In the summer of 1940, as the Nazi war machine marched its way across Europe and set its sights on Britain, the RAF braced for the worst.
Young men, in their late teens or early twenties, were trained to fly Spitfires and Hurricanes for the upcoming Battle for Britain, while others flew Blenheims, Beaufighters and Defiants, becoming the ‘aces’ who took the freedom of the country. Hitler’s grasp.
But Britain’s resistance came at a price. Of an estimated crew of 3,000 pilots, about half survived the four-month battle, with 544 Fighter Command pilots and crew members among the dead, more than 700 from Bomber Command and nearly 300 from Coastal Command who fell to secure British airspace.
Losses were heavy, but the Germans, who thought they would wipe out the RAF within weeks, lost more.
2,500 Luftwaffe aircrews were killed in the battle, forcing the German Air Command to reconsider how easily Britain would fall to an invading Nazi occupation force.
The pilots who gave their all in the dogfight for British freedom were dubbed ‘The Few’, after a speech by Sir Winston Churchill, who said: “The gratitude of every home on our island, in our realm, and indeed throughout the world, goes to the British pilots who, undaunted by superior numbers, tireless in their constant challenge and mortal danger, turn the tide of the world war by their ability and through their dedication.
“Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed to so few.”
‘Never has so much been owed to so few in the field of human conflict’ (Photo: An aerial view of Spitfires)
After the fall of France to the ashes in May 1940, the German High Command considered how best to conduct the battle across the English Channel to take Britain out of the fray.
Until mid-July, the German campaign consisted of relatively small-scale day and night air raids targeting cities, airports, ports and the aircraft industry.
But the Luftwaffe was fully ready, ready to ramp up attacks on ships and ports and take out the RAF in the air and on the ground.
After the Allies were defeated in western mainland Europe, the German Air Force established bases near the Channel to make it easier to attack Britain, hastily establishing the infrastructure needed to air conflict with the UK.
When the Battle of Britain began, the Royal Air Force consistently shot down more Axis aircraft than they lost, but British fighters were often overwhelmed by the increased number of enemy aircraft.
Pictured: One of the most iconic images of the summer of 1940 and the battle over Dunkirk, with Squadron 610’s F/Lt Ellis pictured at the head of his section in DW-O, Sgt Arnfield in DW-K and F/O Warner in DW-Q
The fighting in France and Norway had weakened British squadrons now that it was time to defend the homeland against Nazi occupation, but as the year wore on, the RAF’s force grew in strength, with more pilots, aircraft and operational squadrons that were made available.
The Luftwaffe began an ever-expanding campaign of daylight bombing campaigns targeting strategic targets such as naval convoys, ports and airfields – and forcing inland to force RAF squadrons to engage in an attempt to exhaust them.
German air units also staged nighttime attacks in the West, Midlands and East Coast, targeting the aircraft industry with the aim of weakening Britain’s Home Defense system, particularly that of Fighter Command, to prepare for a large-scale air strike in august .
Heavy losses were suffered on both sides.
The main Luftwaffe attack on the RAF, called ‘Adler Tag’ (Eagle Day), was postponed from 10 August to three days later due to bad weather.
Hawker Hurricane aircraft of No 111 Squadron RAF based at Northolt in flight formation, circa 1940
Pictured: The fighter pilots of Squadron 610, a unit that witnessed some of the most intense air battles in World War II (taken at RAF Acklington, in Northumberland, between 17-19 September 1940)
The Germans’ plan was to have the RAF Fighter Command leave South East England in four days and completely defeat the British Air Force in four weeks.
The Luftwaffe fought relentlessly in an effort to exhaust Fighter Command through incessant attacks on ground installations, which were moved further inland, with southern England airfields experiencing intense daylight raids while nighttime attacks targeted ports, shipping targets and the aircraft industry.
But despite heavy damage to the south, Fighter Command continued to push back against the Germans in a series of dogfights, inflicting critical losses on the enemy who believed the RAF would be exhausted by this point.
Both sides feared being exhausted by the ongoing fighting.
Pictured: German plans to invade Britain, if naval and air superiority is achieved
The focus of the German attacks then shifted to London, where the RAF would lose 248 and the Luftwaffe would lose 322 between 26 August and 6 September.
By September, London had become the prime target of Luftwaffe aggression, with large-scale 24-hour attacks carried out by large bomber formations with fighter escorts.
The German Air Command still had not exhausted the RAF as it had hoped, and the British forces continued to face their German counterparts, with the Combat Command pushing back Hitler’s forces, delaying German invasion plans.
By October it had become apparent to the Germans that the RAF was still very much intact, and the Luftwaffe attacked Britain with single-engine modified fighter-bombers, which were difficult to catch on entry and still dangerous on their way out.
By mid-month, Germany’s strategy had shifted from exhausting the RAF to a relentless bombing campaign targeting the government, the civilian population and the war economy – with London still the primary target.
But from November, London became less of a target, and the Battle of Britain turned into a new conflict – the Blitz.