Over the skies of Britain during the summer months of 1940 the first battle to be fought 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 and were unable to launch an invasion.
When war broke out in September 1939 after the German invasion of Poland and subsequent occupation by Germany and the Soviet Union there then followed a period of relative calm as no major land operations were undertaken by either side, known as the 'Phoney War'. This ended abruptly in April 1940 with the German invasion of Denmark and Norway, followed the next month by the German advance west into France and the Low Countries. This timeline covers the period from 10th May 1940 to the 31st October 1940 and includes a number of Battle of Britain facts.
Prelude to Battle
10th May 1940 - 9th July 1940
10th May 1940
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, with Luxembourg occupied the same day. This was the first phase of the invasion plan devised by Germany for Western Europe and was known as Fall Gelb (Case Yellow).
12th May 1940
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.
Fairey Battle Mk I which was part of the Advanced Air Striking Force sent to France by the RAF
13th May 1940
Queen Wilhelmina, her family and the Dutch cabinet evacuate to London. For the next five years they will be the Government in exile, meanwhile Winston Churchill makes his first speech to the House of Commons as Prime Minister offering "Blood, Toil, Tears & Sweat".
14th May 1940
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, 41 aircraft are lost. 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.
Bristol Blenheim Mk IV as used by Nos. 114 and 139 Squadron, RAF when in France, May 1940
15th May 1940
16th May 1940
Air Chief Marshall Hugh Dowding Commander-in-Chief of Fighter Command writes to the Prime Minister Winston Churchill requesting that no more fighter squadrons are sent to France.
The Tiger Moth was used by the RAF to train its pilots
17th May 1940
Twelve Blenheims from No. 82 Squadron are sent to Belgium to attack German troops, eleven are shot down.
19th May 1940
As the German advance continues Allied Comander-in-Chief Maurice Gamelin is replaced in the role by Maxime Weygand whilst 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
20th May 1940
21st May 1940
Gloster Gladiators of No. 263 Squadron flying from HMS Furious return to Norway and will be based at Bardufoss along with six Supermarine Walrus flying boats of No. 701 Naval Air Squadron.
Gladiator Mk I - This was the last bi-plane fighter ordered by the Royal Air Force
23rd May 1940
Equipped with Gloster Sea Gladiators No. 804 Naval Air Squadron of the Fleet Air Arm arrives at RNAS Hatston where it will serve as part of Fighter Command until September. One of two FAA squadrons loaned to Fighter Command for the battle.
24th May 1940
The process to begin the evacuation of Allied troops still in Narvik, Norway known as 'Operation Alphabet' begins.
25th May 1940
No. 82 Squadron Bristol Blenheims attack German columns in Marke, Belgium.
26th May 1940
The order is given to implement 'Operation Dynamo' and begin evacuating Allied troops from Dunkirk. Ships from the Royal Navy as well as civilian 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 1940
No. 46 Squadrons Hurricanes join No. 263 Squadrons Gladiators at Bardufoss.
28th May 1940
After eighteen days fighting King Leopold III orders the Belgian army to surrender, this comes into force at 4:00am.
29th May 1940
Over Dunkirk the RAF control fighter operations for the first time using VHF radiotelephone.
30th May 1940
As the evacuation of Dunkirk enters its fourth day 134,000 troops have been rescued. Far in excess of the anticipated 45,000 that could be rescued before the expected German advance stopped further rescues.
1st June 1940
Eight Fokker T-VIIIW sea planes from the Royal Netherlands Naval Air Service reach the UK. These would form the basis of No. 320 (Netherlands) Squadron, this would be the first Dutch squadron within the Royal Air Force.
2nd June 1940
Over 300,000 troops have been evacuated as 'Operation Dynamo' enters its sixth day.
3rd June 1940
Codenamed 'Operation Paula' the Luftwaffe launch an attack to destroy the Armee de l'Air but British Intelligence tip off the French about the operation leading to the attack failing.
Curtiss Hawk 75A-1 - Used by the Armee de l'Air, these were outclassed by the Bf 109
4th June 1940
As the evacuation of Dunkirk ends a total of 338,226 Allied troops have been rescued. During this same period the RAF suffer heavy losses with 106 aircraft destroyed for 262 enemy aircraft claimed.
We shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.
5th June 1940
Germany begins Fall Rot (Case Red) which sees them attack across the Aisne and Somme rivers for the second part of their invasion of France. Meanwhile the Luftwaffe perform small raids targeting the east and south east of Britain, with the first recorded bombs falling on Coventry. Whilst Coastal Command start patrolling French ports for signs of invasion.
