Immediately after the defeat of France, Adolf Hitler ordered his generals to organize the invasion of Britain. The invasion plan was given the code name Sealion. The objective was to land 160,000 German soldiers along a forty-mile coastal stretch of south-east England. Within a few weeks the Germans had assembled a large armada of vessels, including 2,000 barges in German, Belgian and French harbours.
However, Hitler's generals were very worried about the damage that the Royal Air Force could inflict on the German Army during the invasion. Hitler therefore agreed to their request that the invasion should be postponed until the British airforce had been destroyed.
By the start of what became known as the Battle of Britain the Luftwaffe had 2,800 aircraft stationed in France, Belgium, Holland and Norway. This force outnumbered the RAF four to one. However, the British had the advantage of being closer to their airfields. German fighters could only stay over England for about half an hour before flying back to their home bases. The RAF also had the benefits of an effective early warning radar system and the intelligence information provided by Ultra.
The German pilots had more combat experience than the British and probably had the best fighter plane in the Messerschmitt Bf109. They also had the impressive Messerschmitt 110 and Junkers Stuka. The commander of Fighter Command, Hugh Dowding, relied on the Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire.
On the 12th August, 1940, the German airforce began its mass bomber attacks on British radar stations, aircraft factories and fighter airfields. During these raids radar stations and airfields were badly damaged and twenty-two RAF planes were destroyed. This attack was followed by daily raids on Britain.
As a result of the effective range of the Luftwaffe, the battle was mainly fought over southern England. This area was protected by Fighter Command No. 11 under Keith Park and Fighter Command No. 12 led by Trafford Leigh-Mallory. They also but received support from the squadrons based in the eastern counties.
Between 1st and 18th August the RAF lost 208 fighters and 106 pilots. The second half of the month saw even heavier losses and wastage now outstripped the production of new aircraft and the training of pilots to fly them. Those British pilots that did survive suffered from combat fatigue.
During the Battle of Britain Trafford Leigh-Mallory came into conflict with Keith Park, the commander of No. 11 Fighter Group. Park, who was responsible for the main approaches south-east of London, took the brunt of the early attacks by the Luftwaffe. Park complained that No. 12 Fighter Group should have done more to protect the air bases in his area instead of going off hunting for German planes to shoot down.
Leigh-Mallory obtained support from Vice Marshal William Sholto Douglas, assistant chief of air staff. He was critical of the tactics being used by Keith Park and Hugh Dowding, head of Fighter Command. He took the view that RAF fighters should be sent out to meet the German planes before they reached Britain. Park and Dowding rejected this strategy as being too dangerous and argued it would increase the number of pilots being killed.
The climax of the Battle of Britain came on the 30th-31st August, 1940. The British lost 50 aircraft compared to the Germany's 41. The RAF were close to defeat but Adolf Hitler then changed his tactics and ordered the Luftwaffe to switch its attack from British airfields, factories and docks to civilian targets. This decision was the result of a bombing attack on Berlin that had been ordered by Charles Portal, the new head of Bomber Command.
The Blitz brought an end to the Battle of Britain. During the conflict the Royal Air Force lost 792 planes and the Luftwaffe 1,389. There were 2,353 men from Great Britain and 574 from overseas who were members of the air crews that took part in the Battle of Britain. An estimated 544 were killed and a further 791 lost their lives in the course of their duties before the war came to an end.
As England, despite her hopeless military situation, still shows no sign of willingness to come to terms, I have decided to prepare, and if necessary to carry out, a landing operation against her.
The aim of this operation is to eliminate the English motherland as a base from which war against Germany can be continued and, if necessary, to occupy completely.
The Luftwaffe will use all the forces at its disposal to destroy the British air force as quickly as possible. August 5th is the first day on which this intensified air war may begin, but the exact date is to be left to the Luftwaffe and will depend on how soon its preparations are complete, and on the weather situation.
