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Battle Of Britain Essay, Research Paper

The Battle of Britain: A Wave of Resistance Amid a Sea of Darkness

As the cold hand of death swept over the remnants of France, British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, orated on the imminent battle that would rage over his homeland and the foreboding struggle for survival that was now facing Britain:

The Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin? The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad sunlit uplands. But if we fail, the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ?This was their finest hour.?(Hough, Richard. The Triumph of R.A.F. Fighter Pilots. New York: The McMillan Company, 1971. 9-10).

The Battle of Britain was greatly affected by pre-war circumstances, separated into four phases and carried consequences that would affect the rest of World War II.

The outcome of the Battle of Britain was greatly dependant upon the circumstances, politics and preparedness of each opposing side for the impending battle that was to be fought. The map of Europe was awash in Nazi red as the German army moved closer towards its goal of domination:

Adolph Hitler had conquered almost all of Europe by astute diplomacy, threat or bloody invasion. Wherever he had attacked he had conquered. In May 1940, Germany invaded Belgium, Holland and France. There were short, savage battles. The Luftwaffe swept the skies clear of the enemy, German soldiers and tanks were triumphant. The United States of America, though sympathetic to Britain, was still neutral, and did not believe that the British nation could survive for long. At the headquarters of the British War Cabinet, Winston Churchill gazed at the map of Europe, and what he saw would have chilled the heart of a man with less courage and patriotism than he possessed. To the north and west of Britain was open sea. To the northeast, east and south, the whole of the European coastline – Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium and France ? was in German hands. (Hough 11-12).

To Britain, the outlook of the imminent siege of its homeland appeared hopeless. With the enemy surrounding the last stronghold of the Allies, the odds against Britain were extremely in the favor of the opposition:

?Britain not only faced an enemy ten times as powerful as she was on land and more than twice as powerful in the air. Invasion appeared imminent and inevitable. On July 16, Adolf Hitler issued a directive ?As England despite her hopeless military situation, still shows no sign of willingness to come to terms, I have decided to prepare, and if necessary carry, a landing operation against her. The aim of this operation is to eliminate the English motherland as a base from which war against Germany can be continued?? (Hough 13).

Like the mouth of a leviathan opening to consume a lone minnow on the open sea, the German forces faced an enemy that was not only surrounded on three sides, but one that still tasted the rancid bile of defeat at Dunkirk. The Germans planned an extensive assault on Britain that would attack them from the air and on the ground that was code named Operation Sealion. Len Deighton confirms that the plans for British invasion were not complete until three days after the confirmed start of the battle when he wrote, ??Not until 13 July did the German General Staff lay before Hitler their draft plans for ?Operation Sealion? the invasion of Britain?(Deighton, Len. Battle of Britain. New York: George Rainbird Limited, 1980. 79). The plan would allow for the German army to form into two army groups. Army Group A was to be divided into two subgroups. One would land on the right, near Ramsgate, while the other landed on the left. Army Group B would meanwhile undertake an independent mission that would blaze a path from Cherbourg to Lyme Bay. 120,000 men and 4,500 horses while being protected by 650 tanks would initially back the invading force in Army Group B. To allow for the protection from enemy flank attacks as they blazed forward, paratroopers were used to ensure proper rear coverage. The next wave would consist of three armored divisions, three motorized divisions, and nine infantry units, which were then to be followed by eight infantry divisions. After establishing a safe beachhead, Army Group B was to seize a large path of the eastern portion Great Britain and to cut a path that would forcibly cut off London from the rest of the nation (Deighton 80). Germany?s plan for separation and conquer all depended on the politics behind Britain?s preparedness for war and the control of the air.

Great Britain entered the war with varying levels of preparedness due to many factors. Winston Churchill, in a speech to Parliament, pointed out the susceptibility of Britain?s defense and the increasing risk Germany was posing on the world as they increased their military strength to Parliament in the years before the war in hopes of persuading them to see the need for an increase in defensive forces in Britain:

We are a rich and easy prey. No country is so vulnerable and no country would better repay pillage than our own?Yet when this government, this peace-loving government, makes this modest demand upon Parliament?and feel driven by this duty to ask for additional security, what is the attitude of the opposition? They have the same sort of look of pain and shocked surprise which came over the face of Mr. Bumble when Oliver Twist held out his little bowl and asked for more?If Germany continues this expansion and if we continue to carry out our scheme, then, sometime in 1936, Germany will be defiantly and substantially stronger in air than Great Britain?Once they have got that lead we may never be able to overtake them. (Mason, Travis K. Battle Over Britain. New York: Doubleday and Company Incorporated, 1969. 80).

