Two RAF Hawker Hurricane MK1 fighters from RAF 79 Squadron taking off from RAF Hawkinge 20071940 CREDIT PA
WWII

Was The Battle Of Britain The Most Vital One For Britain In World War II?

It is 80 years since the three-and-a-half-month battle began.

Two RAF Hawker Hurricane MK1 fighters from RAF 79 Squadron taking off from RAF Hawkinge 20071940 CREDIT PA

A negative battle, but the one that mattered, writes Andrew Southam.

How can a battle with some of the smallest fighting casualties of any during a five-and-a-half-year global conflict with 544 fighter pilots lost, where the main feature was fighting in the air, and which had no clear victory be Britain’s most important of World War Two?

Others like the second battle of El Alamein between 23 October and 11 November 1942 or the Normandy landings of 6 June 1944 involved tens of thousands of soldiers in large set-piece battles.

Even the Battle of the Atlantic keeping open the sea lanes to Britain was one of size fought over the duration of the war with the loss of around 3,000 merchant ships and 175 warships.

While all British successes mattered, the battle in the air combined the military, political, diplomatic and psychological consequences that changed the outcome of the war for Britain and the world.

Fought between 10 July and 31 October 1940, the RAF’s objective was a negative one to avoid defeat. Adolf Hitler’s forces appeared unassailable.

Unbeaten in 9 countries, tearing through Czechoslovakia, Poland, Belgium and the Netherlands, overrunning France, he forced Britain into hasty retreat through the memorable evacuations at Dunkirk between 26 May and 4 June 1940 at a loss of 66,000 men killed or captured.

Even the Channel Islands were occupied. Britain was now the only non-neutral country left standing.

Hitler wanted to neutralise Britain to concentrate on attacking the Soviet Union.

Dominance of the air was essential to protect the German troop barges crossing the English Channel.

Commander of the German Air Force Herman Goering persuaded the Fuhrer that the RAF was exhausted and his larger Luftwaffe would destroy it clearing the way for invasion. 

Hitler finally gave the order for an 11 September invasion.

RAF pilots relaxing between sorties during the Battle of Britain 010940 CREDIT PA.jpg
RAF pilots relax between sorties during the Battle of Britain (Picture: PA).

Not quite the David and Goliath contest that lingers in popular imagination, the Battle of Britain was still a close run thing against a superior force.

Towards the end of August, the Luftwaffe’s improved planning and changed tactics put it ahead with the RAF now suffering fighter losses on diminishing strength, damaged installations, exhausted pilots and declining performance.

A palpable sense of vulnerability led to a precautionary invasion warning on 7 September.

Sadly, the swing factor was the suffering of the British people.

Goering weakened his advantage by extending attacks on factories and cities in daylight bombing instead of concentrating on RAF resources.

This gave Fighter Command the chance to recover and to continue denying Germany control of the skies, forcing Hitler to postpone the new 17 September invasion date ‘until further notice’.

The Germans instead turned to the mass bombing of cities for the next 9 months in what became known as 'The Blitz'.

By staying intact, Britain became a nerve centre for the fight back by the Allies.

It was the headquarters for a huge clandestine operation, organising resistance movements and gathering intelligence across the continent and beyond, coordinated by the Special Operations Executive formed in July 1940 whose task was to 'set Europe ablaze'.

Only last month, President Emmanuel Macron of France awarded a raining London the Legion d’Honneur for sheltering the Free French government in exile in June 1940.

The President recalled General Charles de Gaulle’s rousing speech entreating all Free French forces to assemble and undertake "this national task here in England".

National and international resolve was reinforced.

Sailors will today quickly point out that the Royal Navy caused Hitler’s first setback with the scuttling of the German pocket battleship the Graf Spee on 13 December 1939.

However, the Battle of Britain was the first convincing halt to German progress which showed America, the oppressed peoples of Europe and the world that Hitler was beatable.

Crucially, the battle instilled in the British public a spirit strong enough to sustain them through over 40,000 civilian deaths in The Blitz.

America was given a necessary moral and political cause to support Britain’s lone survival as a democracy against Nazi aggression.

US President Franklin Roosevelt provided Britain with resources and protection navigating strong isolationist and non-interventionist trends in American politics while the country stayed neutral against Germany until 11 December 1941.

An aerial battle over London at 9am on the morning of 6th September 1940 during Battle of Britain 060940 CREDIT PA.jpg
An aerial battle over London on the morning of 6 September 1940 (Picture: PA).

