(first posted 7/23/2015) 75 (update: 80) years ago this summer, the British Royal Air Force (RAF) and the German Luftwaffe were engaged in the first battle fought exclusively in the air, which has come to symbolize Britain’s lone stand against Hitler’s Germany, and ultimately made it possible for freedom to prevail in Europe. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill spoke of ‘Britain’s finest hour’, and it would not have been possible without 2 of Britain’s, maybe the World’s, finest and most significant aircraft – the Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire.
But first, the background. By 1938, Austria and Czechoslovakia had fallen under German control, and Nazi ambitions towards Poland were obvious. Britain began a massive programme of defensive rearmament in 1935, ending post WW1 neglect of its armed forces. In 1939, when the invasion of Poland led to Britain and France declaring war, Britain sent land and air forces to France, ready for another defensive campaign like 1914. But the Blitzkrieg of May 1940, when the Germans rushed through Belgium and Holland to outflank the allies and pushed the British to the coast at Dunkirk and the French into headlong retreat, was overwhelming. The British rescued most of their troops, but not their equipment (over 900 RAF fighters were lost in France), through Dunkirk, and France sued for peace.
New Prime Minister Winston Churchill told the House of Commons in May 1940 ‘the Battle of France is over. I expect the Battle of Britain is about to begin’. The German objective was simple – to drive the RAF from the sky, so the Luftwaffe bombers could attack British cities and the German Navy could launch a cross-Channel invasion – Operation Seeloewe (Sealion). Only the RAF’s Fighter Command squadrons stood in the way, with a front line of two superficially similar but actually quite different fighters – the Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire.
Both were monoplanes with enclosed cockpits, 8 Browning 0.303 machine guns and, of course, the wonderful Rolls-Royce Merlin engine – a 27 litre (1650 cu in) V12, designed specifically for fighter plane use, but later also used in the Avro Lancaster and the de Havilland Mosquito, an unarmed wooden light bomber. Early Merlins produced 1,030hp; by 1940, the Merlin XX produced 1,480hp, with aid of a two speed supercharger, and the Merlin 61 of 1942, fitted to high altitude photo reconnaissance Spitfires, produced 1,565hp.
CC has already heard of Hawker Aircraft and the engineering genius that was Sir Sydney Camm .The Hurricane story began after the RAF sought proposals for a 250 mph fighter, and rejected Camm’s biplane proposal. Camm moved forward to a cantilever monoplane design, and in September 1934 the RAF ordered a prototype Hurricane (serial K5083), which flew in November 1935, 4 months before the first Spitfire.
The Mark I Hurricane of 1939-40 could reach 325 mph, and 35,000 feet, compared to the Spitfire’s 360 mph, and the Spitfire had a better rate of climb. But even so, the Hurricane’s performance was a huge step forward for the RAF – it was the first RAF plane capable of 300mph – although its construction was not. Like all previous Hawker planes, it used a skeleton of formers (albeit in alloy, not the traditional wood), covered in fabric. The first production Hurricane, in an order for 600, flew in October 1937, and it entered squadron service, with 111 Squadron, in December. In February 1938, a Hurricane demonstrated the design’s potential by flying from Edinburgh to London at an average of 408 mph. By the outbreak of war, 500 out of an expanded order of 3,500 were in RAF service. Production was spreading beyond Hawker’s own facilities, to include factories of rival Gloster Aircraft, and by the time of the Battle of Britain, improvements including metal skinned wings and a constant speed/variable pitch propeller were in place.
This simple construction became a virtue in the pressure of the Battle of Britain, as the fabric could absorb damage better than the stressed skin of the Spitfire, and could be more easily and quickly repaired at a time when every plane was vital. It was also cheaper and quicker to build than the Spitfire, with less demand for skilled labour. The Hurricane could take huge amounts of punishment and stay airborne, made a stable and manoeuvrable gun platform, and was more than fast enough to tackle any German bomber.
In addition, while a Hurricane could be refuelled and rearmed in 9 minutes, the Spitfire needed 26! It served throughout the war, in every theatre and on every continent. By 1944, over 14,000 had been built, around 10% by Canadian Car and Foundry (now part of Bombardier), in Montreal. However, by 1945, fabric covered planes were obsolete, outperformed by more modern designs and clearly outclassed in the jet age, and the Hurricane ended RAF service in 1947.
In contrast, the Spitfire was a step change in fighter design. It was a product of the Supermarine division of Vickers Armstrong, which had originated as a builder of seaplanes before the First World War. Supermarine seaplanes designed by chief engineer Reginald Mitchell won the prestigious Schneider Trophy races in 1927, 1929 and 1931, competing against rivals from across Europe. The Supermarine S.6B won the 1931 race by achieving 380mph, and later became the first plane to exceed 400mph.
