Sir Winston Churchill
The Battle of Britain took place between July and October 1940. The Germans began by attacking coastal targets and British shipping operating in the English Channel. They launched their main offensive on 13 August. Attacks moved inland, concentrating on airfields and communications centres. Fighter Command offered stiff resistance, despite coming under enormous pressure. During the last week of August and the first week of September, in what would be the critical phase of the battle, the Germans intensified their efforts to destroy Fighter Command. Airfields, particularly those in the south-east, were significantly damaged but most remained operational.
Image – Contrails left by British and German aircraft after a dogfight during the Battle of Britain, September 1940. © IWM (H 4219)
On 31 August, Fighter Command suffered its worst day of the entire battle. But the Luftwaffe was overestimating the damage it was inflicting and wrongly came to the conclusion that the RAF was on its last legs. Fighter Command was bruised but not broken. On 7 September, the Germans shifted the weight of their attacks away from RAF targets and onto London. This would be an error of critical importance. The raids had devastating effects on London’s residents, but they also gave Britain’s defences time to recover. On 15 September Fighter Command repelled another massive Luftwaffe assault, inflicting severe losses that were becoming increasingly unsustainable for the Germans. Although fighting would continue for several more weeks, it had become clear that the Luftwaffe had failed to secure the air superiority needed for invasion. Hitler indefinitely postponed Operation ‘Sealion’. [source: iwm.org.uk]
28 November 1939 to 10 May 1940 – RAF Tangmere, West Sussex
10 May 1940 to 16 May 1940 – Bétheniville, France
16 May 1940 to 2 June 1940 – Anglure, France
2 June 1940 to 11 June 1940 – Le Mans, France
11 June 1940 to 17 June 1940 – Dinard, France
17 June 1940 to 21 June 1940 – RAF Saint Helier, Jersey, Channel Islands
21 June 1940 to 4 July 1940 – RAF Croydon, Surrey
4 July 1940 to 25 July 1940 – RAF Middle Wallop, Hampshire
25 July 1940 to 10 September 1940 – RAF Gravesend, Kent
10 September 1940 to 17 December 1940 – RAF Kenley, Surrey
The Battle of Britain – 10 July – 31 October 1940. The Battle of Britain was the first major campaign to be fought entirely by air forces.
A direction issued by Hitler on 1 August for the Luftwaffe Adlertag (Eagle Day) campaign to achieve air superiority over the Royal Air Force (RAF) with the aim of defeating RAF Fighter Command by attacks on RAF airfields and infrastructure. By preventing Germany from gaining air superiority, the British forced Adolf Hitler to postpone and eventually cancel ‘Operation Sea Lion’; the planned sea and air invasion of Great Britain. The Luftwaffe continued bombing Britain, this stage of the battle was to become known as The Blitz.
The Battle of Britain term is taken from a speech by Prime Minister Winston Churchill in the House of Commons on 18 June:
Winston Churchill – “… What General Weygand has called The Battle of France is over. The Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of a perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, this was their finest hour.” Winston Churchill.
The RAF had responded to Luftwaffe developments with its 1934 Expansion Plan: A rearmament scheme, and in 1936 it was restructured into Bomber Command, Coastal Command, Training Command and Fighter Command. The latter was under Hugh Dowding who masterminded and oversaw the development of monoplane fighters, RDF (Radio Detection Finding) (later known as Radar) and the ‘Dowding System’ of Observer and Communication reporting. Following a fierce debate over the merits of Fighter and Bomber strategy; in December 1937 the Minister in charge of defence coordination, Sir Thomas Inskip, decided in Dowding’s favour, that “The role of our air force is not an early knock-out blow” but rather was “to prevent the Germans from knocking us out” and fighter squadrons were just as necessary as bomber squadrons. In contrast; the Head of Luftwaffe intelligence, Joseph “Beppo” Schmid, presented a report on 22nd November 1939, stating that “Of all Germany’s possible enemies, Britain is the most dangerous.”
