80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain

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Five days ago marked the 80th anniversary of the start of the Battle of Britain, a World War II air battle that if lost would have changed the world as we know it today.

It was indeed a pivotal battle in the long war that many people today still remember living through, so much so that when doing a show on stage here in Canada we had to have the sound effects of the German planes. They still knew the sounds of the German Luftwaffe’s Heinkel He 111 and Junkers Ju 88 bombers and Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters.

After the Dunkirk evacuation of British and allied forces from Europe and Adolph Hitler’s blitzkrieg invasion of France – and its surrender – Britain realized they were the last bastion from which to fight Hitler’s Germany. This was when Winston Churchill on June 18 announced, “I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin… Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”

Hitler had not expected Britain to fight. He had presumed Britain would agree to a compromising peace settlement, so much so that the German army believed their war was over and leave was granted. Hitler believed they were bluffing and would realize “her militarily hopeless situation.” By July 2nd he realized Britain would not lay down and roll over and they would have to invade England. But he had never prepared for a cross-channel invasion and needed time to collect barges and ships to move troops.

It was decided that the Luftwaffe, under Air Marshall Hermann Goring, would prepare for the invasion by wiping out the Britain’s shipping and defence. Then bomb the people into easy submission for the now planned September invasion.

On July 10th, last Friday 80 years ago, the Battle of Britain began, slowly at first, destroying mostly shipping, then escalating to destroying the ports. The Germans had about 1,200 bombers and dive-bombers, 900 single-engine fighters and 300 twin-engine fighters. These planes were based in an arc on their captive European shores. (The numbers had been depleted during the Battle of France.) The British readied their 600-plus fighter planes to defend the country. (There is inconsistency on the actual number of planes on both sides, depending on your source.)

When hearing about the Battle of Britain, many people envision the iconic photo of St. Paul’s Cathedral dome surrounded by smoke from German incendiary bombs, but that didn’t occur until December 29th that year. That was not the Battle for Britain, that was the blitzkrieg (blitz) against London.

The Battle of Britain occurred from July 10 to Sept. 7, 1940. Three and a half months. It was probably the length of time Hitler thought was needed to subdue the country for the invasion, but instead it was in fact the length of time needed for him to realize he could not invade the country!

Britain had a large network of Observation Corps. People watched the skies 24 hours a day, sighting and plotting enemy aircraft, then phoning locations to the RAF. Britain also had a new invention – radar. Together they proved a formidable defence.

Although the RAF had fewer planes than the Germans, their Hawkers and Spitfires were superior aircraft in the skies giving them another slight edge against the enemy. Although an island, Britain also had the strength of the Commonwealth for manpower and supplies.

So, they fought from July when Germany attacked coastal targets and shipping operations in the English Channel. Aug 13th, the attacks moved inland to the RAF airfields and communication centres. The critical strike came August 31 when Britain’s Fighter Command suffered its worst day of the entire battle, when the Luftwaffe attacked Fighter Command Airfields, which were damaged but managed to remain operational.

The Luftwaffe misjudged the attacks, overestimated the damage, and concluded the end of the RAF was near, so Sept. 7 they switched their targets from the RAF fields to blitz London, which was a big mistake for the airfields then had time to clean up, repair and get more planes in the air shooting down more bombers faster than Germany could make them.

On Sept. 3, Hitler had delayed the invasion to Sept. 21, but on the 19th the ships that had gathered to invade were told to disperse. Oct. 12th, he announced it would be delayed until spring but when spring came Hitler made his second big mistake and that was invading Russia instead of Britain.

The switch to bomb London on Sept. 7 marked the end of the Battle to invade Britain and the beginning of nightly (and many daylight) bombings that lasted eight months, devastating London and other cities. Thus, began the Blitz.