The battle for Britain


The Day of the Eagle, 13 August 1940, launched Germany’s fourth campaign in less than a year. But unlike the three previous attacks, on Poland, Scandinavia, and France and the Low Countries, this one was an air attack without any ground-based activity at all. From the outset, the Germans were surprised by the skill of the British pilots who opposed them. Of the 1,485 German aircraft which crossed the English Channel that day, forty-five were shot down, for the loss of only thirteen British fighters. Almost all the German aircrew were killed or captured where they parachuted or crash-landed; only seven British pilots were killed, the rest crash-landing or parachuting to safety on British soil. On the second day, poor weather limited the number of the attacking aircraft to 500. Even so, seventy-five, an even larger number than on the previous day, were brought down, for thirty-four British planes lost. The same pattern was repeated on the third day, with seventy German losses as against twenty-seven British. In three days of air combat, the Germans had lost 190 machines. But in the first ten days of the German attacks, a hundred British aircraft had been destroyed on the ground.

As the Battle of Britain was being fought in the skies above southern England, those at the centre of British policy learned exactly what that battle was about; for on August 14, following a careful scrutiny of the German Air Force Enigma messages, the Inter-Service Combined Intelligence Committee gave as its considered opinion that no final decision about invasion had been, or would be, taken by the German authorities ‘pending the result of the present struggle for air superiority’.

Good news also reached the beleaguered island on August 14 from across the Atlantic, when Roosevelt agreed to give Britain fifty American destroyers, in exchange for the use by the American fleet of British bases in the Caribbean and western Atlantic. Ironically, August 14 was also the day on which General Halder recorded in his diary that the German Army was looking for a site in East Prussia which could serve as Hitler’s headquarters during the invasion of Russia.

If August 14 was a day of relief for Britain, the following day, August 15, marked the day on which the German Air Force put its strength and tactics to the crucial test. If that day’s attack could succeed, then it might still be possible to mount an invasion before the autumn storms. In all, 520 German bombers and 1,270 fighters crossed the Channel between 11.30 in the morning and 6.30 in the evening.

Seventy-five German aircraft were shot down on August 15, for a British loss of thirty-four. It was a rate of loss which could not be long sustained. But, on August 16, an equally severe raid was similarly mauled, even though it succeeded in destroying forty-seven British aircraft on the ground at Brize Norton and thirteen at airfields elsewhere in southern England. General Ismay, watching the battle as it was being plotted in the Operations Room of No. 11 Group Fighter Command, later recalled: ‘There had been heavy fighting throughout the afternoon; and at one moment every single squadron in the group was engaged; there was nothing in reserve, and the map table showed new waves of attackers crossing the coast. I felt sick with fear.’

On August 16, the Inter-Service Combined Intelligence Committee repeated its assessment, drawn from the German Air Force Enigma, that there would be no invasion of Britain without a clear-cut air victory beforehand. German radio had already won such a victory: ‘We are informed by Lord Haw-Haw’, a Canadian officer wrote in his diary on August 16, ‘that south east England is in ruins and the morale of our people completely shot. Well there are a lot of large holes in many fields and some buildings have been destroyed. But there are German bombers and fighters strewn all across the countryside from Maidstone to Guildford. As for our morale—it’s going up—and up—and up!’

That day, further west above Southampton, a fighter pilot, Flight Lieutenant James Nicolson, patrolling over Southampton in a Hurricane, was attacked by four German fighters. His own fighter was hit, and Nicolson himself wounded by canon shell. With flames reaching his cockpit, he was about to abandon his aircraft when he saw a German Messerschmidt fighter. This he attacked and shot down, although as a result of staying for four minutes longer in his burning aircraft he sustained serious burns to his face, neck and legs. For this action, Nicolson was awarded the Victoria Cross, the only fighter pilot to receive this highest award for valour during the Battle of Britain, and indeed throughout the entire war. Today, a plaque marks the spot near which the badly burned Nicolson landed by parachute.

On August 17 the Germans were forced to reduce the level of their attack; some of their fighters, the Stukas, had proved too vulnerable and were withdrawn. That night, British bombers flew over the Channel and the North Sea in the opposite direction to the daytime raiders, striking yet again at oil plants and munitions factories. That day, a secret tally was made of all British losses since the first day of the war: 8,266 sailors had been killed, 4,400 soldiers and, from German air attack, 729 civilians. The number of pilots and aircrew killed or missing was 3,851.

