The Battle of Britain was a turning point of great importance. The Germans had taken just a month to defeat Poland in September 1939. On April 9th 1940 Denmark and Norway had been attacked. British and French efforts to help Norway failed. On May 10th 1940 the Germans launched their forces upon Belgium, Luxembourg, Holland and France. By-passing the French defensive Maginot line and thrusting through the wooded Ardennes hills, the Germans achieved more in three weeks in 1940 than in the whole of World War One. Their new 'Blitzkrieg' tactics, marrying massed tank forces with air support and mechanized infantry, seemed unstoppable. British infantry forces were cut off in Belgium as the German armour reached the Channel coast and the demoralized French forces were confused and in retreat. When France surrendered on June 22nd 1940 Hitler had mastery of the European continent. The potential economic and manpower resources at his disposal would be tremendous.
Up to this point no nation had been able to stand up to the Germans. They seemed invincible, every bit the 'master race' about which Hitler liked to brag. After a pause to allow Britain to sue for peace, which she did not, Hitler realized that to finish his conquests he must assault the British in their island home. A French general offered the opinion that Britain would 'have its neck wrung like a chicken'. The American Ambassador, Mr Kennedy, reported to Washington that Britain was finished. Hitler certainly expected to invade successfully and the British fully expected him to come. All over southern and eastern England, June and July saw the frantic erection of hundreds of pill boxes to defend river and road crossings and other strategic points. (Many of these can still be seen, overgrown, in the countryside).
The German Air force, the Luftwaffe, was the most powerful air force in the world in summer 1940. Organized into three Luftflottes, in total it had 898 operational bombers, 708 single engine fighters, mainly the formidable Messerschmidt 109s and 202 less formidable twin engine Messerschmidt 110s. Their task was not to invade Britain but to defeat the British Royal Air Force and achieve air superiority over the English Channel and southern England. This was essential before a German invasion force could sail from France. Its barges and the soldiers to man them were gathered and waiting in ports along the north French coast. With British fighter cover, the Royal Navy would make short work of any invasion fleet. With the RAF gone the German Luftwaffe would be able to bomb any Royal Navy vessels attempting to intervene against the invasion fleet. Thus the defeat of the Royal Air Force was the key to Hitler's plans.
The RAF had suffered heavily in France in May 1940, losing 477 fighters and 284 pilots, though inflicting heavy losses on the Luftwaffe. However, by June the RAF had recovered to 520 fighters and by August had 715 fighters and 424 in store ready to act as replacements. The lack of experienced fighter pilots was more grave. The Battle of Britain built up from July 10, with attacks on shipping in the Channel and on south coast towns. The conflict peaked in the period from August 13th to September 15th. The German Luftwaffe tried a variety of tactics and from August 24th to September 6th came close to success by targeting Sector airfields of 11 Group, which was defending south east England and London. Britain had a very efficient aircraft production industry in place and could replace its lost airplanes better than the Germans could. Pilots, though, were another matter. Flying up to 5 sorties a day, those who were not killed were exhausted and their airfields were at risk of being put out of action. It looked as if the RAF might be forced back.
The Germans turned their attention to London however, convinced that the RAF was as good as finished. Taking advantage of the lull in attacks on their airfields, the RAF rapidly recovered. When the Luftwaffe launched a massive attack on September 15th, instead of light opposition it was met by 17 squadrons and suffered 60 aircraft shot down. It now finally dawned upon Hitler, and his chief of the Luftwaffe, Goering, that the RAF could not be beaten. Although hostilities continued, the plans for Operation Sealion, the invasion of Britain, were shelved. This marked far more than the salvation of Britain.
The Battle of Britain was the first defeat of German forces. It confounded the myth of German invincibility. This was important to those suffering occupation as well as to beleaguered Britain. It ensured that the war would go on, not end in total dominance of the European continent by Nazi ideology. Had Britain fallen, there would have been no base from which any reconquest of the Continent could have been launched. There would have been no Arctic convoys to take equipment to the struggling Russians as they faced the full might of the German Wehrmacht. Britain's survival also caught the imagination of President Franklin Roosevelt and inclined him to offer such assistance as he could, despite domestic opposition.
Winston Churchill, who took over as Prime Minister of Britain on May 10th 1940, said the following before the Battle of Britain: 'The Battle of France is over. The Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon it rests the future of Christian civilization. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island, or lose the War'. When it was all over, he observed, 'never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few'.
Although many dark days lay ahead, the Battle of Britain was a turning point of the greatest importance, for Britain and for Humanity.