The Battle that Saved a Nation: The Battle of Britain and the Blitz

15 Aug

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(This is an excerpt taken from the book I’m writing that is currently underway. Enjoy!)

Even though the seemingly invincible juggernaut of the Wehrmacht had steamrolled over Western Europe, and her proudest cities lay sobbing within the shadow of the swastika, the final obstacle stood, a defiant island that had resisted the force of a military that numbered almost ten times its size: the United Kingdom. The stellar, overwhelming success that had become Sicklestroke had taken France and the Low Countries in a matter of weeks, leaving the lone keeper of the watch of the Allies awash in a sea of uncertainty. Britain’s House of Commons and House of Lords had torn themselves asunder in debating the proper course of action in dealing with Hitler’s Germany. The fall of France had pitted some three hundred thousand British and five million French troops against nearly eight million German soldiers, and the Allies had been decimated. If the Wehrmacht were to attempt a strike against the British Isles, there was no telling if Britain’s million-man army could withstand the shock of such an attack. The Norwegian campaign had, for the most part, ravaged Germany’s surface fleet, meaning that if any amphibious landing were to be attempted, the Kriegsmarine would be of little or no assistance. Britain’s foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, and a diminutive minority in the House of Commons supported a move to sue for peace; a move that Hitler had hoped the British would follow; yet Churchill—the audacious, militant new prime minister—and the heart of the British people would have none of it. On June 18, 1940, Churchill addressed the British people, stating that this would be “their finest hour”. The stage was set for one of the most legendary engagements in British, and world, history: the Battle of Britain.

As fighting in France intensified as the summer dawned in 1940, Churchill ordered the majority of the Royal Air Force’s Fighter Command to be dispatched to France, a decision abhorred by Fighter Command’s commandant, Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding. The German Luftwaffe had acquired air superiority almost instantly in the face of little Allied aerial resistance, and dispatching Fighter Command would be suicidal. And that it was. The beleaguered force returned decimated. With the evacuation from Dunkirk and the subsequent French capitulation, contrary to popular belief, Hitler did not wish to invade the British Isles. He actually wished to avoid them altogether. The last time the Isles had been invaded by a full-scale invasion force had been in 1066 by Guillaume le Conquerant—William the Conqueror—of Normandy, and before him, the great Julius Caesar of Rome in 54 B.C., followed by subsequent failed attempts made by the infamous Caligula and his much more triumphant successor, Claudius. The British Isles appeared a deathtrap, and with France destroyed, Hitler could safely turn his attention eastward, toward the vast, looming Soviet Union, a nation he desperately wished to destroy. Hitler had made the treacherous, and incredibly false, assumption that in the wake of France’s surrender, the British would follow suit, suing for peace in a last ditch effort to save their sovereignty. Yet Churchill’s June 18 speech thwarted those assumptions, with Churchill stating to the British people that the Isles would not surrender, and would fight on, no matter how long the war lasted. Hitler would be compelled into action to quell this last fortification of Allied resistance in the west. And the longer it remained, the further an invasion of the Soviet Union would have to be postponed, something Hitler had dreadfully wanted to avoid.

There are two avenues that can be taken with an attempted invasion of Great Britain, rather, any island for that matter: an amphibious assault, and an airborne landing. Both require some degree of air superiority, and in the summer of 1940, that was truer then than it is now. The Royal Navy’s Home Fleet still possessed fifty destroyers, twenty-one cruisers, and eight battleships, and the Royal Air Force nearly one thousand one hundred and forty four aircraft, of which seven hundred and four were fighters, the additional four hundred and forty being bomber aircraft of varying size. Facing them was the Kriegsmarine, whose surface fleet had nearly been annihilated in the Norwegian campaign and only possessed a token few battleships, the largest of which, Bismarck, would be laying in pieces on the muddy floor of the North Atlantic within a year (the Kriegsmarine, at Hitler’s behest, would begin switching priority to their submarine fleet, leading to the nefarious U-boat campaign within the North Atlantic, which had just begun to get underway), yet the Luftwaffe possessed two thousand six hundred and sixty nine aircraft, of which thirteen hundred and sixty eight were fighter aircraft, the remainder being bombers of varying size. It appeared that numerical superiority sat drastically with the Luftwaffe, as did the majority of experienced pilots, as a multitude of Germany’s tried and true pilots had seen combat in Spain, western, and northern Europe, while the majority of the Royal Air Force’s trained pilots had been lost in France, and they were irreplaceable. Yet the British had two resounding advantages over the Luftwaffe: the benefit of fighting on familiar, friendly ground, where the German aircraft would be forced to cross between twenty and fifty miles of sea to reach them (Germany’s fighters had been designed to cover infantry at short distances, not bombers at intermediate to long distance, and most fighters could only protect German bombers in British air space for twenty minutes before abandoning the bombers to refuel), and a recently finalized invention: radar. An acronym meaning radio detection and ranging and still incredibly fresh from the prototypical stage (the United States would not possess its first operational radar station until November 1941), radar had actually been floating in the minds of inventors since the late 1880’s, when Heinrich Hertz pioneered the concept of ricocheting radio waves off objects to produce a picture. Perfected in 1935 by British inventor Robert Watson-Watt, the concept of radar would be implemented by the British in the form of a defensive network known simply as “Chain Home”, a line of radar stations and accompanying air bases running in an intertwining, linked system down Britain’s eastern coast. The idea was simple: spot German aircraft formations in northern France, inform the nearby air base of their arrival, and wait until the last possible second to scramble fighters and intercept, a veritable aerial ambush. And under the direction of Hugh Dowding, this system would prove unstoppable.

