On the 10th July 1940, there began one of the most famous battles in History. The fight to control the skies over Britain. Defeat of the RAF would have been a disaster, leaving Britain in a weakened position in preparation for Hitler’s planned invasion.
Following the failed Battle of France, which ended in June after around 5 weeks of heavy ground and air combat during which the RAF suffered massive losses, Adolf Hitler presumed the defeat and surrender of France would mean that shortly afterwards Britain would agree to negotiate peace terms. France signed their armistice on the 17th June, Hitler had already invaded and gained control of much of the rest of Western Europe and huge parts of the East. He gave orders for the production of celebratory banners and effects for the victory parties he believed would soon follow and started to discuss the plan of attack. Britain now stood alone against the might of the Nazi forces.
On the 18th June, Winston Churchill gave his famous speech to the House of Commons, which in turn was broadcast to the nation, during which he stated the Battle of Britain was about to begin, and begged of the nation “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, This was their finest hour”.
Four days later, on the 22nd June, as the surrender of the French became official, the massive evacuation of Allied Forces from Dunkirk began. With minimum support from the air, after the force had been so heavily depleted, and as many naval ships as could be spared, civilians made their way across the Channel in rowing boats, fishing trawlers and whatever other sea-worthy transport they could muster up, to rescue the retreating men from the beaches as the Luftwaffe targeted them from the air, and ground troops fired upon them from the land.
Hitler was aware that his invasion of Britain could not take place until he had reduced the coastal defences to remove their participation. The Luftwaffe under Hermann Goering, were ordered to initially prioritise their campaign on shipping and coastal areas using his bombers, consisting of Junkers Ju88 and Ju87 (known as the Stuka), Dornier 17 and Heinkel 111, with fighter support from the Messerschmitt Bf109 and Bf110. England’s defence rested on the Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire fighters.
Although outnumbered in terms of numbers of planes and experience of the pilots, it would seem that the Luftwaffe had the edge. However, the RAF had two advantages over the German force that were to tip the balance back… The German aircraft were only short-distance fighters, the fuel limitations alone meant that meeting and engaging the RAF over Britain’s territory was placing them in a dangerous position. Secondly, the RAF had Radar which gave them a huge advantage in advance warning of impending attack.
The stage was set. On the 10th July, the Battle of Britain began.