The Battle of Britain begins

The Battle of Britain begins

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On July 10, 1940, the Germans begin the first in a long series of bombing raids against Great Britain, as the Battle of Britain, which will last three and a half months, begins.

After the occupation of France by Germany, Britain knew it was only a matter of time before the Axis power turned its sights across the Channel. And on July 10, 120 German bombers and fighters struck a British shipping convoy in that very Channel, while 70 more bombers attacked dockyard installations in South Wales.

Although Britain had far fewer fighters than the Germans—600 to 1,300—it had a few advantages, such as an effective radar system, which made the prospects of a German sneak attack unlikely. Britain also produced superior quality aircraft. Its Spitfires could turn tighter than Germany’s ME109s, enabling it to better elude pursuers. The German single-engine fighters had a limited flight radius, and its bombers lacked the bomb-load capacity necessary to unleash permanent devastation on their targets. Britain also had the advantage of unified focus, while German infighting caused missteps in timing; they also suffered from poor intelligence.

But in the opening days of battle, Britain was in immediate need of two things: a collective stiff upper lip—and aluminum. A plea was made by the government to turn in all available aluminum to the Ministry of Aircraft Production. “We will turn your pots and pans into Spitfires and Hurricanes,” the ministry declared. And they did.

Battle of Britain

The Battle of Britain was the intense air battle between the Germans and the British over Great Britain's airspace from July 1940 to May 1941, with the heaviest fighting from July to October 1940.

After the fall of France at the end of June 1940, Nazi Germany had one major enemy left in Western Europe -- Great Britain. Overconfident and with little planning, Germany expected to quickly conquer Great Britain by first gaining domination over airspace and then later sending in ground troops across the English Channel (Operation Sealion).

The Germans began their attack on Great Britain in July 1940. At first, they targeted airfields but soon switched to bombing general strategic targets, hoping to crush British morale. Unfortunately for the Germans, British morale stayed high and the reprieve given to British airfields gave the British Air Force (the RAF) the break it needed.

Although the Germans continued to bomb Great Britain for months, by October 1940 it was clear that the British had won and that the Germans were forced to indefinitely postpone their sea invasion. The Battle of Britain was a decisive victory for the British, which was the first time the Germans had faced defeat in World War II.


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Battle of Britain, 10 July-31 October 1940

The Battle of Britain was one of the decisive battles of the Second World War, and saw the RAF defeat a German attempt to gain air superiority over southern England in preparation for Operation Sealion, the planned invasion of Britain. The battle was also the first major defeat to be suffered by the Germans during the Second World War, and by keeping Britain in the war denied Hitler the quick victory that he had expected.

The Battle of Britain is generally seen as falling into five somewhat overlapping phases. The first phase, from 10 July-7 August, was dominated by German attacks on British convoys in the Channel. The second phase, from 8-23 August, saw the Luftwaffe attempt to destroy Fighter Command by attacking coastal targets, including ports, the aircraft industry and RAF airfields. The third, and most dangerous phase of the battle, lasted from 24 August to 6 September and saw the Luftwaffe attack Fighter Command's inland stations in great strength, threatening to disrupt the carefully constructed control system based around the Sector Stations. Just as Fighter Command was beginning to be worn down by this approach the Germans changed their plan again. The fourth phase of the battle, from 7 September to the end of the month, saw the Luftwaffe carry out a series of massive daylight raids on London in the hope that this would force Fighter Command to commit its last reserves to the battle. Finally during October the Luftwaffe abandoned large scale daylight bombing raids. Instead it carried out large scale fighter bomber raids during the day while its bombers operated at night. After the end of October even the fighter bomber raids ended, and the Germans concentrated instead on the Blitz, the night time bombing raids over Britain's cities.

Aircraft Numbers and Production

The Battle of Britain famous as the triumph of the 'few', a small number of RAF fighter pilots who fought off the might of the Luftwaffe. This slightly distorts the reality of the battle in a number of ways. Perhaps the most important is that it underplays the contribution of the 'many' on the British side, including the ground crews who kept the 'few' in the air, the large numbers of men and women working in the control rooms, radar stations and as observers, the men of anti-aircraft and balloon commands and the factory workers who produced the new aircraft that allowed the RAF to continue the fight. The second distortion is that the RAF's fighter pilots were not dramatically outnumbered by their German equivalents. At the start of the battle the two German air fleets in Belgium and north-western France had around 700-800 Bf 109s, 1,000-1,200 bombers, just over 200 twin engined fighters and just under 300 dive bombers (mostly if not all Ju 87s). On 7 July Fighter Command had 644 available fighters and 1,259 pilots. Other parts of the RAF also took part in the battle, further balancing the picture.

Aircraft production was just as important as initial numbers, for huge numbers of fighter aircraft were destroyed or damaged beyond repair during the Battle of Britain. Between February and August 1940 British fighter production increased by more than 300%, from a low of 141 fighters in February to a peak of 496 in July. A large part of the credit for this improvement has been given to Lord Beaverbrook, who was given command of a new Ministry of Aircraft Production in mid-May, and whose energetic approach to the problem probably did see a significant short-term boost in production figures. It is true that production figures had already begun to rise by May, but the biggest leap came in June. During 1940 British aircraft production overtook German production, and during the Battle of Britain the Luftwaffe received far fewer new fighter aircraft than Fighter Command.


The RAF also benefited from the work of a number of different repair organisations, most importantly the Civilian Repair Organisation and the its own repair depots. Between them the repair organisations provided 35% of all replacement aircraft issued to fighter squadrons during the Battle of Britain,

German Plans

The basic aim of the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain was to destroy the capacity of RAF Fighter Command to operate over southern Britain and to do it early enough in the autumn to allow the German invasion fleets to cross the channel. This time element is sometimes forgotten in discussions about the impact of the battle - because the Luftwaffe continued to attack after the invasion had been postponed into 1941 (and thus effectively cancelled) there has been a tendency to downplay the important of the British victory in Hitler's decision not to invade.

The speed and scale of the German victory in the west caught everybody by surprise. When the British refused to negotiate the Germans were finally forced to plan for an invasion. Work on the new plans began in the summer of 1940, with the Navy starting first. Hitler only began to seriously believe that an invasion would be needed in mid-July, and on 16 July he issued a personal directive ordering the preparations to begin. On 19 July Hitler issued a public peace offer, which was immediately rejected by Britain (initially by the BBC).

The German plan was for the air offensive to begin six weeks before D-Day for the invasion. Many Luftwaffe leaders confidently expected a quick victory, with General Stapf predicting that it would take two weeks to smash the RAF. This optimism was understandable after the Luftwaffe's dramatic victories in Poland and France, but tended to underestimate the impact of the chaos caused by the advancing German armies. The attack was to be carried out by three air fleets, which had around 3,500 aircraft between them. Luftflotte 5 was based in Norway and Denmark, and played a very minor part in the battle, taking part on one day only. The main burden fell on Luftflotte 2 in Holland, Belgium and north-eastern France and Luftflotte 3 in northern and north-western France. As the battle developed it became clear that the short range of the Bf 109 meant that Luftflotte 2 played an increasingly important part in the battle.

The battle was to begin with a single grand operation - 'Adlerangriff' or 'Eagle Attack' - which was to smash the RAF. Adler tag was originally meant to be 10 August, but poor weather meant that it was postponed until 13 August. Two weeks after Eagle Day Hitler would decide if the invasion was to ahead.

The British Defences

The British defences were organised into the 'Dowding System'. This system was based around the idea of control - each squadron's activities were to be closely integrated into a single defensive system, going where they were needed. All of the available information about enemy formations, from the radar stations, the observer corps or any other source, was to come to Fighter Command's HQ at Stanmore. This was the location of the famous Control Room, with its map on which every British and German formation was displayed and its location updated.

The relevant information was then passed to the individual Groups, each of which had their own Control Room with maps that showed their own and neighbouring sectors. During the Battle of Britain most of the strain fell on Keith Park's No.11 Group in the south-east of England, although Leigh-Mallory's No.12 Group in the Midlands, No.10 Group in the south-west and to a lesser extent No.13 Group in the north were also involved.

Each of the Groups was further divided into Sectors, each of which had its own Sector Control Room that was responsible for controlling the individual squadrons. No.11 Group had seven sectors arranged in a fan around London. Most of the Sector Stations were close to London - Kenley to the south, Biggin Hill to the south-east, Hornchurch for the Thames Estuary, North Weald to the north-east and Northolt to the west. Two were further afield - the sector to the south-west of London was controlled from Tangmere, close to the Solent, while the north-eastern part of the Group was controlled from Debden. One weakness of the system was that the control rooms were located on Fighter Command airfields, meaning that even though the Germans were unaware of their existence they were still subjected to heavy attack. If the sector control rooms had been built in less obvious locations away from visible targets then that wouldn't have happened. A second problem was that Fighter Command's airfields had been built to face unescorted bombers approaching from the east and not escorted bombers approaching from the south. As a result some of the coastal stations would prove to be very vulnerable to German attack. The bases nearest to France would actually prove to be too far forward, forcing their fighters to head inland to gain height.