The Spitfire’s design can be traced directly to these seaplanes, with development getting properly underway in 1934. Key features of the design were the monocoque construction and the famous elliptical wings, designed to be aerodynamic, strong and light. The Spitfire was a complex piece of cutting edge engineering, built of a stressed duralumin skin formed into a series of compound curves to get the aerodynamic shape around alloy frames. The beautiful and distinctive wing shape allowed for a thin wing, and provided space for retractable undercarriage and the guns.
Impressed by Mitchell’s design work, the RAF issued a development contract in January 1935. By May 1936, the plane was achieving 350mph in level flight, and in June the RAF placed an order for 310 aircraft. The first production aircraft was completed at Southampton in mid-1938, after many delays and arguments which almost led to the cancellation of the project over Vickers’ reluctance to allow work to be sub-contracted. Squadron service began in autumn 1938 with 19 Squadron, based at Duxford near Cambridge (and now home to the Imperial War Museum’s Air Museum and the American Air Museum, which doubles as a memorial to the US airmen who fought and died over western Europe).
From mid-1938, the key production site was a new government sponsored ‘shadow factory’ at Castle Bromwich, Birmingham, initially run by William Morris’ Nuffield Organization with a contract for 1,000 planes but soon taken over by Vickers. The plant is now part of Jaguar Land Rover and produces the Jaguar XF. By the outbreak of war, over 2,000 Spitfires had been ordered, and production peaked at 320 per month. One reason for dispersing production was the Luftwaffe; in September 1940, Vickers’ Southampton plant was flattened. By 1948, over 20,000 Spitfires had been produced; they served with the RAF until 1954, and the last finished active service, with the Irish Republic, in 1961. There was also a naval version, the Seafire, adapted for operation from aircraft carriers.
Unlike the Hurricane, the Spitfire was capable of continuous development, and kept pace with newer German designs like the Focke-Wulf 190. It became the principal British fighter of the war, and was the only fighter to be in production before and after the war. Developments included larger fuel tanks, stiffer wings and improved carburettors as well as more powerful Merlins. By 1943, the RAF was using Spitfires for high level, high speed photo reconnaissance, with fuel tanks replacing the guns for additional range. The Mark XII of 1943 was fitted with a Rolls-Royce Griffon engine, and could reach 400 mph in level flight – sufficient to catch and shoot down the German V-1 ‘flying bomb’ rockets launched from northern France at London.
The Luftwaffe also had an impressive modern fighter – the Messerschmitt BF109 – which was comparable in performance and power to the Hurricane and Spitfire. Ironically, early versions were powered by a Rolls-Royce engine, the Kestrel. The BF109 had different strengths and weaknesses – it could outperform the Hurricane, and fuel injection in preference to carburettors aided performance, but a larger turning circle hampered it in combat. The Germans also had the advantage of having seen action in support of General Franco’s fascists in the Spanish Civil War. One big drawback was fuel capacity and hence range – while the Brits were fighting over home soil, the Luftwaffe had to cross the English Channel, and allow fuel for the return, which severely limited their time over England – in some cases, to just 10 minutes. Overall, in reality the three fighters were evenly matched.
Britain had a unique advantage over the Germans – the world’s first radar. Radar had been invented in typically British fashion – as an offshoot from research into rumours that the Germans had a death ray to destroy planes from distance. By 1935, radar’s potential was recognised and between 1937 and 1940, a chain of 19 stations provided coverage from Southampton to Newcastle.
Radar warnings were passed to Fighter Command HQ in north west London, where incoming raids were plotted on large map tables whilst the Group’s commanders watched from a gallery and deployed their forces in response When radar detected an incoming German formation, squadrons would be ‘scrambled’ in response, and were then directed to the enemy using the same radar system – the first air force to have that advantage. The priority for the RAF was driving back and destroying the German bombers – and the speed and firepower of the Hurricane and Spitfire were great advantages over heavy, slow and poorly armed bombers.
The Battle of Britain is usually dated from 10 July, when the first raids were launched against the south coast of England and convoys in the Channel, to 30 October. By now, the Luftwaffe had approximately 1,000 fighters and 1,500 bombers in France; Fighter Command had just 750 planes facing them. At the same time, invasion barges were assembling in the Channel ports, and RAF Bomber Command did what it could (which was not a lot) to destroy them. In distinct phases, combat in the skies was relentless. From mid-July to mid-August, the Luftwaffe attacked convoys in the Channel, forcing the British to avoid the Channel in daylight. This period exposed the weaknesses of planes on both sides – notably, the British Boulton-Paul Defiant and the German Junkers Ju87 Stuka dive bomber; both were poorly armed and slow, and withdrawn from the frontline. Fighter Command tried in this period to hold its Hurricanes and Spitfires in reserve, after significant losses in France – of both planes and pilots.
