Eighty summers ago, the inhabitants of the Home Counties witnessed something the world had never seen before and never would again. Day after day, above their heads, air armies waged a gigantic battle – one that would have a decisive effect on the outcome of World War II.
For the first time in British history, a life-or-death struggle was fought out in view of large numbers of the nation’s citizens. The combat took place over the stalwarts of everyday life – above houses, streets and fields.
Those below had only to look up to see an amazing sight: huge flocks of German bombers and escorts crawling across the sky while the RAF’s fighters swirled around them, scribbling chalky condensation trails in the blue and stitching it with the gold and red of tracer ammunition and cannon.
The British people watched with a mixture of fear and excitement and, above all, admiration for the pilots upon whose skill and bravery the fate of the nation so obviously depended.
Your guide to the Battle of Britain: how the RAF turned back the Luftwaffe
The Battle of Britain (10 July – 31 October 1940) was the first major military campaign in history to be fought entirely in the air, described by Churchill as the RAF’s finest hour. What exactly happened, how was the battle won, and what did it mean for Hitler? Get the answers to these questions and more in our full guide to the Battle of Britain.
The story so far
In the summer of 1940, Britain seemed finished. France, with its huge armed forces and the seemingly impregnable defences of the Maginot Line along its German border, had been overwhelmed by Hitler’s forces in just a matter of weeks. The British army had only avoided complete destruction by what seemed like a miracle, when hundreds of thousands of men escaped from the beaches of Dunkirk.
The Germans thought they were invincible. Hitler was convinced that, having seen what had happened to first Poland, then Belgium, Holland and France, the British would soon come to their senses and make peace. And there were plenty of people in Britain’s government – including the Foreign Minister, Lord Halifax – who believed it was time to start negotiations.
But not Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Soon after Dunkirk, he made a fiery speech laying out the grim situation facing the country: Britain had to fight. Otherwise it, along with Europe, would “sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age”.
The Battle of France was over, he told the nation, before proclaiming: “The Battle of Britain is about to begin.” These were chilling words. But instead of cowing his listeners, it created a mood of stubborn determination. Most of all, it inspired the small band of airmen who would determine whether Britain fell.
Adolf Hitler had not yet made a serious plan to invade Britain. He didn’t think he would have to. If the British government was stupid enough not to sue for peace, then it would not take long for the German air force to persuade them. The Luftwaffe was strong and drunk on victory. The Germans believed that the Royal Air Force would be no match for them.
Fighter pilots run to their aircraft in 1940 (Photo by Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
In this they were very much mistaken. Although very little money had been spent on the British military between the world wars, the lion’s share had gone to the RAF. Some far-sighted planners had ordered modern fighter aircraft – the famous Spitfire and Hurricane – to counter the German threat. They had also invested in the new technology of radar, so they could detect enemy aircraft and direct their fighters to intercept them.
Once Churchill had signalled defiance, the Luftwaffe offensive began. The battle played out in three main phases. In early July, the Germans attacked shipping in the Channel, trying to force the British fighter squadrons based along the coast of southeast England to come up and be chopped down by the supposedly superior Luftwaffe. When that didn’t work, in mid-August they targeted the fighter airfields themselves. Having failed to knock them out, the Germans switched to bombing raids on London.
By mid-September, it was clear they had failed – Hitler would never win control of Britain’s skies, nor invade its islands. This was the first time since the war began that the Germans had been beaten anywhere. It was a great moment, showing that the tide of the war could be turned by determination and skill.
The battle was a victory for British technology – in the shape of the Spitfire and Hurricane as well as radar – and of the leadership provided by Churchill and the head of Fighter Command, Hugh Dowding. But above all, it was a triumph for the young men – called ‘the Few’ by Churchill – who flew the aircraft. They were the real stars of the Battle of Britain.