Even though the imposing threat of Germany was clearly pointed out by Winston Churchill, an opposing critic, Mr. Clement Attlee followed the popular view that Britain should, ?deny the need for increased armament?(Mason 80). The then current administration, led by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, also felt that an increase in defensive force was not the best path to choose:

Chamberlain believed that he could save Britain from war by acting as a diplomatic broker, maintaining peace by redressing grievances with negotiation and compromise. In the 1930?s this policy of appeasement was supported by the Chiefs of Staff. Chamberlain flew to a series of meetings with Hitler to broker a settlement, while at the same time coordinating policy with the French and keeping up the same pressure on the Czech President Benes to sacrifice land for peace. The product for these efforts was the Munich Agreement, which transferred the Sudetenland to Germany under international supervision and averted war. The Agreement was met with public euphoria in Britain, most of the press regarded it as a triumph for Chamberlain.( Donnelly, Mark. Britain in the Second World War. New York: Routledge, 1999. 6-7).

The policy of appeasement sought a compromise with Germany in hopes of pleasing Hitler. Britain, felt war had been averted and felt no need for an increase in armament. Though publicly accepted as the popular opinion before the war, Winston Churchill still defied public opinion and tried to persuade Parliament of the ever-increasing German risk before the war:

Germany is already well on her way to become, and must become, incomparably the most heavily-armed nation in the world and the nation most completely ready for war?.We cannot have any anxieties comparable to the anxiety caused by German rearmament. (Deighton 38).

Even as early as four years before the outbreak of World War II, British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, spoke to the House of Commons on why Britain was ill-prepared to meet the German threat:

I tell the House… frankly? neither I nor my advisers had any idea of the exact rate at which production could be, and actually was being, speeded up in Germany in the six months between November and now (May). We were completely misled on that subject?. There has been a great deal of criticism?. About the Air Ministry as though they were responsible for possibly an inadequate programme, for not having gone ahead faster, and for many other things?. I only want to repeat that whatever responsibilities of the Government as a whole, and we are all to blame. (Deighton 39).

After Churchill?s repeated warnings of Germany?s rearmament, it is apparent that there was a slight shift in policy toward the preparedness of Royal Air Force. The British government increased spending for the Royal Air force from17.5 million British pounds in 1934 to 73.5 million British pounds in 1938. The increase in spending alone could not prepare Britain for war without an appropriate plan of action. One man, Sir Thomas Inskip, proposed the switching of plans and showed that Winston Churchill was not the only one to recognize how lacking Britain was in terms of war forces:

Then in December 1937, Scheme J was suddenly checked. Sir Thomas Inskip, Minister for the Coordination of Defense, argues that it would cost too much and provided too few fighters. After prolonged argument, in April 1938 the Cabinet accepted Scheme L, by which the RAF would reach a strength of 1,352 bombers and 608 fighters by April 1940. Airmen claim that Inskip was a poor minister who forced these measures through at a cost of severe delays in creating a heavy-bomber force merely for financial and political reasons, because fighters cost less than bombers. But in reality, it was Inskip?s insistence on higher priority for fighter production that gave Fighter Command the tiny margin of strength by which it was able to achieve victory in 1940. Inskip deserves to be remembered as one of the true victors of the Battle of Britain.(Deighton 38).

Increased production indeed helped Britain?s effort to prepare for war, but upon entering it, many of their planes were lost trying to save their allies from being consumed by the German wave. General Dowding, Chief of RAF Fighter Command, recognized this as a lost effort and appealed to the better senses of the Air Ministry:

He put his case forward forcibly at a Cabinet meeting, illustrations with graphs that if the present rate of attrition continued for a further two weeks the RAF would not have a single Hurricane left in France ? or in Britain! He followed this with his now famous and courageous letter to the Under Secretary of State for Air, setting out his fears and asking for the Air Ministry to commit itself as to what it considered the level of strength needed to defend Britain. This in itself won him few friends in high places but it eventually did the trick. Shortly afterward came the order from Winston Churchill that no more fighters would leave the UK, whatever France?s need.( Franks, Norman. Battle of Britain. New York: Gallery Books, 1981. 11).