The early stages of World War II saw successful German ‘Blitzkrieg’ (Lightening War) invasions on the continent aided by the air superiority of the Luftwaffe. On 10th May, the same day Winston Churchill became British Prime Minister, the Germans initiated the Battle of France with an invasion of French territory. RAF Fighter Command was desperately short of trained pilots and aircraft, but despite the objections of its commander Hugh Dowding that the diversion of his forces would leave home defences under-strength, Churchill sent fighter squadrons to support the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) operations in France. The RAF suffered heavy losses and 501 Squadron played their part in the actions of the ‘Advanced Air Striking Force‘ and were stationed at airfields – Bétheniville, Anglure, Le Mans and Dinard.
On 24th May, during the Battle of France, ‘Directive No. 13′ authorised the Luftwaffe “to attack the English homeland in the fullest manner, as soon as sufficient forces are available. This attack will be opened by an annihilating reprisal for English attacks on the Ruhr Basin.’ In ‘Directive No. 16’ Hitler required readiness by mid-August for an invasion of Great Britain – Operation Sea Lion. Göring issued “Tasks and Goals” of firstly gaining air supremacy, secondly protecting invasion forces and attacking the Royal Navy’s ships. Thirdly, they were to blockade imports, bombing harbours and stores of supplies on 24th July. Hitler’s ‘Directive No. 17’ for the conduct of air and sea warfare against England was issued on 1st August. The Luftwaffe’s Adlertag campaign was to start around 5 August, subject to weather, with the aim of gaining air superiority over southern England as a necessary precondition of invasion, following severe Luftwaffe losses, Hitler agreed at a 14th September OKW conference that the air campaign was to intensify regardless of invasion plans. On 16th September Göring gave the order for a change in strategy, the first independent strategic bombing campaign – the Blitz was to begin.
The Luftwaffe fighters, Messerschmitt Bf 109E and Bf 110, fought the RAF’s workhorse Hawker Hurricane Mk I and the Supermarine Spitfire Mk I. The Hurricane outnumbered Spitfire in RAF Fighter Command at the outbreak of war. The Bf 109E had a better climb rate and was up to 40 mph faster in level flight than the Rotol (constant speed propellor) equipped Hurricane Mk I, depending on altitude. By the end of spring 1940, all RAF Spitfire and Hurricane fighter squadrons converted to 100 octane aviation fuel which allowed the Merlin engine to generate more power and a 30 mph increase in speed at low altitudes with the use of an Emergency Boost Override. The British fighters were equipped with eight Browning .303 machine guns, while most Bf109E had two 7.92mm machine guns and two 20mm cannons. It could also engage in vertical-plane negative-g manoeuvres without the engine cutting out because its Daimler Benz DB 601 engine used fuel injection; this allowed the Bf109 to dive away from attackers more readily than the carburettor equipped Merlin. At the start of the battle, the twin-engined Messerschmitt Bf 110C long range Zerstörer (Destroyer) was also expected to engage in air-to-air combat while escorting the Luftwaffe bomber fleet. Although the 110 was faster than the Hurricane and almost as fast as the Spitfire, its lack of manoeuvrability and acceleration meant that it was a failure as a long-range escort fighter. On 13th and 15th August, 13 and 30 aircraft were lost, the equivalent of an entire Gruppe; a further eight and fifteen lost on 16th and 17th August made Göring order the Bf110 units to operate “where the range of the single-engined machines were not sufficient”.
Before the war, the RAF processes for selecting potential candidates were opened to men of all social classes through the creation in 1936 of the RAF Volunteer Reserve, which “… was designed to appeal, to … young men … without any class distinctions …” by 1st September 1939, 6,646 pilots had been trained through the RAFVR.
Fighter Command – By summer 1940, there were approximately 9,000 pilots and 5,000 aircraft (most of which were bombers). Fighter Command had the problem of finding sufficient numbers of fully trained fighter pilots – this became acute by mid-August 1940. With aircraft production running at 300 planes each week, only 200 pilots were trained in the same period. In addition, more pilots were allocated to squadrons than there were aircraft, as this allowed squadrons to maintain operational strength despite casualties and still provide for pilot leave. Another factor was that only about 30 of the 9,000 pilots were assigned to operational squadrons; 20 of the pilots were involved in conducting pilot training, and a further 20 were undergoing further instruction, like those offered in Canada and in Southern Rhodesia to the Commonwealth trainees, although already qualified. The rest were assigned to staff positions, since RAF policy dictated that only pilots could make many staff and operational command decisions, even in engineering matters. At the height of fighting, and despite Churchill’s insistence, only 30 pilots were released to the front line from administrative duties.
