*** war and social upheaval: World War II air campaign -- Battle of Britain

The Battle of Britain (July-September 1940)

Battle of Britain
Figure 1.--These British children are being evacuated from London at the onset of the War (September 1939). Notice their gas mask boxes. Many of the children evacuated begged their parents to return home when no bombing raids materialized. After the fall of France (June 1940) and the Battle of Britain began, many children were back home. Thus At the onset of the German air offensive, British authorities organized another wave of evacuations (July). This time the children were less cooperative and many insisted on staying with their parents. The Germans focused at first on the RAF 11 Wing's airfields and squadrons in southeastern England that would cover the invasion beaches. They succeded in severely weakening 11 Wing. The German Blitz on London and other British cities began in September. The children in London and those in the relative security of their country and villiage billets could see the German bomber formations and the dog fights taking place in the skies over Britain as the RAF fighters engaged them. In a very real way, these children and their parents took on Göring's vaunted Luftwaffe. And while the German bombers destroyed homes and shops, the battered-RAF was able not only to recover in strength, but emerge as a stronger, more competent force.

"If they mount a large scale attack on our cities, then we will wipe out their cities. The hour will come when one of us must crack and it will never be National Socialist Germany." The frenzied audience of ardent NAZIs at the Berlin Sportpalast chanted back in support of their beloved Führer, "Never! Never! Never!" One wonders how many of those mesmeruized fillowers remenbered this when the bombs began falling on the Reich.

-- NAZI Führer Adolf Hitler, September 4, 1940

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.


With the fall of France (june 1940), Germany achieved control over the entire coat of France. The Luftwaffe rapidly began taking over French air bases and building new ones close to the coast. Britain was now exposed to Luftwaffe attacks. The resulting Battle of Britain was one of the crucial engagements of World War II. The unfolding of the Battle of Britain is somewhat different than often presented in popular histories. Many believe that the Blitz on London began because of a British attack on Berlin in September. In fact the British had begun attacks on Berlin, albeit with only small formations, before the August 25-26 raids that are often cited and there is considerable accuracy to the German claim that the Blitz was begun as a retalitory raid. It is true, however, that the German Blitz was the turning point of the Battle of Britain in that it releaved pressure on Fighter Command.


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 of 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.

German Western Offensive (May-June 1940)

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 fit 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. Hitler issued Führer Directive 17 on how to pursue the campaign (August 1, 1940). .


Prime Minister 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.

Opposing Forces

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.

Radar: The British Chain Home Network

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. A critical mistake made by the Luftwaffe was their failure to appreciate the crucial 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.

Air Raid Precautions (ARP)

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, interogation of downed Luftwaffe crews, and Ultra. The Germans had very little accurate inteligence. And much of what they did have, they misinterprted largely because they were so convinced of their superiority. This might be likened to the subsequent Japanese 'Victory Disease' in the Pacific. The Germans 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 the Battle played out, 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 very 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 surely more aggressively gone after the CH towers. It was an incredible mistake on the poart OKL. Perhaps understannable at first, but not as their bomber losses mounted. They should have known not only because the Luftwaffe groups were being so regularly intercepted and the CH sector stations were radioing the headings to the Fightr Command fighters in the clear.


The two leading commanders in the Battle of Britain were German Luftwaffe commander Herman Göring and British Air Chief Marshall (ACM) Hugh Dowding who commanded Fighter Command. The two men could not have been more different. Dowding was taciturn and reserved, Göring was outgoing and flamboyant. More importantly, Dowding was a consummate professional. Göring was a World War I fighter ace with no idea how to administer or command an air force or willingness to do the hard work involved. He appointing incompetent cronies like Ernest Udet, another World War fighter pilot Udet and arguably one of the greatest incompetents of the War. Dowding in contrast chose and managed air group commanders who won the Battle of Britain. Britain was almost totally unprepared for war in every conceivable area. The one area gh Germans stubbled cross was air defense. This was largely due to two main factors. First, was the German World War I air raids. The British public did nogt fvor military spending. Air defense was a different matter. Second, the exhaustive and determined work of Dowduibg during the inter-War period, all in the face of the most miserly budget appropriatins imaginable. World War II battles varied. There were battles in which the outcome was basically foreordained. There were other battles in which the outcome could have gone either way and the battle was decided by the competence of the commanders. The Battle of Britain was one of the latter. The Grmans could have won the battle. It was not as lop-sided a battle as oiften portrayed, but the Germans had a good chance of prevailing. It was the leadership of Dowding and 11 Group commander New Zealander Air vice-marshal Keith Park that was and the incompetence of Göring that was decisive. The Germans did not have everything going for them, butv they had enough that victory was within their grasp. Churchill did not interfere he left it up to his commanders, ast least during the battle. Churchill even deferred to Dowding on the question of fighter squadrons promised to France. Göring again was just the opposite, cravenly seeking to maintain Hitler's favor, he overrode Luftwaffe commanders and appeased Hitler by turning to terror bombing, ending any chance of defeating the RAF. Even during the Battle of Britain, Göring spent much of his time swilling champagne and racing around France, to terrorize Jews and steal art work from them.

