Battle of Britain Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Germany launched an aerial attack on Great Britain in an attempt to clear the way for a land invasion. The Royal Air Force, however, successfully defended the island, and the Germans were forced to postpone the invasion of Britain and to turn instead toward the Soviet Union.

Summary of Event

With the German conquests of the Low Countries and France completed by June of 1940, Britain stood alone in Western Europe to confront Adolf Hitler’s forces. Winston Churchill spoke to his countrymen: “Hitler knows he will have to break us on this island or lose the war.” British military leaders assumed that a German invasion of Britain from across the English Channel was likely to begin in the near future. [kw]Battle of Britain (July 10-Oct. 31, 1940) [kw]Britain, Battle of (July 10-Oct. 31, 1940) Britain, Battle of (1940) World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Battle of Britain[Britain] [g]England;July 10-Oct. 31, 1940: Battle of Britain[10250] [g]Germany;July 10-Oct. 31, 1940: Battle of Britain[10250] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;July 10-Oct. 31, 1940: Battle of Britain[10250] [c]World War II;July 10-Oct. 31, 1940: Battle of Britain[10250] [c]Military history;July 10-Oct. 31, 1940: Battle of Britain[10250] Alanbrooke, First Viscount Churchill, Winston [p]Churchill, Winston;Battle of Britain Dowding, Hugh Göring, Hermann Kesselring, Albert Park, Keith Raeder, Erich Sperrle, Hugo

Although the British Royal Navy controlled the seas immediately around Britain, its forces were strained by the need to protect the Atlantic supply routes used by American supply ships against German U-boat attacks. Some fifty-five army divisions could be mustered to defend the island, but many of those divisions were only at half strength. Prospects of defending against a German ground attack were further complicated by the fact that British forces fleeing Dunkirk earlier in June were forced to abandon most of their supplies while retreating from German forces.

An army general observed at the time that the defense of Britain would fall primarily on the Royal Air Force (RAF), particularly on the Fighter Command planes. Since 1936, Sir Hugh Dowding, head of the Fighter Command, had tried to convince the cabinet and the Air Council that, in the next war, Britain would be on the defensive. For that reason, priority in aircraft planning and production should be given to a buildup of fighter plane strength, not bombers as the Air Council wanted. Dowding also stressed the need for improved detection and early warning of enemy aircraft. Over much opposition and after much delay, Dowding’s warnings persuaded the Air Council to alter its contingency plans. In 1939, the Air Council ordered stepped-up production of more fighters, as well as the construction of an early warning system.

British designers developed two types of improved fighter planes: the Hurricane and the Spitfire. Both flew at maximum speeds of three hundred miles per hour (fast for the time), had heavy armor, constant speed propellers, self-sealing fuel tanks, and eight machine guns. The innovative design of these planes had a major impact on the course of Britain’s air battle with the German Luftwaffe (air force).

During 1937, British physicists had worked on aircraft detection by means of radio wave signals, and what would later be known as radar was quickly developed. Work began on building a linked system of radar stations, ground observation units, and Fighter Command sector control bases that would enable the Fighter Command to anticipate and intercept enemy bombers. Hundreds of barrage balloons and antiaircraft artillery added to the British defensive shield.

Since the German invasion of France, Hitler had sought to persuade the British to negotiate a settlement and end the fighting between their nations. His peace overtures were rejected out of hand by Churchill. Although he believed the mission “technically unfeasible,” Hitler approved Operation Sea Lion, Operation Sea Lion the military plan for the German invasion of England, in July of 1940. The invasion was tentatively set to begin on September 21, some two months later. Ninety thousand German troops would make up the initial assault force, building to ten divisions within two weeks. Preparations for Operation Sea Lion went forward rapidly. More than twelve hundred boats and barges were assembled at French ports across the Channel from England. Troops were trained in landing procedures, and bases were built for the aircraft that were to provide air cover during the landing. A central element in the plan was to neutralize Britain’s air force before German troops crossed the English Channel.