Credit for famous victories typically goes to commanders: Agincourt belonged to Henry V, Trafalgar to Horatio Nelson, and Waterloo to the Duke of Wellington. This time, though, the glory went to a small but very unusual group. Significantly, its members were not drawn exclusively from the upper classes. They came from every level of society and were, as proclaimed by the newspapers and radio of the time, “ordinary people doing extraordinary things”.
Listen: historian James Holland describes how the Luftwaffe and RAF fought to control the skies over Britain in 1940
What was Fighter Command?
In the summer of 1940, the pilots of Fighter Command were the nation’s poster boys. People spoke of them as if they were their own sons. They were the ‘fighter boys’ – a term that reflected the fact the pilots were, on average, only 20 years old. Many were still too young to vote. The media was fascinated by them, and the government was only too eager to play along, building up their image in lots of interviews and photo ops.
Did you know?
Combat fatigue was a real problem, with British pilots facing 15-hour shifts and heavy bombardment of their airfields. Pilots had to take to the skies and fight several times a day, and some turned to amphetamine pills to stay alert.
The young aviators played their part perfectly, conveying just the right mixture of boyish exuberance and strength of purpose. The coverage presented them as modern-minded and competent. This was just as well, as the army’s performance to date had created exactly the opposite impression. In Norway and France in the spring of 1940, defeat had followed defeat, and the courage of the troops was betrayed by shoddy equipment and poor leadership.
The army still believed that you had to be a gentlemen to be an officer. Those who had led soldiers into the war all belonged to the same military caste. They went to the same schools, boasted the same moustaches, and married one another’s sisters. But the RAF was different. The technical nature of the service meant that the net had to be cast wider than the military’s traditional recruiting base – for officers and men alike.
Who were the pilots who became ‘the Few’?
In 1936, when the war was still looming, the doors to the world of flying were thrown open. The Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR) was formed to provide a pool of trained pilots to replace those who were expected to fall in the first phase of combat.
The qualifications required were modest, and suddenly the dreams of a legion of lower-middle class lads brought up on the adventures of the fictional fighter ace James ‘Biggles’ Bigglesworth came true, as they set off at weekends to learn to fly at government expense.
Royal Air Force fighter pilots stand by for their instructions in a ready room at a RAF Fighter Command station in August 1940 (Photo by Popperfoto via Getty Images)
“I’d always wanted to fly, from when I was a small boy,” remembered Charlton Haw, who left school at 14. “I never wanted to do anything else, but I never thought there would ever be a chance for me. Until the RAFVR was formed, for a normal schoolboy it was almost impossible.” He joined up in York aged 18, went solo in half the average time and flew Hurricanes with No. 504 Squadron.
The reservists joined their squadrons as sergeant pilots, and as such they would make a vital contribution to victory. More than one-third of the 2,946 men who flew in the Battle of Britain were non-commissioned officers (NCOs). However, they were paid less, lived in poorer accommodation and enjoyed fewer privileges than their officer comrades.
Did you know?
The highest scoring RAF pilot of the Battle of Britain was a Czech pilot named Josef Frantiek, who flew with No. 303 Squadron. No. 303 only joined the fighting on 31 August 1940, but it became Fighter Command’s most deadly squadron.
Looking back from the standpoint of today, it seems unfair that men who fought and died together in the air should eat in different ‘messes’ on the ground, but in my conversations with survivors over the years, I rarely heard any complaints.
“We were all very close,” said Maurice Leng, who flew as a sergeant with No. 73 Squadron. “There was no sort of officers versus sergeants ballyhoo. We were all in the same boat, and there was marvellous camaraderie.” By the later stages of the engagement, death and injury had done much to even things up. Almost every NCO pilot ended up with a commission, and the amateurs of the RAFVR soon proved they were the equal of the pre-war professionals.
‘The Few’ were bound together by a shared passion. They were drawn to the RAF because they were fascinated by flying – still a glamorous and mysterious activity – by a willingness to take risks, and an eagerness for fun and adventure.
