The Battle of Britain in World War II was between Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF) and the Luftwaffe, Nazi Germany’s air force, and was the first battle in history fought solely in the air. From July 10 through October 31, 1940, pilots and support crews on both sides took to the skies and battled for control of airspace over Great Britain, Germany and the English Channel. The powerful, combat-experienced Luftwaffe hoped to conquer Britain easily, but the RAF proved a formidable enemy.
WATCH: World War II Documentaries on HISTORY Vault
Herman Göring and the Luftwaffe
After World War I, the Treaty of Versailles forbade Germany to have an air force. With the help of the Soviet Union, however, Germany secretly defied the treaty and trained air force pilots and support staff on combat planes.
When Adolf Hitler and his Third Reich came to power, Nazi Germany began rebuilding their air force. He officially created the Luftwaffe in February 1935, placing former World War I fighter pilot and political ally Hermann Göring in charge.
WATCH VIDEO: Winston S. Churchill
Operation Sea Lion
By the start of World War II in 1939, the Luftwaffe was the strongest and best-trained air force in the world. They played a crucial role in Germany’s swift, methodical and highly effective blitzkrieg invasion of much of Western Europe, including Poland, Holland, Belgium and France.
After France fell to Germany on June 22, 1940, Hitler set his sights on the Soviet Union but still had to contend with Great Britain. He planned a massive invasion by land and sea, code named Operation Sea Lion, but knew he needed to defeat the RAF first.
Hitler hoped his Luftwaffe and its fierce reputation would intimidate Britain enough that they would surrender peacefully, and even dangled the prospect of a peace treaty. However, he underestimated the resolve of Britain’s people, its military and its combative new prime minister, Winston Churchill, who rejected the offer outright.
Churchill believed Hitler and the evils of Nazism had to be abolished no matter what. He knew that the RAF was Britain’s main defense against German troops crossing the English Channel.
Churchill's "Finest Hour" Speech
Days before France’s surrender, Churchill gave his famous “Finest Hour” speech to the House of Commons, making it clear he had no intention of capitulating to Hitler, although some members of Parliament hoped to negotiate peace.
In his speech, Churchill said, "the Battle of France is over. I expect the Battle of Britain is about to begin." He spoke of his certainty that the Luftwaffe would attack Britain hard, but also his confidence that the RAF, commanded by Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding, would hold their own and be victorious.
Churchill knew failure was not an option, and his powerful speech boosted the morale and patriotism of the British people, its military and Parliament.
Hawker Hurricane, Supermarine Spitfire, Messerschmitt BF-109
Hitler and many of his generals were unprepared to invade Britain. Göring, however, was confident his Luftwaffe would quickly destroy the RAF with his German bombers and prevent, or at least postpone, the need for a full-scale invasion; Hitler gave him the go-ahead to prove it.
On July 10, 1940, the Luftwaffe attacked Britain, performing reconnaissance missions and targeting coastal defenses, ports and radar stations. Their efforts, however, did little damage to the RAF.
In mid-August, using mostly single-engine Messerschmitt BF-109 combat planes, the Luftwaffe began attacking Britain’s airfields, air fighter production sites and targeting RAF Supermarine Spitfires and Hawker Hurricanes in the air.
Despite being outnumbered, the RAF retaliated by bombing Berlin. Enraged, Hitler and Göring changed tactics and ordered a bombing campaign known as “the Blitz” against London, Liverpool, Coventry and other major cities, hoping to decimate the morale of the British people. To ensure massive casualties and to avoid aerial dogfights between the RAF and the Luftwaffe, German bombing was carried out at night.
On September 15, the Luftwaffe began two massive raids on London, eager to force the British to the negotiating table, but they could not defeat the RAF or gain control of British airspace. The Luftwaffe was by then stretched too thin, poorly organized and unable to keep up with the demand for new fighter planes or overcome the RAF’s superior technology.
Who Won the Battle of Britain?
By the end of October 1940, Hitler called off his planned invasion of Britain and the Battle of Britain ended. Both sides suffered enormous loss of life and aircraft. Still, Britain weakened the Luftwaffe and prevented Germany from achieving air superiority. It was the first major defeat of the war for Hitler.
Although Britain stood alone against Germany after the fall of France, nearly a quarter of the RAF pilots who participated in the Battle of Britain were from other countries including Poland, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, France, the United States and South Africa.
Why Did the British Win the Battle of Britain?
The British won the Battle of Britain due to a confluence of factors. They were defending their home territory, so were more motivated to succeed, and also knew the local geography better than the invaders.
Another major factor was the Dowding System, named after Sir Hugh Dowding, Commander in Chief of the RAF Fighting Command. The Dowding System’s pioneering use of radar (which could warn the RAF of enemy attacks), aircraft and ground defense gave Great Britain a competitive advantage.
Significance of the Battle of Britain
The Battle of Britain was a turning point in World War II; if the RAF had not held off the Luftwaffe, Hitler would have likely moved forward with his Operation Sea Lion land invasion of the British Isles. This would have been devastating to the British people and all efforts to stem Hitler’s rise to power. Germany needed to control the English Channel to invade Britain, and the battle prevented them from gaining that valuable control.
Britain’s victory in the Battle of Britain demonstrated the courage and resilience of the country’s military and its people and allowed them to remain free from Nazi occupation. It also enabled the Americans to establish a base of operations in England to invade Normandy on D-Day in 1944.
READ MORE: D:Day: An Interactive
The Battle of Britain Movie
The Battle of Britain’s significance was not lost on Hollywood. In 1969, MGM released the movie The Battle of Britain, starring Michael Caine, Christopher Plummer, Robert Shaw and Laurence Olivier as commander Hugh Dowding.
Other notable productions include: Battle of Britain, a documentary produced by brothers Colin and Ewan McGregor to mark the event’s 70th anniversary; Voices of the Battle of Britain, a documentary which includes first-hand accounts of RAF veterans; and Mission of Honor, a movie which tells the story of RAF Hurricane Squadron 303.
Battle of Britain. International Churchill Society.
Battle of Britain. WW 2 Facts.
How the Luftwaffe Fought the Battle of Britain. Imperial War Museum.
The Battle of Britain: A Brief Guide. Military History Matters.