World War II: Battle of Britain

The Fight of the Few

Spitfire gun camera film showing an attack on German Heinkel He 111s. Public Domain

Battle of Britain: Conflict & Dates

The Battle of Britain was fought July 10 to late October 1940, during World War II.


Royal Air Force

Battle of Britain: Background

With the fall of France in June 1940, Britain alone was left to face the growing power of Nazi Germany. Though much of the British Expeditionary Force had been successfully evacuated from Dunkirk, it had been compelled to leave much of its heavy equipment behind. Not relishing the idea of having to invade Britain, Adolph Hitler initially hoped that Britain would sue for a negotiated peace. This hope quickly eroded as new Prime Minister Winston Churchill reasserted Britain's commitment to fight on to the end.

Reacting to this, Hitler ordered on July 16 that preparations begin for the invasion of Great Britain. Dubbed Operation Sea Lion, this plan called for an invasion to take place in August. As the Kriegsmarine had been badly reduced in earlier campaigns, a key prerequisite for the invasion was the elimination of the Royal Air Force to ensure that the Luftwaffe possessed air superiority over the Channel. With this in hand, the Luftwaffe would be able to hold the Royal Navy at bay as German troops landed in southern England.

Battle of Britain: The Luftwaffe Prepares

To eliminate the RAF, Hitler turned the chief of the Luftwaffe, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring. A veteran of World War I, the flamboyant and boastful Göring had ably overseen the Luftwaffe during the early campaigns of the war. For the coming battle, he shifted his forces to bring three Luftflotten (Air Fleets) to bear on Britain. While Field Marshal Albert Kesselring and Field Marshal Hugo Sperrle's Luftflotte 2 and 3 flew from the Low Countries and France, Generaloberst Hans-Jürgen Stumpff's Luftflotte 5 would attack from bases in Norway.

Largely designed to provide aerial support for the German Army's blitzkrieg style of attack, the Luftwaffe was not well-equipped for the type of strategic bombing that would be required in the coming campaign. Though its principal fighter, the Messerschmitt Bf 109, was equal to the best British fighters, the range at which it would be forced to operate limited the time it could spend over Britain. At the start of the battle, the Bf 109 was supported by the twin-engine Messerschmitt Bf 110. Intended as a long range escort fighter, the Bf 110 quickly proved vulnerable to the more nimble British fighters and was a failure in this role. Lacking a four-engine strategic bomber, the Luftwaffe relied on a trio of smaller twin-engine bombers, the Heinkel He 111, Junkers Ju 88, and the aging Dornier Do 17. These were supported by the single-engine Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive bomber. An effective weapon in the war's early battles, the Stuka ultimately proved highly vulnerable to British fighters and was withdrawn from the fight.

Battle of Britain: The Dowding System & His "Chicks"

Across the Channel, the aerial defense of Britain was entrusted to the head of Fighter Command, Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding. Possessing a prickly personality and nicknamed "Stuffy," Dowding had taken over Fighter Command in 1936. Working tirelessly, he had overseen the development of the RAF's two frontline fighters, the Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire. While the latter was a match for the BF 109, the former was a bit outclassed but was capable of out-turning the German fighter. Anticipating the need for greater firepower, Dowding had both fighters outfitted with eight machine guns. Highly protective of his pilots, he often referred to them as his "chicks."

While understanding the need for new advanced fighters, Dowding was also key in recognizing that they could only be employed effectively if they were properly controlled from the ground. To this end, he supported the development of Radio Direction Finding (radar) and the creation of the Chain Home radar network. This new technology was incorporated into his "Dowding System" which saw the uniting of radar, ground observers, raid plotting, and radio control of aircraft. These disparate components were tied together through a protected telephone network that was administered through his headquarters at RAF Bentley Priory. In addition, to better control his aircraft, he divided the command into four groups to cover all of Britain (Map).

These consisted of Air Vice Marshal Sir Quintin Brand's 10 Group (Wales and the West Country), Air Vice Marshal Keith Park's 11 Group (Southeastern England), Air Vice Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory's 12 Group (Midland & East Anglia), and Air Vice Marshal Richard Saul's 13 Group (Northern England, Scotland, & Northern Ireland). Though scheduled to retire in June 1939, Dowding was asked to remain in his post until March 1940 due to the deteriorating international situation. His retirement was subsequently postponed until July and then October. Eager to preserve his strength, Dowding had vigorously opposed the sending of Hurricane squadrons across the Channel during the Battle of France.

Battle of Britain: German Intelligence Failures

As the bulk of Fighter Command's strength had been husbanded in Britain during the earlier fighting, the Luftwaffe had a poor estimate of its strength. As the battle began, Göring believed that the British had between 300-400 fighters when in actuality, Dowding possessed over 700. This led the German commander to believe that Fighter Command could be swept from the skies in four days. While the Luftwaffe was aware of the British radar system and ground control network, it dismissed their importance and believed that they created a inflexible tactical system for the British squadrons. In reality, the system permitted flexibility for squadron commanders to make appropriate decisions based on the most recent data.

