spite of this, RAF Fighter Command was able to achieve high levels of efficiency, at times achieving interception rates greater than 80%. The R/T problems were solved late in the battle with the adoption of Very High-Frequency (VHF) radio sets which gave clearer voice communications, had longer range, and provided multiple channels. For all of its faults, the RAF had a system of ground control that allowed its fighters to be where they were needed. The Luftwaffe, with no such system, was always at a disadvantage.

Effect of signals intelligence

It is unclear how much the British intercepts of the Enigma cipher, used for high-security German radio communications, affected the battle. Ultra, the information obtained from Enigma intercepts, gave the highest echelons of the UK's command a view of German intentions but it seems that little of this material filtered down to Hugh Dowding's desk. However, the 'Y' radio listening service, monitoring the patterns of Luftwaffe radio traffic, contributed considerably to the early warning of raids.

Battle of the beams

See Battle of the beams

While the British were using radar more effectively than the Germans realised for air defence, the Luftwaffe had their own electronic means to increase their air attacks' effectiveness. One of the systems was called Knickebein ("crooked leg"), a system where carefully positioned radio transmitters in friendly territory broadcast specially targeted navigational beams that intersected over specific bombing targets in enemy territory. Bombers equipped with technology to detect these beams could be guided towards a target and receive a signal to drop their bombs when they were (roughly) overhead. This allowed for somewhat more accurate bombing at night when British air defence was at its weakest.

Although British intelligence had heard of proposals for this system they were not taken seriously until a British science advisor to MI6, Reginald Victor Jones, gathered evidence of its existence and its threat. He then convinced the high command of the menace and confirmed it with special reconnaissance flights. Jones was put in charge of developing countermeasures which often involved interfering with the beams to make attacking aircraft go widely off course. Although the Germans resorted to other navigational systems, Jones and the Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE) were able to neutralise each in turn. The result was markedly reduced precision bombing effectiveness for the Germans. With the beams no longer accurate, however, many civilian areas that would not normally have been targeted were bombed.

Luftwaffe tactics

Bf 109E
Bf 109E

The Luftwaffe varied its tactics considerably to try to find a way through the RAF defences. It launched many free-roving fighter sweeps, known as Freie Jagd or "Free Hunts" to try to draw up RAF fighters. The RAF fighter controllers, however, were often able to detect the free hunts and manoeuvre squadrons around them. The Luftwaffe also tried using small formations of bombers as bait, covering them with large numbers of escorts. This was more successful, but escort duty tied the fighters to the bombers' slow speed and made them more vulnerable. Casualties were greatest amongst the escort units.

Standard tactics for raids soon became an amalgam of techniques. A free hunt would precede a raid to try to sweep any defenders out of the raid's path. The bombers would penetrate at altitudes between 10,000 and 16,000 feet, sometimes closely escorted by fighters. A 'detached' escort, or 'top cover' would fly above the bombers and maintain a distant watch.

By mid August, Goering, dissatisfied with results, decided the fault lay with the Jagdgeschwader leadership. Thus over the next weeks most of his pre-war Jagdgeschwader commanders were replaced by the current wave of younger high-achievers. Theo Osterkamp was ousted at JG 51 in favour of Werner Mölders, Gotthard Handrick at JG 26 by Adolf Galland, and Gunther Lutzow took over JG 3. By the end of September the cull was complete, with four other Bf-109 fighter wings under new, younger commanders.

Luftwaffe tactics were influenced by their fighters, which were divided into single-engined Messerschmitt Bf 109 and twin-engined Messerschmitt Bf 110 types. The Bf 110 Zerstörer (Destroyer) fighters proved to be too vulnerable to the nimble single-engined RAF fighters. Soon they had to be given escorts of their own and were eventually restricted in their employment. This meant that the bulk of fighter duties fell on the Bf 109. Fighter tactics were then complicated by the Luftwaffe bomber crews who demanded closer protection against the RAF. Because they had his ear after the hard-fought battles of 15 August and 18 August, Göring was only too pleased to order an increase in close escort duties. This shackled many Bf 109s to the bombers and, though they were more successful at protecting the bombing forces, casualties amongst the fighters mounted.

