This year marks the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. Here are some odd facts surrounding the battle:
1. It was the first battle completely fought entirely in the air. Major combatants were the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the German Luftwaffe. Some elements of the Italian Air Force (Regia Aeronautica) took part on the side of the Axis, but their contribution was minimal.
2. The Battle of Britain marked the first defeat of the German military. German forces had invaded most of Europe without difficulty. Having beaten France, their only obstacle was Great Britain. After the fall of France, there was no real plan in place for the invasion of the British Isles. A plan submitted by the Luftwaffe’s Hermann Goering was hastily put forward that involved the defeat of the RAF and thus allow an unobstructed invasion, dubbed “Operation Sea Lion.” This was approved by the High Command but failed to take into account the resolve of the RAF and the resilience of the British people. This failure, along with Reichsmarschall Goering’s over-confidence in his own Luftwaffe, meant it was doomed from the onset. In order for Operation Sea Lion to be a success, it was imperative for the Luftwaffe to control the air over Great Britain, and this did not happen.
3. The battle included the largest sustained aerial bombardment operation the world had ever seen. It began with German attacks on shipping in the Channel and moved on the coastal radar installations in hopes of “blinding” the RAF. Although some sites were damaged, the RAF still managed to keep track of the Luftwaffe’s bomber streams and their escorts. RAF airfields were next to feel the sting of German bombs, and this was meeting with some success, but the attacks ceased just as the RAF was on the edge of defeat. Poor intelligence on the RAF’s numbers, along with inflated victory claims of the Luftwaffe’s pilots, had the German High Command believing that the RAF was a non-existent force. In fact, stopping of the airfield attacks allowed the RAF the time it needed to replace lost aircraft and pilots. The RAF’s good fortune became Londoners’ nightmare, as bombing now switched to the docklands and, then, the city itself. What became known as the “Blitz” turned citizens’ lives upside down. Nightly air raids disrupted life as people headed for air raid shelters and into the Underground Train stations. Officials tried to stop them from clogging up the stations, but it was fruitless, and they quickly acquiesced. Londoners refused to have their spirit broken and carried on life as close to normal as they could. The “Blitz” would continue for some time even after the planned invasion was shelved.
4. The RAF had a distinct advantage over the Luftwaffe in that they were fighting a defensive battle, and, thus, it was easier to claim victory. Also, any RAF pilot shot down or having to bail out was doing so over his homeland. Those who were wounded were very quickly sent off to hospital, while others were sometimes treated to a cup of tea as they waited to be picked up and sent back to their squadrons. On the other hand, surviving Luftwaffe pilots were lost to captivity. RAF pilots could fly multiple missions, or sorties, in a day, while their counterparts could only do one trip. The German fighter escorts would sometimes get two sorties in a day, but only if the Bombers were going over again. Luftwaffe fighters had the disadvantage, owing to fuel reserves, of having less than 10 minutes in which to thwart attacks on their bombers before having to turn back to base. The RAF was well aware of this and used the knowledge to their advantage. Many Luftwaffe aircraft “ditched” in the sea or barely made the French coast before fuel ran out.
In the aftermath of the Battle, Germany found itself in a multi-fronted conflict. This was further compounded by Hitler’s ill-advised invasion of Russia. War now raged in the West, from Britain, in the south, from North Africa and Greece, as well as in the east from Russia. The Allies could now count on Britain as a stepping-off point to regain control of the European continent. Britain became the staging ground for every battle right up until the end of the war. While the Wehrmacht was being beaten down on the Russian front, the Allies were building strength in preparation for what would be known as the D-Day landings in Normandy.
Part of the legacy of the Battle of Britain was that aerial warfare tactics were refined through trial and error, and both sides gained from this. The importance of “control of the airspace” was a lesson learned and is common practice to this day. The use of radar and a network of reporting and filtering sites ensures the best intelligence is at hand. Satellite air bases attached to larger ones was soon widespread, thus, not to have all your eggs in one basket. When coupled together, these formed part of a rapid and decisive response to any interdiction and gave one the best chance to succeed.
Prior to the Battle, aircraft were designed for a specific purpose, for example, close air support or dive bombing. The shortages on both sides made it necessary to try aircraft in different roles. Some designs proved versatile and could carry out many roles, such as the Typhoon and Mosquito for the RAF and the FW-190 and the Do-17 for the Luftwaffe. Many others, especially during the Battle, just could not diversify. The Spitfire comes to mind — it was specifically designed as a nimble, short-range fighter, and it excelled in this role. The Luftwaffe had the Stuka divebomber and the Bf-110. These were good at their intended jobs, but during the Battle, Stukas were slow and easy prey for the RAF. The Bf-110 was a light fighter/bomber and was misused, providing close cover for the Heinkel and Dornier bombers. It was soon found that the Bf-110s needed escorts themselves. Manufacturers soon learned that aircraft needed to fulfill various roles.
The Battle of Britain made heroes out of many fliers from both sides. These men were just ordinary folk who joined the service for duty to country or just for the adventure.
Many did not return and, sadly, are known only to their families. Others became legends, and we are well aware of their names. Pilots like Bader, Johnson, Lacey, Malan, Deare, Galland and Marseille are etched into history, and rightfully so.
After the war, when the survivors of this battle would gather together at various Mess Dinners across Great Britain and the United States, German fighter ace Adolf Galland was a welcomed guest and attended as many as he could until his health began to fail. RAF ace Robert Tuck was Godfather to Galland’s son, and the two remained friends. Galland, Tuck and Douglas Bader were close friends, and the former foe attended the funerals of both Tuck and Bader.
Urban legend has it that when asked by Goering what he needed to win the Battle of Britain, Galland replied, “a squadron of Spitfires.”