On September 1, 1939 at 4.45am one and a half million German troops crossed the Polish border and moved swiftly towards Warsaw. At the same time, German air forces bombed Polish airfields and German warships attacked Polish naval forces in the Baltic. This was the start of World War Two.
Two days after the invasion of Poland began, Britain and France, as promised in the Anglo-Polish military alliance signed on March 31, 1939, declared war on Germany. During these desperate early days of the most devastating military conflict the word has ever known, the military might of Hitler’s Germany was to prove too much for the ill-prepared French and British forces, and all attempts to slow the German war machine ended in failure. France’s first counter-offensive into Germany’s Saarland between the French border and the Siegfried Line began on September 7, and hopes were high that German defences in the west would be weak while the Polish offensive was underway in the east. However, on September 21 the commander of the French forces General Maurice Gamelin, after learning that Poland had fallen and fearing that large numbers of German reinforcements would become available in the west, ordered his armies to retreat to their starting positions on the Maginot Line. This was the start of what would become known as the Phoney War, an eight-month period during which there would be some minor incidents and skirmishes between the opposing forces but no all-out war. The British Expeditionary Force was sent to France to assist in the battles that were sure to come.
On May 10, 1940 the Phoney War ended with the German invasion of Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg. On the same day, Winston Churchill took over from Neville Chamberlain as British prime minister, and the Battle of France began. By the end of May, 198,000 men of the British Expeditionary Force and 140,000 French troops had been driven back to the coast by German forces and had to be rescued from Dunkirk.
On June 18 Winston Churchill addressed the House of Commons in London and announced “…the Battle of France is over. The Battle of Britain is about to begin.”
On June 25 the French surrendered and Hitler did indeed turn his attention to Britain. After the heavy losses of men and equipment at Dunkirk he believed Britain would negotiate, but as it became clear that the British would never make peace, and in view of his plan to invade Russia in the summer of 1941, he decided that Britain needed to be removed as a threat on the western front as soon as possible. Invasion of Britain was the only option. Hitler knew that naval and air superiority over the English Channel and the proposed landing sites would be necessary before any invasion could begin, so he asked his military leaders to come up with a plan.
The Royal Air Force was officially founded on April 1, 1918 and was an amalgamation of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service. At the time it was the most powerful air force in the world. In the wake of World War One, in the belief that Britain would not be involved in another major war for at least ten years, the RAF’s strength dropped to a low of 371 aircraft in 1923. However, in realisation of the need to at least match the strength of the French air force, the RAF fortunately was built up during the remainder of the 1920s, and then a major expansion took place after Hitler came to power in 1933 and the threat of Nazi aggression became real.
The existence of the German Luftwaffe was officially announced in 1935 and by 1939 it had become the most technologically advanced air force in the world. In the summer of 1940, it could deploy 1029 fighters, 998 bombers, 151 reconnaissance planes and 80 coastal planes. At the same time the RAF had 900 fighters, 560 bombers and 500 coastal planes.
On July 10, 1940 the Luftwaffe began attacking British supply convoys in the English Channel for the first time, marking what the British would come to recognise as the official start of the Battle of Britain and thrusting the Royal Air Force onto the frontline of the fight to save Britain from Nazi tyranny. The first official casualty of the battle was Sergeant Ian Clenshaw of 253 Squadron who was killed when his Hurricane crashed while on a dawn patrol. The first pilot lost in action was Flying Officer Peter Higgs of 111 Squadron who was killed when his Hurricane collided with German Dornier Do 17 during an air battle near Folkestone.
On July 14, BBC correspondent Charles Gardner positioned himself on the White Cliffs of Dover where he had a grandstand view of the air battle raging over a convoy in the English Channel. He reported the events as if he were watching a football match and the recording of his commentary has become a prominent feature of Battle of Britain history. At one point he described what he believed to be a German pilot descending in a parachute after being shot down by the RAF. It turned out the badly wounded man was Pilot Officer Michael Mudie of 615 Squadron RAF who had bailed out of his damaged Hurricane. Mudie was rescued by the Royal Navy but died of his wounds the next day.
