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The Battle of Britain

Updated on April 30, 2009

The Germans primary object was to end the war before the close of 1940 and, to achieve this, an invasion of Britain was deemed essential. Before the German army could land, however, it was necessary to destroy the British coastal convoys, to sink or immobilise intervening units of the Royal Navy and, above all, to chase the RAF from the skies. Hence a series of air attacks were launched first on British shipping and ports.

The unrelenting German air-attack on Britain in August - October 1940 is forever remember in the history books as the Battle of Britain. During this battle, unique in the history of mankind, 1733 German aircraft were destroyed and 915 British aircraft were lost.

Realising that the British fighter force was stronger than they had imagined, the Germans next attacked fighter aerodromes in south and south-east England, while maintaining the attack on coastal towns. Generally these attacks were countered by using half the available squadrons to deal with the German fighters and the rest to attack the bombers. The British fighters' attacks from the stern on the Messerschmitt 109s and 110s were the more effective because these German aircraft were not then armoured. The ratio of loss was about 1 British to 5 German airmen. Then followed a five-day lull, Goering evidently deciding to change his tactics. In the second stage the Germans proceeded to deliver some 35 major attacks between 24 August and 5 September, their prime object being to destroy the inland fighter aerodromes. The fighting efficiency of the British fighter squadrons was put under considerable strain as the Germans had increased their fighter protection and RAF losses in August were 338 fighters to 177 Messerschmitt 109s, although aircraft production was maintained. Most of the airfields in the south-west were seriously damaged and some were unusable. It was even considered whether to withdraw the British fighter strength behind London, out of range of the German fighters. However, the Germans did not realise how close they were to success.

The third stage of the battle began on 7 September with a mass attack on London at night by 300 bombers and 648 fighters which caused severe damage, especially to the East End. This was followed by a daylight attack. On this day a precautionary invasion warning was issued. A second daylight attack on 9 September was successfully intercepted and more than half of the bombers failed to reach London. This change of tactics by the Germans relieved Fighter Command of some of the strain and German losses mounted over the next ten days as they were met by large concentrations of British fighters. On 17 September Hitler postponed his invasion plans until further notice and authorised the dispersal of the shipping collected for the purpose. By the end of October the losses suffered by the Luftwaffe had become too great for them to continue to hope to defeat the RAF in the air and Goering again changed his policy to one of bombing of cities, particularly London, industrial centres, and ports, by night. But though the Luftwaffe failed to destroy the fighter squadrons of the RAF, the situation during the battle was critical in the extreme. Pilots had to be withdrawn from the bomber and coastal commands and from the Fleet Air Arm and flung into the battle after hasty preparation. The majority of the squadrons had been reduced to the status of training units, and were fit only for operations against unescorted bombers.

In terms of the quality of the aircrew and aircraft there was little to choose between the two sides and probably the most important material factor which contributed to Fighter Command's success was the early-warning and fighter control system, which had been developed in the years immediately preceding the war. This enabled Fighter Command to position their intercepting squadrons according to the scale and direction of enemy attack. The Command was also fortunate in having outstanding commanders in Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, who had been appointed commander-in-chief in 1936, and Air Vice-Marshal K. R. Park, who as the commander of No. 11 Group, which covered the south-eastern sector, played the chief tactical role. AS a result the British forces were undoubtedly much more intelligently handled than the German forces, whose higher leadership was inferior to that of the British.

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