Serious disagreements then arose between the German naval and army high commands as to whether the landings should be made along a broad front in southern and eastern England as the army wanted, or on a more concentrated front in Kent and Sussex. Admiral Erich Raeder insisted that his ships could not assure protection of the assault forces over the broad front, and the generals feared that the narrow front would enable the British to place their full force in one locality and so more effectively contest the invasion. Raeder finally won his point, and the narrow front plan was adopted; but the delay had further shortened the time margin for implementation. Logistic revisions had to be made with dangerous haste to get Operation Sea Lion under way before autumn storms closed the Channel.

Across the Channel, British ground and air defense preparations were also proceeding. Under General Sir Alan Francis Brooke, the Home Guard was increased to five hundred thousand men; mobile field guns, antitank weapons, and small arms were provided in ever larger amounts; more than two million bomb shelters were built and distributed; and plans to resist German landings from the sea or by parachutes from the air were developed.

It was increasingly apparent to both sides that control of the air over southern England would be the critical factor in determining the success or failure of a German invasion. The Luftwaffe’s commander in chief, Hermann Göring, had no doubt that his pilots could gain that control. Indeed, he believed that his bombers would so pulverize British defenses within a month’s time that they would have to surrender, and a cross-Channel invasion would be unnecessary. Göring had cause for optimism. With more than thirteen hundred bombers and twelve hundred fighter planes, the Luftwaffe in Western Europe greatly overmatched the Royal Air Force. The Luftwaffe squadrons were organized into three air groups (Luftflotten); of these, the latest was Luftflotte 2, commanded by Albert Kesselring, and Luftflotte 3, commanded by Hugo Sperrle. The air groups were stationed in France and the Netherlands, from whence they would spearhead the German air offensive.

To confront the German air power, Dowding’s Fighter Command had only about 700 front line fighter aircraft, with another 350 in reserve. They were, of necessity, deployed all over the island. Even the heaviest concentration of fighter planes—those in Park’s Number 11 Group in the southeast—would probably be outnumbered by as much as ten to one by the attacking German planes. Dowding’s most serious shortage, however, was of men to fly the planes. There were only a few more than fourteen hundred fully trained fighter pilots and almost no reserves available to replace them if they were disabled or killed.

Assigning precise beginning and ending dates to the Battle of Britain is a somewhat arbitrary proposition: There were German attacks on the British Isles before the “battle” is thought to have begun, and the fighting continued for quite a while after the most intense phase—which defines the battle proper—ended. Indeed, the Battle of Britain was followed immediately by what is known as the Blitz, Blitz (1940-1941) a period of German bombing of English cities that lasted until May of 1941. Most historians place the decisive period of the battle between July 10 and October 31, 1940. The fighting during that period consisted of a number of bomber attacks and fighter plane encounters, increasing in size and intensity. During July and into early August, the Luftwaffe carried out intermittent strikes, mostly on British shipping in the Channel and on the port of Dover. Some 150 civilians were killed and twenty ships were sunk in these strikes, but dozens of Luftwaffe planes were downed by RAF fighters and antiaircraft fire. On August 1, Hitler ordered the Luftwaffe to destroy the Royal Air Force and establish air superiority. “The German air force is to overcome the British air force with all means at its disposal, and as soon as possible,” Hitler ordered.

The next phase of the German air offensive was directed at the radar stations and airfields in the southeastern counties of England. British losses of men and machine were heavy, and the prospects of clearing the area for the Sea Lion landings were enhanced. The airfields were quickly repaired, radar stations were rebuilt, and the Fighter Command was able to complete most of its operations by mid-August. As a result of the energetic efforts of Lord Beaverbrook, the minister of aircraft production, Britain more than made up its losses in fighter aircraft. The pilot shortage was partly rectified through increased graduation from training schools, the retraining of bomber pilots, and shifting pilots from other branches of the military, as well as recruitment of foreign pilots then in Britain.

