The Battle of Britain was the first major camapign fought in the air. The German initiated their long awaited western campaign in May 1940. Paris fell June 14 and France capitulated June 22. The fall of France meant that Britain stood alone and for a year had to valiantly fight the Germans without allies. American public opinion was decisively isolationist--against involvement in another European war. Most Europeans and Americans thought Britain would soon colapse and further resistance was futile. But the British stirred by Prime Minister Churchill did fight. The Luftwaffe quickly established bases in France and by July 10 launched preliminary strikes in what has come to be called the Battle of Britain. The Luftwaffe while better trained and outnumbering the RAF was ill prepared for the campaign. They did not appreciate the critical importance of the British home chain radar network. They also had no straegic bomber fleet. The air offensive was to be conducted with two engine bombers that proved highly effective in short range tactical operations, but were not well suited for longer-range strategic bombing. The Battle of Britain began in earnest on July 10 and reached intensive levels on August 13 with Luftwaffe raids on British airfields and aircraft factories. Hitler had assumed that the Luftwaffe could force the British to capitualte. He saw world politics in racial terms and in relatity wanted the British as allies or at least neutrals in his planned invasion of the Soviet Union. Unlike his strategy against the Poles, Dutch, and Belgians, there were no German terror bombing of London and other British cities. The Luftwaffe im its August campaign seriously weakened the RAF and Fighter Command was having increasing difficulty maintaining its forward air bases in Kent. Then off-course German bombers accidentally bomb London on August 23-24. RAF Bomber Command on August 25-26 mounted a small reprisal raid against Berlin. Hitler is furious and orders an immediate change in Luftwaffe tactics. Rather than completing its offensive against the RAF infrastructure, Hitler ordered a "blitz" on British cities which began in earnest on September 7. The Luftwaffe wreaked havoc on civilians in London and major English cities. An estimated 42,000 civilians were killed. Thousands of civilians were killed. Edward R. Murrow broadcasting from London ("London calling ...") described Britain's valiant resistance to rapt American radio audiences, greatly affecting American attitides toward the Hitler and the NAZIs. White British cities burned, the RAF was given a respite, allowing its forward air bases to recover from the damage done in August. As a result the RAF was able to mount increasingly costly attacks on the German bomber fleets. The Lutwaffe eventually is forced to shift to nightime raids. Night bombing made it impossible to hit actually military and industrial targets, only cities could be targetted. The British were battered, but held. It was the first German defeat of the War. The narrow, but decisive victory in the Battle of Britain changed the course of the War. The Luftwaffe eventually ended the major offensive against the British as the German military in 1941 began preparing for Opperation Barbarosa, Hitler's long awaited dream of invading the Soviet Union which at the time was a virtual German ally. As Hitler turned his evil view east toward Russia, a huge unsinkable aircraft carrier with a population willing to make virtually any sacrifice remained in his rear. For the NAZIs, the loss of the Battle of Britain was a crusing blow, not only because of the serious losses, but because it was a struggle involving scientific and technical ingenuity in which the Germans had assumed that they had a commanding lead.
The Battle of Britain would prove central to the outcome of World War II. As the battle shaped up, Prime-minister Churchill warned the British people, "Hitler must break us in this Island, or lose the War." He did not go into detail and the statement may have been an oratorical flurish. But Churchill was indeed correct. At the time of the War, there were only a few countries of military importance: Britain, France, Germany, Japan, the Soviet Union, and the United States. The German success were spectacular, but only one of its significant adversaries had been defeated--France. The defeat of Britain would have fundamentally destroyed the strategic ballance. Not only would Germany been freeded to focus entirely on the Soviet Union, but two other critical elments would have come into play. First, the Royal Navy naval blockade would have ended. Germany went to war in a weak position in raw materials. In particular it had very limited access to petroleum. Their major resource was the Ploiesti oil fields in Romania. This and the German synthetic plants, however, did not provide the oil needed for extended war. Before the invasion of the Soviet Union (June 1941), the Soviets delivered vast quabntities of oil to the Germans. This ended with the invasion while at the same time, the huge conflict in the east required vastly increased quantiies of oil. This and other needed resources could have been obtained from Iraq, Iran, and other suppliers if the RoyaL Navy blockade had been ended. It would have closed the glaring defencies in the German war economy. Second, with Britain out of the War, the United States probably would not have forcibly confronted NAZI Germany until the issue on the Eastern Front had been resolved. And with Britain out iof the war, there would have been no way to project American power on NAZI Germany. Thus the Battle of Britain was not just a matter of Britain's survival, but a central of the War.