RAF tactics

The weight of the battle fell upon the RAF's 11 Group. Keith Park's tactics were to dispatch individual squadrons to intercept raids. The intention was to subject attackers to continual attacks by relatively small numbers of aircraft and try to break up the tight formations of bombers. Once formations had fallen apart straggling bombers could be picked off one by one. Where multiple squadrons reached a raid the procedure was for the slower Hurricanes to tackle the bombers while the more agile Spitfires held up the fighter escort. This ideal was not always achieved, however, and sometimes the Spitfires and Hurricanes reversed roles.

In the early phases of the battle the RAF was hamstrung by its reliance on obsolete fighting drills. These restricted their squadrons to tight 12 aircraft formations composed of three-aircraft "sections" in tight "V's" nicknamed 'vics'. With four sections flying together in tight formation only the squadron leader at the front was free to actually watch for the enemy, the other pilots had to concentrate on him and each other. RAF fighter training also emphasised by-the-book attacks by sections breaking away in sequence. The German pilots dubbed the RAF formations "Idiotenreihen" ("rows of idiots") because they left squadrons vulnerable to attack. They employed the looser and more flexible four-ship 'Schwarme' developed in the Spanish Civil War, using two pairs each consisting of leader and wingman. The frontline RAF pilots were acutely aware of the inherent deficiencies of their own tactics. However, they could not radically change them as arriving replacement pilots, often with only minimal actual flying time, could not be readily retrained in the midst of battle. A compromise was adopted whereby squadron formations used much looser formations with one or two aircraft flying independently above and behind ( dubbed 'weavers') to provide increased observation and rear protection. After the battle RAF pilots adopted a variant on the German formations with some success .

The fact that 'sweeps' by German fighters not escorting bombers were often ignored by fighter command seems to reinforce the idea that Dowding sought always to preserve his fighter force to fight another day.

During the battle, some commanders, notably Trafford Leigh-Mallory of 12 Group, proposed that squadrons should be formed into Big Wings, consisting of at least three squadrons, to attack the enemy en masse, a method pioneered by the pilot Douglas Bader. Proponents of this tactic claimed that interceptions in large numbers caused greater enemy losses while reducing their own casualties. Opponents pointed out that the big wings would take too long to form up, and that the strategy ran a greater risk of fighters being caught on the ground refueling. The big wing idea also caused pilots to overclaim their kills, due to the confusion of a more intense battle-zone. This led to the media belief that the big wings were far more effective than they actually were.

The issue caused intense friction between Park and Leigh-Mallory, as Leigh-Mallory's 12 Group were tasked with protecting 11 Group's airfields whilst Park's squadrons intercepted incoming raids. However, the delay in forming up Big Wings meant that this air cover often did not arrive until after German bombers had hit 11 Group's airfields. Post-war analysis agrees that Dowding and Park's approach was best for 11 Group. However, the controversy affected Park's career after the battle and contributed to Dowding's dismissal from Fighter Command.

Phases of the Battle

The Battle can be roughly divided into four phases:


A pair of 264 Squadron Defiants. (PS-V was shot down on 28 August 1940 over Kent by Bf 109s.)
A pair of 264 Squadron Defiants. (PS-V was shot down on 28 August 1940 over Kent by Bf 109s.)

The Kanalkampf comprised a series of running fights above convoys of freighter vessels running through the English Channel. In general, these battles off the coast tended to favour the Germans whose bomber escorts massively outnumbered the convoy patrols. Eventually the number of ship-sinkings became so great that the British Admiralty cancelled all further convoys through the Channel. However, these early fights provided both sides with experience. They also gave the first indications that some of the aircraft, such as the RAF's Defiant turret-fighter and the Luftwaffe's Me 110, were not up to the intense dogfighting that would characterise the battle.


The weather, which was to prove an important feature of the campaign, delayed Adlertag until 13 August. But on the 12th the first attempt was made to blind the Dowding system when aircraft from the specialist fighter-bomber unit Erprobungsgruppe 210 attacked four radar stations. Three stations were briefly taken off the air but were back working within six hours. The raids appeared to show that the British radars were difficult to knock out for any length of time. The Luftwaffe's failure to mount repeated attacks on them allowed the RAF to get the radar stations back on the air.

