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Battle of Britain Week – Overview: So Much Owed

Photo: A practice 'scramble', March 1939. (Key Collection)


We shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be

As Prime Minister Winston Churchill delivered his speech to the House of Commons on 4 June 1940, his intention was to steel the nation’s resolve for resistance. He warned of the perils to come, and of the tyranny and subjugation that would befall British people in the event of defeat.

At the time, Britain stood on a dangerous precipice. German forces had relentlessly assaulted mainland Europe, using superior tactics to defeat all opposition. The sense of unease in Britain can be easily imagined – Germany had achieved in a matter of months what it had failed to accomplish in four years of bloody warfare in the previous conflict.

A relatively small band of RAF pilots and aircraft was all that stood between Hitler’s Fatherland and victory in Europe. This collective, comprising airmen from Britain and several other nations, was so small that Churchill famously called them The Few.

Six Hurricane Is of 73 Squadron pictured shortly before the Battle of Britain. (Key Collection)

Conflict over Britain

Germany needed to neutralise or at least severely weaken Britain’s air defences if it was mount any kind of seaborne invasion. Given the success of the Luftwaffe in preceding months, this did not seem an unrealistic aspiration. Buoyed by his previous triumphs, Luftwaffe leader Hermann Göring offered fanciful estimates on exactly how easy it would be.

The aim for the RAF was to avoid defeat, maintaining air power over Britain, and therefore making an invasion significantly less likely. In the event, the RAF (and Fighter Command, in particular), its leadership, and the essential role played by radar, all contributed to the final victory.

The Luftwaffe began its campaign in the summer, targeting radar stations and coastal defences, and also striking airfields, hoping to destroy RAF units on the ground. However, although its Junkers Ju 87 dive-bombers had been effective elsewhere, they proved slow and vulnerable when attacked by intercepting fighters. Although many of Britain’s airfields were hit and significantly damaged, the RAF’s tactic of rotating squadrons from base to base was vindicated.

When the Luftwaffe began to switch its attention to bombing British cities and centres of industry, the RAF was given vital breathing space, a chance to regroup and refresh. Though heavily outnumbered, its combination of Hurricane and Spitfire fighters, proved equal to the task.

No 85 Squadron Hurricanes led by Squadron Leader Peter Townsend, on 5 October 1940. (Key Collection)

Though Hurricanes were more numerous and could absorb more damage, it was the Spitfire that (perhaps unfairly) came to represent the public’s perception of British resistance in 1940. In fact, the battle might well have been lost without either fighter, the Hurricanes being put to effective use against German bombers, while Spitfires, being faster and more manoeuvrable, ‘hunted’ for escorting fighters.

The Hurricane was certainly more robust than its Supermarine counterpart, was easier to land and was a particularly stable gun platform. The type accounted for the majority of RAF ‘kills’ during the campaign. Both machines were capable of dealing with the Luftwaffe’s slower, twin-engined Messerschmitt Bf 110, though the latter had immense firepower if it could be brought to bear.

Neither British fighter could match the single-engined Bf 109E in the dive, or could pack quite such a fearsome punch from their guns, but the main impediment to German pilots was their mount’s poor range. They could only operate over Britain for relatively short periods before needing to refuel, and if required to engage in twisting dogfights, that time would be shorter still.

Tactical victory

Expertly managed by Hugh Dowding and Keith Park, the latter in control of 11 Group covering the southeast of the country, Fighter Command strove to fend off enemy raids with relatively small numbers of defending aircraft. Thanks to radar, the RAF’s pilots generally received enough warning of incoming raids to be in the right place at the right time.

Others, including 12 Group leader Trafford Leigh-Mallory, favoured a larger show of force. They devised a so-called Big Wing comprising many aircraft in order to deal the Luftwaffe a knockout blow. In practice, the Big Wing took too long to form up, was hard to control, and being the opposite of the rapid, tactical reactions favoured by Dowding and Park, it proved unpopular with Fighter Command’s leaders.

A gun camera image records the demise of a Messerschmitt Bf 110 as an RAF fighter hits its mark during the Battle of Britain. (Key Collection)

However, on the few occasions that it was used in anger, such as on September 15, 1940, it had a demoralising effect on the enemy, who had been assured that RAF strength had been vastly diminished.

While Fighter Command bore the brunt of the action, Bomber Command, Coastal Command and the Fleet Air Arm continued to play their roles, and Bristol Blenheim units raided German occupied airfields throughout July to December 1940, both during daylight hours and at night.

Between July 10 and October 31, around 550 RAF airmen had lost their lives in the conflict, compared with almost 2,700 Germans. Around a thousand Luftwaffe personnel were taken prisoner. The failure of the Luftwaffe to eliminate the RAF caused Hitler to indefinitely postpone his plan for an invasion. Through shrewd tactics, the strategic use of radar and communications, and of course the bravery of The Few, the RAF – and Britain – survived.

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