Their Finest Hour

June 25, 2015

The Battle of Britain, which began 75 years ago this month, was the single most important engagement of World War II. If the British had lost, the consequences would have been catastrophic.

At best, Britain would have had to seek a peace settlement with Germany on Hitler’s terms, which would have been severe. Winston Churchill would most likely have been replaced as Prime Minister by the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, or former Prime Minister David Lloyd George. Both of them thought negotiation with Germany was inevitable.

Germany would have consolidated its domination of Europe. Had Britain been unable to continue the fight, the United States would not likely have entered the European war. Even if it did, there would have been no bases in Britain from which to conduct a bombing offensive against Germany or launch a D-Day invasion of Europe.

Without an Atlantic front siphoning off forces and resources, Germany may—or may not—have been able to defeat the Soviet Union. Conversely, if the Soviets defeated Germany, there would be nothing to impede their march further west. Hitler might well have won World War II—and if he did not, Stalin would have.

When the Battle of Britain began in July 1940, the British were not expected to win. That they did win was primarily attributable to the strength and character of Winston Churchill and the Royal Air Force—and to critical mistakes by Hitler and the Luftwaffe.

Britain Stood Alone

In the summer of 1940, Britain’s situation was grim. In less than two months, Germany had conquered most of western Europe from Norway to the Pyrenees. The fast-moving German army, supported by panzers and Stuka dive bombers, overwhelmed the Netherlands and Belgium in a matter of days. France surrendered on June 22. Britain was fortunate to extract its retreating expeditionary forces from the beaches at Dunkirk.

The United States was not yet in the war, nor was Russia. Only seven percent of Americans were willing to go to war on the side of the British. The Molotov-Ribbentrop nonaggression pact of 1939 was still in effect, not broken until Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. Except for the support of its own dominions and empire, Britain stood alone.

Churchill, 65, had served in Parliament and various Cabinet positions for 40 years. He was First Lord of the Admiralty at the beginning of World War I and again in 1939. In time, he would be recognized as one of Britain’s greatest leaders, but that was still to come. In May 1940, the Conservative Party turned to him—in desperation and with considerable reluctance—to replace the hapless Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister. Many of his colleagues and much of the ruling class disliked Churchill and distrusted him as reckless, belligerent, and drawn to adventure and romanticism.

Appeasement and defeatism were strong in the British Foreign Office. After Dunkirk, the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, believed that Britain had lost. He inquired through Italian intermediaries what Hitler’s terms for peace with Britain would be. David Lloyd George, Prime Minister from 1916 to 1922, also believed it was futile to fight.

US Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy was convinced that the Germans would win the impending Battle of Britain. So was American aviator Charles A. Lindbergh, who had toured Germany as a guest of the Luftwaffe.

Gen. Maxime Weygand, commander of the defeated French forces, predicted that “in three weeks, England will have her neck wrung like a chicken.”

Churchill, undaunted, vowed that “we will never surrender” as he rallied the nation with a ringing call to arms: “Let us, therefore, brace ourselves to our duty 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.’?”

The Dowding System

A German invasion of Great Britain was contingent on air superiority. Otherwise, the invasion fleet would be destroyed in the English Channel and on the beaches. Thus the British were in the unanticipated position of relying on RAF Fighter Command as their first line of defense.

The Royal Navy, the traditional strength of the island nation, still ranked first among the armed forces. The RAF had been a separate service since 1918, created in response to the relentless bombing of Britain by German Zeppelins in World War I. However, its founding father, Marshal of the RAF Hugh M. Trenchard, built the force around long-range strategic bombardment. Like many airmen of his day—including Billy Mitchell in the United States—Trenchard believed that the bomber was the primary instrument of airpower.

This conviction was reflected in national policy. In 1932, Stanley Baldwin—who was Prime Minister three times between the world wars—famously declared that “the bomber will always get through.” There was no defense against air attack, Baldwin said. “The only defense is in offense.”

