by Wayne Brady
Immediately after the defeat of France, Adolf Hitler ordered his generals to organize the invasion of Britain. The invasion plan was given the code name Sealion. The objective was to land 160,000 German soldiers along a forty-mile coastal stretch of south-east England. Within a few weeks the Germans had assembled a large armada of vessels, including 2,000 barges in German, Belgian and French harbours.
However, Hitler’s generals were very worried about the damage that the Royal Air Force could inflict on the German Army during the invasion. Hitler therefore agreed to their request that the invasion should be postponed until the British airforce had been destroyed.
By the start of what became known as the Battle of Britain the Luftwaffe had 2,800 aircraft stationed in France, Belgium, Holland and Norway. This force outnumbered the RAF four to one. However, the British had the advantage of being closer to their airfields. German fighters could only stay over England for about half an hour before flying back to their home bases. The RAF also had the benefits of an effective early warning radar system and the intelligence information provided by Ultra.
The German pilots had more combat experience than the British and probably had the best fighter plane in the Messerschmitt Bf109. They also had the impressive Messerschmitt 110 and Junkers Stuka. The commander of Fighter Command, Hugh Dowding, relied on the Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire.
On the 12th August, 1940, the German airforce began its mass bomber attacks on British radar stations, aircraft factories and fighter airfields. During these raids radar stations and airfields were badly damaged and twenty-two RAF planes were destroyed. This attack was followed by daily raids on Britain.
As a result of the effective range of the Luftwaffe, the battle was mainly fought over southern England. This area was protected by Fighter Command No. 11 under Keith Park and Fighter Command No. 12 led by Trafford Leigh-Mallory. They also but received support from the squadrons based in the eastern counties.
Between 1st and 18th August the RAF lost 208 fighters and 106 pilots. The second half of the month saw even heavier losses and wastage now outstripped the production of new aircraft and the training of pilots to fly them. Those British pilots that did survive suffered from combat fatigue.
During the Battle of Britain Trafford Leigh-Mallory came into conflict with Keith Park, the commander of No. 11 Fighter Group. Park, who was responsible for the main approaches south-east of London, took the brunt of the early attacks by the Luftwaffe. Park complained that No. 12 Fighter Group should have done more to protect the air bases in his area instead of going off hunting for German planes to shoot down.
Leigh-Mallory obtained support from Vice Marshal William Sholto Douglas, assistant chief of air staff. He was critical of the tactics being used by Keith Park and Hugh Dowding, head of Fighter Command. He took the view that RAF fighters should be sent out to meet the German planes before they reached Britain. Park and Dowding rejected this strategy as being too dangerous and argued it would increase the number of pilots being killed.
The climax of the Battle of Britain came on the 30th-31st August, 1940. The British lost 50 aircraft compared to the Germany’s 41. The RAF were close to defeat but Adolf Hitler then changed his tactics and ordered the Luftwaffe to switch its attack from British airfields, factories and docks to civilian targets. This decision was the result of a bombing attack on Berlin that had been ordered by Charles Portal, the new head of Bomber Command.
The Blitz brought an end to the Battle of Britain. During the conflict the Royal Air Force lost 792 planes and the Luftwaffe 1,389. There were 2,353 men from Great Britain and 574 from overseas who were members of the air crews that took part in the Battle of Britain. An estimated 544 were killed and a further 791 lost their lives in the course of their duties before the war came to an end.