July 1940: Thebattle of britain will succeed the Battle of France, lost a month earlier. France is occupied while in London General De Gaulle tries to mobilize resistance. Hitler, free in the East thanks to the German-Soviet Pact, now faces only England. But it is that of Winston Churchill and not of Chamberlain that he decides to bring to his knees by an unprecedented bombardment, which will reveal British courage and make the Royal Air Force a legendary place.
Operation Sea Lion
The plan to invade England was suggested, it seems, by Admiral Raeder, whom Hitler had commissioned as early as May 1939 to prepare a long-lasting economic war to suffocate the United Kingdom by the maritime blockade. . It was therefore following the surprise success of the Sedan breakthrough in May 1940 that Raeder, perhaps alerted by the difficulties of a long war at sea against the British navy, suggested an invasion of England, taking advantage of the rapid defeat of France, which would save months in view of the planned attack on the USSR. Hitler is seduced and gives the orders accordingly.
Obviously, the German staffs (especially the German navy and army) had already thought about this possibility as early as 1939, but the difficulty of the task had seemed almost insurmountable to them. In any case, the RAF had to be destroyed before thinking about a possible landing of troops. And the destruction of the British air force would possibly render an invasion pointless anyway ...
Logically, following Admiral Raeder's proposal, it is the German navy which is once again working on this project. However, it was not until the end of June 1940 that the General Staff and Hitler himself took a real interest in it, preferring it to that of too costly economic war (and not only in time). The idea, developed by Jodl among others, is to combine an attack intended to crush the RAF with an offensive against British supplies; thus, the British population would give in and the landing would only be the last act of a battle already won in the air and at sea.
Fairly quickly, however, the Kriegsmarine began to express some reservations; but that doesn’t stop Jodl from continuing to come up with several more daring plans. It is he who gives his name to the operation: Löwe (Lion), which becomes Seelöwe (Sea lion). Faced with the procrastination of Raeder, who was the initiator of the idea of an invasion, it was logically the RAF's rival, the Luftwaffe, which took the lead. Growing impatient, Hitler orders the operation to be completed by mid-September! While Raeder and several army officers advise the Führer to postpone the attack until the following year and to prefer an offensive in the Mediterranean, Hitler insists and demands that the Luftwaffe crush the RAF; it will be Operation Eagle. Despite the uncertainty of the outcome of the air war and the still questionable usefulness of a landing, preparations continued until September 1940 ...
RAF against Luftwaffe: the air fleets in presence
Before tackling the Battle of Britain itself, it is interesting to review the materials used, which will be crucial, perhaps as much as the strategic decisions. The Luftwaffe is intoxicated by its remarkable victories in Poland and France, where it has taken over enemy airplanes without much difficulty. It relies on modern aircraft, superior to (almost) all the competition.
- - the hunt: the main Luftwaffe fighter during the Battle of Britain is the Messerschmitt-109, said "Emil", armed with two 7.9 mm machine guns and two 20 mm cannons. It is very fast (575 km / h) and fairly manoeuvrable, but has a small radius of action. The other hunter, Goering's favorite, is the Messerschmitt-110 : heavily armed (two 20 guns, four 7.9 machine guns, one 7.9 mobile machine gun), with a good range, it is however unwieldy against enemy fighters.
- - the bombers: the Junkers-87, known as “Stuka”, terrorized the French and Polish armies and populations; Armed with a 500 kg bomb or four bombs of 50 and one of 250, he is supposed to do the same to the British. The Junkers-88, German medium bomber in every sense of the word, must be used for a wide variety of missions, including as a reconnaissance aircraft; its versatility is therefore its strong point. The Dornier-17 and 215 are of lesser quality, the first being the veteran (he fought in the Spanish Civil War), both having insufficient bombing capabilities. The Heinkel-111, on the contrary, is the standard bomber of the Luftwaffe; however its range is limited for a bomber that has become heavy, but thought of as medium. And there is probably not enough "flying fortress" to protect against enemy hunting ...
The Royal Air Force, meanwhile, has essentially two aircraft and a third "weapon" at least as decisive during this Battle of Britain. The planes first: the Hurricane is the first and most widely used RAF fighter; he specializes in the interception of bombers. The Spitfire, he, who will become one of the stars of battle (and war), is able to compete with the M-109 : also fast, it is more manageable and better armed than the German fighter. But at the start of the Battle of Britain, the Spitfire are still relatively few in the RAF.
