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Battle of Britain

Over the skies of Britain during the summer months of 1940 the first battle to be fought solely in the air took place between the Royal Air Force and Luftwaffe. Known as the Battle of Britain this was to be a pivotal moment in the Second World War as with the failure to gain air superiority the Germans suffered their first major defeat. Our timeline covers key dates and events from the build up to the battle to the aftermath.

When war broke out in September 1939 after the German invasion of Poland and subsequent occupation by both Germany and the Soviet Union there then followed a period of relative calm as no major land operations were undertaken by either side. These months would be known as the 'Phoney War', however this ended abruptly in April 1940 with the German invasion of Denmark and Norway. This would be followed the next month by the German advance west into France and the Low Countries. This is where our timeline begins.

Jump to
Prelude to Battle (10th May 1940 - 10th July 1940)
Phase One – Channel Shipping Targeted (10th July 1940 - 7th August 1940)
Phase Two – The Royal Air Force are Targeted (8th August 1940 - 6th September 1940)
Phase Three – The Blitz Begins (7th September 1940 - 5th October 1940)
Phase Four – The Battle Reaches Its Conclusion (6th October 1940 - 31st October 1940)
The Aftermath (1st November 1940 - 10th May 1941) and Useful Resources

Prelude to Battle
10th May 1940 - 10th July 1940

   10th May
Neville Chamberlain resigns as Prime Minister and is replaced by Winston Churchill, who at that time is First Sea Lord of the Admiralty, on the same day France, Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg are invaded by Germany.

   12th May
Flying Officer D.E. Garland (pilot) and Sergeant T. Grey (observer) flying a Fairey Battle become the first Royal Air Force recipients of the Victoria Cross when they are posthumously awarded one. Leading aircraftman L R Reynolds (Wireless Operator/Air Gunner) was also aboard the aircraft and died.

View the full citation.

Fairey Battle Mk I which was part of the Advanced Air Striking Force sent to France by the RAF

   13th May
Winston Churchill makes his first speech to the House of Commons as Prime Minister offering "Blood, Toil, Tears & Sweat".

   14th May
The French front at Sedan, in the north of the country, is broken by the Germans. In response the RAF sends its last 71 Fairey Battles and Bristol Blenheims to attack troops and pontoon bridges in the area. Only 32 aircraft return.

After 60 of the 118 Battles sent on sorties on the previous four days are lost the type is to mainly operate at night from now on.

On the same day the Dutch Government prepare to discuss the terms of surrender. At the same time Luftwaffe bombers are on their way to Rotterdam, despite calling off the raid some aircraft don't get the order and as a result 814 civilians are killed as 57 Heinkel He 111s bomb the city.

Bristol Blenheim Mk IV as used by Nos. 114 and 139 Squadron when in France, May 1940

   15th May
At 11:00 the Dutch Army surrenders. Later that evening 99 RAF bombers attack the Rhur and the industrial targets there.

   16th May
Air Chief Marshall Hugh Dowding Commander-in-Chief of RAF Fighter Command writes to the Prime Minister Winston Churchill requesting that no more fighter squadrons are sent to France.

Read the letter

   19th May
As the German advance continues any Royal Air Force aircraft in Belgium are ordered to leave. It will be squadrons of Hawker Hurricanes and Supermarine Spitfires operating from airfields in Southern England who carry out sorties over the battlefield.

Supermarine Spitfire Mk IA - This variant was extensively used during the battle

   21st May
Adolf Hitler brings up the possibility of invading the United Kingdom.

   23rd May
Equipped with Gloster Sea Gladiators Fleet Air Arm No. 804 Squadron arrives at Hatston where it will serve as part of RAF Fighter Command until September. One of two squadrons loaned to Fighter Command for the battle.

   26th May
With the military situation in Europe worsening the order is given to evacuate Allied troops from Dunkirk. Given the codename 'Operation Dynamo' ships from the Royal Navy as well as civillian ships, later known as the little ships of Dunkirk, will take part. In the air a total of 32 Squadrons from the Royal Air Force will take part in providing cover.