Mark Donnelly summarized Britain?s hastened attempts to prepare for war when he wrote, ?In the spring and summer of 1939 Britain made preparations for a war that was increasingly unavoidable; rearmament was accelerated, air-raid shelters were built and conscription began? (Donnelly 7). The British were lucky to have been as prepared as they were. Because of a few unpopular opinions that exposed the imminent threat, Britain?s policy of appeasement and compromise was put to an end. Had Britain heeded warnings years before the war, the scarcity of planes would not have been a problem when Britain started to commit its planes to the defense of its allies. After committing numerous squadrons to France, Britain determined it was a lost cause. Only after Britain had lost a significant number of planes and pilots in France and as Germany?s scope was set across the channel, did they realize that while invasion was plausible, control of the air and supremacy of air would determine the outcome of the Battle of Britain.

It was now clear to both Britain and Germany that supremacy of the air was essential to an invasion if it were to succeed. Control of the air became paramount:

On 30 June Goering issued a preliminary instruction: ? as long as the enemy air force is not defeated, the prime requirement is to attack it?by day and by night, in the air and on the ground?.? It was understood that Hitler himself would give the word for the major air onslaught against Britain. But in the July weeks that followed Goering prepared to embark on a private war against the RAF over the channel. By attacking British shipping, he could force Fighter Command into a battle of attrition that must soften them up for the knockout to come. The Luftwaffe stood to win glory and to lose nothing. Hitler and his other service chiefs acquiesced passively. They too saw a battle over the channel as a cheap, useful demonstration of Germany?s might. The orders were given for the overture to the Battle of Britain. (Deighton 81).

Britain?s Royal Air Force was largely dependant on the two planes, the Hawker Hurricane and the Super Marine Spitfire. The Hurricane was equipped with heavy armor that was built to handle damage and could absorb more damage than the Spitfire but at the cost of speed and maneuvering. It flew about fifty miles per hour slower than the Spitfire and responded less accurately to controls. The Spitfire was disputably the greatest aviation machine in World War II. No other outmatched its speed and control. Both planes were equipped with one engine that was produced by Rolls Royce (Hough 17-20). The German Air Force, or the Luftwaffe, had a wide array of bombers and fighters. The most heavily used bomber by the Germans was the JU-87 Stuka. It dove vertically and dropped a devastating array of bombs. The German fighters who protected their squadrons of bombers consisted of BF-109 and the BF-110. The BF-109 was a single-engine plane whose main advantages were the rate of speed at which it dived and the rate of acceleration. Though extremely fast, the BF-109 traded in handling and maneuverability at high speeds and was at a disadvantage against British fighters at close range. The BF-110?s were the twin-engine version of the BF-109. Their main objectives were to attack fighters and to protect the Stufkas and other German bombers. Because of the added weight the second engine added, the maneuverability was reduced and would thus be a constant casualty in the Battle of Britain. (Hough 16) The pilots who operated each side?s planes had their pro?s and con?s as well. German fighter pilots and bombers were considered some of the best in the world. They had an excellent accuracy rate of fire. The main flaws of these world-class pilots were their world-class attitudes. They had a sense of self-confidence that teetered on superiority complex. This expectation of complete and total supremacy in the air created a drastic drop in morale when the Royal Air Force would fill the sky with planes just as quickly as the Luftwaffe would shoot them down. The RAF pilots were just as well trained as the Germans yet lacked the accuracy and discretion of the Luftwaffe. The RAF would stick to the formation until the squadron leader would give an order. This left no room for the discretion of the pilots under the squadron leader making them more susceptible to being ?jumped? or surprised by the German Air Force. (Hough 17-24) Germany?s underestimation of the RAF would allow the British to exploit and wiled this confidence to their advantage:

(Germany) They were justifiably scornful of the risk to Germany from the RAF?s bombers, but recklessly confident that their own would do better: ?In contrast, the Luftwaffe is in a position to go over to decisive daylight operations owing to the inadequate air defense of the island?. The Luftwaffe is clearly superior to the RAF as regards strength, equipment, training, command and location of bases?.? These were the beliefs with which the Luftwaffe went to battle and which would lead to so many blunders in the months to come. If the British knew little about German plans to defeat them, the Germans knew still less about their enemy.(Deighton 80).

While being overly confident, they were not without the right to be a little optimistic. According to one report, at the start of the Battle of Britain the Luftwaffe had just over 1500 bombers with over 1000 fighters with which to protect them as compared to Britain?s 591 fighters with 100 more ineffectual in daylight battle (Hough 30). While the strength in numbers definitely belonged to the Germans, the British had a secret defense to Germany?s massive arsenal of planes. Radar.

