The Battle of Britain

Learn about the defining moments of the Battle of Britain how the heroic and selfless deeds of RAF Fighter Command came to defeat the German Luftwaffe in the summer of 1940

The Battle of Britain is about to begin

In May 1940 German troops and Panzers were rapidly pushing through the Ardennes into France and the Royal Air Force was forced to hastily withdraw its fighter squadrons. By June 1940, Hitler’s armies and Panzer Divisions had rolled up to the English Channel and 338,226 British Expeditionary Force (BEF) along with allied troops were evacuated from Dunkirk between 27th May & 4th June 1940. With France calling for an armistice on the evening of the 16th June, Britain faced Germany on its own.

On the 18th June 1940 Prime Minister Winston delivered a speech to the House of Commons that “The Battle of France is over. The Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war”.

From the outset of the Second World War Britain had been expecting a great German air assault on its soil.  It was this fear that drove mothers to evacuate their children from the big cities, the blackout enforced, gas masks and Anderson shelters distributed.

While the plans for Operation Sea Lion, the German code-name for the invasion of southern Britain and the preliminary air battle were taking shape, the Luftwaffe was not of course idle.  From its captured airfields in France the Luftwaffe harassed Britain by night, and from the July 10th 1940 onwards it waged increasing war by day against British shipping in the Channel.

Britain at this time of the War had fewer fighters than the German Luftwaffe, 600 to 1,300 but it had the advantage of an effective radar (RAdio Detection And Ranging) system.

RAF fighter pilots scramble to Spitifres during Battle of Britain 1940
RAF fighter pilots scramble to Spitifres during Battle of Britain 1940

On August 13th 1940, Hitler and the Luftwaffe heated things up a bit and unleashed the main offensive called Adlerangriff (Operation Eagle Attack) which was initially against air base, aircraft factories and against radar stations in south-eastern England. To defend the country the British arranged more than 600 frontline fighters and Fighter command employed squadrons of durable and heavily armed Hawker Hurricanes. Britain also had the faster and more agile Supermarine Spitfires up its sleeve - saved for use against the bombers’ fighter escorts. Thanks to their superior equipment the British actually had the advantage against the German bombers that were mostly lightly armed, twin-engine planes like the Heinkel He 111 and Junkers Ju 88. These aircraft in daylight were very vulnerable and also lacked the bomb load capacity to strike fatal blows. Even more vulnerable to being shut down was the once feared Junkers Ju 87 “Stuka” dive-bomber and the German premier fighter—the Messerschmitt Bf 109— was operating at the limit of its flying range so could only provide brief long-range cover for the bombers. By the end of August 1940, the Luftwaffe had lost more than 600 aircraft and the Royal Air Force only 260. However, Fighter Command was still losing fighters and experienced pilots at too great a rate to be sustained. Number 11 Group in particular was in a fight for its life and subsequently for Britain’s well-being too. Churchill recognised that the country’s fate hung on the sacrifice of its airmen, and in a speech to Parliament on August 20, said: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” Thankfully, Britain had the advantage of fighting against an enemy that had no systematic or consistent plan of action. By mid-September, it was becoming clear that the Luftwaffe could not gain air superiority over Britain. British fighters were shooting down German bombers faster than German industry could produce them. The Luftwaffe even shifted almost entirely to night raids on Britain’s industrial centres, in order to avoid the RAF fighters. The night raids, also known as the “Blitz,” caused many deaths and hardship for the people of Britain at the time, but it didn’t help the Germans dominate the skies and invade Britain.

On October 12, 1940 Hitler announced that the operation was off for the winter, and long before the arrival of spring he decided to turn eastward against Russia. Plans for an invasion were discarded and the campaign against Britain then became a blockade of its sea approaches, conducted mainly by submarines and only supplemented by the Luftwaffe. The Battle of Britain really tested the efficiency of British airplane technology and the swift development of German airpower cause Britain to sharpen their own air force

The British Air Force helped defeat the Germans and played a vital part in turning the tide of the Second World War. The Battle of Britain was very significant because it was the first major military campaign in history to be fought entirely in the air.

Every man who fought in the Battle of Britain was heroic, since the pilots took their lives in their hands each time they returned to the air, but Britain would certainly have fallen if she did not have her empire and her allies to rely on in this time of great peril.

One of the little-known things about the Battle of Britain is how many of ‘The Few’ who fought it were, in fact, foreign or Commonwealth pilots. According to Len Deighton’s ‘Battle of Britain’, 537 of the 3,080 men who ?ew – just under 20% – were not UK citizens, and that doesn’t even take into account dual nationals who signed up under their British passports? Additionally, these non-British airmen accounted for 102 out of the 520 brave men who gave their lives in the battle, again just under 20%. They came from Poland, New Zealand, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, South Africa, Australia, France, Ireland, South Rhodesia, Jamaica and Palestine, and without their help ‘Operation Sealion’, the invasion of the UK, might have spelt the end of Europe as we know it.