Information flowed into the system from a variety of sources. The best known source was radar (then known by the code name of R.D.F. or Radio Direction Finding). The line of Chain Home and Chain Home Low stations along the east and south coasts provided Fighter Command with a very important picture of any incoming German raid. At the start of the battle the Germans greatly underestimated the importance of radar to the British defensive system. The general belief (as expressed by 'Beppo' Schmid, leader of the Intellgence Branch of the Luftwaffe's operational staff), was that the RAF's fighters were tied to individual airfields and as a result Fighter Command would be overwhelmed by a mass attack on a single target. The advance warning given to Fighter Command by the radar network would make sure that this was not the case.

In 1940 radar still had its limitations. It could reliably indicate the direction and distance of an enemy force, but not the size or altitude of the raid. The information from the radar network thus had to be supplemented by the Observer Corps, which provided very accurate information on the size and composition of German raids once they reached the coast.

Dowding also had overcall command of the just under 2,000 anti-aircraft guns of Anti-Aircraft Command under General Pile and the balloons of Balloon Command

Fighter Command's task was to prevent the Luftwaffe from gaining air supremacy over southern England. This involved a number of different tasks. The most important of these was to prevent the Luftwaffe from successfully attacking and knocking out Fighter Command's physical infrastructure - the sector stations, fighter fields and radar stations that were essential if the battle was to be won. Fighter Command also had to defend those parts of the aircraft industry that were essential for its survival, including the Rolls Royce engine factories and the factories producing the Hurricanes and Spitfires. Dowding and Park also understood that low British losses were more important than high German ones - if Fighter Command was even temporarily knocked out of action the entire country would be at risk, while the Luftwaffe could afford to take the time to recover from any major blow.

The Battle of Britain was fought between two very different air fleets. On the British side the fighting was entirely dominated by two single engined fighters, the Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire. Early attempts to use the Boulton-Paul Defiant as a day fighter ended in disastrous failure, while the fighter versions of the Bristol Blenheim were never fast enough to play any significant part in the battle, even when used as radar equipped night fighters. Although the Spitfire became the iconic aircraft of the battle, the two British fighters were actually well matched during 1940. Both were armed with eight .303in machine guns. The Spitfire was faster but the Hurricane was a more stable gun platform, and during the battle the two types met with almost equal success. Only after 1940 did the later versions of the Spitfire pull ahead of the Hurricane, which was soon outclassed by later versions of the Bf 109.

The German air fleets were much more varied, and included both fighters and bombers. The Luftwaffe only possessed one single-engined fighter during 1940, the Bf 109, and during the Battle of Britain used the Bf 109E. The Germans also expected much of the twin engined Bf 110 heavy fighter, but their lack of manoeuvrability negated the aircraft's heavy armament and good top speed and made it very vulnerable. The Junkers Ju 87 'Stuka' dive bomber had played a vital part in the German victories in the West earlier in the year, but it too would prove to be very vulnerable when faced with strong fighter opposition.

The Germans used three twin-engined bombers during the Battle of Britain. The Dornier Do 17 was the least effective of the three, with the smallest bomb load. The Heinkel He 111 was better, with twice the bomb load and almost twice the range. Finally the Junkers Ju 88 was the best of the three, with a similar range and bomb load to the He 111 but a higher top speed.

Most books on the Battle of Britain state that the Bf 109E was armed with 20mm cannon, but the true picture is more complex than this. The Bf 109E-1 was originally armed with four MG-17 machine guns, although in some aircraft these may have been replaced with two cannon. The Bf 109E-3 originally carried a single 20mm cannon mounted in engine, but this gun often jammed. Only with the introduction of the Bf 109E-4 in July 1940 did the wing-mounted 20mm cannon become standard. In the second half of 1940 the Luftwaffe recorded losing 249 E-1s, 32 E-3s and 344 E-4s, suggesting that a significant number of the Bf 109s encountered over Britain during the battle were actually armed with four machine guns while others had either one or two 20mm cannon. This helps explain the contradictory evidence from the memoirs of RAF fighter pilots of the period, some of whom considered the Bf 109 to be too lightly armed, while others believed it to outgun their own aircraft.

The Bf 109 did suffer from one serious flaw in 1940 - its short range. It is often claimed that the advent of air power meant that the English Channel no longer offered any protection from attack, but in 1940 that was not the case. Every sortie required two crossing of the channel, using up precious fuel and greatly restricting the Bf 109's ability to fight over southern England. London was at the extreme limit of its range, and it could only spend a short time fighting further south. This short range was further reduced when the German fighters had to provide close escort for bombers, which flew below the Bf 109's most fuel efficient speeds.

The Gap (June-Mid July)

The fighting in France and the Low Countries had been very costly for the RAF, but luckily the Luftwaffe had also suffered heavy losses, and so for just over a month there was something of a lull. For the first two weeks after the end of the fighting over Dunkirk the Luftwaffe was almost fully engaged in the final stages of the Battle of France. On 17 June the French requested an armistice, and the Germans used the next two weeks to bring their depleted units back up to strength and to move into their new bases in France and Belgium.

This didn't mean that there was no activity over Britain. The first sizeable raids came on the night of 5-6 June, when around thirty aircraft attacked airfields and other targets near the east coast. This was repeated on the following two nights, and then there was a lull until the French requested an armistice. After that German aircraft raided Britain every night, still in small numbers (never more than 60-70 aircraft). On most nights no more than one or two bombers were lost, and these small scale raids caused massive disruption across the country, triggering air raid warnings in areas that never saw a single German aircraft. This problem was solved by the decision not to sound the warning for every small incursion, and to limit air raid warnings to the areas most directly affected.

The lull gave the RAF the time it needed to recover from the very costly fighting in May and early June. In those two months the RAF lost 959 aircraft, including 477 fighters (of which 219 came from Fighter Command). The Air Component of the BEF lost 279 aircraft, amongst them a large number of fighters. On 4 June Fighter Command had 446 operationally serviceable airraft, of including 331 Hurricanes and Spitfires. By the start of the Battle of Britain most of the aircraft had been replaced, and on 11 August the command had 704 serviceable aircraft of which 620 were Hurricanes or Spitfires, while the number of Hurricanes and Spitfires in the immediate reserve had risen from 36 to 289. The experienced pilots lost in France were irreplaceable in the small time available. Only five new squadrons joined Fighter Command's order of battle between the end of July and the end of September - No.1 Squadron, RCAF, the Polish-manned Nos.302 and 303 Squadrons and the Czech-manned Nos.310 and 312 Squadrons.

This period also allowed the RAF to complete the extension of its radar screen, which in September 1939 had only extended as far west as Southampton. One year later the entire south coast was covered. Fighter Command used the time to expand the number of Groups. At the start of June there were only three - No.11 in the south, No.12 in the Midlands and No.13. By the start of the battle No.10 Group in the south-west was fully operational and No.9 Group in the north-west and No.14 Group in northern Scotland were almost ready.

Phase 1 - The Contact Phase or the Convoy Battles (10 July-7 August)

British accounts consider the Battle of Britain to have started on 10 July. On this day the Germans began a series of daylight attacks on coastal convoys attempting to reach London along the English Channel. On the first day of the battle one formation of Ju 88s unescorted by fighters managed to attack Falmouth and Swansea without being intercepted, a rare occurrence later in the battle, while further east a force of around 60 German aircraft (one third bombers two thirds fighters) attacked a convoy. Five RAF squadrons intercepted the Germans, and generally had the better of the clash. Overall the Germans lost 13 aircraft, the RAF lost 6, but only one pilot, Tom Hicks, was killed.

The period of convoy battles forced the RAF to fly 600 sorties per day, many of them over the waters of the channel. As a result the British air-sea rescue organisation was quickly improved. This period also saw the first British aircraft type to be withdrawn. On 19 July nine Defiants from No.141 Squadron were attacked by a larger force of Bf 109s, and only three aircraft survived. The turret-armed fighter had been designed in a period when nobody was entirely sure what form aerial combat might take in an era of high speed fighters and bombers. One theory had been that speeds were too high for accurate deflection shooting, a possibility that might have made the fixed forward firing guns of the Spitfires, Hurricanes and Bf 109s obsolete. The Defiant was one of a number of aircraft designed to provide an alternative type of fighter, but it soon became clear that the fast monoplane fighter was king of the skies. After the disaster on 19 July the Defiant was withdrawn from the daylight battle.

In the month from 10 July to 10 August the RAF lost 96 aircraft, but shot down 227. The German daylight attacks on convoys sank 40,000 tons of shipping, but almost as much shipping was sunk by mines dropped relatively safely at night.

Phase 2 - 8-23 August - Coastal Battles

The second phase of the battle saw a dramatic increase the number of German sorties. They also began to cross the coast in large numbers for the first time. The rate of activity began to step up on 8 August, but from the German point of view the main part of the battle didn't begin until 13 August, 'Adlertag' or 'Eagle Day'. This was meant to be the day on which the Luftwaffe landed the 'knock-out' blow on Fighter Command which would be overwhelmed by two massive raids launched at separate points along the coast. During this phase of the battle most German raids hit targets near to the coast. This meant that of the vital Sector Stations only Tangmere came under prolonged attack, while Manston, Hawkinge and Lympne, all close to the Kent coast, also suffered.

On 8 August the Germans attacked a west-bound convoy, starting at Dover and following it to the Isle of Wight. The day saw the British lose 20 aircraft and the Germans 28 or 31 in a series of battles than moved slowly west along the channel. Bad weather intervened on 9 and 10 August, but the Germans returned in force on 11 August, attacking Dover, Portland and Weymouth. The British lost 32 aircraft, the Germans 38, in the most costly day of the battle so far.

