Against great odds: the Battle of Britain
The UK’s World War 2 victory over Germany had momentous consequences, but brought the island nation close to defeat
In the summer of 1940 Britain was isolated on the fringe of a hostile continent; Germany was rampant and France had collapsed.
The book Great Battles, Decisive Conflicts that have shaped History, edited by Christer Jorgensen, points out that some battles have altered the course of history as well as the fate of the human race. Military historians have identified about 30 battles which were either decisive or great. One of these was the Battle of Britain, the writer says.
The German leader, Chancellor Adolf Hitler, had planned to invade Britain and needed air superiority. But German attempts to destroy Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF) in the battle failed. However, as Jorgensen points out, the desperate combat brought the RAF close to defeat. It held on long enough to prevent an invasion, for which Britain and her allies would have been completely unprepared.
Jorgensen is scathing about what the RAF was in the early 1930s. He describes it as a private club in those years “for well-off young gentlemen who a flew obsolescent aircraft” and “cut a dash at parties”. This was in stark contrast to the fighting spirit the force displayed when it faced the Germans later.
Also, the acquisition of aircraft in those early years was slack, which Jorgensen says could have cost Britain the war if it had fought the battle then. The Gloster Gladiator was the RAF’s frontline fighter. In some ways it was a very good aircraft, Jorgensen says, but essentially he describes it as “a biplane with four machine guns”.
In the later 1930s the RAF developed what Jorgensen describes as a decent low-wing monoplane. Other new products also emerged, one being the Hurricane, which had eight machine guns. Some critics described that as “going a bit too far”. The Hurricane equipped 18 squadrons.
But the most famous British plane was the Supermarine Spitfire, which entered the service in August 1938. It was slightly faster and more manoeuvrable than Germany’s Messerschmitt BF109, which, however, could outclimb it.
The fighting began on June 30 1940. Raids were stepped up until August 13, when a major offensive was launched against airfields in the south of England. Jorgensen says it was a desperate time for the fighter command, the RAF’s fighter force. Aircraft that survived the fighting in the air could return to a bomb-cratered runway or be destroyed on the runway. Fighter command was “stretched to the limit but it did not break,” Jorgensen writes.
He suggests that German aircraft were to some degree ahead of the RAF. It was generally believed that the Hurricane was outmatched by Germany’s Messerschmitt Bf 109, but it was also conceded that the Spitfire was more or less its equal.
At the time it was believed that “[bombers] will always get through”. Guns on the ground could do only so much. The belief was that if a country was “not to collapse because of civilian casualties”, bombers had to be stopped from attacking it. Fighter interception “was the big hope against the bomber”.
The fighter command fought hard during the Battle of Britain, but Jorgensen acknowledges that the RAF might not have prevailed had it not been for the sophistication of its detection co-ordination system. This supported the RAF by supplying early warning of approaching enemy planes. Jorgensen believes that if the pilots had to scramble only when the enemy planes were seen overhead, the battle could not have been won.
Things did look bleak at the outbreak of the war. The German forces advanced into France and overran its defences, but the British were forced to refuse the French request for more Hurricane squadrons. Jorgensen believes that through this action the British effectively admitted that they did not think France could be saved. He describes Britain’s action as courageous and says it played a part in the eventual saving of all of Europe from Nazism. If Britain had agreed, Britain, too, could have been lost.
Air supremacy was the key. If the Germans had supremacy, Jorgensen says, their invasion eventually would have been unstoppable.
So the German air force, the Luftwaffe, set out to secure control of the skies. German Marshal Hermann Göring believed the small RAF fighter command could be put out of action in four days. Jorgensen says Göring’s plan was to draw out the RAF’s fighter strength and destroy it.
Fighting was fierce and unrelenting. Jorgensen says the “the Few” (the airmen of the RAF) were getting fewer, and the battle still raged on. The force was “at the end of its tether”.
Göring then changed strategy. Attacks on London and other cities were ordered, and the RAF was no longer the main target. This gave the fighter command some respite, and in time it gained the upper hand. It “had come close to destruction but had clung on long enough to ensure victory”.
Jorgensen says there are documented cases of pilots who were shot down and crashed near their base but then ran to the nearest aircraft and flew up again.
The Battle of Britain cost the Luftwaffe 1,733 planes; the RAF lost 915.
Jorgensen points out that it was a team effort. “It was won by tenacity in the face of tremendous odds, and it most likely changed the course of the war,” he writes.