The Battle of Britain opposed from July 1940 to May 1941 the British Air Force (RAF) and the German Air Force (Luftwaffe), during the Second World War. She succeeded the Battle of France, lost a month earlier. Hitler, free in the East thanks to the German-Soviet Pact, had only England to face. But it was that of Winston Churchill and not of Chamberlain that he decided to bring to his knees with an unprecedented bombardment, which would reveal British courage and make the Royal Air Force a legend. These intense dogfights will end in the first Nazi defeat since the beginning of the conflict in 1939.
Operation Sea Lion, prelude to the Battle of Britain
The plan for the invasion of England was suggested, it seems, by Admiral Raeder, whom Hitler had instructed as early as May 1939 to prepare a war long-term economy to suffocate the United Kingdom with the maritime blockade. It was therefore following the surprise success of the breakthrough at Sedan in May 1940 that Raeder, perhaps alerted by the difficulties of a long war at sea against the British navy, suggested an invasion of England, taking advantage of the rapid defeat of France, which would gain months in view of the planned attack on the USSR. Hitler is seduced and issues the orders accordingly.
Obviously, the German staffs (especially the navy and the German army) had already thought about this possibility as early as 1939, but the difficulty of the task seemed to them almost insurmountable . In any case, the RAF had to be destroyed before thinking about a possible landing of troops. And the destruction of the British air force would in any case perhaps render an invasion useless…
Logically, following Admiral Raeder's proposal, it was the German Navy which got down to new to this project. However, it was not until the end of June 1940 that the general staff and Hitler himself took a real interest in it, preferring it to that of an economic war that was too costly (and not only in time). The idea, developed among others by Jodl, is to combine an attack intended to crush the RAF with an offensive against the supply of England; thus, the British population would give in and the landing would be only the last act of a battle already won in the air and at sea.
Quite quickly, however, the Kriegsmarine began to express some reservations; but that does not prevent Jodl from continuing to propose several more daring plans than the others. It is he who gives his name to the operation:Löwe (Lion), which becomes Seelöwe (Sea lion). Faced with the procrastination of Raeder, however initiator of the idea of invasion, it is logically the rival of the RAF, the Luftwaffe, which takes the ascendancy. Growing impatient, Hitler ordered the operation to be completed by mid-September.
While Raeder and several army officers advised the Führer to postpone the attack until the following year and to prefer an offensive in the Mediterranean, Hitler insisted and demanded the Luftwaffe to crush the RAF; this will be Operation Eagle. Despite the uncertainty of the outcome of the air war and the still questionable usefulness of a landing, preparations continued until September 1940...
RAF against Luftwaffe:the air fleets involved
Before discussing the Battle of Britain as such, it is interesting to return to the materials used, the importance of which will be crucial, perhaps as much as the strategic decisions. The Luftwaffe is intoxicated by its remarkable victories in Poland and France, where it took over the enemy aviation without real difficulty. It is based on modern aircraft, superior to (almost) all the competition.
The main Luftwaffe fighter during the Battle of Britain was the Messerschmitt-109 , called "Emil", armed with two 7.9 mm machine guns and two 20 mm cannons. It is very fast (575 km/h) and quite maneuverable, but has a small radius of action. The other Goering favorite fighter is the Messerschmitt-110 :heavily armed (two 20 guns, four 7.9 machine guns, one mobile 7.9 machine gun), with a good range, it is however unwieldy against enemy fighters.
The Junkers-87 bomber , known as “Stuka”, terrorized the French and Polish armies and populations; armed with a 500 kg bomb or four 50 and one 250 bombs, he is supposed to inflict the same fate on the British. The Junkers-88 , an average German bomber in every sense of the word, should be used for a wide variety of missions, including as a reconnaissance aircraft; its versatility is therefore its strong point. The Dornier-17 and 215 are of lesser quality, the first being the veteran (he participated in the Spanish Civil War), both having insufficient bomb load capabilities. The Heinkel-111 , on the contrary, is the standard bomber of the Luftwaffe; however, its range is limited for a bomber that has become heavy, but thought of as medium. And it is probably not "flying fortress" enough to protect itself from enemy hunting...
The Royal Air Force, for its part, essentially has two aircraft and a third "weapon" at least as decisive during this Battle of Britain. Airplanes first:the Hurricane is the first and most widespread RAF fighter; it specializes in intercepting bombers. The Spitfire , he, who will become one of the stars of the battle (and of the war), is able to compete with the M-109:as fast, it is more maneuverable and better armed than the German fighter. But at the start of the Battle of Britain, Spitfires were still relatively few in number within the RAF.