On the pilots who remained, there fell on August 18 the burden of one further German effort to break Britain’s air defences. But German losses were again formidable, seventy-one aircraft shot down, as against twenty-seven British losses. That evening, as one of Britain’s air aces, Douglas Bader, later wrote: ‘Goering withdrew to rest his pilots, lick his wounds and count the cost: losses to the tune of 367 aircraft destroyed.’

The battle of Britain and the ‘Blitz’, August–September 1940

On August 19 there was no German air attack on Britain. ‘They are making a big mistake’, Churchill told one of his Secretariat that night, ‘in giving us a respite.’ On the following day, in the House of Commons, Churchill spoke of how the gratitude ‘of every home in our island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of war by their prowess and by their devotion’. Churchill went on to say, of those airmen: ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.’

In the five days of intense air attack between August 13 and 18, Hitler had failed to fulfil his one condition of invasion, the breaking of Britain’s air power. Churchill now warned that British bombers would continue to strike at German military industries and communications, as well as at the German air bases and storage depots used to launch air attacks on Britain, and would strike ‘upon an ever-increasing scale until the end of the war, and may in another year attain dimensions hitherto undreamed of’. The bombing of Germany, Churchill declared, was the ‘most certain’, if not the shortest, ‘of all the roads to victory’.

Churchill did not know that Hitler had already prepared the groundwork for an attack on Russia. He knew however that such an attack was likely, and wanted Hitler to know that Britain would not stand idly by. ‘Even if Nazi legions stood triumphant on the Black Sea,’ he said in his speech of August 20, ‘or indeed the Caspian, even if Hitler were at the gates of India, it would profit him nothing if at the same time the entire economic and scientific apparatus of German war power lay shattered and pulverized at home.’


Taking advantage of Britain’s preoccupation with the German air onslaught, on August 19 Italian forces occupied Berbera, the capital of British Somaliland. On August 20, Italian bombers raided Gibraltar. But these were mere pinpricks, quite eclipsed in importance in the third week of August, when an American mission of three senior Staff officers reached London, to co-ordinate Anglo-American policy at the highest level. These three officers, Admiral Ghormley, Brigadier-General Strong and General Emmons were immediately able to contradict the recent report by the American Ambassador in London, Joseph P. Kennedy, to Roosevelt, of ‘the devastating effect of German air attacks on England’s ports, fields, and armaments industry’.

Under the guise of being a relatively low grade mission to discuss the standardization of arms, the three Americans constituted in fact the first Staff Conversations between Britain and the United States, the one a belligerent, the other neutral, but both united in a common and ever closer purpose. Not only were British and American military, naval and air matters becoming more closely interwoven, but in the sphere of Intelligence there was a growing realization of the need to share what was known. As if to confirm Churchill’s remark of August 20 about the Nazis ‘standing triumphant on the Black Sea’, on August 22 Paul Thümmel, the German Intelligence officer who was Britain’s agent A-54, reported that he had learned from an officer of the German General Staff that the German Intelligence branch responsible for the Russian area had been expanding since June, that German counter-Intelligence activities against Russia were also to be increased, and that the German counter-Intelligence organization in Roumania had been reinforced by specialists on the southern Ukraine, the Crimea and the Caucasus.

The possibility of a German invasion of Russia could not deflect from the urgency of the hour; on August 23 the German Air Force launched its fourth massive bombing attack since The Day of the Eagle, striking at British aircraft factories and oil storage tanks. One flight of bombers, about twelve in all, flying off course, dropped its bombs on London. Nine civilians were killed. On the following day, in a British experiment designed to halt any German invasion force before it could come ashore, petrol, poured through twelve pipes at the rate of twelve tons an hour, was set on fire, creating a wall of flame on beach and sea, through which no invader could possibly pass. To boost British morale, considerable publicity was given to the experiment; but those who conducted it were aware that, whenever the wind changed, the billows of thick black smoke blew back on the beach, blinding and choking the potential defenders.

