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.
OPPOSING FORCES ~ THE FIGHTERS:
The Luftwaffe’s Messerschmitt Bf 109E and Bf 110C fought against the RAF’s “workhorse” Hurricane Mk I and the Spitfire Mk I. Hurricanes outnumbered Spitfires in the RAF Fighter Command by about two to one when war broke out. The Bf 109E had a better climb rate and was up to 40 mph faster in level flight than the Hurricane, depending on altitude. In the spring and summer of 1940, all RAF Spitfire and Hurricane fighter squadrons converted to 100 octane aviation fuel, which allowed their engines to generate significantly more power and about a 30 mph increase in speed at low altitudes. By September, the more powerful Mk IIa series 1 Hurricanes started entering service in small numbers. This version was capable of a maximum speed of 342 mph, about 20 mph more than the original; however, it was still slower than a Bf 109, depending on altitude.
How would the differences between the Messerschmitts and the Spitfires affect the two forces? Alfred Price noted in The Spitfire Story, “… the differences between the Spitfire and the Me 109 in performance and handling were only marginal, and in a combat they were almost always surmounted by tactical considerations of which side had seen the other first, which had the advantage of sun, altitude, numbers, pilot ability, tactical situation, tactical co-ordination, amount of fuel remaining, etc. ”