This year saw the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain, and many of us were delighted to see flights of Hurricanes and Spitfires in our skies again. On 18th June 1940, following the surrender of France, Winston Churchill gave a speech pronouncing: “The Battle of France is over. The Battle of Britain is about to begin.” Officially, the Battle of Britain is remembered from July 10th to October 31st with 15th September being recognised as Battle of Britain day.
Having had their peace overtures rejected by Britain, the German strategy was to try and secure air superiority over Britain as a precursor to invasion: Operation Sea Lion. On 10th July the Luftwaffe began bombing shipping centres on the south coast before switching its targets to RAF airfields and supporting industries and infrastructure.
German confidence was high as so far they had swept all other enemies before them and the Luftwaffe heavily outnumbered the Royal Air Force. However, the RAF had three key advantages: it was highly organised and brilliantly led by Air Chief Marshall Hugh Dowding; it had superior radar detection systems; and it had much more effective systems for building planes and training pilots.
The 15th September was a pivotal day in the Battle of Britain. On this day the Germans sustained their heaviest losses as the RAF successfully repulsed two massive waves of bombers by deploying every aircraft available to them. Two days later, Hitler postponed the invasion of the UK in the face of mounting losses of men and infrastructure.
Fighter Command lost over 1000 fighter aircraft during the Battle and the Luftwaffe nearly 1900. In all 544 aircrew from Fighter Command were killed during the Battle, and a further 791 died before the end of the War.
Some modern historians question the significance of the Battle of Britain pointing out that Germany in 1940 lacked the naval forces to threaten English ports and Hitler’s preoccupation with their eastern neighbours meant he was unlikely to give Britain much military attention.
Where historians agree is that the importance of the Battle of Britain was first and foremost psychological. As the first defeat of Hitler’s military forces in the war, it was an important factor in boosting the morale of the British public and the military themselves. In 2010, one veteran RAF pilot, Tony Iveson, said “As far as we were concerned we saved the world.” Certainly Winston Churchill considered the RAF’s role in the war effort as vital, famously declaring: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
Britain’s victory in the Battle of Britain meant that the UK was never seriously threatened by Germany. Operation Sea Lion was delayed twice and eventually postponed indefinitely. Without securing the British Isles it is hard to imagine how and where Allied forces might have gathered later in the War to begin the liberation of Western Europe, but they did, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Here is the text of the prayer that I used on Battle of Britain Sunday:
Gracious God, we have gathered on this Battle of Britain Sunday to give thanks once more for the liberty which that Battle preserved for us and the world. We remember with gratitude the dedication and heroism of members of the Allied Air Forces. We remember their successors now engaged in many parts of the world and pray that you would watch over them. We pray for the Royal Air Force, that its power and skill may always be used to safeguard justice and peace.
Almighty God, you have broken the tyranny of sin and sent into our hearts the Spirit of your Son. Give us the grace to dedicate our freedom to your service, that all people may know the glorious liberty of the children of God; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.