Today, 15 September, is Battle of Britain Day, the date on which the English commemorate the Royal Air Force’s grim and glorious stand against the Luftwaffe of Hitler’s Third Reich. It was on that day in 1940 that Fighter Command of the RAF was employed in full, without any appreciable reserves, in a day-long running fight with the more than 1,1oo fighters and bombers of Albrecht “Smiling Albert” Kesselring’s*** Luftflotte II.
The week before, believing the attacks against British fighter bases and radar stations (Operation Adlerangriff) were ineffective, Luftwaffe air operations against those targets had come to an end, and strategic bombing of British cities began. It was a monumental miscalculation by the Germans. Because British radar detection and code-breaking efforts allowed Fighter Command to mass at precisely the point where the German formations crossed the English coast, no significant degradation of RAF fighter strength was detected. Goering and his Luftflotte commanders never knew how close they’d come with Adlerangriff to breaking Fighter Command. Tragic as the switch to terror bombing was for the British population, the respite allowed Fighter Command some respite, during which it maintained, and then grew, its strength and combat capability.
Despite the massive effort by the Luftwaffe on 15 September 1940, Fighter Command held its ground. All of 11 Group (Park’s HQ in Uxbridge had none other than Winston Churchill and his wife in attendance) and 12 Group squadrons were engaged in the action. The RAF was virtually without reserve. Kesselring wished to lure RAF Fighter Command into a massive battle of annihilation. Yet, the German bombers failed to have effect. Luftwaffe losses numbered more than 60 aircraft destroyed, with about 40 damaged. Additionally, every pilot who bailed out of a German plane was lost to the Luftwaffe, while any English pilot who managed to escape his aircraft stood a good chance of being back with his squadron (if he was uninjured) the next day.
Following the disappointing results of the battle on 15 September, Hitler indefinitely postponed Seelöwe, the invasion of the British Isles. In addition, daylight raids on Britain all but ceased, and the nightmare of the London Blitz began. However, a corner had been turned. England, standing and suffering alone, would survive.
The famous words of the British Prime Minister still inspire more than seven decades hence.
The gratitude of every home in our island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world except in the abodes of the guilty goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unweakened by their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of world war by their prowess and their devotion.
Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.
(***In 1943-44 it was Kesselring, a former Artillery Officer, who led the determined and skilful German defense of northern Italy. How many USAF Generals could do that today?)