For these reasons, and the permanent loss of 435 pilots during the Battle of France along with many more wounded the RAF had fewer experienced pilots at the start of the initial stage of the Battle of Britain. It was the lack of trained pilots in the fighting squadrons, rather than the lack of aircraft, that became the greatest concern for Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding, Commander of Fighter Command. Drawing from regular RAF forces, the Auxiliary Air Force and the Volunteer Reserve, the British were able to muster some 1,103 fighter pilots on 1 July. The Luftwaffe had 1,450 experienced fighter pilots.
The Royal Air Force roll of honour for the Battle of Britain recognises 595 non-British pilots (out of 2,936) as flying at least one operational sortie with an eligible unit of the RAF or Fleet Air Arm between 10 July and 31 October 1940. These included 145 Poles, 127 New Zealanders, 112 Canadians, 88 Czechoslovaks, 10 Irish, 32 Australians, 28 Belgians, 25 South Africans, 13 French, 7 Americans, 3 Southern Rhodesians and one each from Jamaica and Mandatory Palestine. In the fighter battles, bombing raids and patrols flown between 10 July and 31 October 1940 by the Royal Air Force, 1495 aircrew were killed, of whom 449 were fighter pilots, 718 aircrew from Bomber Command, and 280 from Coastal Command. Among those killed were 47 airmen from Canada, 24 from Australia, 17 from South Africa, 35 from Poland, 20 from Czechoslovakia and six from Belgium. Forty-seven New Zealanders lost their lives, including 15 fighter pilots, 24 bomber and eight coastal aircrew. The names of these Allied and Commonwealth airmen are inscribed in a memorial book which rests in the Battle of Britain Chapel in Westminster Abbey.
The Luftwaffe was forced to regroup after the Battle of France into three Luftflotten (Air Fleets) on Britain’s southern and northern flanks. Luftflotte 2, commanded by Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, was responsible for the bombing of southeast England and the London area. Luftflotte 3, under Generalfeldmarschall Hugo Sperrle, targeted the West Country, Wales, the Midlands, and northwest England. Luftflotte 5, led by Generaloberst Hans-Jürgen Stumpff from his headquarters in Norway, targeted the north of England and Scotland. As the battle progressed, command responsibility shifted, with Luftflotte 3 taking more responsibility for the night-time Blitz attacks while the main daylight operations fell upon Luftflotte 2.
Initial Luftwaffe estimates were that it would take four days to defeat the RAF Fighter Command in southern England. The Luftwaffe was hindered by it’s lack of military intelligence about the British defences. By 1940, there were few German agents operating in Great Britain and a handful of bungled attempts to insert spies into the country were foiled. Throughout the battle, the Luftwaffe had to use reconnaissance sorties to make up for the poor intelligence. Reconnaissance aircraft proved easy prey for British fighters, as it was seldom possible for them to be escorted by Bf 109s. Thus, the Luftwaffe operated “blind” for much of the battle, unsure of its enemy’s true strengths, capabilities, and deployments. Many of the Fighter Command airfields were never attacked, while raids against supposed fighter airfields fell instead on bomber or coastal defence stations.
Radar – The Dowding System: During early tests of the Chain Home system, the slow flow of information from the CH radars and observers to the aircraft often caused them to miss their ‘bandits’ (Enemy Aircraft). The solution, today known as the “Dowding System”, was to create a set of reporting chains to move information from the various observation points to the pilots in their fighters. It was named after its chief architect, Hugh ‘Stuffy’ Dowding. Reports from CH radars and the Observer Corps were sent directly to Fighter Command Headquarters (FCHQ) at Bentley Priory where they were “filtered” to combine multiple reports of the same formations into single tracks. Telephone operators would then forward only the information of interest to the Group headquarters, where the map would be re-created. This process was repeated to produce another version of the map at the Sector level, covering a much smaller area. Looking over their maps, Group level commanders could select squadrons to attack particular targets. From that point the Sector operators would give commands to the fighters to arrange an interception, as well as return them to base. Sector stations also controlled the anti-aircraft batteries in their area; an army officer sat beside each fighter controller and directed the gun crews when to open and cease fire. The Dowding System dramatically improved the speed and accuracy of the information that flowed to the pilots. During the early war period it was expected that an average interception mission might have a chance of ever seeing their target.
