Battle of Britain

I read somewhere that Trafalgar Day (21st October) has decreased in significance as the Battle of Trafalgar fades from collective British memory. We’ve just seen the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo (18th June), the centenary of ANZAC Day (April 25th)  and now the popular press has seized on the fact that it’s the 75th anniversary of the start of the Battle of Britain.   On a personal tangent, I can remember exactly what I was doing on May 10th 1980, which was the 40th anniversary of the start of the Blitzkrieg. I was just about to finish my undergraduate studies and on this day (it was a Saturday as I recall)  I was waiting for my parents to visit me and hoping that I had dispersed the usual male student smells from my room in the college residences.  I have no idea what I was doing two months later, which is a shame. July 10th is a significant date, and not just because it’s my wife’s birthday. It commemorates the ‘official’ start of the Battle of Britain, and is a bone of of contention with pilots who were wounded immediately before this date and failed to qualify for the Battle of Britain “Battle Clasp” on their medals.

“This was their finest hour” – the last page of Churchill’s speech to the House of Commons on June 18th 1940

I have collected books on the Air War since I was quite a small boy, but only in the last 20 years or so did I get a copy of Francis K. Mason’s Battle Over Britain, which for me is the definitive history of the period.  Even so I was dimly aware that 10th July was a fairly arbitrary date plucked out by the Air Ministry to give a firm date for the commencement of the conflict.  I don’t think the period itself can be so neatly divided, considering the headlong rush of the Wehrmacht on May 10th and the events at Dunkirk.  Winston Churchill stood up in Parliament on June 18th 1940 and delivered the speech which gave a name to the coming conflict.   Churchill had already promised “blood, toil, tears and sweat” on May 13th, and gave the assurance that “we will fight them on the beaches” on June 4th.

Francis K. Mason suggests, and who am I to disagree, that the Battle of Britain proper began at the end of June 1940 when German forces landed in the Channel Islands and commenced a direct offensive against the United Kingdom.  He also says that the suggestion of a lull in air operations after Dunkirk and through June 1940 are also inaccurate – elements of the RAF were extracting themselves from France until mid-June, and the units which had disengaged were utterly exhausted and lacking in equipment, spares and ground crews.

The period July 1- July 9  saw mixed weather conditions and a series of small attacks against coastal and other targets by the Luftwaffe . It should also be noted that in the first week of July a number of raids were mounted by Hampdens and Whitleys of Bomber Command against targets in northern Germany.

There is some indication according to Mason, that the pace of Luftwaffe operations increased on Sunday July 7th against convoys in the English Channel – and these intensified until Wednesday July 10th when the largest raid so far was carried out against convoy BREAD.  By July 10th, Mason says, the RAF had intercepted about 12 raids of more than 50 aircraft, and had lost eighteen aircraft and thirteen pilots.

I would like to note a trivial item related to this period. Spitfire Mk.1a P9444, still exhibited in the Science Museum, London, was written off the RAF inventory on July 6th 1940 while flying with 72 Squadron. Its pilot blacked out from lack of oxygen in flight. Although he recovered and landed safely the airframe was judged to  have been overstressed and the aircraft was recorded as having sustained Category 3 damage (destroyed) which is happily not the case. The original 1984 edition of Spitfire Survivors indicates it was sent to a Civilian Repair Unit and saw the light of day again, in military terms in March 1941 where it passed through a succession of training units and Maintenance Units until it was allocated for display purposes in 1949. Its 72 Squadron markings were re-applied in 1961.

Supermarine Spitfire Mk.Ia

Supermarine Spitfire Mk.Ia P9444 at the Science Museum, London.
P9444 was written off the RAF inventory on July 6th, 1940. Photo by Hugh Llewelyn
CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0), via Wikimedia Commons