On 12 August the Germans made their first and only major attack on the British radar network. Five radar bases were attacked (Dover, Dunkirk (there are a surprising number of Dunkirks in Britain - this particular one is just to the west of Canterbury), Rye, Pevensey and Ventnor). All five bases were hit, but the damage was variable. Dover and Dunkirk were able to continue operations without any delays. Pevensey and Rye were both damaged but were back in use by the next day. Only Ventnor was knocked out for a longer period, and it too was back in service by 23 August. A number of airfields were also attacked. Lympe and Hawkinge were both damaged, while Manston was briefly knocked out of operations.

After a number of delays the Germans had finally decided to begin their main effort on 13 August, 'Adlertag' or 'Eagle Day'. This grand attack got off to a bad start. Poor weather on the morning of 13 August meant that the main attack was postponed until the afternoon, but two formations didn't receive the cancellation order, and their Dorniers attacked alone. Five were shot down and six badly damaged, but they did manage to attack the Coastal Command station at Eastchurch (believed by the Luftwaffe to be a Fighter Command base).

The main attack came in the afternoon. This involved two major raids - one over Kent and Essex and one over Sussex and Hampshire. The hope was that Fighter Command would be unable to cope with two major raids and would be dragged out of shape in an attempt to respond, but Dowding's system coped well. The western attack was dealt with by No.10 Group, the eastern attack by No.11 Group. Once again the Coastal Command stations at Detling and Eastchurch were hit, as was Southampton. The day ended with the RAF losing 13 aircraft and three pilots killed, while the Luftwaffe lost 45 or 47 aircraft. So far Fighter Command was more than holding its own, but the Germans believed that they were winning great victories. General O. Stapf informed Halder that they had destroyed eight major air bases between 8-13 August, and that the ratio of British to German aircraft losses was 5 to 1 for fighters and 3 to 1 for all types. If Fighter Command was guilty of over-claiming, the Luftwaffe was far worse, and had a tendency to make plans based on these exaggerated claims.

Between 10 July and 31 October the British claimed 2,698 victories but achieved 1,733, so over-claimed by under 2-to-1. In contrast the Luftwaffe claimed 3,058 victories and achieved only 915, over-claiming by more than 3-to-1, and by twice a big a margin as the British. Any overall plan based on such inaccurate figures was bound to contain errors.

The Germans had one success on the night of 13-14 August when KG.100, soon to become famous as a elite bomber unit, managed to hit the Spitfire factory at Castle Bromwich. In the period between 14-23 August this success was followed by eight attacks on the Bristol factory at Filton and nine on Westland, Rolls-Royce and Gloster, but the only target to be hit was Bristol at Filton. 14 August was a quiet day and the Germans were absent on the night of 14-15 August, but it was clear from Ultra intercepts that this was simply because they were planning a major attack for 15 August.

The German attacks on 15 August were designed to overwhelm the British defences, using all three of their available air fleets to attack all around the country. The Germans expected to find the north of England virtually undefended, believing that Dowding must have moved his reserves south to replace the vast numbers of fighters they believed they had shot down. Instead Luftflotte 5's bombers and Bf 110s ran into the fighters of Nos.12 and 13 Groups. The overall German plan for the day was to attack Fighter Command's airfields in an attempt to provoke the decisive battle. The day began with an attack on the south-east that crossed the coast at 11.29 and hit Lympne. This was followed by the attacks in the north. One large German force attempted to attack Tyneside but was repulsed. A second formation attacked Yorkshire, where it had a little more success, but the main message of the day was that any formation not escorted by Bf 109s was very vulnerable when facing Hurricanes and Spitfires. Luftflotte 5's Bf 110s were not capable of protecting their bombers against attack.

The third major attack began at around 14.20, just at the attacks in the north were ending. This time the south-east was the target. Attacks on airfields largely failed, but two aircraft factories at Rochester were hit (Popjoy's and Short's). A fourth raid, this time against Hampshire and Dorset, was detected at 17.00 and the first raid, this time in the Dover-Dungeness area, began at around 18.15. At the end of the day the Germans had made 1,270 fighter sorties and 520 bomber sorties, and had lost 76 aircraft while the RAF had lost 34. At the time the British claimed 182 victories and 53 probable victories, one of the more exaggerated daily claims, but the day had still ended as a clear British victory.

On the same day the three air fleet commanders were in conference with Goering at Karinhall. During this conference Goering repeated that the RAF was the main target and ordered an end to raid on unrelated targets. He also suggested that the attacks on radar stations were ineffective and should stop. This suggestion was treated as an order and only two more attacks on radar stations were made during the battle. Although German losses were lower than the British believed, they were still very high, and on the same day Goering ordered that only one officer should fly in any aircraft.

The Germans carried out three major raids on 16 August. During the second raid Fl. Lt J. B. Nicholson of No.249 Squadron won the only Victoria Cross of the battle after staying in his burning aircraft to shoot down a Bf 110 (he then escaped from the burning aircraft and survived to receive his award). The same day also saw the Germans adopt a new tactic, with their fighters operating closer to the bombers to provide more immediate protection. This did make it harder for the RAF to reach the bombers, but also made the fighters less effective and reduced the amount of time they could spend over Britain by forcing them to zig-zag to match the slower speed of the bombers.

17 August was a quiet day, but 18 August saw the Luftwaffe make their first major attacks on the inland sector stations. The Sector Operations Room at Kenley was badly damaged and had to be moved to an emergency room in a disused butchers in Caterham, while the airfield could only operate two of its normal three squadrons. An attack on Biggin Hill was fought off, while later in the afternoon Gosport, Ford and Thorney Island were all attacked. None of these last three were Fighter Command stations, reflecting once again the limits of the Luftwaffe's Intelligence branch. The attack on Gosport also saw the second aircraft type casualty of the battle (after the Defiant). During this raid the Ju 87s suffered such heavy loses that they were withdrawn from the battle and kept back for the planned invasion, when with Fighter Command out of the way their effectiveness would have been restored.

Between 8 and 18 August the Germans lost 367 aircraft (192 of them in the four days between 15 and 18 August), while Fighter Command lost 183 in combat and 30 on the ground. Just over 100 new fighters were produced in the same period, and the gap was filled by the repair units. The Command also lost 164 pilots killed, missing or seriously wounded, while only 63 new fighter pilots completed their training. This gap could not be filled as easily. On 17 August Bomber Command provided five volunteers from each of four Battle squadrons, and at about the same time Army Cooperation Command provided three pilots from each of five Lysander squadrons, for a total of 35 pilots. Pilots in the last stages of Bomber and Coastal Command training were quickly converted into fighter pilots. 18 August also saw No.310 (Czech) Squadron become operational, while No.312 (Czech) Squadron followed at the end of the month (No.303 (Polish) Squadron had been operational since late July).

If the weather had been better then 18 August would probably been seen as the start of the third phase of the battle, but for the next few days bad weather prevented any large scale raids, and so the third and most dangerous phase of the battle didn't really begin until 24 August (In his own report produced in September Park saw 19 August as marking the start of a new phase in the battle).

Phase 3 - 24 August-6 September: The Assault on Fighter Command

The third phase of the battle is generally seen as having started on 24 August. This saw the start of a period of better weather that allowed the Germans to fly an average of 1,000 sorties per day until 6 September, with peaks of over 1,600 sorties on 30 and 31 August. This period saw the Luftwaffe continue the policy first seen on 18 August of attacking RAF bases further inland, and was the period in which the Germans came closest to victory. In the earlier phase of the battle Tangmere was the only one of the crucial Sector Stations to be in a vulnerable position close to the coast, but the new German tactics saw the network of stations around London come under attack. The success of this phase of the German attack was partly accidental, in that they didn't know of the existence of the vital sector control rooms. If the control rooms had not been built at major fighter stations then this stage of the battle would have been rather less dangerous for the RAF, although the fighter stations and squadrons would still have come under severe pressure.

Although the first attack on the inland stations came on 18 August, bad weather prevented the Germans from returning in force until 24 August. This marked a period in which the Germans flew an average of 1,000 sorties per day, peaking at over 1,600 sorties on 30 and 31 August and lasting until 6 September. The gap saw two significant events. The first was a conference at Goering's palatial home at Karinhall on 19 August in which he repeated that the RAF was the Luftwaffe's main target. Enemy fighters were the first target, either in the air or on the ground, followed by the aircraft industry and the ground organisation of the bomber forces.

The second came on 20 August, when Churchill paid his famous tribute to the men of Fighter Command, remembered many for the line 'never in the field of Human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few'. What does still surprise is how early in the battle this speech was made - on 20 August the hardest part of the battle still laid in the future.

A key feature of this period of the battle was the repeated heavy attacks on the sector stations. North Weald was hit on 24 August, Biggin Hill twice on 30 August, Debden, Croydon, Biggin Hill and Hornchurch twice on 31 August. Biggin Hill was worst hit and the vital control room was knocked out of action. The staff moved to an emergency control room in an estate office in a nearby village, but this could only handle one of the three squadrons based at the airfield, so the remaining two were controlled from other sectors. 31 August also saw Fighter Command suffer its heaviest losses of the battle, with 38 aircraft shot down. The benefits of the RAF's 'home advantage' can be seen very clearly on this day. Of the 38 pilots shot nine were killed. Others will have been wounded and put out of action, but many were able to return almost immediately to the battle. In contrast very few of the crews of the 39 German aircraft lost on the same day will have escaped to fight again.

