Their Finest Hour

Sept. 1, 1990

“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” With these words, Winston Churchill paid timeless tribute to the brave fighter pilots of Britain’s Royal Air Force who saved their nation from invasion in the summer and fall of 1940, fifty years ago. Small in number, they met the swaggering German Luftwaffe and, fighting in Spitfires and Hurricanes, remained unconquerable and supreme in what has been known ever since as the Battle of Britain.

Nazi invasions of the Low Countries and France began on May 10, 1940. By May 21, Hitler’s war machine reached the English Channel. Victorious Nazi forces had overwhelmed all resistance. Only a few areas in western and northwestern France held out.

Two weeks after the epic evacuation of Allied forces at Dunkirk, the Battle of France was over. There was every reason to believe Britain would be invaded. The world’s largest air force was now only an hour’s flight from England. As Churchill told his people: “Hitler knows that he will have to break us . . . or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free, and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world . . . will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age. . . . Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.'”

For the RAF, Dunkirk had a high cost. The British had lost some 100 aircraft and eighty pilots in ten days of fighting. As the evacuation continued, more planes and pilots were sought by Air Vice Marshal Keith Park, head of No. 11 Group covering the pullback. Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh C. T. Dowding, head of Fighter Command, refused, reckoning that to do so would weaken English defenses against the Nazi invasion. Dowding’s decision would payoff in the months ahead.

The Great Battle Begins

The Battle of Britain is deemed to have begun on July 10. On that day, 100 Luftwaffe bombers executed a large-scale night bombing raid against targets in Yorkshire and Kent. The next night, 100 more bombers attacked targets throughout England.

German operations divided into four phases. The first, spanning August 8-18, saw concentrated attack on Channel convoys, England’s southeast coast and harbors, and nearby airfields. In the second phase, August 19 through September 5, attacks fell on RAP fighter fields farther inland. The third phase, September 6 through October 5, brought indiscriminate attacks on London. The fourth phase, October 6-31, consisted of night attacks on key civil and military targets.

The Germans had three objectives: to blockade British ports and shipping, achieve air superiority, and crush Britain’s spirit.

On July 16, 1940, Hitler signed Directive Number 16, authorizing Operation Sea Lion, the code name for the invasion of Britain. On August 1, 1940, Hitler issued Directive Number 17 “for the final conquest of England,” with August 15 as D-day. He ordered destruction of the RAP with attacks on “flying formations, their ground organizations, and their supply organizations; secondly, against the aircraft production industry. . . .”

The air operation, named Adlerangriff (Eagle Attack), was to begin on Adlertag (Eagle Day), first set for August 10, then postponed to August 13. Three massive Nazi Luftflotten of bombers, fighters, and other aircraft–3,500 planes in all–faced England.

Across the Channel, Dowding’s fighter Command had 704 operational fighters and 289 in reserve. He had 1,253 pilots for four fighter groups totaling sixty squadrons on thirty-nine bases.

The Air Ministry had established other defensive units, including a network of stations operating radio-direction- finding (RDF) equipment. The latter became known as “radar” stations (for radio detection and ranging) and proved decisive in the air war. RDF sites could track Luftwaffe planes joining up over France and follow their routes and altitudes. British defenders were rarely surprised, and RAF fighters could scramble at the last minute.

Göring predicted the air war would be over in four days. As the Luftwaffe prepared for massive Eagle Day assaults, harassment raids increased. To prevent losses, RAF fighters were ordered to go after bombers and avoid scrapping with German fighter escorts.

The Luftwaffe had 2,700 planes ready to fly Eagle Day sorties. The war’s largest air battles up to that time took place in five actions along a 500-mile front on August 13. The Luftwaffe flew 2,000 sorties, the RAF 974. “It was indeed a crucial day,” said Churchill. “In the south, all our twenty-two squadrons were engaged, many twice, some three times, and German losses, added to those in the north, were seventy-six to our thirty-four.” This, observed Churchill, was “a recognizable disaster to the German Air Force.”

Göring did not think so. He attributed the strong RAF resistance in the south to participation of fighters from the Midlands and Scotland. In reality, Dowding wisely kept them in reserve. On August 15, German seaplanes, approaching across the North Sea, tried to lure RAF fighters away as Heinkel He-111 bombers and Messerschmitt Bf-110 escorts, following closely, turned toward airfields in northeast England. British radar was not deceived. RAF fighters from No. 13 Group stopped most of the bombers.

Göring sent another mass attack against airfields in Yorkshire. A formation of Junkers Ju-88 twin-engine bombers was intercepted by two squadrons of fighters from No. 12 Group but managed to get through and destroy ten RAF bombers on the ground. German raids continued in the south.

Dowding’s insistence on going after the bombers caused Goring to send up larger numbers of fighter escorts. However, attempts to weaken the RAF’s fighter resources were ineffective.

Spectacular Heroism

The next day, the Luftwaffe flew 1,715 sorties and bombed eight airfields, but only three contained fighter units. There were fierce dogfights along the south coast. There were spectacular acts of heroism, such as that of Plight Cmdr. James Nicolson. Badly wounded, his Hurricane on fire, Nicolson was about to bailout when a Bf-110 drifted in front of him. He resumed his seat and fired away as the German pilot tried desperately to escape. Nicolson kept firing at the enemy plane even as flames burned the flesh from his hands. He bailed out only when he saw the Bf-110 go down. His heroism won him the only Victoria Cross given to a British fighter pilot during the war.

