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The Battle of Britain

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Especially if the summer weather is good, people in Britain even today recall the momentous battle which took place in September 1940 for the future of their country.  It became known as the Battle of Britain.

Britain, and Australia too, as well as the other Dominions of the Empire such as Canada, India and New Zealand, had been at war with Germany since September 1939. For months, nothing much happened, in a period that became known as “the Phoney War.” Leaflets were dropped on German forces, the occasional ship attacked, but in general it was hoped that Hitler would see the strength of the forces – including France – which lay before him, and withdraw.

Hitler decided to attack, and pushed the French back quickly. The British Army was driven into the sea at Dunkirk, although many escaped across the Channel. Then Goering, the German Air Marshall, launched a massive air assault on the south coast of England.

The Germans had rebuilt an air force, denied to them after World War I, and they now possessed excellent fighters such as the Messerschmitt 109, together with capable twin-engine bombers. The aim was to knock the British defenders out of the sky, clearing the way for an invasion.

Air attacks started in June, with the “Battle” not so much of a declared campaign as a gradual escalation of an air war that had existed from Day 1. The French signed an armistice on 17 June 1940 with the Germans who had conquered them. Now Britain stood alone against the might of the Third Reich, positioned only 30 or so kilometres away across the English Channel.

Bombing raids intensified against various targets in the south of Britain from 13 August. They concentrated on airfields and communications facilities. On 31 August, the RAF saw their worst day in the air-to-air combats that saw hundreds of aircraft fighting over the nation’s southern skies.

Now the Luftwaffe changed their target to London, the British capital. But the RAF fought on, despite losing around 20% of its pilots each month. Their Spitfire and Hurricane fighters, coupled with an efficient radar network, was slightly more than a match for the potential invaders. The Luftwaffe was losing comprehensively too, and eventually they gave up after a big battle on 15 September. The British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, said of the entire RAF effort: “Never was so much owed by so many to so few.”

Curiously some of the pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain were flying over the Northern Territory a few years later. The RAF formed a squadron of Spitfires for service in northern Australia and they worked out of airstrips around Darwin in 1943.

Empire leader Winston Churchill in London. His resolute character and determined speeches were an inspiration to the many countries which made up the British Empire, of which Australia was a part. (Public domain)
Spitfire pilots pose beside the wreckage of a downed Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive bomber in 1940. (RAF)
World War II poster containing the famous lines by Winston Churchill. (RAF)
One of many German maps of the planned invasion of Britain, showing cross-Channel routes. (RAF)