On the evening of August 25, British bombers struck at German armament factories in the north of Berlin; some of the planes, confused by the low ceiling of cloud, and inadvertently flying off course as the German bombers had done two nights earlier over London, dropped their bombs on the centre of the city. ‘The concentration of anti-aircraft fire’, William Shirer noted in his diary, ‘was the greatest I’ve ever witnessed. It provided a magnificent, a terrible sight. And it was strangely ineffective. Not a plane was brought down; not one was even picked up by the searchlights, which flashed back and forth frantically across the skies throughout the night.’

No German civilians were killed that night; but leaflets dropped by the bombers warned those few Berliners who could find them that ‘the war which Hitler started will go on, and it will last as long as Hitler does’.

On August 26 a further German air raid was launched against British aerodromes throughout southern England; but, for the first time, all but one of the German formations were forced back by successful British fighter interception. On the following day, those in Britain who were reading the German Air Force Enigma messages were able to conclude, with confidence, that ‘On the success of this operation will depend the decision as to the invasion.’ Not merely the date of the invasion, but whether or not the Germans would invade at all, was now at issue.

On the night of August 28, during a further British air raid over Berlin, likewise intended to seek out only military targets, ten German civilians were killed. On the road towards Tempelhof airport, William Shirer noted in his diary, ‘two hundred-pound bombs landed in the street, tore off the leg of an air-raid warden standing at the entrance to his house, and killed four men and two women, who, unwisely, were watching the fireworks from a doorway’.

The German Air Force was determined not to give up its attempt to destroy British air power. On August 30 there was a renewed attack, by eight hundred German aircraft, against the nine British fighter operational command centres in southern England. Over Biggin Hill, one of the principal aerodromes attacked, seventeen German aircraft were shot down, for the loss of only a single British plane, whose pilot, parachuting down, survived and returned to the battle. That night, as if to ensure that there would be no let-up in the pressure, German bombers dropped incendiary bombs on London. Crossing the same Channel coast in the other direction, British bombers again struck at military targets in Berlin. ‘The British gave us a good strafing last night,’ William Shirer noted in his diary, ‘and even German officials admitted that the damage was greater than ever before. A German friend dropped in to tell me the great Siemens works had been hit.’

By the end of August, the air battle for Britain had been in progress for two and a half weeks, the focus of intense public concern in Britain, and of enthusiastic hopes in Germany. But a more distant danger was ever present in the minds of the British War Cabinet, the vulnerability of the British forces in Egypt. For more than a month, they had faced a hostile Italian army in Libya which might at any moment take the offensive. In order to build up British strength in Egypt, even at some risk to the land defence of Britain, on August 30 the British Navy began Operation Hats, sending the battleship Valiant, the aircraft carrier Illustrious and several other warships the whole length of the Mediterranean, from Gibraltar to Alexandria, with aircraft, guns and ammunition. Their six day voyage passed without interference from Italian air or naval forces.

On August 31 the German air offensive against British fighter operational bases was renewed; three aerodromes were attacked, and thirty-nine German aircraft shot down. On the following two days there were further raids on Biggin Hill. There was also a further night bomber raid over London on September 2; it coincided with the news that 1,075 civilians had been killed during August in bombing raids over Britain. Better news that day was the signature of the Anglo-American Destroyers—Bases agreement; four days later the first six American destroyers were handed over to the British at Halifax, Nova Scotia.

On September 3, the first anniversary of Britain’s declaration of war against Germany, four German spies—one German and three Dutchmen—were landed by boat on the southern coast of Britain. Their tasks were to report on coastal defences, and on Army and Air force strengths and movements. All four were caught within hours of coming ashore; they were brought to trial in November, and three of them hanged in December. The fourth man, one of the Dutchmen, was kept in prison for the duration of the war; after the war he was imprisoned in Holland.

On September 4, in a speech in Berlin, Hitler told an audience primarily of German women nurses and social workers: ‘When they declare they will increase their attacks on our cities, then we will raze their cities to the ground,’ and he added: ‘The hour will come when one of us will break, and it will not be National Socialist Germany.’ William Shirer, who heard Hitler speak, wrote in his diary: ‘Though grim and dripping with hate most of the evening, Hitler had his humorous, jaunty moments.’ His listeners had found it ‘very funny’ when Hitler told them: ‘In England they’re filled with curiosity and keep asking, “Why doesn’t he come?” Be calm. Be calm. He’s coming! He’s coming!’