   27th May
The Belgian Army surrenders.

   4th June
As the evacuation of Dunkirk ends a total of 338,226 Allied troops have been rescued. The RAF suffer heavy losses with 177 aircraft of all types destroyed.

   5th June
The Luftwaffe perform small raids targeting the east and south east of Britain. Whilst Coastal Command start patrolling French ports for signs of invasion.

   10th June
On the same day Italy declares war on Britain and France, Norway surrenders.

   17th June
Paul Reynaud is replaced as French Prime Minster by Marshal Henri-Philippe Pétain who announces his plans to seek an armistice with Germany.

   18th June
The last Hurricanes of the Royal Air Force still in France return to Britain. Meanwhile in the House of Commons Prime Minister Winston Churchill warns of the upcoming Battle of Britain.

   22nd June
France agrees an armistice with Germany.

   24th June
France signs an armistice with Italy.

   25th June
The armistice between France and Germany/Italy comes into force at 00:35. This would see three fifths of France under occupation with a free zone in the South governed from Vichy. Some small sections of Southern France near the Italian border would be occupied by Italy. There would also be a 31 mile demilitarised zone established on the border of Italy and Switzerland.

   27th June
The Luftwaffe raids Liverpool, Newcastle and Southampton.

   30th June
Hermann Goring, Reichsminister of Aviation, issues a directive with the aim of destroying the RAF as a precursor to invasion.

   1st July
No. 808 Squadron equipped with Fairey Fulmar Mk Is is formed at Worthy Down and is the second FAA squadron to serve with Fighter Command.

   2nd July
Hitler orders preliminary plans for the invasion of Britain to be drawn up.

   4th July
Bomber Command starts targeting invasion barges.

Phase One – Channel Shipping Targeted
10th July 1940 - 7th August 1940

Aircraft available at the beginning of the battle
RAF Fighter Command (656)
Luftwaffe (Over 2,000)
Spitfire Mk I Bf 109E
Hurricane Mk I Bf 110
Defiant Mk I Junkers Ju 88
Blenheim Mk IF Dornier 17
Gladiator Heinkel He 111
Junkers Ju 87

   10th July
The Battle of Britain begins as British ports and ships come under attack from the Luftwaffe.

   11th July
Coastal areas start to come under attack as Portland, Poole and other areas in the south of Britain are targeted.

   13th July
Mine laying operations are started by the Luftwaffe.

   16th July
Directive No. 16 is issued by Adolf Hitler which calls for Operation Sealion, the invasion of Britain, preparations to begin. One of the conditions for invasion stipulates that

The English Air Force must be so reduced morally and physically that it is unable to deliver any significant attack against the German Army.

Read the full directive

   17th July
The Luftwaffe attack British shipping convoys off Aberdeen and the Isle of Wight.

   19th July
On the day that Hitler delivers a speech with a peace offer for Britain, more shipping is attacked in the English Channel. The day also sees the beginning of the end for the Boulton Paul Defiant as a day fighter as Hurricanes of No. 111 Squadron are sent to cover No. 141 Squadron Defiants after 7 of the 9 are shot down whilst on convoy patrol near Folkstone.

   20th July
Kent, Suffolk, Bristol and the Isle of Wight all come under attack from the Luftwaffe as do convoys off Dover and Swanage.

   21st July
Adolf Hitler declares that the 15th September 1940 is the latest date for Operation Sealion to take place.

A Bristol Blenheim equipped with Airborne Interception radar becomes the first Royal Air Force aircraft to shoot down another using this system when a Dornier Do 17 is attacked.

   22nd July
Further attacks by the Luftwaffe on convoys off the south and east coast.

   30th July
Shipping is attacked off Ordforness, Clacton and Harwich.

