Battle of Britain1 Essay

This essay has a total of 7910 words and 30 pages.


Battle of Britain1




The Battle of Britain: A Wave of Resistance Amid a Sea of Darkness

As the cold hand of death swept over the remnants of France, British Prime Minister,
Winston Churchill, orated on the imminent battle that would rage over his homeland and the
foreboding struggle for survival that was now facing Britain:

The Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin… The
whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he
will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all
Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad sunlit uplands.
But if we fail, the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have
known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and
perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace
ourselves to our duties, 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.’(Hough, Richard. The Triumph of R.A.F. Fighter Pilots. New York: The McMillan
Company, 1971. 9-10).


The Battle of Britain was greatly affected by pre-war circumstances, separated into four
phases and carried consequences that would affect the rest of World War II.

The outcome of the Battle of Britain was greatly dependant upon the circumstances,
politics and preparedness of each opposing side for the impending battle that was to be
fought. The map of Europe was awash in Nazi red as the German army moved closer towards
its goal of domination:


Adolph Hitler had conquered almost all of Europe by astute diplomacy, threat or bloody
invasion. Wherever he had attacked he had conquered. In May 1940, Germany invaded Belgium,
Holland and France. There were short, savage battles. The Luftwaffe swept the skies clear
of the enemy, German soldiers and tanks were triumphant. The United States of America,
though sympathetic to Britain, was still neutral, and did not believe that the British
nation could survive for long. At the headquarters of the British War Cabinet, Winston
Churchill gazed at the map of Europe, and what he saw would have chilled the heart of a
man with less courage and patriotism than he possessed. To the north and west of Britain
was open sea. To the northeast, east and south, the whole of the European coastline -
Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium and France – was in German hands. (Hough 11-12).


To Britain, the outlook of the imminent siege of its homeland appeared hopeless. With the
enemy surrounding the last stronghold of the Allies, the odds against Britain were
extremely in the favor of the opposition:


“Britain not only faced an enemy ten times as powerful as she was on land and more than
twice as powerful in the air. Invasion appeared imminent and inevitable. On July 16, Adolf
Hitler issued a directive ‘As England despite her hopeless military situation, still shows
no sign of willingness to come to terms, I have decided to prepare, and if necessary
carry, a landing operation against her. The aim of this operation is to eliminate the
English motherland as a base from which war against Germany can be continued…’ (Hough 13).


Like the mouth of a leviathan opening to consume a lone minnow on the open sea, the German
forces faced an enemy that was not only surrounded on three sides, but one that still
tasted the rancid bile of defeat at Dunkirk. The Germans planned an extensive assault on
Britain that would attack them from the air and on the ground that was code named
Operation Sealion. Len Deighton confirms that the plans for British invasion were not
complete until three days after the confirmed start of the battle when he wrote, “…Not
until 13 July did the German General Staff lay before Hitler their draft plans for
‘Operation Sealion’ the invasion of Britain”(Deighton, Len. Battle of Britain. New York:
George Rainbird Limited, 1980. 79). The plan would allow for the German army to form into
two army groups. Army Group A was to be divided into two subgroups. One would land on the
right, near Ramsgate, while the other landed on the left. Army Group B would meanwhile
undertake an independent mission that would blaze a path from Cherbourg to Lyme Bay.
120,000 men and 4,500 horses while being protected by 650 tanks would initially back the
invading force in Army Group B. To allow for the protection from enemy flank attacks as
they blazed forward, paratroopers were used to ensure proper rear coverage. The next wave
would consist of three armored divisions, three motorized divisions, and nine infantry
units, which were then to be followed by eight infantry divisions. After establishing a
safe beachhead, Army Group B was to seize a large path of the eastern portion Great
Britain and to cut a path that would forcibly cut off London from the rest of the nation
(Deighton 80). Germany’s plan for separation and conquer all depended on the politics
behind Britain’s preparedness for war and the control of the air.

Great Britain entered the war with varying levels of preparedness due to many factors.
Winston Churchill, in a speech to Parliament, pointed out the susceptibility of Britain’s
defense and the increasing risk Germany was posing on the world as they increased their
military strength to Parliament in the years before the war in hopes of persuading them to
see the need for an increase in defensive forces in Britain:


We are a rich and easy prey. No country is so vulnerable and no country would better repay
pillage than our own…Yet when this government, this peace-loving government, makes this
modest demand upon Parliament…and feel driven by this duty to ask for additional security,
what is the attitude of the opposition? They have the same sort of look of pain and
shocked surprise which came over the face of Mr. Bumble when Oliver Twist held out his
little bowl and asked for more…If Germany continues this expansion and if we continue to
carry out our scheme, then, sometime in 1936, Germany will be defiantly and substantially
stronger in air than Great Britain…Once they have got that lead we may never be able to
overtake them. (Mason, Travis K. Battle Over Britain. New York: Doubleday and Company
Incorporated, 1969. 80).