The weight of the battle fell upon 11 Group in the South Eastern corner of the UK – ‘Hell Fire Corner’. Keith Park’s tactics were to dispatch individual squadrons to intercept raids. The intention was to subject incoming bombers to continual attacks by relatively small numbers of fighters and try to break up the tight German formations. Once formations had fallen apart, stragglers could be picked off one by one. Where multiple squadrons reached a raid the procedure was for the slower Hurricanes to tackle the bombers while the more agile Spitfires held up the fighter escort. This ideal was not always achieved, resulting in occasions when Spitfires and Hurricanes reversed roles. Park also issued instructions to his units to engage in frontal attacks against the bombers, which were more vulnerable to such attacks.
Squadron Scramble – Bomber and Coastal Command: An hour after the declaration of war, Bomber Command launched raids on warships and naval ports by day, and in night raids dropped leaflets as it was considered illegal to bomb targets which could affect civilians. After the initial disasters of the war, with Vickers Wellington bombers shot down in large numbers attacking Wilhelmshaven and the slaughter of the Fairey Battle squadrons sent to France, it became clear that they would have to operate mainly at night to avoid incurring very high losses. Churchill came to power on 10 May 1940, and night raids on German towns began with the bombing of München-Gladbach on the night of 11th May. The War Cabinet on 12th May agreed that German actions justified “unrestricted warfare”, and on 14th May they authorised an attack on the night of 14/15th May against oil and rail targets in Germany. At the urging of Clement Attlee, the Cabinet on 15th May authorised a full bombing strategy against “suitable military objectives”, even where there could be civilian casualties. That evening, a night time bomber campaign began against the German oil industry, communications, and forests/crops, mainly in the Ruhr area. As the threat mounted, Bomber Command changed targeting priority on 3rd June 1940 to attack the German aircraft industry. On 4th July, the Air Ministry gave Bomber Command orders to attack ports and shipping. By September, the build-up of invasion barges in the Channel ports had become a top priority target. On 7th September, the Government issued a warning that the invasion could be expected within the next few days and, that night, Bomber Command attacked the Channel ports and supply dumps. On 13th September, they carried out another large raid on the Channel ports, sinking 80 large barges in the port of Ostend. 84 barges were sunk in Dunkirk after another raid on 17th September and by 19th September, almost 200 barges had been sunk. The loss of these barges may have contributed to Hitler’s decision to postpone Operation Sea Lion indefinitely.
There were some missions which produced an almost 100 percent casualty rate amongst the Blenheims; one such operation was mounted on 13th August 1940 against a Luftwaffe airfield near Aalborg in north-eastern Denmark by 12 aircraft of 82 Squadron. One Blenheim returned early (the pilot was later charged and due to appear before a court martial, but was killed on another operation), the other 11, which reached Denmark, were shot down, five by flak and six by Bf 109s. Of the 33 crewmen who took part in the attack, 20 were killed and 13 captured.
Coastal Command directed its attention towards the protection of British shipping, and the destruction of enemy shipping. As invasion became more likely, it participated in the strikes on French harbours and airfields, laying mines, and mounting numerous reconnaissance missions over the enemy-held coast. In all, some 9,180 sorties were flown by bombers from July to October 1940. Although this was much less than the 80,000 sorties flown by fighters, bomber crews suffered about half the total number of casualties borne by their fighter colleagues. The bomber contribution was, therefore, much more dangerous on a loss-per-sortie comparison and their contribution to the Battle of Britain is often overlooked. Bomber, reconnaissance, and antisubmarine patrol operations continued throughout these months with little respite and none of the publicity accorded to Fighter Command. In his famous 20 August speech about “The Few”, praising Fighter Command, Churchill also made a point of mentioning Bomber Command’s contribution, adding that bombers were even then striking back at Germany; this part of the speech. The Battle of Britain Chapel in Westminster Abbey lists in a roll of honour, 718 Bomber Command crew members, and 280 from Coastal Command who were killed between 10 July and 31 October.