   1st August
Hitler orders the destruction of the RAF to begin on or after the 5th August with the issuing of Directive No. 17

The German Air Force is to overpower the English Air Force with all force at its command, in the shortest possible time.

Read the full directive

   7th August
The Luftwaffe raid a number of areas across the United Kingdom including Aberdeen, Poole and Liverpool.

Phase Two – The Royal Air Force are Targeted
8th August 1940 - 6th September 1940

   8th August
The Luftwaffe starts to target the RAF trying to entice their fighters up and target airfields, mainly in the south east and 11 Group, which is headed by Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park Air Officer Commanding of Number 11 Group.

Hawker Hurricane Mk IA - Alongside the Spitfire the pair formed a formidable partnership

   13th August
Around 1,500 German aircraft take part in Adler Tag, Eagle Day, as the Luftwaffe attack radar stations and airfields. This would be the first of a number of large raids with the intention of stopping the Royal Air Force being an effective fighting force.

The Messerschmitt Bf 109 was the main Luftwaffe fighter used during the battle. Pictured is a E-3 variant

   15th August
Prime Minister Winston Churchill is at Bentley Priory, Fighter Command's headquarters, alongside Hugh Dowding, as further large scale raids are undertaken by the Luftwaffe. With 75 aircraft lost this was the most costly day for the Luftwaffe during the battle and they would later refer to the day as 'Black Thursday'.

No. 302 is the first Polish Fighter Squadron to be given operational status and serves as part of 12 Group operating from RAF Leconfield at the time.

Bentley Priory as it looks today

   16th August
Flight Lieutenant James Brindley Nicolson of No. 249 Squadron, flying a Hurricane, is awarded Fighter Command's only Victoria Cross of the war.

View the full citation

   17th August
The Air Ministry orders that airfields in occupied Europe where the Luftwaffe are attacking from come under heavier attacks from Bomber Command.

   18th August
Further large scale attacks take place by the Luftwaffe as RAF airfields come under attack in the South and South East. These include Kenley, Biggin Hill and West Mailling, leading to huge loss of aircraft on the ground. These attacks were designed to immobilise Fighter Command once and for all.

This day would see the highest combined losses for the Royal Air Force and Luftwaffe during the battle and would lead to Britain calling it 'The Hardest Day'.

The Luftwaffe's Junkers Ju 87 Stuka had been suffering heavy losses over Britain and as a result operations with the aircraft began to be scaled back.

   19th August
A change in tactics is issued by Keith Park, from now on fighters are to operate over land only and prioritise bombers. Sector Stations are also to be defended.

With losses of aircrew mounting for the RAF pilot training is cut from 6 months to 2 weeks.

Read about RAF tactics during the battle

   20th August
Speaking in the House of Commons Winston Churchill praises the pilots of the Royal Air Force, including Bomber Command, with the words “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."

   24th August
The Luftwaffe increase the pressure on the RAF with raids on Portsmouth and a devastating raid on RAF Manston kills a number of personnel and leads to the airfield being evacuated. This day would also be the Defiant's last as a day-fighter.

A major turning point in the battle occurs when the centre of London is accidentally bombed by the Luftwaffe against Hitler's orders.

   25th August
After the bombing of London over 70 bombers comprising Vickers Wellingtons, Handley Page Hampdens and Armstrong Whitworth Whitleys are sent to raid Berlin for the first time.

   27th August
No. 603 Squadron operating Spitfire Mk Is move to RAF Hornchurch where they will be based for the rest of the battle. With 57.5 aircraft confirmed shot down they will be the highest scoring Squadron during the battle.

   28th August
During the day London, the Midlands and the North East Coast come under attack, whilst during the night Liverpool suffers a heavy attack.

   29th August
Once again Liverpool comes under attack at night whilst the Midlands is attacked during the day.

   30th August
This time Luton and the South Coast came under attack from the Luftwaffe, for the third nigh in a row Liverpool is bombed.

