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JULY 10 THROUGH October 31, 1940, marked one of the most valiant defenses in the history of human conflict, the Battle of Britain. Hitler sought air superiority in advance of his Operation Sea Lion, the planned Nazi invasion of Britain. He and his Luftwaffe failed.
The Battle of Britain was the first major campaign fought primarily in the air (1942’s Battles of the Coral Sea and of Midway would be others). In the Battle of Britain, Hawker Hurricanes and Supermarine Spitfires were pitted against Messerschmitt BF 109E fighters and BF 110C light bombers.
The Messerschmitt 109E was faster, with a better rate of climb, than the Hurricane, this British aircraft more numerous than its more advanced Spitfire counterpart. Also, the 109E’s direct fuel injection gave it power in maneuvers superior to those of the carbureted British craft. However, pilot training, tactics, tenacity—and bravery—made up for these apparent differences.
By the summer of 1940, France had fallen to the Nazis. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said in the House of Commons, “The battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation…. 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.”
The British people took Churchill’s words to heart. The country’s Chain Home radar defense system warned of enemy aircraft approaching the coast. Members of the Royal Observer Corps provided tracking once the aircraft were over British soil. Other home efforts included Pots and Pans for Planes, public collection of light metals for melting down and transforming into aircraft. A British Pathe newsreel can be seen.
Squadrons of Hurricanes and Spitfires were scrambled to intercept the Nazi heavy bombers, typically accompanied by BF 109Es and BF 110Cs. At the onset, the Royal Air Force had a shortage of pilots. What’s more, despite Prime Minister Churchill’s wishes, most of the pilots were in supportive, not operational, roles.
Pilot recruitment campaigns were a commentary of British mores: The RAF Volunteer Reserve, founded in 1936, “was designed to appeal to young men… without any class distinctions…” The Battle of Britain RAF had 595 non-British nationals among its 2936 pilots. These included 145 Poles, 127 New Zealanders, 112 Canadians, 88 Czechs, 32 Australians, 28 Belgians, 25 South Africans, 13 French, 10 Irish, 7 Americans, 3 Southern Rhodesians, a Jamaican and one from Mandatory Palestine. The book Little Friends, 1991, is a marvelous source on this era.
Celebrating the 75th anniversary today, Wing Commander P.C. Farnes, one of the few surviving Battle of Britain pilots, offered reminiscences at The Telegraph website in a video “Battle of Britain pilot: ‘You were always outnumbered’ ” by Alastair Good.
A nugget: Wing Commander Farnes’ Hurricane fighter had eight machine guns, four in each wing, but only enough ammunition for 15 seconds in total. Prudent stalking was part of an heroic effort.
As the Battle of Britain progressed, it was the Nazis who ran short of qualified pilots. As its fortunes diminished, the Luftwaffe turned from bombing ports and industrial centers to attacking areas of political and social significance.
In mid-September, 1940, the Third Reich’s high command recognized that its Luftwaffe had been greatly exaggerating successes against the RAF. By the end of October, 1940, Hitler postponed Operation Sea Lion, indefinitely.
And, even before this, on August 20, 1940, exiting a bunker at RAF Uxbridge Churchill acknowledged the RAF effort when he said, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015