The German initiated their long awaited western campaign on May 10, 1940. The British and French had anticipated that the Germans would attempt to outflank the Maginot Line by striking though Belgium. The cream of the French Army and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) were thus positioned on the Belgian force. The Wehrmacht first attacked the Netherlands. The British anf French responded by leaving their prepared defenses and moving north to relaeve the Dutch. The Germans then they attacked France through the Belgian Ardennes. To the amazement of the French, the Panzers penetrade the Ardenees crossed the Meuses River and raced to the Channel. The British fell back on the Belgian port of Dunkirk. Hitler stopped the Panzers, allowing the British to evacuate their men and some French. The Belgians surrendered, nut the suronded French First Army continuing to fight occupying key German forces while the British evacuated. Paris fell June 14 and France capitulated June 22. The RAF was badly mauled in France. The RAF had depoyed 261 fighters and in only 10 days, 75 had been shot down in aerial combat or destroyed on the ground. An additional 120 could not be brought back to Britain because they were damaged or fuel was not available. [Gilbert, p. 319.] Overall the RAF lost 1,000 planes in France. Fortunately the pilots could be brought back. The losses in France were a quarter of the FAF's front-line fighter strength. The French pleaded for more, but Churchill, who had just replaced Chamberlain as prime minister, had to refuse knowing that the RAF now would be needed to protect Britain itself. French Prime Minister Reynaud resigned on June 16 and was replaced by Marshall Pétain, the hero of Verdun in World War I. Pétain immeduately asked for an armistace. France was out of the War and Britain now faced the Germans alone. The Luftwaffe command were encouraged by their success in France and many assumed that it could be repeated over Britain. The poor performance of the RAF in France was not do the quality of their planes, but rather to inferior training and tactics. The Luftwaffe concluded, however, that they could just as easily defeat the FAF over Britain. Victory in Poland and the West led the Luftwaffe high command to believe that they were invincable.
Strategic bombing was new to warfare. It was thought by many that no country with standthe strategic bombing of its cities, but until 1939 it was almost all theory. The first strategic bombing was conducted by the Japanese in China. Hitler's threat of bombing Prague convinced the Czechs, abandoned by Britain and French, to surrender (September 1938). The Germanns Warsaw and other Polish cities, but surrender was due to a combination of land and air attacks (September 1939). The German terror bombing of Rotterdam convinced the Dutch to surrender (May 1940). After the fall of France, Marshall Göring assured Hitler the Luftwaffe could force the British to capitualte or at least sue for peace. After the startling German victories, any other course of action seemed irrational. Not only to the Germans, but to most military observers, including most American military observers. At the time, the grand military alliance did not exist. The only country still at war with Germant was Britain. Hitler saw world politics in racial terms and wanted the Anglo-Saxon British as allies or at least neutrals for his planned invasion of the Soviet Union. We are not sure what or if he planned for Britain after defeating the Soviets, but the British after Munich understood that the Führer's assurances meant nothing. This attitude toward Britain may be why he stopped the Panzers before Dunkirk, although many historians doubt this. Unlike his strategy against the Poles and Dutch, there was at first no German terror bombing of London and other British cities. Only later did Hitler turn to terror bombing to subdue the British. The German strategy was to destroy the RAF and establish air supperority over the Channel Coast where an invasion could then be mounted. Based on the RAF's perforamance in France, this did not seem like a difficult undertaking. Key to the German strategy was the element of surprise and destroyng RAF fighters on the ground. This had worked in the asault upon Poland, the Netherlnds, Belgium, and France where large numbers of planes were destroyed on the ground (May 1940). It would also work against the Soviet Union (June 1941). We are not sure how seriously Hitler ever considered an actual invasion. It is more likely that he thought that once the RAF was destroyed that the potential bombing of British cities would force the British to agree to a Vichy-like arrangement. He would have probably agreed to Vichy-light knowing at any time he could return to a military sollition and occupation as he woukd do in Frnce (November 1942). Here Hitler did not fully assess Churchill, the RAF, or the British people. So confident was Hitler of success that on July 21 he told his top military commanders in great secrecy that he planned to invade the Soviet Union, perhaps motivated by Stalin's annexation of the three Baltic Republics on that day. He ordered General Enrich Marcks the next day to prepare the attack plan. [Gilbert, p. 333.] The British Chain Home Network prevented the Luftwaffe from catching the RAF on the gouond. The Luftwaffe, however, proceeded with a campign to bomb 11 Group in southeast England out of existence. The RAF had the aircraft, but a serious shortage of trained pilots and while the RAF was taking its toll on Luftwaffe raiders, 11 Group, bth the pilots and air fields were being griound down when Hitler beconing impatient with the cointinued British resistance and abgered by a British reprisal, ordered the destruction of London. He beieved that levling London was a war-winning strategy and of course it fir perfectly into his mindset.
Hitler assumed that the British, after the fall of France would quickly fall into line. He told applauding audiences in Berlin that he saw no reason for the continuation of the War. He had achieved Germany's objectives in the West. He was prepared to allow Britain to retain its Empire. Britain was a country peopled largely by Germanic peoples which was key in the NAZI world view. For Hitler the real objective in the War was expansion east and after World War I, Hitler and other German officials wanted to avoid a two-front war. Thus it was deemed essential to take England out of the War. A compliant England would be of great advantage in his war on the Soviet Union. Hitler blamed the continuation of the War on Churchill. To a considerable extent he was correct. Many in the War Cabinent thought that Britain had no choice, but to seek accomodation with Hitler.
Primeminister Churchill was having none of it. There was to be no British Vichy. As the British awaited the NAZI onslaught, Churchill told the British people, "What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. The Battle of Britain is about to begin.... The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned upon us. Hitler knows he must break us in this island or lose the war.... If we fail, the whole world, including the United States, and all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister and perhaps more prolonged by the lights of a perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty and so bear ourselves that if the British Commonwealth and Empire last for a thousand years, men will still say, 'This was their finest hour.'" It was the most inspired speech of World War II.
