In July 1940, the German Air Force launched a large-scale attack intent on wiping out the Royal Air Force (RAF). The Battle of Britain marked the first major defeat of Germany's military forces.

Background

During May 1940, the Germans swept through Belgium and northern France and pushed the Allied armies to Dunkirk. In a series of evacuations, the British Expeditionary Force was brought back to Britain and by 18 June, all British forces had withdrawn.

German forces consolidated their position and prepared the Luftwaffe in an effort to compel Britain to negotiations. In this lull of fighting, the RAF was building up its strength and by the beginning of July 1940 had nearly 640 fighters ready to defend Britain. In contrast, the Luftwaffe had around 2,600 bombers and fighters prepared to attack.

The Battle

On 10 July 1940, the Luftwaffe made its first bombing attacks on ships in the English Channel. They were attacking coastal defences in preparation for the planned amphibious and airborne assault on Britain, codenamed Sea Lion. The RAF put its high-performance Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire aircraft into the sky to defend the coast.

In August, the Luftwaffe attempted to gain air superiority over Britain. Hitler’s orders were clear, the RAF must be ‘beaten down to such an extent that it can no longer muster any power of attack worth mentioning against the German crossing'. Bombers attacked British airfields, aircraft factories and radar stations. However, they were frustrated by the large number of British planes that were still fighting off these attacks.

On 4 September, the Luftwaffe switched tactics again and set about destroying London and other major cities. This gave the RAF the time to repair its airfields and build up its fleet of fighters to savage the huge Luftwaffe formations in the skies. On 17 September, it was clear the Luftwaffe had failed to defeat the RAF. Hitler postponed his plans to invade Britain and turned his attention to the invasion of the Soviet Union.

Aftermath

The success of the RAF was largely due to fighting on home ground with superior aircraft. If shot down, the aircrew could be rescued and sent up again, and the aircraft could be salvaged and repaired.

After three months and three weeks of fighting, the RAF’s fighter command had lost nearly 550 aircrew killed, more than 400 wounded and nearly 1,750 aircraft destroyed. However, they had succeeded in inflicting more than 2,500 Luftwaffe aircrew casualties, and around 2,000 German aircraft destroyed.

related Cemeteries & Memorials

Runnymede Memorial, United Kingdom, bears the names of more than 20,290 Commonwealth airman, who died during the Second World War and have no known grave. They where lost in the skies above Britain, northern Europe and the surrounding seas and oceans.