Under interrogation, the four German spies who had landed in Britain on September 3 confirmed their status as an advance guard for the invasion, which, they said, could be expected at any moment. On September 5, the British Photographic Reconnaissance recorded an increase in the number of barges at Ostend. On September 6, German bombing raids on port installations along the south coast of Britain led to the issuing of the ‘Yellow’ invasion alarm: ‘Probable attack within three days’. Unknown to the British, these indications were all either meaningless or deliberate deceptions; in fact, September 6 was the day on which additional German divisions began their movement to the German-annexed regions of Poland, and to the Soviet border, where thirty-five divisions, six of them armoured divisions, were now assembled. Equally unknown to the British, September 9 also saw Admiral Raeder ask Hitler about the invasion timetable. ‘Decision of the Führer to land in England’, Raeder told his senior subordinates, ‘is by no means yet firm, since the Führer has the conviction that the submission of England will be achieved even without landing.’ Hitler had ‘no thought of executing the landing’, Raeder added, ‘if the risk of the operation is too high’.

To secure the ‘submission of England’ without a landing, and having struck for more than three weeks at Britain’s fighter bases and command posts, Hitler now ordered German bomber raids on London. Goering, confident of an aerial masterstroke, went to the Pas de Calais in his train, Asia, to take personal command of the operations.

Shortly before four o’clock on September 7, three hundred German bombers, escorted by six hundred fighters, arrived in two waves, their target, the London docks. That very afternoon, British Intelligence tried to work out the meaning of the apparent large-scale movement of barges to forward bases in the Channel, of the cancellation of all German Army leave on the following day, and of the interrogation reports of the four spies caught four days earlier, whose task, it now seemed, was to report the movement of all British reserve formations in the quadrilateral Oxford—Ipswich—London—Reading. It suddenly seemed that invasion itself might be imminent. This deduction was given to the Chiefs of Staff at half past five.

As the Chiefs of Staff discussed this ominous prospect, German bombers continued their massive bombardment, their onslaught challenged by the whole remaining British fighter force. ‘Air battles high overhead all afternoon,’ a Canadian officer, Tony Foster, noted in his diary. ‘At one time I counted twenty-four parachutes descending.’

That afternoon and evening, 337 tons of bombs were dropped on London. The docks were the principal target, but many bombs fell on the residential areas around them; 448 Londoners were killed. The bombers, seeking the docks, dropped their bombs on some of the poorest and most overcrowded streets of London, their slum buildings and tenement houses more vulnerable than most to the pounding blast of bombs and the ensuing fires. Not all the deaths were caused by bombs; one British fighter, shot down while itself shooting down a German bomber, crashed on to a family air raid shelter after its pilot had bailed out. All three people inside the shelter were killed instantly.

At precisely 8.07 that evening, as the air bombardment was at its height, the code word ‘Cromwell’ was sent to military units throughout Britain. The code was clear: the German invasion of Britain was about to begin.

Throughout the land, church bells rang out, as a further prearranged signal that invasion was imminent. All home defence forces were to be brought to a state of ‘immediate action’. ‘Everyone confined to barracks,’ Tony Foster wrote in his diary that night. ‘The invasion is expected tomorrow. We’re ready to move at an hour’s notice’.

On the morning of September 8 the German invasion was expected from hour to hour. But no invasion was scheduled or in prospect. All depended upon the outcome of the new air battle, the direct bombardment of the capital. Yet the German Air Force, having failed to eliminate Britain’s fighter power in the three weeks following The Day of the Eagle, now suffered considerably from the ability of the British fighters to challenge each wave of incoming bombers and their fighter escorts. On September 8, as two hundred German bombers attacked London’s electricity power stations and railway lines, eighty-eight German aircraft were shot down, for British losses of twenty-one. That afternoon, Churchill was taken to an air raid shelter in the East End of London where forty people had been killed on the previous night. ‘It was good of you to come, Winnie,’ the survivors called out to him as they crowded round. ‘We thought you’d come. We can take it. Give it ‘em back.’

Polish, Czech and Canadian fighter pilots were as eager as their British counterparts to strike the enemy out of the skies. On September 8, when four hundred German aircraft crossed the British coast, they were met by more than two hundred British fighters; in the ensuing air battle, twenty-eight German aircraft were shot down, for nineteen British fighters lost. But, for the Londoners whose homes were being bombed, there was increasing fear at what the outcome would be. ‘In dockside areas,’ a Home Intelligence Report noted on September 9, ‘the population is showing visible signs of its nerve cracking from constant ordeals.’ That day, King George VI was told of the distress in the East End. He immediately set off to visit the scenes of devastation, assuring the bombed-out victims of two nights of terror that all of their countrymen were with them in sympathy.