The advantages of the Luftwaffe are often overstated in assessments of the Battle of Britain. It is true that the Luftwaffe had a much larger force. In the key area of fighters, however, the German advantage was not so overwealming, especially given the fact that they fuel limitations allowed the German fighters relatively little time actully over Englnd to protect the bombers. The Me-109 was a fine fighter, buy it could only spend minutes over Britain. Even with bomber force, the fact that the Luftwaffe was conceievd as a tactical force meant that it had mostly medium bonbers with short ranges designed to support ground troops not level a huge city. The He-111 was the most important German bomber, but was totally inadequate for the task assigned. Using memdium bombers exposed a greater number of air crews to fighter attack than was the case of heavy bombers with greater bomb loads. The key advantage held by the Luftwaffe was it had more well-trained pilots with experience in tactical operations. The Battle of Britain was the Luftwaffe's first encounter with a prepared opponent with modern aircraft and radar as part of their defense. The British had to excellnt fighters, the Huricane and Spitfire, but it was th Cgain Home System that made the critical difference. The British had no trouble replcing fifgters, but it was training pilots that was the RAF's major problem.
The origins of the British Chain Home Network (CHN) lie in the German World War I Zeppelin raids on London and other British cities. In a twist of history, had the Germans not used the Zeppelins to raid British citiesm the CHN probably would not have been built and the Luftwaffe would have won the Battle of Britain. A Brirish researcher, Sir Robert Watson-Watt, working on thunder storms began using primitive radar. He notice that his experimnts were spoiled when a plane flew by. This was anot a major new discovery. Reserachers had noticed this phenomenon before Workd War I, but had no instruments to measure it. The Air Minisry concernd about possible bomber attacks, immeduately latched on to Warson-Watt's work on Radio Directiinal Finding (RDF) The British were not the only country wirking on radar. Most contrues with an air force, including the Germans, were reseraching it. The British with their fear of bombing, thanks to the Germans World War I raids, commited real resources to it. The result was the Chain Home Network (CH) which was operational along the British coast by 1940. T A critical mistake made by the Luftwaffe was their failure to appreciate the critical importance of the British CH network. CH was a network of 52 overlapping radar stations from Pembrokeshire to the Falklands. [Davidson, p. 415.] This was the beginning of the so called Battle of the Beams and it was to have a major impact on the outcome of the Battle of Britain. Radar was not unknown to the Luftwaffe, but in 1940 they failed to fully appreciate its significance. The Germans were much less interested in radar at the time because they were primarily focused on offensive opeations and ground support. Radar at the time dd not offer much that could contribute to that mission. The CH network allowed the RAF to effectively use its numerically inferrior forces to best advantage, in effect manifying the force. [Brown] Without radar, the RAF would have required a much larger fighter force than it had so it could maintain aerial patrols. The British CH network could follow Lufwaffe raidersv while they were forming over France and then crossing the Channel. It was, however, an outward looking system. Once the Germans were overland, the RAF had to rely on ground observers to track the German planes. The radar could identify RAF planes with IFF, but only about a third of the RAF fighters were so equipped when the Battle of Britain began. The British defense was conducted from Oxbridge where the reports from the radar stations and ground observers were collected and evaluated so orders could bev issued to RAF Fighter Command. The Germans were aware of the CH network, although they did not fully appreciate its value. At an early stage of the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe went after the CH towers, but they proved difficult targets, especially as the RAF fighters savaged the slow-flying Stukas JU-87. The JU-87 was an effective ground support dive bommber and could have taken out the towers, but was vulnerable to modern fighters. They could be used only where the Luftwaffe had achieved aerial supperiority. After several JU-87 squadrons were devestated by FAF fighters, they were withdrawn from the campaign. And when the Germans did manage to hit a CH tower, they noted little impact. The CH towers wre overlapping. In addition, the British has mobile units ready to plug any gaps which the German bombers may have created. The Lufwaffe thus early on gave up even targetting the CH towers. It was one of a series of mistakes.
The Air Raid Precautions (ARP) was the British civil defense organisation. It was established long before World War II and the Battle of Britain. Britain was bombed ny the Germans in World war, by both bombers and Zephins. The attacks had been of no strategic importance, but the civilans were terrified. Britain was building a strategic bombing force to prepare a massive aerial assault on Germany in 1919. The War ended, however, before the campaign was launched (1918). And after the War with improvements in aviation, it became obvious that aerial bombardment could devastate whole cities. Italian military theorist Giulio Douhet published a work on future air warfare that proved highly influential (1921). One memorable phrase reached the public conciousness, "the bomber will always get through". [Douhet]
He proved to be correct. The British Government as a result established the Air Raid Precautions organization (1924). The German bpmbing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War made it clear that the German Luftwaffee was prepared to bomb cities. The British Air Ministry believed that a German bombing campaign woukd be devestating and predicted a million casualties and the destruction of London. And Britain almost went to war with Germany over Czechoslovakia (1938). The Government believed that poison gas would be a part of the German asault and ordered gas masks for civilians. No effort was made ti build deep shelters, although home shelrts were devised. The 1939 Hailey Conference concluded that providing deep shelters would lead to workers staying underground rather than working (1939). The ARP braced for a German attack during the Munich Crisis so when war did come, they were ready. The ARP took on the task of issuing gas masks, pre-fabricated air-raid shelters (Anderson and Morrison shelters), setting up public shelters, and the maintenance of the blackout. The ARP also helped in the rescue effort after air raids and other attacks, and some women became ARP Ambulance Attendants whose job was to help administer first aid to casualties, search for survivors, and in many grim instances, help recover bodies, sometimes those of their own colleagues. ARP Wardens patrolled assigned city neigborhoods to make sure that every home was blacked out. The iniitial Luf\twaffe campaign was a daylight campaign against the RAF. When this failed and increasing losses forced the Luftwaffe ti shift to night-time bombing, the blav\ck out became very important. Boys served as ARP messengers. The effectiveness of the German aerial bombardment campaign proved less than anticipated. There was substabtial property damage and civilian casuakltues, but far less than anticipated. And the Luftwaffe did not significantly impair the British war econonomy. This was because the Luftwaffe was a tactical force and the RAF exacted a heavy toll on the slow-moving bombers. After the British withstood the Blitz, Hitler shifted the Luftwaffe east to prepare for Barbarossa (1941). The morale of the British people remained high througout the Blitz. The ARP headquarters was at Baylis House in Slough, Buckinghamshire. The Goverment created the Civil Defence Service (1941) which took over the ARP responsibilities and organization. Even so, the public continued to refer to civil defense as the ARP throughout the War. The ARP was formally disbanded (1946).