The other decisive RAF weapon, we will come back to this, is the radar.
The Luftwaffe goes on the offensive
While the first weeks of the war had been relatively calm in English skies, the hasty flight from Dunkirk marked the beginning of real hostilities between the RAF and the Luftwaffe. From the beginning of June 1940, the German air force attacked England:about thirty bombers targeted airfields. The end of the offensive on France caused a lull, but immediately after the armistice operations began again, particularly at night.
The speed of France's defeat and Britain's refusal to make peace pushed Hitler to speed up Operation Sea Lion, and above all its preparation by annihilating the RAF. From mid-July, the Luftwaffe attacked convoys on the Channel, putting the British fighters, already just in time, to the test. These are only the beginnings of the great air attack that England must undergo.
At the beginning of August, the Luftwaffe can field some 3,000 aircraft (including just over 1,000 Me-109 and 300 Me-110 ). On the English side, we can advance around 450 Hurricane fighters and Spitfire , but the progress is significant and from the second half of August, the RAF can oppose its enemy with more than 700 operational fighters and a little less than 300 in reserve. We will soon talk about the thousand pilots who saved England...and more.
The British defense system
The weeks that separate the evacuation of Dunkirk from the start of the Battle of Britain allow the British command not only to increase its number of fighter planes, but also to organize its defense system. The hunting groups are redeployed, and above all the radar network is extended. This new instrument is still relatively unmastered and in its infancy, but the RAF staff has already understood its importance. Despite recurring weaknesses, particularly in terms of numbers, Air Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding can also rely on Coastal Command and Bomber Command. However, the aim of the latter, with its bombers (about 350 aircraft, mainly Blenheim ), must be confined to attacking German airfields and ports, where the future landing fleet is stationed.
The RAF's problem in this Battle of Britain is ultimately more at the level of the initiative:the latter obviously belongs to the Luftwaffe, while the English air force cannot than just reacting defensively. The radar is there to partly compensate for this British disadvantage. Fortunately for England, the defensive system is very well developed and must react to a German offensive that was ultimately quite improvised because of Hitler's impatience, who wants Operation Sea Lion to be completed in September.
Hitler finally agreed to attempt a big operation against England , first by a massive air attack, then by an invasion with Operation Sea Lion, despite doubts about its usefulness in the event of a Luftwaffe success. England is ready to respond to German aircraft, thanks to its thousand pilots and their Hurricanes and Spitfire , but also thanks to a new “weapon”, the radar. Its population does not yet know that it too will pay a high price.
Day of the Eagle
It was on August 10 and the next few days that Goering planned the end of the RAF, at least in the South of England. The first days of August, the English therefore understood that air operations were about to begin:the German objectives were mainly the airfields, targeted by the Stuka , as well as radar stations. But on August 12 the losses are 31 planes for the Germans and 22 for the English, while a single radar station is destroyed and the aerodromes are quickly restored!
August 13th marks the "day of the Eagle":Kent and the Thames estuary are attacked, then Hampshire, Dorset and Wiltshire. Three English airfields are badly affected, but none housed fighters. The same night, a bombing heavily damaged a Spitfire production plant. near Birmingham. In addition to a thousand sorties, the Luftwaffe lost 45 planes, the British only 13. The Germans then saw a success in this "Eagle Day":they thought they had destroyed 300 enemy fighters, when in the end it was three times less…
The RAF wins the air battle
The following days, the raids continued with the Stuka still leading the bomber side. But the English fighter responds with violence, and the limits of the German light bombers, but also of the Me-110 are starting to make themselves felt against the Hurricane and especially the Spitfire . And the results of the bombardments are globally unsatisfactory.
August 15 shows a build-up of German attacks:that day, the Luftwaffe carries out more than 500 bomber sorties and 1270 fighters! They lose 75 aircraft, against 34 for the RAF. The next day they pressed on airfields, with some success, but still suffering more casualties than the British.
The first round is finally won by the RAF:contrary to German estimates which see them around 300, Dowding still has 600 Spitfires and Hurricane; his hunt destroyed more than 360 German aircraft! After another unsatisfactory raid on August 18 and a period of calm due to bad weather, the Luftwaffe decided to change strategy. She abandons the use of Stuka, martyred by the Spitfire , and focuses on goals further inland.
The London Blitz
If quantitatively the success is on the British side, the atmosphere is not at its highest at the Dowding headquarters. The production of fighters does not compensate for the losses, even in the training of British pilots. At this rate, and even inflicting losses that are still higher than the Luftwaffe, victory is not assured.
