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Battle of Britain Day: Recalling the decisive 1940 aerial conflict

Those who were alive while the Battle of Britain raged in our skies 80 long summers ago, and are still alive today, are a thinning band.

But the deadly four-month aerial conflict between Britain’s Royal Air Force and Nazi Germany’s Luftwaffe will forever be recalled as one of the most critical events and, ultimately glorious military victories, in the history of our nation.

It was Prime Minster Winston Churchill, in a famous speech, made on June 18, 1940 as France was falling and Hitler turned his gaze towards Britain, who aptly gave the forthcoming battle its name.

As millions at home grimly tuned into their radios for his speech to the nation, Churchill rousingly declared: “The Battle of France is over. 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’.”

The powerful words resonate down the decades – but in simple terms, eight decades later as we mark Battle of Britain day, what was the Battle of Britain? Why was it so crucial? And was the North East of England involved.

What was the Battle of Britain?

It was the decisive World War II air battle between Britain and Nazi Germany, taking place between July and October, 1940. It was also the first battle in history to take place entirely in the air.

How did the Battle of Britain begin?

Adolf Hitler’s Germany had invaded much of Europe, and Britain was the only country left to conquer. Hitler ordered the Luftwaffe, Germany’s air force, to bomb towns, cities and military defences in England, hoping to weaken the British defences and resolve, before invading by land. The first bombs were dropped on July 10, 1940.

How did Britain respond?

Hitler did not anticipate the strength of the Royal Air Force, led by Sir Hugh Dowding, and Britain’s determination to fight back. He decided to focus the attack on the air force bases of Britain, bombing airport runways and radar stations, hoping to weaken the RAF.

But Hitler became impatient at how long it was taking to subdue Britain, so he also ordered the bombing of cities such as Cardiff, Glasgow, Belfast and London.

Despite Hermann Göring’s Luftwaffe having more aircraft, the RAF had the advantage of radar which gave them advance warning of where and when German aircraft were approaching.



RAF Spitfire fighter planes in formation during the Battle of Britain, 1940
RAF Spitfire fighter planes in formation during the Battle of Britain, 1940

Which aircraft did the opposing air forces use?

The Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire were the main RAF fighter aircraft. Hurricanes were responsible for 60 per cent of German losses.

The Messerschmitt bf 109 was the most dangerous German fighter plane. The Luftwaffe’s Heinkel He III, meanwhile, was capable of carrying bombs weighing up to 250kg.

Was there any action in the skies over North East England?

Although much of the action in the Battle of Britain took place above the Home Counties of Southern England, the Luftwaffe did make appearances in North East skies. On August 16, 1940, the Chronicle’s page one story told of ‘North East Fighters’ Smashing Victory Over Nazi Mass Raiders’.

A magnificent effort by RAF Spitfires and Hurricanes, and anti-aircraft guns on the ground, repelled a huge daylight attack by the Luftwaffe, with at least 52 of 150 of the enemy raiders shot down, while the RAF recorded no losses.

What was ‘The Hardest Day’?

August 18, 1940 was named ‘The Hardest Day’ after a particularly fierce air battle between the RAF and the Luftwaffe. Germany aimed to destroy RAF Fighter Command, the control centre of Britain’s fighter aircraft. Both sides suffered heavy losses. Despite shooting down twice as many German planes in the sky, the RAF lost many of their aircraft when they were destroyed on the ground.

What happened on ‘Battle of Britain Day’?

At times, it was touch and go for Britain, and by September, Germany felt it might be close to victory. On September 15 – 80 years ago today – a huge bomb attack was launched on London.

But immediately, RAF pilots swarmed into the sky in their fighter planes, shooting down many German aircraft. It was a key turning point. Although more air raids occurred after this date, they became less frequent.

How did the battle end?

At the end of October 1940, Hitler abandoned his plans to invade Britain. In the Battle of Britain, the RAF had seriously weakened the Luftwaffe and brought about Germany’s first major defeat of the war.

The RAF had lost 1,744 of its 1,963 aircraft while the Luftwaffe had lost 1,977 of its 2,550 fighting craft.



British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1940. He declared: "The Battle for France is over ... the Battle of Britain is about to begin
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1940. He declared: “The Battle for France is over … the Battle of Britain is about to begin

How did Churchill describe the victory?

Once again, the great orator, in words that will be recalled for centuries, declared: “‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

The Battle of Britain was over, but there would be years more of bitter fighting – and a complete Allied victory in World War II would not be achieved until 1945.



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