The Battle of Britain - Leadership and Strategy
The Battle of Britain (1940)
- The defeat of the German air force (the Luftwaffe) by Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF,
- Saving Britain from German invasion (code named Sea Lion) during the
Second World War.
When did it happen?
10th July – 31st October, 1940
When Britain and its empire stood alone against Nazi Germany after the:
- German defeat of France on June 14th 1940 - see below.
- evacuation of British troops at Dunkirk (pictured right) in
northern France on June 4th 1940 – see below.
Key events before the battle
30th January 1933
Adolf Hitler becomes leader or
29th September 1938
The Munich Agreement, a peace agreement between:
- the British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain (pictured right with Hitler).
Chamberlain declares that there will be “peace in our time”.
23rd August 1939
Germany and Russia (then called the Soviet Union) sign a non-aggression agreement.
3rd September 1939
Britain and France declare war on Germany after the German invasion of Poland on September
The Germans use Blitzkrieg with:
- quickly advancing infantry and artillery.
- Stuka dive bombers, pictured right.
These tactics are also used to defeat France in June 1940 (see below).
Bletchley Park code breakers decipher the German Enigma code.
10th May 1940
Winston Churchill (pictured right on May
20th with his famous 'V' sign for victory) succeeds Neville Chamberlain as British prime minister.
27th May - 4th June 1940
Dunkirk - 338,000 British and French troops are evacuated from Dunkirk in north-eastern
14th June 1940
The Germans enter Paris (pictured right).
Britain has lost half its fighter planes trying unsuccessfully to defend France.
3rd July 1940
Britain destroys the French fleet at Oran in north Africa, signalling its determination to
British prime minister.
Chief of the British fighter planes (called Fighter Command) - see below.
Head of 11 Group, the RAF fighter stations defending south-east England.
Churchill’s minister for aircraft production.
Reginald Mitchell (pictured right)
Designer of the Spitfire, Britain’s best fighter plane.
Sydney Camm (pictured right)
Designer of the Hurricane, Britain’s other ace fighter.
Robert Watson-Watt (pictured right)
Scottish inventor of radar.
Head of the Luftwaffe (the German air force).
Albert Kesselring (pictured right)
Head of German fighter planes in north-eastern France.
The fighter pilots
The pilots were the heroes (on both sides).
The opposing air forces (around 9th August 1940)
- 1,032 fighters - Spitfires (pictured right) and
Hurricanes (pictured right below)
- 1,011 fighters (mainly the Messerschmitt 109 - the dive bomber Stuka was
withdrawn in mid-August after heavy losses).
Key events in the battle
Britain exceeds the German production of fighters by 1,900 to 775.
12th August- 6th
German bombing of radar stations and airfields.
British night time bombing of Berlin.
Germans start bombing London in retaliation, the start of the Blitz (pictured right) which:
- hit other industrial cities
During the Blitz, Londoners are forced to shelter in the underground (or subway).
Buckingham Palace bombed, where King George VI (pictured right) lives.
This won him public support in the bombed areas like the East End in London (up until then
he had been booed).
Decisive British victory with 25 British and 60 German planes shot down (now
called Battle of Britain Day)
This led to Hitler’s indefinite postponement of invasion on 17th September.
Why did Britain win the Battle of Britain?
He turned Britain into a united nation of all conquering heroes through his:
- inspirational speeches (see the quotes at the end).
- complete confidence in victory (when most British people had given up)
2. Hugh Dowding
The Scottish head of Fighter Command, Hugh Dowding (nicknamed “Stuffy”), pictured right, was a hero because of
- insistence that all the RAF’s fighters weren’t used to defend France.
- determined focus on victory.
- promotion of radar (see point 9)
- support for the production of Spitfires and Hurricanes in the late 1930’s
(see point 5).
- support of Keith Park’s successful strategy of fighting in single
squadrons (see point 3).
