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Battle of Britain

Overview The Battle of Britain was one of the major World War II battles. The battle was waged in the skies over the English Channel and England's eastern and southern coast in 1940 and 1941. World War II had broken out in Europe, and Adolf Hitler was determined to subjugate England. The main combatants were the United Kingdom and Germany. The German plan was to unfold in several phases, but all efforts toward that end ultimately failed. The reasons for the failure are just as interesting as the battle itself.

Hope for American Isolationism came to an end with the Battle of Britain. By the end of 1940, most Americans had come to realize that war was inevitable. By the beginning of July 1940, the British Royal Air Force (RAF), had built up its strength to 640 serviceable fighters, but the Luftwaffe (German air force) boasted 2,600 bombers and fighters.

Background In England, a Royal Warrant formed the Royal Flying Corps on May 13, 1912, superseding the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers. The Royal Naval Air Service was formed shortly after the outbreak of World War I. Both services saw heavy action during that conflict. The two services were amalgamated on April 1, 1918, to form the Royal Air Force (RAF). The RAF was under the supervision of the Air Ministry and was the world's second-largest independent air force, after the German Luftwaffe. On February 26, 1935, Hitler ordered World War I flying ace, Hermann Göring, to rebuild the German air force, the Luftwaffe (literally, air weapon, pronounced looft-vaaf-fa) in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles. In August 1941, U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill met aboard a cruiser anchored off Newfoundland to craft a proclamation that became known as The Atlantic Charter. In it, they vowed not to pursue gains, "territorial or otherwise;" to honor the right of every country to determine its own form of government; to ensure freedom of the seas; and to carry on peaceful global trade. Following a Roosevelt speech on January 6, 1941, Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act, which allowed the American government to supply war matériel to any country at war with the Axis powers. Britain became the main recipient.

As the chief British defense strategist, Churchill refused to countenance an armistice with the Nazis. A master of rhetoric, the prime minister hardened British public opinion against a peaceful resolution with Germany, having foreseen Nazi aggression as imminent and unavoidable. German forces nearly cornered the bulk of the British army, which had retreated to Dunkirk in Northern France. Following the British army's great escape across the English Channel from Dunkirk, there was a lull that allowed the British to prepare for defense against the Germans. The British organized a well thought-out air defense system that included the newly developed Radar, (Radio Detection and Ranging). Observer Corps posts stood all over the country. Their job was to report air raids once they had crossed the coast and were behind the radar. Strategically positioned Barrage Balloon posts were notified of an impending attack. The balloons impeded the attacking aircraft by causing them to either veer from their course or increase elevation, which reduced their bombing accuracy.

England faced a wide arc of German air power. Luftflotte (Air Fleet) No. Five was based in Norway, headquartered at Stavanger; Luftflotte Two was in Northern France, Belgium and Holland, headquartered at Brussels; and Luftflotte Three occupied bases in the remainder of France with their headquarters in Paris. A German Luftflotte controlled both fighters and bombers in combined operations, but the RAF had separate commands for the two tasks. Above the three Luftflotte organizations, there were a number of units controlled directly by the office of Reichsmarschal Göring in Berlin. They were largely weather and reconnaissance units, and operational standards organizations. The two based in the Battle area were based at Brest and at Brussels.

Operation Sea Lion A month after the Fall of France in June 1940, when the Germans believed they had already won the war in the West, Hitler ordered preparation of a plan to invade Britain. Operation Sea Lion (Unternehmen Seelöwe) was the result. The Führer hoped to frighten Britain into peace before the invasion was launched, and he used the invasion preparations as a means to apply pressure. The plan was prepared by the OKW (Armed Forces High Command). The operation was scheduled for September 1940 and called for landings on Britain's south coast, backed by an airborne assault. All preparations were to be made by mid-August. The plan was never carried out. Operation Sea Lion was deeply flawed, suffering from a lack of resources — particularly sea transport — and disagreements between the German navy and army brass. In any event, Churchill refused to start peace talks, so more direct measures of reducing British resistance were conceived in an effort to finish the war in the West. The Battle and the Blitz The Battle of Britain, from the British perspective, raged from July 10 to October 31, 1940. German sources begin the battle from mid-August 1940 through May 1941, when Göring ordered withdrawal of the German strategic bomber aircraft used over England.

The Battle of Britain was the longest and largest sustained bombing campaign yet attempted by any government. A total of 1,715 Hawker Hurricanes flew with the RAF Fighter Command during the battle, far in excess of all other British fighters combined. Having entered service a year before the Spitfire, the Hurricane was slightly older and was markedly inferior in terms of speed and climb. However, the Hurricane was a robust, maneuverable aircraft capable of sustaining fearsome combat damage before ending its useful life; and unlike the Spitfire, it was a fully operational, go-anywhere do-anything fighter by July 1940. It is estimated that Hurricane pilots were credited with four-fifths of all enemy aircraft destroyed in the period of July through October 1940. In the autumn of 1940, Hitler, having grown impatient with the failure of the Luftwaffe to destroy the RAF, ordered a switch to bombing major British cities. Known by the British as The Blitz, the change of strategy was intended to demoralize the people and destroy industries. The Battle of Britain would continue until October 31, 1940, but after September 15th, most raids were conducted on a far smaller scale. The Blitz continued with constant night attacks for 57 consecutive days after September 7, but the bombing of British towns and industrial centers continued until 1944. Records report that 2,944 pilots took part in the historic battle, of whom 497 lost their lives. Those that have no known grave are remembered on the RAF Runnymede Memorial near Windsor. The Battle of Britain marked a turning point. Its outcome ensured the survival of an independent Britain and represented the first failure of the German war machine.