"Never in the field of human conflict, was so much owed, by so many, to so few..."
In 1940, the German forces had swept aside all opposition in Belgium, Holland, Norway, Denmark and France and by the middle of summer stood on the French coast just 22 miles from Dover. Britain and her Empire now stood alone and braced for the inevitable onslaught.
The only thing stopping Hitler now was the need to achieve air supremacy to protect his invasion fleet that was now gathering in the ports of northern France. To do this, the RAF must be annihilated by the Luftwaffe and the Royal Navy would have to be contained by the Kriegsmarine – not a small task to say the least.
In July, air attacks began on our coastal towns and the shipping that was passing through the Channel. This was followed by a concerted series of attacks on the RAF airfields and infrastructure in August. Hermann Goering, the head of the Luftwaffe, was convinced that, following heavy losses during the battle for France, RAF Fighter Command was close to defeat. He tried to force air battles between fighter planes to bring about the total destruction of British air defences.
The ‘Hardest Day’ of the battle was Sunday 18th August. This was the day the Luftwaffe tried its utmost to destroy RAF fighter airfields; flying 850 sorties that totalled 2200 aircrew. The RAF resisted with 927 sorties involving 600 aircrew.
Between lunchtime and teatime, Luftwaffe attempted three large raids. The first and third were conducted by mixed groups of bombers that were escorted by Messerschmitt Bf 109 and B 110 fighters. The second was conducted by Junkers Stuka dive-bombers which were also escorted by Bf 109s. The targets were the airfields at Kenley, Gosport, Biggin Hill, Ford, Hornchurch, Thorney Island, North Weald and also the radar station at Poling. The last wave did not manage to reach its targets as they were obscured by cloud. This did not hinder the fighting that was to follow along the route.
The RAF and Fleet Air Arm lost 68 aircrafts altogether; 31 in air combat. 69 German aircrafts were destroyed or damaged beyond repair.
As the weeks wore on, Goering grew more and more frustrated by the large number of British planes 'that were still able to fight off attacks'. On 4th September, the Luftwaffe shifted tactics again and, on Hitler's orders, set about destroying London and other major cities. On 7th September, extensive, round-the-clock attacks started which were concentrated mainly along the river by London's docks on the densely populated East End.
With its drive to destroy the RAF, the Luftwaffe was well behind schedule. Göering had hoped that Fighter Command may be exhausted by continuing to defend the capital. The battle did not diminish though as we saw by its climax on around the 15th September, on what would we now know as ‘Battle of Britain Day’. Fortunately, there were few days in September when RAF losses exceeded the Luftwaffe's.
As September progressed, the ratio of bombers to fighters was lessened and the fighters were tied to smaller formations. However, these tactical changes failed to weaken the ability of Fighter Command to inflict losses. By early October, the Luftwaffe was thankful for the worsening weather as this could be used as an excuse to call off the massed daylight operations, and rethink its objectives and tactics.
The RAF Battle of Britain Roll of Honour documents that 2,936 pilots were engaged on at least one operational sortie between July and October 1940. Popular belief is that the Battle of Britain was fought by the British, however, this isn't the case at all as there were pilots from at least 13 other countries including 145 Poles, 127 New Zealanders, 112 Canadians, 88 Czechs, 32 Australians, 28 Belgians, 25 South Africans, 13 French, ten Irish, seven Americans, three Southern Rhodesians and one each from Jamaica and Mandatory Palestine.
Fighter Command had finally gained the upper hand and Hitler was forced to postpone the invasion plans.