September started as August had ended. On 1 September Biggin Hill was hit for the sixth time in three days. Most of the buildings were now unsafe and most work had to take place outside, but the station somehow managed to keep working (largely due to the bravery of the WAAFs). Hornchurch was attacked on 2 September, North Weald on 3 September and Biggin Hill on 5 September. The aircraft industry also suffered. Vickers at Weybridge was hit on 4 September, Hawker on 6 September. The attacks also began to creep closer to London. On 5 September the oil farm at Thameshaven was hit and set on fire. The Germans returned on 6 September, and again during the raid on London on 7 September.

Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of this period of the battle was the slow but steady decrease in the quality of the British fighter pilots. As more experienced pilots were killed or wounded they had to be replaced with novices, many of whom would later become equally experienced, but that was in the future. The experienced squadrons were also becoming worn down, and under the Dowding system they were thus moved away from the battle and replaced with fresh squadrons. Unfortunately the intense nature of the battle in late August and early September meant that this policy failed. The inexperienced squadrons suffered much heavier losses than the tired units they were replacing, and in some cases had to be withdrawn themselves. On 8 September Dowding replaced the rotation system with a new 'Stabilization Scheme' (presumably because it was designed to stabilise the experienced squadrons). Fighter Command's squadrons were split into three categories. 'A' class categories were to be manned entirely with fully trained pilots and were to be used in No.11 Group and in the Middle Wallop and Duxford sectors of the neighbouring groups. Five 'B' class squadrons in No.10 and No.12 Groups were also to be kept up to strength and were to be used if an entire 'A' class squadron needed to be rested. The remaining squadrons, in every other group, became 'C' class squadrons. These had a core of five or six experienced pilots and were used to give new pilots enough experience to allow them to be moved to 'A' or 'B' class squadrons. At about the same time the number of pilots in each squadron was reduced from 26 to 16 - a move that in the short term allowed more squadrons to operate at full strength but at the price of eliminating each squadron's reserves, forcing just about every pilot to fly on every mission.

This period also saw an alarming trend in the number of fighters available to replace losses - the weeks ending 31 August and 7 September were the only two in the entire battle in which Spitfire and Hurricane losses greatly outnumbered the weekly output of new or repaired aircraft. Three more weeks at the same rate and Fighter Command might had run out of fighters, assuming it had enough pilots left.

Phase 4 - 7-30 September

7 September was one of the most important days in the entire Battle of Britain. After two weeks of attacks on its airfields No.11 Group was beginning to bend under the pressure, and another week of the same might have seen it snap. The vital sector stations had already been badly damaged and the men of the fighter squadrons themselves were operating under great pressure, knowing that they were not even safe on the ground. On the afternoon of 7 September yet another major German raid began to take shape, but much to the surprise and relief of the fighter squadrons the great attacking force bypassed them and made for London. The Germans had switched the focus of their efforts from Fighter Command to the British capital, a move that immediately reduced the pressure on Park's men and allowed them to begin to recover from the losses of 24 August-6 September.

There were two main motives behind this apparently idiotic decision. The best known of these is that a British attack Berlin so angered Hitler that he ordered the Luftwaffe to turn against London in a fit of rage - an early sign of Hitler's increasingly poor decision making. On the night of 24-25 August some German bombs fell accidently on London (Hitler had ordered the Luftwaffe not to attack the British capital without his express permission). In response Bomber Command managed to get 81 bombers over Berlin on the night of 25-26 August. The British bombers returned several times over the next few days. These raids probably didn't do much damage, but they were very embarrassing for both Hitler and Goering. On 4 September Hitler made a big speech threatening vengeance for the raids on Berlin and other German cities, and three days later the daylight attack on London began.

A less well known (but probably rather more important) motive for the change in plan was that by early September the Luftwaffe believed that Fighter Command was close to defeat. German intelligence greatly underestimated British fighter production, and overestimated the losses suffered by Fighter Command. With Fighter Command down to its last few reserves the attacks on the airfields had effectively achieved their aim and further attacks might not be so productive. The Luftwaffe was also frustrated by Park's policy of avoiding battle with their fighters as much as possible and concentrating on the bombers. What they wanted was to force the British into a single decisive battle, and it was believed that the best way to achieve that would be attack London, a move that would force Fighter Command to commit its last remaining reserves. A major attack on London was also expected to cause massive amounts of disruption, making the invasion that much easier.

In effect the Germans made the decision that saved Fighter Command because they believed they had already won and the invasion would take place in the next few days.

On 5 September the British intercepted a radio message ordering the Luftwaffe to carry out a massive raid on the London docks on the afternoon of 7 September. This allowed the civil defence organisation to quietly prepare for the attack, but on this occasion at least Ultra intelligence was not followed by victory in the skies. On the morning of 7 September the Luftwaffe attacked Hawkinge four times, suggesting that the attacks on the airfields would continue for some time. Park was thus slightly caught out when the main German attack developed in mid-afternoon. As No.11 Group's squadrons prepared to defend their airfields the Germans flew right past them - only four squadrons were able to attack them on their way in. Eventually twenty three squadrons were put in the air and twenty one made contact with the German formations, but with comparatively limited success - the Germans lost 41 aircraft, Fighter Command 25. One reason for the relatively low German losses was that they had developed a new formation, with the bombers protected by vast numbers of Bf 109s. Some provided the sort of high cover that the German fighter pilots preferred, but many more were used to provide the close escort, which was flew above, below, behind and to the sides of the bombers. This approach may have been unpopular with the fighter pilots, who found it too restrictive, but at least on 7 September it was very effective, making it difficult for Fighter Command to get at the bombers. As a result Woolwich, Thameshaven and the West Ham docks were very badly damaged in a major daylight raid for the first and only time. That night the German bombers returned, this time virtually unopposed and by the following morning 306 civilians had been killed and 1,337 seriously injured.

After the striking success on 7 September the weather prevented the Germans from returning on the following day. Large attacks took place on 9 September and 11 September, but without the success of 7 September. On 11 September Hitler was forced to postpone the date for the invasion from 21 to 24 September. This meant that another decision had to be made on 14 September, in order to give the German navy the ten days notice it required, but bizarrely Hitler chose to bring the invasion forward to 17 September. Once again German intelligence had overestimated the damage done to Fighter Command, and the major attack planned for 15 September was confidently expected to eliminate the few remaining fighters. This despite a week in which the Fighter Command had lost half as many Spitfires and Hurricanes as in the previous week (weeks ending 7th and 14th September), and had seen their reserves increase for the first time in three weeks.

After the battle 15 September was commemorated as 'Battle of Britain Day'. It was the day on which the RAF claimed the most victories, 185, although it was also the day on which the RAF over-claimed most dramatically, for the Germans actually lost 61 aircraft. This was still the third highest total they suffered on any day, but came as something of a disappointment when the German figures were discovered after the war. The real important of 15 September was that it made it clear that Fighter Command had not been defeated, and indeed was just as strong as at the start of the battle. On 17 September, the day on which the invasion was to have been launched, Hitler was forced to postpone it indefinitely.

The German attack on 15 September was not one of their best efforts. The massive formations took shape within radar range, and without any protective feints. Park was able to intercept the Germans as they crossed the coast, and their formations were under constant attack all the way to London. As a result they lost much of their shape, many bombs were jettisoned randomly to avoid attack, and limited damage was done. Goering ordered a second attack in the afternoon. This signal was intercepted and decoded and the news passed on to Dowding. This combined with a second well run radar interception to produce another successful defensive battle.

On 17 September the British had their first hints that the immediate threat of invasion was gone. Ultra intercepted a message ordering the air loading equipment for troop carrying aircraft on Dutch airfields to be dismantled. Photographic evidence came on 23 September when PR aircraft visited the invasion coast and found that the number of invasion barges between Flushing and Boulogne had gone down by one third, while a number of German destroyers had left the invasion ports for safer waters at Brest.

In the second half of September German tactics changed once again. There was still two major daylight raids, on 27 September and 30 September, but neither was successful, and the attack on 30 September was the last large scale daylight raid on London. The night time raids continued, while during daylight hours the Germans began to carry out a large number of fighter-bomber raids.

Phase 5 - 1-31 October

The final stage of the Battle of Britain saw the Germans abandon large scale daylight raids. Instead they focused on small-scale low level raids by Ju 88s and high-level fighter bomber raids, using bomb-carrying Bf 109s supported by pure fighters. The Bf 110 was also used as a fighter bomber during this phase of the battle. The main German bomber force was now used almost exclusively at night. Some of the daylight raids were on a very large scale, with up to 1,000 sorties on the busiest days, and the new German tactics posed a very serious challenge to Fighter Command. The fighter bombers were very hard to intercept, and losses on both sides fell significantly. Even so Fighter Command still lost 144 aircraft during the month,

In Britain the battle officially ended on 31 October. This day saw no aircraft lost on either side, and thus does mark a suitable stopping point. Of course the fighting didn't end, and the night bombing campaign, the Blitz, continued on across the winter of 1940-41 only ended when the Luftwaffe moved east in preparation for the attack on the Soviet Union, but the daylight battle was now at an end.