There's one coming down in flames - there somebody's hit a German - and he's coming down - there's a long streak - he's coming down completely out of control - a long streak of smoke - ah, the man's baled out by parachute - the pilot's baled out by parachute - he's a Junkers 87 and he's going slap into the sea and there he goes - smash. Oh boy, I've never seen anything so good as this - the R.A.F. fighters have really got these boys taped.
Slowly we overhauled the Domier bombers. Momentarily reassured that nothing lethal was sitting behind my aircraft, I settled down to the task of firing at one of the leading machines. Then the enemy rear gunners started firing. The mass of fire from the bomber formation closed in as I fired desperately in a race to destroy before being destroyed. The first bang came as a shock. For an instant I couldn't believe I'd been hit. Two more bangs followed in quick succession, and as if by magic a gapping hole suddenly appeared in my starboard wing. Surprise quickly changed to fear, and as the instinct of self-preservation began to take over, the gas tank behind the engine blew up, and my cockpit became an inferno.
Fear became blind terror, than agonized horror as the bare skin of my hands gripping the throttle and control column shrivelled up like burnt parchment under the intensity of the blast furnace temperature. Screaming at the top of my voice, I threw my intensity of the blast furnace temperature. Screaming at the top of my voice, I threw my head back to keep it away from the searing flames. Instinctively the tortured right hand groped for the release pin. Fresh air suddenly flowed across my burning face. I tumbled. Sky, sea, sky, over and over as a clearing brain issued instructions to outflung limbs.
Realising that pain or no pain, the ripcord had to be pulled, the brain overcame the reaction of the raw nerve endings and forced the mutilated fingers to grasp the ring and pull firmly. It acted immediately. With a jerk the silken canopy billowed out in the clear summer sky. Quickly I looked up to see if the dreaded flames had done their work, and it was with relief that I saw the shining material was unburned.
I was peering anxiously ahead, for the controller had given us warning of at least fifty enemy fighters approaching very high. When we did first sight them, nobody shouted, as I think we all saw them at the same moment. They must have been 500 to 1000 feet above us and coming straight on like a swarm of locusts. The next moment we were in among them and it was each man for himself. As soon as they saw us they spread out and dived, and the next ten minutes was a blur of twisting machines and tracer bullets. One Messerschmitt went down in a sheet of flame on my right, and a Spitfire hurtled past in a half-roll; I was leaving and turning in a desperate attempt to gain height, with the machine practically hanging on the airscrew.
Then, just below me and to my left, I saw what I had been praying for - a Messerschmitt climbing and away from the sun. I closed in to 200 yards, and from slightly to one side gave him a two-second burst: fabric ripped off the wing and black smoke poured from the engine, but he did not go down. Like a fool, I did not break away, but put in another three-second burst. Red flames shot upwards and he spiralled out of sight. At that moment, I felt a terrific explosion which knocked the control stick from my hand, and the whole machine quivered like a stricken animal. In a second, the cockpit was a mass of flames: instinctively, I reached up to open the hood. It would not move. I tore off my straps and managed to force it back; but this took time, and when I dropped back into the seat and reached for the stick in an effort to turn the plane on its back, the heat was so intense that I could feel myself going. I remember a second of sharp agony, remember thinking "So this is it!" and putting both hands to my eyes. Then I passed out.
The advantage of the Spitfire and the Hurricane in individual combat with the Me 109 was that both British aeroplanes could out-turn the German one which was why, when surprised from behind, the enemy's defensive manoeuvre was to push the stick forward into a dive which, in 1940, we could not follow. If we were surprised, our defence was to turn quickly and keep turning because the Me 109's radius of turn was bigger than that of a Spitfire or Hurricane and thus he could not keep you in his sights. If he was inexperienced enough to try, he would find the British fighter behind him after a couple of circuits.
Nevertheless, the Me 109 was a good fighter in which the pilot and rear-gunner sat in tandem. It took little punishment and was easy to shoot down, because it was lightly built for performance. A burst from eight machine guns destroyed it quickly. It wasn't anything like so manoeuvrable as a single-engined, single-seater fighter and relied entirely on surprise to shoot us down.
