In the summer of 1940, the German army was a juggernaut. The punched a hole through Belgium, rolled across France and were preparing for the coup de grace, the invasion of England. Even the ever-confident Hitler was surprised at the speed in which the Germans crushed the allied forces of Britain, France, and Belgium.
The German Luftwaffe was preparing to soften up the English coastline for the invasion force by attacking the British airfields in the southeastern corner of Britain. There with air superiority, the Germans felt they could use their smaller and weaker navy to cross the channel and invade. The code name for this “Operation Sea Lion” was slated to begin on September 15.
On August 1, he gave the order, “The German air force is to overcome the British air force with all means at its disposal and as soon as possible.” Thus the Battle of Britain began.
The Germans arrayed three Luftflotten (Air Fleets) which combined boasted over 3000 aircraft of all types but over 1100 of which were fighters mainly the Bf-109E which was an equal to the British Spitfire at that time of the war but suffered from a notable lack of range. For the longer range targets, the Germans had the Me-110, the twin engine fighter with a lot of firepower but suffered from a lack of maneuverability. They were to be totally outclassed by the Hurricanes and Spitfires of the British. The rest were bombers. Mostly the He-111, some Dornier-17s, and Ju-88 and about 400 of the vaunted Ju-87 Stuka dive bombers which ran roughshod over Europe but were soon to be seen as sitting ducks when not having air superiority around them.
On the British side, when they regrouped after the disaster in France, they had only 446 modern fighters (Spitfires and Hurricanes). But by August 11, they’d increased that to 704 fighters with another 289 in their ASUs (Aircraft Storage Units). In just 10 weeks from the withdrawal of troops from Dunkirk, the RAF had doubled the size of its fighter command. The British aircraft industry had answered the bell, in a big way.
The British air defense network, although unfinished by the battle’s beginning, was the most technically advanced in the world. The British radar system could pickup German formations before they even crossed the English Channel. This allowed for the conserving of pilots and fuel, the radar could pinpoint the location of German squadrons without the need for countless patrols. And when the RAF fighters were alerted, they had a much greater chance of being directed onto the target.
Opening Moves, Operation Eagle: The Luftwaffe was ready by August 10. The launched Operation Adler (Eagle) which was designed to drive the Brits from the skies over southern England. The German staff planned to annihilate the RAF south of the London-Gloucester line in four days and just four weeks to eliminate the RAF as an effective fighting force. They were convinced that the planned invasion could take place with German air superiority in mid-September. Those estimates were very wrong.
After poor weather on August 11 limited the Germans to some small raids on the coast, the first big attack occurred the next day with six major raids and several small ones targeting the British airfields and radar installations on the south coast along with shipping in the Thames Estuary. The Battle of Britain had begun.
Of the six radar installations targeted, five were damaged but only one was knocked out of action. The Germans lost 31 aircraft, the British losses were 22 fighters. German intelligence was poor. They had little information on British industry and lacked a cohesive plan on which industries to attack. They focused more on tactics than strategy and the High Command was constantly in the dark over Britain’s capabilities as well as the amount of damage that had been done.
On Day 2, August 13, the Germans flew 1485 sorties and included a successful night bombing of a Spitfire factory outside of Birmingham. The Germans lost another 45 aircraft, the British just 13. During that week, the Germans attacked some 30 airfields and aircraft factories. German intelligence estimated that they’d destroyed 300 aircraft in the air and on the ground. In fact, they’d destroyed less than a third of that.
On August 15, the Germans were raiding nearly constantly thru the day, as one attack would finish, another would start somewhere else. They launched 520 bomber sorties and 1270 fighter sorties. Their losses were climbing as the British downed 75 aircraft against just 34 of their own. Another 1700 sorties followed on August 16 as the Luftwaffe attacked several airfields, severely damaging the one at Tangmere. Another 45 planes were lost. British losses were just 21.
Goering Changes Strategy: The four days were over, the British were supposed to be swept from the skies south of the London Gloucester line. German intelligence, in taking stock of the situation estimated that the British were down to their last 300 fighters. They had nearly double that amount. They foolishly thought that just another one to two days would be all it took to sweep the RAF from the sky.
On August 18, the Germans went after airfields at Surrey, Kent, and Sussex. German losses were high, 71 aircraft lost. The RAF losses were 27 fighters. Fighter Command of the RAF wasn’t swept from the skies and the Germans made their first big change in their planning. By the 18th, the Germans had lost 363 aircraft of all types. The British losses were 181 shot down and another 30 on the ground. But the Germans withdrew the Stukas, the Ju-87 from the front lines as their losses had been appalling.
The problem the British were having was with the availability of trained pilots. While they lost a total of 211 aircraft, the British aircraft industry replaced all but 40. But their losses included 154 experienced pilots. Their training schools had replaced them with just 63.
The Germans reasoned that if they attacked the airfields farther inland nearer to the Number 11 Group where all of the fighters in the south were controlled from, they would force the British to consolidate their forces, strike at the heart of their defenses and force the RAF into a battle of attrition that they couldn’t possibly win. They knew the risks of sending the bombers that far inland and sent an even larger percentage of fighters to cover them.
