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The Battle of Britain in Historical Perspective
A Short Essay by Dr. Helena P. Schrader

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     The Battle of Britain brought Hitler’s aggression to a halt for the first time since he came to power in Germany in 1933.  Hitler had not expected it would be necessary to invade England, but he was prepared to do so, if the British could not be brought to the negotiating table.  Although neither the German Navy nor Army were keen about a cross-channel invasion, they dutifully made the necessary preparations.  Their reluctance would not have stopped Hitler from ordering the invasion of England had he chosen to do so.  It was agreed within the German High Command, however, that the Luftwaffe should pave the way for an invasion by establishing air superiority over Britain. It was hoped – perhaps even assumed - that the air attacks would drive the British government to the negotiating table.  As the costs of the air fighting mounted and the British government remained intransigent, Hitler made the decision to postpone the invasion indefinitely.  This decision was taken on Sept. 17, mainly as a result of the air fighting on Sept. 15, which had proved that the RAF was far from defeated.  Hitler ordered the Luftwaffe to keep up the pressure on Britain, however, and did not withdraw troops or barges until the spring of 1941.  The night ‘Blitz’ of London continued virtually uninterrupted throughout the winter, and Britain did not feel safe from invasion until the Wehrmacht had turned its attention to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941.

     For Hitler the failure to defeat the Royal Air Force in the summer of 1940 was an annoyance, but not a strategic set-back.  He had long declared his preference to have Great Britain as an ally.  He had hoped the British would not ‘interfere’ with his invasion of Poland. He had expected the British government to sue for peace after the fall of France.  When the Luftwaffe proved incapable of creating the conditions for an invasion, Hitler turned his attention back to his long-held goal of invading the Soviet Union.  The war against the Soviet Union was Hitler’s passion; the war against the British Empire an irritating complication about which he lost little sleep.  To this day, most Germans have never heard of the ‘Battle of Britain,’ and, if they have, they attribute no major significance to it.

RAF     For Britain, the United States, Occupied Europe and even the Soviet Union, however, the significance of the Battle of Britain can hardly be over-stated.  If RAF Fighter Command had been defeated in 1940, the Luftwaffe would have been able to continue indiscriminate day-light bombing almost indefinitely.  The devastation and casualties in England would have been incomparably higher than they were. Furthermore, with air superiority established, it is likely that the Wehrmacht would have attempted an invasion.  Given the vast superiority of the Royal Navy over the Kriegsmarine, the success of such an attempt is far from certain, yet there can be no question that German air superiority would have been used against the Royal Navy – possibly with sufficient success to make the invasion possible.  The experience of the Royal Navy during the evacuation at Dunkirk is ample evidence of the vulnerability of ships to air attack particularly in confined waters.  There can be no doubt that if the Wehrmacht had succeeded in landing on British soil, it would have crushed what was left of Britain’s land forces.

     Still, the real significance of the Battle of Britain was psychological and diplomatic rather than military.  The United States, which at the start of the Battle had written Britain off as a military and political power, revised its opinion of British strength as a direct consequence of the Battle of Britain.  As a result of British tenacity and defiance in the Battle of Britain, US aid to Britain increased and the United States shifted its policy from ‘neutrality’ to ‘non-belligerent’ assistance. With American help, Britain was able to keep fighting until Hitler over-extended himself in the Soviet Union. If the United Kingdom had lost the Battle of Britain, it is unlikely that it could have provided assistance to the Soviet Union, and even less likely that the United States would have been drawn into the European war.  Without United States help, it is improbable that Hitler would have been defeated. The Battle of Britain was the necessary pre-requisite for future victory in Europe against Hitler’s murderous, racist regime.