Mid-August saw a period of heavy assault on Fighter Command’s bases in south east England and the Chain Home radar stations (the Germans had belatedly identified them for what they were). 13 and 15 August saw the heaviest daylight bombing, including attacks from Denmark on RAF bases in northern England. Between 11 and 16 August, the RAF shot down 250 German planes for the loss of 130 of its own. The ratio of crew loss was even starker, given the larger crews in bombers and the chance for RAF pilots to bail out over home soil.
“Eglatine Cottage? Go down the lane past the Messerschmitt, bear left and keep on past the two Dorniers, then turn sharp right and it’s just past the first Junkers”
Punch Magazine, September 1940
From 24 August onwards, the battle focused on control of the skies over Kent, the south east corner of England and just 20 miles from France, with the Germans seeking to destroy the RAF’s bases in the south east. They were unsuccessful – only 2 of 13 stations were significantly damaged, and none were put out of use for more than a few hours. So the Germans changed tack again, and from the start of September, began to attack British cities, notably London, to force the RAF to fight over the city where the Germans could concentrate their fighters
The RAF responded by grouping squadrons into larger formations, known as ‘big wings’. Key targets were the docks of east London, along the River Thames and the associated heavy industry, but bombs also fell in central and west London, and the Germans also struck at Liverpool and at Portsmouth and Southampton. The bombing failed to inflict decisive damage, and bomber losses were high, so the Luftwaffe switched to night bombing; again, the RAF disrupted these attacks with large wings of fighters – but the Germans knew that, if their fighters flew at 25,000ft, they could reach London in 17 minutes from radar detection, while the RAF fighters would take as much as 25 minutes to get to that height – forcing the RAF to support constant patrols over the capital.
The Battle reached its peak on September 15, when the Luftwaffe launched its largest daylight raid on London, with around 1,500 aircraft; in defence, the RAF had around 250 Spitfires and 500 Hurricanes in the south east of England. The Luftwaffe attacked in 3 waves, with the 3rd being the largest – approximately 500 German planes (with fighters outnumbering bombers by 4 to 1) facing 250 RAF fighters at any one time – the RAF was fully committed, with no reserves available in reach of London. At the end of the day, the RAF claimed to have destroyed 183 German planes; the Germans claimed they had destroyed 80. The actual numbers were later established as 90 German and 30 British planes – such is the fog of war. But the Germans had failed in their main objective – Fighter Command still controlled the skies of southern England.
On September 17, Hitler postponed Operation Seeloewe, and gradually, the pace of the fighting dropped through October. By the end of October, it was apparent that the immediate threat had receded. The RAF had lost over 1,000 planes in 3½ months, including 270 Hurricanes and 180 Spitfires; the Luftwaffe, over 2,600.
Throughout the Battle, the RAF had shot down more than 2 German planes for each loss of its own – and the Hurricane had outscored the Spitfire by the same ratio. Hurricanes destroyed more German planes than all the other RAF and ground defences combined. Largely, this was because the Hurricanes were focused on the slow, heavy bombers, and the Spitfires on the faster, more nimble Messerschmitts – but, remember, the bombers were the big threat, and the fighters were only there to protect them.
And, as planes and pilots were lost, replacements were coming on stream. British fighter production had been close to 500 per month throughout the summer, and, despite heavy losses, Fighter Command’s strength increased by 10% in August alone. Alongside the planes came pilots – and Fighter Command quickly became a multi-national force of Brits, Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders – and many from the newly occupied countries of Europe. Men from Poland, Czechoslovakia and France all formed dedicated squadrons within the RAF, and fought with great distinction right through the war. These men are the famous few of Churchill’s unforgettable ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few’. 303 Squadron, formed by Poles, was the highest scoring RAF squadron, with 126 victories in 6 weeks – Sergeant Josef Frantisek getting 17 of them. In July, Fighter Command had 1,200 available pilots; by November 1940, 1,800.
The names of the 2,353 British and 574 allied pilots officially recognised as having fought in that tumultuous summer, of whom 544 were killed, are inscribed on a granite wall at the Battle of Britain Memorial at Capel-le-Ferne, near Dover in Kent, known as the ‘National Memorial to the Few’. This is now the key museum and memorial to the Battle, perched on the top of the famous White Cliffs and with views across the Channel to France, while at Duxford and other air museums across the UK, Spitfires and Hurricanes are always popular.
The RAF Memorial Flight (often known by its unofficial name of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight) regularly operates its fleet of Spitfires and Hurricanes at air displays and public events throughout Britain.
And model makers still do good business with the Hurricane and Spitfire.
To mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle, the RAF has gone the extra mile; one of its new Eurofighter Typhoons has been repainted into the colours of the Hurricane of Flight Lieutenant James Nicolson, who won a Victoria Cross (Britain’s highest award for gallantry) on 16 August by persisting in an attack on a German bomber despite a burning fuel tank. The Typhoon is spending the summer performing a joint display with the BBMF’s Battle of Britain fighters – quite a sight, and sound!
And a very appropriate and awesome tribute to ‘the Few’ – the debt endures, and so do the planes.