The Battle of Britain

Page 4 – The battle: July-August

The battle: first phase

Luftwaffe (German air force) commanders recognised that their main task was to whittle down the strength of Royal Air Force (RAF) Fighter Command. They began a series of operations designed to draw the RAF into combat on terms favourable to the Luftwaffe. They focused on the convoys of ships proceeding through the English Channel to and from east coast ports. These convoys came under heavy air attack from the beginning of July 1940. Close to base, and thus less hampered by fuel limitations, the German fighter planes were able to take a steady toll of the RAF fighters sent to protect the convoys. The British, for their part, tried to avoid combat with the German fighters and instead attack the enemy bombers. 

The battle: second phase

In August 1940 this softening up phase gave way to a more direct attack on Fighter Command. On 1 August Hitler issued a directive for ‘the conduct of air and sea warfare against England’. To provide the conditions needed for the ‘final conquest’, the Luftwaffe was to bring the RAF to its knees by an assault ‘primarily against flying units, their ground installations, and their supply organizations, but also on the aircraft industry, including the manufacturing of anti-aircraft equipment’. This intensified campaign (Adler) would begin on or after 5 August.

Although the Germans recognised the importance of radar, and attacked various radar stations, they failed to shut down the system. Instead, they concentrated on Fighter Command’s airfields, a target that was bound to draw the British fighters into battle and assist the object of destroying Fighter Command.

The Germans planned to overwhelm Fighter Command in a grand attack. Adler Tag, as the opening of this effort was termed, took place on 13 August, after being delayed five days by adverse weather. Continuing weather problems lessened its impact, but it brought Fighter Command to the brink of destruction. Airfields throughout southeast England came under heavy bombardment. Two days later, Fighter Command faced its greatest test, as all three air fleets mounted raids. More than 2000 sorties stretched the British defences to the limit. But the German effort was undermined by faulty intelligence: the airfields attacked were mostly not crucial to Fighter Command’s survival. The Luftwaffe lost 57 aircraft during the day, and its Air Fleet 5 was so badly mauled that it subsequently took little part in the battle. 

Despite its relative success on 15 August, Fighter Command soon found itself under growing pressure as the Germans continued their assault on vital airfields and factories. The toll of British pilots mounted ominously. Between 23 August and 6 September, Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park's No. 11 Group lost 295 aircraft and 103 pilots (plus 128 wounded). He feared that the fighter defences would collapse if the Germans continued to attack the airfields and struck at the operations rooms and communications that controlled the British effort.

'... we had not even reached the door of the hut before an airman burst out yelling to us to scramble. It was a warm day, the engines were already hot, and Merlin engines could be easily ‘flooded’ under these circumstances. Some of the less experienced pilots had trouble starting. I was first out on to the airfield with my section, waiting for the others to get into position, and had just turned on the radio in time to hear a panic stricken shout over the R/T, ‘54 Squadron take off, take off, for Christ’s sake take off.’ I had never heard the controller use this sort of language before, and it was obvious that something was very wrong, so I opened my throttle and for Christ’s sake took off ... As we crossed the boundary, I looked back to see the airfield disappear in a cloud of smoke and rubble.'

Fighter pilot Colin Gray recalls a close call on 31 August 1940, the worst day experienced by Fighter Command during the battle.

Colin Gray, Spitfire Patrol, pp. 59-60