The Battle of Britain was an aerial battle which took place during the Second World War. The British Royal Air Force (RAF) defended the island of Great Britain from the Luftwaffe, the German Air Force.
Immediately after Dunkerque, the UK foreign secretary Anthony Eden and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir John Dill, held a secret meeting in a hotel room in York. Superior officers of military formations billeted in northern England also participated. England’s future strategy was discussed, together with the possibility of a land invasion by the Germans.
Germany’s main objective, during this battle, was to force Great Britain to enter into peace talks to escape the constant Luftwaffe air attacks. From the moment he came to power, Hitler had expressed his admiration of Great Britain. However, he was aware that, after his invasion of Poland, an alliance with England was no longer possible. After the defeat of France, Hitler believed he could force England to sign a separate peace agreement, leaving Germany to direct its attention towards the Soviet Union.
In the complicated maelstrom which was Adolf Hitler’s political philosophy, hate for Great Britain could hardly be noticed. This was true at least until the British acted so ‘illogically’ as to refuse his peace offer. This offer was literally thrown over the country, as a manifesto called: ‘A last appeal to reason’. Nothing in the national-socialist canon foresaw a war against the comrades of the Reich, the Anglo-Saxon Empire. The references to the British in Mein Kampf were, for the most part, very flattering.
An indication of the level of improvisation in Nazi plans for the subjugation of Great Britain is furnished by the Sonderfahndungsliste G.B. This was the Special Search List Great Britain. It was drawn up by Walter Schellenberg, head of foreign intelligence in the Reich’s Direction of Security, Reichssicherheitshauptamt, The Reich Main Security Office or RSHA. This document, known as the ‘Black Book’, contained the names of 2,820 British and exiled Europeans who would be ‘placed into custody’ after the invasion. However, the Black Book was full of mistakes.
During this battle, the Luftwaffe met a much stronger opponent than it had until then. The RAF was a well-equipped, well-coordinated, populous and modern force.
Due to losses during the campaigns in France and Norway, Britain had fewer experienced pilots to defend the country. On the other side, the Luftwaffe had many experienced fighter pilots. Foreign pilots flew for both sides.
The indecision of German leaders concerning objectives during the battle was also reflected in the Luftwaffe’s strategy, which was continually changing. The Luftwaffe’s doctrine of supporting the ground troops’ blitzkrieg had been successful in Poland, Denmark, Norway, Benelux and France, but with great losses. The Luftwaffe had to reinstate air bases in the conquered territories and rebuild its forces.
Although the British didn’t know it due to the chaos of war, the Luftwaffe suffered heavy losses in Holland. During the fighting there, the Germans lost 525 airplanes in only four days, due to the strong anti-aircraft fire of the Dutch. This was another factor which contributed to the cancelling of Operation Sea Lion. The Germans no longer had enough transport planes to load the paratroopers.
The standard German formation was made up of two airplanes and was nicknamed ‘Rotte’ or ‘Pack’. The leader of the formation was called ‘Rottenführer’ and was accompanied by a colleague called ‘Rottenhund’, who was trained to fly a little higher and to always stay with his leader.
The Germans were at a disadvantage during the battle, since they had no way of obtaining correct information about the British defence capacity. The German spy services had been fractured and riddled with internal rivalry. At the beginning of the campaign there were only a few German agents in Great Britain. The few attempts made to introduce new spies into the country were stopped by the British.
The Luftwaffe was much better prepared than the RAF for rescue operations of pilots forced to land on water. For this purpose, a special branch was created in the Luftwaffe called Seenotdienst, which was the first service of its type in the world.
Before the beginning of the war, the British built a series of radars along the coast of Great Britain. This system had the codename ‘Chain Home’. The problem with this system was that the information detected by radars and observers on the ground took a long time to get to the British planes. In consequence, they missed the ‘bandits’, the enemy aircraft. The solution was the Dowding system. This system created a telephone ‘chain’ between the British observation posts. Thus, communication between them was more efficient, with pilots also receiving necessary information much faster.
At the end of the ‘30s, the British were only expecting to confront bomber planes over the territory of Great Britain. As a consequence, accent was placed in pilot training on taking out enemy bombers. British pilots flew in groups of three, in a V formation. Four of these formations were grouped together, with only the squadron leader able to look out for enemy planes. The British commanders realized how weak this tactic was at the beginning of the battle. However, it would have been too risky to change tactic during battle. The new pilots could not be retrained.
During the battle, British bombers carried out missions especially over France and Germany. They attacked ports, supply routes, Luftwaffe airports, and also targets of the German aeronautic industry. When the threat of an attack by land appeared imminent, the British began bombing German transport ships. This contributed to the cancellation of Operation Sea Lion. This type of mission was especially successful in France, because the Germans only managed to install a few radars to detect enemy planes.