The London ‘Blitz’, as it had become known, continued on September 10. ‘Increased tension everywhere,’ a further Home Intelligence report declared, ‘and when the siren goes people run madly for shelter with white faces.’ At midday, the War Cabinet were told that the bombing of the previous two nights had been ‘quite indiscriminate’. It was at once agreed that, as an act of retaliation, British bombers over Germany should be instructed ‘not to return home with their bombs if they failed to locate the targets which they were detailed to attack’. The bombs should be dropped anywhere. That night British bombers raided Berlin in force; one bomb fell on Josef Goebbels’ garden.

On September 11, in yet a further switch from his Western to his Eastern ambitions, Hitler decided to send German Army and Air Force missions to Roumania. Their task was to organize the protection of Roumania’s oilwells and oil installations at Ploesti, and to prepare Roumania’s facilities for use in future operations against Russia. Five days earlier, in Bucharest, King Carol had abdicated in favour of his son, handing over effective power to Marshal Antonescu, whose pro-German leanings were well known, and whose desire to regain the eastern province of Bessarabia could only be fulfilled in alliance with Germany.


Not only the London docks, but docks in Liverpool, Swansea and Bristol, were among the German targets on the night of 12 September. One bomber, on its return flight, crashed on to a house in Newport. As the house caught fire, a fourteen-year-old Jewish girl, Myrtle Phillips, was trapped in the flames. Her seventeen-year-old brother Malcolm rushed back into the flames to bring her out. Both of them perished. Their father, a convinced pacifist, visited the German pilot, who alone of a crew of four had survived the crash, in the local hospital, to assure him that the tragic deaths of his children was not his fault, but part of the many horrific injustices of war.


On September 13 the Italians crossed their Libyan border into Egypt, occupying Sollum. Britain was now endangered on two fronts. But on September 14, Hitler explained to his commanders that the preconditions for an invasion of Britain were ‘not yet on hand’. Nevertheless, the bombing of London would continue. ‘If eight million inhabitants go crazy,’ Hitler commented, ‘that can lead to catastrophe. If we get good weather and can neutralize the enemy’s Air Force, then even a small-scale invasion can work wonders’.

It was not the British Air Force, however, but the German, which was being ‘neutralized’. On September 12, Churchill had declared: ‘There is no doubt that Herr Hitler is using up his fighter force at a very high rate, and that if he goes on for many more weeks he will wear down and ruin the vital part of the Air Force.’ Three days later, on September 15, the German Air Force launched a massive attack, by 230 bombers and 700 fighters, against London, Southampton, Bristol, Cardiff, Liverpool and Manchester. Of the attacking force, fifty-six were shot down, for British losses of only twenty-three.

One of the German planes crashed into the forecourt of Victoria railway station in London. Its pilot, Robert Zehbe, baled out over Kennington. Badly wounded, he was set upon by irate civilians, but was rescued by the authorities. Later, he died of his injuries.

Even though 1,419 British civilians had been killed during the second week of August—1,286 of them in London—the attrition in the skies of which Churchill had warned was turning Hitler’s Western plans into a nightmare. On the following day, as part of the British plan to destroy as many invasion barges as possible, Polish pilots attacked the docks at Boulogne. ‘Our boys dived like mad,’ a Polish pilot officer wrote in his diary, ‘tearing Basin No. 6 to bits, together with dozens of boats prepared for the invasion.’

On September 17 Hitler postponed the invasion of Britain ‘until further notice’, telling his naval adjutant, Lieutenant Karl von Puttkammer: ‘We have conquered France at the cost of 30,000 men. During one night of crossing the Channel we could lose many times that—and success is not certain.’ The Blitz would go on. But Hitler’s battle for Britain had to all intents and purposes been lost. The British would continue to suffer. But they would not succumb. The roar of German panzers, the screech of German dive-bombers, the march of German soldiers—all of which had brought the horrors of conquest and the curse of occupation to Poland, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, Luxemburg and France—would not be heard in Britain, not at least in 1940.

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