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1940: Luftwaffe launches Battle of Britain

VIDEO : PM Winston Churchill: "The Battle of Britain is about to begin", broadcast 18.6.40

AUDIO : A dogfight over the British Channel waters - broadcast 14.7.40

The German Air Force, the Luftwaffe, has mounted a series of attacks on shipping convoys off the south-east coast of England.

It is the first major assault by the Luftwaffe and is being seen as what the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, dubbed in a speech three weeks ago as the beginning of the "Battle of Britain".

Although heavily outnumbered, the British fighter pilots put up a fierce fight and succeeded in driving off the attackers.

The Air Ministry says they inflicted "the greatest damage on the German air force since bombing raids on this country began".

In total the Air Ministry says 14 enemy aircraft were shot down and 23 more were severely damaged.


"The scramble was a hurried affair ... a large enemy formation was encountered flying up the Thames Estuary towards London"


Two British fighters were lost, but the pilot of one survived and is safe.

The bombing raids began at dawn hitting airfields along the south and east coasts of England.

But the main attacks took place offshore later in the day, when two shipping convoys were targeted. The first was at 1100 hours off Manston and at 1325 hours a large force of about 120 enemy aircraft approached a convoy between Dover and Dungeness.

Spitfire pilots went into the attack shooting down a number of German Messerschmitts, Me110s and Me109s. Exact numbers are difficult to verify but it seems at least nine planes were shot down.

On landing the Spitfire pilots said when they made their last attack and came round again to carry on the fight the sky was clear of German aircraft.

Towards evening Hurricane pilots sighted nine Heinkel bombers protected by more than 50 fighters attempting to attack shipping off the east coast. The bombers were surrounded by two rings of Messerschmitts - but the Hurricanes broke through and attacked the bombers shooting down at least two.

People watching from the south-east coast say the first sign of the attack was when a wave of about 20 German bombers with a similar number of support fighters dived out of the clouds.

They rained bombs down on a convoy of ships, but did not hit. A second wave of bombers and fighters followed but before a second load of bombs could be released, the ships opened fire with their anti-aircraft guns.

At this moment, a flight of Spitfires appeared and flew straight into the middle of the German formation - hitting one bomber which crashed into the sea.

It appears the intensity of the attack took the Germans by surprise and completely destroyed their formation.

One eye-witness told The Times newspaper: "I saw 10 machines crash into the sea, they included bombers and fighters. The range of operations was too extensive to see everything, for it was over land and sea.

"The British fighters were fewer than the Messerschmitts sent to protect the bombers, but the superiority of our airmen and machines was most convincing."

In Context
Following the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from Dunkirk, Adolf Hitler had Britain in his sights.

On 16 July 1940 he ordered preparations for the invasion of Britain codenamed Operation Sealion.

Britain retained naval superiority and Hitler knew that an amphibious invasion would be made easier if Germany could establish control of the air in the battle zone.

The battle for control of the skies became known as the Battle of Britain.

The Luftwaffe had the clear advantage - 750 long-range and 250 dive bombers, 600 single-engined and 150 twin-engined fighters - significantly more than RAF Fighter Command's 600 planes.

But the Luftwaffe was hampered by an inconsistent plan of action whereas the British forces were well prepared. Radar technology - being used for the first time in battle - gave plenty of notice of the German bombing raids.

The air attacks were initially focussed on British shipping, ports and airfields along the English Channel but gradually the battle moved inland.

The Germans stepped up their bombing raids in August and targeted London. Britain retaliated by bombing Berlin.

The German forces were losing bombers quicker than they could replace them and so they switched to night-time raids which continued until March 1941.

Britain had won the Battle of Britain - and Operation Sealion was postponed until further notice.


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