Even though the imposing threat of Germany was clearly pointed out by Winston Churchill,
an opposing critic, Mr. Clement Attlee followed the popular view that Britain should,
“deny the need for increased armament”(Mason 80). The then current administration, led by
Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, also felt that an increase in defensive force was not
the best path to choose:


Chamberlain believed that he could save Britain from war by acting as a diplomatic broker,
maintaining peace by redressing grievances with negotiation and compromise. In the 1930’s
this policy of appeasement was supported by the Chiefs of Staff. Chamberlain flew to a
series of meetings with Hitler to broker a settlement, while at the same time coordinating
policy with the French and keeping up the same pressure on the Czech President Benes to
sacrifice land for peace. The product for these efforts was the Munich Agreement, which
transferred the Sudetenland to Germany under international supervision and averted war.
The Agreement was met with public euphoria in Britain, most of the press regarded it as a
triumph for Chamberlain.( Donnelly, Mark. Britain in the Second World War. New York:
Routledge, 1999. 6-7).


The policy of appeasement sought a compromise with Germany in hopes of pleasing Hitler.
Britain, felt war had been averted and felt no need for an increase in armament. Though
publicly accepted as the popular opinion before the war, Winston Churchill still defied
public opinion and tried to persuade Parliament of the ever-increasing German risk before
the war:

Germany is already well on her way to become, and must become, incomparably the most
heavily-armed nation in the world and the nation most completely ready for war….We cannot
have any anxieties comparable to the anxiety caused by German rearmament. (Deighton 38).


Even as early as four years before the outbreak of World War II, British Prime Minister
Stanley Baldwin, spoke to the House of Commons on why Britain was ill-prepared to meet the
German threat:


I tell the House... frankly… neither I nor my advisers had any idea of the exact rate at
which production could be, and actually was being, speeded up in Germany in the six months
between November and now (May). We were completely misled on that subject…. There has been
a great deal of criticism…. About the Air Ministry as though they were responsible for
possibly an inadequate programme, for not having gone ahead faster, and for many other
things…. I only want to repeat that whatever responsibilities of the Government as a
whole, and we are all to blame. (Deighton 39).


After Churchill’s repeated warnings of Germany’s rearmament, it is apparent that there was
a slight shift in policy toward the preparedness of Royal Air Force. The British
government increased spending for the Royal Air force from17.5 million British pounds in
1934 to 73.5 million British pounds in 1938. The increase in spending alone could not
prepare Britain for war without an appropriate plan of action. One man, Sir Thomas Inskip,
proposed the switching of plans and showed that Winston Churchill was not the only one to
recognize how lacking Britain was in terms of war forces:


Then in December 1937, Scheme J was suddenly checked. Sir Thomas Inskip, Minister for the
Coordination of Defense, argues that it would cost too much and provided too few fighters.
After prolonged argument, in April 1938 the Cabinet accepted Scheme L, by which the RAF
would reach a strength of 1,352 bombers and 608 fighters by April 1940. Airmen claim that
Inskip was a poor minister who forced these measures through at a cost of severe delays in
creating a heavy-bomber force merely for financial and political reasons, because fighters
cost less than bombers. But in reality, it was Inskip’s insistence on higher priority for
fighter production that gave Fighter Command the tiny margin of strength by which it was
able to achieve victory in 1940. Inskip deserves to be remembered as one of the true
victors of the Battle of Britain.(Deighton 38).


Increased production indeed helped Britain’s effort to prepare for war, but upon entering
it, many of their planes were lost trying to save their allies from being consumed by the
German wave. General Dowding, Chief of RAF Fighter Command, recognized this as a lost
effort and appealed to the better senses of the Air Ministry:


He put his case forward forcibly at a Cabinet meeting, illustrations with graphs that if
the present rate of attrition continued for a further two weeks the RAF would not have a
single Hurricane left in France – or in Britain! He followed this with his now famous and
courageous letter to the Under Secretary of State for Air, setting out his fears and
asking for the Air Ministry to commit itself as to what it considered the level of
strength needed to defend Britain. This in itself won him few friends in high places but
it eventually did the trick. Shortly afterward came the order from Winston Churchill that
no more fighters would leave the UK, whatever France’s need.( Franks, Norman. Battle of
Britain. New York: Gallery Books, 1981. 11).