7th June 1940
The British Government takes the decision to evacuate remaining troops and aircraft currently in Norway.
8th June 1940
As 'Operation Alphabet', the evacuation of Allied troops still in Narvik, Norway, ends the remaining aircraft of Nos. 46 and 263 Squadron in Norway board HMS Glorious which is attacked and sunk by the German battleships Gneisenau and Scharnhorst. Over 1,200 people die and only two aircraft survive.
9th June 1940
The French Government leaves Paris.
10th June 1940
After fighting for sixty two days Norway surrenders to Germany whilst Italy declares war on Britain and France, invading France the same day.
11th June 1940
Prime Minister Winston Churchill flies to France whilst the French Government arrives in Tours. The Fiat headquarters and manufacturing plant in Turin are bombed by Armstrong Whitworth Whitleys of the Royal Air Force, they miss the target and kill 14 civilians.
13th June 1940
On the same day Paris is declared an open city by the French military governor there General Hering 'Operation Cycle' ends with 3,321 British and French soldiers evacuated but over 6,000 are taken prisoner.
14th June 1940
No. 610 Squadron, RAF Spitfires in Vic formation © ww2images.com15th June 1940
The evacuation of civilians and Allied forces from ports in Western France, known as 'Operation Aerial', begins. The remaining Fairey Battles of the Advanced Air Striking Force carry out a final attack, after this they will return to Britain.
16th June 1940
17th June 1940
France request peace negations with Germany begin. On the same day the Lancastria is sunk whilst evacuating Allied troops and civilians. More than 4,000 people die of the estimated 6,000 aboard. This is Britain's greatest ever maritime disaster and news of the sinking is kept hidden from the British public until after the war.
18th June 1940
Nos. 1 and 73 Squadron operating 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.
19th June 1940
Hull is bombed by the Luftwaffe for the first time.
21st June 1940
Negotiations between France and Germany begin.
22nd June 1940
After 6 weeks and 4 days of fighting the Battle of France ends as France agrees an armistice with Germany. During this period the Royal Air Force lose 931 aircraft to the Luftwaffe's 1,428 aircraft.
175 Westland Lysanders took part in the Battle of France, 118 were lost
23rd June 1940
Talks between Italy and France start.
24th June 1940
France signs an armistice with Italy.
25th June 1940
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 1940
German forces reach the French border with Spain meaning France is now completely occupied, whilst the Luftwaffe raids Liverpool, Newcastle and Southampton.
28th June 1940
30th June 1940
Hermann Goring, Reichsminister of Aviation, issues a directive with the aim of destroying the RAF as a precursor to the invasion of Britain.
1st July 1940
No. 808 Naval Air Squadron equipped with Fairey Fulmar Mk Is is formed at RNAS Worthy Down and is the second FAA squadron to serve with Fighter Command.
2nd July 1940
Hitler orders preliminary plans for the invasion of Britain to be drawn up.
3rd July 1940
'Operation Catapult' is carried out by the Royal Navy, this saw two battle-cruisers and six battleships of the French fleet based at Mers-el-Kébir attacked to stop them failing into German hands. The attack saw one sunk and five damaged and the loss of 1,297 French servicemen.
6th July 1940
Plymouth comes under attack from the Luftwaffe for the first time.
8th July 1940
No. 11 Group, Fighter Command which covers the South of England is split into two groups with the newly re-established No. 10 Group, Fighter Command, headed by Air Vice-Marshal Sir C J Quintin Brand, responsible for covering the South West of England and South West Wales.
Phase One – Channel Shipping Targeted
10th July 1940 - 11th August 1940
10th July 1940
The Battle of Britain begins as coastal targets and shipping come under attack from the Luftwaffe, which they call Kanalkampf (Channel Battle).
11th July 1940
Coastal areas start to come under attack as Portland, Poole and other areas in the south of Britain are targeted.
13th July 1940
Mine laying operations are started by the Luftwaffe.
14th July 1940
Winston Churchill addresses the nation, Britain would continue fighting.
15th July 1940
The Westland Aircraft factory in Yeovil is bombed.
16th July 1940
The English Air Force must be so reduced morally and physically that it is unable to deliver any significant attack against the German Army.
17th July 1940
The Luftwaffe attack British shipping convoys off Aberdeen and the Isle of Wight.
19th July 1940
On the day that Hitler delivers a speech with a peace offer for Britain more shipping is attacked in the English Channel. Boulton Paul Defiant's of No. 141 Squadron enter the battle but Hurricanes of No. 111 Squadron are sent to cover No. 141 Squadron after six of the nine sent on convoy patrol near Folkestone are shot down. This was No. 141 Squadrons only daylight operation.
