The Battle of Britain took place between July and October 1940. It was the name given to the Second World War defence of Britain by the Royal Air Force (RAF) against the attacks of the German Air Force (Luftwaffe.) The main fighter planes of the RAF were the Spitfire and the Hurricane while the Luftwaffe relied on their Messerschmitt fighters and dive bombers, the Stukas. After the success of Blitzkrieg, the evacuation of Dunkirk and the surrender of France, Britain was by herself. The objective of the Nazi German forces was to increase pressure on Britain to surrender or agree a peace settlement on German terms.
At the start of the battle the Luftwaffe had 2,500 planes while the RAF had only 1,200. Despite this, the rate of British plane production was good – the only problem was that the RAF lacked sufficient trained and experienced pilots. Many of the most experienced pilots had been killed in the war in France and they had not been replaced. This was helped, however, by over 500 non-British pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain.
Britain however, did have a number of advantages over the Luftwaffe. Vitally Britain had Radar which gave them an early warning of the approach of the German planes as did the Royal Observer Corps which used binoculars to spot German planes approaching. In addition British fighter planes could spend more time in the air as they could easily land for fuel whereas the German fighters had to fly back to the continent every time they were running out of fuel or ammunition. The German bombers (Stukas) could fly for longer distances than their fighter planes (Messerschmitts.) This meant the German bombers were not always protected by the fighter planes and therefore could be targeted by the British Spitfires and Hurricanes.
All of this meant that when the battle started in July 1940 when the Luftwaffe attempted to gain control of the Straits of Dover they quickly lost more aircraft than the RAF. By the end of July, the RAF had lost 150 aircraft while the Luftwaffe had lost 268. Therefore the German High Command changed tactics. They started to attack the RAF’s airfields and radar stations with the idea that if they destroyed the RAF’s bases on the ground they would not need to fight them in the air. Destroyed runways would stop the RAF planes taking off and without Radar the RAF wouldn’t be able to spot German aircraft approaching. However, by mid-August the majority of German Stuka dive-bombers had been destroyed as they fell to the British fighter planes. This made the pin pointing of radar stations and runways virtually impossible. This was compounded by the fact that the head of the German Luftwaffe, Herman Goering, ordered an end to the raids on the radar bases as he believed that they were too unimportant to matter.
Despite German losses the RAF was also badly hit. By the end of August they had lost over 550 planes. This was less than the Germans but they had a lower amount to begin with. Nevertheless, given German losses the Luftwaffe changed their tactics away from targeting the RAF to night time bombing raids of British cities. This change to bombing cities was vital in giving the RAF time to recover and allow their pilots to recuperate as they were on the brink of exhaustion. It is believed that the RAF was only 24 hours away from defeat if the Germans would not have turned their attention to the cities.
By preventing Germany from gaining air superiority, the British forced Adolf Hitler to postpone and eventually cancel his planned water and airborne invasion of Britain. At the end of the battle, Winston Churchill proudly proclaimed: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” While Germany continued its bombing operations known as The Blitz, the failure of Germany to achieve its objective of forcing Britain to surrender is considered to be the Nazi’s first major defeat and one of the turning points in the war. Hitler now turned his attention to the Soviet Union.