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.”

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 . . .”