Douglas Bader with pilots and Hurricane
Douglas Bader with pilots and Hurricane

 

There’s no doubt that the fighter pilots were a heroic bunch, and that the work of the ‘Aces’ did a lot to boost the morale of beleaguered Britain. Douglas Bader was, of course, particularly well-known for the fact that, despite having his legs cut off after a plane crash in 1931, he went on to gain the Distinguished Flying Cross with Bar, not to mention the Distinguished Service Order with Bar, and shoot down 23 enemy aircraft. Additionally, he was the co-creator of the ‘Big Wing’ tactics, which involved sending a strong force to intercept enemy pilots over the Channel, and once captured, escaped the clutches of the Germans so many times that they were forced to confiscate his prosthetic legs. However, as John Rawlings asserts in his ‘Fighter Squadrons of the RAF’, for every high-scoring Douglas Bader there was a much less celebrated ‘Number Two’ who shadowed and guarded the tails of the attacking planes, allowing the ‘Aces’ to do their job to the very best of their abilities.

Another essential element of the RAF was the largely unsung ground crew. Whenever the pilots were in the air, the ground crew were also hard at work, directing battered aircraft in to land and patching them up so that they were fit to fly, fuelling and servicing the planes, and ensuring that the guns were in tip-top working order.

“We do not want to be remembered as heroes, we only ask to be remembered for what we did....that's all" - W/C Robert "Bob" Doe 234 & 238 Squadrons Fighter Command

Dowding and "The Few"
Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding and pilots of "The Few"

Battle of Britain Casualties and losses

Fighter Command suffered its heaviest losses on 31st August, with 39 aircraft shot down and 14 pilots killed.

Although exact figures are hard to come by 31st October, the date on which the battle is generally considered to have ended, it is thought that about 1,000 RAF planes were shot down in the Battle of Britain and a loss of 544 Fighter Command pilots killed. The German Luftwaffe lost many more planes than this, perhaps as many as 1,800 and more than 2,500 aircrew killed.

The Blitz, which continued long after the end of the Battle of Britain, resulted in over 40,000 civilian deaths and over 50,000 injured.

There is only one alive from 'The Few' who defended Britain against the air attack in 1940

Following the deaths of Squadron Leader John Stewart Hart, DFC, at the age of 102 on 18th June 2019, of Flight Lieutenant Archie McInnes at the age of 100 on 31st July 2019, of Flight Lieutenant Maurice Mounsdon at the age of 101 on 6th December 2019, Air Vice-Marshal John Thornett Lawrence CB, CBE, AFC, at the age of 99 on 18th December 2019, and of Wing Commander Paul Caswell Powe Farnes, DFM, AE at the age of 101 on 28th January 2020, and Flight Lieutenant Terry Clark at the age of 101 on the eve of the 75th anniversary of VE Day. As of 15th May 2020, only one survivor of The Few is still living Flying Officer John "Paddy" Hemingway DFC, AE. John Hemingway fought with the Royal Air Force along with 3,000 men who British Prime Minister Winston Churchill referred to as "the few".

“The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen, who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of world war by their prowess and by the devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few” – Winston Churchill, Prime Minister.

Winston Churchill and Battle of Britian quote
Winston Churchill and Battle of Britian quote

What would have happened if the Nazis had won the Battle of Britain?

Hitler's Black Book - List of Persons Wanted

The ‘Black book’ was a popularised name of the Nazi ‘special wanted arrest list’ drawn up for the immediate period after a successful Nazi invasion in 1940.

 Hitler's Black Book - List of Persons Wanted
Hitler's Black Book

An invasion that was, thankfully, never to be, largely as a result of the ‘Battle of Britain’ culminating in September that year with air supremacy retained by the British RAF, and the fact that Britain still had the most powerful navy in the world - making a sea & airborne Nazi invasion impossible.

If you want to learn more about the people who have especial reason to thank all these brave souls in the RAF, discover those on the ‘Most Wanted’ list of Hitler’s Black Book, intended for immediate arrest on invasion.

Some of the organisations which the Nazis especially wanted and had 'blanket arrest' instructions for seem odd -Freemasons and the Boy scout movement for example, Freemasonry was very much treated as 'suspicious' and any other 'secret society' would either have been controlled or banned. The Boy scouts were seen as a front for the intelligence services!

