Battlefield Britain - Their Finest Hour, The Battle Of Britain

By Corinne Field | 30 April 2006
BBC Battlefield Britain

The BBC series Battlefield Britain spanned 2000 years and told the story of eight key battles fought on and over British soil. See the spoils of war and discover the story behind these violent clashes at a museum or historic site with Culture24's Battlefield Britain trails.

Shows a black and white photograph of Spitfires flying through cloudy skies.

Supermarine Spitfire Mark 1s of No. 610 Fighter Squadron, Royal Air Force on patrol from Biggin Hill during the Battle of Britain. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

The Battle of Britain

The Battle of Britain was a pivotal moment in modern British history. For a few summer months in 1940, a mighty air battle was fought, and the struggle is remembered today as the RAF’s finest hour.

Although the Second World War raged for another four years, Hitler’s air attacks in the summer of 1940, collectively known as the Battle of Britain, were the first phase of his only attempt at invading Britain.

"If the Luftwaffe (the German Air Forces) had won, there was every chance the Germans would have invaded and occupied the country. Invasions can’t take place without air superiority," says Dave Parry, Acquisitions Curator in the Photograph Archive at the Imperial War Museum, and something of an expert on the battle.

"Just think of the consequences if a German invasion had taken place," he adds. "It would have been quite catastrophic."

Shows a black and white portrait photograph of Chief Marshal Sir Hugh C T Dowding in military uniform.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh C T Dowding, Commander in Chief of Royal Air Force Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

The Imperial War Museum, London has a permanent exhibition in its Second World War Galleries on the Battle of Britain. There are artifacts including uniforms and equipment from the battle, newsreels, photographs and aircraft on show. Perhaps the highlight is the Spitfire Mark 1, which took part in the battle – thought to be the only remaining one in the country.

Formerly a Battle of Britain fighter station, the Imperial War Museum, Duxford has a permanent exhibition called Battle of Britain and the Air Defence of Britain on show in Hangar 4. They have a Hurricane and Spitfire as well as bits of a German Messerschmidt ME 109 - shot down during the battle.

Shows a black and white photograph of pilots wearing what look like life-jackets jumping out of the back of a truck. In the background is an aeroplane.

Royal Air Force Spitfire pilots at Duxford 'scramble' during the Battle of Britain. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

By June 1940 Hitler had the beginnings of a powerful empire. He conquered Poland in September 1939 and in May 1940 he invaded Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg and France.

Next on his list was Britain. He hatched a plan, code-named Operation Sealion, to invade in September 1940. Not only did Hitler want to occupy Britain and rule her people, he also planned - as he had done in Poland - to plunder the national collections of art and had a wish list of objects and paintings he wanted to take back to Germany.

Before Hitler could invade by sea, however, his Luftwaffe had to secure the skies over Britain and the RAF weren’t going down without a fight. The RAF Museum, Hendon, also a fighter station during the battle, boasts the largest collection of Battle of Britain aircraft in the country and the largest collection of Luftwaffe aircraft in the world. There is also a multimedia story entitled Our Finest Hour, which includes archive footage of the battle.

Shows a photograph of planes on show in a hangar at the RAF Museum, Hendon. The one on the right is a German Messerschmidt 109.

The Battle of Britain Hall at the Royal Air Force Museum © RAF Museum, Hendon

According to Dave Parry, exactly when the Battle of Britain started and finished is still a matter of debate. Some believe it started directly after the fall of France and didn’t end until November 1940. Others think the term Battle of Britain should refer to the attempts by the Luftwaffe to neutralize the RAF between July and September.

What is for certain is that it stretched the RAF to its limits.

Parry splits the attacks up into five separate periods. First was the Channel battle that took place from July 10 to early August when the Germans carried out bomber raids on shipping convoys and coastal towns - an attempt to see if the RAF would rise to the bait.

From August 8 the Battle of Britain proper began. This is when the Luftwaffe put Operation Eagle into practice – Hitler’s plan to overpower the British Air Force. On August 18 the Royal Air Force lost 35 fighters in one day alone and British pilots refer to it as 'the hardest day'.

Shows a black and white photograph of two Hawker Hurricanes taking off from RAF Hawkinge.

Hawker Hurricanes 'scramble' from RAF Hawkinge, Battle of Britain 1940. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

The third stage involved attacks on Fighter Command airfields like Biggin Hill, Hawkinge and Tangmere as well as radar stations and aircraft factories.

Tangmere Military Aviation Museum, based at the former airfield in West Sussex, has a Battle of Britain Hall, which includes aircraft remains, personal effects, photographs and paintings, both Allied and German. They also have a Link Trainer, an old-fashioned and very basic simulator, used to train pilots on the ground.

Hawkinge was the closest RAF station to enemy-occupied France and only ten minutes flying time from the Luftwaffe airfields in the Pas-de-Calais. Today Kent Battle of Britain Museum is based there. It claims to have the oldest established and largest collection of Battle of Britain artifacts and memorabilia in the country.

