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World War II: The Battle of Britain

(July - October, 1940)

On June 18, 1940, Winston Churchill told the House of Commons, “The Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin.” The night before British bombers had attacked German factories in the Ruhr. As Churchill expected, it would soon be England’s turn to learn about terror from the skies.

Hitler wanted to invade Britain and had the forces to subdue it as he had Germany’s other victims, if he could get his troops across the Channel. Germany had no amphibious landing craft or any of the components the Allies would later use for their own crossing; nevertheless, Hitler believed Britain could be conquered if the RAF (Royal Air Force) was destroyed, or at least neutralized. Starting in early July, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göering, ordered the Luftwaffe to begin the bombing campaign. The attacks intensified after the Germans established bases in France and the Low Countries. For nearly five months, the Luftwaffe bombed ports, shipping, airfields, factories, and cities.

A soldier spotting planes near St. Paul’s Cathedral

British intelligence greatly overestimated the strength of the German air force until deciphering the Luftwaffe’s messages. Still, the true size of the force was about 1,300 bombers, more than double the number of fighters available to the RAF, and 900 fighters. As the Americans would do when they entered the war, the British people were asked to contribute whatever scraps of aluminum they had to be turned into aircraft. Britain’s economy then went into overdrive to produce all the materials needed for war. Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, also made the critical decision to keep fighters in reserve rather than send them to France as Churchill had wanted (an example of independence that factored in Churchill's later decision to sack Dowding).

Hitler’s strategic plan to attack Britain, code-named “Sea Lion,” met with what was turning out to be typical reluctance from his generals. The military men did not believe they had the naval forces necessary to mount a land campaign (and were correct). Generals Erich Raeder and Göering, representing the navy and the air force, were even more dismayed by Hitler’s expressed intention (with the support of the army generals) to fight the Soviets and create the very two-front war that Hitler himself viewed as a cause of Germany’s downfall in the last war. Even before the failure of the air war was obvious, however, Hitler postponed the invasion of Britain.

The RAF was inflicting such heavy losses on the Luftwaffe that Hitler decided to switch tactics in September; ordering a reduction in the number of daylight raids and the initiation of nighttime raids, which were more terrifying for the civilians being bombed, but less accurate and effective militarily. This was the beginning of what became known as the The Blitz, a campaign of intense bombing of London and other cities.

The Blitz, which continued until May 1941, consisted of more than 70 attacks during which the Germans dropped more than 35,000 tons of bombs. London was attacked for 57 consecutive days and terrified residents were forced to sleep in shelters; some retreated to the underground subway stations. Nearly half a million children were sent for safekeeping to homes outside London. The danger was real. In just one week in mid-October, for example, more than 1,300 Londoners were killed in German attacks. When the raids on London began, the concentrations of German bombers became easier targets. The Blitz weakened the Luftwaffe as its forces became more thinly spread and it lost 650 aircraft.

Despite the RAF’s disadvantage in numbers, it had the tactical advantage, attacking the German fighters and bombers before they could reach England’s shores or driving them back once they reached British air space. In addition, RAF planes that were damaged could often land safely, and pilots could parachute onto their home turf and rejoin their units. A downed German pilot, however, was lost to Germany and a damaged aircraft was unlikely to make it home. The Germans also diluted the effectiveness of the air campaign by attacking too many different targets across a large area.

Though Hitler would continue to attack Britain for another seven months, the Battle of Britain was essentially over by the end of October. The Luftwaffe lost a total of 1,733 aircraft during the campaign, the RAF 915. The German air force was severely degraded, particularly in the loss of pilots, which undoubtedly affected later air campaigns against the Russians and other Allied forces. Most important, the British had staved off an invasion. The magnitude of the sacrifice and the threat that had been repulsed prompted Churchill to declare: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

Sources: Mitchell G. Bard, The Complete Idiot's Guide to World War II, 2nd Edition, (NY: Alpha Books, 2004).

Photos: Bombers - Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Spotter – NARA Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.