Adlertag opened with a series of attacks on coastal airfields, used as forward landing grounds for the RAF fighters. As the week drew on, the airfield attacks moved further inland and repeated raids were made on the radar chain. 15 August saw "The Greatest Day" when the Luftwaffe mounted the largest number of sorties of the campaign. This day saw the one major intervention by Luftflotte 5 in the battle with an attack on the north of England. Believing the strength of Fighter Command to be concentrated away in the south, raiding forces from Denmark and Norway ran into strong resistance. Inadequately escorted by long-ranged Bf 110 Zerstörers, the bombers were shot down in large numbers. As a result of the casualties Luftflotte 5 would not appear in strength again in the campaign.

Junkers Ju 87 Dive-Bombers
Junkers Ju 87 Dive-Bombers

18 August, which saw the greatest number of casualties to both sides, has been dubbed "The Hardest Day". Following the grinding battles of the 18th, exhaustion and the weather reduced operations for most of a week, allowing the Luftwaffe to review their performance. "The Hardest Day" had sounded the end for the Ju 87 Stuka dive-bomber in the campaign. This veteran of the Blitzkrieg was simply too vulnerable to fighter attack over Britain and to preserve the Stuka force Göring withdrew it from the fighting. This removed the Luftwaffe's main precision-bombing weapon and shifted the burden of pin-point attacks on the already-stretched Erprobungsgruppe 210. But Göring was not finished: the Bf 110 Zerstörer had proven itself too fragile for dogfighting with single-engined fighters and its participation would also be scaled back. It would only be used when range required it or when sufficient single-engined escort could be provided.

Göring made yet another fateful decision: to order more bomber escorts at the expense of free-hunting sweeps. To achieve this the weight of the attack now fell on Luftflotte 2 and most of the Bf 109 forces in Luftflotte 3 were transferred to Kesselring's command, reinforcing the fighter bases in the Pas de Calais. Stripped of its fighters, Luftflotte 3 would concentrate on the night bombing campaign.

Finally, Göring ordered the attacks on the radar chain stopped. The attacks were seen as unsuccessful and neither the technically inept Reichsmarschall nor his subordinates realised how vital the Chain Home stations were to the defence. It was known that radar provided some early warning of raids, but the belief amongst fighter pilots was that anything that brought up the 'Tommies' to fight was to be encouraged.

Luftwaffe targets RAF airfields

From 24 August onwards, the battle was essentially a slugging match between Kesselring's Luftflotte 2 and Keith Park's 11 Group. The Luftwaffe concentrated all their strength on knocking out Fighter Command and made repeated attacks on the airfields. Of the 33 heavy attacks in the next two weeks, 24 were against airfields. The key sector stations were hit repeatedly: Biggin Hill and Hornchurch four times each, Debden and North Weald twice each. Croydon, Gravesend, Rochford, Hawkinge and Manston were also attacked in strength. No fewer than seven attempts were made against Eastchurch, which was not a Fighter Command aerodrome but was believed to be by the intelligence-starved Germans. At times these raids knocked out the sector stations, threatening the integrity of the Dowding system. Emergency measures had to be taken to keep the sectors operating.

These were desperate times for the RAF, which was also taking many casualties in the air. Aircraft production could replace aircraft but replacement pilots were barely keeping place with losses, and novice flyers were being shot down in droves. Most replacements had as little as nine hours flying time and no combat training. With many pilots from the Dominions already serving in Fighter Command they were bolstered by the arrival of fresh Czechoslovak and Polish squadrons. These squadrons had been held back by Dowding, who mistakenly thought the non-English speaking aircrew would have trouble working within his control system. By August volunteers from RAF Bomber and Coastal Command with experience on single engined fighters were being quickly retrained and transferred into frontline Squadrons, as were 58 Fleet Air Arm fighter pilots. Casualties among these volunteers were understandably high, and by September 1940 a pilot's average life expectancy in 11 Group squadrons had dropped to 87 operational hours.