Following Germany’s rapid territorial gains in the Battle of France, the Luftwaffe had to reorganise its forces, set up bases along the coast, and rebuild after heavy losses. It began small scale bombing raids on Britain on the night of 5/6th June, and continued sporadic attacks throughout June and July. The first large-scale attack was at night, on 18/19th June, when small raids scattered between Yorkshire and Kent involved in total 100 bombers. These Störangriffe (“nuisance raids”) which involved only a few aeroplanes, sometimes just one, were used to train bomber crews in both day and night attacks, to test defences and try out methods, with most flights at night. They found that, rather than carrying small numbers of large high explosive bombs, it was more effective to use more small bombs, similarly incendiaries had to cover a large area to set effective fires. These training flights continued through August and into the first week of September. The attacks were widespread: over the night of 31st June alarms were set off in 20 counties by just 20 bombers, then next day the first daylight raids occurred during 1st July, on both Hull in Yorkshire and Wick, Caithness. On 3rd July most flights were reconnaissance sorties, but 15 civilians were killed when bombs hit Guildford in Surrey. Numerous small raids, both day and night, were made daily through August, September and into the winter, with aims including bringing RAF fighters up to battle, destruction of specific military and economic targets, and setting off air-raid warnings to affect civilian morale: four major air in August involved hundreds of bombers, in the same month 1,062 small raids were made, spread across the whole of Britain.
The main attack upon the RAF’s defences was code-named Adlerangriff (“Eagle Attack”). Intelligence reports gave Göring the impression that the RAF was almost defeated, and raids would attract British fighters for the Luftwaffe to shoot down. The strategy agreed on 6th August was to destroy RAF Fighter Command across the south of England in four days, then bombing of military and economic targets was to systematically extend up to the Midlands until daylight attacks could proceed unhindered over the whole of Britain, culminating in a major bombing attack on London. Poor weather delayed Adlertag (“Eagle Day”) until 13th August 1940. On 12th August, the first attempt was made to blind the Dowding system, when aircraft from the specialist fighter-bomber unit Erprobungsgruppe 210 attacked four radar stations. Three were briefly taken off the air but were back working within six hours.
Adlertag opened with a series of attacks, on coastal airfields used as forward landing grounds for the RAF fighters, as well as ‘satellite airfields’ including Manston and Hawkinge. As the week drew on, the airfield attacks moved further inland, and repeated raids were made on the radar chain. 15th August was “The Greatest Day” when the Luftwaffe mounted the largest number of sorties of the campaign. Luftflotte 5 attacked the north of England. Believing Fighter Command strength to be concentrated in the south, raiding forces from Denmark and Norway ran into unexpectedly strong resistance. Inadequately escorted by Bf 110s, bombers were shot down in large numbers. North East England was attacked by 65 Heinkel 111 escorted by 34 Messerschmitt Bf110 and RAF Great Driffield was attacked by 50 unescorted Junkers 88. Out of 115 bombers and 35 fighters sent, 16 bombers and 7 fighters were destroyed. As a result of these casualties, Luftflotte 5 did not appear in strength again in the campaign.
On the afternoon of 15th August, Hauptmann Walter Rubensdörffer mistakenly bombed Croydon airfield (on the outskirts of London) instead of the intended target, 501 Squadron base; RAF Kenley.
Göring ordered attacks on aircraft factories on 19th August 1940. Sixty raids on the night of 19/20th August targeted the aircraft industry and harbours, and bombs fell on suburban areas around London: Croydon and Wimbledon. Night raids were made on 21/22nd August on Aberdeen, Bristol and South Wales. That morning, bombs were dropped on Harrow and Wealdstone on the outskirts of London. Overnight on 22/23rd August, the output of an aircraft factory at Filton near Bristol was drastically affected by a raid in which Ju88 bombers released over 16 tons of high explosive bombs. On the night of 23/24th August over 200 bombers attacked the Fort Dunlop tyre factory in Birmingham, with a significant effect on production. A sustained bombing campaign began on 24th August with the largest raid so far, killing 100 in Portsmouth, and that night, several areas of London were bombed; the East End was set ablaze and bombs landed on central London. More night raids were made around London on 24/25th August, when bombs fell on Croydon, Banstead, Lewisham, Uxbridge, Harrow and Hayes. London was on ‘red alert’ over the night of 28/29th August, with bombs reported in Finchley, St Pancras, Wembley, Wood Green, Southgate, Old Kent Road, Mill Hill, Ilford, Chigwell and Hendon.
