This year, Battle of Britain Sunday is Sunday, September 18th. It is on this day that we honour those who fought. Our Heritage Stone Ceremony is also held on this important day.
What was the Battle of Britain ? The name of the battle was actually coined by Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of Great Britain at the time. After Germany had overrun France, Churchill said, “The Battle of France is over. The Battle of Britain is about to begin.”
The Battle of Britain, an important battle in World War II, was a struggle between the German Luftwaffe (commanded by Hermann Goering) and the British Air Force (headed by Hugh Dowding’s Fighter Command). After Germany had conquered most of Europe, including France, the only major country left to fight them was Great Britain. Germany wanted to invade Great Britain, but first they needed to destroy Britain’s Royal Air Force. July 10, 1940, is the day fixed as the beginning of the Battle of Britain. Although there was fierce fighting leading up to that date, “the engagements on that day were of such scope and scale that this was the date chosen for historical purposes. The day was marked by an attack on a British shipping convoy as it entered the Channel near Dover. The attacking force, a large force of Dornier 17 bombers escorted by several fighter squadrons, was opposed by British fighters. As each side was reinforced, a huge dogfight of over 100 airplanes – the largest engagement between two nations up until that time – was joined.” (Battle of Britain Illustrated)
The battle continued over the next few months. German air strikes did substantial damage to radar sites, but in August, the Luftwaffe abandoned that avenue and began attacks on RAF air bases. A battle of attrition followed in which both sides suffered heavy losses… However, a combination of bad intelligence (as a result of not continuing the strikes on British radar sites) and British attacks on Berlin, led the Luftwaffe to change its operational approach to massive attacks on London. The first, on September 7th, was quite successful, but the second, on September 15th, failed with heavy losses. The Germans had underestimated the Royal Air Force reserves; British fighters appeared in large numbers and shot down many of the Germans. Hitler permanently postponed a landing on the British Isles and suspended the Battle of Britain. This didn’t mean the end to the bombing terror, however, as indiscriminate bombing of larger cities, including London, Plymouth and Coventry took place. Eventually, the raids slowed as the Germans realized they could not defeat the Royal Air Force.
Britain’s decisive victory not only saved the country from a ground invasion and possible occupation by German forces, but also proved that air power alone could be used to win a major battle.
The Battle of Britain conflict took place between July and October of 1940. It was the first major military campaign in history to be fought entirely in the air.
On July 10th, 120 German bombers and fighters struck a British shipping convoy in the English Channel, while 70 more bombers attacked dockyards in South Wales. Although Britain had fewer fighters than the Germans, it did have an effective radar system, which made the prospects of a sneak attack unlikely. But in the opening days of the Battle, Britain needed determination and aluminum. The government asked for all available aluminum. “We will turn your pots and pans into Spitfires and Hurricanes,” the Ministry of Aircraft Production said.
THE CONFLICT ITSELF: The Battle of Britain is often described as having four phases, the dates of which seem to vary:
Phase One – July 10 – August 12, 1940 – Attacks on Channel Shipping: On July 16, Hitler issued Directive No. 16, which called for preparations to be made for Operation Sealion – the invasion of Britain. He demanded that “the British Air Force… be eliminated to such an extent that it will be incapable of putting up any sustained opposition to the invading troops.” So the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) attacked shipping convoys in the English Channel, Channel ports, and coastal radar stations on the south coast. By sinking merchant ships, Germany would prevent the British people from receiving the commodities required for their existence. At the same time, it was hoped that it would draw out the British fighters from their bases so as to analyze the strength of the Royal Air Force, determine the speed and efficiency that it could deploy its squadrons. Intermittent bombing raids took place on Portsmouth, Falmouth, Swansea, Newcastle and Merseyside, but these weren’t consistent like the Channel convoy raids.
Phase Two – August 13 – August 18, 1940 – Attacks on Airfields and Radar Stations: The Luftwaffe planned to destroy the aircraft of the British Fighter Command, either on the ground or in the air. Airfields and radar stations became the focus of German bombing. These raids destroyed aircraft and damaged airfields, thus making it difficult for aircraft to operate. August 13 is referred to as ‘Eagle Day’ (Adlertag); the Luftwaffe launched intense raids on RAF airfields. The airfields of No. 11 Group in southeast England suffered the heaviest attacks. Small civilian airfields were used in emergency. ‘The Hardest Day’ was August 18; fierce air battles took place between the RAF and the Luftwaffe, with severe loss of RAF aircraft on the ground. The Fighter Command was stretched to the limit.
Phase Three – August 19 – September 6, 1940: The Luftwaffe continued to bomb towns, cities, and airfields across the south coast of England, the Midlands, and the northeast. The first bombing attacks on the City of London started this third phase. The Luftwaffe theory was that mass bombing raids would inflict severe damage to the city and lower morale and the strength of the people and, at the same time, eliminate the remaining fighters of Fighter Command. Attacks by massed formations of bombers escorted by twice as many fighters now brought the war closer to the residents of the capital city. Heavy bombing took place on the industrial factories and the dock areas of London’s ‘East End’. On August 20, Prime Minister Winston Churchill acknowledged enormous gratitude to British and Allied aircrew, with his now famous, “Never in the field of conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.” During night bombing of Britain on August 24, a lost German bomber formation dropped bombs on London by mistake. The following day, in retaliation for this, the RAF launched their first bombing raid on Berlin.
Phase Four – September 7 – October 31, 1940: The night raids continued; Hitler kept the focus of his heavy bombers mainly on London, but many other industrial centres suffered as well, but at a high attrition rate to the Luftwaffe. September 15 is named ‘Battle of Britain Day’. The Luftwaffe launched its heaviest raids on London. Fighter Command successfully fought the attacking aircraft, resulting in heavy Luftwaffe losses. By September 17, Hitler postponed ‘Operation Sealion’. The Germans couldn’t continue the rate of loss to the Luftwaffe. They focused their bombing raids on British cities at night, to reduce casualties. Coastal towns, airfields and other military targets were attacked during the day. However, all they were doing was losing more aircraft and losing more and more aircrews. The Luftwaffe had tried in vain to “break the heart” of the RAF, but without success. By October 31, all was quiet. The final phase of the invasion of England officially ended. The Battle of Britain was now over.