London, England August 13, 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 were mostly limited to the south of England. How­ever, on this date, August 13, 1940, a Tues­day, the Luft­waffe sent five waves of fighters, dive bombers, and bombers, over 1,485 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 English coast could not help but pick up the huge for­ma­tions heading toward England. Radar screens were over­whelmed by so many enemy air­craft crossing the Channel on Adlertag (“Eagle Day”) that the dif­ferent forma­tions could not even be distin­guished. Luft­waffe chief Her­mann Goering told his pilots: “Within a short period you will wipe the British air force from the sky.”

The onslaught of German fighter planes and bombers was intended to entice every one of Britain’s Spit­fire and Hurri­cane fighter squad­rons into the air where they could be destroyed in dog­fights or destroyed on air­fields. Besides killing several hun­dred civil­ians, German planes severed main power supply lines; demo­lished buildings, stor­age sheds, hangers, 47 air­craft on the ground and 13 in the air; rendered several air­fields unservice­able for days; and destroyed one radar tower and damaged four others for a loss of 39 air­craft. Three days into Oper­a­tion Eagle Attack (Unternehmen Adler­angriff) Goering’s Luft­waffe offi­cially lost an addi­tional 76 air­craft and 148 crew­men, a sunny day German air­crews dubbed “Black Thurs­day” (Schwarzer Donners­tag) and the British “The Greatest Day.” 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 approx­i­mately 1,686 air­craft to the Royal Air Force’s 1,643 (sources vary on both sides), making the long, strung-out air campaign nearly a draw in the number of planes downed.

British air supremacy over their own island 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 and pro­vided infor­ma­tion essen­tial to inter­cepting incoming German air­craft), com­bined with Adolf 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 early 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 famously 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. It was powered by a 1,000‑horse­power Rolls Royce Merlin V‑12 piston engine with a float-con­trolled carbu­re­tor using Amer­i­can-supplied 100‑octane avia­tion fuel. (The Germans used a lower grade 87‑octane fuel and fuel-injected engines.) The Spit­fire was per­ceived by the public as the RAF fighter during the air­borne Battle of Brit­ain. Spit­fire units had a lower attri­tion rate and a higher victory-to-loss ratio than pilots flying Hawker 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. Much of the Hurri­cane was covered with fabric rather than metal, making it easier to build and easier for ground crews to repair. Enemy cannon fire, for instance, would pass cleanly through the craft, often with­out causing the exten­sive damage suffered by the all-metal Spit­fire. 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 cannon-equipped German fighter air­craft, leaving Hurri­canes to con­cen­trate on destroying slower-moving 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 slow-moving German 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 occupied France), a role to which the air­craft was well suited. Close to 6,200 Bf 110s were built.

Right: A German Junkers Ju 87 B two-man dive bomber and ground attack air­craft (fore­ground) and the single-seater Messer­schmitt Bf 109 E, Janu­ary 1941. The most dis­tinc­tive air­plane of the early war on account of its large pro­peller, inverted gull wings, fixed landing gear, and intim­i­dating sirens (“Jericho Trum­pets”) in a dive (as steep as 90 degrees at 350 mph), the Ju 87, or Stuka (short for Sturz­kampf­flug­zeug), carried a pilot and a radio opera­tor with a rear-facing gun. The Stuka’s flaws became appa­rent during the Battle of Britain and they were with­drawn from the fight. Poor maneu­ver­ability and a lack of both defen­sive arma­ment and speed (max­i­mum 200–240 mph) meant that Stukas required heavy fighter escort to oper­ate effec­tively. They typically carried a single 551‑lb bomb under the fuse­lage and four 100‑lb bombs under the wings. An esti­mated 6,500 Ju 87s were built by Germany. The archaic but durable “little bomber,” as the Luft­waffe called it, had the distinc­tion of dropping the first bombs of World War II in Europe on Septem­ber 1, 1939, scoring the first air-to-air kill, and sinking most of the Polish navy. Over 400 Stukas served as “flying artil­lery” in the Battle of France and the Low Coun­tries, noto­riously strafing columns of refugees. Stukas flew the final Luft­waffe ground-assault mission on May 4, 1945. Single-seat 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 Ger­man 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 German 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 . . .”