While researching my various books on the Battle of Britain, I was struck again by how closely the popular image of ‘the Few’ matched the reality. “We were young and had great confidence in our abilities and in our planes, so we all, quite joyfully, joined in the absurd race to death and destruction,” recalled Charles Fenwick, who flew with No. 610 Squadron.
Life between missions
The pilots constructed their own reality in which the possibility of death, although ever present, was rarely mentioned. Off duty, life was lived to the full; who knew how much time was left?
At the end of a long day’s fighting, pilots jumped into their jalopies and headed through the green lanes and ripening cornfields to their favourite pub, such as the White Hart at Brasted, Kent, which was frequented by the squadrons based at the nearby RAF base, Biggin Hill.
Pilots of Fighter Command pass the time of standby playing chess (Photo by Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Station commander Group Captain Dick Grice often led the charge to the watering hole. “Dick Grice had a tannoy speaker mounted on his car; you could hear him a mile away,” remembered Pete Brothers, a flight lieutenant with No. 32 Squadron. “‘This is the CO, and I want three scotches and two pints of bitter.’ He’d got a bunch of chaps in the car and was calling up the bar.”
As the battle gathered pace, girls didn’t feature much in the airmen’s lives. There was no time, and many thought it was not fair to form emotional bonds when they knew they might well die tomorrow.
More like boys than warriors
Many of those fighting were barely out of adolescence and sounded more like boys than warriors in their letters home.
“Dear Mum and Dad,” wrote 19-year-old Pilot Officer John Carpenter of No. 222 Squadron on 29 August, just before his unit moved base to Hornchurch and into the thick of the fighting. “I am writing this at five in the morning, we are leaving at eight and should be there by nine. I hope to be shooting Jerries down by ten.”
Three days later, his parents received an update: “Sorry I haven’t written in the last 24 hours, but my time has been rather occupied. So far I have one Messerschmitt 109 and one 110 to my credit, but in getting the 110 I was shot down and had to bale out… Lots of fun here – just what we’ve been waiting for.”
The next letter was from Maidstone Hospital, where he was recovering after being downed again – this time by friendly anti-aircraft fire. “I am not shooting a line when I say that the machine just disappeared from under me in one big BANG… I must have got a hit over the head somewhere, because I could not see coming down…”
What common myths still surround the Battle of Britain?
One enduring belief is that the Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göring was incompetent, and his unfortunate decisions placed the Luftwaffe in an unnecessarily difficult position. Christer Bergström dispels this fallacy and five other Battle of Britain myths.
The light-heartedness was to some extent put on. Robin Appleford of No. 66 Squadron described how, as an 18-year-old Spitfire pilot waiting for the order to scramble, he “got that sort of sick feeling all the time. I think most people if they were honest would confirm this”. But it was considered bad form to show it.
The airmen believed that they were simply doing their jobs and were often surprised at the reception they got from the public. On 18 September, Sergeant Ian Hutchinson’s Spitfire was hit over Canterbury, and he bailed out. He was taken to hospital where his shrapnel wounds were bandaged up, and as there was no transport, he had to make his own way back to Hornchurch by rail.
“I had to change trains somewhere,” he recalled. “I was standing on the station with a bandage on my leg … I was carrying a parachute under my arm, and everyone was coming up and shaking my hand, and I wished the ground would have opened up and swallowed me.”
Perhaps those shaking hands with the sergeant weren’t simply thanking him: they wanted to show their solidarity. Everyone was in this battle together, and those on the ground were demonstrating the same courage, selflessness and determination as those in the air.
It was an attitude that made a return to the pre-war order of social injustice and class privilege unthinkable. The memory of those days and the example of the airmen would find political expression when the shooting finally stopped, and the country set about constructing peace from the ruins of the conflict.
Patrick Bishop is a military historian who has worked extensively with veterans. His books include Air Force Blue: The RAF in World War Two (2018) and Fighter Boys (2020)
This content first appeared in the July 2020 issue of BBC History Revealed