Battle of Britain: Tactics

Based on intelligence estimates, Göring expected to quickly sweep Fighter Command from the skies over southeastern England. This was to be followed by a four-week bombing campaign which would begin with strikes against RAF airfields near the coast and then move progressively inland to hit the larger sector airfields. Additional strikes would target military targets as well as aircraft production facilities. As planning moved forward, the timetable was extended to five weeks from August 8 to September 15. During the course of the battle, a dispute over strategy emerged between Kesselring, who favored direct attacks on London to force the RAF into a decisive battle, and Sperrle who desired continued attacks on the British air defenses. This dispute would simmer without Göring making a clear choice. As the battle began, Hitler issued a directive prohibiting the bombing of London as he feared reprisal strikes against German cities.

At Bentley Priory, Dowding decided the best way to utilize his aircraft and pilots was to avoid large scale battles in the air. Knowing that an aerial Trafalgar would allow the Germans to more accurately gauge his strength, he intended to bluff the enemy by attacking in squadron strength. Aware that he was outnumbered and could not completely prevent the bombing of Britain, Dowding sought to inflict an unsustainable rate of loss on the Luftwaffe. To accomplish this, he wanted the Germans to constantly believe that Fighter Command was at the end of its resources to ensure that it kept attacking and taking losses. This was not the most popular course of action and it was not entirely to the Air Ministry's pleasing, but Dowding understood that as long as Fighter Command remained a threat the German invasion could not move forward. In instructing his pilots, he emphasized that they were go after the German bombers and avoid fighter-to-fighter combat when possible. Also, he wished the fighting to take place over Britain as pilots who were shot down could be quickly recovered and returned to their squadrons.

Battle of Britain: Der Kanalkampf

Fighting first began on July 10 as the Royal Air Force and Luftwaffe skirmished over the Channel. Dubbed the Kanalkampf or Channel Battles, these engagements saw German Stukas attacking British coastal convoys. Though Dowding would have preferred to halt the convoys rather than waste pilots and planes defending them, he was blocked from above by Churchill and the Royal Navy who refused to symbolically cede control of the Channel. As the fight continued, the Germans introduced their twin-engine bombers which were escorted by Messerschmitt fighters. Due to the proximity of the German airfields to the coast, the fighters of No. 11 Group often did not sufficient warning in order to block these attacks. As a result, Park's fighters were required to conduct patrols which strained both pilots and equipment. The fighting over the Channel provided a training ground for both sides as they prepared for the larger battle to come. During June and July, Fighter Command lost 96 aircraft while downing 227.

Battle of Britain: Adlerangriff

The small numbers of British fighters that his aircraft had encountered in July and early August further convinced Göring that Fighter Command was operating with around 300-400 aircraft. Having prepared for a massive aerial offensive, dubbed Adlerangriff (Eagle Attack), he sought four uninterrupted days of clear weather in which to begin it. Some initial attacks began on August 12 which saw German aircraft cause minor damage to several coastal airfields as well as attack four radar stations. Attempting to hit the tall radar towers rather than the more important plotting huts and operations centers, the strikes did little lasting damage. In the bombing, the radar plotters from the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) proved their mettle as they continued working with bombs bursting nearby. British fighters downed 31 Germans for a loss of 22 of their own.

Believing that they had caused significant damage on August 12, the Germans began their offensive the next day, which was dubbed Adler Tag (Eagle Day). Beginning with a series of muddled attacks in the morning due to confused orders, the afternoon saw larger raids strike a variety of targets across southern Britain, but inflict little lasting damage. Raids continued on and off the next day, opposed in squadron strength by Fighter Command. For August 15, the Germans planned their largest attack to date, with Luftflotte 5 attacking targets in northern Britain, while Kesselring and Sperrle assaulted the south. This plan was based on the incorrect belief that No. 12 Group had been feeding reinforcements south over the preceding days and could be prevented from doing so by attacking the Midlands.

Detected while far out at sea, the aircraft of Luftflotte 5 were essentially unescorted as the flight from Norway precluded using Bf 109s as escorts. Assaulted by fighters from No. 13 Group, the attackers were turned back with heavy losses and accomplished little of consequence. Luftflotte 5 would not play a further role in the battle. In the south, RAF airfields were hit hard taking varying degrees of damage. Flying sortie after sortie, Park's men, supported by No. 12 Group, struggled to meet the threat. In the course of the fighting, German aircraft accidently struck RAF Croydon in London, killing over 70 civilians in the process and enraging Hitler. When the day ended, Fighter Command had downed 75 Germans in exchange for 34 aircraft and 18 pilots.

Heavy German raids continued the next day with weather largely halting operations on the 17th. Resuming on August 18, the fighting saw both sides take their highest losses of the battle (British 26 [10 pilots], German 71). Dubbed the "Hardest Day," the 18th saw massive raids hit the sector airfields at Biggin Hill and Kenley. In both cases, the damage proved temporary and operations were not dramatically affected.