In late June 1940, Hitler finally realized the necessity of neutralizing Britain in order to achieve his goal of subduing the troublesome Soviet Union. Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, commanding the entirety of Germany’s Kriegsmarine, understood the dire situation facing his navy: they no longer possessed the operational capacity to wage war on the high seas against the Royal Navy. If the planned amphibious landing, known as Unternehmen See Löwe, Operation Sea Lion, was to be successful, air superiority was an inevitable necessity. The Kriegsmarine was both outnumbered and outgunned, and any hope of an invasion of Britain rested in the hands of Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, the commander of the Luftwaffe. If German fighters and bombers could neutralize the Royal Air Force and achieve air superiority, any Royal Navy attempt to halt an amphibious landing on England’s southern coast could potentially be held at bay by the Luftwaffe, the Kriegsmarine being in no position to offer support. The concept of assaulting surface ships with aircraft had been pioneered in the early 1920’s by Billy Mitchell, an early American advocate of strategic bombing, yet the idea was still laughable, and no amphibious landing of the size necessary to land men in England had been attempted in western Europe. The closest equivalent had been a Japanese landing at Wuhan, a city of two million people, on the river Yangtze in central China in 1938. It was the Luftwaffe’s prerogative to neutralize the effectiveness of the Royal Air Force, decimating the plucky force, and focusing the majority of their attention upon strategically invaluable targets, including aircraft industry, radar stations, and airfields. And beginning in earnest that July, the first sorties of the Luftwaffe thundered from airfields in northern France toward southern England, their roaring engines soon to meet with those of the Royal Air Force as the two mixed contrails and engaged in high altitude aerial combat, the first dogfights since the previous war.

Initially, German aircraft attempted to lure British fighters into the skies over the English Channel, yet the attempt actually caused the reverse to occur. With each failure to lure British aircraft into the open, German aircraft were forced to move closer and closer to the English coast, allowing the British to successfully to force German fighter pilots to spring the trap. Once they reached the coast, the British would assault from below, catching the aircraft off guard. And with their limited fuel, in most circumstances the fighter aircraft would be forced to abandon the bombers they were protecting to the mercy of the Royal Air Force. German aircraft were achieving limited to no success, even when fifteen hundred fighters and bombers assaulted southern England in what was then known as Adlertag, or Eagle Day, August 13, 1940. Any Royal Air Force fighters lost in combat were rapidly replaced, and, by December, the Royal Air Force actually possessed more fighters under their command than they had at the battle’s onset, nearly four thousand nine hundred and fifty five, while German aircraft industry was faltering in its attempt to compensate, and with each loss of an aircraft, it meant the simultaneous loss of a pilot, considering—in the circumstance that they did live—they would be forced to bail out over enemy territory. Pilots from myriad nations, including French, Czech, and Polish, came to assist the Royal Air Force, and even a small contingent of Americans. Considering their status as neutral noncombatants—although the United States government of President Franklin Roosevelt supported the British through programs such as battleships-for-bases, cash-and-carry, and later 1941’s Lend Lease and the Atlantic Charter—the American pilots, much like Claire Chennault’s “Flying Tigers”, were forced to forfeit their commissions in the United States’ Army Air Corps, so, if captured, they could not be labeled as a true American pilot, as well as being forced to wear the uniforms of the nation they flew for, in this case Britain, and fly British aircraft. They would become known as the “Eagle Squadron”. As the fighting continued into early September, with the British being forced to contend not only with incessant Luftwaffe assaults on port cities, which often resulted in civilian casualties, as well as airfields and radar stations, yet also an Italian assault from eastern Libya’s Cyrenaica province in Egypt’s Western Desert under General Rodolfo Graziani. Fortunately for the British, the Luftwaffe assault was largely impotent, with most raids being met in the sky long before they had the opportunity to reach any strategically valuable targets. Only one radar station was forced to be shut down during the entirety of the aerial siege, and it was only down for a mere two hours. Yet the fighting would soon make a turn for the worst, entering a chapter of the Second World War that would come to be known simply as The Blitz.