The British had several important sources of information on Luftwaff oprations in France, including photo reconisance, interogatiin of downed Luftwaffe crews, and Ultra. The Germans had very little accurate inteligence. They did have photo reconisance, but that and debriefing returning air crews was about all they had. As a result, while the British were able to amass a very good picture of the Luftwaffe order of battle and strength, the Germans had a very poor knowledge of the RAF, especially the strength of Fighter Command and even the impotance of radar. Thus the size and depth of RAF Fighter Command and the importance of the Chain Home radar system was never fully understood--a colossal inteligence failure. As a result, the Luftwaffe commanders kept telling their flyers that they were near victory and RAF Fighter Command had been largely destroyed which they believed at first. The flyers continued, however, to encounter heavy opposition over Britain. What they did not know at the time was that radar was enabling the British to vector their over-streached fighter strength on to the approching Luftwaffe raiding forces. It was a significant force multiplier. The Luftwaffe understood that the CH radar towers was detecting their approach, but did not know how systemized it was and thus how effectively the British fighters were being vectored. Had they known this they would have more aggressively gone after the CH towers. They should have known as the Luftwaffe groups were being so regularly intercepted and the CH sector stations were radioing the headings to the fighters in the clear.
The code name for the British effort to crack the German military Enigma cipher machines was called Ultra. It was one of the most closely guarded secrets of the War. The operationm was conducted at a country estate called Blechley Park. With the help of the Poles the British began working on the Enigma code machines that the German military used for radio communications. Effctive German communications were part of the reason for the victories in Poland and France. The French General Staff for example was using messengers to communications. While effective, the use of messages sent by radio meant that German military communications were vulnerable. The German relying on their preceived notions of supperiority were convinced that their Enigma cipher machines could not be broken. The Germans did not know of the Allied success until well after the War. British code breakers at Bletchley Park faced different problems with the Wehrmacht, Luftwaffe, and Kriegsmarina Enigma msachines. The Luftwaffe code proved the easiest to crack, primarily because flushed with sucess, the Luftwaffe was careless about following established procedures. The British suceeded in dechipering Luftwaffe messages (May 1940), although regular and timely decoding was not possible until the end of the year. (We have noted different assessments as to how useful Ultra was during the Battle of Britain.) Working with uncoded German radio messages also provided valuable information. This provided valuable intercepts with infornmation on force strength and targetting was available to the RAF. Dechipering Naval messages proved more challenging, but they were also eventually cracked and played a major role in the defeat of the U-boat campaign in the North Atlantic.
The Y Service was an already established opeation, focusing on intercepting German radio signals, including Enigma machine messages. Then ham radio short wave enthusiasts reported that they were picking up voice conversations from Luftwaffee planes. It was the Y Service that provided Bletchly Park the signals that they decoded. The Y Service also did important directionl finding. .
An important source of information were captured German aircrews. Here the British had an advantage because as the battle was fought over Britain, they captured large number of crew memnbers from downed Luftwaffe planes. Every plane that went down meant air crews lost to the German war effort while many British pilots were back in the air in a few days. While the loss of British and German aircraft was much tighter than the offical statistics reported, the loss of pilots and air crews were decidely in the RAF's favor. The Germans captured were not cooperative. The Luftwaffe was the most ardently NAZI of the three services and the captured airmen were sure that the invading German Army would soon set them free. In fact they would have a long wait, but this is what had happened in France. The British had pleaded with the French to transfer captured German airmen to Britain, but the French had refused to do so. And as a result, they were soon in the air again, this time over Britain. One such French POW was Adolf Galland who would become the youngest Luftwaffe general and a World War II legend. A great deal of information was obtained from the downed German airmen through interogation despite their lack of cooperation. The British also bugged the quaters where the Germans were held and listening to their conversations.
The British also recovered large numbers of German aircraft. Most were badly damaged, but some were revovered in fairly good condution. And not all came down in combat. Some pilots became lost, some were flown by defectors, and some were lured by British electronic counter measures. The British thus got hold of all the major Germam aircraft types (Do-17, He-111, Ju-87, Me-109, Me-110, as well as others) fairly early in the War. Some were repired and pieced together. There were plenty of spareparts with all the downed aircrft scatered from one end if Britain to th other. Thus the planes could be studied and even test flown, providing useful information on how to attack them. [Saunders] The electronic devices onboard also provided useful infomation for the Battle of the Beams. The German fuel injection system used on the Me-109s was also useful.
