London, England · August 15, 1940

Although the Battle of Britain (July 10 to October 31, 1940) had inten­si­fied days earlier, the Luft­waffe’s air attacks had been launched in poor weather and mostly limited to the south of Eng­land. How­ever, on this date in 1940 the Luft­waffe sent five waves of fighters, dive bombers, and bombers, over 1700 sorties in all, from bases in occu­pied France, Bel­gium, Nor­way, and Den­mark to bomb air­fields and air­field instal­lations from Eng­land’s south­west to north­east. Radar stations all along the coast could not help but pick up the huge for­ma­tions heading toward Eng­land. Radar screens were over­whelmed by so many air­craft crossing the Chan­nel, and the dif­fer­ent for­ma­tions could not even be dis­tin­guished. The on­slaught of Ger­man fighter planes and bombers was in­tended to en­tice every one of Britain’s Spit­fire and Hurri­cane squad­rons into the air where they could be destroyed in dog­fights or destroyed on air­fields. Ger­man planes demo­lished buildings, stor­age sheds, and hangers; severed main power supply lines; and oblit­er­ated radar towers. But Her­mann Goering’s Luft­waffe officially lost 76 air­craft and 148 crew­men on this day, dubbed “Black Thurs­day” by Ger­man air­crews. In the first week of Septem­ber the Luft­waffe lost over 125 air­craft, and in a mid-Septem­ber raid over London the Luft­waffe lost 55 more. All told, between July and the end of Octo­ber 1940 the Luft­waffe lost over 1,500 air­craft to the Royal Air Force’s 925. British air suprem­acy and the Luft­waffe’s faulty intel­li­gence about RAF resources (for example, RAF Fighter Com­mand’s 18 Chain Home radar and con­trol sta­tions, which covered most of the south and east coasts of Eng­land), com­bined with Hitler’s decision to hus­band his air resources for the 1941 Nazi assault on the Soviet Union (Oper­a­tion Bar­ba­rossa), allowed Britain to soldier on alone until joined by the U.S. in Decem­ber 1941. The Luft­waffe’s fail­ure to destroy British air defenses or force Britain to nego­ti­ate an armis­tice or an out­right surren­der is con­sidered Ger­many’s first major defeat and a cru­cial turning point in World War II. Speaking before the House of Com­mons on August 20, 1940, Prime Minis­ter Win­ston Chur­chill repeated what he had said five days earlier: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

[amazon_carousel widget_type=”ASINList” width=”600″ height=”200″ title=”Recommended Reading” market_place=”US” shuffle_products=”False” show_border=”False” asin=”0552156108,0760339368,1906502048,0061125369,1620401002,0393322971,1593760477,1616083085,0811707490,0233002960″ /]

British and German Aircraft During the Battle of Britain, July to October 1940

Supermarine SpitfireHawker Hurricane

Left: The Supermarine Spitfire was a British single-seat, short-range, high-per­for­mance inter­ceptor air­craft. The Spit­fire was per­ceived by the public as the RAF fighter during the Battle of Brit­ain. Spit­fire units had a lower attri­tion rate and a higher victory-to-loss ratio than pilots flying Hurri­canes, though the more numer­ous Hurri­canes shouldered a greater pro­por­tion of the burden against the Luft­waffe. More than 20,350 Spit­fires were built between 1938 and 1948.

Right: The Hawker Hurricane was a British single-seat fighter air­craft. Over­shad­owed by the Spit­fire, the Hurri­cane became renowned during the Battle of Brit­ain, accounting for 60 per­cent of the RAF’s air vic­tories in the battle. Gene­rally, Spit­fires would inter­cept Ger­man fighter air­craft, leaving Hurri­canes to con­cen­trate on de­stroying Ger­man bombers. Over 14,500 Hurri­canes were built between 1937 and 1944.

Messerschmitt Bf 110Ju 87 B and Messerschmitt Bf 109 E

Left: The Messerschmitt Bf 110 was a twin-engine, two-seater heavy fighter. Its lack of agility in the air was exposed during the Battle of Brit­ain, when some Bf 110-equipped units were with­drawn from the battle after very heavy losses and rede­ployed as night fighters (like the three-seater ver­sion shown in this photo from June 21, 1942, over France), a role to which the air­craft was well suited. Close to 6,200 Bf 110s were built.

Right: Junkers Ju 87 B two-man dive bomber and ground attack air­craft (fore­ground) and the single-seater Messer­schmitt Bf 109 E, Janu­ary 1941. The Ju 87, or Stuka, carried a pilot and rear gunner. The Stuka’s flaws became appa­rent during the Battle of Brit­ain; poor maneu­ver­ability and a lack of both speed and defen­sive arma­ment meant that it required heavy fighter escort to operate effec­tively. An estimated 6,500 Ju 87s were built by Ger­many. Bf 109s (like the one seen in the back­ground) were the back­bone of the Luft­waffe’s fighter force, serving famously during the Battle of Brit­ain as bomber escorts; fighter-bombers; day-, night-, and all-weather fighters; and ground-attack air­craft. The Bf 109 was the most-pro­duced fighter air­craft in history, with a total of 33,984 units pro­duced between 1936 and April 1945.

Heinkel He 111Dornier Do 17

Left: A Heinkel He 111 over Belgium or France, Septem­ber 1940. The He 111 was a fast medium bomber. It was the most numer­ous and the pri­mary Luft­waffe bomber during the early war years. It was used as a stra­tegic bomber during the Battle of Brit­ain and up until then fared well, when its weak defen­sive arma­ment, rela­tively low speed, and poor ma­neu­ver­ability were exposed. Roughly 6,500 He 111s were built between 1935 and 1944.

Right: Along with the Heinkel He 111, the Dornier Do 17, some­times called the “flying pen­cil,” was the main bomber type of the Luft­waffe in 1939–1940. It was popu­lar among its crews owing to its ma­neu­ver­ability at low alti­tude, but its effec­tive­ness and usage was cur­tailed by its limited bomb load and range. Just over 2,100 Do 17s were built between 1934 and 1940.

Churchill’s Speech to Parliament, August 20, 1940: “Never in the field of human conflict . . .”