How the Battle of Britain changed war, and the world, forever

It Was the World's First Battle Fought Only in the Sky

By Matt McCall
Published 2 Nov 2017, 23:42 GMT
German planes incessantly bombed airfields and factories on the English Coast during the Battle of Britain.
Photograph by Ap

On July 10, 1940, a German pilot spotted a convoy of British fighter planes and radioed base. Luftwaffe commander Colonel Johannes Fink replied with a single word: "Destroy!"

Soon, 70 German planes were flying in. The Royal Air Force scrambled four squadrons of Spitfire and Hurricane fighter planes.

The Battle of Britain had begun.

The battle wasn’t a single fight. It was a four-month campaign against the United Kingdom waged by the German Air Force, or Luftwaffe. It was the first large campaign fought only by air forces. And it was Germany’s first major defeat in the Second World War.

(Watch WWII-era planes fly over the Nation's Capital to celebrate Victory in Europe Day's 70th anniversary.)

The casualties came to 500 British airmen, 2,600 German pilots, and 60,000 civilians. But the British victory prevented Operation Sea Lion, a planned German airborne and amphibious invasion of Great Britain.

The Beginning of Modern Air Warfare

Author James Holland, who wrote The Battle of Britain: Five Months That Changed History, says some people disregard the battle’s significance because it was fought by relatively few people, and therefore suffered relatively few casualties. But in addition to strategic value, the battle also boosted a new technology that was key to the British Royal Air Force (RAF) victory … radar.

Luftwaffe head Hermann Göring didn't think British radar stations were important targets, and according to The Battle of Britain, only one of the stations was completely destroyed during the battle.

Some Germans even speculated the British were somehow telepathic—and in a way they were. In addition to their advanced radar network, the British had broken Germany’s secret radio code and could understand their messages.

Only 3,000 pilots flew for Britain in the battle. Churchill later said, "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."

The pilots also had support on the ground the Germans couldn't match. The battle was won in large part because Britain was producing at least twice as many planes as Germany could. In July, 1940, Britain produced 496 new fighters. Not only that, but many English pilots whose planes were shot down would parachute to safety, only to be back in the air 24 hours later. German pilots drowned in the Channel. The RAF became stronger, while the Luftwaffe became weaker.

The Battle That Saved Britain Also Saved Churchill

Two weeks before the fighting began a German attack seemed imminent. Prime Minister Winston Churchill addressed the House of Commons.

"Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, 'This was their finest hour,'" he said.

Historian Stephen Bungay, author of The Most Dangerous Enemy: The Definitive History of the Battle of Britain, says Winston Churchill may have been removed from power if Britain had not won the battle.

"There was quite a strong peace lobby," he says. "If the Luftwaffe had managed to establish sufficient command of the air over southeast England to threaten London around the clock without opposition the invasion threat, real or not, would therefore be made credible. It was quite likely that Churchill would have lost his grip on power and been replaced by somebody else, who would have said, 'Let’s be sensible, let’s call it a day.'"

Hitler even offered a peace settlement to Britain up to at least July 19, one month after Churchill's speech.

The Tide Shifts

"[The Battle of Britain] is unquestionably one of the key turning points," Holland says. "It confines Germany to a long, attritional war on multiple fronts that they can’t ultimately win."

In 1941, less than one year after abandoning the invasion of Britain, Hitler broke the pact of nonaggression signed with Joseph Stalin in 1939, opening the disastrous Eastern front.

Follow Matt McCall on Twitter.


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