British Aircraft Production

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 Luftwaffe. 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.

Aviation Fuel

The Battle of Britain was the only British World War II victory withhout a substantial American involvement. An American impact, however, was not entirely lacking. The German Messerschmitt 109s was the finest figher in existence at the time, bnut closely matched by the RAF Spitfire which the Germans did not erncounter until the fighting around the Dunkirk Pocket. The ME-109s were fueled by aviation gasoline produced in the German synfuel plants. This had an octane rating of 87. Until the Battle of Britain, the RAF was using similar fuel. The British Spitfires and Huricanes by th time of the Battle of Britain, im constrast, began to receive higher-grade 100-octane aviation fueln supplied by the United States. We are not sure how much of the British fuel was this enriched grade, but apparently quite a bit was. The Americam enriched ful was produced using catalytic cracking technology, pioneered in the 1930s. It was produced in vast, 15-story refinery units, at complex American refineries. As part olf the war effort. the United Stares expnded production of 100-octane gasoline from 40 kbpd (1940) to 514 kbpd (1945). The higher octane fuel provided greater bursts of speed and added maneuverability.


The Battle of Britain was primarily fought in the skies over Britain. There were engagements over the Channel and North Sea and Bomber Command hit Luftwaffe bases in France, but the great bulk of the fighting took place over southeastern England. There were as a result a range of consequences. The major consequence was that the battle enabled the Luftwaffe to hit RAF Fighter Command and hit it hard. It could have been a war winning advantage had the British not developed the Chain Home early warning system. This was largely the result of German bombing raids during World War I. The Luftwaffe demonstrated what it could do without an early warning system in Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. The Chain Home System prevented disaster, but Fighter Command was tested to the core. Not only could the Luftwaffe attack Fighter Command bases, but it could target important facilities like ports and factories. Such attacks required precision and were only possible in daytime attacks. Here the Luftwaffe was limited to targets in the south. Beyond London, Luftwaffe Bombers lost their fighter escorts making daylight raids impossible. The German bombers could reach targets throughout Britain, but their fighter escorts could not accompany them beyond London. There were also a range of advantages to the British. The primary advantage was that all German air crews shot down were lost to the war effort. This included many men who were not injured or only slightly injured. In contrast, British pilots who were were shot down, were in many cases back in the air within a day or so. The Germans got their pilots shot down during the Battle of France back after France fell, not so the pilots shot down during the Battle of Britain. This might seem a minor matter, but training pilots and air crews was a complicated, lengthy, and costly process. The availability in pilots was Fighter Command's main problem in the Battle of Britain and eventually became the Luftwaffe's primary weakness as the War continued. In addition, the British were able to learn every detail of German aircraft construction and technology from the wreckage spread across Britain. And not all of the aircraft shot down were total wrecks. There were aircraft recovered in relatively good condition. The greatest discovery of all was Knickebein (crooked leg). Incredibly RAF Bomber Command at the onset of the War, relied on celestial navigation to bomb Germany. This proved basically useless. The Germans in sharp contrast, thanks to Lufthansa commercial work, had the Knickebein electronic system in place for finding targets at night with relative accuracy. This was the beginning of the Battle of the Beams.

Phases of the Battle

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.

The Children's War

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.

Operation Sea Lion

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.

British Pacifism

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 Labour 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.