The British don't know, however, that their enemies are also limited in time by their desire to launch Sea Lion in mid-September. You have to hit hard to make the opponent bend. First of all, we increase the number of escorts around the bombers. Then we change the objectives:the factories of the hunters are hit harder, as are the airfields of these same hunters. The beginning of September then begins to turn to the real test for the RAF:it must face always more bombers, escorted by always more Me-109 . Even before September 5, 380 German planes and 286 English fighters were shot down! English hunting is undergoing increasingly worrying wear and tear. This is the moment the Germans choose to attack a new target:London.
The Luftwaffe's objective is twofold:to intensify air combat to further wear down the RAF; disorganize it, but also the British government by attacking it to the heart. In addition, the Reich wants to retaliate to a British raid on Berlin, launched following… a mistake in the German bombing of London! The fact that Berlin was hit when Goering had sworn that the capital was inaccessible further strengthens the determination of the Luftwaffe…
On September 7, 1940, 300 bombers escorted by 600 fighters set fire to the English capital. The Londoners then called the attack the "Blitz", in reference to the Blitzkrieg suffered by their French allies. On the German side, we are convinced that the coup de grace is approaching, and that the landing will be able to take place. But the British side also feared the imminence of the invasion, and attacks on German ports intensified.
Time is against the Luftwaffe
The bombardment of London continued for the following days (and nights), calmed only by some bad weather and the courageous reaction of the English fighters. But time is on the line for the British:Operation Sea Lion needs ten days to be launched after the actual crushing of the RAF, and this is not yet certain despite the losses. Hitler wanted this invasion to take place in mid-September; he granted the Luftwaffe another delay, but it was bad weather that was against him, prohibiting further massive raids on September 12 and 13. Finally, the landing is scheduled for September 27, the last favorable tide day for weeks. Meanwhile, Bomber Command raids on German barges are getting more and more results…
On September 15, the English fighters greatly undermined a new raid attempt on London, aided by radars which spotted enemy waves from afar and allowed a better organization of the response. Other English cities (Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol, etc.) were hit, again without much success. It is a new failure for Goering's Luftwaffe, and even the deadliest day of the Battle of Britain on the German side.
The Battle of Britain, a turning point in the war?
It is now certain that the Luftwaffe will not be able to annihilate the RAF in the time allowed. And the RAF still standing, the invasion of England is unthinkable. On September 17, Hitler therefore decided to postpone Operation Sea Lion. Barely a month later, on October 12, 1940, he postponed it to the spring of 1941. In the meantime he would have had other worries...
The Führer's order does not mean the end of the Battle of Britain, however. Furious, Air Marshal Goering continued the raids in the following weeks, always with London as the preferred target. But still the famous English weather, supplemented on sunny days by the RAF, continued to lessen the German raids, despite the suffering suffered by civilians. Between September 7 and 30, 1940, the Luftwaffe lost more than 400 aircraft against 242 to its British counterpart! Hitler's decision on October 12 buries Goering's hopes, and at the same time the project of invading Great Britain.
The latter's victory is clear and brings some elements for the future:its population showed a courage and tenacity that would become legendary; its pilots showed their skill and heroism, aided by a Spitfire crowned one of the best fighters of the conflict; radar becomes an essential instrument of war.
However, England suffered greatly:many of its experienced pilots perished, but it was mainly civilians who suffered the wrath of the Germans. During the month of September, most major UK city centers are hit hard. The month of November saw the intensification of bombardments on civilian areas, not necessarily industrial ones, with for example the martyrdom of Coventry on November 14. Until May 1941, the British population mourned the death of 40,000 of its own in these bombings.
The end of the Battle of Britain and the Blitz was ultimately due to the opening of the Eastern Front in the spring of 1941, and the Soviet resistance that followed. The Battle of Britain, fought by barely a thousand RAF pilots (including 400 killed in action) is the first setback experienced by Germany, well before El-Alamein or Stalingrad. The success of Operation Sea Lion as early as September 1940, as desired by Hitler, would have enabled the Reich to throw all its forces into the battle of the East, and we can assume without fear of going too far astray that the outcome of the Second World War would probably have been very different...
- P. Faucon, The Battle of Britain (1940) , Economica, 1999.
- The Battle of Britain:June-October 1940, by Jérôme de Lespinois. Tallandier, 2011.
- The Last Enemy:Battle of Britain, June 1940-May 1941, by Richard Hillary. text, 2010.