This year is the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. There were hundreds of battles during the Second World War but what was the reason for the Battle of Britain? And what makes it so important?
British military historians regard the battle as having started on 10 July 1940 and lasting until 31 October that year. Historians regard the Battle of Britain as being separate from, but overlapping with, The Blitz, the German aerial bombing campaign against Britain’s towns and cities.
The Battle of Britain was the fight in the skies between the British Royal Air Force and German Luftwaffe. It was the first battle in history to be fought exclusively in the air.
What was the reason for the Battle of Britain?
In short, Nazi Germany was unable to invade Great Britain without first achieving superiority over Britain’s skies. The RAF would have been a nightmare for any Nazi ground or naval forces attempting to invade and so had to be destroyed first for a German invasion to have any chance of success.
Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler was convinced that winning this aerial battle, the bombing campaign and cutting off Britain’s supply lines would be enough to force the UK into surrender.
Many in the government wanted Britain to surrender and make a deal with Hitler but British prime minister Winston Churchill insisted Britain would “never surrender” and the fight would go on.
At this point, Britain stood alone in its fight against a seemingly unstoppable Nazi war machine, which had already conquered most of Europe and now wanted to conquer Britain too.
If the Nazis had won the Battle of Britain, they would have gained aerial superiority over Great Britain and effectively destroyed the Royal Air Force. This would have led to Operation Sealion, the Nazi plan to invade the British mainland and therefore, potentially, the UK’s final defeat and a Nazi victory.
In the end Britain was victorious, but how? It was a hard-fought victory.
How did the RAF win the Battle of Britain?
At the beginning of the battle, Britain appeared outnumbered and outgunned. Its 640 aircraft would have to defeat the Nazi’s air force of 2,600. The Royal Air Force had little reputation at the time, whereas the Luftwaffe was feared throughout Europe for the devastation its pilots rained down on their enemies.
It is no wonder Britain’s brave pilots became known as “The Few”.
Many foreign pilots also fought in the skies on behalf of Britain. They mostly hailed from Commonwealth countries, such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, but also from territories under Nazi occupation, including France, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Belgium.
So how did Britain win this battle when its air force was so outnumbered?
Despite the reputation of the Luftwaffe, the allies had better aircraft for a start. Most famous of these was the Spitfire, which was faster and more manoeuvrable than any plane the Germans possessed.
There were also strategic errors in Germany’s approach to the battle. Initially, the Luftwaffe’s focus was on attacking RAF bases and industry. Although this was effective, the Germans changed targets constantly, which might have spread their attack but consequently targets recovered faster because they weren’t under sustained pressure.
This flawed German approach was scrapped in favour of an even more flawed approach. In September 1940, the RAF’s bombing of Berlin infuriated Hitler. Ignoring the progress the Luftwaffe had made in attacking Britain’s RAF bases, he vengefully insisted British cities be “erased” from the map.
Although these attacks on cities would be devastating for the civilians who lived in them, the German change of strategy gave RAF bases crucial time to recover and hit back.
On 15 September 1940, Germany attempted a huge air attack to gain victory, only for it to be thwarted by a refreshed RAF. In total, 60 Luftwaffe planes were shot down in one day and Hitler shelved his invasion plans days after the crushing defeat.
Two other crucial advantages led Britain and its allies to victory in this battle for the skies.
German pilots would have to fly for hours before reaching Britain, while Britain’s pilots were on the ground and ready for action.
The other key to victory was the British radar system. At the time it was the most advanced radar in the world and gave the RAF warning when German planes were approaching, while radar operators could direct British aircraft to the enemy.
Rather than destroying Britain’s aircraft on the ground with signature surprise attacks, the Luftwaffe was often caught by surprise itself and put at a huge disadvantage due to the British radar.