But sadly Dowding was dismissed in November 1940 because of his unsuccessful handling of the German night
3. Keith Park
Park (pictured right) , a New Zealander, was the brilliant commander of 11 Group, responsible for defending
He inspired his pilots through his:
- integrity and kind sensitivity.
- good example (regularly flying a Hurricane into battle).
His strategy of quickly attacking the enemy in single squadrons was very successful, but
Trafford Leigh-Mallory (commander of 12 Group, responsible for the
Midlands, pictured right), who supported “Big Wing” - 3 to 5 squadrons attacking
His bitter dispute with Park contributed to Park’s dismissal in November 1940.
4. Poor German leadership
Goering (pictured right) and Hitler made serious mistakes:
- over-estimating the Luftwaffe’s strength.
- under-estimating the RAF’s strength and radar’s importance.
- poor knowledge about the location of airfields and vital factories (like the Spitfire
factory at Southampton).
- bombing London from 7th September onwards instead of the airfields - the
5. The Spitfire and Hurricane
The Hurricane was sturdy and reliable.
But the Spitfire was quicker, more manoeuvrable, and most feared by the Germans.
The best German fighter was the Messerschmitt 109, pictured right, but its range was limited
(it could only fly over Britain for 30 minutes).
The designers of the Spitfire (Reginald Mitchell), Hurricane (Sydney Camm) and
their Rolls-Royce Merlin engine (Ernest Hives, pictured right) combined:
The test pilot, Ralph Sorley, pictured right, crucially insisted the Spitfire and Hurricane
should have eight machine guns instead of their original four.
The dynamic government minister for aircraft production, Lord Beaverbrook (pictured right
- ensured that the workers in the aircraft factories (mostly women) were making far more
fighters than the Germans.
- won public support by asking for people’s pots and pans, even though they were
The British pilots worked brilliantly with the people on the ground:
- ground crews (re-fuelling and aircraft maintenance).
- the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, WAAF (for example, the women in the operations rooms
showing the location of enemy aircraft).
- army anti-aircraft gunners (to defend the airfields).
7. Morale and purpose
The pilots’ morale was fantastic and they, like everybody else in Britain, wanted to defeat
They found spiritual fulfilment in having something worthwhile to die for.
People were also cheered up by
- BBC radio singers and entertainers (like Vera Lynn, pictured right).
- the cinema (30 million went every week).
8. Code breaking
A team at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire (led by Alan Turing, pictured
right) deciphered the German Enigma code in January 1940.
So Britain knew exactly what the Germans were doing.
9. Radar and new technology
A team at Bawdsey Manor in Suffolk (led by the inspirational Scot, Robert Watson-Watt)
developed radar which crucially detected German planes.
This project was encouraged by the government scientist, Henry Tizard,pictured right
In August 1940 (with Churchill’s approval), Tizard sent all of Britain’s technological defence secrets to
the Americans, so that they could develop them further (called the Tizard Mission).
Britain’s pilots (called “the few” by Churchill) were skilled and courageous.
414 were killed in the battle, and they included men from:
- America (the seven Americans formed the Eagle Squadron).
Their morale was much higher than the German pilots who:
- were worried about being captured and falling into the
freezing English Channel.
- weren’t trained for the battle (because their previous role had been to support the
Douglas Bader (242 Squadron, Coltishall, Norfolk) -
Made famous by the 1956 film, Reach for the Sky, Bader (pictured right) lost his legs in a
plane crash in 1931 as a young RAF pilot.
In the Battle of Britain, he inspired the Canadians in his Hurricane squadron with his:
He proposed the controversial “Big Wing” idea of several squadrons flying together.
Captured in 1941, he was sent to Colditz, the famous German prisoner of war camp.
Alan (“Al”) Deere (54 Squadron, Hornchurch, East London)
A New Zealand Spitfire ace (pictured right), his 1959 autobiography was called Nine Lives,
because he had several narrow escapes including a collision with a German fighter on July 9th.
