75th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain
Friday 11 September, 2015
On 15 September we commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain; the battle about which Winston Churchill famously declared: “never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
The French government formally surrendered to Nazi Germany on 22 June, 1940, leaving Britain in fear of invasion from Germany. Some in the British Parliament wanted to negotiate surrender, but Churchill would not hear of it. He hardened the public to continue the war. “The Battle for France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin….the whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, this was their finest hour”.
At the time Britain had naval superiority over Germany. Hitler believed that if an invasion of England was to be successful, Germany needed to establish its superiority in the air. He issued Directive No. 16 calling for preparations to be made for Operation Sea Lion – a joint amphibious and airborne invasion of Britain. As a pre-requisite Hitler demanded that the “British Air Force be eliminated to the extent that it will be incapable of putting up any sustained opposition to invading troops.”
The Luftwaffe was a highly decorated outfit by that time, having trained in secret prior to the war. They had recently won engagements against Poland, France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Its Commander-in-Chief, Reich Marshal Herman Goering, was optimistic that the victory over Britain’s RAF would take ‘just a few days’.
On 10 July, 1940 the Luftwaffe attacked British shipping convoys in the hope this action would draw the RAF out. It did, the attacks included targeting British radar stations and coastal towns. On 13 August, nicknamed Eagle Day by the German High Command, the Luftwaffe began major raids against the British airfields of Group 11, with a number of these badly damaged and requiring small civilian air fields to be engaged.
Nearly 3,000 RAF air crew served with the RAF Fighter Command. Approximately 20% of these were drawn from British dominions, including pilots from occupied and neutral countries. Defenders came from 16 nations in all. Australia had 25 pilots in the RAF Fighter Command, while other Australian pilots flew with RAF Bomber and Coastal Commands. Despite the might of the Luftwaffe, whose pilots outnumbered those of the British Royal Air Force (RAF) by 5 to 1, the German campaign proved unsuccessful.
On one night raid a German bomber pilot lost his way and ‘accidentally’ dropped a bomb on London. The RAF retaliated by dropping bombs on Berlin. Hitler was enraged and changed the targets to industrial centres and cities, with many civilian casualties subsequently suffered on both sides.
Ironically, it was this change of targets that allowed the British to repair their damaged airfields and re-gather their air defences. In early October, 1940 the Germans ceased their daytime bombing raids because the losses became too heavy. By the end of October they realised the RAF could not be defeated and Operation Sea Lion was abandoned.
The skill and sacrifice of the men who fought in the RAF against German Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain, dealt Hitler his first major defeat of World War 2. It began the Allies long march toward victory that would take another four years to secure.
To mark the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain the RAAF Association of South Australia is holding a commemorative ceremony at Torrens Parade Ground on Sunday 13 September from 11am.
For more information please click on the link below:
South Australian airmen fought with distinction in the Battle of Britain. They include John Reynolds Cock from Renmark and Richard Carew Reynell from Reynella. To read their stories and others click on the links below:
SA Air Ace, John Reynolds Cock
SA Airman, Richard Carew Reynell