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Western FrontAugust 1940

Battle of Britain begins

How important was the Battle of Britain?
The Battle of Britain was fought - primarily - over the skies of the south of England in the summer and autumn of 1940. How did the British win this battle, and did victory really prevent a German invasion?

Video Transcript

Commentary: During the summer and early autumn of 1940, one of the most famous of all the battles in the Second World War was fought here. Not on the ground, but in the sky. This was the Battle of Britain. Spitfires and Hurricanes of the Royal Air Force fought with German bombers and their fighter escorts.


Words of Tom Gleave (RAF fighter pilot, Battle of Britain): After a short burst of about four seconds I stopped firing and as I did so, I saw sunlit pieces of shattered perspex spiralling aft like a shower of tracer. The Hun slewed slightly while on his back, his nose dropped and he dived beneath out of my sight, going straight down.1


Commentary: In August 1940, RAF airfields like this were the target of the first phase of the German attack. The RAF had to be destroyed to make a German invasion possible. Around 3,000 pilots flew with the RAF during the Battle of Britain and nearly 600 lost their lives. Then in September 1940, in part for retaliation for a British raid on Berlin, the Germans attacked the city of London. But the fighters that accompanied the German bombers only had fuel for twenty minutes over London, and this meant that the bombers had now become much more vulnerable.


Wartime archive narration: Within two months the wreckage of 2,400 German aircraft lay on the fields and shores of Britain.


Commentary: By October 1940 it was clear that German losses were not sustainable. The Battle of Britain had been won. The bravery of the RAF fighter pilots indisputable. But what is open to question is how important the Battle of Britain really was. Did the victory of the RAF actually prevent a Nazi invasion?


Professor Richard Overy: There’s a popular argument I think now that Hitler never really intended to invade Britain, and that the Battle of Britain was in some sense an unnecessary battle. I think quite a bit of historical writing has suggested this argument. I think this is nonsense. I think that Hitler’s plans to invade Britain, of course, are rather half-hearted and it’s an extremely difficult operation to carry out. But if Hitler could have got a cheap victory in 1940 it would have absolutely suited him. The Royal Navy, which people sometimes say would have been the barrier, of course, would have suffered exactly the same way that the Prince of Wales suffered when it arrived in the Far East. It would have been sunk by German dive-bombers.


Commentary: But as the Allies were to find out for themselves later in the war, crossing the English Channel with an invasion fleet is a complex business needing careful planning.


Laurence Rees: Something I took from your book was this sense that there was never, really, any prospect of the Germans invading Britain in 1940 at all.


Professor Adam Tooze: No, I do think one has to understand the timeframes here. They hadn’t started thinking about a war with Britain, let alone an invasion, until May 1938. The naval armaments program doesn’t get into gear until January 1939. For the preceding five years Britain had been out-spending Germany on the navy, so the already enormous gap between the German navy and the British navy in 1933 had not been shrinking, but growing larger every year. They essentially do not have a surface navy with which to protect an invasion in the summer of 1940.


Andrew Roberts: I don’t think the Germans were going to be able to invade successfully in 1940. I think that the actual plans needed to get an army across the Channel, even in the event that the RAF was neutralised for a long enough period, were just not in place. Those flat-bottomed boats that they had in the shelts, there weren’t enough of them, they weren’t particularly sea-worthy, and if the Royal Navy had got amongst them there would have been a massacre.


Commentary: As for Hitler, occupying Britain was not exactly his top priority.


Professor Sir Ian Kershaw: The invasion of Britain was always something which Hitler and the navy leadership, who are crucial to this, had extreme cold feet about. They didn’t think it could easily be achieved, it was a very precarious and risky operation, and of course Hitler didn’t want to have innumerable troops tied down in running Britain when he needed them for a war in the east.


Commentary: The victory of the RAF in the Battle of Britain in the skies above England understandably captured the imagination of millions. But, perhaps surprisingly, it’s clear that many historians who have studied the war now believe that this victory was not essential to prevent an invasion of Britain in 1940.


1. Patrick Bishop, Fighter Boys, Harper Perennial, 2004, Quoted p. 287.