Fighter Command, organized in 1936, was regarded by almost everyone, including the Air Ministry, as secondary in importance to Bomber Command. From its beginning, Fighter Command was led by Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding, an outstanding but eccentric officer known as “Stuffy” for his cold personality. He was stubborn and aloof, and he had no ability to charm his fellow air marshals or the politicians. Some young airmen saw him as too old, lacking in spirit, and too long away from active flying.

Of greater consequence, “Dowding was perhaps the one man of consequence in the United Kingdom—perhaps in the entire world—who did not believe that the bomber would ‘always get through,’?” said historian Michael Korda.

Fighter Command, under the “Dowding System,” formed a strong defensive screen, supported by radar stations along the coast that could detect German aircraft as soon as they took off from bases on the continent. Information from the radar sites fed into Dowding’s command and control nerve center at Bentley Priory on the outskirts of London. From there, fighter squadrons could be scrambled and directed with great economy of force.

The Air Ministry and the RAF had been pressing Dowding to retire, but at Churchill’s insistence kept him on during the emergency because of his unique knowledge of the air defense system.

Dowding believed in careful conservation of his outnumbered force, employing only as many fighters as he absolutely had to and preserving the rest for later need. In May 1940, he clashed with Churchill, who wanted to send more RAF fighters to the battle in France, which was nearing its end and in which hundreds of British aircraft had been lost already.

Dowding was mainly successful in limiting further deployments, but as the British fell back from Dunkirk, Fighter Command was seriously weakened. If the German offensive came at that moment, Dowding told the War

Cabinet June 3, he could not guarantee air superiority for more than 48 hours.

The Lull

Several of Hitler’s generals urged him to move immediately against Britain to exploit the stunning victory in France but he was not ready to do so. The Germans had taken substantial casualties—including almost 1,500 airplanes—and needed time to recover. In addition, Hitler was persuaded by the speculation that Churchill would be ousted and the new government led by Halifax or Lloyd George.

Meanwhile, the Luftwaffe moved into position for the attack, deploying air fleets to northern France and Belgium, backed up by a third one in Norway. The Luftwaffe was the largest and best air force in Europe, about twice the size of the RAF. Many of its pilots had been seasoned in combat in the Spanish civil war.

The Luftwaffe was led by Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, once a dashing World War I ace who succeeded the “Red Baron,” Manfred von Richtofen, in command of the Flying Circus, but who was now a swaggering, bloated caricature of himself. Goering and the Luftwaffe boasted that it would take four days to defeat Fighter Command in southern England and four weeks to finish off the RAF and the British aircraft industry.

The Germans were about to enter a fight for which they were not organized or equipped. Their successes thus far were gained in short, fast blitzkrieg (“lightning war”) assaults in which tanks and Stuka dive bombers opened the way for the infantry. In Britain, the tanks and the ground forces would not be there, and the Stukas would be starkly vulnerable to an active air defense.

The Luftwaffe would have to do the job alone. The fighter force was strong, with the Messerschmitt Bf 109 generally acknowledged to be the best fighter in the world. However, the 109’s range was limited. Flying from bases in France, it had had only about 10 minutes of combat endurance over London. The rest of the Luftwaffe was overloaded with dive bombers. There were no long-range bombers and the twin-engine medium bombers, the Junkers 88, Heinkel 111, and Dornier 17, were poorly suited for strategic bombardment.

The RAF used the lull to full advantage. Between June 29 and Aug. 2, the British produced 322 new Hurricane and Spitfire fighters, more than replacing those lost in France and offsetting losses in early engagements in July.

On June 19, Fighter Command had only 520 aircraft ready for operations. By Aug. 9, there were 715, with another 424 in storage and available within a day.

Fighter Command would fight the battle primarily with its two best aircraft, the Supermarine Spitfire and the Hawker Hurricane. The sleek Spitfire was the equal of the Bf 109 in most regimes of combat, and the workhorse Hurricane was almost as good and could hold its own in the fight.