Big Wing Controversy

One of the most controversial aspects of the Battle of Britain was the 'Big Wing Controversy'. At the heart of this was a disagreement between Park and Leigh-Mallory of No.12 Group over the way in which Leigh-Mallory's squadrons should be used. Park wanted to be able to call on No.12 Group to provide cover for No.11 Group's air fields when all of his squadrons were in the air. Leigh-Mallory wanted to be called into action much earlier so that his squadrons could take part in the main battle in the south-east. The 'Big Wing' itself was the brainchild of Douglas Bader, who wanted several squadrons to operate together in the air, with the hope of numbering the Germans. In Park's group squadrons were often forced to operate alone, partly because even with radar there was rarely much notice of German attacks and partly because Park needed to attempt to break up every single German attack. He couldn't afford to concentre his squadrons against one or two German formations in an attempt to inflict higher casualties on them as this would have left the remaining German formations free to inflict potentially critical damage. Sholto Douglas, who would soon replace Dowding, didn't share this view, stating that he would 'rather shoot down fifty of the enemy after they had bombed their target than ten forward of it'. The problem with this theory was that a formation of enemy bombers that had lost ten of its number rarely pressed on to hit its target, while many bombers that came under attack jettisoned their bombs in an attempt to escape.

There were valid arguments on both sides. Leigh-Mallory's main role was to protect the Midlands against German raids, so at first Park was correct not to call on No.12 Group too often. Once the battle had been under way for some time it was clear that the Germans weren't going to operate north of London in daylight, and at this point Leigh-Mallory's squadrons could have been called into action more often. It is very hard to tell how effective Bader's Duxford Wing really was. Its first action came on 7 September, towards the end of the period of major daylight battles. All the way through the battle both sides over-claimed victories, and the Duxford Wing appears to have over-claimed rather more enthusiastically than the rest of Fighter Command (probably because the larger formation meant that more pilots were involved in each fight). After the war Bader himself made it clear that he had never suggested that No.11 Group operate large wings, and much of the later debate appears to have been based on a misunderstanding of both Leigh-Mallory's and Bader's positions.

The 'big wing controversy' did demonstrate one weakness in Dowding's style of command in that at the time he was apparently not aware of the major disagreement between Leigh-Mallory and Park and thus did nothing to try and resolve the issues. A wider awareness of the problem with the Air Ministry, combined with concern about the progress of the night battle and a more general feeling that Dowding and Park were both now very tired played a part in both men's removal from their posts in November 1940. Park was moved to Training Command, before moving on to Malta and a distinguished career in the Mediterranean and Far East. Dowding was sent on a mission to the United States, but was not a great success in this role and was eventually recalled. Leigh-Mallory took over No.11 Group and Sholto Douglas moved from his post in the Air Ministry to take over Fighter Command.

The Battle of Britain is justifiably remembered as Britain's 'finest hour'. Although a huge number of men and women were involved in the battle, working in the factories, manning the radar stations, repairing aircraft or working the control rooms, the crucial part of the fighting was carried out by around 1,000 fighter pilots on each side at any one time. When the battle began everybody expected that the Germans would soon attempt to invade Britain, and despite Churchill's powerful rhetoric Britain looked to be doomed. By the end of the battle it was clear that the Germans would not be invading in 1940, and that they had probably missed their best chance to do so. By the spring of 1941, when the threat of invasion should have resumed, Hitler's attention had turned away to the east and the upcoming invasion of the Soviet Union while the British had been able to replace much of the equipment lost on the Continent in 1940. A German victory in the battle and the invasion that would probably have followed would have had a dramatic impact on the course of the war. If Britain was defeated then Hitler wouldn't have needed to prop up the Italians in the Mediterranean and North Africa, probably wouldn't have been dragged into Greece, and wouldn't have needed to maintain a large U-boat fleet. The attack on the Soviet Union could have happened earlier and in greater force. The United States would probably not have entered the war against Hitler, and even if it had done wouldn't have had the UK to use as a base. Dowding's 'chick's, the famous few, won one of the most significant military victories in histories.

Timeline of key events: details and archive clips

Germany advances through Europe

Churchill becomes Prime Minister

Britain retreats from France

Churchill decides to fight on

Hitler plans the invasion of Britain

Germany bombs British towns and cities

Germany bombs British coastal airfields

Germany attacks RAF Fighter Command

Britain bombs Berlin

Germany bombs London

Battle of Britain Day

Hitler postpones the invasion of Britain

The Battle of Britain

Both sides lost heavily during the Battle of Britain. More than 1700 Luftwaffe (German air force) planes were destroyed. The 2662 German casualties included many experienced aircrew, and the Luftwaffe never fully recovered from the reverse it suffered in August-October 1940.

The Royal Air Force (RAF) lost 1250 aircraft, including 1017 fighters. In all, 520 men were killed serving with Fighter Command. But with more than 700 fatalities during the period of the battle, Bomber Command suffered even more heavily. Another 200 men were killed flying with Coastal Command.

New Zealand's 'Few'

Of the 135 New Zealanders who served in RAF Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain, 20 lost their lives. Another 29 New Zealanders died serving in Bomber Command and eight in Coastal Command. In all, 57 New Zealand airmen died during the course of the battle. See the New Zealand Fighter Command Roll of Honour

Others suffered grievous wounds. Men often found themselves enveloped in flames in their cockpits before managing to bale out. Many of these badly burned men ended up in the plastic and jaw injury centre at Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead, Sussex.

Yet another New Zealander was prominent in the treatment of these unfortunate men - plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe. He pioneered the treatment of severe burns by saline baths - a method that reduced the scarring that resulted from such injuries. McIndoe was also instrumental in establishing the ‘Guinea Pig Club’, which gave moral support to hideously disfigured men.

The significance

The Battle of Britain was the first serious setback experienced by the Germans during the Second World War. This in itself was significant at a time when the German military forces seemed to be unstoppable, and it gave hope to conquered Europeans. But the long-term significance was even greater: Britain was preserved as a base for offensive action against Germany. Bombers operating from its bases would devastate German industry and infrastructure later in the war. As a springboard for the deployment of American power, it was vital to the eventual liberation of Western Europe.

The failure to achieve air superiority over Britain, or later to terrorise the British into submission, encouraged Hitler’s desire to move east. Even before the climax of the Battle of Britain, he had signalled his intention to attack the Soviet Union at an early date. Hitler expected an easy victory over the Russians, after which he could again turn his attention to the problem of forcing Britain’s submission. But his decision sealed the fate of the Third Reich.

What We Learned: the Battle of Britain

The Battle of Britain was history’s first major confrontation fought entirely by aircraft. To equate it to the era of spaceflight, picture waking up one night to watch hundreds of satellites zapping each other with firefly flashes at orbital altitudes. Only then could you imagine what the English must have felt seeing hundreds of 300mph planes filling the skies over Britain.

The Battle of Britain was ostensibly the prelude to a cross-channel invasion of England, but even Adolf Hitler doubted his air force and army could pull that off. To prevent the Royal Navy from blowing any invasion fleet from the water would have required total air superiority, which the Luftwaffe never came close to achieving. More likely, Hitler hoped that swatting down the RAF would force the British to negotiate a peace.

The Battle of Britain began on July 10, 1940, and continued through October. Despite popular myth, the Brits were never in truly desperate straits. They were cranking out Spitfires and Hurricanes faster than they were being shot down (more serious was a shortage of experienced pilots), and the RAF had developed a superb ground-control system that routinely put its fighters above and dead on track toward the Luftwaffe attackers.

The British also developed a first-class radar network that targeted incoming planes as distant as 60 miles. Ju-87 dive-bombers tried to destroy the spidery antenna towers, but the slow Stukas were a turkey shoot for the Spits and Hurris.

On August 13, Adler Tag (Eagle Day), the Luftwaffe tried to silence the RAF once and for all. Its fighters did substantial damage but were stunned by the fury of the British defenders. The RAF rallied two days later, downing 90 German aircraft for a loss of 42 of their own. It was the Luftwaffe’s blackest day.

Little more than a week later, a lone He-111 bomber lost atop heavy cloud cover jettisoned its bombs. Unfortunately for the Germans, they fell on London. The Luftwaffe had carefully avoided London it was the key to escalation they preferred to avoid.

Indeed, on the next night, the RAF sent 80-odd elderly Hampden bombers to Berlin. Like the Doolittle raid on Tokyo, the attack did little material damage, but it horrified the Germans. Stung, Hitler retaliated by ordering Hermann Göring to bomb London daily, and the course of the battle changed. The deadly Messerschmitts became hamstrung bomber escorts, and the Germans ignored Fighter Command’s airfields. The RAF was able to rearm, reequip, retrain and rest.

On September 7, the Luftwaffe sent 348 bombers and 617 fighters against London—the war’s first “thousand-plane raid.” Fighter Command pummeled the 20-mile-wide wave of warplanes. On the 15th the Luftwaffe lost 80 airplanes versus RAF losses of 35 when 300 fighters hit its bomber force at a time when Luftwaffe pilots were being told they faced “the last 50 Spitfires.” The Battle of Britain didn’t officially end until October 31, but on that day it was as good as won.

