Dates: 10 July – 31 October 1940
Luftwaffe Total Strength: 4,074 available aircraft including 1,107 single-seat fighters, 357 two-seat fighters, 1,380 medium bombers, 428 dive-bombers, 569 reconnaissance and 233 coastal aircraft. The Luftwaffe air strength given is from the Quartermaster General 6th Battalion numbers for 29 June 1940.
Luftwaffe Total Losses: 1,918 aircraft | 2,662 airmen
RAF Total Strength: 1,963 available aircraft including 754 single-seat fighters, 149 two-seat fighters, 560 bombers and 500 coastal aircraft. The RAF fighter strength given is for 0900 1 July 1940, while bomber strength is for 11 July 1940.
RAF Total Losses: 1,012 aircraft | 537 airmen
Note: The aircrew and aircraft losses have come from the comprehensive account in After the Battle Then and Now. RAF numbers are for Fighter Command. Luftwaffe numbers cover both fighters, bombers and other aircraft.
Photo Description: A group of German officers, including Hermann Göring, look across the English Channel at the White Cliffs of Dover, in preparation for Operation Sealion, the invasion of Britain in 1940. One of the officers is looking through binoculars at the English coastline.
“What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin.”
Winston Churchill, 18 June 1940
By the end of June 1940, most of western Europe was under Nazi occupation. Within six weeks, the German Wehrmacht (armed forces) had overrun the Low Countries and France, forcing the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from the beaches of Dunkirk. Britain now stood alone with invasion appearing imminent. The German leader, Adolf Hitler, believed the isolated country would quickly come to terms with Germany. However, the newly appointed British prime minister, Winston Churchill, was determined to fight on and rallied the British people with powerful rhetoric. As a result, Hitler issued Directive No. 16, ordering his armed forces to prepare for the full-scale invasion of Britain, code-named Unternehmen Seelöwe (“Operation Sea Lion”). A key prerequisite for the invasion was the elimination of the Royal Air Force (RAF) to ensure that the German Air Force, the Luftwaffe, possessed air superiority over the English Channel and invasion areas in southern England. To achieve this, Hitler turned to Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe. After the early triumphs in Poland and France, Göring believed that Britain could be brought to its knees by air power alone. He was confident that British fighter defenses would be destroyed in a matter of days. On 1 July, three Luftflotten (air fleets) were deployed from Norway to the Cherbourg peninsula in northern France with a strength of 2,186 serviceable aircraft including 898 bombers, 708 single-engined fighters, and 202 twin-engined fighters.
The task of defending Britain against air attack fell on the airmen of RAF Fighter Command, led by Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding. On the eve of the Battle, Fighter Command had a strength of 640 serviceable fighter aircraft, organised into four defensive groups: 11 Group, which would take the brunt of the German attack, covered the south east of England and London, 12 Group covered the Midlands and East Anglia, 13 Group covered northern England and Scotland, and 10 Group covered the south west of England and Wales. Each group was subdivided into sectors containing a main fighter airfield (or Sector Station) equipped with an operations room to control all the fighters in the sector. This formed part of an effective air defense network, known as the Dowding System. The key component of this system was a chain of radar stations along the coast of Britain, code-named Chain Home. These stations provided early warning of German raids crossing the English Channel and North Sea allowing RAF fighters to be scrambled in time to intercept approaching enemy aircraft.
At the beginning of July, the Luftwaffe began a series of heavy attacks on British coastal convoys, shipping and port installations. This initial phase was dubbed the Kanalkampf (“Channel Battles”) and would continue for the next month. The primary aim was to cut British overseas supply lines and lure RAF fighters into battle to weaken the air defence before the main offensive. Due to the proximity of the German airfields to the coast, Fighter Command often did not have sufficient warning to block the convoy attacks. As a result, the RAF was forced to fly standing patrols, which put considerable strain on both pilots and aircraft. Eventually, the number of ship sinkings became so great that the British Admiralty cancelled all further convoys through the Channel.