Just down the road from Hawkinge is Chartwell, the family home of Winston Churchill from 1924 until his death. The rooms and gardens remain much as they were when he lived there, with pictures, books, maps and personal mementoes on display.

Shows a photograph of three Spitfires parked on the grass outside Kent Battle of Britain Museum.

Hurricanes © Kent Battle of Britain Museum

On September 7 Luftwaffe attacks switched emphasis. The High Command shifted their focus to the capital in the hope that the RAF would come, en masse, to defend it. London was pounded over and over again, but this onslaught gave the RAF vital days to rebuild and regroup depleted squadrons and repair bombed airfields.

Biggin Hill was just one of the bases around London fighting in the battle. By the time the Luftwaffe focused their attention on London, every single building on the airfield had been flattened by attacks and over four hundred servicemen and women killed.

Shows a photograph of the interior of a Spitfire cockpit.

Spitfire cockpit © Spitfire Museum

When London came under attack Churchill and his war cabinet went underground. Having learnt from bitter experience in the first world war the damage bombing raids could do the Cabinet War Rooms were built in 1938 to protect the Prime Minister, his Cabinet and the central core of the military command in the event of a war.

Following the surrender of the Japanese in 1945, The Cabinet War Rooms were shut down and left untouched until the 1980s when the doors were opened to the public. One of the highlights visitors can see in the Map Room, where all battles and movements of troops were plotted, is the scoreboard from the Battle of Britain.

Shows a black and white photograph of the map room in the Cabinet War Rooms in 1946.

Cabinet War Rooms map room, 1946 © Churchill War Rooms

The air battle over London, over by the end of September, effectively ended the period that most people refer to as the Battle of Britain although minor raids, mostly at night, took place throughout October.

Winter was approaching, and at the end of September Hitler postponed Operation Sealion until the following year. The RAF had survived, the Royal Navy was intact and Britain had escaped invasion for the time being.

The defence of Britain during the battle was led by Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh “Stuffy” Dowding, Commander in Chief of Fighter Command. It is his organisational genius that is generally credited for the RAF’s success.

Shows a photograph of the Messerschmitt 109 at the RAF Museum in Hendon. It has a yellow nose with a black propeller.

The German Messerschmidt ME 109 fighter at the Royal Air Force Museum © RAF Museum, Hendon

"Our planes were good but the German planes were just as good," says Dave Parry. "I think we won because we had better organisation. Our fighter command was better organized to combat these attacks."

British pioneering effort with radar stations also helped. Because of radar, not only were pilots rested and fuel saved but also, when the enemy was detected, pilots could be sent to the right spot.

The Royal Air Force Air Defence Radar Museum traces the history and development of radar from 1935 to 1993. It has a permanent exhibition all about the Battle of Britain from a radar perspective including a recreation of a filter room. Run by volunteers, it is open to the public on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Shows a photograph of Goering surrounded by German troops. One of them is holding a flag.

Hermann Goering (1893 - 1946): Goering addresses a group of German pilots during the Battle of Britain. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

In contrast, Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, Commander in Chief of the Luftwaffe, was criticized for his indecision switching targets from airfields to cities - a decision that some say lost him the battle if not the war.

"In the end I don’t suppose either side emerged as a winner," says Parry. "At the end of the battle the RAF were still there and capable of offering an effective opposition to the Luftwaffe."

Parry is uncertain whether there were any winners or losers at the Battle of Britain. Both sides lost a lot of aircraft and a lot of men. One such man was Pilot Officer Billy Fiske, based at Tangmere.

Early in the war, a small band of intrepid Americans flew for the RAF. Billy was the first American serviceman in the RAF to die in action. Shot down in the skies over Sussex, a gravestone bearing his name can be found in the south-east corner of Boxgrove graveyard.

Shows a photograph of two men dressed as RAF pilots sat on chairs. There is a plane in the background.

Battle of Britain re-enactors at the Royal Air Force Museum © RAF Museum, Hendon

Fighting on Britain’s side were not only Americans but also Poles, Free French forces, Czechs and many Australians, New Zealanders and South African pilots. has a website which lists all of the Czech pilots who flew and died fighting in the Battle of Britain.

A national memorial to all those who died fighting in the Battle of Britain was opened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother in July 1993. The Capel Le Ferne Battle of Britain Memorial was the brainchild of an ex-Battle of Britain pilot, Wing Commander Geoffrey Page. It is a sculpture of a pilot on a sandstone plinth located on the white cliffs between Dover and Folkestone. On the plinth are carved the crests of all the squadrons that took part in the conflict.

Nearby is the Spitfire and Hurricane Memorial Museum, based at what was RAF Manston but is now Kent airport. According to curator Peter Turner, Manston was possibly the most heavily bombed airfield of World War Two.

Shows a photograph of the Capel-le-Ferne memorial. It is a large stone statue of a pilot sat down and looking thoughtful.

Capel-le-Ferne Battle of Britain Memorial © Spitfire Museum

The museum boasts a Spitfire and a Hurricane as well as military and civil memorabilia from the war. Also on the site is the RAF Manston History Museum.

To find out more about the Battle of Britain visit the RAF's official Battle of Britain website

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