   31st August
As the air battle intensifies Fighter Command losses 41 aircraft, this will be the highest daily loss for it during the battle. Once again Royal Air Force airfields in the South and South East Coast come under attack. During the night Liverpool suffers its fourth consecutive day of bombing.

No. 303 Polish Fighter Squadron become operational flying the Hurricane Mk I. This is thanks in part to Flying Officer Paszkiewicz who shot down a Messerschmitt Me 110 the previous day. They would operate from RAF Northolt to begin with and would go on to become the highest scoring Hurricane squadron of the battle with 45 victories and third highest overall.

   1st September
The airfields of Fighter Command come under heavy attack with Biggin Hill being damaged so much it would be classed as non-operational for a short period. During the night Liverpool was targeted again.

   3rd September
Airfields across Britain are attacked with night time again bringing the Luftwaffe to Liverpool for the sixth night in a row.

   4th September
Adolf Hitler says he will erase British cities in a speech in response to the Royal Air Force raid on Berlin the previous month.

And if the British Air Force drops two, three or four thousand kilos of bombs, then we will drop 150,000, 180,000, 230,000, 300,000 or 400,000 kilos, or more, in one night. If they declare that they will attack our cities on a large scale, we will erase theirs!

Read the full speech

   5th September
No. 312 (Czechoslovak) Squadron is made operational operating Hawker Hurricane Mk Is from RAF Duxford.

The operations room at Duxford as it would have looked like during 1940

Phase Three – The Blitz Begins
7th September 1940 - 5th October 1940

   7th September
The Luftwaffe makes its first co-ordinated raid on Central London when just after 17:00 around 965 aircraft attacked the Dockland areas, Woolwich and Purfleet. Further raids followed on the East End and Central London and when the attack ended at 4:30 the following morning 430 people had been killed.

The first use of the 'Big Wing' tactic championed by Air Vice-Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory Commander of 12 Group and Acting Squadron Leader Douglas Bader occurs. This sees the Duxford Wing, which consists of Nos. 242, 312 and 19 Squadrons sent to patrol North Weald.

   9th September
Targets across London come under attack during the day and into the night.

   11th September
Hitler postpones the decision on whether the invasion of Britain will go ahead until the 14th September.

During the day London, Portsmouth and Southampton are raided by the Luftwaffe whilst during the night London is attacked again.

   14th September
For the second time Adolf Hitler delays the decision on invading Britain, this time until the 17th September.

   15th September
The Luftwaffe launch an attack in a bid to finally overcome the Royal Air Force and win the battle for air superiority. London would be attacked twice, first at 11:00 when two waves of aircraft totalling around 250 bombed the capital. Then at 14:00 two waves of aircraft, again around 250, attacked London. Southampton and Portland were also targeted, whilst during the night a further raid on London occurred.

Meanwhile dogfights took place in the skies as both sides suffered heavy losses with the RAF losing 31 aircraft and 16 aircrew whilst the Luftwaffe lost 61 aircraft and 93 aircrew. After failing to inflict a decisive blow to the RAF the Luftwaffe would start to reduce attacks.

This day would later become known as 'Battle of Britain Day'.

   17th September
Operation Sealion is postponed until otherwise ordered by Hitler.

   18th September
London again comes under attack during the day and night.

   19th September
Raids take place across the UK as London again is bombed as are targets along the Essex and Sussex coast. During the night the South West, Midlands and London come under attack.

   24th September
Tilbury and Southampton come under attack during the day whilst at night London is attacked again.

To recognise acts of bravery by civilians and military personal during the battle and the Blitz King George VI initiated the George Cross “for acts of the greatest heroism or of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger”

   26th September
Southampton comes under attack twice during the day and as a result the Supermarine factory at Woolston is put out of action and 110 people are killed.

   30th September
London again comes under attack by the Luftwaffe during the night.