His raft of initiatives included handing over 50 destroyers in return for a 99-year lease of British bases on the Atlantic, important supplies through the Lend-Lease arrangements of 1941, taking over military control from Britain of Iceland, and providing escorts for supply ships to Europe.

And operations could be launched from the largest staging post in Europe.

The RAF’s Bomber Command continued its strategic bombing offensive which from 1942 became an Allied effort attacking German production centres and cities, as controversial as elements of it were.

American’s first European operation to invade French North Africa in November 1942 with a 107,000 strong Allied force was made possible by ferrying troops from Britain, as well as the US.

And the amphibious landings on D-Day 6 June to free Europe were projected from Britain putting 156,000 troops ashore in one day.

More generally, continued British fighting tied up German forces that would otherwise have been sent to fight on the Eastern Front against the Soviet Union.

Other important British battles involved deeper military sacrifice but not the same weight of international consequences.

El Alamein which was the only other battle fought without direct Allied support was a turning point and important for morale but without the same diplomatic consequence.

Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery’s Eighth Army victory over General Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps in October 1942 recovered Libya and Egypt.

With coordinated land and air forces and intelligence from Britain’s ULTRA operation, Monty’s 200,000 strong forces pounded Rommel’s 100,000 Axis ones in his preference for metal over flesh.

His triumph in the hot dust showed that Hitler’s forces were beatable in a conventional ground battle.

The win denied Germany access to the Suez Canal and Middle East oil, saved Britain’s global position, defended India and gave the Allies the platform to launch their first front into mainland Europe through Italy.

However, America was by now already in the war, its Sherman tanks and self-propelled guns helped Monty neutralise German panzers, and it was already about to invade Morocco while Russia was now defending Stalingrad.

British soldiers, known as the Desert Rats, advancing with fixed bayonets during the battle of El Alamein in 1942 (Picture: PA).

The Battle of the Atlantic was less a battle and more a campaign between 1939 and 1945 by the Allies to sustain the war effort and prepare for the invasion of France.

German forces, especially U- boat submarines, were an effective threat to supplies from America, causing the deaths of 130,000 seamen who never saw their assailants in the cold northern waters.

The Allies realised at Casablanca in January 1943 that they couldn’t invade Europe until the Atlantic was controlled.

Radar, radio interception and code-breaking with combined air and sea power and improved training eventually gave them the upper hand by March 1943 reducing losses and sinking more German vessels.

Losing this campaign would have meant finding more perilous alternatives and delaying but not preventing the inevitable invasion.

Repelling Japan’s offensive on north east India in March 1944 was performed mostly by Britain’s Fourteenth Army particularly the Indian Divisions but remained an Allied effort and one of regional importance.

Intensive defence by Lieutenant General William Slim’s forces beat back the Japanese attack causing 50,000 deaths of 84,000 British soldiers, and Commonwealth losses of 17,000.

Fighting at the peak points of action in the Battles of Imphal and Kohima was ferocious and at one stage over the width of a tennis court.

Japan was dealt what may have been its greatest land defeat allowing the Allies to mount their own major offensive in 1945 freeing up communication lines to China through Burma.

However, the Allies with air superiority and good communication links to India were already moving in this direction against a weakening enemy. Gallantry at Imphal and Kohima made it easier.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill gives his famous V for Victory sign to a crowd of 50,000 full with the spirit of VE day from the balcony of the Ministry of Health 08051945 CREDIT PA 1
Sir Winston Churchill gives his famous 'V for Victory' sign to a crowd of 50,000 on Victory in Europe Day in May 1945 (Picture: PA).

Likewise, British engagements in the battles opening up the first front in Europe in Sicily when 180,000 Allied troops went ashore in July 1943 and crossed the Strait of Messina into Italy in September, and then in opening up the French front on two of the five beaches of Normandy in 1944 were important advances in trends which were already in motion defeating Germany.

These were made possible through the three strategic turning points of World War Two.

The Soviet Union had absorbed Germany’s offensives starting in June 1941 and culminating in the Battles of Moscow, Stalingrad and Kursk, and launched its own counter attacks, all accounting for millions of casualties on the Eastern Front.

America entered the war in December 1941 and swiftly converted its manufacturing might to re-arm the Allies.

And Prime Minister Winston Churchill decided in May 1940 that Britain would fight on, a decision which the RAF made credible through the successes of the summer of 1940.

In preventing British defeat, the Battle of Britain was not simply a military engagement but an event of global significance paving the way for the liberation of Europe. British air superiority was essential.

To so few, we really do owe so much.