WhenJuly 10 to October 31, 1940

WhereThe skies over Britain and the English Channel

WhoThree German Luftwaffe Air Fleets (Luftflotten): Luftflotte 2 based in Belgium and northern France under Field Marshal Albert Kesselring (1885–1960), Luftflotte 3 based in Normandy under Field Marshal Hugo Sperrle (1885–1953), and Luftflotte 5 based in Norway and Denmark under Col-Gen. Hans-Juergen Strumpff (1889–1968), plus one Italian contingent (Corpo Aereo Italiano) under Gen. Rino Corso Fougier (1894–1963), all under the overall command of Air Marshal Hermann Goering (1893–1946), versus the Royal Air Force (RAF) Fighter Command under Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding (1882–1970), Air Vice Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory (1892–1944), Air Vice Marshal Sir Quintin Brand (1893–1968), and Air Vice Marshal Richard Saul (1891–1965)

WhyThe speedy German conquest of France and the Low Countries had occurred on the European continent. As German troops paraded down the main Parisian boulevard, Champs Elysees, Hitler and his high command planned their next and most difficult campaign to date: the cross-Channel amphibious and airborne invasion of England, Operation Sea Lion (Seeloewe), initially set for August 15, 1940. To do that the Germans needed control of the skies north and east of the continent and over the eastern half of the British Isles, which was a prerequisite to any successful invasion.

WhatThe Battle of Britain was the first major campaign of World War II to be fought entirely by air forces. The German objective was to gain air superiority over the RAF, especially RAF Fighter Command, by destroying fuel and ammuni­tion depots, followed by ships, ports, air bases, and aircraft factories. The Luftwaffe had more than 1,150 fighters, notably the short-range Messerschmitt Bf 109 (Me 109) and the dive-bombing but lumbering Junkers Ju 87 Stukas, and more than 1,300 twin-engine Heinkel He 111, Dornier Do 17, and Junkers Ju 88 bombers. Dowding had a few more than 700 front­line single-engine Spitfire and Hurricane fighters to go head-to-head against the Luftwaffe’s fighter groups (Jagdgruppen) and bomber groups (Kampfgruppen).

 The first phase of the Battle of Britain opened with the Luftwaffe attacking Channel convoys, radar stations, and other targets mainly along the south coast. In August the focus shifted to British airfields and its aircraft industry. While sheer numbers, compe­tence, experi­enced aircrews, and superior aircraft favored the Luftwaffe, Britain’s detection, command, and control system worked so well that Fighter Command was almost always able to concentrate its aircraft to intercept incoming German raids in the right place at the right time. On Adlertag (Eagle Day), August 13, 1940, the Germans launched 1,500 aircraft and lost 46 (a further 39 were severely damaged) to the RAF’s 13 fighters and 11 bombers. Two days later 1,270 fighters and 520 bombers were directed at British air bases, aircraft factories, and airfields with similar disproportionate results. Massive air battles on Septem­ber 15, 1940, are memorialized by the British as Battle of Britain Day. Over the course of the air campaign the Germans lost approx­i­mately 1,686 air­craft and 2,600 air­crew to the British 1,643 air­craft and roughly the same number of air­crew. In aircraft downed, it was pretty much a draw.

OutcomeBy early September it was clear that the Luftwaffe had failed to bring the RAF to its knees and force Great Britain—the only holdout against German hegemony in Europe—to sue for peace and end the war. In mid-October Hitler postponed Operation Sea Lion until the following spring (it never happened) but instructed Goering to mount attacks on heavily populated targets, especially London. The British called this new terror campaign the Blitz, and it too failed to knock Britain out of the war, partly because the British had begun bombing German cities, forcing the Luftwaffe to defend its own air space, and partly because Hitler began to commit his armed forces to misadventures in the Balkans, North Africa, and in the East against the Soviet Union. The last Luft­waffe raids of the Blitz struck London on the night of May 10, 1941. The raid damaged the House of Commons, Westminster Abbey, and killed 1,436 people. Terror  bombing of English cities com­menced again with the launch of new retaliation (Vergeltungswaffen) weapons, the V‑1 (June 1944) and V‑2 (September 1944).

Battle of Britain. Part 4 of the “Why We Fight” Series Produced by Frank Capra for the U.S. War Department