The school year approaches, lesson plans are coming together, and I’m finally getting around to another history article. (Pause for applause and cheering…still pausing…c’mon, you know you’re excited! 🙂 )
As promised in After Dunkirk: The Fall of France, today we’ll pick up with THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN. *
What image comes to mind when you hear the word ‘battle?’ Guns, tanks, and infantry slugging it out over a scorched and blasted landscape?
The Battle of Britain actually prevented such scenes from reaching the southern shores of England.
Hitler’s armies had seen great success in 1940. France had fallen. Italy had joined the Axis. The continent of Europe was effectively subdued. The world waited to see if Great Britain, the last standing Ally, would capitulate to Hitler, or fight on.
According to Winston Churchill, there was never any question, even in private meetings, of giving in.
Though their resolve was strong, their position was dangerous. His volume, The Second World War: Their Finest Hour, chronicles the dire situation his country faced.
“For the first time in a hundred and twenty five years a powerful enemy was now established across the narrow waters of the English Channel. Our re-formed Regular Army, and the larger but less well-organized Territorials, had to be organized and deployed to create an elaborate system of defenses, and to stand ready, if the invader came, to destroy him- for there could be no escape.” (Churchill 174)
The British surmised, rightly, that Hitler’s next move would be to conquer their island nation. In the brief respite as the Germans regrouped post-France, they worked to create defenses for beaches, anti-tank obstacles, and units of mobile defenders ready to fight in front of the enemy or harry him from behind. Guards protected factories and other tempting sabotage targets. Every effort was made to build up British air power, their best chance at victory.
The last was an especially good move. The German invasion plan, Operation Sea Lion, was contingent on weakening the RAF (Royal Air Force) enough to gain mastery of the skies over the English Channel.
July 10th, 1940, marked the first heavy onslaught.
The initial German plan was to attack British convoys in the Channel and the southern ports from Dover to Plymouth, weakening the areas they intended to invade. The RAF would have to come out to meet them, and would (they hoped) be destroyed.
This first phase failed. Though the British suffered losses, they made the Luftwaffe pay dearly for them.
On August 15th, the Luftwaffe launched about 100 bombers and 40 M.E. 110’s to the north, against Tyneside, with a simultaneous raid of over 800 planes to the south. The Germans hoped that the concentration of RAF planes would be pinned down in the south, and the northern attackers could do as they wished.
The Luftwaffe didn’t account for the provisions already made by British Air Marshal Dowding, and the seven Hurricane or Spitfire squadrons he had withdrawn from the southern fighting to guard against such an eventuality.
Final score: RAF 76, Luftwaffe 34.
In spite of the Allied successes, the Luftwaffe continued to attack relentlessly. Successful bombing raids of RAF airfields and facilities threatened to cripple the effectiveness of the defense.
Fortunately, Hitler’s own people (unintentionally) kept that threat from being carried out.
Some of the heads of the German military were intent on the destruction of British planes so that they could make their invasion happen. Nazi leader and Luftwaffe Commander Herman Goering had another focus. He believed that indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets, such as London, would crush British resistance.
In September, he got his way. However, the attacks on London didn’t work out quite as he had hoped.
“If the enemy had persisted in heavy attacks against the adjacent sectors (to the airfields)…the whole intricate organization of Fighter Command might have been broken down…It was therefore with a sense of relief that Fighter Command felt the German attack turn on London on September 7, and concluded that the enemy had changed his plan…By departing from the classical principles of war, as well as from the hitherto accepted dictates of humanity, he made a foolish mistake.” (Churchill 331)
September 15th marked the Luftwaffe’s greatest concentrated daylight attack on London.
Perhaps the results of this attack can best be summed up by what took place two days later. On September 17th, Hitler decided to postpone Operation Sea Lion indefinitely.
Churchill’s famous praise of the RAF pilots wraps up this bit of history nicely.
“At the summit the stamina and valour of our fighter pilots remained unconquerable and supreme. Thus Britain was saved. Well might I say in the House of Commons, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” (Churchill 340)
While an invasion of the British Isles was off the table, the population centers remained a target. NEXT History Session: THE BLITZ
If you’re interested in hearing about this period from people who lived it, the BBC collected people’s recollections of World War 2 in an excellent archive. The following link is for the “Battle of Britain” section. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/categories/c55221