On August 1, 1940, Hitler issued his Directive Number Seventeen, stating that once the British airfields and radar stations along the coast were neutralized, as well as compromising the combat effectiveness of the Royal Air Force, then the Luftwaffe would focus the majority of their munitions upon major cities, including Liverpool, London, Edinburgh, and Coventry, and at any time before that stipulated date, permission to bomb any municipality had to originate directly from the Führer himself, yet within fourteen days, the situation rapidly deteriorated. One the night of August 15, a German bomber mistakenly released its ordinance on an airfield on the outskirts of London, and within a matter of days, more bombers were driven off course, relinquishing high explosive munitions on residential areas on the capital’s periphery, such as Harrow, as well as subsequent bombings of the Scottish port of Aberdeen and the British seaport of Bristol, located on the southern, or English, bank of the Bristol Channel between England and Wales. A raid upon Portsmouth that led to the death of one hundred civilians proved the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. The bombings had gradually traversed the schism between mistaken raids and deliberate assaults on residential areas. And the British, predominantly Churchill, were infuriated. On August 25, 1940, the Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command launched a midnight raid through the overcast skies over Germany, with eighty-one aircraft dispensing their munitions upon Berlin. The cloud cover that blanketed the city during the raid had caused the British, who intended to dispense their ordinance upon industrial targets, to instead release their high explosive munitions upon predominantly residential areas. And now it was the turn of Hitler to be incensed. He immediately rescinded his previous directive, and issued a prompt replacement. For the remainder of the aerial war, German bombing would be shifted to striking civilian targets in the concept of terror bombing. They would bomb the island into submission by striking fear into the hearts of its civilian population, and London and other major municipal centers would be stricken on a daily basis. Göring was ecstatic. He, along with Albert Kesselring, a fellow officer within the Luftwaffe who would go on to gain fame within combat in the Mediterranean, had championed the utilization of terror bombing against the defiant British. And as August gave way to September, that campaign had gone well underway.

From the first of September to the fifteenth, German aircraft struck London on a daily basis, marauding in broad daylight, a rather brazen tactic, as barrage balloons and antiaircraft batteries had been deployed within the city. The bomber aircraft had begun to utilize not only high explosive, yet also incendiary munitions, which caused massive conflagrations, burning whole city blocks to ashes, yet bombing was not entirely centered on laying waste to residential areas. Several raids still centered upon striking industrial or commercial targets, such as a raid launched upon the city of Derby, which possessed the intent of razing the city to the ground, Derby being the location of the Rolls Royce factory that produced Merlin engines for the Supermarine Spitfire. A conference held on the fourteenth of September resulted in a groundbreaking decision by der Führer: no longer would the Luftwaffe focus upon destroying Britain’s cities. They would destroy her population entirely. On September 15, 1940, a daylight raid, later known as Battle of Britain Day, resulted in, up to that point, the bloodiest single day of aerial combat since August 18. The August 18 raid had been dubbed the Hardest Day, and was the veritable Shiloh to the Antietam Battle of Britain Day would become, Shiloh being the bloodiest single day in the American Civil War until Antietam. The fatalities had been so grave that it had prompted Hitler to shift from daylight to permanent nocturnal bombing, and postponed the amphibious landing further. And the British Isles remained defiant. London’s population slept within the Underground by night, and by day resided in the countryside. Children were sent away to the residences of friends and family in the surrounding environment. And still the Isles fought on. And as they continued to resist, the Luftwaffe only continued to waste away. By early October, it had become evident that any possible landing upon the southern coast of England was impossible, and Hitler permanently abandoned the fleeting dream that had been Operation Sea Lion. Britain would continue to resist. And the Luftwaffe would continue to conduct token raids on several cities, although by October 1940, the brunt of the Blitz had passed. Raids would continue on until the spring of 1941, when the remnants of the Luftwaffe’s strength in France was stripped away to assist in Unternehmen Barbarossa, Operation Barbarossa, the June 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union.

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