In the summer of 1940, when the Nazi war machine marched its way through Europe and targeted Britain, the RAF was preparing for the worst.
Young men in their late teens or early twenties were trained to fly Spitfires and Hurricanes for the upcoming Battle of Britain, while others flew Blenheims, Beaufighters and Defiants, becoming the “aces” that would secure the country’s freedom from Hitler’s grip .
But Britain’s defiance came at a cost. Of an estimated crew of 3,000 pilots, roughly half survived the four-month battle, with 544 Fighter Command pilots and crew among the dead, more than 700 from Bomber Command and nearly 300 from Coastal Command falling to secure the British skies.
The losses were high, but the Germans, who thought they could exterminate the RAF in a few weeks, lost more.
2,500 air force crews were killed in the battle, forcing German air command to reconsider how easily Britain would fall victim to an invading Nazi occupation force.
The pilots, who gave everything in the aerial combat for British freedom, were called “The Few” after a speech by Sir Winston Churchill who said: “The Few”. “Every home on our island, in our empire, and indeed around the world, is grateful to the British aviators who, fearless of adversity, untiring in their constant challenge and mortal danger, turn the tide of world war by their skills and by their own Dedication.
“Never before in the realm of human conflict has so much been owed by so many or so few.”
“Never before in the area of human conflict has so much been owed by so many or so few” (Photo: An aerial photo of Spitfires)
After the fall of France on the Axis in May 1940, the German high command considered how best to advance the battle across the English Channel to take Britain out of the fight.
Until mid-July, the German campaign consisted of relatively small day and night air raids on cities, airfields, ports and the aircraft industry.
But the Air Force was in full readiness to step up attacks on ships and ports and eliminate the RAF in the air and on the ground.
After the Allies were defeated on mainland western Europe, the German Air Force set up bases near the canal to make it easier to defeat Britain, and hastily built the infrastructure necessary to coordinate an air conflict with Britain.
At the beginning of the Battle of Britain, the Royal Air Force always shot down more Axis aircraft than it lost, but British fighters were often overwhelmed by the greater number of enemy aircraft.
Pictured: One of the most iconic images of the summer of 1940 and the battle over Dunkirk, with F / Lt Ellis of Squadron 610 leading his detachment in DW-O, Sgt Arnfield in DW-K and F / O Warner in DW-Q
The fighting in France and Norway had weakened the British squadrons when the time came to protect the homeland from Nazi occupation. However, as the year progressed, the strength of the RAF forces increased, and more pilots, aircraft and squadrons were made available.
The Air Force launched an increasing campaign of daylight bombing attacks targeting strategic targets like ship convoys, ports and airfields – and looking inland for RAF squadrons to exhaust them.
German air units also stepped up night strikes in the west, midlands and east coast, and targeted the aircraft industry with the aim of weakening the UK’s central defense system, particularly that of Fighter Command, in preparation for a full-scale air strike in August.
Heavy losses were suffered on both sides.
The main attack by the Luftwaffe against the RAF called “Adler Tag” (Eagle’s Day) was postponed from August 10 to three days later due to bad weather.
Hawker Hurricane aircraft of No 111 Squadron RAF in Northolt in flight formation, circa 1940
Pictured: The Squadron 610 fighter pilots, a unit that experienced some of the most intense dogfighting in World War II (captured between September 17-19, 1940 at RAF Acklington, Northumberland).
The Germans’ plan was to get the RAF Fighter Command to leave the south-east of England within four days and completely defeat the British Air Force in four weeks.
The Air Force fought ruthlessly to exhaust the Fighter Command with ceaseless attacks on ground facilities that were being moved further inland. Airfields in southern England have been exposed to intense daylight attacks, while night attacks have targeted ports, shipping destinations and the aircraft industry.
Despite severe damage to the south, Fighter Command continued to push its way against the Germans in a series of air battles, inflicting critical losses on the enemy who believed the RAF was exhausted by the time.
Both sides feared being exhausted by the constant engagement.
Pictured: German plans to invade Britain if naval and air superiority is achieved
The focus of the German attacks then shifted to London, where the RAF would lose 248 and the Luftwaffe 322 between August 26 and September 6.
By September, London had become the main target of Air Force aggression, with large-scale attacks carried out around the clock by large bomber formations with escorts.
The German air command still hadn’t exhausted the RAF as it had hoped, and the British forces continued to battle their German counterparts, with the Jagdkommando pushing back Hitler’s forces and postponing German invasion plans.
By October, it had become clear to the Germans that the RAF was still very much intact, and the Luftwaffe was striking Britain with single-engine modified fighter-bombers that were difficult to catch on entry and still dangerous on the way out.
By the middle of the month the German strategy had gone from exhausting the RAF to a ruthless bombing campaign against the government, civilians and the war economy – with London still the main target.
However, from November onwards, London became less of a target and the Battle of Britain turned into a new conflict – the lightning bolt.