Dowding organized the Fighter Command defense into four groups. The largest, covering southeastern England and the approaches to London, was 11 Group, commanded by Air Vice Marshal Keith R. Park, a New Zealander and a fighter ace from World War I. To the immediate north was 12 Group, covering the Midlands and East Anglia, commanded by Air Vice Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory. The other two groups had lesser roles in southwestern and northern England and in Scotland.

The RAF had several important force multipliers:

  • Britain had cracked the high-level German “Enigma” code and made good use of the intelligence product, called “Ultra,” derived from intercepts.
  • At the outbreak of war, both the Luftwaffe and the RAF used 87 octane aviation fuel. In March 1940, the RAF converted to 100 octane fuel, obtained from the United States. This gave a 30 percent boost in performance to the Rolls Royce Merlin engines in the Spitfires and Hurricanes. The Luftwaffe continued to use 87 octane.
  • The Germans had radar before the British did but never used it to full advantage, nor did they understand how pervasively the British had integrated it for air defense and command and control.

The Critical Matchup

The Battle of Britain unfolded gradually, beginning with German attacks in July on shipping in the English Channel, intended mainly as bait to lure the RAF fighters. Dowding was reluctant to respond to the provocation with his scarce fighter resources, but Churchill was not about to concede the Channel to the enemy.

On the morning of July 10, German bombers and fighters pounced on a British ship convoy off the coast of Kent, near the Strait of Dover. Spitfires scrambled and shot down some of the Germans. By afternoon, more than 100 aircraft had been drawn into the action. The Luftwaffe lost 13, the RAF six. The British observe July 10 as the first day of the Battle of Britain.

Hitler gave the order on July 16 for the invasion, dubbed Operation Sea Lion, and Goering assured him that the RAF would be destroyed in time for it to begin by the target date of Sept. 15. He set Aug. 13 as “Eagle Day,” on which the Luftwaffe would open the all-out assault to “wipe the British air force from the sky” and clear the way for Sea Lion.

The order of battle is difficult to quantify precisely. The numbers changed constantly as a result of losses and replacements. Figures vary according to which units are counted and how many aircraft are estimated to be in commission.

Some aircraft—the German dive bombers and the British Defiant and Blenheim fighters—were of little value. RAF Bomber Command’s involvement was in strikes on the continent. In August 1940, the critical matchup over Great Britain was some 1,000 German bombers and 800 Bf 109s against about 750 British Spitfires and Hurricane fighters.

Ahead of Eagle Day, the Luftwaffe attacked RAF forward airfields and radar stations but the effort was largely wasted. They tried to bomb the radar towers, which were hard to hit and easy to replace, rather than the vulnerable radar site buildings where the trained operators were located.

Bad weather took the edge off Eagle Day on Aug. 13 but the Luftwaffe struck with full fury on Aug. 15, launching more than 2,000 sorties, the most of any day in the Battle of Britain. The Germans claimed to have destroyed 99 RAF aircraft in the air. In actuality, the RAF lost 34 (two of them on the ground) compared to 75 lost by the Luftwaffe.

Late August brought the “desperate days” when, according to Churchill, “the scales had tilted against Fighter Command.” On average, the Luftwaffe sent 1,000 airplanes a day. Some RAF pilots scrambled six times a day. Overall aircraft losses between Aug. 24 and Sept. 6 were worse for the Germans (308 vs. 273 for the RAF), but more of the British losses were in fighters. Production of Hurricanes and Spitfires fell behind the replacement rate.

The RAF Hangs On

Information from the radar sites converged at Dowding’s headquarters at Bentley Priory, where the ballroom had been converted into a huge command and control center. The battle staff stations were on balconies overlooking a plotting room where Women’s Auxiliary Air Force members with headphones used croupiers’ rakes to move blocks representing RAF and enemy aircraft on a large table map of the English coast and the Channel.

“Our planes were already detected over the Pas de Calais while they were still assembling and were never allowed to escape the radar eye,” said Luftwaffe ace Adolf Galland. “Each of our movements was projected almost faultlessly on the screens in the British fighter control centers, and as a result, Fighter Command was able to direct their forces to the more favorable position at the most propitious time.”