The RAF at least had the advantage of fighting over home territory. Pilots who bailed out of their shot-down aircraft could be back at their airfields within hours. For Luftwaffe aircrews, a bail out over England meant capture, while parachuting into the English Channel often meant drowning or death from exposure. Morale began to suffer and Kanalkrankheit or 'Channel Sickness' — a form of combat fatigue — began to appear amongst the German pilots. Their replacement problem was even worse than the British. Though the Luftwaffe always maintained its numerical superiority, the slow appearance of replacement aircraft and pilots put increasing strain on the resources of the remaining attackers.

And yet, the Luftwaffe was winning this battle of the airfields. Another fortnight of this pounding and the RAF might have been forced to withdraw their squadrons from the south of England, to beyond the range of the Me 109. This was not clear to the Luftwaffe command, which had watched its bomber force start to waste away and had grown desperate to deliver on the original timetable. They could not understand why the RAF hadn't yet collapsed, or how they were always able to get fighters to the place they were needed, no matter how many raids were sent. Something needed to be done to force the RAF into a decisive battle.

On 4 September, Hitler ordered the Luftwaffe to bomb London, following RAF raids on Berlin on the night of 2526 August, itself a reprisal after London was bombed by accident. The Berlin raid had hurt Göring's pride, as he had previously claimed the British would never be allowed to bomb the city. Kesselring seized his chance and proposed a strategy change. In the face of Sperrle's arguments that attacks on the airfields should continue, Kesselring persuaded the Reichsmarschall to attack London. The raids would either panic the British population into submission, or force the "last fifty Spitfires" into the sky where they could be annihilated. This attack was no longer seen as a prerequisite for Seelöwe, but was meant to be decisive in itself.

Raids on London

Bombing of London.
Bombing of London.

On 7 September, the first London raid was launched, attacking docks in the East End of the city. Over the coming days massive raids were launched again and again: some targeting the docks but others bombing indiscriminately. The RAF did come up but in greater numbers than the Luftwaffe expected. The 12 Group Big Wing was deployed for the first time, giving the German pilots a fright. Over the coming days the attacks on London continued. The break from bombing the airfields gave the RAF critical breathing space. It was the turning point.

Without a doubt, the most damaging aspect of the switch to London was the longer range. The Me 109 escorts had a limited fuel capacity, and by the time they arrived over the city, they had only ten minutes of flying time before they had to turn for home. This left many raids completely undefended by fighter escorts. The Battle of Britain culminated on September 15, 1940 with two massive waves of German attacks that were decisively repulsed by the RAF. The total casualties on this critical day was 60 German aircraft shot down versus only 26 for the RAF or a ratio of roughly 2:1 in favour of the RAF. The German defeat caused Hitler to order the postponement of preparations for the invasion of Britain 2 days later. Although there would be sporadic and often bitter air fighting until the turn of the year, the Luftwaffe hereafter switched from mass daylight bombing raids to a combination of night-time attacks and fighter-bomber nuisance raids instead, in order to stem mounting losses in men, aircraft and the lack of adequate replacements. The threat of invasion was essentially over although the German night blitz on London and other British cities continued up until May 1941.


Overall, the Battle of Britain was a stalemate for both the Germans and the British, but it dramatically raised the morale of the Allied forces. The Battle of Britain marked the first time that the Nazis were stopped and that air superiority became clearly seen as the key to the war. Though the battle was small in the number of combatants and casualties, had the Germans triumphed the war would have taken a very different path. The British victory marked the first failure of Hitler's war machine. It also began to encourage a shift in U.S. opinion at a time when many people from the U.S. believed that the U.K. could not survive, a view promoted by Joseph Kennedy, the U.S. ambassador in London and father of John F. Kennedy, the future President of the United States. American opinion at this time was not particularly supportive of the U.K. (who was a major trading competitor), and was strongly against involvement in a European war.

Both sides in the battle made exaggerated claims of numbers of enemy aircraft shot down. In general, claims were two to three times the actual numbers, due to confusion in the whirling air battles. However, post-war analysis of records has shown that between July and September the RAF claimed over 2,698 kills for 1,023 fighter aircraft lost to all causes, while the Luftwaffe claimed 3,198 RAF aircraft downed for losses of 1,887, of which 873 were fighters. To the RAF figure should be added an additional 376 Bomber Command and 148 Coastal Command aircraft that conducted vital bombing, mining and reconnaissance operations in defence of the country.