Göring continued his attacks against British radar stations and bases for two days. On August 18, the Luftwaffe lost another seventy-one planes, the RAF thirty-nine fighters.

In Germany, it was time for reassessment. Göring’s four days of huge assaults–August 13, 15, 16, and 18–cost 236 fighters and bombers, yet the RAF fighter force seemed strong as ever. The Nazi air chief blamed his fighter units for the disaster. The RAF also suffered heavy losses: 213 Spitfires and Hurricanes between August 8 and 18. Factories could not replace them fast enough.

The raids continued. On August 24,170 German bombers, intending to bomb Thames Haven and Rochester, hit central London instead. The next day, in retaliation, Bomber Command sent eighty-one Hampdens to bomb factories near Berlin. Hitler flew into a rage; Goring had boasted that the capital would never be hit.

Göring’s intelligence sources and pilots erroneously reported that the RAF was decimated and had lost 1,115 aircraft in the period from August 8 to August 31. The true figure was 465 Spitfires and Hurricanes lost. Fighter Command was reduced to 419 Hurricanes and 211 Spitfires; 103 pilots had been killed and 128 seriously wounded–a quarter of total strength.

However, the swift loss of nearly 1,000 German aircraft sobered Goring. Luftwaffe pilots also were greatly affected by the disparity between their leaders’ assurance of an easy victory and the RAF’s fighting performance.

By August 31, RAF Fighter Command pilots were weary from two months of unrelenting action. Losses had been high, replacements few. Pilots were being sent to operational units with only five to ten hours’ time in Hurricanes or Spitfires, and no practice at all in air-to-air gunnery. Still, RAF morale remained high.

On September 7 a change occurred in Nazi strategy–one Dowding later called “a miracle”–that took pressure off RAF airfields. The Luftwaffe suddenly focused on London. Five hundred bombers, accompanied by 600 fighters, hit the city in a mass day attack. That night, 250 bombers returned. For twenty-three days, Luftwaffe planes roared up the Thames valley to London, dropping explosives and incendiaries. Hundreds of civilians were killed and wounded.

For eight crucial days after September 7, however, Fighter Command had breathing room to regroup. On September 15, the weather was excellent, and the Luftwaffe launched the heaviest daylight attack to date on London. Its leaders expected little opposition, but the RAF Spitfires and seventeen Hurricanes were waiting.

The Hinge of Fate

Churchill went that day to the Group Operations Room at Uxbridge. There he witnessed the unfolding of what he called “one of the decisive battles of the war.”

The Operations Room, Churchill later wrote, was like a small, two-tiered theater. On the floor was a large map table, around which men moved disks denoting German and RAF planes. Covering one wall was a blackboard divided into six columns (for six fighter stations) of light bulbs. The lowest horizontal row of bulbs, when lit, showed which RAF squadrons were “standing by.” The next highest showed squadrons “at readiness” of five minutes, the next those that had taken off, the next those that had seen Nazi planes, the next–with red lights–those in action.

“After about a quarter of an hour,” recalled Churchill, “the raid plotters began to move about. . . . The bulbs along the bottom of the wall display panel began to glow as various squadrons came to ‘stand by.’ ” In quick succession, the operations room received reports of German aircraft sightings, and to Churchill “it was evident that a serious battle impended.”

Blackboard lights began to flash. “Presently the red bulbs showed that a majority of our squadrons was engaged,” Churchill said. “A subdued hum arose from the floor, where busy plotters pushed their disks to and fro in accordance with the swiftly changing situation. . . . In a little while all our squadrons were fighting, and some had already begun to return for fuel. All were in the air. The lower line of light bulbs was out. . . .

“I became conscious of the anxiety of the Commander,” Churchill recalled. “Hitherto I had watched in silence. I now asked, ‘What other reserves have we?’ ‘There are none,’ said Air Vice Marshal Park. The odds were great; our margins small; the stakes high. Another five minutes passed, and most of our squadrons had now descended to refuel. In many cases our resources could not give them overhead protection.

“Then it appeared that the enemy was going home. The shifting of the disks on the table below showed a continuous movement of German bombers and fighters. No new attack appeared. In another ten minutes, the action ended.”

On that historic day, Churchill had followed what he later termed “the crux of the Battle of Britain.” Scores of Luftwaffe bombers and fighter escorts made it to London, but fifty-six had been brought down, compared to twenty-seven RAF planes and thirteen pilots.

Fighter Command had fought with all it had. The Luftwaffe, hoping to pulverize London and terrorize the English people, had failed. Two days later, Hitler postponed Sea Lion. On February 13, 1942, he called it off altogether.

By October 31, so far as England was concerned, the Battle of Britain was over. The Luftwaffe lost 1,733 aircraft, the RAF 915. The Luftwaffe’s best efforts were never good enough. Airpower and the will of the British people had saved England. Never again was the island threatened by Nazi invasion.

C. V. Glines is a regular contributor to this magazine. A retired Air Force colonel, he is a free-lance writer, a magazine editor; and the author of numerous books. His most recent article for AIR FORCE Magazine was “The Inverted Jenny,” which appeared in the July 1990 issue.