Mark Donnelly summarized Britain’s hastened attempts to prepare for war when he wrote, “In
the spring and summer of 1939 Britain made preparations for a war that was increasingly
unavoidable; rearmament was accelerated, air-raid shelters were built and conscription
began” (Donnelly 7). The British were lucky to have been as prepared as they were. Because
of a few unpopular opinions that exposed the imminent threat, Britain’s policy of
appeasement and compromise was put to an end. Had Britain heeded warnings years before the
war, the scarcity of planes would not have been a problem when Britain started to commit
its planes to the defense of its allies. After committing numerous squadrons to France,
Britain determined it was a lost cause. Only after Britain had lost a significant number
of planes and pilots in France and as Germany’s scope was set across the channel, did they
realize that while invasion was plausible, control of the air and supremacy of air would
determine the outcome of the Battle of Britain.

It was now clear to both Britain and Germany that supremacy of the air was essential to an
invasion if it were to succeed. Control of the air became paramount:


On 30 June Goering issued a preliminary instruction: ‘ as long as the enemy air force is
not defeated, the prime requirement is to attack it…by day and by night, in the air and on
the ground….’ It was understood that Hitler himself would give the word for the major air
onslaught against Britain. But in the July weeks that followed Goering prepared to embark
on a private war against the RAF over the channel. By attacking British shipping, he could
force Fighter Command into a battle of attrition that must soften them up for the knockout
to come. The Luftwaffe stood to win glory and to lose nothing. Hitler and his other
service chiefs acquiesced passively. They too saw a battle over the channel as a cheap,
useful demonstration of Germany’s might. The orders were given for the overture to the
Battle of Britain. (Deighton 81).


Britain’s Royal Air Force was largely dependant on the two planes, the Hawker Hurricane
and the Super Marine Spitfire. The Hurricane was equipped with heavy armor that was built
to handle damage and could absorb more damage than the Spitfire but at the cost of speed
and maneuvering. It flew about fifty miles per hour slower than the Spitfire and responded
less accurately to controls. The Spitfire was disputably the greatest aviation machine in
World War II. No other outmatched its speed and control. Both planes were equipped with
one engine that was produced by Rolls Royce (Hough 17-20). The German Air Force, or the
Luftwaffe, had a wide array of bombers and fighters. The most heavily used bomber by the
Germans was the JU-87 Stuka. It dove vertically and dropped a devastating array of bombs.
The German fighters who protected their squadrons of bombers consisted of BF-109 and the
BF-110. The BF-109 was a single-engine plane whose main advantages were the rate of speed
at which it dived and the rate of acceleration. Though extremely fast, the BF-109 traded
in handling and maneuverability at high speeds and was at a disadvantage against British
fighters at close range. The BF-110’s were the twin-engine version of the BF-109. Their
main objectives were to attack fighters and to protect the Stufkas and other German
bombers. Because of the added weight the second engine added, the maneuverability was
reduced and would thus be a constant casualty in the Battle of Britain. (Hough 16) The
pilots who operated each side’s planes had their pro’s and con’s as well. German fighter
pilots and bombers were considered some of the best in the world. They had an excellent
accuracy rate of fire. The main flaws of these world-class pilots were their world-class
attitudes. They had a sense of self-confidence that teetered on superiority complex. This
expectation of complete and total supremacy in the air created a drastic drop in morale
when the Royal Air Force would fill the sky with planes just as quickly as the Luftwaffe
would shoot them down. The RAF pilots were just as well trained as the Germans yet lacked
the accuracy and discretion of the Luftwaffe. The RAF would stick to the formation until
the squadron leader would give an order. This left no room for the discretion of the
pilots under the squadron leader making them more susceptible to being “jumped” or
surprised by the German Air Force. (Hough 17-24) Germany’s underestimation of the RAF
would allow the British to exploit and wiled this confidence to their advantage:


(Germany) They were justifiably scornful of the risk to Germany from the RAF’s bombers,
but recklessly confident that their own would do better: ‘In contrast, the Luftwaffe is in
a position to go over to decisive daylight operations owing to the inadequate air defense
of the island…. The Luftwaffe is clearly superior to the RAF as regards strength,
equipment, training, command and location of bases….’ These were the beliefs with which
the Luftwaffe went to battle and which would lead to so many blunders in the months to
come. If the British knew little about German plans to defeat them, the Germans knew still
less about their enemy.(Deighton 80).


While being overly confident, they were not without the right to be a little optimistic.
According to one report, at the start of the Battle of Britain the Luftwaffe had just over
1500 bombers with over 1000 fighters with which to protect them as compared to Britain’s
591 fighters with 100 more ineffectual in daylight battle (Hough 30). While the strength
in numbers definitely belonged to the Germans, the British had a secret defense to
Germany’s massive arsenal of planes. Radar.

