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A Battle Entirely Airborne: The Battle of Britain

“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

black and white photo of a German Luftwaffe bomber flying over England, Sep 7 1940
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  • A German Luftwaffe bomber flying over Wapping and the Isle of Dogs in the East End of London on 7 September 1940.Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Battle of Britain (1940) was a crucial campaign of World War II, in which Britain fought tirelessly to ensure that Germany would not invade the UK. Following Adolf Hitler's invasion of France, he intended to pressure Britain to accept a negotiated peace settlement, as he was not confident in Germany's ability to overtake the nation; but Britain refused. Thus, Hitler decided to send continued air raids to major British cities and military points in an attempt to win air superiority and eventually occupy the UK.

The Battle of Britain is an example of British strength, perseverance, and military success. After months of bombings and seemingly endless casualties, the Royal Air Force (RAF) was able to drive the German Luftwaffe out of the skies and keep Britain safe from invasion. 

It's said that had they won this battle, Germany would likely have won the war. But since this was the first major military campaign fought entirely by air forces, its operations were a little different than any previous battles. Let's break it down. 

When was the Battle of Britain and how long did it last?

The Battle of Britain began on July 10, 1940, and lasted until October 31, 1940, for a total of three months and three weeks. 

What was the Battle of Britain? 

Overall, the Battle of Britain was a WWII battle in which Hitler’s goal was to weaken air force defenses so he could invade Britain and force the nation to capitulate to German demands. When explaining the battle, it is often split into four phases: 

Phase One

Attacks on Channel Shipping - July 10, 1940 to August 12, 1940

The Luftwaffe attacked shipping conveys in the English Channel, Channel ports, and coastal radar stations on the south coast. Nighttime raids occurred all along the coast. 

Notable days: 

  • July 16: Hitler called for preparations to proceed with Operation Sea Lion, the invasion of Britain, saying “the British Air Force must be eliminated to such an extent that it will  be incapable of putting up any sustained opposition to the invading troops.”

Phase Two

Attacks on Airfields and Radar Stations - August 13 to 18, 1940

The Luftwaffe planned to destroy the Fighter Command aircraft, whether while in the air or on the ground. German bombing targeted airfields and radar stations, which destroyed some valuable machinery and airfields, and made operations difficult. The No. 11 Group’s airfields endured the worst attacks, and civilian airfields were employed in emergencies. 

Notable days: 

  • August 13 (Eagle Day/Adlertag): Southeast of England was bombarded by extreme raids on RAF airfields. 
  • August 18 (The Hardest Day): Heavy battles between the Luftwaffe and RAF resulting in major losses of RAF aircraft on the ground. 

Phase Three

Continued Bombings - August 19, 1940  to September 6, 1940

South coast, Midlands, and northeast of England continued to be bombed by the Luftwaffe; cities, towns, and airfields suffer. 

Notable Days: 

  • August 20: Prime Minister Winston Churchill delivered his “Few” speech, expressing his gratitude to the British and Allied aircrew. 
  • August 24: London was mistakenly bombed by a lost German bomber formation during a night bombing. 
  • August 25: RAF launched their first bombing raid on Berlin in response to the accidental London bombing from the night before. 
  • August 31: Fighter Command bore heaviest casualties to date, and 303 Squadron (Polish Squadron) at RAF Northolt was up and running. 

Phase Four

Bombing of Major British Cities - September 7, 1940 to October 31, 1940

Mass bombing raids are launched at London and other major British cities. 

Notable Days: 

  • September 15: Battle of Britain Day: Though Luftwaffe launched its heaviest bombing raids on London, Fighter Command successfully fought them off, resulting in heavy German losses. 
  • September 17: Hitler postponed his planned British invasion (Operation Sea Lion). 
  • September 26: Southampton’s Spitfire Factory was attacked and destroyed. 
  • October: In an attempt to reduce their losses, the Luftwaffe bombed British cities at night, and coastal towns, airfields, and other military targets during the day. 
  • October 31: RAF kept Luftwaffe from achieving air superiority, and the Battle of Britain was over. 
black and white photo of an RAF station under attack during the battle of britain
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  • A Royal Air Force station under attack during the Battle of Britain, 1940.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

How many died in the Battle of Britain? 

Allied Losses: 

  • Killed: 1,542
  • Wounded: 422
  • Planes Lost: 1,744

Luftwaffe Losses: 

  • Killed: 2,585
  • Wounded: 422
  • Planes Lost: 1,977

Why did Germany lose the Battle of Britain? 

Germany was simply unprepared. Not only were Hitler's forces untrained for this kind of an undertaking, but they didn’t have the marine resources to compete with the Royal Navy, and the whole German operation knew it. They weren’t confident they were going to succeed in their attacks against Britain, and because of this they tried to get the Luftwaffe to do most of the heavy lifting. 

While the Luftwaffe did end up taking it on, they bit off more than they could chew. Between providing naval interference and blasting the RAF out of the sky, they were spread too thin. While they did slow Britain down in the beginning, historians believe Germany failed because of two factors: 

  1. Primitive resources (British had the most advanced early warning radar system in the world, helping them fight against German surprise attacks and advanced aircraft and bombing capabilities) 
  2. A lack of a systematic plan

What crucial lesson was learned from the Battle of Britain? 

While not every battle is fought just to learn a lesson, this one showed the Allies a big one: that German advances could be blocked. While the Battle of Britain occurred very early on in WWII, it kept a large power (the UK) from being taken over; as the first major German defeat of the war, it gave the Allies the strength to carry on fighting. 

In this battle, particularly between August 24th and September 6th (known as the most dangerous days of the battle), Prime Minister Winston Churchill made it clear just how difficult this victory was. In his speech, he declared: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” 

He was making a statement about the RAF and their dedication to keeping England safe. In a time where fear was rampant and victories were seemingly scarce, the most crucial lesson learned in the Battle of Britain was that Germany could be defeated.