The onset of winter and its wild, inhospitable weather is seldom welcomed with much enthusiasm, but in 1940 it came as a blessed relief for those living on the besieged British Isles.
Today, October 31st, is now officially recognised as marking the end of the Battle of Britain, which raged for four months in the terrifyingly tense summer of 1940. It would prove a pivotal point in the Second World War, with Britain ultimately defying the imminent threat of invasion by Nazi Germany.
Since their invasion of Poland on September 1st, 1939, Hitler’s forces had raced across Western Europe in a high-speed offensive known as ‘Blitzkrieg’ – ‘lightning war’. They swept away all in their path until, after nine deadly months, they reached the English Channel. It was the first massive natural obstacle to Hitler’s ambition, but he planned to overcome it with “Operation Sea Lion” – his strategy for the invasion and occupation of the United Kingdom.
In order for it to succeed, Hitler knew he would first have to gain superiority at sea and in the air destroying the Royal Navy in the English Channel and the Royal Air Force in the skies above it. Only then could he launch a full seaborne invasion, or force a demoralised and defeated Britain to surrender. That was his goal for the summer of 1940, and for Britain the next four months would bring the ultimate test of resistance against overwhelming forces entrenched just 20 miles away across a narrow strip of sea
The beginning of the Battle of Britain is officially recognised as July 10th, when Hitler’s air force, the Luftwaffe, closed the English Channel to merchant shipping and began bombing raids on Royal Navy ships at sea and in British ports. Over the coming weeks, the raids intensified, but were doggedly repelled by RAF fighters – Hurricanes and Spitfires – scrambled from bases in the South of England.
Hitler demanded a quick victory, but as July turned to August and the days dragged on he became increasingly impatient, knowing he could not attack across the channel once Autumn brought worsening weather. Frustrated at the Luftwaffe’s lack of progress, he ordered a change in tactics, with his bombers switched to targeting London and other British cities.
Initially this caught the RAF off-guard, but a few days of bad weather in early September restricted German attacks and gave British Fighter Command a much-need opportunity to regroup and reorganise. With good weather returning and senior Luftwaffe officers claiming the RAF was on its knees, Hitler planned a decisive mass bombing raid for September 15th, hoping to draw the RAF into a battle which would finally see it annihilated. It would be the ‘make or break’ day of the Battle of Britain.
British Fighter Command was able to muster 269 Spitfires and 533 Hurricanes – more than the enemy expected. Although many of the pilots were inexperienced, they trusted in their battle-proven leaders and fought with remarkable courage. Throughout the day, wave after wave of Luftwaffe bombers and fighter aircraft were launched against Britain, but time after time the RAF responded and repelled the attacks, inflicting heavy losses.
As dusk fell, it was clear the Germans had failed in their objective. Both sides deliberately overstated enemy losses, but more than 60 Luftwaffe aircraft had been shot down while RAF losses were less than half that number. Privately, Luftwaffe leaders began to doubt that they could break the RAF.
Instead efforts turned to breaking the British spirit, with a focus from early September on huge night-time bombing raids of British cities in a campaign known as “The Blitz”. It initially had a devastating effect, but again Hitler underestimated the British resolve, which seemed to only strengthen with each raid. As the RAF developed new tactics to combat the night-time bombers and city dwellers became accustomed to spending long nights in air raid shelters, the raids gradually became less effective.
By the end of October, Britain was breathing a huge sigh of relief. The Blitz would continue until the spring of the following year, but the threat of imminent invasion was washed away by choppy winter seas in the Channel. Hitler had been forced to postpone Operation Sea Lion and would ultimately abandon it altogether, turning his focus instead to the war in Eastern Europe. Yet at the same time he had to maintain his defences on the Channel, forcing him to fight a war on two fronts. In the years to come, it would be Hitler’s turn to fear a seaborne invasion – the biggest ever seen.
For Hitler, the Battle of Britain was his first major defeat, halting the momentum of a mighty German war machine which had previously seemed unstoppable. At times during the summer of 1940, Britain came perilously close to defeat. Winter was welcomed as an old friend, bringing desperately needed respite and the chance to regroup, repair and prepare for the battles ahead.