The summer months of 1940 saw World War II reach the English skies as the Royal Air Force heroically fought off the endless attacks of Hitler’s Luftwaffe. After a phase known as the ‘Phoney War’, Hitler had ordered his forces to invade several other European countries and they met minimal resistance in Belgium, Holland or France.
Operation Dynamo saw about 300,000 men of the BEF plucked to safety by a flotilla of boats who made crossing out of England to Dunkirk over a number of days. So now Hitler had his sights on England. The white cliffs of Dover were clearly in view as the German High Command gazed across the English Channel from Calais.
Having said that, until the skies over England were under German control, Hitler couldn’t authorise Operation Sealion – the invasion of UK. With America being reluctant to participate in the war at this stage and her Allies vanquished, Britain would need to face the Germans on their own.
Could Britain hold on until the autumn after which the weather would ward off the Germans from crossing the Channel? The country’s hopes was in the hands of the fearless airmen of the RAF, “The Few” as Churchill later referred to them. It was not exclusively British pilots in the Royal Air Force, the Commonwealth was represented with airmen from an assortment of colonial outposts such as South Africa and Rhodesia as well as Poles and even a couple of Americans.
Hitler directed his bombers over to pound UK into submission however most importantly, their fighter escorts merely had the fuel for only a few minutes battle before they would have to go back home leaving the bombers unprotected. For the very first time, the Luftwaffe came up against solid resistance and there was to be no repeat of their quick victories on the Continent. The British airfields in the south east were taking a beating till one night in August 1940, a German bomber got lost and dropped its bombs over London before heading for home. In retaliation, the RAF conducted an air raid over Berlin.
Hitler was furious and instructed the Luftwaffe to bomb London in place of the RAF airfields. This was a key turning point as it offered the Royal Air Force some much called for relief. The Luftwaffe was unable to gain the initiative at any point and in mid September, Hitler indefinitely postponed Operation Sealion. The risk of invasion was over and Churchill spoke of the contribution of Fighter Command in a widely recognized speech “Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few”.
The number one fighter ace was Sgt Frantisek from the Czech Republic with a score of 17 kills. He flew in a Hawker Hurricane which was the true workhorse of Fighter Command but everybody remembers the iconic Spitfire. Sgt Frantisek was killed in October 1940.
The Battle of Britain was the first time the Germans had suffered a military defeat during World War II.