The Germans went all in to destroy Fighter Command and attacked the air bases at Biggin Hill, Kenley, North Weald and Hornchurch which were turned back. But the bombers got through to Debden. Biggin Hill was the sight of two raids on August 30, doing severe damage and killing 39 people on the ground. On the 31st, the bombers did severe damage to Debden, Biggin Hill, and Hornchurch. It was the RAF’s bloodiest day of the war, 39 aircraft were shot down. German aircraft sorties were around 1500 which only 250-400 were bombers. They attacked the Hawker factories outside of Weybridge where over half of the Hurricanes were manufactured.
The British were being worn down, they’d lost a total of 286 aircraft, with many others severely damaged. Out of 1000 pilots, 103 were killed and 128 wounded. The German losses totaled 380. Although they were down, they weren’t out and the war of attrition was one the Germans couldn’t afford to fight much longer. The RAF was not out of commission, the D-Day for Operation Sea Lion was pushed back to September 21 from September 15. The Luftwaffe and Göring needed to administer a knockout blow to the RAF in the next few days if the invasion window was going to be reached. Göring decided that they needed to change their strategy once more. They were going to bomb London.
The Blitz Begins Over London: The German High Command believed that the attack on London would accomplish three things. The Germans hoped to get the British to push all of their air assets over London where they could be destroyed. The second was to interfere with the British industry and government and paralyze their decision-making process just prior to the invasion. It was also hoped to terrorize the population into capitulation. And finally, the Germans wanted their pound of flesh.
On August 25, a German bomber jettisoned his bombs in the night and they fell on central London, the first time that it happened in the war. Churchill ordered the immediate bombing of Berlin which RAF Bomber Command carried out on two successive nights. Göring had assured Hitler that this would never happen and now he wanted revenge.
On the afternoon of September 7, 300 German bombers escorted by 600 fighters flew up the Thames Estuary. A few bombed the oil installations at Thameshaven, the rest flew on to London itself. The bombers hit the docks east of the city, fires raged out of control in Silvertown. The Germans used these fires for night raids and they kept up the pressure after dark and an additional 250 bombers rained steel and death down on London until dawn. For the citizens of London, the “Blitz” had arrived.
As London was being bombed the code word “Cromwell” was sent off to the Southern and Eastern Commands of the British Home Guard which meant that the invasion was imminent.
The weather became an issue with daylight raids but London was being hit every night. On September 10, the Germans bombed London again and for the first time shot down more of their enemy (29), than they suffered (25). But the clock was ticking. Hitler again moved the invasion back to September 24. The Luftwaffe had three more days to destroy the RAF as the Navy needed a 10-day window to prepare the invasion barges.
Two more days of bad weather made for small raids. The invasion was put back to September 28, the last time the tides would be right until late October.
September 15 was to be the day that Göring delivered his death blow to London and the RAF. He sortied 230 bombers and over 700 fighters to central London. The Spitfires and Hurricanes ravaged their formations where the bombers were either wildly ineffective or jettisoned their bombs over southern London. They’d suffered terrible losses of 60 aircraft, their most in a single day of the war. British losses were just 26 of which 13 of the pilots were saved and could fight another day. On September 17, Hitler postponed Operation Sea Lion indefinitely. A few days later he ordered the dispersal of all of the barges for the invasion, to limit air attacks.
There would be no invasion of Britain.
Further Attacks: While Göring was not yet prepared to admit he failed, he decided to hit London with everything he had in hopes of forcing a surrender without the benefit of a German invasion. Because of bad weather, the Germans were only able to raid London on three more days in September, on the 18th, 27th, and the 30th. His losses were heavy, another 120 aircraft and crews were lost against just 60 for the RAF.
But the change in strategy by attacking London and abandoning their attacks on the airfields, while devastating for the citizens, doomed the Germans to failure. The losses by Fighter Command, while heavy were now being kept up with by the aircraft industry.
Hitler’s sights were now set on Russia and although the Germans continued to bomb London and the surrounding cities at night where they operated with virtual impunity. From September 7 and November 13, London was bombed every night save one. By the time the bombers moved east in May of 1941 for the Russian invasion, 40,000 British civilians would be killed, another 46,000 wounded. Over a million British homes were either damaged or destroyed.
The Germans had underestimated the British resolve and her people. This wasn’t the Britain that appeased Hitler and that turned over Czechoslovakia in 1938. The Americans had agreed to help via Lend-Lease and helped the Royal Navy recover from their losses at Dunkirk. Less than seven months later after the Blitz, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States would enter the war. The Germans foolishly declared war on the United States after Roosevelt declared war on Japan. Britain was no longer alone. That would seal Hitler’s fate.
But the British survival was not guaranteed by the US, but by 1000 pilots of Spitfires and Hurricanes who, despite the odds, weathered the storm and persevered. Churchill in one of his most famous quotes to the House of Commons said of the RAF, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”
Photos courtesy: Wikipedia