The English Channel separated Germany?s targets and their bases. They expected to encounter light resistance in the air, but instead saw squadrons waiting for them as they passed over the channel. For a long time, German intelligence tried to figure out what these groups of tall towers that lined Britain?s coast were. They had thought that it was a location detection device, but they had little idea of how effective and important the radar was to the British defense. In, 1935 a scientist named Robert Watson-Watt sent a report to the British Air Ministry outlining the way in which radio could be used to identify and detect enemy planes. By that fall, towers were erected along the coast and were able to detect planes within a fifty-mile radius. Along with radar, the Royal Observer Group watched for German planes through binoculars from the ground. While the ROG spotted the planes from a distance, the radar would record vital information of the incoming squadrons? speed and numbers. This information was sent to headquarters where Spitfires and Hurricanes were then promptly alerted and ordered to intercept. While the radar was maintained, Germany never was able to surprise the British Royal Air Force (Hough 27-28). The disadvantages and advantages of each opposing force set the stage for a dramatic and key battle of the Second World War.

The Battle of Britain?s length and its exact events is often the subject of debate. As with many battles in war, events and dates are often open for interpretation. The battle though can be divided into four separate phases. Phase one consisted of the early probing done by the Luftwaffe of the RAF. The second phase focused on Germany?s attacks on key British defensive systems. The third phase started what was known as the ?Blitz?, or the attacks on London and other civilian sites. The fourth phase saw the Germans switch to night bombings and eventually taper off all aerial attacks on Britain, thus ending the ?Blitz?, which formally ended the Battle of Britain. (Bickers, Richard Townshend. The Battle of Britain. New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1990. 108).

The Luftwaffe began the Battle of Britain by testing the abilities of the Royal Air Force and attacking crucial British convoys. They attacked and tested the RAF to keep them busy and possibly weaken their defenses as they prepared their troops for a grand assault. They attacked the convoys, which carried coal and bulk raw materials, hoping to cripple Britain that had learned to depend on these convoys to sustain its nation?s economy (Bickers 108). The Germans did not plan on all out victory in Phase one, which began on July 10, 1940. The bulk of the damage done to both sides in phase one was over the coastal convoys. Many young RAF pilots were lost due to over zealousness and over-stepping their bounds. They would often chase the German bombers back to France only to be ambushed by a group of BF-109?s (Franks 17-18). Hitler wanted to flaunt his ?superior? air force to show how invincible it was. He still hoped in the back of his mind that England would cut a deal after the German?s conquered the vast majority of Europe. He did not want to risk any potential settlements by bombing civilians or towns. Instead, he decided to destroy the convoys that scattered the waters surrounding Britain in hopes of causing the RAF to be drawn into a dogfight and have Britain waste its precious reserves (Franks 17). Goering, the German Air Force Commander, met with early success. He managed to claim three British bombers and 30,000 tons of merchant shipping (Collier, Basil. The Second World War: A Military History. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1967. 135). The British, needing to protect its surviving planes and its shipping convoys decided to change its tactics:

In consequence of the preliminary offensive the British changed the organization of the timing of their coastal convoys, hastened existing arrangements for the diversion of ocean traffic to west-coast ports, and moved destroyers hitherto at Dover to Portsmouth. Their aircraft factories remained in full production, as did two factories, which supplied all the engines for their Hurricanes and Spitfires. Thus they were able, during the weeks that divided the fall of France from the beginning of heavy air attacks on Britain, to make good the shortage of fighters with which their losses from Norway to Dunkirk had left them, take current losses in their strode, and build up a small force. (Collier 135-136).

With the British changing convoy routes and locations, the Germans were eager to use other methods at sinking ships:

It was certainly not to be assessed in terms of shipping destroyed, as over the period a whole only 24,000 tons of merchant shipping were sunk in the Channel by aircraft. Between 10 July and 7 August thirteen merchant ships, totaling 38,000 tons, were mined and sunk round the coasts of Britain, most of them by mines laid by enemy aircraft. This was almost as much as was sunk by air attack; and it was obtained at a far smaller cost to the German Air Force. (James, T.C.G. The Battle of Britain. Great Britain: Frank Cass Publishers, 2000. 43).

Ultimately, the attacks on the convoys and intercepting fighters were not a great success for either side. It showed that Britain had faults within their system of defense and intelligence. The Germans learned that, even with superior numbers, they would suffer great losses if they decided to fly over the English Channel and stayed to fight: Air supremacy is as much a product of morale as of material strength, and, that being so, Fighter Command had fared well in the July fighting?(James 45). During phase one, the Luftwaffe lost nearly 200 aircraft and all of its downed crew while Britain suffered only half of that and one fourth of its downed pilots. The end of phase one came with a shift in tactics by the Germans: (Walker).

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