The Salvation army was also seen as 'internationalist' in its outlook and therefore would be closed and its members subject to arrest.

In addition to the 'named' list there was also a general list of organisations under suspicion -membership or connection with any of these would also have led to arrest and/or detention these included Jewish groups, Marxist/Communist party’s, trade unions etc.

Did pilots of the Battle of Britain receive an award?

All pilots that served during this period were entitled to an award. This was in the form of a clasp with the words ‘BATTLE OF BRITAIN’ inscribed, and this clasp is worn on the ribbon of the ‘1939 - 45 Star’ that was authorised for aircrew members of stipulated squadrons of Fighter Command who flew at least one operational sortie between 00.01 hrs 10th July and 23.59 hrs 31st Oct 1940. (Note: The ribbon has three vertical stripes of dark blue, red and light blue. The dark blue stripe represents the Naval Forces and the Merchant Navy, the red stripe the Armies and the light blue stripe the Air Forces.) The award was NOT given to those pilots who were under training with a training squadron even if they did happen to shoot down an enemy aircraft.

The Battle of Britain: just how British was it?

One of the little known things about the Battle of Britain is how many of ‘The Few’ who fought it were, in fact, foreign or Commonwealth pilots. According to Len Deighton’s ‘Battle of Britain’, 537 of the 3,080 men who flew – just under 20% – were not UK citizens, and that doesn’t even take into account dual nationals who signed up under their British passports. Additionally, these non-British airmen accounted for 102 out of the 520 brave men who gave their lives in the battle, again just under 20%. They came from Poland, New Zealand, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, South Africa, Australia, France, Ireland, South Rhodesia, Jamaica and Palestine, and without their help ‘Operation Sealion’, the invasion of the UK, might have spelt the end of Europe as we know it.

We had, of course, plenty of British young men ready and willing to join the R.A.F., so why the huge influx of men from other countries? A look at the operational histories of both the British and German air forces just prior to the battle helps to answer that question. The R.A.F. had of course gone to help when our ally, France, was invaded by Germany, but the combined French and British air forces were not only hopelessly outnumbered (the Germans having twice as many planes available), but outclassed. While the British and the French had largely never seen combat before the lightning month-long takeover, the German pilots had been meticulously trained and had tested their skill in battle both while helping Franco to win the Spanish Civil War and during the invasion of Poland. Many of the soldiers rescued from Dunkirk afterwards complained bitterly that the air support had been non-existent. The R.A.F. had in fact been present, and working hard too – British pilots flew 171 reconnaissance missions, 652 bombings and 2,739 fighter sorties during the battle – but their efforts had been cancelled out by the far more numerous and practiced Luftwaffe.

So, the R.A.F. was dangerously short on both numbers and skilled airmen even before the Battle of Britain commenced, and once it began the planes and men were decimated. According to Len Deighton, in the first 9 days of the battle, up to 19th July, 118 British planes were lost, along with 80 Squadron and Flight Commanders. The R.A.F. risked extinction. With so many high ranking men being killed, and a need to replace them quickly, British pilots were being sent into battle with just 20 hours of experience on Hurricanes or Spitfires. This was not enough, and they soon followed their comrades to the grave. In desperation, the R.A.F. appealed to all of Britain’s allies and the members of the Commonwealth for help. It was not hard to recruit men; many countries, as present or former members of the British Empire, felt duty-bound to help defend the shores of their parent island. Others volunteered out of a thirst for revenge on the conqueror of their home countries.

Take Poland, for instance, the country that donated most men – 147 in all, 30 of whom would die. These men had escaped the brutally efficient takeover of their country, and ached to avenge the friends and family who had not been so lucky. Air Chief Marshal Lord Dowding said of these men, and of the 87 Czechs who of course had seen their own country crushed, that they “swung into the fight with a dash and enthusiasm that is beyond praise. They were inspired by a burning hatred of the Germans, which made them deadly opponents.” The Imperial War Museum, meanwhile, quotes Wing Commander Gordon Sinclair, who was posted to command the Czech 310 Squadron, as saying, “They were anxious to fly, and anxious to get at the enemy, very anxious, probably more than we were… they didn’t like the Germans.” Even the official document ‘The Battle of Britain’, released by the Ministry of Information, announces proudly that “Polish and Czech pilots took their full share in the battle. They possess great qualities of courage and dash.”

Well might the government praise them, as many of these foreign pilots were very skilled, having had better, more extensive training and greater combat experience than most of our pilots. Many had flown against the Germans before when their countries had fallen, and were extremely good at shooting. ‘Battle of Britain’ attests that in a gunnery contest that took place in April 1942, with 22 squadrons competing, Polish squadrons 303, 316 and 315 scooped all three top spots. In September 1940 303 squadron achieved the highest kill rate in Fighter Command, and 7 ½% of all aircraft destroyed in the Battle of Britain were taken care of by the vengeful Poles.