The Focke-Wulf 190 certainly gave the British a shock. 1941 had ended with the Me 109 with the Spitfire (two cannons and four machine-guns fighting it out on fairly even terms. Then, without warning from British intelligence sources, this startling aeroplane appeared in March 1942. A radial-engineered fighter, it out-climbed and out-dived the Spitfire. Now for the first time the Germans were out-flying our pilots. Instantly Rolls and Supermarine retaliated with the Spitfire IXa which equalled the 190, followed at the spring of 1942 with the IXa which equalled the 190, followed at the end of 1942 with the IXb which outflew it in all respects. The Spitfire was unchallenged for the rest of the war, except in the last few months by the Messerschmitt 262 jet which arrived too late to make a significant contribution.
There had been that day when two planes had appeared from behind a feathery, frothy white cloud. The sun was glinting on the wing tips, making both planes look as though they had been shot with silver. We stood there by the harbour walls with our eyes shaded against the sun to watch this drama being enacted over the water: the attacker and the attacked. As one streaked away, veering sideways to avoid the staccato burst of gun fire that could be plainly heard by those standing below on the ground, the other again zoomed upwards. There was a moment when both planes blotted out the sun so that they seemed like a purple shadow against the sky. In that momentary silence there was a tiny cough and a splutter as if the engine of that plane was emitting a half-strangled death cry before finally bursting into flames and beginning its dizzy spiral descent into the cold waters below.
Witnessing this tragic episode affected me deeply. I watched the bystanders who were beginning to disperse, some shaking their heads sadly before walking on to attend to their own affairs. I felt suddenly very cold and empty. I wanted an answer to all this insane killing and aggression. I was very aware of being pregnant and creating life, while men were wasting it.
15th September 1940 was a Sunday. Because of the noise of the battle overhead, normal Sunday School activities were impossible; everyone was exited rather than frightened, and there being no air raid shelter I thought it safer to be outside rather than inside. So we all lay on the Churchyard grass and had a thrilling view of the twists and turns of those marvellous men in their flying machines engaged in single combat above us.
6.30 a.m. This morning a large number of enemy aircraft crossed the coast near Dover in two waves. They were promptly met by strong formations of our fighters and an air battle ensued. In the course of this two small enemy formations succeeded in penetrating to the London area.Bombs were dropped and amongst them enemy objectives, Buckingham Palace was again hit. The Queen's private apartments were damaged by a bomb which did not explode.Elsewhere in London area houses were hit, some fires broke out and damage was done to gas and water mains. From preliminary reports it is clear that the number of casualties was small.At least fifty enemy aircraft were shot down in this raid.9.00 p.m. Up to 8 p.m. it is known that 165 enemy aircraft have been shot down today. Thirty of our fighters have been lost, but ten of the pilots are known to be safe.In addition to the 165 German planes shot down by our fighters, four more were brought down by anti-aircraft fire, making the total 169.
Gradually I realized what had happened. My face and hands had been scrubbed and then sprayed with tannic acid. My arms were propped up in front of me, the fingers extended like witches' claws, and my body was hung loosely on straps just clear of the bed. Shortly after my arrival in East Grinstead, the Air Force plastic surgeon, A.H. McIndoe, had come to see me. Of medium height, he was thick set and the line of his jaw was square. Behind his horn-rimmed spectacles a pair of tired, friendly eyes regarded me speculatively. "Well," he said, "you certainly made a thorough job of it, didn't you?" He stated to undo the dressings on my hands and I noticed his fingers - blunt, captive, incisive. By now all the tannic had been removed from my face and hands. He took a scalpel and tapped lightly on something white showing through the red granulating knuckle of my right fore-finger. "Four new eyelids, I'm afraid, but you are not ready for them yet. I want all this skin to soften up a lot first."The time when the dressings were taken down I looked exactly like an orang-utan. McIndoe had pitched out two semi-circular ledges of skin under my eyes to allow for contraction of the new lids. What was not absorbed was to be sliced off when I came in for my next operation, a new upper lip.
