Battle of Britain Day

Today is the 75th Anniversary of the day that historians regard as the climax of the Battle of Britain. To commemorate this, a huge flypast will take place across the South of England. Unfortunately, the weather isn’t too great today, and I don’t think it will be quite the spectacle that was intended, although Purple, Brown and Black sections are due to fly over Brighton from RAF Goodwood and perhaps the clouds will have broken up by the time they get here. Normally Battle of Britain Day is commemorated on a Sunday, as 15th September 1940 lay on a Sunday.

I had a friend – now long dead – who served as a fighter pilot in the RAF during the Battle of Britain and I once asked him about the tactics they used. He explained that they didn’t really have any tactics. When scrambled they were usually lucky if they managed to get to the right altitude before the enemy were on them. And if they did, they just flew head on at the incoming planes and tried to shoot them down. There was little point in attacking a big formation from behind with a handful of planes, which was the usual situation: you might pick off one or two but the bombers would carry on to their target. You had to attack from the front in order to scatter them. He added that on a good day, if you were feeling exceptionally brave, you might even keep your eyes open as you screamed straight into the enemy at getting on for 400 mph.

Another event of 15th September 1940 exemplifies the almost insane courage of the RAF pilots. A formation of Dornier bombers penetrated the British air defencesa as central London, where it was engaged by planes from a number of RAF squadrons, including the Hurricane of Flight Sergeant Ray Holmes. Holmes got into position to shoot down one Dornier, but when attempted to fire he discovered he had run out of ammunition. In an act of amazing bravery he decided to ram the Dornier. He succeeded ins slicing off the plane’s tail and it came down on Victoria Station. Somewhat improbably, Holmes managed to bale out and, though injured, survived to fight again. He died in 2005.

The other thing that this event reminded me of was the film Battle of Britain. The movie is a bit dated now, largely because some of the special effects don’t really stand up to modern comparisons: no cgi when it was made, for example. The best thing about it for me, though, is the wonderful music written for the film by William Walton, especially in the following sequence where the dogfights are shown with only the music as soundtrack. This turns the shots of terrifying close-range combat into a something a lot more than an action movie. It’s a work of art.

The context of this sequence is, as far as I know, historically accurate. Over the summer of 1940 the Luftwaffe had sent raid after raid over to attack Britain, these raids increasing in size as time went on. Hugh Dowding, Head of Fighter Command at that time, refused to let his planes be drawn into a huge battle against numerically superior forces and instead kept most of his planes in reserve, sending up only a squadron or half a squadron to meet the incoming planes. Thanks to the breaking of the German Air Force Enigma code, Dowding knew that the Luftwaffe pilots had been handing in grossly exaggerated reports of how many planes they had been shooting down. Convinced that the RAF was on the brink of collapse, the Germans launched an enormous air raid on September 15th 1940 intended to deliver the knockout blow and prepare the way for invasion.

Dowding knew that they were coming, and put every available plane at the RAFs disposal into the air. The survival of this country was at stake during this battle. There were no reserves. When the Luftwaffe arrived over Britain their pilots were aghast to find the air filled with Spitfires and Hurricanes whose pilots, having been consistently outnumbered in the battles so far, relished the chance to fight for once with something close to numerical equality with the enemy. The RAF scored a decisive victory, convincing Hitler to abandon his plans for an invasion in 1940.

8 Responses to “Battle of Britain Day”

  1. At one point, perhaps as an undergraduate, I got very interested in reading about the struggles of the RAF during the war.

    Despite an incredible advantage in radio (the development of which was probably how I ended up reading about the war as a physics student), Britain’s pilots were terribly outnumbered compared to the Luftwaffe. By the end of August in 1940, it was pretty fair to say that Britain had lost the battle in the skies. Had Germany continued to bomb British airfields rigorously, it would have been all over for Britain.

    But the RAF made a very daring airstrike deep onto the continent, aiming to destroy industrial targets around Berlin. Fog and cloud cover obscured the targets, and the airstrike hit a great many civilian targets. Hitler rescinded a previous directive that London were not to be bombed, and the retaliatory airstrikes switched to constant bombardment of London. This – perhaps combined with the over-reporting from Luftwaffe pilots of how many RAF targets they had shot down – gave the RAF the breathing room they needed to mount some sort of defense.

    Every time I read about the war, I’m stunned by how close Britain came to defeat, were it not for some weird series of decisions and good fortune.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Aha! I knew that Hitler shifted from bombing airfields to bombing cities at the crucial moment, but not why. Remarkable.

    • Statistically, the RAF averaged an approximately 2:1 success rate during the Battle of Britain (including September 15th 1940). However, the Luftwaffe outnumbered the RAF by a far greater ratio and this alone did not by any means guarantee success. If the battle had continued the attrition rate would have been unsustainable for the British. Hitler’s impatience played a big part in the final outcome, as it did elsewhere.

      • I think a large factor in the RAF’s 2:1 success rate was because it was difficult for the Luftwaffe to send fighter escorts with their bombers. Even with the bombers, the fuel tanks were often not sufficient to allow more than a few minutes of time to drop their payload before having to turn around.

  2. The survival of this country was at stake during this battle.

    It was much more important than that – it was about the survival of democracy in Europe.

    (Admittedly, alongside the problem of needing air superiority over Britain to mount an invasion, the Nazi forces also faced certain, critical, resistance from the Royal Navy, and from the army, though poorly equipped after the evacuation from France.)

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    As I recall this is the only music by Walton that appeared in the cinematic release (which I remember well as an 12-year-old). The rest was by Ron Goodwin, who had done a first rate job with Where Eagles Dare and 633 Squadron. The tale of how this mixture came about is told here:

    although I also heard a different tale that Walton simply got writer’s block and most of his score came too late.

    This year I am watching DVDs of The World at War, the 26-part TV documentary series from 1973 about World War II which I somehow missed at the time. It is a worthy successor to the 26-part series The Great War made 10 years earlier about World War I (which I watched last year). There are many major anniversaries of these conflicts at the moment.

    Lest we forget…

    • Walton also wrote a fine piece of music “The Spitfire Prelude and Fugue” for the film The First of the Few.

      It is said that Walton’s “Battle in the Air” was only retained at the insistence of Laurence Olivier, who played Dowding in the film. It’s a good job it was, as this is easily the best sequence in the film.

  4. I once spoke to an old friend of the family who was working in London on September 15th 1940 and who claimed to have witnessed the famous incident with the Hurricane. He told me that during the daylight raids on London, crowds used to gather watch the dogfights overhead, despite the obvious danger, applauding especially skilful pieces of flying by the RAF, rather like they would applaud a good shot by a batsman on a cricket field.

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