Battle of Britain: A Change in Approach

In the wake of the August 18 attacks, it became clear that Göring's promise to Hitler to quickly sweep aside the RAF would not be fulfilled. As a result, Operation Sea Lion was postponed until September 17. Also, due to the high losses taken on the 18th, the Ju 87 Stuka was withdrawn from the battle and the role of the Bf 110 reduced. Future raids were to focus on Fighter Command airfields and factories at the exclusion of everything else, including the radar stations. In addition, German fighters were ordered to tightly escort the bombers rather than conducting sweeps.

Battle of Britain: Dissention in the Ranks

During the course of the fighting a debate emerged between Park and Leigh-Mallory regarding tactics. While Park favored Dowding's method of intercepting raids with individual squadrons and subjecting them to continued attack, Leigh-Mallory advocated for massed attacks by "Big Wings" consisting of at least three squadrons. The thought behind the Big Wing was that a larger number of fighters would increase enemy losses while minimizing RAF casualties. Opponents pointed out that it took longer for Big Wings to form and increased the danger of fighters being caught on the ground re-fueling. Dowding proved unable to resolve the differences between his commanders, as he preferred Park's methods while the Air Ministry favored the Big Wing approach. This issue was worsened by personal issues between Park and Leigh-Mallory in regard to No. 12 Group supporting No. 11 Group.

Battle of Britain: The Fighting Continues

The renewed German attacks soon began with factories being hit on August 23 and 24. On the latter evening, parts of London's East End were hit, possibly by accident. In reprisal, RAF bombers struck Berlin on the night August 25/26. This greatly embarrassed Göring who had previously boasted that the city would never be attacked. Over the next two weeks, Park's group was severely pressed as Kesselring's aircraft conducted 24 heavy raids against their airfields. While British aircraft production and repair, overseen by Lord Beaverbrook, was keeping pace with losses, Dowding soon began to face a crisis regarding pilots. This was alleviated by transfers from other branches of service as well as the activation of Czech, French, and Polish squadrons. Fighting for their occupied homes, these foreign pilots proved highly effective. They were joined by individual pilots from throughout the Commonwealth, as well as the United States.

The critical phase of the battle, Park's men struggled to keep their fields operational as losses mounted in the air and on the ground. September 1 saw the one day during the fighting where British losses exceeded the Germans. In addition, German bombers began targeting London and other cities in early September as retribution for continued raids on Berlin. On September 3, Göring began planning daily raids on London. Despite their best efforts, the Germans were unable to eliminate Fighter Command's presence in the skies over southeastern England. While Park's airfields remained operable, an overestimation of German strength led some to conclude that another two weeks of similar attacks might force No. 11 Group to fall back.

Battle of Britain: A Key Change

On September 5, Hitler issued orders that London and other British cities be attacked without mercy. This signaled a key strategic change as the Luftwaffe ceased hitting the beleaguered airfields and focused on the cities. Giving Fighter Command a chance to recover, Dowding's men were able to make repairs and prepare for the next onslaught. On September 7, nearly 400 bombers attacked the East End. While Park's men engaged the bombers, No. 12 Group's first official "Big Wing" missed the fight as it took too long to form up. Eight days later, the Luftwaffe attacked in force with two massive raids. These were met by Fighter Command and decisively defeated with 60 German aircraft downed against 26 British. With the Luftwaffe having sustained massive losses in the previous two months, Hitler was forced to indefinitely postpone Operation Sea Lion on September 17. With their squadrons depleted, Göring oversaw a switch from daytime to nighttime bombing. Regular daytime bombing began to cease in October though the worst of the Blitz was to begin later that autumn.

Battle of Britain: Aftermath

As the raids began to dissipate and autumn storms started to plague the Channel, it became clear that the threat of invasion had been averted. This was reinforced by intelligence showing that the German invasion barges which had been gathered in the Channel ports were being dispersed. The first significant defeat for Hitler, the Battle of Britain ensured that Britain would continue the fight against Germany. A boost for Allied morale, the victory helped cause a shift in international opinion in favor of their cause. In the fighting, the British lost 1,547 aircraft with 544 killed. Luftwaffe losses totaled 1,887 aircraft and 2,698 killed.

During the battle, Dowding was criticized by Vice Marshal William Sholto Douglas, Assistant Chief of Air Staff, and Leigh-Mallory for being too cautious. Both men felt that Fighter Command should be intercepting raids before they reached Britain. Dowding dismissed this approach as he believed it would increase losses in aircrew. Though Dowding's approach and tactics proved correct for achieving victory, he was increasingly seen as uncooperative and difficult by his superiors. With the appointment of Air Chief Marshal Charles Portal, Dowding was removed from Fighter Command in November 1940, shortly after winning the battle. As an ally of Dowding, Park was also removed and reassigned with Leigh-Mallory taking over No. 11 Group. Despite the political infighting that plagued the RAF following the battle, Winston Churchill accurately summarized the contribution of Dowding's "chicks" in an address to the House of Commons during the height of the fighting by stating, "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.

Selected Sources

  • Royal Air Force: The Battle of Britain
  • Imperial War Museum: Battle of Britain
  • Korda, Michael. (2009). With Wings Like Eagles: A History of the Battle of Britain. New York: HarperCollins
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Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Battle of Britain." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, July 31). World War II: Battle of Britain. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Battle of Britain." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).