While German espionage tended to underestimate the force of the enemy, British espionage overestimated the capabilities of the Luftwaffe. The British had an advantage in the information battle, due to the fact that the Germans used the Enigma machine to transmit secret messages. This cryptographic machine became famous because the Allies managed to decipher the code used to send messages.
The RAF’s main problem in saving pilots who ejected over the sea was the lack of a specialized service for this type of operation. Before the beginning of the battle, the British began organizing a system of rapid response based on amphibious aircraft. Even so, this system did not cover the English Channel. It was considered that the traffic in that region was not sufficient to merit it. The British hoped that downed pilots would be saved by British ships in the Channel. If this was not possible, and if the pilot’s position was known, then a rescue operation could be launched.
The battle progressed in several stages. During the first part of the battle, probe attacks took place. Attacks followed along the English Channel, but also on important ports and airports on the coast. This was followed by the main assault, with attempts to destroy the RAF in southern England. The Luftwaffe began bombing ports and industrial cities. The fourth stage was the Blitz, when London was under constant attack. The last stage of the battle consisted of large-scale night-time attacks, especially against London. During the daytime, the attacks consisted of small-scale raids by German fighter planes.
The first stage of the battle began with the systematic bombing of the British commercial fleet and port facilities. Thus, from the beginning, the lack of coordination in German plans can be seen. Many times, the Luftwaffe bombed ports and aerodromes which the Wehrmacht would need in case of a landing. Hitler gave Directive no. 16, which ordered: “The English Air Force must be so reduced morally and physically that it is unable to deliver any significant attack against the German crossing.” According to the plan made by Alfred Jodl, 20 divisions would land between Ramsgate and Lyme Regis.
The Fuhrer’s 17th directive ordered an intensified air attack to begin very soon. In this war, “The German Air Force is to overpower the English Air Force with all the forces at its command, in the shortest possible time. The attacks are to be directed primarily against flying units, their ground installations, and their supply organisations, but also against the aircraft industry, including that manufacturing antiaircraft equipment.”
On Adlertag Day, the Day of the Vulture, the Luftwaffe launched an attack against Britain, made up of 1,485 flights. However, 46 German planes were shot down, compared with only 13 RAF planes. On the next day, 27 Luftwaffe planes fell, compared to 11 RAF planes. These figures do not include German bombers which returned to base too damaged to be repaired, or with crew members dead or injured. An obvious advantage of the RAF was that the pilots who survived a crash often returned to the sky on the same day. In contrast, German pilots ended up in British captivity.
The fourth stage of the battle began with a massive raid on the London docks. 300 tons of bombs were launched by 350 bombers, protected by 350 fighter planes. “Send all the pumps you can” one firefighter sent a message to the central command station, “the whole bloody world’s on fire!” Being late summer, the level of the Thames was low. As a result, the water was harder to pump. Kerosene, sugar and rum, which spilled from the destroyed warehouses, set the river alight. It’s estimated that the fire of that day caused more damage than the Great Fire of London in 1666.
So that Great Britain would not give in under the pressure, pain and terror caused by the night bombings, the nation’s morale became a vital factor. British institutions tried to raise national morale by a subtle use of public information. British themes acknowledged vulnerability, which was in complete contradiction with Nazi self-perception.
The Battle of Britain reached its highest intensity on the 15th of September 1940. It was a Sunday. It started with a huge raid on London, with 100 bombers and 400 fighter planes. The action ended with 56 German airplanes shot down, compared with only 26 RAF planes. After the 15th of September, celebrated today as the Battle of Britain Day, the Luftwaffe morale collapsed.
The last daytime raid on London took place on the last day of September. After this, there were still big night-time raids. The last day of October was the first day in which neither side lost planes. This time, the Battle for Britain could be declared, without hesitation, as being over. Four nights later, for the first time since July, no sirens sounded. Great Britain was safe.
Churchill was aware that the Home Front must become much more efficient if Great Britain were to be saved. The government imposed radical changes on British society. These changes were generally accepted in the spirit created by the national alert. Chamberlain’s government created the necessary legal framework: compulsory military service was introduced, and the Emergency Powers Defence Act gave the government generalized powers.
Traditionally, truth is the first victim to fall to war, and wise administration of finances is the second. The British economy was led towards bankruptcy by the huge expenses involved in the conflict. Churchill was determined that all expenses needed by national defence must be made. This, in spite of repeated warnings by his finance ministers, Sir Kingsley Wood and Sir John Anderson. By the end of the war, Great Britain had racked up an immense foreign debt. The economy crashed. The British had to obtain a loan from the Americans.
The end of the battle was Germany’s first major defeat. Germany was not able to force Great Britain to sign a separate peace deal.