Modern military historians have sometimes suggested the battle was unwinnable for the Luftwaffe. Their numerical majority was not sufficient to achieve superiority. Dowding's and Park's strategy of choosing when to engage the enemy whilst maintaining a coherent force was totally vindicated. By contrast Goering's strategy was shown to be confused in its aims. He had expected a replay of prior air engagements such as those in Poland, where a short battle ended with complete control of the air as the German ground forces overran enemy airfields. His forces can be considered to have achieved air superiority over some parts of Southern England early in the battle for a limited time, but without any clear plan as to what to do next, this temporary advantage was soon lost. One reason the Battle of Britain has had such an influence on later air defence theory is that the key questions of what air superiority and control meant were first addressed in it. Dowding, in effect, wrote the first text-book on this subject.

'What If' historians have also considered what might have happened if the Battle of Britain had been lost by the British. If Leigh-Mallory's 'Big Wing' tactics had been used, for instance, this could well have happened. If the defeat of the RAF had led to a successful invasion, it is likely that Germany would have been able to defeat Russia rapidly, and establish a European hegemony. The USA would not have entered the war in such a circumstance, and would later have been very vulnerable to some of the advanced weapons which the Germans were starting to develop at this time. Against this view must be held the considerations that the Germans had not prepared for a seaborne invasion, and that the Royal Navy's Home Fleet was still a potent force. How well it could have held the English Channel against an enemy with command of the sky is the question which the Battle of Britain ensured need never be answered.

The theories of strategic bombing, which hinged on the collapse of public morale, were undone by British defiance in the face of the day and night Blitzes. The switch to a terror bombing strategy allowed the RAF to recuperate and to defend against the attacks. Even if the attacks on the 11 Group airfields had continued, the British could have afforded to withdraw to the Midlands out of German fighter range and continued the battle from there. Post-war records show that British aircraft were being replaced faster than those of the Germans; the RAF maintained its strength even as the Luftwaffe's declined. In losses of aircraft and experienced aircrew the battle was a blow from which the Luftwaffe never fully recovered.

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. But hindsight does not disguise the fact that the threat to the RAF was very real and for the participants it seemed as if there was a "Narrow Margin" between victory and defeat. The victory was as much psychological as physical. It turned a tide of defeats and heartened the enemies of Nazism.

The British triumph in the Battle of Britain was not without heavy cost. 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 3,000 civilians died.

Winston Churchill summed up the effect of the battle, its place in history, and the contribution of the RAF in the immortal words: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few" (speech to the House of Commons on August 20 1940). Pilots who fought in the battle have been known as The Few ever since.

September 15 is celebrated in the United Kingdom as "Battle of Britain Day", marking the climactic battles above London in daylight.

In British military tradition, the Battle of Britain is remembered with at least as much pride as the Battle of Trafalgar or the Battle of Waterloo. In addition, the battle has entered popular legend around the world as an inspiring story of how a small island, standing alone against Nazi tyranny, managed to defeat a powerful enemy.

Most important, the end of the Battle of Britain allowed the UK to rebuild its military forces and establish itself as an Allied stronghold. Britain later served as a base from which Operation Overlord, aka the Battle of Normandy, was launched against Nazi forces in Europe.

Foreign contribution

It has been suggested that this section be split into a new article. (Discuss)

From the beginning of the war the Royal Air Force accepted foreign pilots. The RAF roll of honour for the Battle of Britain recognises 510 overseas pilots as flying at least one authorised operational sortie with an eligible unit of the Royal Air Force or Fleet Air Arm during the period 10 July to 31 October 1940.

However, with 2543 pilots and 418 men killed, it should always be remembered that the United Kingdom provided most of pilots.

Nationality Number
Polish 139
New Zealander 98
Canadian 86
Czechoslovakian 84
Belgian 29
Australian 21
South African 20
French 13
Irish 10
Unknown 8
American 7
Jamaican 1
Palestinian (Jewish) 1
Southern Rhodesian 1

The RAF's statistics differ from other sources.

