In the summer of 1940 during the Second World War it seemed likely the UK would be defeated as Royal Air Force pilots battled to stem the flood of German Luftwaffe planes that crossed the channel to attack cities and airfield.
September 15 saw the RAF gain a decisive victory over the Luftwaffe in what was Nazi Germany’s largest daylight attack. Some 1,120 Luftwaffe aircraft were sent to attack London but were repelled by just 630 RAF fighters and two days later Hitler postponed his plans to invade Britain. Some 544 RAF Pilots and 312 RAF ground personnel lost their lives during the battle and the airmen became known as ‘The Few’ following a tribute by prime minister Winston Churchill, who said: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
Germany, led by Hitler, had invaded much of Europe, and Britain was the only country left to conquer. Hitler ordered the Luftwaffe, Germany’s air force, to fly over and bomb towns and army defences on the south coast of England, hoping to weaken the British defences before invading by land. The first bombs were dropped on 10th July 1940. Hitler did not anticipate the strength of the Royal Air Force, and Britain’s determination to fight back. He decided to focus the attack on the air force bases of Britain instead, bombing airport runways and radar stations, hoping to weaken the RAF. Hitler became impatient at how long it was taking to defeat Britain, so he also ordered the bombing of large cities such as Cardiff, Glasgow, Belfast and London.
18th August 1940 was named ‘The Hardest Day’ after a particularly fierce air battle between the RAF and the Luftwaffe. Germany aimed to destroy RAF Fighter Command, the control centre of Britain’s fighter aircraft. Both sides suffered heavy losses. Despite shooting down twice as many German planes in the sky, the RAF lost many of their aircraft when they were destroyed on the ground. The Germans felt that they were getting close to victory. On 15th September, a huge bombing attack was launched on London. Immediately, RAF pilots took to the sky in their fighter planes, shooting down many German aircraft. This was a key turning point; although more air raids occurred after this date, they became less frequent.At the end of October 1940, Hitler abandoned his plans to invade Britain. After the Battle of Britain, the RAF had seriously weakened the Luftwaffe and caused Hitler’s first major defeat of the war.
During the Battle of Britain one fifth of Fighter Command's aircrew came from overseas and 16 nations were represented in its squadrons. A total of 126 New Zealanders, 98 Canadians, 33 Australians and 25 South Africans participated. They were joined by three Rhodesians, a Jamaican, a Barbadian and a Newfoundlander. The Commonwealth countries produced some of the best fighter pilots, including the Australian Flying Officer Paterson Hughes and Flight Lieutenant Adolph 'Sailor' Malan from South Africa. Plt Off William Meade Lindsley 'Billy' Fiske, an American Olympic gold medalist and pilot in 601 Squadron.
After the fall of France, the RAF welcomed into its ranks exiles from German-occupied Europe. In all, 145 Poles, 88 Czechoslovaks, 29 Belgians, 13 Frenchmen and an Austrian flew in the Battle and many of these proved to be excellent pilots. Though only operational for six weeks, the Polish No. 303 Squadron claimed 126 victories to become the top scoring RAF unit. The most successful RAF pilot, with 17 kills, was Sergeant Josef Frantisek, a Czech national who also flew with '303'.
Though their countries were neutral, 10 Irish and 11 United States citizens fought in the Battle of Britain.
"Had it not been for the magnificent material contributed by the Polish squadrons and their unsurpassed gallantry, I hesitate to say that the outcome of the battle would have not been the same."
Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding