“… What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free, and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of a perverted science. 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.’”
— Winston Churchill
With the fall of France in June of 1940, the island nation of Great Britain faced the Axis forces alone, and both sides knew that the threat of invasion was real. The German army seemed invincible after rolling through Europe and was now poised on the Channel coast looking at England.
The British army, having escaped annihilation through the “Miracle of Dunkirk,” was in shambles, undermanned and under-equipped. All that stood in the way of invasion was the Royal Air Force (RAF). By mid-1940, there were about 9,000 pilots in the RAF and about 5,000 aircraft, most of which were bombers. Fighter Command was never short of pilots; however, the issue was finding fully-trained fighter pilots.
With aircraft production running at 300 per week, only 200 pilots were trained in the same period. The RAF lost more than 400 pilots during the Battle of France and in operations in Norway. For Fighter Command’s Air Chief Marshall Dowding, the biggest concern was the lack of pilots. He was able to draw pilots from the Auxiliary Air Force, as well as the Volunteer Reserve. By July 1, 1940, they could muster 1,100 pilots, but many of the replacements had little flight training and gunnery skills and suffered high losses.
The formation of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan would improve this, but the RAF was still vastly outnumbered. Roughly 20 per cent of pilots who took part in the Battle were from non-British countries. The RAF roll of honour for the Battle lists 595 pilot losses that flew at least one operational sortie with an RAF or Fleet Air Arm squadron from July 10 to Oct. 31, 1940. Included were 145 Poles, 127 New Zealanders, 112 Canadians, 88 Czechoslovacs, 32 Australians, 28 Belgians, 25 South Africans, 13 French, 10 Irish, nine Americans and three Southern Rhodesians, as well as individuals from Jamaica, Barbados and Newfoundland. During that same period with bombing raids and patrols, 1,495 aircrew were killed, and of those, 449 were fighter pilots. Of those, 47 were Canadians. All the names of Commonwealth and Allied airmen who gave their lives are inscribed in a memorial book in the Battle of Britain Chapel in Westminster Abbey.
Several advantages gained by the RAF included that they were over their home island, and a crash landing or bailing out meant the pilot could be back with his squadron in a very short period of time. Any Luftwaffe pilot shot down was lost for the duration. Some tactics employed by the German Luftwaffe were failures and, thus, became advantages for the RAF. One such plan involved attacking the RAF Fighter Command bases to smash the RAF on the ground. While this was working quite well, they abandoned it too early in favour of bombing London docklands. Had they kept beating up the RAF bases, the outcome could have been different.
On Sept. 15, 1940, the Luftwaffe launched its largest bombing attack yet. This forced the entire RAF Fighter Command to rise up to defend London and the south-east. The result was a decisive victory for the RAF and was the turning point in the Battle. By mid-September, it became apparent that the RAF was not about to be defeated, and the invasion plans were scrapped.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill summed up the Battle by saying,“ NEVER IN THE FIELD OF HUMAN CONFLICT WAS SO MUCH OWED BY SO MANY TO SO FEW.”
Ever since, those that took part in the Battle of Britain have been known simply as “The Few.” Sept. 15 was chosen as “Battle of Britain Day” and is celebrated throughout the Commonwealth.
This year marks the 90th anniversary, and owing to the Coronavirus concerns, Royal Canadian Legion Branch 94 will hold a small service at the Cenotaph.