The other decisive weapon of the RAF, we will come back to it, is the radar.
The Luftwaffe goes on the offensive
While the first weeks of the war had been relatively calm in the English skies, the hasty flight from Dunkirk marked the start of real hostilities between the RAF and the Luftwaffe. From the start of June 1940, the German air force attacked England: around thirty bombers targeted airfields. The end of the offensive on France caused a lull, but immediately after the armistice operations began again, especially at night.
The speed of France’s defeat and England’s refusal to make peace prompted Hitler to speed up Operation Sea Lion, and especially its preparation by annihilating the RAF. From mid-July, the Luftwaffe attacked convoys across the English Channel, testing the already tense British fighter. These are only the beginnings of the great aerial attack which England must undergo.
At the beginning of August, the Luftwaffe can line up some 3,000 planes (including a little over 1,000 Me-109 and 300 Me-110). On the English side, we can advance around 450 hunters Hurricane and Spitfire, but progress is significant and by the second half of August, the RAF can oppose its enemy more than 700 operational fighters and a little less than 300 in reserve. We'll soon be talking about the thousand pilots who saved England… and more.
The British defense system
The weeks between the evacuation of Dunkirk and the start of the Battle of Britain allowed the British command not only to increase its number of fighter jets, but also to organize its defense system. The hunting groups are redeployed, and above all the radar network is extensive. This new instrument is still relatively untrained and in its infancy, but the RAF staff have already understood its importance. Despite recurring weaknesses, especially in manpower, Air Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding can also rely on Coastal Command and Bomber Command. However the goal of the latter, with its bombers (around 350 aircraft, mainly Blenheim), must be confined to attacking German aerodromes and ports, where the future landing fleet is stationed.
The RAF's problem in this Battle of Britain is ultimately more about initiative: the latter obviously falls to the Luftwaffe, while the British air force can only react defensively. The radar is there to partly compensate for this British disadvantage. Fortunately for England, the defensive system is very well developed and has to react to a German offensive which is finally quite improvised because of Hitler’s impatience, who wants Operation Sea Lion to be successful in September.
Hitler finally agreed to attempt agreat operation against England, first with a massive air attack, then with an invasion with Operation Otarie, despite doubts as to its usefulness if the Luftwaffe was successful. England is ready to respond to German aircraft, thanks to its thousand pilots and theirHurricane andSpitfire, but also thanks to a new "weapon", the radar. Its people do not yet know that they too will pay a heavy price.
It was August 10 and the next few days that Goering planned for the end of the RAF, at least in the south of England. In the first days of August, the British therefore understood that air operations would begin: the German objectives were mainly the airfields, targeted by theStuka, as well as radar stations. But on August 12 the losses were 31 planes for the Germans and 22 for the British, while only one radar station was destroyed and the airfields were quickly rehabilitated!
August 13 marked "Eagle Day": Kent and the Thames Estuary were attacked, followed by Hampshire, Dorset and Wiltshire. Three English airfields were badly affected, but none housed fighters. The same night, a bombardment severely damaged a production plant ofSpitfire near Birmingham. In more than a thousand sorties, the Luftwaffe lost 45 planes, the British only 13. The Germans then see a success in this “Eagle Day”: they think they have destroyed 300 enemy fighters, whereas it is finally three times less…
The RAF wins the air battle
The following days, the raids continued with the Stuka always leading the bombers. But the English fighter responds with violence, and the limits of the German light bombers, but also of theMe-110 start to be felt againstHurricane and especially theSpitfire. And the results of the bombings are generally unsatisfactory.
August 15 shows a rise in German attacks: on this day, the Luftwaffe carried out more than 500 bombers and 1270 fighter sorties! They lose 75 aircraft, against 34 for the RAF. The next day, they hit the airfields, with some success, but still suffering more casualties than the British.
The first round is finally won by the RAF: contrary to German estimates which see them around 300, Dowding still has 600Spitfire andHurricane ; his hunt destroyed more than 360 German aircraft! After another unsatisfactory raid on August 18 and a period of lull due to bad weather, the Luftwaffe decided to change strategy. She abandons the use of the Stuka, martyred by theSpitfire, and focuses on more inland goals.
The London Blitz
While quantitatively the success is on the British side, the mood is not at its highest at Dowding headquarters. The production of fighters did not compensate for the losses, nor did the training of British pilots. At this rate, and even inflicting ever greater losses on the Luftwaffe, victory is not assured.