On 1 August, Hitler issued Directive No. 17, ordering the Luftwaffe to use all its forces to destroy the RAF in the shortest time possible. The all-out assault was code-named Unternehmen Adlerangriff (“Operation Eagle Attack”) and would begin on Adlertag (“Eagle Day”). This was originally scheduled for 10 August but bad weather forced a postponement. On 12 August, the Luftwaffe launched preliminary raids on radar stations and coastal airfields used as forward landing grounds by RAF fighters. The results were mixed with only one radar station on the Isle of Wight temporarily put out of action. Portsmouth was also heavily bombed, killing ninety-six people. The Luftwaffe was finally given the order to launch Adlertag on the afternoon of 13 August and flew 1,485 sorties against RAF airfields, ports, and aircraft factories, causing widespread damage. However, many of the targets were misidentified by German intelligence and British fighter defenses were largely unaffected. Overall, fifteen RAF fighters were destroyed while the Luftwaffe lost thirty-nine aircraft. On 15 August, the Luftwaffe attempted to overwhelm Fighter Command by attacking targets in the north and south of England using all three Luftflotten for the first time. To the British, this became known as the “Greatest Day” after RAF fighters shot down seventy-six German aircraft for the loss of thirty-five. This was followed by the “Hardest Day” on 18 August when both sides lost more aircraft combined than at any other point during the Battle.
Between 12 and 18 August, the Luftwaffe continued to attack radar stations with limited success. The tall radar towers proved difficult to destroy due to the open steel girder construction and damaged stations were usually repaired within hours. Consequently, Göring ordered the raids to be stopped allowing Fighter Command to retain a crucial advantage.
The pressure on Fighter Command reached its peak between 24 August and 6 September when the Luftwaffe focused its main effort on the airfields and vital Sector Stations of 11 Group. During this “critical phase”, Fighter Command struggled to keep airfields operational as losses mounted in the air and on the ground. Dowding also faced a shortage of trained pilots and was forced to introduce a stabilisation scheme to keep front-line squadrons up to full strength. Despite the severe strain, RAF fighters continued to inflict heavy losses on the Luftwaffe, which had a serious effect on German morale.
The battle took an unexpected turn on the night of 24/25 August when German bombers inadvertently dropped bombs on central London. Churchill responded by ordering RAF Bomber Command to launch a retaliatory strike on Berlin the following night. Damage to the German capital was slight but the raid infuriated Hitler and greatly embarrassed Göring, who had boasted that Berlin would never be bombed. On 5 September, Hitler ordered the Luftwaffe to concentrate its attacks on London and other major British cities. German intelligence believed that Fighter Command was down to its last reserves and an attack on the capital would draw out the last few fighters into a large, decisive battle. In reality, British fighter production under the supervision of Lord Beaverbrook had continued to increase and kept pace with aircraft losses. The shortage of trained pilots was also alleviated by transfers from other service branches together with the activation of the Polish, Czech, and Canadian squadrons. On 7 September, nearly four hundred German bombers targeted docks in the East End of London, killing 430 civilians and injuring 1,600. This would be the first of fifty-seven consecutive nights of bombing known as the Blitz. Initially, the British were caught off-guard but this change in strategy provided Fighter Command with a much-needed respite and allowed badly damaged airfields to be quickly repaired.
On 15 September, the Luftwaffe mounted its largest and most concentrated attack on London in the hope of drawing out the RAF into a final battle of annihilation. However, the German raids were broken up by relentless attacks by RAF fighters with sixty-one German aircraft destroyed for the loss of thirty-one. To the dismay of German airmen, it was clear that Fighter Command was not on the brink of defeat and the Luftwaffe could not win air superiority. Two days later, Hitler postponed invasion preparations indefinitely. Although daylight air battles would continue into October, the Luftwaffe switched its main effort to night attacks in order to reduce further losses.
The failure of the Luftwaffe to destroy the RAF is considered to be the first major defeat suffered by Germany during the Second World War. The defensive victory allowed Britain to rebuild its military strength and ultimately provide the staging point for the Normandy landings in June 1944, which would lead to the eventual liberation of western Europe. The Allied airmen of the Royal Air Force were immortalised by Winston Churchill with the words: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”