Attacks on airfields from 24 August: Göring’s directive issued on 23rd August 1940 ordered ceaseless attacks on the aircraft industry and on RAF ground organisation to force the RAF to use its fighters, continuing the tactic of luring them up to be destroyed, and added that focussed attacks were to be made on RAF airfields. From 24th August onwards, the battle was a fight between Kesselring’s Luftflotte 2 and Park’s 11 Group. The Luftwaffe concentrated all their strength on knocking out Fighter Command and made repeated attacks on the airfields. Of the 33 heavy attacks in the following two weeks, 24 were against airfields. The key sector stations were hit repeatedly: Biggin Hill and Hornchurch four times each; Debden and North Weald twice each. Croydon, Gravesend, Rochford, Hawkinge and Manston were also attacked in strength. Coastal Command’s Eastchurch was bombed at least seven times because it was believed to be a Fighter Command aerodrome.
To offset some losses, 58 Fleet Air Arm fighter pilot volunteers were seconded to RAF squadrons. Most replacements from Operational Training Units (OTUs) had as little as nine hours flying time and no gunnery or air-to-air combat training. At this point, the multinational nature of Fighter Command came to the fore. Many squadrons and personnel from the air forces of the Dominions were already attached to the RAF, including top level commanders – Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders, Rhodesians and South Africans. In addition, there were other nationalities represented, including Free French, Belgian and a Jewish pilot from the British mandate of Palestine. They were bolstered by the arrival of fresh Czechoslovak and Polish squadrons. These had been held back by Dowding, who mistakenly thought non-English speaking aircrew would have trouble working within his control system: Polish and Czech fliers proved to be especially effective. The pre-war Polish Air Force had lengthy and extensive training, and high standards; with Poland conquered and under brutal German occupation, the pilots of No. 303 (Polish) Squadron, the highest-scoring Allied unit. Josef František, a Czech regular airman who had flown from the occupation of his own country to join the Polish and then French air forces before arriving in Britain, flew as a guest of 303 Squadron and was ultimately credited with the highest “RAF score” in the Battle of Britain.
The RAF had the advantage of fighting over home territory. Pilots who bailed out of their downed aircraft could be back at their airfields within hours, while if low on fuel and/or ammunition they could be immediately rearmed. For Luftwaffe aircrews, a bailout over England meant capture – in the critical August period, almost exactly as many Luftwaffe pilots were taken prisoner as were killed – while parachuting into the English Channel often meant drowning or death from exposure. Morale began to suffer, and Kanalkrankheit (Channel sickness) – a form of combat fatigue – began to appear among the German pilots. Their replacement problem became even worse than the British.
On 7th September, a series of raids involving nearly four hundred bombers and more than six hundred fighters targeted docks in the East End of London, day and night. The RAF anticipated attacks on airfields and 11 Group rose to meet them, in greater numbers than the Luftwaffe expected. The first official deployment of 12 Group’s Leigh-Mallory’s Big Wing took twenty minutes to form up, missing its intended target.
The Luftwaffe began to abandon their morning raids, with attacks on London starting late in the afternoon for fifty-seven consecutive nights the Blitz. The most damaging aspect to the Luftwaffe of targeting London was the increase in range. The Bf 109E escorts had a limited fuel capacity resulting in only a 660 km (410 mile) maximum range solely on internal fuel, and when they arrived had only 10 minutes of flying time before turning for home, leaving the bombers undefended by fighter escorts. On 15th September (Battle of Britain Day) two waves of German attacks were decisively repulsed by the RAF by deploying every aircraft in 11 Group. Sixty German and 26 RAF aircraft were shot down. Two days after the German defeat Hitler postponed preparations for the invasion of Britain. Henceforth, in the face of mounting losses in men, aircraft and the lack of adequate replacements, the Luftwaffe completed their gradual shift from daylight bomber raids and continued with night bombing.