The brunt of the attack fell on 11 Group in the south, where the exceptionally capable Park understood Dowding’s system and executed it flawlessly. Dowding did not want to expend his limited resources in big fighter battles. His strategy was to concentrate on the German bombers, which did the real damage. Fighter Command engaged the Bf 109s escorting bomber formations but refused to be drawn into combat by Luftwaffe fighter sweeps. The primary objective was to keep the bombers from reaching their targets.

This put Dowding at odds with Air Vice Marshal William Sholto Douglas, deputy chief of the Air Staff, who believed the important thing was to shoot down as many enemy aircraft as possible. “It is immaterial in the long run whether the bomber is shot down before or after he has dropped his bombs,” Douglas said.

Park’s tactic was to employ his fighters as small units, no larger than squadron size, hitting the bomber formation again and again. The squadrons could launch and strike quickly, attack in a target-rich environment, and get away fast without risk of a major defeat.

Dowding and Park did not comprehend the dissatisfaction that was brewing against them in 12 Group to the north, where the ambitious Leigh-Mallory was in command. Park, who was junior to Leigh-Mallory but had more experience in fighters, had been chosen for the more important command of 11 Group.

“Leigh-Mallory, for his part, resented the fact that the action and most of the glamour and awards were going to No. 11 Group, and he had come to the conclusion that Dowding’s tactics (and Park’s strict adherence to them) were in any case completely wrong,” said historian Korda.

Leigh-Mallory made no secret of his desire to see Dowding removed from command.

Egged on by one of his energetic squadron commanders, Douglas Bader, Leigh-Mallory became the advocate for the “Big Wing” concept, attacking the enemy with large RAF fighter formations of three to five squadrons led by a single commander. In Park’s opinion, it would take the Big Wing too long to form up and it would arrive too late to make a difference. Nevertheless, the concept had support from Dowding’s detractors at RAF headquarters and in the Air Ministry.

Had Dowding and Park made a greater effort to get along with their colleagues despite the disagreements, they might have lessened the troubles that lay ahead, but diplomacy was not their style.

The Germans were running out of time. They could not launch their Sea Lion invasion until the RAF was neutralized and the Luftwaffe had not been able to get it done. After the weather turned in late autumn, a seaborne invasion would no longer be possible.

Hitler’s Big Mistake

As September began, the bombing was focused on British airfields and aircraft factories. At that point, the Germans doomed any chance of success with a change in strategy, brought on by a combination of mistakes in understanding and judgment.

On the night of Aug. 24, a Luftwaffe crew, off course in the dark, dropped its bombs on London. It was an error in navigation. The target had been oil storage facilities to the east of the city, but Churchill did not know that. He ordered reprisal strikes on Berlin, which RAF Bomber Command carried out the next night.

Hitler, who had not been told about the original mistake by the Luftwaffe, was outraged and changed the primary targeting for German bombers to London and major British cities. The order went into effect Sept. 7.

At least one Luftwaffe leader, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, agreed with the change for his own reasons. On Aug. 25, Kesselring believed the RAF had only 200 fighters left. The bombing of London, Kesselring thought, would force the British to put their remaining fighters in the air, where they could be destroyed by superior German numbers. In fact, Dowding had 233 Spitfires and 416 Hurricanes, and the German strategy change had taken the pressure off the RAF at a critical time.

On Sept. 15—later celebrated as “Battle of Britain Day”—the Luftwaffe sent 400 bombers and 700 fighters against Britain. Park committed every fighter he had, and they shot down 56 of the German airplanes and damaged others so badly they could not make it home.

The RAF lost 28 airplanes.

The Luftwaffe never again came in such strength. The fighting continued but the realization was setting in that the Germans had failed to destroy the RAF. On Sept. 17, Hitler postponed Operation Sea Lion until further notice. The British gained strength steadily. The Germans were unable to surge aircraft production and their fighter and bomber strength declined by more than a fourth between August and December.

