Spitfire banking in flight

Spitfire banking in flight

Douglas Bader sitting on airplane

Douglas Bader sitting on airplane

Hurricane Mark I, No 85 Squadron, summer 1940

Hurricane Mark I, No 85 Squadron, summer 1940


Two RAF Hurricanes

RAF Spitfires

RAF Spitfires

British Aces of World War Two

The Battle of Britain

By , Dec. 2003. Updated July 5, 2011.

After the fall of France and the Low Countries in June 1940, Hitler looked next to conquer the defiant British, still holding out under Sir Winston "We shall never surrender" Churchill. In 1940, Britain was still the Ruler of the Waves; the Royal Navy was the best in the world; and the English Channel lay between Germany's continental conquests and the British Isles.

Persuaded by promises from Luftwaffe Reichsmarshal Herman Goering, Hitler decided to bomb the British into submission, before attempting a cross-Channel invasion. With the aid of hindsight, it seems a ludicrous proposition; the limits of airpower having been amply demonstrated in Korea and Vietnam. But in 1940, fresh from the blitzkrieg conquests of Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Low Countries, and France, and still utterly pleased with the fearsome impact of their Stukas, Heinkels, and Messerschmitts in those campaigns, Hitler gave Goering the go-ahead to reduce the English resistance from the air. The Wehrmacht's transports stayed at anchor.

The Germans made these decisions despite the poor condition of the Luftwaffe to wage such a conflict:

The British had been preparing an aerial defense of their island since 1937, under the direction of Air Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding. While short of pilots, they had almost 700 modern Spitfires and Hurricanes available in June of 1940. Furthermore, under the direction of Lord Beaverbrook, the British aircraft industry was producing 400 fighters a month by late 1940, compared to 200 per month by the Germans. On July 10, 1940, the Battle of Britain began with Luftwaffe attacks on English Channel convoys, with the dual purpose of destroying British shipping and of drawing out the RAF into battle and destroying it as well. Through mid-August they attacked British airfields and radar stations as well, and persuaded themselves that they were wearing down the RAF, when in fact the opposite was the case. The British air defense system was technically-advanced, well-organized, and flexible. Radar stations at Hawkinge, Manston, Lympne, and Tangmere along the Channel Coast, backed up by inland sites at Eastchurch, Martlesham, Harwich, Rochford, etc. provided RAF Fighter Command with details on approaching German aircraft. Fighter Command then gave instructions to Sector, Group, and Squadron commanders.

On August 13, the Luftwaffe launched an all-out attack on the RAF airfields, code-named Adlertag ("Eagle Day"). Poor weather and fierce RAF fighter defense hampered the Luftwaffe bombers from doing much damage. At a cost of 13 fighters, the RAF shot down 45 Luftwaffe aircraft. But the Germans continued to focus on the RAF for the next month. Frustrated by the inability to destroy the RAF, the Germans switched to night bombing of cities on September 5. This was the beginning of the Blitz; while not evident to the British people at the time, the greatest threat had passed. While the Blitz inflicted terrible casualties on the English people, the RAF continued to gather strength from this point on.

One of the great British aces of the Battle of Britain was a man with artificial legs! Douglas Bader had lost his legs while flying a Bristol Bulldog from Kenley to Woodley airfield in 1931. The doctors amputated both his legs, and Bader was not expected to survive, but he did, and with the aid of tin legs, even began flying again. He was grounded for the next several years, but after war broke out he was back in the air. He quickly rose to command 222 Squadron, and by June of 1940 was in command of 242 Squadron, the only Canadian squadron in the RAF at the time. On August 9, 1941, his luck ran out: he collided with a Bf 109, went down, and was captured by the Germans. He was imprisoned at the infamous Colditz castle. The great German ace, General Adolf Galland, cooperated in delivering to Bader a pair of artificial legs that the British air-dropped into France. Bader survived the war, was knighted in 1976 by Queen Elizabeth for his services to amputees, and passed away in 1982. Read more about Bader here.

Top British AcesKillsComment
James "Johnnie" Johnson 38.0 top WWII British ace, flew Spitfires
Brendon E. Finucane 32.0 Irish, 65 Sqn, later KIA
Robert Braham 29.0 POW June '44, night fighter, 3DSO, 3DSC
Robert Stanford Tuck 29.0 2+ years as POW, 92 & 257 Sqns
F. R. Carey 28.0 43 Sqn
J. H. "Ginger" Lacey 28.0 Hawker Hurricane pilot, 501 Sqn
Neville. F. Duke 28.0  
E. G. Lock 25.0  
B. Drake 24.5 213 Sqn
G. Allard 23.8 85 Sqn, KIA
Douglas Bader 22.5  

After the Battle, Winston Churchill said in the House of Commons "The gratitude of every home in our island, in our Empire, and indeed, throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen, who, undaunted by the odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of world war by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few!"

Recommended Web sites:

Remembering the Battle of Britain

Douglas Bader

Recommended Books:

The Battle of Britain: The Greatest Air Battle of World War II, by Richard Hough

Spitfire Mark II Aces 1939-41 (Osprey Aircraft of the Aces, No 12), by Alfred Price - featuring stories of ten leading Battle of Britain aces