July 10, 1940: The Battle of Britain Begins
By July of 1940, Nazi Germany had conquered almost all of Europe with devastating speed and tactics. In only six weeks, German forces had defeated the French army and occupied most of France. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill understood what was going to happen next. He said, “The Battle of France is over. I suspect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin.” Churchill was correct. His nation would soon be fighting for its very survival.
With France and the rest of Western Europe out of the way, Hitler set his sights on conquering Great Britain. He hoped that the British would recognize, “her militarily hopeless situation,” and surrender without a fight.
Surrender was never even a remote possibility under the leadership of Winston Churchill. Before the Battle of Britain even began, Churchill delivered a speech to the House of Commons that would define his nations attitude in the fight that was to come. Churchill said, “We shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
Skip to 1:10 in the video above to hear Churchill's infamous words. (Video: YouTube User: Jimmy Thatcher)
After it was clear that Churchill and his nation were not going to budge, Hitler approved plans for Operation Sea Lion. This called for an amphibious invasion of Great Britain, which was no easy task by any stretch of the imagination. Britain had a natural defense in the form of the English Channel. Transporting troops through this area would be impossible unless the Germans could first control the skies over Southern England and destroy the Royal Air Force. With this understood, Hitler entrusted his air force (The Luftwaffe) to pave the way for an invasion force.
Heinkel HE 111 bombers of the Luftwaffe flying in formation. (Photo: Imperial War Museums.)
On July 10, 1940, Germany launched a surprise airborne raid against a British shipping convoy in the English Channel. This was the opening action of the Battle of Britain. The engagement would last until October of 1940 and is considered the first battle in history to be waged almost exclusively in the air.
Hawker Hurricanes of the British Royal Air Force flying in formation. (Photo: bbq.co.uk)
The Germans boasted the most powerful air force in the world at the onset of the battle, but the Royal Air Force was fighting on its home turf and presented a formidable challenge. Britain’s Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire handled remarkably well by pilots of the RAF and proved their worth in combat.
Nearly 3,000 men of the RAF participated in the Battle of Britain. Many foreign fighter pilots were among them. Men from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Belgium, France, Poland, and Czechoslovakia, all flew fearlessly. The highest scoring pilot of the battle was a Czech pilot named Josef Frantistek. He flew with the Polish No. 303 Fighting Squadron, which downed 126 German planes over the course of the fighting.
Josef Frantistek, center. One of the greatest heroes during the Battle of Britain. (Photo: martin-hickman.com)
Before the United States entered the war, a handful of American pilots even took part in the Battle of Britain. One of them was Billy Fisk who had previously won a gold medal for bobsledding at the Winter Olympics.
Billy Fisk. (Photo: U.S. Naval Institute Blog)
Radar played a pivotal role in Britain’s ability to successfully defeat German airpower. The British had a ring of radar stations along their coastline. These stations allowed the RAF to pin down the location of enemy raiding parties by pining their aircraft with radio waves. By knowing when and where an attack was coming, British fighters were able to mobilize and intercept the enemy. This technology helped deny the element of surprise to the Luftwaffe.
Members of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) served as radar operators during the Battle of Britain. (Photo: Imperial War Museums)
The Battle of Britain was a grueling endeavor for those who participated in it. According to history.com, “British airmen were beaten down by grueling 15-hour shifts and constant Luftwaffe bombing raids on their airfields.” These pilots regularly flew several missions a day with only a few hours of sleep. The RAF was in such need of manpower that it eventually cut the training time for new pilots from six weeks to only two weeks. Research on history.com notes that, “Some recruits even ended up on the front lines with as little as nine hours’ experience in modern fighter planes.”
RAF pilots scramble to their Hawker Hurricane fighters at an airfield in England. (Photo: warbirdnews.com)
The Germans originally began the operation by attacking coastal targets and British shipping operating in the English Channel. On August 13, their attacks moved inland and targeted airfields and communication positions. These attacks put an enormous strain on the RAF, but as the Imperial War Museums write, “the Lufwaffe was overestimating the damage it was inflicting and wrongly came to the conclusion that the RAF was on its last legs. Fighter Command was bruised but not broken.”
On September 7, 1940, Hitler ordered his forces to shift the weight of their attacks onto London. This would emerge as one of the biggest mistakes of the Battle of Britain. This phase of the battle is often remembered as the Blitz. During this period, German bombers caused tremendous damage to the residents of London. While London was bombarded, the RAF and Britain’s defenses received some much needed time to recover from the early stages of the battle.
Civilians take shelter in a London Subway after sirens sounded to warn of German bombing raids. (Photo: peopleus.blogspot.com)
On September 15, the Luftwaffe launched a massive air attack, thinking it had Great Britain on the ropes. This attack was intercepted by the RAF and close to 60 German aircraft were downed. In October of 1940, Hitler realized that his forces had not gained the air superiority necessary for a mainland invasion and Operation Sea Lion was shelved.
For nearly three months, Great Britain fought for its survival on a daily basis. Victory required the total commitment of almost every citizen in the country. Around 40,000 people are estimated to have lost their lives during the battle. By the time the engagement ended, Germany had lost more than 1,700 planes. That was almost twice as many as the British lost. The Luftwaffe would continue to conduct nighttime bombing raids over London and other major British cities as the war raged on, but German airpower would never reach the point of strength that it once possessed prior to the Battle of Britain.
British soldiers photographed with a downed Luftwaffe fighter plane. (Photo: pinterest.com)
On August 20, 1940, during some of the peak fighting of the Battle of Britain, Winston Churchill offered the highest praise imaginable to the heroes of the Royal Air Force. Churchill said, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” The few were supported by the many and as a nation, Great Britain handed Nazi Germany its first major defeat of World War II.