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World War II: Battle of Britain

The Fight of the Few

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World War II: Battle of Britain

Supermarine Spitfire

Photograph Courtesy of the US Air Force

Battle of Britain: Conflict & Dates

The Battle of Britain was fought July 10 to late October 1940, during World War II.

Commanders

Royal Air Force

  • Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding
  • Air Vice Marshal Keith Park
  • Air Vice Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory

    Luftwaffe

  • Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring
  • Field Marshal Albert Kesselring
  • Field Marshal Hugo Sperrle
  • Generaloberst Hans-Jürgen Stumpff

Battle of Britain: Background

With the fall of France in June 1940, Britain alone was left to face the growing power of Nazi Germany. Though much of the British Expeditionary Force had been successfully evacuated from Dunkirk, it had been compelled to leave much of its heavy equipment behind. Not relishing the idea of having to invade Britain, Adolph Hitler initially hoped that Britain would sue for a negotiated peace. This hope quickly eroded as new Prime Minister Winston Churchill reasserted Britain's commitment to fight on to the end.

Reacting to this, Hitler ordered on July 16 that preparations begin for the invasion of Great Britain. Dubbed Operation Sea Lion, this plan called for an invasion to take place in August. As the Kriegsmarine had been badly reduced in earlier campaigns, a key prerequisite for the invasion was the elimination of the Royal Air Force to ensure that the Luftwaffe possessed air superiority over the Channel. With this in hand, the Luftwaffe would be able to hold the Royal Navy at bay as German troops landed in southern England.

Battle of Britain: The Luftwaffe Prepares

To eliminate the RAF, Hitler turned the chief of the Luftwaffe, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring. A veteran of World War I, the flamboyant and boastful Göring had ably overseen the Luftwaffe during the early campaigns of the war. For the coming battle, he shifted his forces to bring three Luftflotten (Air Fleets) to bear on Britain. While Field Marshal Albert Kesselring and Field Marshal Hugo Sperrle's Luftflotte 2 and 3 flew from the Low Countries and France, Generaloberst Hans-Jürgen Stumpff's Luftflotte 5 would attack from bases in Norway.

Largely designed to provide aerial support for the German Army's blitzkrieg style of attack, the Luftwaffe was not well-equipped for the type of strategic bombing that would be required in the coming campaign. Though its principal fighter, the Messerschmitt Bf 109, was equal to the best British fighters, the range at which it would be forced to operate limited the time it could spend over Britain. At the start of the battle, the Bf 109 was supported by the twin-engine Messerschmitt Bf 110. Intended as a long range escort fighter, the Bf 110 quickly proved vulnerable to the more nimble British fighters and was a failure in this role. Lacking a four-engine strategic bomber, the Luftwaffe relied on a trio of smaller twin-engine bombers, the Heinkel He 111, Junkers Ju 88, and the aging Dornier Do 17. These were supported by the single-engine Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive bomber. An effective weapon in the war's early battles, the Stuka ultimately proved highly vulnerable to British fighters and was withdrawn from the fight.

Battle of Britain: The Dowding System & His "Chicks"

Across the Channel, the aerial defense of Britain was entrusted to the head of Fighter Command, Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding. Possessing a prickly personality and nicknamed "Stuffy," Dowding had taken over Fighter Command in 1936. Working tirelessly, he had overseen the development of the RAF's two frontline fighters, the Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire. While the latter was a match for the BF 109, the former was a bit outclassed but was capable of out-turning the German fighter. Anticipating the need for greater firepower, Dowding had both fighters outfitted with eight machine guns. Highly protective of his pilots, he often referred to them as his "chicks."

While understanding the need for new advanced fighters, Dowding was also key in recognizing that they could only be employed effectively if they were properly controlled from the ground. To this end, he supported the development of Radio Direction Finding (radar) and the creation of the Chain Home radar network. This new technology was incorporated into his "Dowding System" which saw the uniting of radar, ground observers, raid plotting, and radio control of aircraft. These disparate components were tied together through a protected telephone network that was administered through his headquarters at RAF Bentley Priory. In addition, to better control his aircraft, he divided the command into four groups to cover all of Britain (Map).

These consisted of Air Vice Marshal Sir Quintin Brand's 10 Group (Wales and the West Country), Air Vice Marshal Keith Park's 11 Group (Southeastern England), Air Vice Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory's 12 Group (Midland & East Anglia), and Air Vice Marshal Richard Saul's 13 Group (Northern England, Scotland, & Northern Ireland). Though scheduled to retire in June 1939, Dowding was asked to remain in his post until March 1940 due to the deteriorating international situation. His retirement was subsequently postponed until July and then October. Eager to preserve his strength, Dowding had vigorously opposed the sending of Hurricane squadrons across the Channel during the Battle of France.

Battle of Britain: German Intelligence Failures

As the bulk of Fighter Command's strength had been husbanded in Britain during the earlier fighting, the Luftwaffe had a poor estimate of its strength. As the battle began, Göring believed that the British had between 300-400 fighters when in actuality, Dowding possessed over 700. This led the German commander to believe that Fighter Command could be swept from the skies in four days. While the Luftwaffe was aware of the British radar system and ground control network, it dismissed their importance and believed that they created a inflexible tactical system for the British squadrons. In reality, the system permitted flexibility for squadron commanders to make appropriate decisions based on the most recent data.

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