The English Channel separated Germany’s targets and their bases. They expected to
encounter light resistance in the air, but instead saw squadrons waiting for them as they
passed over the channel. For a long time, German intelligence tried to figure out what
these groups of tall towers that lined Britain’s coast were. They had thought that it was
a location detection device, but they had little idea of how effective and important the
radar was to the British defense. In, 1935 a scientist named Robert Watson-Watt sent a
report to the British Air Ministry outlining the way in which radio could be used to
identify and detect enemy planes. By that fall, towers were erected along the coast and
were able to detect planes within a fifty-mile radius. Along with radar, the Royal
Observer Group watched for German planes through binoculars from the ground. While the ROG
spotted the planes from a distance, the radar would record vital information of the
incoming squadrons’ speed and numbers. This information was sent to headquarters where
Spitfires and Hurricanes were then promptly alerted and ordered to intercept. While the
radar was maintained, Germany never was able to surprise the British Royal Air Force
(Hough 27-28). The disadvantages and advantages of each opposing force set the stage for a
dramatic and key battle of the Second World War.

The Battle of Britain’s length and its exact events is often the subject of debate. As
with many battles in war, events and dates are often open for interpretation. The battle
though can be divided into four separate phases. Phase one consisted of the early probing
done by the Luftwaffe of the RAF. The second phase focused on Germany’s attacks on key
British defensive systems. The third phase started what was known as the ‘Blitz’, or the
attacks on London and other civilian sites. The fourth phase saw the Germans switch to
night bombings and eventually taper off all aerial attacks on Britain, thus ending the
‘Blitz’, which formally ended the Battle of Britain. (Bickers, Richard Townshend. The
Battle of Britain. New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1990. 108).


The Luftwaffe began the Battle of Britain by testing the abilities of the Royal Air Force
and attacking crucial British convoys. They attacked and tested the RAF to keep them busy
and possibly weaken their defenses as they prepared their troops for a grand assault. They
attacked the convoys, which carried coal and bulk raw materials, hoping to cripple Britain
that had learned to depend on these convoys to sustain its nation’s economy (Bickers 108).
The Germans did not plan on all out victory in Phase one, which began on July 10, 1940.
The bulk of the damage done to both sides in phase one was over the coastal convoys. Many
young RAF pilots were lost due to over zealousness and over-stepping their bounds. They
would often chase the German bombers back to France only to be ambushed by a group of
BF-109’s (Franks 17-18). Hitler wanted to flaunt his “superior” air force to show how
invincible it was. He still hoped in the back of his mind that England would cut a deal
after the German’s conquered the vast majority of Europe. He did not want to risk any
potential settlements by bombing civilians or towns. Instead, he decided to destroy the
convoys that scattered the waters surrounding Britain in hopes of causing the RAF to be
drawn into a dogfight and have Britain waste its precious reserves (Franks 17). Goering,
the German Air Force Commander, met with early success. He managed to claim three British
bombers and 30,000 tons of merchant shipping (Collier, Basil. The Second World War: A
Military History. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1967. 135). The British, needing
to protect its surviving planes and its shipping convoys decided to change its tactics:

In consequence of the preliminary offensive the British changed the organization of the
timing of their coastal convoys, hastened existing arrangements for the diversion of ocean
traffic to west-coast ports, and moved destroyers hitherto at Dover to Portsmouth. Their
aircraft factories remained in full production, as did two factories, which supplied all
the engines for their Hurricanes and Spitfires. Thus they were able, during the weeks that
divided the fall of France from the beginning of heavy air attacks on Britain, to make
good the shortage of fighters with which their losses from Norway to Dunkirk had left
them, take current losses in their strode, and build up a small force. (Collier 135-136).


With the British changing convoy routes and locations, the Germans were eager to use other methods at sinking ships:

It was certainly not to be assessed in terms of shipping destroyed, as over the period a
whole only 24,000 tons of merchant shipping were sunk in the Channel by aircraft. Between
10 July and 7 August thirteen merchant ships, totaling 38,000 tons, were mined and sunk
round the coasts of Britain, most of them by mines laid by enemy aircraft. This was almost
as much as was sunk by air attack; and it was obtained at a far smaller cost to the German
Air Force. (James, T.C.G. The Battle of Britain. Great Britain: Frank Cass Publishers,
2000. 43).


Ultimately, the attacks on the convoys and intercepting fighters were not a great success
for either side. It showed that Britain had faults within their system of defense and
intelligence. The Germans learned that, even with superior numbers, they would suffer
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