  • Bad intelligence is worse than none at all. German info about Fighter Command was stunningly weak despite constant recon flights over England. Parked airplanes were misidentified. Bomber bases were tagged as fighter fields.
  • Don’t tie up your resources. When the Luftwaffe began losing bombers by the dozens, Göring demanded his Bf-109s cover the bombers, negating their usefulness as free-ranging scramblers.
  • Avoid multipurpose aircraft. The Messerschmitt Bf-110 was a twin-engine, long-range quasi-fighter that itself had to be escorted by Bf-109s.
  • Never underestimate an enemy’s production capacity. Göring seemed to assume that every Spitfire and Hurricane destroyed was one fewer for the RAF. But the Brits were repairing and building fighters faster than they were being shot down.
  • Don’t change horses midstream. If you’ve set out to defeat an air force, either do it, or go home to fight another day. The mid-September shift to attacks on London gave the RAF breathing room.
  • Don’t write checks you can’t cash. Göring vowed that Allied bombers would never breach Berlin’s cordon of flak guns. That they did forced Hitler to overreact and demand the destruction of London.
  • Billy Mitchell’s “the bombers will always get through” doctrine is wrong. Even though the RAF’s bombers were obsolescent and the Germans had the best medium-range bombers in the world, Brit fighters won the battle.

Originally published in the June 2008 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.


General Hoche proposed to land 15,000 French troops in Bantry Bay, Ireland to support the United Irishmen. As a diversionary attack to draw away British reinforcements, two smaller forces would land in Britain, one in northern England near Newcastle and the other in Wales.

In December 1796 Hoche's expedition arrived at Bantry Bay, but atrocious weather scattered and depleted it. Unable to land even a single soldier, Hoche decided to set sail and return to France. In January 1797 poor weather in the North Sea, combined with outbreaks of mutiny and poor discipline among the recruits, stopped the attacking force headed for Newcastle, and they too returned to France. However, the third invasion went ahead, and on 16 February 1797 a fleet of four French warships left Brest, flying Russian colours and bound for Britain. [ citation needed ]

Expedition forces Edit

The Wales-bound invasion force consisted of 1,400 troops from La Legion Noire, a partly penal battalion under the command of Irish-American Colonel William Tate. He had fought against the British during the American War of Independence, but after a failed coup d'etat in New Orleans, he fled to Paris in 1795. His forces, officially the Seconde Légion des Francs, became more commonly known as the Légion Noire ("The Black Legion") due to their using captured British uniforms dyed very dark brown or black. Most historians have misrepresented Tate's age, following E. H. Stuart Jones in his The Last Invasion of Britain (1950), in which Jones claimed Tate was about 70 years old. In fact, he was only 44. [2] : 76–77

The naval operation, led by Commodore Jean-Joseph Castagnier, comprised four warships - some of the newest in the French fleet: the frigates Vengeance and Résistance (on her maiden voyage), the corvette Constance, and a smaller lugger called the Vautour. The Directory had ordered Castagnier to land Colonel Tate's troops and then to rendezvous with Hoche's expedition returning from Ireland to give them any assistance they might need.

Of Tate's 1,400 troops, some 600 were French regular soldiers that Napoleon Bonaparte had not required in his conquest of Italy, and 800 were irregulars, including republicans, deserters, convicts and Royalist prisoners. All were well-armed, and some of the officers were Irish. They landed at Carregwastad Point near Fishguard in Pembrokeshire on 22 February. Some accounts report a failed attempt to enter Fishguard harbour, but this scenario does not seem to have appeared in print before 1892 and probably has its origin in a misunderstanding of an early pamphlet about the invasion. [2] : 78 The Legion Noire landed under the cover of darkness at Carreg Wastad Point, three miles northwest of Fishguard. By 2 a.m. on 23 February, the French had put ashore 17 boatloads of troops, plus 47 barrels of gunpowder, 50 tons of cartridges and grenades and 2,000 stands of arms. One rowing boat was lost in the surf, taking with it several artillery pieces and their ammunition. [ citation needed ]

Upon landing, discipline broke down amongst the irregulars, many of whom deserted to loot nearby settlements. The remaining troops confronted a quickly assembled group of around 500 Welsh reservists, militia and sailors under the command of John Campbell, 1st Baron Cawdor. Many local civilians also organised and armed themselves.

Volunteer infantry and cavalry Edit

Landowner William Knox had raised the Fishguard & Newport Volunteer Infantry in 1794 in response to the British Government's call to arms. By 1797, there were four companies totalling nearly 300 men, and the unit was the largest in the County of Pembrokeshire. To command this regiment, William Knox appointed his 28-year-old son, Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Knox, a man who had purchased his commission and had no combat experience.

On the night of 22 February, there was a social event at Tregwynt Mansion, and the young Thomas Knox was in attendance when a messenger on horseback arrived from the Fishguard & Newport Volunteer Infantry to inform the commanding officer of the invasion. The import of this news was slow to dawn on Knox, but, upon returning to Fishguard Fort, he ordered the regiment's Newport Division to march the seven miles to Fishguard with all haste.

Lord Cawdor, captain of the Castlemartin Troop of the Pembroke Yeomanry Cavalry, was stationed thirty miles away at Stackpole Court in the far south of the county, where the troop had massed in preparation for a funeral the following day. He immediately assembled all the troops at his disposal and set off for the county town of Haverfordwest along with the Pembroke Volunteers and the Cardiganshire Militia, who were on routine exercises at the time. At Haverfordwest, Lieutenant-Colonel Colby of the Pembrokeshire Militia had summoned together a force of 250 soldiers.

Naval crew and ordnance Edit

Captain Longcroft brought up the press gangs and crews of two revenue vessels based in Milford Haven, totalling 150 sailors. Nine cannon were also brought ashore, of which six were placed inside Haverfordwest Castle and the other three prepared for transit to Fishguard with the local forces. [3] Cawdor arrived, and in consultation with the lord lieutenant of the county, Lord Milford, and the other officers present, Lord Cawdor was delegated full authority and overall command.

The French moved inland and secured some outlying farmhouses. A company of French grenadiers under Lieutenant St. Leger took possession of Trehowel farm on the Llanwnda Peninsula about a mile from their landing site, and it was here that Colonel Tate decided to set up his headquarters. The French forces were instructed to live off the land, and as soon as the convicts landed on British soil, they deserted the invasion force and began to loot the local villages and hamlets. One group broke into Llanwnda Church to shelter from the cold, and set about lighting a fire inside using a Bible as kindling and the pews as firewood. [ citation needed ] However, the 600 regulars remained loyal to their officers and orders.

On the British side, Knox had declared to Colby his intention to attack the French on 23 February if he was not heavily outnumbered. He then sent out scouting parties to assess the strength of the enemy.

By the morning of 23 February, the French had moved two miles inland and occupied strong defensive positions on the high rocky outcrops of Garnwnda and Carngelli, gaining an unobstructed view of the surrounding countryside. Meanwhile, 100 of Knox's men had yet to arrive, and he discovered he was facing a force of nearly ten times the size of his own. Many local inhabitants were fleeing in panic, but many more were flocking into Fishguard armed with a variety of makeshift weapons, ready to fight alongside the Volunteer Infantry. Knox was faced with three choices: attack the French, defend Fishguard or retreat towards the reinforcements from Haverfordwest. He quickly decided to retreat and gave orders to spike the nine cannon in Fishguard Fort, which the Woolwich gunners refused to do. At 9 a.m., Knox set off towards his rear, sending out scouts continuously to reconnoitre the French. Knox and his 194 men met the reinforcements led by Lord Cawdor at 1:30 p.m. at Treffgarne, eight miles south of Fishguard. After a short dispute over who was in charge, Cawdor assumed command and led the combined British forces towards Fishguard.

By now, Tate was having serious problems of his own. Discipline among the convict recruits had collapsed once they discovered the locals' supply of wine. (A Portuguese ship had been wrecked on the coast several weeks previously.) Moreover, morale overall was low, and the invasion was beginning to lose its momentum. Many convicts rebelled and mutinied against their officers, and many other men had simply vanished during the night. Those troops left to him were the French regulars, including his Grenadiers. The rest mainly lay drunk and sick in farm houses all over the Llanwnda Peninsula. Instead of welcoming Tate's invaders, the Welsh had turned out to be hostile, and at least six Welsh and French had already been killed in clashes. Tate's Irish and French officers counselled surrender, since the departure of Castagnier with the ships that morning meant there was no way to escape.

By 5 p.m., the British forces had reached Fishguard. Cawdor decided to attack before dusk. His 600 men, dragging their three cannon behind them, marched up narrow Trefwrgi Lane from Goodwick toward the French position on Garngelli. Unknown to him, Lieutenant St. Leger and the French Grenadiers had made their way down from Garngelli and prepared an ambush behind the high hedges of the lane. A volley of muskets and grenades poured at close range into the tightly compressed column would have resulted in heavy casualties to Cawdor's men. However, Cawdor decided to call off his attack and returned to Fishguard due to the failing light.

French surrender Edit

That evening, two French officers arrived at the Royal Oak where Cawdor had set up his headquarters on Fishguard Square. They wished to negotiate a conditional surrender. Cawdor bluffed and replied that with his superior force he would only accept the unconditional surrender of the French forces and issued an ultimatum to Colonel Tate: he had until 10 a.m. on 24 February to surrender on Goodwick Sands, otherwise the French would be attacked. The following morning, the British forces lined up in battle order on Goodwick Sands. Up above them on the cliffs, the inhabitants of the town came to watch and await Tate's response to the ultimatum. The locals on the cliff included women wearing traditional Welsh costume which included a red whittle (shawl) and Welsh hat which, from a distance, some of the French mistook to be red coats and shako, thus believing them to be regular line infantry. [4]

Tate tried to delay it but eventually accepted the terms of the unconditional surrender and, at 2 p.m., the sounds of the French drums could be heard leading the column down to Goodwick. The French piled their weapons and by 4 p.m. the French prisoners were marched through Fishguard on their way to temporary imprisonment at Haverfordwest. Meanwhile, Cawdor had ridden out with a party of his Pembroke Yeomanry Cavalry to Trehowel farm to receive Tate's official surrender. Unfortunately the actual document has been lost.

