RAF Museum, RAFPCC, JSPCC and JSCC cover series
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The Battle of Britain
On 18 June 1940, Churchill gave a rousing speech to the British people, announcing: '... the Battle of France is over. The Battle of Britain is about to begin.' Four days later, France surrendered to Germany and Hitler turned his attention to Britain.
German air superiority in the south of England was essential before Hitler could contemplate an invasion so Hermann Goering, the head of the Luftwaffe, was instructed that the RAF must be 'beaten down to such an extent that it can no longer muster any power of attack worth mentioning against the German crossing'.
British and German aeroplanes
The Luftwaffe's principal fighter planes were the Messerschmitt Bf109 and the Messerschmitt Bf110. It had a number of favoured bombers: the Dornier 17, the Junkers Ju88, the Heinkel 111, and the Junkers Ju87 (also known as the 'Stuka' from Sturzkampfflugzeug, the German word for dive bomber). The RAF had the high-performance Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire fighters.
Although on paper the Luftwaffe appeared to have the advantage in numbers of planes, pilots and experience, the two air forces were, in fact, evenly matched. The short range of the German planes and the fact they were fighting over enemy territory were both serious disadvantages for the Luftwaffe. The RAF also had radar, a priceless tool for detecting enemy raids.
The battle begins
The battle began in mid-July and, initially, the Luftwaffe concentrated on attacking shipping in the English Channel and attacking coastal towns and defences. From 12 August, Goering shifted his focus to the destruction of the RAF, attacking airfields and radar bases. Convinced that Fighter Command was now close to defeat, he also tried to force air battles between fighter planes to definitively break British strength.
However, Goering grew frustrated by the large number of British planes that were still fighting off his attacks. On 4 September, the Luftwaffe switched tactics again and, on Hitler's orders, set about destroying London and other major cities.
Eleven days later, on what became known as 'Battle of Britain Day', the RAF savaged the huge incoming Luftwaffe formations in the skies above London and the south coast.
The invasion is postponed.
It was now clear to Hitler that his air force had failed to gain air superiority so, on 17 September, he postponed his plans to invade Britain. His attention was now focused on the invasion of the Soviet Union, although the Luftwaffe continued to bomb Britain until the end of the war.
It's difficult to establish an exact figure of how many aircraft were shot down in the Battle of Britain, partly because both sides tended to exaggerate their successes and downplay their losses. However, it's estimated that between 10 July and the end of October 1940, the RAF lost around 1,023 aircraft whilst the Luftwaffe lost 1,887.
Bomber Command, arguably the most famous of the RAF's wartime commands, was brought into existence on 14 Jul 1936 after the Home Defence Force was reorganised in recognition of the many tasks which would fall to the RAF in time of war. The Command's structure evolved during the war as the number of aircraft, squadrons and airfields subordinated to it grew such that in 1942 an additional level of command, the Base, was added between Group and Station.
Command. The RAF split into Bomber, Fighter, Coastal and Training Commands. Below Bomber Command were Groups.
Group. In 1939 there were 6 groups in Bomber Command, 5 (No 2 Gp to No 6 Gp) the United Kingdom and a sixth (Advanced Air Striking Force - AASF) in France. HQ No 5 Gp was based at RAF Grantham for most of WWII. Groups were normally commanded by an Air Vice Marshall. In 1942 an additional level of command was added below the Group, the Base.
Base. The Base was added to simplify command, normally grouping 2 'satellite' airfields to a main airfield. The Base was commanded by an Air Commodore. Below the Base came the stations.
Bomber Command expansion to meet the wartime offensive needs in 1942-43 put a severe strain on organisation administration to the extent that the intermediate level of command between Group HQs and Station - the Base - was introduced in March 1943. A Base consisted of a Base Station with one or two sub-stations. Each Base was initially identified by the name of the Base Station and the role of the Base, eg Topcliffe Training Base, Leeming Operational Base. However, from September 1943 Bases were re-designated by a two-number identifier, the first number indicating the Group and the second the number of the Base within that Group, the first in each Group being the Group's training Base. These are listed below under the Groups.
Station. Each station was a separate airbase from which flying squadrons could generate flying sorties. Stations were commanded by a Group Captain. Each station usually hosted 2 flying squadrons.
Squadron. Each squadron was commanded by a Wing Commander and normally comprised 2 or 3 Flights.
A Flight would normally be equipped with 8 aircraft and have a Squadron Leader as Officer in Charge.
Throughout the entire bombing offensive, the bomber organization was highly centralized and controlled by Bomber Command Headquarters. Groups were responsible for ensuring the crews were briefed according to Bomber Command instructions (routes to and from the targets, altitudes, numbers of aircraft and bomb load), while the stations provided the domestic support and the squadrons provided administration and aircraft maintenance only. However, this changed in March 1943, when Bomber Command reorganized into the Bomber Operational Base System; this system brought several small bases under one station commander and it centralized the administration and maintenance on this new large station. This reorganization reduced squadrons to the aircrew and basic servicing capabilities only (gas, oil, starts and parks).
Strategic Bombing Directives
Jul 1941 saw the Chiefs of Staff make one of their most important statements with respect to bombing operations, signaling their support for total war from the air and an all-out offensive by the only Service able to target the enemy's centres of gravity effectively at the time. 'We must first destroy the foundations upon which the German war machine runs - the economy which feeds it, the morale which sustains it, the supplies which nourish it and the hopes of victory which inspire it. Only then shall we be able to return to the continent and occupy and control portions of his territory and impose our will on the enemy . . . . it is on bombing on a scale undreamed of in the last war, that we find the new weapon on which we must principally depend for the destruction of economic life and morale.'
Following the extreme attrition of the Bomber Command force during 1941 this was superseded on 14 Feb 1942 by a new area bombing directive. 'It has been decided that the primary objective of your operations should be focused on the morale of the enemy civil population and in particular the industrial workers'. The Chief of the Air Staff, Lord Portal supplemented with his own thoughts 'I suppose it is clear that the Aiming Points are to be the built up areas and not the dockyards or aircraft factories.'
Almost a year later on 14 Jan 1943 a new directive was received which pulled the weight of effort away from German targets. The continuing U-boat threat caused the U-boat bases on the western French coast to be given priority status. Lorient, St Nazaire, Brest and La Pallice, together with the U-boat construction yards in Germany were targeted. Italian cities were also to be targeted to help force Italy out of the war.
Most bombing operations were carried out by night to afford a measure of force protection against ground-based air defences and German fighter aircraft. The small proportion of daylight attacks which were conducted initially used the Blenheim, later Boston, Ventura and Mosquito. Night bombing came into its own in early 1941. The initial target set focused on oil infrastructure and ops were flown by the Wellington, Whitley and Hampden. Targeting priorities soon changed and by Mar 1941 the ports and shipyards associated with capital ships and the U boat threat were the primary target. Other targets in support of the Battle of the Atlantic were the factories and airfields which supporting the Focke Wolfe Condor reconnaissance platform which patrolled the North Atlantic.