The Battle of Britain

Page 2 – The invasion threat

The origins of the Battle of Britain lay in the dramatic and unexpected collapse of the Allied front in Western Europe in May-June 1940. The French surrender on 22 June left the British Empire fighting Germany alone, and raised the prospect of an invasion of the British Isles. Although most of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had been, almost miraculously, snatched out of Dunkirk, vast quantities of equipment had been lost. The forces available to defend Britain were weak and unprepared, with no more than six combat-ready divisions available.

Britain fights on

For some in Britain the dire situation seemed to demand an end to the conflict on the best terms available. German leader Adolf Hitler hoped for as much when, in July, he offered peace. But Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the bulk of his Cabinet disagreed: Britain would fight on. This defiance, Britons knew, would inevitably invite a German attempt to break their resistance.

Hitler was uncertain about the prospect of forcing British submission. There were obvious risks in a cross-Channel invasion, even with air superiority. His naval advisers warned that the greatly inferior Kriegsmarine (German navy) would not be able to prevent the British fleet from intervening. More fundamentally, Hitler wanted to attack the Soviet Union at the earliest possible moment, suggesting this possibility to his commanders as early as 29 July; he rationalised that the rapid defeat of the Soviet colossus would undermine continuing British defiance.

Operation Sea Lion

Despite his doubts, on 2 July Hitler ordered the high commands of the three German services to begin preparations for a landing ‘at the earliest possible date’. A fortnight later, he issued a further directive. As finally determined, the timetable for Operation Sea Lion called for orders to launch the invasion to be given on 11 September with the actual assault to take place ten days later. The plan depended on nullifying British air power and on assembling the shipping required to convey a German landing force of 100,000 men with equipment across the English Channel. If the Royal Air Force (RAF) rapidly collapsed, as Luftwaffe (German air force) head Hermann Göring predicted, the landing might be risked; if not, the battering would have neutralised the British threat while Germany turned east and quickly disposed of the Soviet Union.

The Luftwaffe had not awaited formal orders before beginning operations to whittle down British air strength. As a result, the period of the battle has been variously defined over the years. Officially, in Britain it is dated between 10 July and 31 October 1940, though heavy German air attacks would continue into 1941 (The Blitz). A case can also be made for a mid-June opening date or 1 July, the day that Germans stepped on to British territory - in the Channel Islands.

New Zealanders in the RAF

The battle came too soon for men of the newly instituted Empire Air Training Scheme to take part. But more than 550 New Zealanders - who had been awarded short-service commissions or went to Britain to enlist - were serving in the RAF when the war began. At the outset of the battle 60 were serving in Fighter Command, and in all 135 would take part. After Britons and Poles, they were the third-largest national group within the command. Four New Zealanders - Squadron Leaders M.V. Blake, P.G. Jameson, T.G. Lovell-Gregg and H.D. McGregor - commanded fighter squadrons during the battle. Others served in Bomber Command, including No. 75 (New Zealand) Squadron, and in Coastal Command.

In addition, some expatriate New Zealanders who had made the RAF their career after the First World War held senior appointments. One of them was Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park, who in April 1940 took command of No. 11 Group,  covering southeastern England and the approaches to London. Park was a ‘brilliant leader and operational commander' who had ‘the ability to take things in at a glance and so to make sense quickly of the chaos of the battlefield.’ He made a point of visiting his squadrons, often flying his own fighter plane to do so.

Navy and army contributions

Although the outcome of the Battle of Britain was ultimately determined in the air, preparations to meet the invasion involved New Zealanders in all three services. Naval reservists sent to the United Kingdom in May 1940, including two who would become prominent later (Peter Phipps, the first New Zealand Chief of Defence Staff, and Phil Connolly, a future Minister of Defence), were assigned to small minesweeping vessels in the English Channel. They were in the front line as the battle developed, shepherding ships in and out of port and sweeping mines.

Somewhat fortuitously, New Zealand also had a substantial presence on the ground. These were the 5000 men of the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force's (2NZEF) Second Echelon, who had been diverted from their original destination, the Middle East, and landed in Scotland on 16 June. Their arrival had been a boost to British morale as France collapsed. The government in Wellington agreed that they could, if fully equipped and trained, be used in an anti-invasion role. Divisional commander Bernard Freyberg flew to Britain to take command of the force, which was organised as two brigades - Brigadier James Hargest’s 5 Brigade, which included the 28th Maori Battalion, and a composite brigade. The force was incorporated into the defence system on 17 July, and deployed in the Maidstone area in southeast England, part of a reserve ready to deal with airborne landings in the area.