This year marks the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. As the first major campaign to be fought entirely by air forces, the battle featured the largest and most sustained aerial bombing campaign up to that time. The showdown also marked the first defeat of Nazi military forces and proved to be the turning of the war.
So for all you gamers, here’s some new ammo to fuel your brain and impress your friends with 10 lesser-known facts about the Battle of Britain.
10. Operation Sea Lion
After conquering France in June 1940, Adolf Hitler next set his sights on toppling Great Britain. The elaborate invasion hinged on quickly establishing air superiority to deliver a crushing blow and bring the war to a decisive end.
Codenamed Operation Sea Lion, the Germans intended to land 160,000 soldiers along a forty-mile coastal stretch in southeast England — but first needed to secure control of the skies. British ground forces dug in, mounting a defensive position along its southeastern shores as the RAF met the challenge above.
Beginning on July 10, 1940, the two sides engaged in a fierce struggle that continued over the next 112 days. Relentless German bombing raids would inflict severe damage but battered, and bruised defenders refused to break. Meanwhile, Hitler became increasingly frustrated, forcing him to eventually abandon the plan and re-strategize for a more prolonged and bloody conflict.
9. Prelude To Plunder
The Spanish Civil War presented Germany with an ideal opportunity to test their warplanes in combat and give its pilots invaluable experience. Under the supervision of Nazi commander Hermann Göring, the German Legion Condor conducted multiple raids in Spain on the side of General Francisco Franco’s Nationalist forces.
The Legion, operating with full autonomy, consisted of four bomber squadrons and four fighter squadrons and supported by ground anti aircraft and anti tank units. In addition to bombing major cities like Barcelona and Guernica, small villages were also decimated solely to provide target practice for Junkers Ju 87 “Stuka” dive bombers.
The attacks, which frequently killed women and children, served as inspiration for the famous painting, “Guernica” by Pablo Picasso. The large colorless mural features several motifs, illustrating what the artist later said, represented “darkness and brutality.”
8. Missed Opportunities
The Luftwaffe began its assault on British targets by primarily focusing on shipping convoys, shipping centers, and RAF airbases. However, German intelligence failed to identify strategically important production factories — a critical mistake that allowed the British to maintain aircraft production levels and replace their losses.
German hubris also played a significant role throughout the campaign. At the start of the battle, the Luftwaffe had a combined force of more than 2600 fighters and bombers while the British countered only 640 fighter planes.
Subsequent raids on factories and British cities produced widespread destruction, but the rapid depletion of Luftwaffe fleets became increasingly unsustainable in terms of lost equipment and workforce. The shift in momentum allowed British forces to transition from a defensive position to launching offensive sweeps over the English Channel and the coast of Nazi-occupied France.
7. Rock You Like A Hurricane
Featuring its trademark elliptical wings and powerful Rolls Royce Merlin engine, the Spitfire emerged as the iconic symbol of the Battle of Britain. But the sleek fighter’s bulkier, less sexy sibling, the Hawker Hurricane, would become the steadfast workhorse and ultimately claim more victories, shooting down 640 German planes.
The Hurricane’s traditional medal and wood framework created a sturdy, rugged plane that could be easily maintained and repaired. Moreover, ground crews needed only nine minutes to re-arm and refuel — compared to 26 minutes for the more intricate and temperamental Spitfire.
By September 1940, the RAF had 33 Hurricane squadrons operational. The aircraft typically saw action in sorties against enemy bombers while the faster Spitfire tangled with the Luftwaffe’s fighter squadrons.
6. Tale of the Tape
The Messerschmitt Bf 109E and Spitfire Mk.1, not unlike a pair of well-matched boxers in the ring, went toe to toe as the best fighters of their respective air forces. High flying duels produced epic dogfights and made national heroes out of the top aces, whose tactics and skills became the stuff of legend.
At the start of the war, the Bf 109 held a slight advantage in speed at higher altitudes as well as a more effective armament of two cannon and two machine guns. The more experienced German pilots (see #9) bolstered the Luftwaffe’s edge. In response, Spitfires were able to counterpunch with a tighter turning circle, giving pilots the ability to outmaneuver their German rivals.
By the end of the clash, the RAF lost 1,023 aircraft while destroying 1,887 German planes. It’s also worth noting that the Spitfire was the only British fighter to be continually manufactured before, during, and after World War II.
5. “With a Little Help From My Friends”
Both fans and critics alike have long debated the meaning of The Beatles 1967 hit song, offering interpretations that range from loneliness to friendship to illegal drugs. But the beloved track by the lads from Liverpool could just as easily apply to the RAF’s support from the pilots of 15 other nations.
While most of the nearly 3,000 airmen who took part in the Battle of Britain were British subjects, the RAF consisted of an international force, featuring top guns from Ireland, Poland, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, South Africa, Belgium, France, and Czechoslovakia. The lot also included the famous American Olympic bobsled champion, Billy Fiske.
Spirited competition among the men fuelled impressive results. Number 303 Fighter Squadron, comprised primarily of Polish airmen, didn’t enter the battle until the end of August but eventually became Fighter Command’s highest claiming unit with 126 kills.
The home of Arsenal Football Club became an Air Raid Precautions (ARP) center at the start of World War II. Best known as “Highbury” for the district in North London where it was located, the stadium first opened in 1913 and, for the next 93 years, hosted the powerhouse Gunners as well as other competitions such as boxing, cricket, and rugby. But when the war descended on the capital city, the venue took on the expanded role of protecting civilians from the danger of enemy air-raids.
ARP stations (later renamed the Civil Defence Service) were organized by the national government and monitored by local volunteers known as Wardens. Highbury then paid the price when bombs destroyed the North Bank stands and much of the terracing on the famous “Clock End.” The damage forced Arsenal to play their wartime home fixtures at nearby White Hart Lane, home of bitter rivals Tottenham Hotspur until Highbury re-opened in 1946.
3. Young Guns
Most wars rely on the blood, sweat, and courage of young men. The defenders of British soil were no different and averaged approximately 20 years old. Such was the case of top ace, “Paddy” Finucane, who would earn his spurs in 1940 and eventually became the youngest wing commander in RAF history.
Born in Dublin in 1920, Finucane later relocated with his family to London as a teenager. He joined the RAF at minimum age requirement of 17 and a half and went on to record 30 kills in his infamous “Flying Shamrock” Spitfires before being killed in 1942. The Irishman’s story is even more remarkable when considering his father once fought against the British during the Easter Rising of 1916.
2. Wonder Women
As the RAF patrolled the skies over the UK, tens of thousands of volunteers played a significant supporting role on the ground below. Women’s contributions were especially vital for filling posts in military hospitals and munitions factories and serving in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF).
Founded in 1939, WAAFs performed a variety of critical roles such as radar operators, engineers, mechanics, translators, and working in intelligence. Their presence also allowed RAF personnel to report for front line duties — a crucial cog in the war machine as attrition took its toll throughout the war.
1. The Few (added words)
On August 20, 1940, at the peak of the Battle of Britain, Prime Minister Winston Churchill delivered a speech to the House of Commons. The address would immortalize the harrowing efforts of the RAF with the passage, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
Churchill rehearsed the presentation while traveling in a car with his good friend and chief military assistant, General Hastings “Pug” Ismay. The PM initially began the famous line, “Never in the history of mankind… ” until Ismay interjected: “What about Jesus and his disciples?” “Good old Pug,” replied Churchill, who quickly revised the wording to “Never in the field of human conflict… “
Ever since then, the fighter jocks who took part in the struggle have been referred to as “The Few.” Their sacrifice, then and now, will never be forgotten.