Photo reconnaissance was an important source of information for both the RAF and Luftwaffe. For the Battle of Britain, it was mostly used by the Germans. It was was virtually the only source of information abailable to the Germans beyond debriefing the retruning air crews. The British had steroscopic readers, we are not sure about the Germans. We suspect that the damage picked up in the reconnaissance photographs led them to believe that they were doing more damage tan they actually were. It certainly never helped them gain an accurate idea of British fighter strength, either in the all important 11 Group area or 12 Group to the north. The British conducted photo recon missions to learn about Luftwaffe bases, but made only limited use of them during the Battle of Britain.
The RAF in the Battle of Britain was in the hands of competent military commanders. Fighter Command was commanded by tactiturn Scottsman Air Chief Marshall (ACM) Hugh Caswall Tremenheere Dowding. He had enraged Churchill when he resisted demands to commit more RAF fighter wings to France. He was, however, a visionary proponent of all-metal fighters, radar, and centarl operational control of Fighter Command. His principal tactic in the Battle of Britain was to husband RAF fighter strength. In this he was supported by New Zealander Air Vice-Marshall (AVM) Keith Park, commander of 11 Group over southeast England. Dowding also developed important policies rotating pilots and providing some time off--something Göring nver did. He also attempted to give new pilots some operational duty away from 11 Group before commiting them to battle. And he made needed changed fighter flying formations. Leigh-Mallory, commander of 12 Group over the Midland argued for "big wing" attacks on the Germans. The problem was that his Big Wing took time to form and the Germans when attacking 11 Groups airdromes in the Southeast could not be engaged. This changed, however, when the Luftwaffe turned toward London to launch the Blitz (September 7).
The Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain was commanded by a politican with little real professional military training. The Luftwaffe commander was Herman Goering for whom Hitler had created the unprecedented rank of Reich Marshall. Goering was one of the most powerful men in Germany. He was the Prime Minister of Prussia and held important posts in the Gestapo and economic planning. He was a noted fighter ace during World War I. He was appointed ro replace Von Rictoffen when he was killed. Goering never rose above the level of an excepional pilot, but was put in charge of the new Luftwaffe after the NAZI's seized power. He was not, however, a competent military planner, although he thought he understood modern air warfare. Like Hitler, he believed that terror bombing could subdue the British. After the fall of France he busied himself with stealing art work from terrorized Jews and museums.
Luftwaffe planners had no inkling that the British by the time they launched the Battle of Britain were actually outproducing Germany in aircraft production as well as receiving aircraft from America. The Munich debacle had convinced the British that they had to produce an air force that could face the Lufwaffe. As a result, the British had greatly expanded production. The British by 1940 were not only producing fighters like the Spitfire that were as good as the German fighters, but they had begun producing long-range bombers. The British had begun to construct a strategic bomber force--a force the vaunted Luftwaffe lacked. For the British this was a fact that would become increasingly clear to the Germans as the War progressed. For the British in the the Battle of Britain the question was not adequate numbers of aircraft--but sufficent trained pilots to fly the planes and engage the well-trained and experienced Luftwafe pilots.
After the fall of France, Hitler expected the British to make peace. Whn they did not he ordered an invasion of Britain preceeded by an air campaign to establish air superority needed to cover he Channel crossing. The Luftwaffe quickly established bases in France and by July 10 launched preliminary strikes in what has come to be called the Battle of Britain. The Luftwaffe wih a series of syccessful campaigns was confident of victory. The Luftwaffe while better trained and outnumbering the RAF was ill prepared for the campaign. The Battle of Britain began in earnest on July 10 and reached intensive levels on August 13 with Luftwaffe raids on British airfields and aircraft factories. Hitler had assumed that the Luftwaffe could force the British to capitualte. The Luftwaffe im its August campaign seriously weakened the RAF and Fighter Command was having increasing difficulty maintaining its forward air bases in Kent. Then off-course German bombers accidentally bomb London on August 23-24. RAF Bomber Command on August 25-26 mounted a small reprisal raid against Berlin. Hitler is furious and orders an immediate change in Luftwaffe tactics. Rather than completing its offensive against the RAF infrastructure, Hitler ordered a "blitz" on British cities which began in earnest on September 7. The Luftwaffe wreaked havoc on civilians in London and major English cities. An estimated 42,000 civilians were killed. Thousands of civilians were killed. White British cities burned, the RAF was given a respite, allowing its forward air bases to recover from the damage done in August. As a result the RAF was able to mount increasingly costly attacks on the German bomber fleets. The Lutwaffe eventually is forced to shift to nightime raids. Night bombing made it impossible to hit actually military and industrial targets, only cities could be targetted. The British were battered, but held.
A HBC reader tells us, "I visited the Imperial War Museum in London during June 2005. They had a fascinating exhibition called ‘The Children’s War’. This is my recollection of the themes the exhibition dealt with. For children in Britain September 1939 was a warm sunny month. It was the end of the summer and the start of things to come. Sunday September 3 was the start of the Second World War. Most families were at home that Sunday listening to the radio. They were listening to the voice of Neville Chamberlain, the then British Prime Minister; tell the nation that Britain was at war with NAZI Germany. The War would last until 1945 but nobody knew that then. In the Second World War, British children found that they were in the front line of the war. They had to endure nightly bombing raids in which their homes were destroyed, family members and neighbours injured or killed.The first big trauma for children though was being evacuation from manufacturing towns and cities.
