"The first major campaign fought entirely by air forces"

One of the most famous conflicts in British history was the Battle of Britain, which took place from the 10th of July until the 31st of October 1940. This was a mainly aerial battle between the Royal Air Force and the German air force, the Luftwaffe – although many on the ground also found themselves caught up in the conflict as well. Both sides suffered heavy losses in both pilots and aircraft. While the RAF claimed to have shot down more than 1,600 German aircraft, the number of fighters destroyed by the Luftwaffe was closer to 600.


Kent, England, 3 September, 1940 "Battle of Britain". Hop pickers' children from the East End of London are hiding in a slit trench at the edge of a field (possibly Beltring Hop Farm) whilst watching a dog fight overhead during the Battle of Britain. 

Photo by John Topham (for 'Life' magazine), this was his most famous image. It was used in a propaganda campaign alongside the slogan "Help England And It Won't Happen Here" which helped to convince millions of Americans to join the war against Nazi Germany.


After the German victory in the Battle of France, the Luftwaffe reorganized and rebuilt after suffering significant losses – they had already tangled with RAF Hurricane fighters during the Battle of France and often come off second best. With the surrender of France though, came to capture of the many French airfields and they now had in their possession a number of bases which were on the French coast – and only a few miles from the English mainland.

Hitler now looked to subduing the United Kingdom which – despite the bulk of its army escaping the German clutches thanks to Operation Dynamo – looked more vulnerable than it had ever been and ripe for conquest. Hitler knew that the British army needed time to rebuild – it had been forced to abandon much of its equipment at Dunkirk as it escaped. That just left the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force and Hitler decided that if he was able to gain air superiority over British skies, he could prevent either force from interfering with his invasion of Great Britain – Operation Sealion.

He just needed to destroy the RAF first…

Luftwaffe Strategy

During the Battle of Britain, German air forces attempted to destroy RAF formations to gain air superiority. Hitler believed it was impossible to invade Britain without destroying the RAF, but they also wanted to obliterate ground infrastructure, destroy aircraft production, and terrorize the British people into surrender.

The menacing sight of German Me 110 aircraft patrolling the English Channel.

Andy Saunders/BNPS

The Luftwaffe made sporadic attacks on Britain during the months of June and July with the first large-scale attack taking place on 18 and 19 June with 100 bombers taking part. In the early part of the summer, the Luftwaffe concentrated its attacks on ports, shipping operations, and other British infrastructure.

From mid-July onwards, the Luftwaffe turned its attention inland, focusing its attack on RAF airfields and communication centres in south-eastern England. The Germans believed that the RAF was near its breaking point.

Hugh Dowding

A major factor in the Luftwaffe’s failure was the organisation and leadership of the Head of RAF Fighter Command, Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding.

His serious and sombre exterior hid a keen, tactical mind and one which had the fortitude to persevere with his defensive strategy, even when the RAF faced its darkest days in 1940.

He carefully guarded his limited fighter force, rotating tired or worn-down squadrons, ensuring there was a constant supply of replacement aircraft and maintaining a steady stream of newly trained pilots to fill any gaps (even if many of those new pilots lacked sufficient experience in a fighter aircraft – given the situation, many were forced to ‘learn on the job’.) 

Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding.

Paul Crickmore/BNPS/Richard Molloy

The Dowding system

Aiding Dowding and his pilots was a clever invention known as Radar – a word common to all in the twenty-first century, but in 1940 a relatively new invention.  

Additionally, the Royal Observer Corp had countless numbers of keen eyes continually scanning the skies over Britain, ready to report any sightings of incoming German aircraft.

The ‘Dowding system’ was the world's first wide-area ground-controlled interception network, controlling airspace from northern Scotland to England's southern coast.

It used a widespread dedicated land-line telephone network to rapidly collect data from Chain Home (CH) radar stations and the Royal Observer Corps (ROC) to create a single image of the entire UK airspace and then direct defensive interceptor aircraft and anti-aircraft artillery against enemy targets.

The Royal Air Force developed the system shortly before the outbreak of World War II, and it proved crucial in the Battle of Britain.

This illustration shows the Dowding reporting chain for a highlighted Sector. ROC reports flow back through the Sector controls to FCHQ; it does not show the radars, which were still officially secret when this was published. Information then flows back from FCHQ to Group, between groups, and down to Sectors, and then to the defences.

UK Air Ministry

Two sections of Spitfires from 65 Squadron, making up a flight of six aircraft, on a training flight as they prepared to take on the Luftwaffe.

Paul Crickmore/BNPS/Richard Molloy

Phases of the Battle

  • 26 June – 16 July: Störangriffe ("nuisance raids"), scattered small scale probing attacks both day and night, armed reconnaissance and mine-laying sorties. From 4 July, daylight Kanalkampf ("the Channel battles") against shipping.
  • 17 July – 12 August: daylight Kanalkampf attacks on shipping intensify through this period, increased attacks on ports and coastal airfields, night raids on RAF and aircraft manufacturing.
  • 13 August - Adlertag ("Eagle Day") the first day of Unternehmen Adlerangriff ("Operation Eagle Attack").
  • 13 August – 6 September: Adlerangriff ("Eagle Attack"), the main assault; attempt to destroy the RAF in southern England, including massive daylight attacks on RAF airfields, followed from 19 August by heavy night bombing of ports and industrial cities, including suburbs of London.
  • 7 September – 2 October: the Blitz commences, main focus day and night attacks on London.
  • 3–31 October: large scale night bombing raids, mostly on London; daylight attacks now confined to small scale fighter-bomber Störangriffe raids luring RAF fighters into dogfights.

A German Dornier Do 17 after crashing into a house during the Battle of Britain

However, the constant fighting took its toll on the Luftwaffe bombers, with increasing numbers being shot down or damaged. And its fighter force of Messerschmitt 109’s and 110’s was unable to assert their dominance over the RAF Spitfires and Hurricanes. And virtually every German airman who was forced to bail out of their aircraft, either ended up in the English Channel or on English soil, with either scenario making it unlikely they would take any further part in the fighting.

In contrast, RAF pilots who bailed out were often back flying into combat again a few hours later.

Oberleutnant Johannes Wilhelm at Chichester Railway Station en-route to the "london Cage" after being shot down on 18th August 1940. After bailing out he was covered in oil from his JU-87 Stukas engine. The aircraft then plummeted into Chichester Harbour.

RJM Colourisations

A Messerschmitt Bf 109E-1 piloted by Oberleutnant Paul Temme after being shot down on the morning of 13th August 1940, crashing at New Salts Farm, beside Shoreham aerodrome, Sussex, England. Temme had been flying a mission escorting bomber as part of Jagdgeschwader 2.
Having problems with his engine, Temme got left behind by the rest of his formation and while going to the assistance of a straggling Junkers Ju 88, was shot down. Temme was found to have a tin of chocolate containing 2% caffeine and eight Pervitin pills which were meant to strengthen resolve if the pilot came down in the sea. He was believed to have been shot down by Sgt J. P. Mills in a Hurricane of No. 43 Squadron.

Aircrew Remembrance Society

It was hard for them to gain air supremacy over Britain. As a result, the Luftwaffe's air offensive was forced to shift to night raids, which caused many civilian casualties and immense hardship. However, they did little to further the main goal of the air offensive - dominating the skies ahead of the invasion.

The Pilots

Royal Air Forces Association

Pilots scramble for their Hurricanes during the Battle of Britain.