He courageously overcame:
- exhaustion and lifelong back pain (from crash landing into a
farmer’s cess pool)
- the tragic loss of his fellow pilots (particularly his close friend, Johnny
- the fear of death (resisting the constant urge to withdraw from battle).
He was helped by the love of Joan, who married him in September 1945.
Bob Doe (234 Squadron, Middle Wallop, Hampshire) -
The third most successful pilot in the Battle of Britain, pictured right, shooting down 14 German planes by the
end of 1940.
His self-belief was just as important as his flying ability. He said:
“If you believe in yourself and believe in what you are doing, then you are twice as strong as if you
In January 1945 he needed 22 plastic surgery operations after a plane crash.
Roger (“Sam”) Hall (152 Squadron, Middle Wallop, Hampshire)
He bravely overcame his constant fear of death, reflected in the title of his 1975 autobiography, Clouds
But, after the death of his close friend, “Scottie”, a New Zealand pilot, in 1942, he finally
cracked and had to stop flying.
He fully recovered (helped by his belief in God) and lived happily in Dover.
Adolph (“Sailor”) Malan (74 Squadron, Hornchurch, East London) -
A South African, Malan (pictured right) was the best Battle of Britain pilot and a great leader because of
- brilliant example and tactics.
- sensitive support for his men.
- character (given moral strength by his wife and baby son, born in June 1940).
His tips for success in battle were:
- speed in attack and decision making.
“Go in quickly. Punch hard. Get out!”
Richard Hillary (603 Squadron, Montrose, Scotland) -
Australian pilot, who wrote about his wartime experiences in his book, The Last Enemy.
His love affair with Mary Booker inspired him to overcome his:
- fear of death.
- horrific burns (from being shot down on September 3rd 1940).
He was one of the many “Guinea Pigs” who were given excruciatingly painful plastic surgery for their burns by
Doctor Archie McIndoe (pictured right) .
Adolf Galland (1912-66)
German fighter ace (pictured right) who
- flew a Messerschmitt 109.
- enraged Goering by telling him that to win he needed a squadron of Spitfires!
Werner Mölders (1913-41)
Mölders (pictured right) was:
The results of victory in the Battle of Britain
The invasion of Western Europe from Britain (pictured right) - see D-Day.
2. Germany fighting on two fronts
(when Hitler invaded Russia in 1941).
3. Bombing of Germany from Britain
- delayed its development of the atomic bomb.
4. America’s increased support for Britain
Americans (including President Franklin D.
Roosevelt, pictured right) admired the courage of the British
This made Roosevelt's declaration of war against Germany in 1941 much easier.
Key quotes by Churchill in 1940
We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the
landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and streets. we shall fight in the hills; we shall never
- June 4th (just after the evacuation of British and French troops at Dunkirk).
The Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin... 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’,
- June 18th.
Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.
- 20th August (talking about the Battle of Britain).
Other key quotes
I had a feeling of the essential rightness of it all. He was dead and I was alive; it could so easily have been
the other way round.
- Richard Hillary , Australian Battle of Britain pilot.
Taking a Spitfire into the sky in September 1940 was like entering a dark room with a madman waving a knife
behind your back.
- Sailor Malan, Battle of Britain pilot.
Anyone who said he felt no fear in action was not telling the truth...The Germans were doing their level best to
try and kill or maim you.
- Al Deere, Battle of Britain pilot.
I’m glad we’ve been bombed. It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face.
- Queen Elizabeth, wife of King George VI (pictured right in 1939).
We do not want to be remembered as heroes, we only ask to be remembered for what we did....that's all.
Bob Doe, Battle of Britain pilot.
I regard it as a privilege to fight for all those things that make life worth living - freedom, honour and fair
Bill Millington, pictured right, Australian Battle of Britain pilot.
I must therefore request that... not one fighter will be sent across the Channel however urgent and insistent
the appeals for help may be.
- Hugh Dowding (in a letter to Winston Churchill, 16th May, 1940).
No man in his RAF uniform failed to score.
- comment on RAF sex appeal at the Café de Paris in London, a servicemen’s club.