The German Plan to invade Britain after the fall of France was code named Opertation Sea Lion. The BEF had managed to escape capture at Dunkirk, but had to abandon their heavy equiment. This mean that while Britain still had its army, it was an unarmed army. The American Naval Attaché reported that the Britih were no more prepared to defend the coast than Long Island. The British asked for surplus World War I destroyers, but President Roosevelt was not yet ready to authorize this. He did ask General Marshall to find surplus arms, mostly small arms, that could be rushed to Britain. [Freidel, p. 336.] The Gernmans were also unprepared. The Wehrmacht had not anticipated the dimensions of their victory in France. There had been no planning for an invasion of Britain. Bliztkrieg was essentially modern warfare, rapid land movement supported by aircraft. There was, however, no naval component. The Panzers stopped at the Channel ports. The Kriegsmarine received less support than the other two services. It did not have the capability to tke on the Royal Navy for a Channel crossing. And Hitler was unsure of the operation from the beginning. He confided in Admiral Raeder, "On land I am a hero. At sea I am a coward." And with France defeated, he wanted to ebnd the war in the West and prepare for his ulimate objective, seizing Lenbenraum in the East. He was still unaware how the his bad faith over Czechoslovakia had changed Britain, even appeasers like Chamberlain. Hitler hoped that he could bring about a British Vichy without an invasion. And he was willing to guarantee the Empire if Britain would accept a German-dominated continent. His vision was in part racial, seeing in Briain Aryan stiock that would eventually come to terms with Aryan Germany. It is not clear to what extent Hitler ever seriously contemplated an invasion. Here historians disagree. Some believe he simply wanted to threaten the British, asuming that they would agree to seek terms. Hitler believed that at least threantening invasion would force the issue. With France defeted, Hitler ordered his generals to organize the invasion of Britain.Without the needed naval forces, the Luftwaffe would be used to prepare for the invasion. Air superority over the channel and southeaster England would have to be achieved. Hitler ordered the Lufwaffe to destroy the RAF. Göring assured him that this could be easily accomplished.
There has always been a strong pacifist element within the British political left. After World War I, there was support for the War Resisters' International and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. The pacifist movement was uincouraged by both the siocialists throughout Europe and the Communuists (under instructiion from Moscow) to weaken countries that were a military threat to the Siviet Union. Pacifist activities and groups were active in Britain. Pacifist activists erected an Anti-War Memorial monument, at Woodford Green, in Essex (1932). It was shaped rather like a bomb. It was meant to memorialize the words of a British delegate at the League of Nations who had spoken against the banning of aerial warfare, on the grounds that Britain needed to bomb rebels on the North-West frontier of India, to keep the "tribesmen in order". The Woodford Green memorial bore the sarcastic inscription, "To those who, in 1932, upheld the right to use bombing planes". [Pankhurst] British Pacifists opposed military spending. The idea ws that military weakness would preclude another war. This was based on the World War I experience which many Brits believed was a huge mistake and pointless slaughter. Very little thought was given to what it would have meant for Germany to defeat France and dominate the Continent. The British Labour Party had a strong pacifist element, as did Socialists throughout Europe. (The major exception here was the Soviet Union.) Particularly important in Britain was the string pacifist feeling within the KLabour Party. As the major opposition party, this had cionsiderable influence. Labour at its annual conderence adopted a resolution without oposition to "pledge itself to take no part in war" (1933). This of course was the same year that Hitler seuzed power in Germany. Labour did not adopt a pacifist policy and unilateral disarmament. It idealistically supported peace through a world socialist commonwealth and the outlawing of war, but supported 'collective security' through the League of Nations. Labour tended to favor cuts in military spending, insisting that availavle funds be used fior social programs. There were more radical pacifist voices. An important Labour pacifist was George Lansbury, a Christian pacifist. He chaired the No More War Movement and was president of the Peace Pledge Union (PPU). He was the Labour Party leader (1932-35). He famously insisted in an election, "I would close every recruiting station, disband the Army and disarm the Air Force. I would abolish the whole dreadful equipment of war and say to the world: 'Do your worst' (1933). Stafford Cripps's organized the vocal Socialist League which criticised Labour's policy. He charged that the League of Nations was 'nothing but the tool of the satiated imperialist powers'." [Toye] Hitler'sise in Germany began to change minds about military spending, even within the Labour Party. Non-pacifists within the Party forced Lansbury to resign. His replacement was Clement Attlee. The NAZI threat forced the Labour Party to abandoned pacifism and support increased military spending. A factor here was Soviet efforts to confront the Germans. Ernest Bevin and Hugh Dalton were important figures in religgning Labour policy. They even convinced the Party to oppose Primeminister Neville Chamberlain's effort to appease Hitler and the NAZIs. [Davies] Hitler was a major factor in weakening the British pacifist movement. The scenes of Luftwaffe moming of Spanish cities were terrifying. But most Brits, even most Labour paciists, realized that the only protection was a strong military, not pacifism. After the bombing of London, it would be years before British pacifists were able to again find their voice.
Even after Hitler turned to terror bombing, at the worst of the Blitz--British morale and society never came close to collapsing. The Battle had, however, very significan consequences affecting the outcome of World War II.
Civilian casualties: The Luftwaffe killed over 40,000 Britains in the first 9 months of bombing--the peak of the Blitz. This was actually less than a tenth of the casualties that the Air Ministry had anticipated.
Lufwaffe losses: The Luftwaffe had suffered significant casulties for the first time, but they had not been so damaged that their effectiveness was seriously compromised for the upcoming campaign against Russia. The losses did mean, however, that the Luftwaffe did not have the full capabilities that German military commanders had anticipated.