Phase Four – The Battle Reaches Its Conclusion
6th October 1940 - 31st October 1940

   6th October
Coastal towns and targets of interest come under attack during the day from fighter-bombers. Meanwhile the RAF target barges at Dutch ports amongst other targets.

   7th October
No. 80 (Signals) Wing is formed at RAF Radlet and is the first electronic warfare unit of the Royal Air Force. They will be used to interrupt any aids used to help the Luftwaffe pinpoint their targets.

   10th October
Weymouth, Kent and London come under attack during the day. At night airfields are targeted as well as Manchester and London.

   12th October
In an effort to keep the pressure on Britain to seek peace Hitler wants invasion preparations to continue.

   14th October
During a raid on London a bomb explodes at Balham Tube Station where a number of people are sheltering. In total nearly 70 people die.

   19th October
Liverpool, The Midlands, London and Bristol are all attacked during the night.

   21st October
The West Country, Liverpool and London come under further day time attacks.

   22nd October
During the night the Luftwaffe bombs London, Liverpool and Coventry.

   23rd October
In the day attacks are made by aircraft flying alone in the South East and Midlands whilst at night Glasgow is bombed as is London again.

   24th October
The Corpo Aereo Italiano (Italian Air Corps) join the battle when 18 Fiat BR 20s take off from airfields in Belgium to raid Felixstowe and Harwich during the night.

   26th October
Fighter-bomber attacks are made on London and Kent whilst a number of major cities are bombed.

   29th October
The Corpo Aereo Italiano again attack Britain as during the day 15 BR 20s are escorted by Fiat CR.42 Falcos and Fiat G.50s which took off to bomb Ramsgate.

Fiat CR.42 Falco

   31st October
After 3 months and 3 weeks the Battle of Britain ends. With the Luftwaffe's failure to gain air superiority over Southern Britain the invasion cannot take place during 1940. Although the Blitz will continue over the coming months as cities across the UK are bombed.

Losses during the battle (10th July - 31st October)
Royal Air Force
Fighter Command
Killed or Missing
Bomber Command
Coastal Command
Fleet Air Arm

The Aftermath and Useful Resources
1st November 1940 - 10th May 1941

With the battle now over and the Luftwaffe unable to overcome the Royal Air Force and daylight attacks proving costly in both aircrew and aircraft the Luftwaffe would turn to night operations targeting cities with the intention to weaken civilian morale as a continuation of the Blitz. This would also see the rise of a new tactic adopted by the Germans of attacking cities on consecutive nights.

During the six months that followed the UK would suffer 135 major or heavy attacks with London being targeted the most, suffering a particularly devastating attack on the 29th December, then Liverpool and Birmingham. Wherever there were factories vital to Britain's war industry the Luftwaffe would attack those cities, including Manchester with its A V Roe factory, Sheffield with its armament factories, Cardiff and its docks were bombed as were Hull's, the industrial area of Clydebank and Glasgow and the docks and shipyard at Belfast also come under attack.

One of the worst raids of the Blitz occurred on the 14th November when the Luftwaffe launched Operation Mondscheinsonate (Operation Moonlight Sonata) targeting Coventry. On that night 568 people were killed and the Cathedral destroyed. This would lead to a new word by the Germans "to coventrieren" (to Coventrate).

The last bombing raid of this period was on the 10th May when London was attacked by over 500 aircraft with 1,486 people killed and bringing to an end 8 months 5 days of attacks which saw 43,500 people lose their lives. Whilst this was the end of the Blitz and Adolf Hitler turned his attention to the invasion of the Soviet Union this wasn't the end of attacks on the UK as over the coming months and years the Luftwaffe would return.

Useful Resources
Royal Air Force campaign diary
Losses for aircrew and aircraft day by day
Monthly weather reports
Map showing an overview of the battle
Map showing the areas targeted in London during the Blitz
The Blitz: Eight months of terror
The Blitz: What would you have done when the bombs fell?
8 Things You Need to Know About the Battle of Britain
9 Important Dates in the Battle of Britain

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