The Battle of Britain: Overture

‘Germany had every reason to be confident of victory in the ensuing battle.’

On 15 September 1940 Britain came under air attack from the German Luftwaffe, in the first major military campaign to be fought entirely in the air. 75 years on, we commemorate these events on what’s now known as Battle of Britain Day – celebrating a campaign that saw British armed forces succeed at a time when Hitler was dominating the rest of Europe.

Published in the 75th anniversary year of the Battle of Britain, Robin Prior’s new book When Britain Saved the West: The Story of 1940 reassesses key events during this pivotal year of the second world war. To coincide with the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain the YaleBooks blog is sharing a series of extracts from this new publication. The first extract examines events preceding the battle, as well as British and German expectations at the time.

Battle of Britain

Aircraft spotter on the roof of a building in London. St. Paul’s Cathedral

From Chapter 9, The Battle of Britain: Overture

by Robin Prior

In the last days of June 1940 the destiny of Britain seemed to hang in the balance and Germany had every reason to be confident of victory in the ensuing battle. Their forces had expelled the British army from Europe and crushed all its major allies. The Dominions still stood with Britain but their armies were too small and too distant to be of significant consequence. Britain’s own army that had escaped from France was a shattered remnant in a state of hasty reorganisation. Most of its equipment was strewn across the beaches around Dunkirk. Once Hitler’s soldiers landed in Britain they expected to make short work of it. Military defeat would most likely lead to the overthrow of the Churchill government. All Europe would then be at Hitler’s mercy. The United States would be isolated, though not splendidly.

All that stood between Germany and the realisation of this ambition, so the Luftwaffe chiefs thought, were the 750 aircraft of Fighter Command. Goering was quick to assure his colleagues that he had the means to destroy this force. After all, the Luftwaffe had 900 fighters, 1,000 bombers, 350 fighter bombers and 300 of the Stuka dive- bombers that had proved so destructive to morale during the campaign in the west. He would soon bring Britain to its knees or its senses.

This appealed to Hitler. If the RAF could be defeated, some welcome political changes in Britain might take place. A British Petain might come to power and seek to make whatever peace he could. This would mean victory without invasion. And without Britain to contend with, the Wehrmacht could single- mindedly turn against other foes in the east.

In a memorandum on 30 June, Goering laid down the strategy that he would employ to defeat Fighter Command. The battle would be fought in several phases. The first phase, as he later described, amounted to a ‘reconnaissance in force’, involving flights over the Channel designed specifically to lure Dowding’s Hurricanes and Spitfires into engagements over water. This would exploit the RAF’s weakness in sea rescue, which rendered its losses in aircraft and pilots over water irredeemable. During the first phase the Luftwaffe would also be able to gauge the strength and grouping of the enemy air force. For the second phase, Goering listed a whole raft of targets to be destroyed. They included the remainder of the RAF and its ground organisation, the aircraft industry, importing harbours, merchant ships and warships. Within this plethora of objectives, however, Goering made it clear that the destruction of the RAF was paramount: ‘As long as the enemy air force is not defeated the prime requirement of the air war is to attack the enemy air force on every possible opportunity by day or by night, in the air, or on the ground, without consideration to other tasks.’ This was how the battle was supposed to be fought. It was not, and as we will see Goering did not seem to notice.


When Britain Saved the West: The Story of 1940 by Robin Prior is available from Yale University Press.

When Britain Saved the West

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