Throughout the battle, most Luftwaffe bombing raids had been at night. They increasingly suffered unsustainable losses in daylight raids, and the last significant daytime attacks were on 15th September. A raid of 70 bombers on 18th September also suffered and day raids were gradually phased out leaving the main attacks at night. Fighter command still lacked any successful way of intercepting night-time raiders, the night fighter force was mostly Blenheims and Beaufighters, and lacked airborne radar so had no way of finding the bombers. From mid September, Luftwaffe daylight bombing was gradually taken over by a Bf 109 fighters, adapted to take one 250 kg bomb. Small groups of fighter-bombers would carry out Störangriffe raids escorted by large escort formations of about 200 to 300 combat fighters. They flew at altitudes over 20,000 feet where the Bf109 had an advantage over RAF fighters. The raids disturbed civilians, and continued the war of attrition against Fighter Command. The raids were intended to carry out precision bombing on military or economic targets, but it was hard to achieve sufficient accuracy with the single bomb. Sometimes, when attacked, the fighter-bombers had to jettison the bomb to function as fighters. The RAF was at a disadvantage, and changed defensive tactics by introducing standing patrols of Spitfires at high altitude to monitor incoming raids.
A Junkers Ju 88 returning from a raid on London was shot down in Kent on 27th September resulting in the ‘Battle of Graveney Marsh’, the last action between British and foreign military forces on British mainland soil.
The Battle of Britain marked the first major defeat of Hitler’s military forces. Both sides in the Battle of Britain made exaggerated claims of numbers of enemy aircraft shot down. In general, claims were two to three times the actual numbers, because of the confusion of fighting in dynamic three-dimensional air battles. Postwar analysis of records has shown that between July and September, the RAF claimed 2,698 kills, while the Luftwaffe fighters claimed 3,198 RAF aircraft downed. Total losses, and start and end dates for recorded losses, vary for both sides. Luftwaffe losses from 10 July to 30 October 1940 total 1,652 aircraft, including 229 twin- and 533 single-engined fighters. In the same period, RAF Fighter Command aircraft losses number 1,087, including 53 twin-engined fighters. To the RAF figure should be added 376 Bomber Command and 148 Coastal Command aircraft conducting bombing, mining, and reconnaissance operations in defence of the country.
The British victory in the Battle of Britain was achieved at a heavy cost. Total British civilian losses from July to December 1940 were 23,002 dead and 32,138 wounded, with one of the largest single raids on 19 December 1940, in which almost 3,000 civilians died. Winston Churchill summed up the effect of the battle and the contribution of RAF Fighter Command, RAF Bomber Command, RAF Coastal Command and the Fleet Air Arm with the words, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”. Pilots who fought in the battle have been known as ‘The Few’ ever since; commemorated on 15th September, “Battle of Britain Day”. There are numerous memorials to the Battle of Britain; some just a small plaque that marks the spot of a fallen airman/aircraft but the most important ones are the Battle of Britain Monument in London and the Battle of Britain Memorial at Capel-le-Ferne in Kent. Westminster Abbey and St James’s Church in Paddington both have memorial windows to the battle, replacing windows that were destroyed during it.
At the end of the Battle, almost 1500 airmen from thirteen Countries had given their lives in defence of Britain. Here’s is a list, by Country, of those who fought and died during the official period of the Battle of Britain: July 10 – October 31, 1940.
1878 pilots from the United Kingdom – 448 Killed in Action
21 pilots from Australia – 14 Killed in Action
73 pilots from New Zealand – 11 Killed in Action
88 pilots from Canada – 20 Killed in Action
21 pilots from South Africa – 9 Killed in Action
2 pilots from South Rhodesia – 0 Killed in Action
8 pilots from Ireland – 0 Killed in Action
7 pilots from the United States – 1 Killed in Action
141 pilots from Poland – 29 Killed in Action
86 pilots from Czechoslovakia – 8 Killed in Action
26 pilots from Belgium – 6 Killed in Action
13 pilots from France – 0 Killed in Action
1 pilot from Israel – 0 Killed in Action
German Losses During the Battle of Britain
Bomber Crews: 2621
Fighter-Bomber Crews: 297
Fighter Pilots: 171