In fact, a lot of the ‘aces’ were not British; of the Top 10 on the Allied side of the battle, at least half were from other nations. This was inevitable, since when the best of the British pilots were killed, equally skilled replacements were needed. The most outstanding airmen and tacticians from the Commonwealth and other Allied nations were of course the first to volunteer, and these men were immediately shuffled into prominent positions and given ample opportunities to face the enemy. At a time when manpower was so desperately needed, no talent was overlooked for long. Then, after the outdated Gloster Gladiator was phased out and the production of the much more sophisticated and speedy Hurricanes and Spitfires was stepped up, the pilots had better equipment to work with and were more likely to make kills and emerge victorious.

The overall top scorer of the Battle of Britain, it seems (bearing in mind that few lists and books agree on each individual pilot’s ranking), was UK pilot Eric Lock. He scored 21 kills, flying first with 41 Squadron, then as Flight Commander of 611 Squadron after he was seriously wounded while crash-landing. He was awarded the DFC and Bar and the DSO, but did not survive the war. There is some debate over whether fellow British pilots James Lacey and Archie McKellar come next on the list, or whether the first foreign pilot enters at number 2. Anyway, it is certain that Josef Frantisek was the top Czechoslovakian pilot of the battle, and one of the top 5 ‘aces’. Before joining 303 Squadron he flew first in both Czechoslovakia and Poland, then laboriously made his way to Britain via internship in Romania, from which he escaped, and France, where he again flew. He claimed 17 victories in the Battle of Britain, for which he was awarded the DFM. He, too, died shortly after the battle when his plane crashed. New Zealand’s top fighter is generally agreed to have been Brian Carbury, with 15 ½ kills. He had actually joined the R.A.F. on a temporary commission prior to the war, which was made permanent on its outbreak, and had already begun to assist with Spitfire training. He too is one of the top 5 scorers, and actually earned both his DFC and Bar during the period of the Battle of Britain alone! He survived the war.

Apart from their high scoring, many foreign airmen were given great responsibility in the war. The prime example, of course, is Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park, the New Zealander who was given control of the vital 11 Group. This was the group that fended off the brunt of the Luftwaffe’s attacks, being responsible for south east England, not only the home of the capital but the closest sector to occupied France. Having fallen from his horse when an infantry officer in the First World War, and been declared unfit to continue riding, Park decided to try flying after seeing the great effect that aerial reconnaissance could have on the eventual course of a battle. Taking to his personal Hurricane to observe the battles fought by his men, Park studied the actions of all aircraft carefully, and learned to be an excellent tactician. It was he who realised just how outclassed Britain was in the early days of the battle, when men and aircraft were both in dangerously short supply and the Luftwaffe was certainly the more experienced of the two forces. Throwing large numbers of planes into the air against them might briefly intimidate the enemy, he realised, but the smarter thing to do would be to send up only as many as were critically needed, to limit the losses and save resources for other skirmishes. He also deduced that it was no good attacking the fighters, formidable opponents that they were, and that aiming for the slower bombers would inflict greater losses on the Germans.

He later clashed with the leader of 12 Group, Air Vice Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory, who favoured the method of ‘Big Wing’ flying, throwing as many planes as possible against the opponent in order to intimidate them. The argument led to both Park and Hugh Dowding being relieved of command soon after the battle finished, but many still believe that it was Park and Dowding’s calm and measured tactics were ultimately responsible for protecting the depleted and over-matched R.A.F. from being utterly crushed at this crucial time. If ‘The Few’ saved Britain from invasion, then Park could be said to be responsible for safeguarding the lives of ‘The Few’.

Every man who fought in the Battle of Britain was heroic, since the pilots took their lives in their hands each time they returned to the air, but Britain would certainly have fallen if she did not have her empire and her allies to rely on in this time of great peril. We still remember ‘The Few’, both the home pilots and those who came from further afield to help protect this island.

RAF pilots who have just returned from their thrilling air victory over Nazi raiders on 29th July 1940
RAF pilots who have just returned from their thrilling air victory over Nazi raiders on 29th July 1940

Battle of Britain – The Spitfire.

The iconic Supermarine Spitfire prototype, with the serial number K5054, had its maiden flight in 1936 on this day — 5th March — and on landing, the pilot, Captain Joseph ‘Mutt’ Summers, apparently said: “don’t touch a thing.”