RAF Upgrades

The Hurricane and Spitfire were two fine planes, but early interations especially the Spitfire. The Luftwaffe had been flying the Me-190 siunce 1935 and had plennty of time to work out bugs and perfect the aircraft. The British made two important improvements which significantly uped the performance of both planes for the Battle of Britain, involving 1) fuel and 2) high altitude equipment. The first upgrade was fuel. Eugene Houdry, born in France and emigrated to the United States developed one of the earliest catalysts to convert useless crude oil into high octane fuel. He revealed the 'cracking' process at a Chicago chemicals conference in 1938. The U.S. Army Air Force began using 100 octane fuel) instead of the standard 87 octane fuel being used in Europe. The United States provided the battle-winning RAF airplanes 100-octane aviation fuel which helped them gained superior altitude, maneuverability and rate of climb. Speed was important, but what was really vital given the short alert time was gaining altitude--and BAM100 made all the difference. The American fuel reached Britain just in time for the battle. "Luftwaffe pilots couldn't believe they were facing the same planes they had fought successfully over France a few months before. The planes were the same but the fuel wasn't." [Palucka] The British Air Ministry upon learning of the new fuel that the Americans had been using since 1937 placed orders. Standard Oil of New Jersey (Exxon) had to come up with a blend that worked in the Merlin Engine. It took sometime, but the Americans perfected BAM100. The first tanker load of BAM 100 reached England (June 1939), just before the outbreak of the War. The RAF as soon as they had sufficient stocks of BAM100 began converting the Merlin engines in every Spitfire and Hurricane fighter from 87‐octane gasoline to BAM100 (March 1940). The Battle of Britain began 4 months later (July 1940). The Luftwaffe did not discover the British fuel secret until a few weeks before the battle ended. [Haitch] At the time they were working on improved fuels with some success, but the engine modifications resulted in significantly reduced engine life. A reader writes, "That was the main reason that oil tankers were the number obe U-boat target. It was not for heating fuel or auto fuel. Thecsecond major need was for naval and merchant shipping. If the RAF had no obrained the fuel then Britain probably woulkd not have won the Battle of Britain and history would be vastly different today." The second upgrade was superchargers. The Me-109 had an efficient supercharger, which improved its performance at altitude. The Merlin Engine was in a constant state of flux as it was used throughout the War (1939-45). The main improvements to the Merlin engine during Battle of Britain was with the supercharger and Stanley Hooker was largely responsible. Hooker was a new employee who realized that the early supercharger and air intake was inefficient because of the restrictions imposed in it by placing it at the rear of the engine. Hooker's designs improved the intake duct, impeller and diffuser alongside the Farman two speed drive increased the performance altitude from 16,000ft to 19,000ft. Further improvements were made, but this is what occurred during the Battle of Britain.


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.

Scientific and Industrial Struggle

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.

Tactical Assessment

The Luftwaffe's original tactic seems well conceived and obtainable, target RAF airfields in southeastern England and establish air superiority over the planned invasion beaches to support an anphibious invasion. We are not sure if the invasion was possible, but the Luftwaffe had the capability of achieving air superority pver that corner of England. But Hitler was impatient after Göring was unabke to destroy the RAF in a few days as prommised. Hitler's decession to shift the battle to London and other cities in effect took the battle north beyond the capability of the Luftwaffe. Hitler's focus and mindset was on terror and disctruction. He had no real concept of waging a strategic bombing campaign. Here the Allies with a much greater bombing force were sunsequently 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.] Wars are not won by knocking down houses, The Luftwaffe knocked down a lot of houses, but very feew imprtant military targets. And it was done at great cost to important military assetts edfor the coming invasion of the Soviet Union. The British pepople organized. They built bomb shelters in theirbhomes and back gardens (yards) to withstand the bombing. Many of the children were evacuated from the cities. The children that remained werre drilled and redrilled about how to respnd when the bombers came. Hitler threw the vaunted Luftwafe at the British peoole and they were not cowed. It was a tactical error that would affect the outcome of the War. The Luftwaffe would never fully recover.


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.

Operation Barbarossa (June 1941)

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.

Personal Experiences

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]

Modern Britain

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.

Revisionist Views

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.


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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).

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Created: August 22, 2002
Last updated: 5:27 AM 11/14/2023