One of the prettiest girls I'd seen in my life came into the room to help with the dressings. She was unable to hide the expression of horror and loathing that registered on her lovely face at the sight of my scorched flesh. Following her hypnotized stare, I looked down watery-eyed at my arms. From the elbows to the wrists the bare forearms were one seething mass of pus-filled boils resulting from the disturbed condition of the blood. From the wrist joints to the finger tips they were blacker than any Negro's hands.Richard Hillary paused at the end of the bed and stood silently watching me. He was one of the queerest apparitions I had ever seen. The tall figure was clad in a long, loose-fitting dressing gown that trailed to the floor. The head was thrown right back so that the owner appeared to be looking along the line of his nose. Where normally two eyes would be, were two large bloody red circles of raw skin. Horizontal slits in each showed that behind still lay the eyes. A pair of hands wrapped in large lint covers lay folded across his chest. Cigarette smoke curled up from the long holder clenched between the ghoul's teeth. There was a voice behind the mask. It was condescending in tone. "Bloody fool should have worn gloves." Hillary's hands were equally badly burned and for the same reason - no gloves.
It is fascinating to watch the reactions of the various pilots. They fall into two broad categories; those who are going out to shoot and those who secretly and desperately know they will be shot at, the hunters and the hunted. The majority of the pilots, once they have seen their name on the board, walk out to their Spitfires for a pre-flight check and for a word or two with their ground crews. They tie on their mae-wests, check their maps, study the weather forecast and have a last-minute chat with their leaders or wingmen. These are the hunters.
The hunted, that very small minority (although every squadron usually possessed at least one), turned to their escape kits and made quite sure that they were wearing the tunic with the silk maps sewn into a secret hiding-place; that they had at least one oilskin-covered packet of French francs, and two if possible; that they had a compass and a revolver and sometimes specially made clothes to assist their activities once they were shot down. When they went through these agonized preparations they reminded me of aged countrywomen meticulously checking their shopping- lists before catching the bus for the market town.
It was estimated in the summer of the battle that every pilot kept in action for more than six months would be shot down because he was exhausted or stale, or even because he had lost the will to fight. In terms of flying hours the fighter pilot's life expectancy could be measured at eighty-seven.
The colossus of World War II seemed to be like a pyramid turned upside down, and for the moment the whole burden of the war rested on the few hundred German fighter pilots on the Channel coast.
Active air defence by day or night is a question of identifying the enemy, tracking his flight path and then intercepting and destroying him. At the start of the Battle of Britain we could identify and track the enemy by radar as far as the coast, but once he crossed it we had to depend entirely on visual observation reports from the Royal Observer Corps. Under clear-day conditions the track reports were accurate, but at night and in bad weather by day when cloud obscured visual observation, tracking and height finding were bound to be inaccurate and interception under such conditions a matter of luck. Guns and searchlights depended on sound locators to indicate the enemy's height and position. With slow-flying aeroplanes at medium altitude, this worked reasonably well; but the higher-performance aircraft of 1939-40 meant there was little or no possibility of successful engagement with guns at heights of 20,000 feet and above.
Though the air battles over England were perhaps a triumph of skill and bravery so far as the German air crews were concerned, from the strategic point of view it was a failure and contributed to our ultimate defeat. The decision to fight it marks a turning point in the history of the Second World War. The German Air Force was bled almost to death, and suffered losses which could never again be made good throughout the course of the war.
Four days ago, September 15th, was celebrated throughout this country and the world as the second anniversary of the Battle of Britain. Between August and October 1940, after the fall of France, the Germans made an all-out effort to conquer Britain by air and loudly boasted that they would be able to do so within a few weeks. They started off in August and September with daylight raids aimed at destroying the Royal Air Force, and when this had evidently failed, switched over to night raids directed chiefly at the working-class areas in the East End of London, aiming at terrorising the civilian
population. The whole manoeuvre however was a failure and in about two months of air warfare the Germans lost between two and three thousand planes, with some thousands of irreplaceable airmen.