Air campaign: More importantly the German failure to subdue Britain left a mortal foe that would serve as unsinkable aircraft carrier in the North Sea that would in 1942 provide an base for the greatest air campaign in history aimed at the heart of Germany. The intensity of the Blitz had removed the moral qualms about strategic vombing in Britain as well as cured the British of their timidity in the phase of the War. The British were now determined to answer the Germans in kind and then some and fight the next air campaign over Gernman cities. A new commander for Britain's Bomber Command--Bomber Harris set out to do just that. Also in 1942, with the entry of America into the War, the Amerivan 8th Air Force begin to arrive in Britain and would join the air war over Germany in 1943.
D-day: Britain's survival meant that in 1942 with the entry of America that a torrent of men and material flooded Britain to prepare for the invasion of Hitler's "Fortress Europe". Britain in 1944 was to be the launching pad for the D-Day invasion and the liberation of Europe.
The Battle of Britain was the first major camapign fought in the air. Very small numbers of combatants were involved. For Hitler and the NAZIs, World War II was a struggle of races and people. The victories in Poland and the West were used by NAZI propaganda as evidence that the Germans were a superior people, both in figting spirit and in scienfic skill. Many Germans actually believed the NAZI racial ideology. The Battle of Britain was the first major defeat of Hitler and NAZI Germany. The fact that the Battle of Britain was more than anything other previous battle a struggle of scientic and technical skills should have indicated to the Germans that the technical gap they enjoyed against Poland and even France was closing. One often overlooked aspect of the Battle of Britain was that by June 1940, the British were producing more fighters than the Germans. The immediate impact was limited because the Luftwaffe began the campaign with such a superority in planes. This is significant because the Germans were soon to take on the Soviets and Americans and would be overwealmed by the torrent of production by these two great industrial powers. Despite the closing technical and production gap, Hitler's response to defeat in the skies over Britain was to proceed with what he had wanted from the beginning, finally attack the Soviet Union.
The Luftwaffe's original tactic seems well conceived and obtainable, target RAF airfields and establish air superiority over southeastern England to support an anphibious invasion. Hitler and Göring's decession to shift the battle to London and other cities in effect took the battle beyond the capability of the Luftwaffe. Hitler's focus was on terror and disctruction. He had no real concept of waaging a strategic bombing campaign. Here the Allies with a much greater bombing force were unable to seriously disrupt German industrial production until the final year of the War. Here even the British and Americans which had two decades to work out aerial strategy were unprepared for strategic bombing until well into the War. The Luftwaffe as a service when the War broke out was less than 4 years old. At the time of the Battle of Britain, not only did the Luftwaffe not have a strategic bombing force, no one, neither the Germans or Allies, knew how to conduct an effective strategic bombing campaign. [Rumpf, 41.]
The Battle of Britain was compared to other campaigns a rather small operation, but in many ways the key battle of World War II. The significance of the Battle of Britain was at the time was not fully appreciated. Even after the success of the RAF in staving off invation, Hitler still controlled virtually all of Western Europe and it was the startling German successes that still dominated headlines. Britain continued to be bombed and soon the Wehrmacht would launch the titalic struggle with the Soviet Union with another series of spectacular successes. The Luftwaffe was bloodied over Britain, but not seriously damaged. What did occur was the Germans experienced not only superiot tactics, but for the first time an opponent was able to match German technology. Even more importantly, the British scored a not fully appreciated stategic victory. Hitler's strategy was based on destroying his opponents quickly before they could unite and produce modern armaments. He succed with Poland, France, and the small countries of Western Europe (Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxenburg). Brtains's survival meant that it would not be a short war, but a longer struggle in which superior Allied resources could gradually be brought to force on Germany. The failure to defeat Britain meant that he would have a dangerous enemy in the west when he launched his invasion of the Soviet Union. It also mean that America would have time to rearm and a key ally when it entered the war. If Britain had fallen, not only could Germany focused the full force of its arms on a single ememu, but America would have had no Euroean bases from which it could strike at Germany.
The Luftwaffe eventually ended the major offensive against the British as the German military in 1941 began preparing for Opperation Barbarossa, Hitler's long awaited dream of invading the Soviet Union. Stalin's Soviet Union was at the time was a virtual German ally. The Soviet dictator had been warned of the impending German invsion, but he refused to believe the clear indicators of an impending attack. Hitler had always warned about the dangers of a two-front war. In the end his hatred of Communism and his desire for Lebesraum outweiged his caution. In addition, the cost of maintaining the huge German military machine forced his hand. He justified the invasion cliaming that the British woul hold out as long of the possibility of a Russian alliance existed and that defeating Russia was necessary to force the British to sue for peace. The Battle of Britain has seriously weaked the Luftwaffe substantailly reducing both the number of conbat planes and air crews that they were able to marshall for the invasion.
We are epecially interested in personal experiences. One British boy during tghe War recalls, "We lived only a few miles from Coventry in England-one of the cities most devastated by German bombers. Our own small town was not a target, but it did lay in the flight path. Night after night we listened to the roar of the planes overhead, trying to determine from the sound whether they were "ours" or "theirs."
One night, with my brother in France, and my father and sister both on duty, my mother and I were alone in the house. A lone bomber, on its way back to Germany, jettisoned its bombs in the field behind our house. The blast shattered our windows and blew down the blackout screens (no building was allowed to show lights at night). Wary of the broken glass all over the floor, and unable even to use a torch, my mother called to me to stay in my bed. We stayed in our separate rooms until daylight. It is my clearest and scariest memory of the war.