The British did not know, however, that their enemies were also limited in time by their desire to launch Sea Lion in mid-September. So you have to hit hard to make the opponent fold. First, we increase the number of escorts around the bombers. Then we change the objectives: the factories of the fighters are hit harder, just like the airfields of these same fighters. The beginning of September then begins to turn to the real test for the RAF: it must face more and more bombers, escorted by more and moreMe-109. Even before September 5, 380 German planes and 286 English fighters were shot down! The English hunt is undergoing increasingly worrying wear and tear. Now is the time for the Germans to tackle a new target: London.
The Luftwaffe's objective is twofold: to intensify air combat to further wear down the RAF; to disorganize it, but also the British government by attacking it to the heart. In addition, the Reich wants to respond to a British raid on Berlin, launched following ... a German bombing error on London! The fact that Berlin was hit when Goering had sworn that the capital was inaccessible further strengthens the determination of the Luftwaffe ...
On September 7, 1940, 300 bombers escorted by 600 fighters set fire to the English capital. The Londoners then called the attack the "Blitz", in reference to the Blitzkrieg suffered by their French allies. On the German side we are convinced that the coup de grace is approaching, and that the landing will be able to take place. But the British side also feared the imminent invasion, and attacks on German ports intensified.
Time is on the Luftwaffe
The bombardment of London continued the following days (and nights), calmed only by a few bad weather and by the courageous reaction of the English hunt. But time is on for the British: Operation Otarie needs ten days to be launched after the actual crash of the RAF, and this is not yet certain despite the casualties. Hitler wanted this invasion to take place in mid-September; he gave the Luftwaffe a further delay, but bad weather set against him, preventing further massive raids on September 12 and 13. Finally, the landing is scheduled for September 27, the last favorable tide day for weeks. Meanwhile, Bomber Command raids on German barges are getting more and more results ...
On September 15, the English chase greatly reduced a new raid attempt on London, aided by radars which spotted enemy waves from afar and allowed a better organization of the response. Other English cities (Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol,…) were hit, again without much success. It was yet another setback for Goering's Luftwaffe, and even the deadliest day in the Battle of Britain on the German side.
The Battle of Britain, a turning point in the war?
It is now certain that the Luftwaffe will not be able to annihilate the RAF in the allotted time. And with the RAF still standing, the invasion of England is unthinkable. On September 17, Hitler therefore decided to postpone Operation Otarie. Barely a month later, on October 12, 1940, he postponed it until the spring of 1941. In the meantime, he will have had other concerns ...
The Führer’s order does not mean the end of the Battle of Britain, however. Furious, Air Marshal Goering continued the raids over the following weeks, always with London as his prime target. But still the famous English weather, made up for the good days by the RAF, continued to weaken the German raids, despite the suffering suffered by the civilians. Between September 7 and September 30, 1940, the Luftwaffe lost more than 400 aircraft against 242 to its British counterpart! Hitler’s decision on October 12 buried Goering’s hopes, and at the same time, plans to invade Britain.
The victory of the latter is clear and brings some elements for the future: its people displayed a courage and tenacity which would become legendary; its pilots showed skill and heroism, aided by a sacred Spitfire one of the conflict's best fighters; the radar becomes an essential instrument of war.
However, England suffered greatly: many of its experienced pilots perished, but it was mostly civilians who suffered German wrath. During the month of September, most of the centers of the big British cities are hard hit. The month of November sees the intensification of the bombardments on civilian areas, not necessarily industrial, with for example the martyrdom of Coventry on November 14. Until May 1941, the British population mourned the deaths of 40,000 of their own in these bombings.
The end of the Battle of Britain and the Blitz was ultimately due to the opening of the Eastern Front in the spring of 1941, and the Soviet resistance that followed. The Battle of Britain, fought by barely a thousand RAF pilots (including 400 dead in action) is the first setback experienced by Germany, long before El-Alamein or Stalingrad. The success of Operation Sea Lion in September 1940, as desired by Hitler, would have enabled the Reich to throw all its forces into the battle of the East, and we can assume without fear of getting too lost that the outcome of the second world war would undoubtedly have been very different ...
- P. Falcon, The Battle of Britain (1940), Economica, 1999.
- The Last Enemy: Battle of Britain, June 1940-May 1941, by Richard Hillary. text message, 2010.