20th July 1940
Kent, Suffolk, Bristol and the Isle of Wight all come under attack from the Luftwaffe as do convoys off Dover and Swanage.
21st July 1940
Adolf Hitler declares that the 15th September 1940 is the latest date for 'Operation Sealion' to take place.
22nd July 1940
On the day Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax dismisses Hitler's peace offer a Bristol Blenheim Mk IF 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.
Bristol Blenheim Mk IF - One of the RAF's first night fighters25th July 1940
Portland is attacked as is Convoy CW8 near Dover, five ships are sunk.
26th July 1940
Due to heavy losses all daylight movements of Merchant ships through the Straits of Dover are stopped by the Admiralty.
27th July 1940
29th July 1940
Royal Navy ships are to stop daylight movements in the Straits of Dover under new Admiralty orders.
30th July 1940
Shipping is attacked off Ordforness, Clacton and Harwich.
1st August 1940
Norwich station and the nearby Boulton Paul Aircraft Works came under attack whilst propaganda leaflets entitled 'A Last Appeal to Reason' by Adolf Hitler with his speech made on the 19th July are dropped over parts of the UK. That same day 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. The attacks are to be directed primarily against flying units, their ground installations, and their supply organizations, but also against the aircraft industry, including that manufacturing antiaircraft equipment.
7th August 1940
The Luftwaffe raid a number of areas across the United Kingdom including Aberdeen, Poole and Liverpool.
8th August 1940
The Luftwaffe starts to target British ports and harbours.
9th August 1940
Birmingham is bombed by the Luftwaffe for the first time.
11th August 1940
Kanalkampf (Channel Battle) ends.
Phase Two – The Royal Air Force are Targeted
12th August 1940 - 6th September 1940
12th August 1940
In an effort to entice Royal Air Force fighters into combat, airfields mainly in No. 11 Group, Fighter Command, headed by Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park, come under attack from the Luftwaffe. Radar stations also come under heightened attack.
Hawker Hurricane Mk IA - Alongside the Spitfire the pair formed a formidable partnership13th August 1940
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 variant14th August 1940
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'.
Bentley Priory as it looks today16th August 1940
17th August 1940
On the day that Liverpool suffers its first bombing raid the Air Ministry orders that airfields in occupied Europe where the Luftwaffe are attacking from come under heavier attacks from Bomber Command.
18th August 1940
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 Malling leading to huge loss of aircraft on the ground. These attacks were designed to immobilise Fighter Command once and for all. The Luftwaffe also attack Sheffield for the first time.
19th August 1940
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.
20th August 1940
In a speech to the House of Commons Winston Churchill praises the pilots of the Royal Air Force, not just Fighter Command but also Bomber Command.
The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the world war by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.
23rd August 1940
On the day the Local Defence Volunteers is renamed the Home Guard South Wales comes under attack.
24th August 1940
The Luftwaffe increase the pressure on the RAF with raids on Portsmouth and a devastating raid on RAF Manston which kills a number of personnel and leads to the airfield being evacuated.
25th August 1940
26th August 1940
Campile in County Wexford, Ireland is bombed by the Luftwaffe killing three people. A protest to Germany is made by Ireland.
28th August 1940
During the day London, the Midlands and the North East Coast come under attack, whilst during the night Liverpool suffers a heavy attack. This day would also be the Defiant's last as a day fighter as it would now operate as a night fighter.
Boulton Paul Defiant Mk I - As a night fighter the Defiant would prove more successful29th August 1940
Once again Liverpool comes under attack at night whilst the Midlands is attacked during the day.
30th August 1940
This time Luton and the South Coast came under attack from the Luftwaffe, for the third night in a row Liverpool is bombed.
31st August 1940
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.
1st September 1940
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.
2nd September 1940
3rd September 1940
Airfields across Britain are attacked with night time again bringing the Luftwaffe to Liverpool for the sixth night in a row.
4th September 1940
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!
5th September 1940
The operations room at Duxford as it would have looked like during 19406th September 1940
As a result of intelligence obtained by the Royal Air Force showing preparations for invasion were continuing, an alert to prepare for invasion is issued.
Phase Three – The Blitz Begins
7th September 1940 - 5th October 1940
7th September 1940
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. This would be the first of 57 consecutive nights of bombing on the capital.
8th September 1940
During an air raid the shelter housing people and visitors from the Peabody Estate, Whitechapel suffers a direct hit, killing 78 people.
9th September 1940
Targets across London come under attack during the day and into the night.
10th September 1940
Italy's Regia Aeronautica (Italian Air Force) will take part in the Battle of Britain. Operating from Belgium around 200 aircraft will become part of the Regia Aeronautica air expeditionary force which is formed for this purpose and called the Corpo Aero Italiano (Italian Air Corps).