September 15th is celebrated as the anniversary because on that day the Royal Air Force shot down no less than 185 German planes, and it was about that date that the failure of the Germans to overwhelm the British defences by daylight bombing became apparent. Now that we can look back and see the events in better perspective it is becoming clear that the Battle of Britain ranks in importance with Trafalgar, Salamis, the defeat of the Spanish Armada and other battles of the past in which the invading forces of a seemingly invincible monarch or dictator have been beaten back and which have formed a turning point in history.
When the Battle of Britain began in the middle of August 1940, we were in the front line. We watched day after day as the planes fought overhead. As many of them crashed, we went off to find them, and to provide any help we could for survivors, whether they were British or German. At night, the searchlight batteries stationed alongside the camp were operating through the darkness, and we would often get called out again for the same purpose. All too often there was little that could be done.
On 31 August Goering held a conference with his Luftwaffe deputies. They knew that they had not yet established air supremacy but faulty intelligence suggested that the RAF was running out of planes. The Germans believed that Fighter Command had only 420 aircraft left (the true figure was about 750) and that reserves were down to 100 aircraft (in fact they were double the German estimate). Goering decided to shift the attacks from RAF bases to London itself. (Hitler had given permission for the docks to be attacked after the British bombed Berlin.) Goering confidently believed that this change of tactics would force the RAF to commit the remains of its strength in a last battle to defend the capital. In fact the Germans made a fundamental miscalculation and were committing themselves to the most hazardous of all possible operations - daylight mass bombing - against a still intact and well-organized defence.
The Luftwaffe began to implement the new tactics on 7 September, when they launched a massive raid on the London docks that marked the start of the third phase of the campaign. The RAF badly misjudged the situation and thought the attack was still aimed at RAF bases. In the confusion the fighters did not attack the bombers until they were returning from London after inflicting major damage. The Germans lost only slightly more aircraft than the British and when the raid was repeated on 11 September suffered fewer losses than the RAF. Superficially, the German change of tactics seemed to be working, but during this phase the RAF bases were able to recover from previous damage and remain operational in the vital area of south-east England. It was at this point that Hitler had to make the crucial decision about whether an invasion should go ahead.
Hitler's lack of enthusiasm for any invasion that would amount to more than a straightforward occupation of an already defeated Britain had not altered by early September. For the previous month he had been content to wait and see if the Luftwaffe could defeat the RAF, and had made no effort to direct operations in the way he had during the attack on France. He was making it quite clear that he was not personally involved in what he saw as a highly dubious undertaking. Meanwhile the ramshackle invasion forces were slowly gathering in the Channel ports, where they came under attack from RAF Bomber Command, but preparations were far from complete. The German military had decided that the last possible date for an invasion, taking into account weather and tides, was 27 September. They needed ten days' warning to launch the attack and so a final decision was required by 17 September. On 13 September Hitler was still hopeful that an invasion would not be needed and that the Luftwaffe would be able to force Britain to make peace, although how still remained unclear. On 14 September he put off a final decision on an invasion for three days, until the last possible moment. The next day the Luftwaffe launched its biggest, and what it hoped would be its decisive attack against London. It only demonstrated that daylight bombing was too difficult, even with fighter cover, against a competent defence. Waves of bombers, heavily escorted by fighters, were launched in the morning and afternoon against London. The Germans made the mistake of not undertaking diversionary raids, and so the RAF was able to concentrate all its resources (twenty-three squadrons in the morning and thirty in the afternoon) against the attack. The result was a heavy defeat for the Luftwaffe, which lost about sixty aircraft to the RAF's twenty-six.