Meanwhile, Göring had been planning Operation Eagle, a massive saturation bombing of Britain’s southern ports and airfields. Operation Eagle had to be postponed several times in early August because of bad weather. Then on August 13, designated “eagle day” by the German Command, British radar stations picked up signals of very large formations of approaching aircraft: Operation Eagle had begun. The German attackers came in several waves, and Park’s fighters rose to meet them. Some of the German bombers penetrated British defenses and did further damage, but the Hurricanes and Spitfires shot down forty-seven of the enemy planes at the cost of thirteen British craft.

Bad flying weather returned, causing a two-day suspension of the operation. By August 15, favorable weather prompted Göring to order a renewal of the bombings. He declared that the objective was to obliterate the Royal Air Force planes and facilities. On that day, and into August 16, four successive waves came across the Channel and across the North Sea from bases in Norway. Luftflotte 2 and Luftflotte 3 bombers eluded Park’s fighters and the antiaircraft guns in sufficient numbers to destroy four aircraft factories and five airfields around London. The bombers from Norway had been sent with insufficient fighter escort and they were brought down in large numbers. In those two days, the Luftwaffe had seventy-six planes shot down, the worst damage in a short period the German air force would ever suffer.

In all, between August 8 and August 26, the British fighters destroyed 602 German aircraft—mostly bombers, especially the Stuka dive bombers, which proved very vulnerable to British defenses. In that same period, 259 British fighters were shot down during these daylight raids. Under intense bombardment, Britain refused to yield to German air power. Churchill praised the efforts of the Royal Air Force and the British military in his famous speech to the House of Commons on August 20, 1940. “Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few,” Churchill observed.

Despite the growing German losses, the Luftwaffe attacks intensified. Göring was convinced that, weather permitting, Britain could be brought to its knees in approximately two weeks. During the last week of August and the first week of September, 1940, there were more than thirty major attacks averaging more than one thousand planes per raid. Most of the bombs were directed at the airfields and sector stations of Number 11 Group. Vice Marshal Park admitted that the damage was extensive and that the fighting efficiency of his command was being seriously impaired. Dowding saw the mounting loss of fighter pilots as critical: In those two weeks, 103 RAF pilots were killed or declared missing. By September 6, the Fighter Command (and therefore all of Britain) appeared on the verge of defeat. Across the Channel, Operation Sea Lion preparations were stepped up with the news of the Luftwaffe successes.

Then, in early September, Göring made a serious tactical error. He ordered the Luftwaffe to shift its attacks from RAF facilities toward massive attacks on London and other population centers. Göring had received intelligence reports that the Fighter Command had been neutralized and no longer had sufficient strength to defend against German bombers. Those reports were wrong, as the events of the following week would illustrate. If Göring had pursued his objective of destroying the Fighter Command, Germany might have won the Battle of Britain.

On September 7, the British government sent out the code signal “Cromwell,” signifying that the expected invasion was now at hand. On that same day, nearly two hundred German bombers hit East London, killing more than three hundred civilians and inflicting extensive damage to houses, docks, and warehouses. That night, another 250 bombers, guided by the light of the extensive fires, did more damage to the British capital. Park sent up his fighters to intercept. In the air battles that ensued, another thirty-eight German planes were shot down, as were twenty-eight British aircraft. Most important, Park had demonstrated that the Fighter Command was still functioning and lethal. London was again bombed on September 9, but with less effect than on September 7, because only about half of the attacking planes were able to penetrate and attack their targets. As the attacks continued, nearly one thousand civilians per week were dying in raids on London. Churchill, fearing any show of weakness, ordered the Royal Navy and the RAF Bomber Command to attack French port facilities that could be used by Germany in a cross-Channel invasion. It was increasingly obvious that the Germans did not yet control the Channel or the air space over England. Faced with that knowledge, Hitler postponed Operation Sea Lion to the spring of 1941.