11th September 1940
Hitler postpones the decision on whether the invasion of Britain will go ahead until the 14th September.
13th September 1940
No. 966 Balloon Squadron scores a balloon barrages first victory when a Heinkel He 111 crashes near Newport, Wales.
14th September 1940
For the second time Adolf Hitler delays the decision on invading Britain, this time until the 17th September.
15th September 1940
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.
Spitfires of No. 222 Squadron, RAF take off © ww2images.com16th September 1940
No. 9 Group, Fighter Command is formed. This will cover Northern Ireland and the North West of England and will be headed by Air Vice-Marshal W.A.McClaughry.
17th September 1940
'Operation Sealion' is postponed until otherwise ordered by Hitler.
18th September 1940
London again comes under attack during the day and night.
19th September 1940
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 1940
Tilbury and Southampton come under attack during the day whilst at night London is attacked again.
25th September 1940
The Bristol Aircraft Company based at Filton, Bristol is bombed. 92 people are killed.
26th September 1940
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.
27th September 1940
The Tripartite Pact is signed by Germany, Italy and Japan.
30th September 1940
London again comes under attack by the Luftwaffe during the night.
1st October 1940
The Luftwaffe start to change tactics with bombers attacking at night and fighter-bombers during the day.
3rd October 1940
The de Haviland Aircraft Company factory at Hatfield is attacked by a sole Junkers Ju 88. As a result 21 people are killed and 70 injured with some materials for de Havilland's new Mosquito aircraft destroyed. The Ju 88 was later shot down by anti-aircraft fire with the crew ending up as prisoners of war.
5th October 1940
Phase Four – The Battle Reaches Its Conclusion
6th October 1940 - 31st October 1940
6th October 1940
Coastal towns and targets of interest come under attack during the day from Luftwaffe fighter-bombers. Meanwhile the RAF target barges at Dutch ports amongst other targets.
7th October 1940
No. 80 (Signals) Wing is formed at RAF Radlett 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.
8th October 1940
Sergeant Josef Frantisek DFM of No. 303 (Polish) Squadron who, with 17 victories, was the highest scoring Allied Battle of Britain pilot dies in a flying accident at the age of 27.
10th October 1940
Weymouth, Kent and London come under attack during the day. At night airfields are targeted as well as Manchester and London.
12th October 1940
In an effort to keep the pressure on Britain to seek peace Hitler wants invasion preparations to continue, but postpones the invasion until spring 1941.
14th October 1940
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.
15th October 1940
19th October 1940
Liverpool, The Midlands, London and Bristol are all attacked during the night.
20th October 1940
138 aircraft from Bomber Command attack a range of targets in Germany and Italy.
21st October 1940
The West Country, Liverpool and London come under further daytime attacks.
22nd October 1940
During the night the Luftwaffe bombs London, Liverpool and Coventry.
23rd October 1940
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 1940
The Corpo Aero Italiano join the battle when 18 Fiat BR 20s take off from airfields in Belgium to raid Felixstowe and Harwich during the night.
26th October 1940
Fighter-bomber attacks are made on London and Kent whilst a number of major cities are bombed.
29th October 1940
The Corpo Aero Italiano again attacks Britain as during the day 15 BR 20s, escorted by Fiat CR.42 Falcos and Fiat G.50s, bomb Ramsgate.
Fiat CR.42 Falco31st October 1940
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.
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 1940, 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 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 1940 when the Luftwaffe launched Operation Mondscheinsonate (Operation Moonlight Sonata) targeting Coventry. On that night 568 people were killed and the Cathedral destroyed when 437 aircraft bombed the city. This would lead to a new word by the Germans "to coventrieren" (to Coventrate). The 23rd saw Southampton attacked heavily for the first time as well. November would also see Air Marshal Sir W. Sholto Douglas replace Hugh Dowding as Commander-in-Chief of Fighter Command on the 25th. Four days later on the 29th November Liverpool was attacked again and 166 people died when the shelter at Edge Hill Training Centre received a direct hit from a parachute mine, whilst former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlin had died at the age of 71 on the 9th November.
December 1940 would see No. 66 Squadron perform the first 'Rhubarb' fighter sweep over Europe on the 20th as Fighter Command started to go on the offensive.
One of the last major bombing raids of this period was on the 10th May 1941 when London was attacked by over 500 aircraft with 1,486 people killed. When the Blitz officially ended five days later on the 16th May it brought to an end 8 months and 10 days of attacks which saw 43,500 people lose their lives. Although 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.