Dr Peter Preston-Hough
15th September 2015 marks 75 years since what is now known as the Battle of Britain day took place over the summer skies of Britain. Whilst this day in 1940 did not mark the hardest day, that being on 18th August, 15th September proved decisive in terms of German aircraft losses. Although day air fighting continued into October and the nightly ‘blitz’ city raids until 1941, German plans to invade Britain were postponed indefinitely.
The Battle was fought to repel German attempts to gain air superiority over the RAF as a precursor to an invasion by airborne and seaborne troops. Over the years a number of myths have built up around those heady months: of a few ex-public school pilots jumping into their Spitfires to engage overwhelming numbers of German bombers and fighters attacking airfields and radar stations, before turning their attention to London. Historical fact paints a different picture.
Whilst, on paper, the Luftwaffe had many more aircraft than the RAF, they also had a number of serviceability problems with their air fleets that reduced their numbers. The Luftwaffe had principally been formed to support their land forces so their bombers did not carry a large bomb load, their single-engine fighters were short range, the twin engine Bf110 fighter was no match for RAF fighters and their much feared dive-bomber, the Stuka, required air superiority conditions to operate. Furthermore, there were no plans to invade Britain prior to May 1940 and bitter arguments raged on the operational necessities. Equipment was in short order; for example, invasion barges had to be converted from vessels taken from German canals.
On the other hand, Britain was much better prepared. A fully integrated and very efficient air defence system was already in place, ranging from radar and observer corps giving early warning through purpose built fighter aircraft to a well-practised command and control organisation. Myths abound with the RAF. Many RAF fighter pilots were not officers, but sergeant pilots who, in some cases, were not allowed to eat their meals in the officers’ mess. Although the Spitfire is lauded as Britain’s aerial saviour, more German aircraft were shot down by the Hurricane, whose squadrons outnumbered those of the Spitfire. Although there is no doubt of the scarcity of the fighter pilots their commanding officer (Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding) took care to look after his charges by rotating the squadrons from the hectic areas in the south to the quieter areas to the north. The German aircrews had no such system and stayed at their work with no prospect of rest or relief. Some believe that a German seaborne invasion would have been extremely difficult owing to the power of the Royal Navy in 1940.
Should all this historical hindsight, which tends to suggest Britain was not under as great a threat as previously thought, detract from the ultimate result? I think not. In the context of the war The Battle of Britain was extremely important for a number of reasons. It marked the first occasion when the Germans were defeated following their spectacular successes in the Low Countries and France. This showed they could be beaten and gave British supporters in America the means to argue for resources and supplies to be sent across the Atlantic. Victory gave Britain a sense of purpose; manufacturing output increased throughout those months as workers strived to give the fighter pilots sufficient resources to fight the enemy. Furthermore, it gave heart to many oppressed peoples that the Germans were not invincible and gave Britain a moral high ground as the nation who stood up against the Nazis. Defeat deprived the Luftwaffe of many aircrew whose experience was hard to replace and aircraft needed for the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.
Although there were many darker times ahead until final victory, success in the Battle of Britain was vital to the ultimate defeat of the Nazis and those who fought and endured its actions should, therefore, be remembered and honoured.
Dr Peter Preston-Hough is part of the University of Wolverhampton’s War Studies department. Peter's research areas and areas of expertise include Air Power; the Strategic Air Offensive 1939-1945; 617 Squadron; History of the RAF; Airborne Forces; Operation Market Garden 1944. The RAF's Air Superiority Campaign in Burma, Malaya and India 1941-1945, Air Power in Normandy 1944; Airborne Forces in Normandy 1944 and the Strategic Air Offensive 1939-1945.