     Compared to the slaughter fields of the First World War or on the Eastern Front in the Second, the price for this victory was clearly affordable.  During the Battle of Britain, the RAF lost 1,023 aircraft compared to the Luftwaffe’s loss of 1,887 aircraft. In fact, due to the dramatic increases in aircraft production introduced by Lord Beaverbrook, the RAF ended the Battle with more front-line fighter aircraft than it had at the start of the Battle. In contrast, the Luftwaffe’s fighter strength declined by 30%.  The imbalance in personnel losses was even greater: while the Luftwaffe lost 2,698 airmen during the battle (killed, wounded and imprisoned), the RAF lost 544 pilots killed.  (The number of RAF pilots taken prisoner during the Battle, which largely took place over British territory, was negligible, while the majority of wounded RAF pilots also later returned to active service and, therefore, does not weigh into the balance.)

     This said, it must be remembered that pilots were at the time highly trained specialists who could not be easily or rapidly replaced.  While the numbers were small compared to the total population, the pilot losses nevertheless represented roughly 40% of Fighter Command’s strength. In short, from the perspective of the participants, chances of survival were barely greater than 50%.  The situation was aggravated by the fact that, as a rule, the more experienced pilots had a 5-6 times greater chance of surviving than did the replacement pilots coming into the front line with very little flying and no combat experience.  The most critical period for a replacement pilot was his first fortnight in a front-line squadron. In consequence, there were a significant number of pilots who fought throughout the Battle (four full months) and survived, but many other pilots who did not survive four hours.  This meant, in effect, that a smallish core of experienced pilots often watched waves of replacements arriving and then being shot-down in a short space of time. Meanwhile, sheer exhaustion wore down even the experienced pilots and by the end of the Battle it was the Squadron Leaders, Flight Lieutenants and Section Leaders who were falling victim as a result of mistakes, inattention, and ‘sloppy flying.’

RAF debrief      For an individual squadron engaged in the Battle of Britain the pilots who were seriously injured and hospitalised also had to be replaced, so that the effective casualty rate (killed and wounded) at squadron level was closer to 70% than 50%.  This situation forced ACM Dowding and AVM Park to pull entire squadrons out of the front line (i.e. out of 11 Group) and replace them with new squadrons when a certain – albeit very subjective – level of exhaustion and depletion had been reached.  Altogether 16 squadrons were withdrawn from 11 Group in the one month between August 8 and September 8, 1940.  The problem with this rotation was that replacement squadrons - like replacement pilots - were far more likely to suffer causalities and far less likely to destroy enemy aircraft than the tired but experienced squadrons.  This was because the replacement squadrons often had no pilots with experience of the combat conditions reigning in Southeast England at the time.  Without experienced leaders, these fresh squadrons were often mauled badly during their first encounters with the Luftwaffe. It was not uncommon for these squadrons to lose 5-6 aircraft and 3-4 pilots in a single engagement.

     For Fighter Command the issue was not merely one of surviving – they could have done that by withdrawing beyond the range of the German fighters.  The issue was causing enough damage to the Luftwaffe to make it either unable or unwilling to provide the necessary air cover for an invasion.  In short: kills counted.  If the Luftwaffe hadn’t been losing aircraft and aircrew that Hitler wanted for his aggressive plans elsewhere, he might very well have opted for an invasion.  Kills, however, came predominantly from a limited number (approximately 5%) of the pilots – whether these wore RAF or Luftwaffe uniform.

     The German tactics, formations and ethos greatly encouraged individual leaders to run up large scores.  In the RAF ‚team spirit,‘ which the pilots brought with them from their often public school backgrounds, dominated instead.  Furthermore, the continuous rotation of squadrons and pilots in and out of combat areas resulted in far lower individual scores in the RAF. T he highest scoring Allied Ace, ‘Johnny’ Johnson, was credited with 38 victories in the course of the entire War. The German ‘aces’ Mölders, Galland and Wick topped that number (56 for Galland and Wick each) before the end of 1940; by the end of the war, many German pilots had 100s of credited kills.  But it was in part, I believe, the team spirit of the RAF that helped it win the Battle of Britain. Not only did the RAF with its ethos inflict losses at a rate of almost 2 to 1, but – far more important - morale did not break.  Given the losses and the sheer physical demands placed upon the RAF pilots at the time, it was their ability not only to keep flying but to keep drinking and laughing that awed their countrymen, their leaders and their enemies – when they found out.