In the remainder of July and into August casualties were suffered on both sides but unseasonably bad weather prevented the Germans, and by this time some Italian air force units, from carrying out many of their planned raids. On August 11 the Battle of Portland began and many men and machines were lost on both sides. The naval base at Portland was a frequent target for the Germans but on this day particularly heavy fighting occurred. During the battle, Flying Officer Dick Demetriadi was seen chasing an enemy aircraft near the city of Swanage with fuel leaking from his damaged Hurricane. Demetriadi failed to return to base and, despite a search led by his commanding officer Squadron Leader the Honourable Edward Ward, he was never found. On the same day, Flight lieutenant Robert Jeff was last seen diving to attack an enemy aircraft off Portland Bill but was never heard from again. He had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar and the French Croix De Guerre for his bravery earlier in the war. Due to the actions of Demetriadi and Jeff and the other heroes of the RAF on that day, the Portland naval base survived.
August 15, 1940 became known to the Germans as “Black Thursday”. Throughout the Battle of Britain, German commanders had been hampered by faulty intelligence, and on this particular day inaccurate information about Britain’s air capability would have a devastating effect. The Germans believed that the British air defences had been considerably weakened and that the RAF could no longer defend the country effectively. Large numbers of bombers were sent on raids over Britain to lure the remaining RAF fighters into the sky where they could be destroyed by German fighters, but the waves of German aircraft were met with heavy resistance. A large raid sent from airfields in Denmark and Norway was intercepted near the Farne Islands by Spitfires of 72 Squadron led by Flight Lieutenant Ted Graham. Other squadrons soon joined the fight and the attacking force was decimated. By the end of the day, the RAF had flown 974 sorties, 34 British aircraft had been lost and 17 men had been killed. The Germans had flown nearly 2000 sorties and lost 183 aircraft. The day the Germans called “Black Thursday” became known in Britain as “The Greatest Day”.
The pilots of the Battle of Britain came from many nations besides Britain. Men from 15 countries fought alongside the British pilots of the RAF, among them men from Australia, Barbados, Belgium, Canada, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic and Slovakia), France, Ireland, Jamaica, Newfoundland (at the time a separate dominion within the British Empire), New Zealand, Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), Poland, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and the United States. While all the pilots involved in the battle served with distinction and the battle as a whole produced 188 Aces (pilots with five or more confirmed kills), the battle also produced eight Triple Aces (pilots with 15 or more kills). They were Flight Lieutenant Eric Lock (UK) with 21 kills, Squadron Leader Archie McKellar (UK) with 19 kills, Sergeant James Lacey (UK) with 18 kills, Sergeant Josef František (Czechoslovakia) with 17 kills, Flying Officer Brian Carbury (New Zealand) with 15 ½ kills, Flying Officer Witold Urbanowicz (Poland) with 15 kills, Pilot Officer Colin Gray (New Zealand) with 15 kills and Pilot Officer John McGrath (UK) with 15 kills. All of these men achieved Triple Ace status between July 1 and October 31, 1940. Many added more kills after the Battle of Britain, but only five would survive the war. Josef František was killed in a crash on October 8, 1940, Archie McKellar was shot down and killed on November 1, 1940 (just one day after the official end of the Battle of Britain) and Eric Lock crash landed in the English Channel after his Spitfire was damaged by ground fire on August 3, 1941. He was never seen again.
The Battle of Britain officially ended on October 31, 1940 after three and a half months of intense air battles with the Allies losing 1547 aircraft and suffering 966 casualties, including 522 deaths. The Germans and Italians lost 1887 aircraft and suffered 4303 casualties including 3336 deaths.
On August 15, 1940 an emotional Winston Churchill, having witnessed the dramatic events of “The Greatest Day” in Fighter Command HQ at Bentley Priory, was moved to coin a phrase that would define the Battle of Britain forever:
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
The pilots of the battle have since then been known as The Few.