Polish contribution

On 11 June 1940, the Polish Government in Exile signed an agreement with the British Government to form a Polish Army in Britain and a Polish Air Forces in Great Britain. The first two (of an eventual ten) Polish fighter squadrons went into action in August 1940. Four Polish squadrons took part in the battle (300 and 301 Bomber Squadrons; 302 and 303 Fighter Squadrons) with 89 Polish pilots. Together with more than 50 Poles fighting in British squadrons 147 Polish pilots defended the British sky. 30 were killed in the battle.

Polish pilots were among the most experienced in the battle, many having vast pre-war flying experience and had already fought in the September Campaign in Poland and the Battle of France. One must also point out the high level of pilot training in the pre-war Poland. 303 Squadron named after the Polish hero General Tadeusz Kosciuszko, achieved the highest number of kills (126) of all the fighter squadrons engaged in the Battle of Britain, even though it only joined the combat on August 30. The 147 Polish pilots claimed 201 aircraft shot down. To put things in perspective, the top 30 scoring Allied aces shot down 376 aircraft, i.e. 1% of pilots were responsible for 13.5% of the total. Pilot Officer Eric Lock of 41 Squadron was the top claimant with 21 (1st July-1st November 1940.) S/L W. Urbanowicz of 303 Sqn was top Polish scorer with 13 claims. Tony Glowacki was famous at the time as the only RAF pilot in the Battle to Britain to shoot down five German planes in one day, which he achieved on August 24.

Czechoslovakian contribution

There was also a lot of Czechoslovak pilots in the Battle of Britain. Two Czechoslovak fighter squadrons 310 and 312, were formed early enough in 1940 to take part in the battle. Together with Czechoslovak pilots serving in other RAF units, a total of 87 Czechoslovaks served claiming almost 60 air kills. 8 pilots were killed. The top Czech scorer was Sgt. Josef Frantisek, flying with 303 Polish Squadron who claimed 17 confirmed kills.

Irish contribution

Among the dozen or so Irish pilots who flew in the battle was Dubliner Brendan "Paddy" Finucane, an air ace who went on to claim a total of 32 enemy aircraft before being shot down and killed in 1942. He became operational in July of 1940 and shot down his first Bf 109 on 12 August, getting a second Bf 109 the following day. In a 51-day period in 1941 he claimed 16 Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighters shot down, while flying with an Australian squadron. "Paddy" Finucane went on to become the youngest wing commander in the RAF, an appointment he received at the age of 21. Despite his early death, his score remains the second highest of the "Home nation" RAF aces.

Canadian contribution

Many Canadians served in the squadrons of Spitfires and Hurricanes which repulsed the Luftwaffe in the summer of 1940. In fact, although the RAF only recognises 83 Canadian pilots as flying on fighter operations during the Battle of Britain, the RCAF claims the actual figure was over 100 and that of those 23 died and 30 were killed later in the war. Also another 200 Canadian pilots fought with the RAF's Bomber and Coastal Commands during the period and approx 2,000 Canadians served as groundcrew.

Of these, 26 were in the RCAF's No. 1 Squadron on Hurricanes, which arrived in Britain soon after Dunkirk with 27 Officers and 314 ground staff. This squadron would later be re-numbered as the RCAF's 401 "City of Westmount" Squadron, in line with the RAF's policy of numbering Dominion units flying with the RAF in the 400-series to avoid confusion with similarly-numbered RAF units (this numbering system is still used by Canadian air squadrons to honour their World War II contributions).

1 Squadron made an inauspicious start to its service with Fighter Command, when on August 24th 1940 two of its Hurricanes mistook a flight of Bristol Blenheims for Ju-88's, shooting one down with the loss of its crew- a tragic example of what is now known as friendly fire. No. 1 became the first RCAF unit to engage enemy planes in battle when it met a formation of German bombers over southern England on August 26, 1940, claiming three kills and four damaged with the loss of one pilot and one plane. By mid-October the squadron had claimed 31 enemy aircraft destroyed and 43 probables or damaged for the loss of 16 aircraft and three pilots.

On the second day of the battle, July 11, the Canadians suffered their first fighter casualty. In a Luftwaffe attack on the naval base at Portland, PO. D. A. Hewitt of Saint John, New Brunswick, flying a 501 Squadron Hurricane, attacked a Dornier bomber and was hit himself. His plane plunged into the sea. Another Canadian pilot, Richard Howley, died eight days later; A. W. Smith and Hugh Tamblyn had narrow escapes. Both were in 141 Squadron and flew the Defiant, a two-seater hunchback with an impressive power-operated gun turret that limited its aerodynamics.

