Selected newsreels from 1940 and 1941 related to the air defense of Britain.
Battle of Britain is the name commonly given to the effort by the German Luftwaffe to gain air superiority over the Royal Air Force (RAF), before a planned sea and airborne invasion of Britain (Operation Sealion) during the Second World War. The Battle of Britain was the first major battle to be fought entirely by air forces. It was the largest and most sustained bombing campaign yet attempted, and the first real test of the strategic bombing theories developed since the previous World War. The failure of Nazi Germany to destroy Britain's air force, or to break the spirit of the British government or people, is considered the Third Reich's first major defeat.
Neither Hitler nor the Wehrmacht believed it possible to carry out a successful amphibious assault on the British Isles until the RAF had been neutralized. Secondary objectives were to destroy aircraft production and ground infrastructure, to attack areas of political significance, and to terrorize the British people with the intent of intimidating them into seeking an armistice or surrender. Some historians have argued no invasion could have succeeded; given the massive superiority of the Royal Navy over the Kriegsmarine, Sealion would have been a disaster. They argue the Luftwaffe would have been unable to prevent decisive intervention by RN cruisers and destroyers, even with air superiority.
British historians date the battle from 10 July to 31 October 1940, which represented the most intense period of daylight bombing. German historians usually place the beginning of the battle in mid-August 1940 and end it in May 1941, on the withdrawal of the bomber units in preparation for the attack on the USSR.
The Battle of Britain marked the first defeat of Hitler's military forces, with air superiority seen as the key to victory. Pre-war theories led to exaggerated fears of strategic bombing, and British public opinion was invigorated by having come through the ordeal. To Hitler it did not seem a serious setback as Britain was still not in a position to cause real damage to his plans, and the last minute invasion plan had been an unimportant addition to German strategy. However, for the British the fighter pilots had achieved a great victory in successfully carrying out Sir Thomas Inskip's 1937 air policy of preventing the Germans from knocking Britain out of the war. It also signalled a significant shift in U.S. opinion. During the battle many people from the U.S. accepted the view promoted by Joseph Kennedy, the U.S. ambassador in London, and believed that the UK could not survive. However, Roosevelt wanted a second opinion, and sent 'Wild Bill' Donovan on a brief visit to Britain which convinced Donovan that Britain would survive and should be supported in every possible way.
Both sides in the battle made exaggerated claims of numbers of enemy aircraft shot down. In general, claims were two to three times the actual numbers, because of the confusion of fighting in dynamic three-dimensional air battles. Postwar analysis of records has shown that between July and September, the RAF claimed over 2,698 kills for 1,023 fighter aircraft lost to all causes, where 147 Polish pilots claimed 201 out of that number, while the Luftwaffe fighters claimed 3,198 RAF aircraft downed for losses of 1,887, of which 873 were fighters. To the RAF figure should be added an additional 376 Bomber Command and 148 Coastal Command aircraft conducting bombing, mining, and reconnaissance operations in defence of the country.
The British triumph in the Battle of Britain was not without heavy cost. Total British civilian losses from July to December 1940 were 23,002 dead and 32,138 wounded, with one of the largest single raids occurring on 19 December 1940, in which almost 3,0 civilians died.
Winston Churchill summed up the effect of the battle and the contribution of Fighter Command with the words, "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few". However, the brilliant leadership of Dowding and Keith Park in successfully proving their theories of air defence had created enemies amongst the RAF air marshals, and in a shabby episode both were sacked from their posts in the immediate aftermath of the battle. Pilots who fought in the Battle have been known as The Few ever since. September is celebrated in the United Kingdom as "Battle of Britain Day", marking the battle.
The end of the battle allowed the UK to rebuild its military forces and establish itself as an Allied stronghold. Britain later served as a base from which the Liberation of Europe was launched.