After brief imprisonment, Tate was returned to France in a prisoner exchange in 1798, along with most of his invasion force.

Folk heroine Edit

A legendary heroine, Jemima Nicholas, is reported to have tricked the French invaders into surrender by telling local women to dress in the cloaks and high black steeple-crowned hats of soldiers. The British commander marshalled them into an approximation of military formation and they marched up and down hill till dusk, making the French commander think his soldiers were outnumbered. [5] [6] Nicholas is also said to have single-handedly captured twelve French soldiers and escorted them to town where she locked them inside St. Mary's church. [7]

Related naval action Edit

On 9 March 1797, HMS St Fiorenzo, commanded by Sir Harry Neale, was sailing in company with Captain John Cooke's HMS Nymphe, when they encountered La Resistance, which had been crippled by the adverse weather in the Irish Sea en route to Ireland, along with La Constance. Cooke and Neale chased after them, engaging them for half an hour, after which both French ships surrendered. There were no casualties or damage on either of the British ships, while the two French ships lost 18 killed and 15 wounded between them. [1] La Resistance was re-fitted and renamed HMS Fisgard and La Constance became HMS Constance. Castagnier, on board Le Vengeance, made it safely back to France.

Days of destiny: 5 key dates in the Battle of Britain

What are the key dates in the Battle of Britain? Kate Moore picks out five moments from that fateful summer, when a group of Allied pilots were engaged in desperate battles with their German foes, hoping to secure control of the skies and prevent a Nazi invasion of Britain

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Published: September 15, 2020 at 11:45 am

Following the collapse of France, the Luftwaffe had spent most of the latter half of June and early July 1940 preparing for the coming battle with the British. As Wintson Churchill electrified the nation with his soaring oratory, strengthened the resolve of the embattled British people and gave them hope, a small band of fighter pilots – just over 700 in total – would indeed act as that thin blue line of defence.

Tentative plans had been made for an invasion of England, codenamed Operation Seelöwe (Sea Lion), but Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, commander of the Luftwaffe, believed that his air force alone could bring Britain to her knees. Göring, however, failed to recognise that the campaigns in the Low Countries and France had taken their brutal toll, and the Luftwaffe could now only muster 1,380 bombers and 428 dive-bombers, nowhere near the 5,000 he liked to boast of in his propaganda.

Supplemented by 1,100 fighters, the Luftwaffe still enjoyed a numerical superiority of almost five to one over the British defenders. But Göring’s bomber pilots should have taken little comfort in this. They were simply ‘potential kills’ for Spitfires and Hurricanes, incapable of attacking the British fighters effectively themselves. If the British pilots were deployed correctly, then the dice would not be as heavily stacked against Fighter Command as is commonly believed. It all came down to how the imminent battle would be fought.

10 July 1940: the official start of the Battle of Britain

The battle began with the Kanalkampf, or Channel Battles phase, when the Germans launched sustained attacks against British shipping to prevent much-needed supplies from reaching the beleaguered British Isles. Such attacks had been taking place since late June, but early July saw a marked increase in the frequency and ferocity.

The tenth of the month was the date later chosen by the RAF as the official start date for the battle proper and this day certainly saw the largest dogfight fought over the Channel up to that point. By sundown the RAF had lost seven planes against the Luftwaffe’s 13. This was an astonishing rate of success for the outnumbered British fighter pilots. German losses should have sent alarm bells ringing within the Luftwaffe high command but instead they chose to believe their own inaccurate intelligence reports that claimed 35 British ‘kills’. It was a portent of things to come.

Explore the Battle of Britain and its wider context in the Second World War

13 August 1940: Eagle Day

With the outcome of the Kanalkampf phase of the battle inconclusive, Göring made plans for an all-out assault against Fighter Command on the British mainland. Codenamed Adlerangriff (Eagle Attack), it was due to commence on 13 August. Yet the weather was to throw German plans into disarray. Grey skies and mist forced the Luftwaffe high command to order a postponement, and when several bombers – unaware of the change in plans – arrived over England unprotected by their fighter escort, they were badly mauled. The Luftwaffe regrouped in the afternoon and, flying in better weather conditions, launched a determined assault.

Throughout August the airfields would come under virtually unremitting attack, causing devastating losses to fighters caught on the ground as well as support crew. But the Luftwaffe continued to rely on faulty intelligence, frequently attacking bases that were not operational fighter stations. A total of 87 RAF aircraft were destroyed on the ground on 13 August, but only one of these was from Fighter Command. Three British pilots were killed, while the Luftwaffe lost almost 90.

Fighter Command could take heart from its performance. The tactic of deploying in small numbers to prevent all available fighters being caught refuelling on the ground was paying dividends. However this policy required nerves of steel from the heavily outnumbered British pilots.

18 August 1940: The Hardest Day

Believing their attacks were decimating the much smaller force of Fighter Command, the Luftwaffe planned a series of ambitious assaults on key British airfields including Kenley, Biggin Hill, Hornchurch and North Weald. With the British pilots putting up a desperate defence, the attacks were soon reaping a grim harvest. In fact, 18 August saw both sides suffering their greatest number of losses so far: 69 German aircraft versus Fighter Command’s 29. It had been a terrible day but just one in an ongoing battle of attrition.

It is little wonder then that many pilots on the frontline of Britain’s defence were beginning to show the strain, as Spitfire pilot Alan Deere recalled: “You were either at readiness or you were in the air. It was pretty tiring. I was bloody tired, I can tell you very tired. My squadron, 54, I think we were down to five of the original pilots so were operating on a bit of a shoestring.”

Listen to historian James Holland describing how the Luftwaffe and RAF fought to control the skies over Britain in 1940, in a talk from our 2015 History Weekend at Malmesbury. He explains how Britain came out on top in one of the pivotal clashes of the Second World War:

7 September 1940: The Blitz begins

Dismayed by the failure to destroy Fighter Command and incensed by a British bombing raid on Berlin, Göring turned his attention to London. Now the citizens of the British capital would feel the full wrath of the Luftwaffe, and in the process either the RAF would be destroyed or the British government would be forced to the negotiating table.

British radar screens lit up as wave after wave of German bombers streamed towards London. It was an astonishing and terrifying sight, 350 Luftwaffe bombers accompanied by 617 German fighter aircraft.

Within an hour, every squadron in a 70-mile radius of the capital was either airborne or waiting to be scrambled. Fighter Command realised too late that the raid’s intended target was not its own airfields – and soon, bomb after bomb began to rain down on the docks, factories and houses below. The British were caught unprepared and lost 28 aircraft and 448 lives in the attacks. But once again there was no definitive result. Another test was required.

15 September 1940: Battle of Britain Day

A spell of bad weather had meant a delay in hostilities on Eagle Day. But 15 September dawned clear and bright. As the first German bombers began to appear one after the other, the British scrambled their fighter squadrons.

Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park, commander of No 11 Group, responsible for the defence of London, famously ordered all his aircraft into the air to defend the capital, abandoning his own policy of deliberate, smaller attacks by individual squadrons.

Drawing on reserves from No 12 Group to the north, the British fighters swarmed around the massed German formations, peeling the fighter escorts off into individual dogfights. It was a tactic that left the bombers unprotected – and they were soon falling in devastating numbers.

Park’s decision was absolutely critical. If the Germans had launched a second mass raid immediately after the first, British fighters would have been caught on the ground refuelling. But Park had banked on the Luftwaffe having no reserves, as was the case with Fighter Command. He took a huge gamble, but battles are not won by the timid. For months the Luftwaffe had believed that Fighter Command was on its last legs and all that was required was a final knock-out blow. As the Germans tallied up their devastating losses, it was clear that they had failed.

Kate Moore is the author of The Battle of Britain (2010), which was published by Osprey in association with the Imperial War Museum

The Battle of Britain: Timeline

The dates of the four phases of the Battle of Britain are contested by some, and have been inserted in brackets only as a guideline.

The order is given by Reichsmarschall Hermann Göering, head of the Luftwaffe, to draw the RAF into battle. Attacks are to be focused on coastal convoys, radar stations along the south coast, aircraft factories and RAF airfields.

The Kanalkampf: the German air force began running fights over convoys in the Channel, occasionally dive-bombing cargo ships. The aim was partly simply to be proactive, partly to give pilots training and partly for reconnaissance of British defences. Protecting the convoys took a huge toll on British resources and on the pilots, and led to the convoys being re-routed to avoid the Channel. Attacks on convoys continued until 12 August.

The Luftwaffe began laying mines around Britain. This would continue until early September.

Germany began their main raids across Britain, codenamed Adlerangriff (‘Eagle Attack’). This was a systematic assault on radar stations and forward fighter airfields. Adlertag, (‘Eagle Day’), was delayed until the 13th by bad weather. It opened with a series of attacks on coastal airfields used as forward landing grounds for the RAF fighters and progressed further inland during the week that followed, as well as making repeated attacks on the radar chain.

‘The Greatest Day’, otherwise known as ‘Black Thursday’ for the Luftwaffe. The greatest number of attacks of the Battle occurred on the 15th and 16th, concentrating on airfields: the RAF flew a total of 974 sorties and the Luftwaffe 1,786. Germany lost 75 planes to the RAF’s 30 – heavy casualties meant that this was to be the last outing of strength for Luftflotte 5 division.