On 17 September, with a final decision on invasion required that day, Hitler held a meeting with his military planners. The events of 15 September demonstrated all too clearly that the RAF was still a potent force, and Hitler, deciding that his own scepticism about invasion was well justified, postponed the plan indefinitely. He was now free to turn his attention to his ultimate aim: the destruction of the Soviet Union. Three days after the meeting the dispersal of shipping was ordered but desultory activity was maintained in an attempt to confuse the British (without success). The Luftwaffe kept up its attacks, but apart from a few isolated raids on aircraft factories it concentrated more and more on night raids on cities, especially London. By the end of September the British government knew that an invasion was only a remote possibility, that the daylight raids had not defeated the RAF and that it could now probably expect a long winter of continued night-time bombing. Britain had survived.
Both at the time and since, Britain's survival has been attributed solely to the efforts of `The Few': the pilots of Fighter Command. There can be no doubt that their skill and courage, maintained over a long period of intense combat, was essential in ensuring the defeat of the Luftwaffe. But the Germans too had highly skilled and dedicated pilots and modern battles are decided by more than individual heroism. After Dunkirk and the defeat of France, Britain had not only to survive but also to create a myth that would sustain the nation for the long and difficult period after immediate defeat had been avoided. The myth-creation process was strongly at work in the summer of 1940. British success was greatly exaggerated at the time and many of the misleading statistics issued in 1940 have since become accepted facts. For example, on 15 September, the date still celebrated as Battle of Britain day, the British claimed 185 German aircraft destroyed. The true figure was sixty. During the crucial phase, from 16 August until 6 September, the British people were given an unjustifiably optimistic picture of progress. Figures broadcast by the BBC gave British losses as 292 aircraft compared with an actual figure of 343, an underestimate of fifteen per cent. More important, German losses for this period were reported as sixtytwo per cent higher than the real figure (855 instead of 527). The reality of combat was also very different from the stirring picture painted at the time and subsequently. Only half of the Spitfires and Hurricanes scrambled to intercept attacks ever engaged the German bombers and fighters, and only fifteen per cent of pilots were credited with shooting down any Luftwaffe planes at all. Real "aces" were extremely rare: only seventeen pilots in the RAF accounted for more than ten aircraft each. The most successful squadron (No. 303) was not British, but manned by Polish pilots, and the two most successful individual pilots were a Czech and a Pole.
The real reasons for British survival in the summer of 1940 are more deep-seated than the courage of individual pilots, important though that was. The most significant factor was geography. The German army might dominate the continent, but it lacked the capability to launch an invasion. Such an operation was highly risky and required meticulous planning, as the Allies demonstrated before the Normandy landings in 1944. Hitler was right to be extremely cautious about launching an attack across the Channel without the British being on the point of defeat. The German navy was too small to control the sea in the area and therefore everything turned on whether the Luftwaffe could defeat the RAF and establish local air supremacy. If they had done so, an invasion might have been feasible. The Royal Navy would have found it very difficult to operate in the Channel under German air attack and if the German army had landed then the poorly equipped British army was probaby too weak to do more than delay its advance. As the chiefs of staff told the war cabinet in May: "Should the enemy succeed in establishing a force, with its vehicles, firmly ashore, the army in the United Kingdom, which is very short of equipment, has not got the offensive power to drive it out." Resisting the Luftwaffe attack on the RAF was therefore the key to survival. The RAF came perilously near to losing the Battle of Britain through its stubborn adherence to tradition and hidebound procedures even at a time of supreme national emergency. Under a more flexible system `The Few' could have been more numerous. Victory in the air was achieved through two factors which in the end gave Britain a vital advantage. The first was Britain's ability to produce more aircraft than Germany. Here the advantages of unorthodox and makeshift methods in response to a national crisis were apparent. The second was rooted in German failings: although superior in numbers the Luftwaffe was hopelessly ill-equipped for the task of defeating the RAF over Britain, and this weakness was compounded by the erratic direction of the campaign, whereas fortunately for Britain the pre-war policy-makers had taken the right decisions.
The fall of France, followed by the threat of invasion, the Battle of Britain and the Blitz on British cities in the autumn and winter of 1940, for the first time brought the war to bear directly on the civilian population. How much did the war alter the nature of prewar British society and how well did the civilian population stand up to these new strains? Just as important, how did the government view the task of controlling the country?