World War II and the Air Battle of Britain

About the air battle of Britain in World War II between the Germans led by Goring and the English Royal Air Force in 1940.


Reichsmarschall Herman Goring's aerial assault on England--given the code name, Operation Adler ("Eagle")--began in mid-August, to clear the way for Hitler's immediate land invasion of the British Isles. Goring's timetable called for a Royal Air Force defeat in 4 days. He commanded 3 Luftflotten ("Air Fleets") based in northern France, the Low Countries and Norway, with about 1,000 bombers and 800 single-engine fighters. Goring's counterpart in Britain, Air Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, opposed the attack with almost 750 aircraft in Fighter Command of which 80% were combatready Spitfires and Hurricanes. In addition, the RAF also utilized 600 long-range bombers to carry out raids against Continental targets. This Bomber Command force is usually discounted in comparisons of relative battle strengths during the encounters over Kent and Sussex.

Strategically, Goring concentrated on the RAF's southeast airfields commanded by Air Vice Marshal Keith Park. Dowding responded by giving Park the option to offer only limited aircraft commitment, supported by radar, against the German airmen.

The British radar stations on the cliffs and bluffs of coastal England allowed Park to "see" incoming bombing "boxes" at substantial distances. The sophisticated early-warning system permitted great efficiency in the utilization of Fighter Command aircraft. Its flyers, guided by precise vector information on enemy strength and location, were able to strike quickly and often by surprise, without wasting valuable time and fuel on airborne defensive patrols.

Nevertheless, Goring's continual strikes, delivered throughout August, reduced Fighter Command's resistance to the point of near-collapse. It lost well over 200 veteran pilots and almost 40% of its planes. Then, on August 24, the British received an unexpected assist. Luftwaffe bombers mistakenly bombed London, and the RAF immediately countered with a raid on Berlin. The retaliation infuriated Hitler, who had promised the German people Berlin would never be touched. Hitler now concentrated his air attack on London, abandoning his original plan to destroy the RAF. The decision was a major tactical blunder which gave British Fighter Command enough time to recover.

Following the strategy change, Goring unleashed a massive daylight blow on London on September 15. The British Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, visiting at Park's Group Operations Room in Uxbridge--called "the Hole" because of its location 50' underground--watched with grave concern as the battle began. Park's status blackboard, which identified the level of commitment for each fighter group, went quickly from lights on the bottom row ("Stand By") to the row 2nd from the top, which flashed red as the planes entered aerial combat. Then, one by one, the lights moved on up to the most critical row of all--the #1 line indicating that combat action had been broken off for a return to base to refuel and rearm.

All of Park's available reserves had been committed. If further incoming German planes were spotted on radar, he could not prevent wholesale annhilation of the aircraft now on the ground. As Churchill eyed the plotting markers on the large-scale map table, he discerned a slow retreat back to the east and the English Channel; the tide of battle had turned. Speaking later in Parliament, Churchill paid tribute to Fighter Command's valiant effort with a ringing: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."

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