Other Canadians were spread across RAF squadrons. Leading to some confusion, the dispersed Canadian airmen included one who flew with the Poles in 303 Squadron.

12 Canadian pilots of the Royal Air Force flew with No 242 Squadron at various times through the battle, which had been formed in 1939. On August 30, under the command of Squadron Leader Douglas Bader nine 242 squadron planes met a hundred enemy aircraft over Essex. Attacking from above, the squadron claimed 12 victories for no loss.

Canadians also shared in repulsing the Luftwaffe's last major daylight attack. On September 27, 303 Squadron RAF and 1 Squadron RCAF attacked the first wave of enemy bombers. Seven enemy planes were claimed destroyed, one probably destroyed and seven damaged.

The top Canadian scorer was F/L H.C.Upton of 43 Squadron who claimed 10.25 aircraft shot down.

United States contribution

The RAF recognises 7 aircrew personnel from the United States as having taken part in the Battle of Britain.P/O WML ('Billy') Fiske saw service with No. 601 Squadron, claiming one kill before dying of wounds on the 17th August 1940. P/O AG 'Art' Donahue served with 64 squadron, while 609 squadron had a trio of American pilots see action through August and September (P/O's 'Andy' Mamedoff, VC 'Shorty' Keogh and EQ 'Red' Tobin). P/O PH Leckrone was with 616 Sqn, while P/O JD Haviland served in 151 Squadron. Only the latter pilot survived the war. Ultimately three squadrons of RAF pilots from the United States, known as Eagle squadrons fought with the RAF, although the first ( No. 71 squadron) became operational in February 1941, well after the main daylight battles.

Palestinian contribution

The RAF's official "Battle of Britain Roll of Honour" recognises 1 Palestinian, Pilot Officer George Ernest Goodman, a Jew from Palestine, then a British Mandate territory.

The Palestinian contribution is also sometimes described as the "Israeli contribution", although the State of Israel was not proclaimed until 1948.

At least 32 (probably 43) Jewish airmen took part in the Battle of Britain (just over 1% of participants). Over three-quarters were British Jews, the rest fighting in the American, Belgian, Canadian, Czechoslovak, Polish and South African contingents (Martin Sugarman,).

Australian contribution

Australia had always been a close supporter of Britain, and when war was declared in 1939, Prime Minister Robert Menzies supported Britain in her war effort. However, due to the small size of the Royal Australian Air Force at the time, the Australian contribution was low at approximately 22 aircrew, the majority of whom had joined the pre-war RAF. (The first RAAF fighter squadron did not serve in Europe until mid 1941) The top Australian pilot was F/L P. Hughes of 234 Squadron who claimed 14 kills before his death in September 1940.

New Zealand Contribution

The Royal New Zealand Air Force was set up as a separate service in 1937 but numbered less than 1200 by September 1939, although training plans had resulted in 100 trained pilots being sent on to the RAF. The RNZAF main objective was to supply trained aircrew for service in the RAF under the Empire Air Training Plan. An annual rate of 1,500 fully trained pilots was reached by January 1941. The RAF recognises 127 Fighter Command aircrew from New Zealand serving in the Battle. Several New Zealanders became high scorers, including P/O Colin Gray (No 54 Sqn) with 14 claims, F/O Brian Carbury (603 Sqn) 14 claims and P/O 'Al' Deere (54 Sqn) 9 claims. AVM Park was in overall command of the important aerodrome at Biggin Hill, which was in turn responsible for the defence of the city of London.

Luftwaffe Aces

Over the same time period as is recognised by UK historians, the top scoring German fighter pilots were;

Hpt. Helmut Wick (JG2 'Richtofen') 42 claims (Killed November 1940)

Maj. Adolf Galland (JG26 'Schlageter') 35 claims

Hpt. Walter Oesau (JG51) 34 claims

Maj. Werner Mölders (JG51) 28 claims

World War II
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General timeline:


• Polish Campaign
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Civilian impact and atrocities:
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Cold War


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