Days later, we joined three of our neighbors in digging an underground shelter behind the back yard, one big enough for the four families, with built-in bunks for the children. For months, we were put to bed down there, rather than having to be woken when the air raid siren sounded in the middle of the night." [Clayton]
Churchill after the fall of France called the Battle of Britain and the decession to fight the NAZIs alone was Britain's "finest hour". Those of us who admire the British can not but agree. Many at the time, including many on both sides of the Atlantic, were doubtful of Britain's chance of prevailing against the vaunted NAZI Luftwaffe. Altough the NAZOs remained in control of Europe, Britain's victory was critical for two reasons. First the NAZI's with limited resources could prevail only if the War was a short stryggle. The British victory had the impact of prolonging the War. Second, NAZI victories were premised on superior technology and tactical doctrine. The British victory showed that other countries were capable of building modern aircraft and implementing effective tactics. Although not apparent at the time, the battle was a major turning pont in the War. It was also the only major battle that Britain won largely on her own against the Germans. Today the Battle has become an important part of the British national story. Churchill said after the battle that "Never have so much been owed by so many to so few." That was true, but without the determination of the British people to see the War through, even the bravery of the RAF would not have been enough. The bravery of the RAF flyers and British civilians, including the evacuated children has been the subject of countless books and films as well as other tributes that can be found throughout Britain.
Some modern historians want to take issue with the major accomplishments of the West. In this case they seek to doiwn play the role of the Western allies in defeating the NAZIs. Some are nonsence pieces. Others are more thought provoking. One author postulates that The Battle of Britain was not as Churchill suggested the victory of 'the few', but rather the people's victory--'the many'. He believes that Hitler never really had any intention of invading Britain and the real struggle was for the hearts and minds of the British people. He believes that the British patrician ruling class did not prepare for the War, leaving it to the ordinary Briton to fight it out with the Germans. [North] Now there is much to commend this point of view. The people of Britain were integral to winning the War. They paid a huge cost and endured 6 years of hardship. It was truly a national effort and telling the story from a civilian view as well as other serbices such as the Royal Navy, Bomber Command and Coastal Command as well as Air Wardens and others is a valuable addition to the literature on Britain's war effort. But the Battle of Britain is a different matter. It is true that Fighter Command was not the only unit involved. But, they were the one indespensible unit. Had the Luftwaffee gained air superioriy over Britain, they could have accomplished what the U-boats failed to do, cut off Britain from overseas supplies. The class element he introduces, however, is falcious. Opposition to another war and a desire to limit defense spending was widespread throughout Britain both with the Conservative and Labour Party. It is true that Britain was not prepared for the War, but blaming the patrician establishment is not fair. Britain was a democracy and it was the British people who did not want the large military expebnditures that were needed after Hitler's rise to power.
The issue as to Hitler's invasion plans, is an open question. But air superiority oversoutheastern Britain woukd have made a great deal possible. The British Army after Dunkirk was largely disarmed and the Army not yet ready for German Blitzkrieg tacics. The author is correct that Hitler wanted regime change that would put another nation with Aryan blood as an ally. This true, but it is also true that the primary goal was to defeat the British militarily. Bringing Britain to his side would have been nice, but was not the immediate objective. What 'the few' did was to prevent an early and relatively easy German victory that would allow Britain to fight its people's war against the NAZI tyrany.
Brown, Louis. A Radar History of World War II (IOP Publishing, 1999).
Clayton, Audrey. "Scared until daylight," The Washington Post (May 28, 2004), p. W11.
Davidson, Eugene. The Umaking of Adolf Hitler (Univesity of Missouri: Columbia, 1996), 519p.
Davies, A.J. To Build A New Jerusalem: The British Labour Party from Keir Hardie to Tony Blair (Abacus, 1996).
Douhet, Giulio. Command of the Air (1921).
Fest, Joachim C. Hitler (Vintage Books: New York, 1974), 844p.
Gilbert, Martin. A History of the Twentieth Century Vol. 2 1933-54 (William Morrow and Company, Inc.: New York, 1998), 1050p.
North, Richard. The Many Not theFew: The Stolen History of the Battle of Briatin (2012), 464p.
Pankhurst, Richard. "Ethiopia's Image Abroad: Ethiopian Place-Names and Statues in Britain Rasselas and Aida".
Olson, Lynne and Stanley Cloud. A Question of Honor: The Kosciuszko Squadron: Forgotten Heroes of World War II (Knopf, 2003).
Rumpf, Hans. Trans. Edward Fitzgerald. The Bombing of Germany (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962), 256p.
Saunders, Andy. Arrival of Eagles: Luftwaffe Landings un England, 1939-45 (2014).
Toye, Richard. The Labour Party and the Economics of Rearmament, 1935-1939.
Webs, H.G. The Outline of History: The Hole Story of Man (Doubleday & Company: Ne York, 1971), 1103p.
Navigate the CIH World War II Section:
[Return to Main World War II aerial campaign page]
[Return to Main British World War page]
[Return to Main World War II page]
[Biographies] [Campaigns] [Children] [Countries] [Deciding factors] [Diplomacy] [Geo-political crisis] [Economics] [Home front] [Intelligence]
[Resistance] [Race] [Refugees] [Technology]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Return to Main World War II page]
[Return to Main war essay page]