As the Battle of France progressed, United Kingdom Prime Minister Winston Churchill asked fighter command for more aircraft to send to the continent. Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, recognizing that nothing could be done for France, refused. Churchill went to France on June 11 and told Prime Minister Paul Reynaud they would get no more aircraft.
As Britain stood alone, Dowding and Churchill took stock of their fighter force and recognized that the RAF must be destroyed if any invasion of Britain were to succeed. For three precious weeks, from June 22 to July 10, Churchill feigned interest in Hitler’s peace overtures.
In the spring of 1940 the Third Reich was the largest Empire the world had ever seen. It directly controlled or influenced almost all of continental Europe, large parts of North Africa, and had not been defeated.
Hitler was at the height of his power. Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe casualties in the Polish, Norwegian, and French campaigns were far less than anyone imagined, and the German people were delirious. He had brought them all he had promised.
He felt he could be magnanimous and sent out peace feelers through Switzerland. The Americans contacted Churchill and asked if the Royal Navy would be sent to Canada when — not if — England fell. “We will survive, not surrender!” growled Churchill.
More critical was the shortage of pilots. Britain did not have a speedy training program before the war, and many trained pilots were lost over France. Additional pilots from the Dominions, America, and the occupied countries joined up; Bomber Command pilots were transferred to Fighter Command. Also, only one fully equipped division, commanded by General Bernard Montgomery, could oppose the coming invasion. The Home Guard — old men equipped with a range of personal weapons and old armory guns — would not withstand the concentrated efforts of a crack, battle hardened Wehrmacht.
They would need longer than three weeks to get ready for combat. On paper, the Hurricanes and Spitfires, all-metal low-wing monoplanes, were essentially the equal of the German Bf-109E. The British planes had the advantage of short range to their bases and superior firepower; the Germans had a higher combat ceiling and were slightly faster. The Royal Air Force’s pilots’ skill and determination would mean the difference in the coming campaign. The other RAF advantage was superior radar, which would allow fighters to be directed to their target rather than patrolling.
Overall command of the German operations fell to Reichmarschall Hermann Goering. Goering had promised Hitler that the Luftwaffe could destroy the RAF prior to the landings in Britain, codenamed Seelöwe (Sea Lion.) The plan called for some 260,000 German troops to be landed along the English coast and move inland towards London. Without control of the air, the Germans knew they could not protect the invasion from the Royal Navy.
On July 10, the opening phase of the battle began. German aircraft attacked shipping in the English Channel, trying to lure the RAF into battle. Dowding, under severe criticism, did not take the bait. He held back his main units, knowing that the Germans were going to come in force later on. The Germans lost some 227 aircraft in the month between July 10 and August 10; the RAF lost ninety-six. And many of the RAF pilots who parachuted out of their burning planes landed safely, while the German aircrew became Prisoners of War.
During this time, the English public became involved in a way never before seen in warfare: live radio reports form the front. BBC broadcasters would broadcast live or recorded blow-by-blow reports of the fighting in the Channel, and the public was fascinated by the progress. This helped to unite the populace in a way the Nazis never imagined.
The main phase of the Battle of Britain began on August 13. Adlertag (Eagle’s Day) marked a move from the Channel attacks to the RAF network of airfields and radar stations. The Battle of Britain marked the first use of radar on a widespread scale in warfare. It allowed RAF fighter Command’s three main southern air groups to wait on the ground for incoming attacks, and then leap into the fray when the bombers were sighted on radar.
The Germans, who had not developed radar to the same level as the British, could not understand why their losses were mounting over the Channel until their intelligence identified the radar network installations.
But the Germans were checked by confusion over their primary targets. After Adlertag, which caused the Germans 46 aircraft but cost the RAF 14 fighters in the air and on the ground, the Germans thought the radar stations were not worth the effort. Perhaps because the technology was new, the dangerously exposed stations were thought to be indestructible. The Germans abandoned the attack on the radar stations after only three days, allowing the stations to contribute valuable information throughout the battle. The attacks on the airfields continued through August 24, and the RAF was in danger of losing the battle. Almost 25% of their pilots were lost in those two weeks; if the Germans continued, Fighter Command would lose the battle.
Using tactical aircraft used in a strategic role was causing major losses in the Luftwaffe. While the bombers had the range to fight and return, the Bf-109’s short range was causing wrecks to wash up on the coast of England instead of German invasion barges. Also, facing a trained, experienced fighter force highly motivated to defend their home territory, the Germans’ vaunted Blitzkrieg weapons were coming up short. On August 17, more than 30% of the Ju-87 Stukas sent against England did not return. The Bf-110 Zerörsters not only could not defend the bombers, they needed fighter escorts themselves.
Nevertheless, the RAF could not sustain the loss of a quarter of their pilots every two weeks. Goering suddenly switched the attack to the sector control centers on August 24, staffed by women’s auxiliaries that directed the fighter squadrons. These centers sustained major damage and the future looked very bleak. Fighter Command was flying 1,000 sorties a day. Pilots fell asleep as soon as their planes stopped taxing off the runway.
The Germans were running out of time. The losses were running five to seven in favor of the British, but their small force could not sustain that kind of punishment. Good weather for the invasion would not last past September. While the RAF suffered grievous losses, supplies from the United States and the Dominions were coming in through the Atlantic convoys and the Home Army was being strengthened every day by Australians, South Africans, New Zealanders, Indians, and Canadians.
Then, the unthinkable happened. An errant German bomber, thinking they were over open fields in a London fog, dropped its payload on the city on August 24. Britain responded by mounting a major raid on Berlin on the night of August 25-26. Causing only minor damage, the RAF Bomber Command raid embarrassed Goering, who said Germany would never be bombed. Hitler, enraged, ordered Goering to switch to London in retaliation. Hitler wanted to see RAF planes going down over their own capital.
On September 7, after an uncharacteristic lull, German bombers appeared in force over London. The Blitz had begun. For the next fifty-seven nights, nighttime raids would pound her cities in attempt to break the will of the British to fight.
The pressure on Fighter Command was released. While the public was just beginning their ordeal, it marked the end of the Battle of Britain and the end of the threat of invasion. Hitler ordered the indefinite postponement of Seelöwe on September 15.
The Battle of Britain affirmed that the war would continue as long as the British had the means to resist. Churchill’s remarks to the House of Commons on August 20 echoes the romanticism of what the English saw as an epic stand against tyranny: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”