     Perhaps the most astonishing feature of this remarkable team spirit was that it held sway in an exceptionally heterogeneous body.  In all, nearly 3,000 RAF pilots flew at least one sortie during the Battle of Britain.  Only 80% of these pilots, however, were British citizens; 20% came from the Dominions and/or other Allied countries.  The largest number of foreigners to participate in the Battle were Polish, contributing 145 pilots, but the second largest foreign contingent flying for the RAF at this time came from New Zealand with 126 pilots.  Pilots also came from Canada, Czechoslovakia, Australia, Belgium, South Africa, France, the United States, Ireland, Rhodesia and Jamaica.

     Furthermore, fully one third of the pilots who flew in the Battle of Britain were Sergeants.  Ever since its inception, the RAF had actively encouraged recruitment for all trades from all sectors of society, intentionally breaking with the rigidly class-conscious traditions of the Royal Navy and Army.  The RAF had provided scholarships to the Royal Air Force College at Cranwell for exceptional young airman and apprentices.  It had launched a special program to encourage ground crews to receive pilot training.  The RAF Volunteer Reserve was established to enable young men still in civilian life without the means of financing private flying lessons to gain instruction and practice flying at RAF expense.  These pilots almost invariably came from the classes of society whose sons did not traditionally go to public schools, University or into the Officer Corps. In the Battle of Britain they flew, drank and joked alongside the titled and privileged pilots of the University and Auxiliary Air Squadrons and with the regulars who had graduated from Cranwell. Literally, the sons of dukes and miners served in the same squadrons, fulfilling the same duties, taking the same risks, and reaping the same rewards. Most of the Sergeant Pilots of the Battle of Britain who survived were later commissioned, and often rose to senior command.

RAF ground crew       But it was not the pilots alone who won the Battle of Britain.  The RAF had worked hard to ensure that its pilots were supported by some of the best trained ground crews in the world.  With an ‘apprentice’ programme, the RAF had attracted technically minded young men early and provided them with extensive training throughout the inter-war years. In some ways, ground crews were better educated than many pilots.  Under the circumstances and given the fact that many pilots had come up from the ranks themselves, it is hardly surprising that the relationship between pilots and crews were on the whole excellent.  The RAF had a notoriously relaxed attitude toward discipline in any case, and this further worked to breakdown barriers.  Last but not least, at this stage of the war, individual crews looked after individual aircraft and so specific pilots.  The ground crews identified strongly with their unit – and ‘their’ pilots. After the bombing of the airfields started in mid-August, the ground crews were themselves under attack, suffering casualties and working under deplorable conditions – often without hot-food, dry beds, adequate sleep and no leave.  The ground crews never failed their squadrons.  Aircraft were turned around – rearmed, re-fuelled, tires, oxygen, airframe etc. checked – in just minutes.

Helferinen      Equally notable was the RAF’s early and exceptionally positive attitude toward women.  The RAF actively encouraged the establishment of a Women’s Auxiliary, which by the end of the war served alongside the RAF in virtually all non-combat functions.  Even before the start of the war, however, the vital and highly technical jobs of radar operator, operations room plotter and filterer and the various jobs associated with these activities were identified as trades especially suited to women.  The C-in-C of Fighter Commander, ACM Dowding, personally insisted that the talented women who did these jobs move up into supervisory positions – and be commissioned accordingly. WAAF officers and airwomen were soon so well integrated into the RAF that by the time women were formally incorporated into the RAF in 1949, the RAF itself felt it was nothing new.  During Battle of Britain over 17,000 WAAF were serving with the RAF, nearly 4,500 of them with Fighter Command. A number of WAAF were killed and injured and six airwomen were awarded the Military Medal during the Battle.

