Following on from my RAF100 post the Sopwih Camel and WW1…
By 1940 the awesome might of Hitler’s Luftwaffe had been displayed in the lightning blitzkrieg offensive that annexed France in six weeks. In the aftermath the British had managed to rescue more than 300,000 troops from Dunkirk with a hastily cobbled together flotilla during May and June 1940. Then the country braced itself for the inevitable Nazi aerial onslaught and invasion.
The Royal Navy ruled the waves and the German fleet was no match for it but the man in charge of the Luftwaffe, Goring, believed that the Luftwaffe would be able to take care of the Royal Navy or at least keep it contained. This would allow the German navy to mount an invasion along the southern coast of England.
The only thing standing between Hitler and a successful invasion of these isles was the RAF and as such Goring ordered the total destruction of Britain’s air force. Over the following weeks the outnumbered British pilots, along with Czechs, Poles and volunteers from Commonwealth countries such as Canada, Australia and Barbados held the Germans at bay and inflicted crippling losses on the Luftwaffe. For a time it was a very touch and go victory, we were out of pilots, planes and materials and if the Germans hadn’t have switched tactics it is widely though the RAF would have been out of the war just a day or two later.
The ferocity of the RAF gave the Germans no indication that they were so close to victory and so Hitler decided to change tactics and initiated the Blitz. Britains cities were about to be blasted to oblivion but it meant that militarily if not yet ready for victory would never be defeated.
There were a number of factors that contributed to Britain’s greatest victory, such as superior radar, having a home advantage meaning our pilots were more rested, and strategic confusion on the German side.
Yet one of the decisive factors was the Spitfire and its Rolls Royce Merlin engine, which meant the aircraft was more agile than anything the Third Reich could put into the sky.
Ultimately what prevented Britain becoming a province in the Nazi empire was the bravery and determination the young pilots who faced down the most devastating air force the world had seen.
Winston Churchill poignantly expressed the magnitude of the RAF’s victory when said:
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
In the little over two decades since its formation, the RAF had evolved from an adjunct of the army and navy into the saviour of the nation.
Although there may have been other minor air battles, from WW1 all the way up to British and American air battles over Iraq in the 21st century it can really be said that the Battle of Britain was the only major battle decided in the air. It was the only aerial battle comparable to the huge battles of old with troops and cavalry that decided the fate of nations and empires.
The First World War aircraft such as the Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5 had a top speed of 130mph by the time of the second world war the Spitfire more than doubled that at 360mph.
Another factor in our victory was that the Luftwaffe only had 5 or 10 minutes to actually fight with us after crossing the Channel. It is always the case that people defending their home-land have added motivation over invaders and there are several occassions of RAF pilots getting shot down or crash landing and then high-tailing it to the nearest airbase and taking back to the skies to get into the very same battle they had crashed out of. As figures in the German High-Command noted, with spirit like that, how could they win?
Though the RAF had countless varieties of planes in use during WW2, the obvious icons of this era are two fighter planes in the shape of the Spitfire and Hurricane and also the Lancaster Bomber.
It was the Spitfire and Hurricane that were the stalwarts of defence in the Battle of Britain. I’m probably about the youngest person in Britain who grew up being able to recognise the different engine sounds of the Spitfire, Hurricane and Lancaster as I lived on route where they would practice for ceremonial flights over London. There is absolutely nothing like the sound of a Spitfire and the video below shows why it is so beloved.
The video below shows a Spitfire flying about 8 feet above a very shocked TV presenter. A bit of strong language ensues when they have to duck!
The Lancaster Bomber was the most famous RAF bomber plane of the Second World War. It wasn’t fast and maneurverable like a fighter, it was slow and lumbering and its only purpose was to drop bombs over Germany.
Probably the most famous mission flown by the Lancasters was the audacious Dambusters mission to destroy dams that powered large German industrial complexes. These dams were in heavily defended mountainous areas and in an era before missiles, it would be an impossible job to fly over the dam and drop a few bombs and hope for the best.
Instead, inventor Barnes Wallis came up with the idea that if you could drop a bomb at precisely the right height and speed and drop it spinning then it would bounce along the surface of the lake like a skipping stone and if precisely right, impact upon the dam and explode.
It wasn’t much more than a suicide mission and worthy of much more of a blog post than these few words. Immortalised in the classic Dambusters film, it was so a deadly and improbable mission you can see below on the video how it inspired George Lucas and the final attack on the Death Star in Star Wars.
Below is a clip of two Lancasters conducting a memorial flight over Derwent Reservoir.