What proved to be Göring’s last major effort to clear the way for the invasion came on September 15, 1940. He threw everything he had into the day’s fighting. Some 123 bombers with 5 fighter escorts each went out from the continental bases. Park’s squadrons, reinforced by planes from other British air groups, went to meet the Luftwaffe. The air battle began about noon and lasted until late in the evening. When the day ended, sixty German planes had been destroyed, with British losses of only twenty-six aircraft. September 15, 1940, would later be identified by many as the turning point in the Battle of Britain. “We still keep this day, and I hope we will always keep it,” Harold Macmillan would write, “in commemoration of our victory.”

Significance

German air attacks on England would continue for the better part of a year, as the Battle of Britain evolved into the Blitz sometime around October 31. In many ways, however, British victory was achieved on September 15. Two days afterward, realizing that the Luftwaffe could not gain air supremacy and that it was too late for weather favorable to further attacks, Hitler ordered the indefinite postponement of Operation Sea Lion. His interest turned eastward instead, and German plans for the invasion of Russia (Operation Barbarossa) began. Britain would still have to endure repeated pounding by German bombers in the Blitz, but in the summer of 1940, the “gallant few” of the RAF Command had saved Britain from invasion. Adding up the final cost, more than forty thousand British civilians were killed. In addition, more than forty-six thousand were injured and more than one million homes were destroyed. Six to seven hundred British military aircraft had been destroyed, as against some fourteen hundred German aircraft of all types.

In addition to preserving England from invasion, occupation, and defeat, the Battle of Britain was a turning point in American perception of the war. It demonstrated that Britain was capable of resisting the Nazis’ aggression—something that no other country had yet accomplished and that many Americans thought beyond British power. Moreover, the radio broadcasts of Edward R. Murrow from the rooftops of London during the battle—with the sound of bombs falling all around him—brought the stakes of the conflict home to Americans by bringing the visceral experience of enduring a Nazi bombing attack into their living rooms. It weakened somewhat—albeit only somewhat—the isolationist mood of the nation, and it ensured that most would see the British as allies and the Germans as enemies. Britain, Battle of (1940) World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Battle of Britain[Britain]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bickers, Richard Townsend, ed. The Battle of Britain: The Greatest Battle in the History of Air Warfare. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1990. A detailed examination of the Battle of Britain written by a former RAF pilot and British military historian. Contains photographs, detailed information on military aircraft, day-to-day analysis of the air battles, index, and chapter on “RAF Heroes” killed during the Battle of Britain.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fisher, David E. A Summer Bright and Terrible: Winston Churchill, Lord Dowding, Radar, and the Impossible Triumph of the Battle of Britain. Washington, D.C.: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2005. History of the Battle of Britain, focusing on the importance of Churchill’s moral leadership and Dowding’s military strategy to the British victory. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Franks, Norman. Battle of Britain. New York: Gallery Books, 1990. A useful general introduction to the Battle of Britain by a British aviation writer. Includes photographs, appendix, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gilbert, Martin. “France’s Agony, Britain’s Resolve” and “The Battle for Britain.” In The Second World War: A Complete History. New York: Henry Holt, 1989. In this widely acclaimed book, the official biographer of Winston Churchill provides a valuable history of German strategy and the defiance of the British people.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hough, Richard, and Denis Richards. The Battle of Britain: The Greatest Air Battle of World War II. New York: W. W. Norton, 1989. Richards, the coauthor of the official history of the Royal Air Force, and Hough, a former RAF pilot, draw heavily on official sources in this detailed military history. Includes photographs, illustrations, maps, detailed appendix, index, and day-to-day chronology of the fighting.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robinson, Derek. Invasion, 1940: The Truth About the Battle of Britain and What Stopped Hitler. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2005. A reconsideration of the role of the RAF in preserving Britain from invasion: Emphasizes the weather and the ability of the Royal Navy to protect the island by staging night attacks on German ships in the Channel. Bibliographic references and index.

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German Troops March into the Rhineland

The Anschluss

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Germany Invades Poland

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Germany Invades Norway

Collapse of France

Evacuation of Dunkirk

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