      Despite Nazi ideology about the place of women being exclusively in the home, the Luftwaffe was also forced to rely increasingly on women auxiliaries.  The expansion began after the dramatic victories in the West in May/June 1940 and continued throughout the war, climbing from roughly 35,000 in 1941 to over 150,000 when Germany surrendered.  The general conscription for women – industrial and military – was introduced in Germany shortly after the loss of an entire Army at Stalingrad in early 1943, but the bulk of the women serving in the women’s auxiliary forces before 1945 were volunteers.

      Finally a comment on claims: much has been made of the ‘exaggerated’ claims made by the RAF during the Battle of Britain – far too much.  It is the nature of all aerial dog-fighting that it is very fast, brief and confused.  Pilots were flying at the extreme limits of their own physical capabilities and those of their machines (instances of machines breaking up and pilots being killed in flight as a result of stress alone are documented).  Under the circumstances, it was difficult to get in more than a quick ‘squirt’ of fire.  Usually one or both aircraft took violent, evasive action after an exchange of fire.  If seconds later the fighter pilot saw an enemy aircraft crashing, then it was an easy and understandable mistake to think it was the one he had just shot at.  The larger the number of aircraft involved, the more likely it was that several pilots fired at the same target.  The result was multiple claims made for the same downed aircraft.  Thus on September 15, when the Big Wings of 12 Group were engaged over London, the RAF claimed 185 enemy aircraft shot down when, in fact, Luftwaffe lost only 56 aircraft that day.  It was also on this day that no less than 9 pilots put in claims for the same Dornier.  The key problem at the time was that claims were made to squadron Intelligence Officers by excited young men (the pilots were generally between 18 and 22 years old) immediately after combat.  The squadron intelligence officers usually weeded out the duplications and contradictions and implausible claims put in by their own pilots, but squadron intelligence officers did not compare notes between squadrons. S quadron claims were simply added up, and so the above kind of ‘multiple’ claims for the same aircraft definitely crept into the official figures.  At the time, however, British morale clearly benefited from these exaggerated claims, and no one had any particular interest in double checking much less correcting the filed claims.  The bottom line is that the RAF was shooting down more Luftwaffe aircraft than they were losing – even if by a far lower margin than claimed. Ultimately that was all that counted because it was enough.

      The RAF entered the Battle of Britain as the ‘under-dog’ and it won the Battle of Britain against all the odds.  This aspect of the Battle more than any makes it such an appealing – and exciting - story to this day.


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NOTE: In building this site, I thought about many things - such as what spelling standard I should use in referring to World War II, and what keyword spelling people might use in a search engine to find this page.  I found it interesting to note the following numbers of page listings for the various ways one might type World War II into a search engine. 

bullet  6,050,000 for world war two
bullet  5,860,000 for world war 2
bullet  134,000,000 for world war II (using the capital i for the 2)
bullet  83,900 for world war ll (using the lower case L for the 2)
bullet  26,200,000 for second world war
bullet  310,000 for 2nd world war

bullet  21,600 for ww two
bullet  804,000 for ww 2
bullet  7,130,000 for ww ii (using the i for the 2)
bullet  46,300 for ww ll (using the lower case L for the 2)

bullet  21,600 for w.w. two
bullet  804,000 for W.W.2
bullet  7,130,000 for w.w.II (using the capital i for the 2)
bullet  46,300 for w.w.ll (using the lower case l for the 2)

Note that capitalization, punctuation and spacing changes introduced no differences.  So if you are looking for information on a particular subject, remember to use all variations of the wrods related to the subject.  The pages a search engine will give you to look at will vary with each method. Also in general, I have referred to World War II on these pages using WWII (using the capital i for the 2).


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 Last updated May 28, 2010