Defense Media Network

The Top 5 Air Battles of World War II: The Battle of Britain

No. 1 of World War II's Five Greatest Air Battles

There are many reasons for including the Battle of Britain in any list of the greatest World War II air battles. First and foremost, it was a turning point of the war, marking the end of the Battle of France as the high water mark of Hitler’s expansion in the West. Up to this point, Germany had seemed unbeatable, but the Battle of Britain revealed the flaws in the Luftwaffe’s leadership, tactics, and equipment. Second, it was a battle fought and won without the commitment of a single soldier to battle on land. The Battle of Britain was a victory as important as the defeat of the Spanish Armada, but this time the fight for survival took place in the air instead of at sea.

dunkirk beach

British soldiers fight strafing German aircraft with bolt-action rifles on the beaches of Dunkirk. While the British miraculously managed to evacuate the vast majority of their troops, they were without heavy weapons. Australian War Memorial photo

That being said, the Battle of Britain was Hitler’s battle to lose, and he and the Luftwaffe leadership made crucial errors, while British leaders such as Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding and Air Vice Marshal Keith Park made all the right decisions. Hitler’s first mistake was to accept Goring’s assurances that the Luftwaffe could finish the British Expeditionary Force on the beaches of Dunkirk. Failing to close and defeat them in detail allowed hundreds of thousands to escape and fight again, but the evacuation merely set the stage for the battle in the air.

In a matter of weeks, no one would any longer doubt the achievements of the RAF. Like Dunkirk, however, German missteps would contribute to the British victory.

“We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory,” Churchill told the House of Commons. “Wars are not won by evacuations. But there was a victory inside this deliverance, which should be noted. It was gained by the air force. Many of our soldiers coming back have not seen the air force at work; they saw only the bombers which escaped its protective attack. They underrate its achievements. I have heard much talk of this; that is why I go out of my way to say this.” In a matter of weeks, no one would any longer doubt the achievements of the RAF. Like Dunkirk, however, German missteps would contribute to the British victory.

hawker hurricane mk i

An RAF 85 Squadron Hawker Hurricane Mk. 1 in flight in October 1940. While the Spitfire drew the plaudits, the Hurricane shot down more German aircraft and bore the lion’s share of fighting the battle. IWM photo

One key failure was the German leadership’s inability to understand the importance of radar to the British defense. The technology of the Chain Home radar stations, paired with superb coordination of operations, was vital to concentrating the RAF’s outnumbered fighters against German raids as well as avoiding wasting aircraft in intercepting feints. Though the Germans also had radar technology, they were not using it in the same manner, and never really understood how it was being employed by the British until it was too late. German attacks against the Chain Home radar stations caused serious damage and disruption to operations, but these were soon abandoned because they were thought to be of little value.

Heinkel over London

A Heinkel He 111 bomber flying over London, 1940. This famous image could be a symbol of the turning point of the battle; when the Luftwaffe switched its attacks from the RAF bases and command and control infrastructure to London and other British cities. Imperial War Museum photo

Similarly, when the Luftwaffe attacked the RAF fighter stations, destroying fighters on the ground or forcing them into the air to face the German fighters, the RAF came to the brink of defeat. But it was at this key point that an errant German raid dropped bombs on London. Churchill’s immediate response, sending Bomber Command to raid Berlin, so angered Hitler that the raids on the fighter stations were abandoned in order to retaliate against British cities, allowing the fighter stations to recover. The suffering of London and other British cities, though terrible, could be considered the price paid for victory in the new era of total war.

While tremendous strides in production and repair of fighters maintained the supply of serviceable RAF aircraft, the greatest worry for the RAF was its losses in pilots. “The Few” was not just a propaganda term.

On paper, the Luftwaffe seemed to vastly outnumber the Royal Air Force at the start of the battle, with more than 2,500 aircraft, including more than 1,000 fighters, against barely 700 British fighters, a hundred of which were obsolescent Gladiators, Blenheims, and Defiants. A simple battle of attrition might have handed victory to the Germans, but their changes in strategy at crucial points in the battle turned the tide against them.

Supermarine Spitfire

Supermarine Spitfire Mark IAs of No. 610 Squadron, Royal Air Force based at Biggin Hill, Kent, flying in formation, July 24, 1940. Although more Hawker Hurricanes flew in the Battle of Britain, it is the Spitfire that still captures the popular imagination. Imperial War Museum photo

While tremendous strides in production and repair of fighters maintained the supply of serviceable RAF aircraft, the greatest worry for the RAF was its losses in pilots. These were partially made good by Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding’s scouring of the Fleet Air Arm, Coastal Command and Bomber Command for pilots, as well as the added strength of pilots from 14 different countries joining the fight as the battle wore on, but “The Few” was not just a propaganda term.

The battle also showed up failures in equipment. The failure to equip the excellent Me 109s with drop tanks meant they had a bare 20 minutes of combat time over England, and many German pilots sweated the trip home over the Channel, low fuel warning lights flickering.

 

The Messerschmitt Bf 110

The Messerschmitt Bf 110 Zerstorer (Destroyer) looked the part, but while it was fast, its lack of maneuverability left it vulnerable to Hurricanes and Spitfires, and it eventually needed escort itself. San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives photo

The vaunted Me 110 Zerstorers were a complete failure against the RAF’s Spitfires and Hurricanes, forming up into Lufbery circles as a defensive tactic on the first contact with British fighters, and eventually needing escorts themselves. The fast medium bombers that had proved so effective as tactical aircraft in support of the Blitzkrieg now showed themselves to be too lightly armed and vulnerable to fighter attack, and a four-engined strategic bomber had never been developed. The once-fearsome Stukas were also terribly vulnerable when operating in areas lacking Luftwaffe air-superiority, and were quickly withdrawn. On the British side, the failure of the turret fighter and long-range heavy fighter concepts were borne out in action through the Boulton-Paul Defiant and the Bristol Blenheim in the day fighter role. Both aircraft did better in the night fighter role.

Germany had lost almost 3,000 airmen and more than 1,700 aircraft, while the RAF had lost more than 1,000 fighter aircraft and 537 of their pilots. Bomber Command and Coastal Command had lost another 250 aircraft and 1,000 crewmembers in their unheralded fight against the Germans during the battle.

While the RAF was suffering terribly, Luftwaffe losses were worse, and Goring’s tirades against his pilots were affecting morale. Germany had lost almost 3,000 airmen and more than 1,700 aircraft, while the RAF had lost more than 1,000 fighter aircraft and 537 of their pilots. Bomber Command and Coastal Command had lost another 250 aircraft and 1,000 crewmembers in their unheralded fight against the Germans during the battle.

Bomber Command raids on the shipping being assembled for the invasion also caused serious setbacks to the German invasion timetable, and as time passed and the RAF fighters continued to come up in swarms, Hitler turned away to the East and his nemesis in the Soviet Union.

Whether the Germans would have been able in fact to successfully send a substantial invasion fleet across the channel and onto the beaches of Great Britain remains an open question. The RAF’s victory in the Battle of Britain nevertheless caused Hitler to put off indefinitely any plans for invasion.

%d bloggers like this: