VITE History Channel. Part 6. The Battle of Britain
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In the summer and fall of 1940, German and British air forces clashed in the skies over the United Kingdom, locked in the largest sustained bombing campaign to that date. A significant turning point of World War II, the Battle of Britain ended when Germany’s Luftwaffe failed to gain air superiority over the Royal Air Force despite months of targeting Britain’s air bases, military posts and, ultimately, its civilian population. Britain’s decisive victory saved the country from a ground invasion and possible occupation by German forces while proving that air power alone could be used to win a major battle.
On June 17, 1940, the defeated French signed an armistice and quit World War II. Britain now stood alone against the power of Germany’s military forces, which had conquered most of Western Europe in less than two months. But Prime Minister Winston Churchill rallied his stubborn people and outmaneuvered those politicians who wanted to negotiate with Adolf Hitler. But Britain’s success in continuing the war would very much depend on the RAF Fighter Command’s ability to thwart the Luftwaffe’s efforts to gain air superiority. This then would be the first all-air battle in history.
The battle received its name from a speech Winston Churchill delivered to the British House of Commons on June 18, 1940, in which he stated "The Battle of France is over. I expect the Battle of Britain is about to begin."
In fact, Britain’s situation was more favorable than most of the world recognized at the time. Britain possessed an effective air defense system, first-rate fighter pilots, and a great military leader in Air Marshal Hugh Dowding. On the other hand, the Germans had major problems: they had no navy left after the costly conquest of Norway, their army was unprepared for any form of amphibious operations, and the Luftwaffe had suffered heavy losses in the west (the first two factors made a seaborne attack on the British Isles impossible from the first).
Even more serious, the Germans had poor intelligence and little idea of British vulnerabilities. They wasted most of July in waiting for a British surrender and attacked only in August. Although air strikes did substantial damage to radar sites, on August 13–15 the Luftwaffe soon abandoned that avenue and turned to attacks on RAF air bases. A battle of attrition ensued in which both sides suffered heavy losses (an average loss of 21 percent of the RAF’s fighter pilots and 16 percent of the Luftwaffe’s fighter pilots each month during July, August, and September).
For a time the advantage seemed to swing slightly in favor of the Germans, but a combination of bad intelligence and British attacks on Berlin led the Luftwaffe to change its operational approach to massive attacks on London. The first attack on London on September 7 was quite successful; the second, on September 15, failed not only with heavy losses, but also with a collapse of morale among German bomber crews when British fighters appeared in large numbers and shot down many of the Germans. As a result, Hitler permanently postponed a landing on the British Isles and suspended the Battle of Britain.
Phases of the battle
RAF and Luftwaffe bases, group and Luftflotte boundaries, and range of Luftwaffe Bf 109 fighters. Southern part of British radar coverage: radar in North of Scotland not shown
The battle covered a shifting geographical area, and there have been differing opinions on significant dates: when the Air Ministry proposed 8 August as the start, Dowding responded that operations "merged into one another almost insensibly", and proposed 10 July as the onset of increased attacks. With the caution that phases drifted into each other and dates are not firm, the Royal Air Force Museum states that five main phases can be identified:
26 June – 16 July: Störangriffe ("nuisance raids"), scattered small scale probing attacks both day and night, armed reconnaissance and mine-laying sorties. From 4 July, daylight Kanalkampf ("the Channel battles") against shipping.
17 July – 12 August: daylight Kanalkampf attacks on shipping intensify through this period, increased attacks on ports and coastal airfields, night raids on RAF and aircraft manufacturing.
13 August – 6 September: Adlerangriff ("Eagle Attack"), the main assault; attempt to destroy the RAF in southern England, including massive daylight attacks on RAF airfields, followed from 19 August by heavy night bombing of ports and industrial cities, including suburbs of London.
7 September – 2 October: the Blitz commences, main focus day and night attacks on London.
3–31 October: large scale night bombing raids, mostly on London; daylight attacks now confined to small scale fighter-bomber Störangriffe raids luring RAF fighters into dogfights.
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; at times being specially commemorated on 15 September, "Battle of Britain Day". On this day in 1940, the Luftwaffe embarked on their largest bombing attack yet, forcing the engagement of the entirety of the RAF in defence of London and the South East, which resulted in a decisive British victory that proved to mark a turning point in Britain's favour.
Victoria Embankment, London
Despite the inability of the Luftwaffe to gain air superiority over the British air force, the leadership of the Third Reich hoped to continue bombing London with cruise and ballistic missiles. The first combat use of German V1 cruise missiles began on June 13, 1944. At the end of December 1944, General Clayton Bissel (Clayton Bissell) presented a report indicating the significant advantages of the V1 over traditional aerial bombardments.
German V1 cruise missile
Aces in exile
About 20% of pilots who took part in the battle were from non British countries. 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 authorised 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, 9 Americans, 3 Southern Rhodesians and individuals from Jamaica, Barbados and Newfoundland.
These pilots, some of whom had to flee their home countries because of German invasions, fought with great distinction. The No. 303 Polish Fighter Squadron for example was not just the highest scoring of the Hurricane squadrons during the Battle of Britain, but also had the highest ratio of enemy aircraft destroyed to their own losses.
Polish 303 squadron pilots, 1940
Monument of Polish Pilots in Northolt
Song about aces in exile in the battle of Britain:
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