Eighty years ago over the skies of southern England the German air force (Luftwaffe) fought to establish air superiority over the Royal Air Force (RAF) as a prelude to the invasion of Britain.
In early summer 1940 the country had been seriously weakened following the evacuation from Dunkirk of the core of its professional army, the British Expeditionary Force, leaving the country alone in the fight against Hitler.
15 September is commemorated as Battle of Britain day. It was the date of the last heavy daylight German attack on London and a turning point in the battle when Germany lost 60 aircraft – 25% of the attacking force.
Wayne Cocroft, Senior Investigator, explores some of the surviving places and archival images from this momentous battle.
The air battle was waged for nearly four months from the 10 July to 31 October 1940. During this period it moved through five distinctive phases: firstly raids on shipping in the channel and south coast ports, followed by more intense raids on RAF airfields, aircraft factories and later radar stations. The focus then moved to attacks on airfields close to London and night attacks on the capital.
On the 7 September the first heavy daylight raid was mounted on London with continuing night attacks. From early October the Battle entered its final phase mainly characterised by night attacks on London, Liverpool, the Midlands and north of England.
On Tuesday 20 August 1940, in the midst of the Battle, the Prime Minister Winston Churchill rose in Parliament to deliver his assessment of the war situation. It was during this speech he famously referred to the fighter pilots as the ’Few’. Who were the Few?
Officially 2937 pilots of the RAF and Fleet Air Arm were recognised as having fought during the Battle. Around a fifth were from British Commonwealth and Dominion countries, New Zealand, Canada, Australia, and South Africa, as well as allied air forces from occupied Europe, of whom Polish pilots formed the largest contingent.
In the second phase of the Battle the Luftwaffe turned its attention to destroying the RAF’s capabilities and the production of aircraft. Most airfields around London were attacked.
RAF Kenley suffered its worst attack on 18 August when buildings and aircraft were destroyed, nine airmen were killed and eight others wounded. The surviving protective emplacements for its fighter aircraft are scheduled monuments and have recently been conserved.
Integrated Air Defence
During the late 1930s the organisation of RAF Fighter Command was radically restructured to create the world’s first integrated air defence system that was key to the success of the RAF in the Battle.
The scheme drew on lessons learnt from the First World War with anti-aircraft guns, searchlights and barrage balloons positioned to defend key areas. Intelligence about enemy raids was gathered by the new technology of coastal early warning radar stations and diligence of visual observers in the countryside and towns.
Command and Control
To integrate the flow of information the country was divided geographically into a series of Groups and below these Sectors. The central Headquarters of Fighter Command was established in Bentley Priory. Here, within the mansion a Filter Room was created to receive information from the radar stations and the Observer Corps, which was then passed to the adjacent Operations Room and to the Group and Sector headquarters.
In the Operations Room Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding was able to monitor and control air operations across the whole country. Just before the battle started these operations were moved to an underground bunker in priory’s grounds.
RAF Uxbridge was the headquarters of 11 Group which covered south eastern England and bore the brunt of responsibility for co-ordinating of the RAF’s response to German attacks.
Its proximity to London attracted many high profile visitors including the King and Queen, the current queen’s parents, and Winston Churchill. When he visited on 15 September he remarked that ‘all of the bulbs glowed red’ on the squadron state boards indicating that all 11 Group squadrons were engaged in the Battle. The bunker is listed Grade I and open as a museum.
From early September a change in German tactics shifted their effort to delivering a ‘final blow’ in anticipation that the destruction caused to London might force Britain to sue for peace. The capital’s civilian population was in the frontline.
In September 1940 alone 5730 Londoners were killed and around 10,000 injured; many hundreds of homes, dockside and public buildings were also destroyed or badly damaged. Some sought shelter in tube stations and basements also offered some protection. Close to Downing Street on Storey’s gate the Cabinet was accommodated in a reinforced cellar.
A standby facility, codenamed PADDOCK was also built at Dollis Hill in northwest London, but was disliked by Churchill and only used on handful of occasions.
A curious postscript
In a curious postscript to the main battle in October 1940 the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini – Hitler’s ally – sent just over 200 aircraft to take part in the air offensive. The force only mounted a handful of attacks against Britain.
In one such raid on 11 November 1940 a group of Italian bombers escorted by bi-plane fighters planned a daylight attack on Harwich. They were intercepted by RAF Hurricanes and suffered heavy losses. One casualty was a Fiat fighter that crash landed on the shingle beach at Orford Ness, Suffolk. It now survives in the collection of the RAF Museum.
The RAF suffered terrible losses. In the last fortnight of August 1940 alone 231 pilots were either killed or wounded. In that period it also lost 295 Hurricanes and Spitfires, with a further 171 aircraft severely damaged. The ability to replace lost aircrew and aircraft was critical to the outcome of the Battle.
Throughout the summer British industry ensured that losses were made good and there was a general upward trend of aircraft available to the RAF’s frontline squadrons. The main centre of Spitfire production was in the Southampton area.
This was very vulnerable to aerial attacks and a second larger factory was established at Castle Bromwich in the Midlands. At the latter the total wartime production of Spitfires reached nearly 12,000, a feat commemorated by a monument representing three soaring aircraft.
More than any other single battle of the Second World War the Battle of Britain occupies a special place in the national story. Many people had witnessed it first hand, suffered the terror of bombing, or listened to accounts of aerial combat relayed by the BBC.
The Battle also marked the first serious check on German ambitions to dominate Europe, thwarted any immediate invasion plans, and demonstrated that resistance was possible.
As early as 1943 a Sunday in September was dedicated as Battle of Britain Sunday in remembrance of the 1,497 pilots and aircrews killed or mortally wounded, and as a thanksgiving for deliverance from possible invasion. However, in the years immediately after 1945, in comparison to the aftermath of the First World War, there was little desire to commemorate the war through public monuments.
The Battle of Britain was a notable exception and in 1947 a chapel with a stained a glass window was dedicated in Westminster Abbey.
One of the few memorials created during the war to the air campaign was at RAF Biggin Hill; which was amongst the most active fighter airfields of the Battle of Britain and one that suffered intense bombing.
Here in September 1943 three prefabricated huts were combined to create a chapel of remembrance dedicated to aircrew from Biggin Hill Sector who had lost their lives. It was built on the site of one of the hangars destroyed in bombing in 1940 and was lost in a fire in 1946.
Funds for a new chapel were raised by public subscription and in July 1951 the foundation stone was laid in July 1951 by Air Chief Marshal the Lord Hugh Dowding.
More recently memorials have been created at Capel le Ferne, Kent (1993) and the Victoria Embankment, London (2005). The memory of the Battle is also kept alive through the RAF’s Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, with its restored Spitfires and Hurricanes which are regularly flown at public events and air shows. Memorials on individual airfields also mark their service and lives lost.
Written by Wayne Cocroft.
Header photo – Spitfires of No. 610 County of Chester Squadron, based at Biggin Hill, Kent, flying in formation, 24 July 1940. The squadron saw almost continuous action throughout the Battle of Britain © IWM CH 745
Places to visit
- Battle of Britain memorial
- Bentley Priory Museum
- Biggin Hill Memorial Museum
- RAF Kenley
- Uxbridge 11 Group Bunker