Bader got several chances in September to lead Big Wing formations, with mixed results. On the main occasions, the participating squadrons took too long to form up and were late in arriving at the battle, just as Park had predicted.

The danger of invasion was gone. By British accounting, the Battle of Britain ended Oct. 31. However, not everyone understood the outcome yet. In an interview with the Boston Globe in November, US Ambassador Kennedy still believed the battle was lost and declared that “democracy is finished in England.” He tried to deny the quote but the reporter had a witness and Kennedy submitted his resignation later in the month.

In December, Churchill recalled Weygand’s prediction in June that England would have her neck wrung like a chicken.

“Some chicken,” Churchill said. “Some neck.”

The sustained bombing of British cities, called “the Blitz,” continued through May 1941, killing 40,000 civilians and destroying a vast number of buildings for no strategic purpose. In December, Hitler ordered the armed forces to prepare for Operation Barbarossa, the invasion and destruction of the Soviet Union. In another of his overblown announcements, Goering promised that the Luftwaffe would shoot down the Red Air Force “like clay pigeons.”

Dowding Departs

The men who had directed the RAF victory in the Battle of Britain did not last long once it was over. Sholto Douglas, Leigh-Mallory, and other critics had a new complaint: Dowding was not doing enough to stop the devastating nighttime bombing as the Blitz got underway.

Dowding said the answer was a night fighter aircraft. The Bristol Beaufighter was just coming into service and the ground control radar to support it was not yet perfected. Subsequent events would bear him out, but at the time, the criticism found considerable acceptance.

“Although Dowding was absolutely right, the notion that for the present, nothing could be done about a serious military problem was not one that Churchill would have accepted tamely from any senior officer,” said historian Korda. “He was not about to tell the British people that they should wait quietly and patiently until Fighter Command eventually received the right equipment and revised its training procedures, while in the meantime their homes were being blown up or burned night after night.”

On Nov. 25, Dowding got a telephone call from the secretary of state for air, Archibald Sinclair, telling him to relinquish his command within 24 hours. Dowding asked for a reason and was told only that the decision had been reached.

Later that day, Sholto Douglas replaced Dowding as head of Fighter Command. Leigh-Mallory took over 11 Group from Park, who was sent to Training Command.

It was probably time for Dowding to move on, but the handling of it reflected no credit on the Air Ministry or the RAF. Churchill acquiesced to the change, but understood that it was shabby treatment of the men who led the victory in the Battle of Britain. In 1943, Churchill proposed Dowding for a barony, which was approved. He accepted and chose the title Lord Dowding of Bentley Priory.

The Few

During the four months of the Battle of Britain, Fighter Command flew about 80,000 sorties. Often forgotten, Bomber Command flew 9,180 sorties and was enough of a threat to keep the Luftwaffe from sending as many aircraft across the Channel as it might have otherwise.

Both sides wildly overestimated the number of enemy airplanes they had shot down. The numbers were adjusted to more realistic levels after the war, but differences persist. A recent and credible estimate is that the British lost 1,547, including 770 Hurricanes and Spitfires and 376 bombers. The Luftwaffe lost 1,887, of which 650 were Bf 109s.

The RAF tended to use its Spitfires against German fighters and its Hurricanes against bombers, but the Hurricanes got their share of enemy fighters, too. Hurricane squadrons accounted for 55 percent of the total RAF victories, the Spitfire squadrons for 43 percent.

As Churchill said, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few,” referring to the RAF, but much was owed to Churchill as well. He had no grasp of military strategy. Throughout World War II, he drove his generals and admirals to despair with his fondness for ideas that were bold and inspiring but impractical or unsound. However, he was rock solid on Napoleon’s first principle of war, the objective.

He saw, when others did not, that the objective that mattered was the absolute determination to fight. By sheer force of his will, he carried the British nation along with him. Thus committed, the strategists and military leaders figured out how to get it done.

The first step—and an enormous one—was victory in the Battle of Britain.

John T. Correll was editor in chief of Air Force Magazine for 18 years and is now a contributor. His most recent article, “Gunships on the Trail” appeared in the June issue.