Designed by Reginald J. Mitchell, creator of the magnificent Supermarine seaplanes that took part in the Schneider Trophy. The Spitfire has a sleek, graceful fuselage with a domed canopy and small, angular fin and the Type 224 was a gull-winged monoplane with a fixed “trousered” undercarriage, powered by a 600-h.p. Rolls-Royce engine.

This set the standard for fighter interceptors of the day and after a series of trials the aircraft had a top speed of 349 mph at 16,800 feet. Its rate of climb was 2,400 feet a minute; and the K5054 took just under six minutes to get to 15,000 feet and with a maximum ceiling of 35,400 feet.

The final design was accepted by the Air Ministry, in January 1935, and the first prototype flew, aforementioned, on 5th March, 1936.

The naming of the new aeroplane was done by the directors of Supermarine. For a time, they were thinking of calling it the “Shrew”. However, in the end they decided to keep the name given originally to the Type 224, the Spitfire.

The Spitfire was the only British fighter aircraft to be in continuous production before, during and after the Second World War. Total production of the Spitfire was 20,351, plus 2,334 Seafires. About 54 remain airworthy, and many more are static exhibits in aviation museums throughout the world.

Spitfire Stats
Spitfire Stats

The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight

The Royal Air Force Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (BBMF) operates from RAF Coningsby, a Typhoon and fighter base, in Lincolnshire.

The mission of the RAF BBMF is to maintain the priceless artefacts of our national heritage in airworthy condition in order to commemorate those who have fallen in the service of this country, to promote the modern day Air Force and to inspire the future generations.

Flown by regular serving RAF Aircrew, the Flight operates six Spitfires, two Hurricane Mk 2Cs, a Lancaster as well as a C47 Dakota and two Chipmunk aircraft.

From May to September each year, these aircraft can be regularly seen in the skies over the UK celebrating and commemorating public and military events from State occasions such as Trooping the Colour to major air displays and simple flypasts for public events. The RAF BBMF are proud to have HRH Prince William, Duke of Cambridge as their Patron.

Helping you find your RAF Ancestor

By far the most common problem that people researching their family trees come across is a shortage of accessible records relating to the Second World War. The Public Records Act governs which materials created by the government can be released over what timescales. The agreed policy between MOD and The National Archives is that service records will be transferred to The National Archives at the point that the majority of the subjects of the record have passed their 100th birthday as, until that point, the record relating to any one subject will be closed.  Whilst MOD and The National Archives have not discussed in detail the transfer of Second World War service records it seems likely that the records will become publicly available in the mid-2020s given that an 18 year who enlisted at the mid-point in the war would have been born around 1924. However, there are numerous exceptions which continue to restrict access, e.g. when release of records may cause damage to the country’s image, national security or foreign relations.

Records from the Second World War fall under these restrictions, as many of the men and women who served are still alive and wouldn’t want personal information disclosed. Thus, you won’t find the full record for a relative who fought in that war anywhere except with the Ministry of Defence.

Small parts of a Second World War serviceman’s record may be found, such as those listing his or her death, casualty/missing reports, capture or medals awarded. Forces War Records, for example has a total of over 5 million World War Two records, these are made up from ‘some’ of the following collections:

Air Ministry Casualty Communiques WWII

These lists are the ‘Air Ministry Casualty Communiques – Royal Air Force’. The Casualty Communiques published by the Air Ministry list the fate of the personnel as casualties "in action" which were due to flying operations against the enemy; "on active service” which included ground casualties due to enemy action, non-operational flying casualties, fatal accidents and natural deaths. At the end of the communiques are details of any corrections or amendments which adds to the timeline of events for those personnel. [SEARCH THIS COLLECTION]

Bomber & Fighter Command Losses from 1939 – 1945

Various sources including rolls of honour, IWGC registers etc.[SEARCH THIS COLLECTION]

British & Imperial Prisoners of War held in Germany WWII

These listings were generally made between April and May 1945 so earlier escapees/repatriations will not be listed [SEARCH THIS COLLECTION]

Royal Air Force Nominal Index of Airmen and Airwomen 1918 to 1975

This collection is a transcription of the nominal roll of other ranks – both male and female who served in the Royal Air Force in the fifty-seven years between its foundation and 1975. [SEARCH THIS COLLECTION]

Our database also includes many more collections from Rolls of honour, UK RAF Lists and SO much more. Please see our full collections list HERE

Do you have a WW2 pilot or RAF ancestor in the family, or have you ever wondered if any of your ancestors were in the Forces during the war? If so, find out more by visiting Forces War Records, a site that specialises in Military records.

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What was the Battle of Britain | Forces War Records

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