Both sides saw their greatest losses of the Battle of Britain: for that, this day became known as ‘The Hardest Day’. The losses of the Germans’ Junkers 87 ‘Stuka’ – the main Luftwaffe precision-bombing weapon – were so severe that Göring withdrew them from the battle. Airfields in the South and South-East were bombed, with Kenley particularly badly damaged.

Between August 8 and the 18 the RAF had lost 175 aircraft, and the Luftwaffe 332.

Attacks began in earnest on aircraft factories.

Churchill made his famous speech to Parliament: ‘never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.’

Attacks were ordered on RAF airfields.

23/24 August:

Bombs were dropped over residential areas of London – some maintain mistakenly. Heavy night-time bombing raids continued until 15 September and to a lesser extent for several years.

After a lull forced by bad weather, and left with limited numbers of bombers, German tactics changed. Attacks were concentrated on the South-East, particularly airfields, and on knocking out Fighter Command. Fighting was now primarily between 11 Group and Luftflotte 2.

Fighter Command suffered its heaviest losses to date: Debden airfield was hit by 100 bombs. Six out of the seven main bases in South-East England had been heavily damaged, in some cases badly enough to severely restrict efficiency.

7 September:

The assault was switched to massed attacks on London, major cities, aircraft factories and other strategic targets. Nearly 400 bombers and more than 600 fighters targeted the docks in the East End of London, day and night. The Luftwaffe switched to night bombing to avoid the large numbers of fighters countering day raids.

15 September:

A massive attack on London saw inaccurate bombing due to the determined defence put up by RAF fighters – every single aircraft of 11 Group was used. The Germans suffered their highest losses since 18 August, forcing a reconsideration of tactics this day was subsequently chosen as Battle of Britain Day. From this point the Luftwaffe were forced to gradually scale down their attacks.

17 September:

The German land invasion, Unternehmen Seelöwe (‘Operation Sea Lion’), was called off until further notice, never to take place.

The last great effort of the German bombers: five raids were planned. One heading for London was engaged at 11am a second was intercepted and 12 fighter bombers shot down. Three raids totalling 112 fighter-bombers attacked Portsmouth.

Raids petered out as the weather worsened. Bombing of London had continued, and would continue, from September for several years. However this day is generally regarded as the final day of the Battle of Britain, and October the month in which regular bombing of Britain ceased.

The Blitz

Blitzkrieg – the lightning war – was the name given to the devastating German bombing attacks to which the United Kingdom was subjected from September 1940 until May 1941.

The Blitz as it became known in the British press was a sustained aerial attack, sending waves of bombs raining down onto British towns and cities. The attacks were carried out by the Luftwaffe and made up a larger campaign of attempting to destroy British infrastructure, cause devastation, destruction and lower morale.

Across the UK, towns and cities were subjected to the German bomber raids which, over the course of eight months resulted in 43,500 deaths of innocent civilians.

The planned campaign emerged from the failures of the German Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain which played out in July 1940. The battle itself was a military campaign fought in the air whereby the Royal Air Force successfully defended the United Kingdom from Nazi air attacks.

In the meantime the Germans had been successfully marching through Europe, overpowering the Low Countries as well as France. Within this context, Britain was facing a threat of invasion, although seaborne attacks seemed unlikely as the German high command had assessed the difficulties of such an assault. Instead, Adolf Hitler had been preparing Operation Sea Lion as part of a dual attack by sea and air which was subsequently foiled by RAF Bomber Command. Germany instead turned to night-time bombing attacks in a tragic episode of history called the Blitz.

The lightning war began on what became known as “Black Saturday”, 7th September 1940 when the Luftwaffe launched its attack on London, which was to be the first of many. Around 350 German bombers executed their plan and dropped explosives on the city below, particularly targeting the East End of London.

In just one night, London suffered approximately 450 fatalities and around 1,500 injured. From this moment onwards, the capital city would be forced to become shrouded in darkness as the German bombers launched a sustained attack for consecutive months.

Nearly 350 German bombers (escorted by over 600 fighters) dropped explosives on East London, targeting the docks in particular. The intention was to completely destabilise the economic backbone of London which included docks, factories, warehouses and railway lines, in a bid to destroy and weaken the infrastructure. The East End of London was now a main target for incoming Luftwaffe attacks, resulting in many children across the capital being evacuated to homes around the country in a bid to protect them from the dangers of the Blitz.

Within weeks of the first bombing raid executed on London, the attacks turned to night time bombing raids, increasing the fear and unpredictability. This was not just a physical act of destruction but a deliberate psychological tool.

When the air raid sirens sounded, Lononders would often be forced to sleep in shelters, either in underground stations running throughout the city or Anderson shelters built at the bottom of gardens in case a public shelter could not be reached in time.

Anderson shelters were able to provide a certain level of protection as they were made by digging a large hole and placing the shelter within it. Made out of corrugated iron, the defence was strong and provided nearby shelter as time was of the essence in many cases.

As part of the wider programme of dealing with night time attacks, “blackouts” were subsequently enforced, leaving cities in darkness in an attempt to hinder the progress of the Luftwaffe in spotting their targets. Sadly, the bombs continued to rain down on cities around the UK.

In the eight month period of bombardment, the docks would become the most heavily targeted area for civilians living in fear of attack. In total it is believed that around 25,000 bombs were dropped on the Docklands area, a statement of German intention to destroy commercial life and weaken civilian resolve.

London would remain a primary target throughout this phase of the war, so much so, that on 10th to 11th May 1941 it was subjected to 711 tons of high explosives leading to approximately 1500 dead.

Across the country however, a similar picture was beginning to unfold as the Blitz was an assault on the entire United Kingdom. There were very few areas left unaffected by the devastation wrecked upon towns and cities up and down the country. The ominous sound of the air raid siren became a sadly familiar sound as it echoed through the streets warning the public of incoming dangers.

In November 1940, an offensive began against cities around the country, provincial or otherwise and areas where industry was believed to be. The only lull in attacks came in June the following year when the attentions of the Luftwaffe were drawn to Russia and new targets emerged.

In the peak of activity in November 1940, the Midlands city of Coventry was subjected to an horrific attack which resulted in huge loss of life and a complete destruction of infrastructure which would forever change the blueprint of the city. The medieval Coventry Cathedral was amongst the casualties on that fateful night on 14th November. The ruins of a once magnificent historic building were left behind as a poignant memory of the atrocities of war.

Winston Churchill visits the ruins of Coventry Cathedral

Such was the scale of the destruction suffered by the people of Coventry that a new verb was used by Germans from that night onwards, Koventrieren, a terminology used to describe a city raised to the ground and destroyed.

A similar picture of horror played out in other cities across the UK including Birmingham which was struck by raids in three consecutive months, successfully destroying a critical epicentre of industrial activity, the Birmingham Small Arms factory.

During the same year, it was Liverpool that would be the second most targeted area besides London, with the docks serving as the principle focus whilst the surrounding residential areas were left completely destroyed. In the first week of May 1941, the bombing in Merseyside had reached such proportions that the raids continued every single night, resulting in fatalities of up to 2000 people, not to mention the astronomical numbers of people made homeless.

Liverpool Blitz

Meanwhile, in Manchester heavy raids were executed around the Christmas period with significant landmarks destroyed, including Smithfield Market, St Anne’s Church and the Free Trade Hall. Unfortunately many Manchester firemen were still fighting the inferno burning in Liverpool. As Merseyside was ablaze, the bright flames of wartime destruction provided a useful point of reference for the bombers making their way to Manchester.

Port cities and epicentres of industry were always the main targets during the Blitz, with a similar fate suffered by many locations across the UK including Sheffield, known for its steel production and the port of Hull. Other Luftwaffe attacks were launched on port cities around the UK including Cardiff, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Southampton, Swansea and Bristol. In Britain’s great industrial heartlands, the Midlands, Belfast, Glasgow and many others saw factories targeted and transportation lines disrupted.

Whilst eight months of bombing took its toll on the civilian population of Great Britain, it did not significantly hinder the functioning of the wartime economy. The continued bombing did not stop war production from continuing, instead the British were forced to carry out production in different areas whilst locations were rebuilt. The speed and organisation of the wartime effort was maintained against all odds.

Wartime poster

In light of this stoicism against the horrors of war, the “Blitz Spirit” emerged as a way to describe the characteristics of the British civilian population soldiering on in a crisis. No slogan better sums up this spirit than “Keep calm and carry on”. The desire to uphold a certain level of morale was the main aim of the game, to continue life as normal and follow procedure.

The efforts of the civilian population can thus not be underestimated as they played a crucial role in protecting and rebuilding their cities. Many organisations such as the Auxiliary Fire Service and the Women’s Voluntary Services for Civil Defence played a vital role in keeping things moving in a time of great upheaval.

By May 1941, night time attacks were decreasing as Hitler turned his attention elsewhere. The Blitz had become a period marred by destruction, death, casualty and fear, but it did not lessen the resolve of people or crucially destroy wartime production.

The Blitz will forever be remembered as a crucial episode of the Second World War, a time when people needed to stick together, help each other and resolve to continue life as best they could. This is why the Blitz remains a vital part of British and global history and will be remembered for many years to come.

Jessica Brain is a freelance writer specialising in history. Based in Kent and a lover of all things historical.


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