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The Battle of Britain, Sixty Years Ago -- Today

'The Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin.' So stated Sir Winston Churchill on June 18, 1940.'The Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin.' So stated Sir Winston Churchill on June 18, 1940. Churchill was correct, the Battle of Britain started in the skies over England in the summer of 1940 -- and the high point took place on September 15th, which is now celebrated as Battle of Britain Day.

After France fell to invading German forces, and British Army troops were removed from the beaches of Dunkirk, many Britons saw a German attack as inevitable. Some hoped for a diplomatic solution, but with the terrors promoted by the Nazi powers, how long would such a brokered peace last? The Germans moved against the British in earnest in early July. Their early targets were coastal installations, towns and convoys. All of this effort was to prepare the English coastline for Operation Sea Lion, the invasion of England by German troops.

The Royal Air Force struck back at the Luftwaffe with intensity. Some units of the Royal Air Force cycled their pilots and aircraft through sortie after sortie each day to confront wave after wave of German Air Force attack aircraft that crossed the English Channel loaded with bombs.

Later, as Axis forces struck at fighter airfields and radar sites along the coast, the wear and tear of constant daily battle showed on both sides. The battle became one of attrition and although the Germans had enough aircraft to start a fight, it was the British who raised production figures to win. The RAF was not about to give up and the Germans learned that their vaunted attack aircraft were not living up to the reputation afforded them earlier in the war.

For the RAF, there was the saving grace to being the defenders. Should an unfortunate RAF aircrewman bail out, he was likely to land on his home turf, and be back in action shortly thereafter. Luftwaffe crews were likely to spend time as prisoners-of-war. Air-Sea rescue services of both sides patrolled the English Channel, not only to save lives, but also to get their own back into the fray.

Shifting the constitution of the air fleets, the Luftwaffe found they needed more fighters than they planned. Some units were so badly bruised that they, and the aircraft types they flew, were removed from combat entirely.

After the 7th of September, Luftwaffe bombers were no longer aimed at RAF airfields and the weakening Fighter Command. They had turned their attention to the cities of Great Britain, mainly London. On September 15th, over 1,000 enemy aircraft of all types flew against England it was the largest raid of the entire war to that point. Of these, 56 were destroyed (claimed at over three times that at the time) and many more damaged. But this was the high water mark of Operation Sea Lion. No raids would be as large, and the planned seaborne invasion was cancelled. As the Battle of Britain petered out, the German actions continued on with the destructive Blitz on England. Even though victors in the Battle, the Britons had no rest until May of 1945 and defeat of Germany.

**While it is now 60 years later interesting to look at some of the amazing and sometimes handsome aircraft produced for the Luftwaffe, one needs to remember that these machines were the weapons of a truly evil empire bent on World domination, enslavement and genocide. The stand against Hitler and his minions by the Royal Air Force and the people of Great Britain during the Battle of Britain is indeed one of humanity's finest hours. Using most web search engines with the term 'Battle of Britain' will give you leads to many more resources.

One website http://www.raf.mod.uk/bob1940/bobhome.html is replaying actual radio news coverage from the battle so you can hear exactly what listeners heard sixty years ago this day.

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About This Author:
Brian Nicklas is a researcher and the Asst. Reference Chief in the Archives Division of the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution. As a freelance aerospace writer and photographer he has covered the space program to military aviation, and has flight experience in gliders to blimps. He is an alumnus of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Daytona Beach in Aeronautical Studies and was recently named a Contributing Editor to Air&Space/Smithsonian Magazine. As an unlicensed pilot, he flies in whatever he can when not building airplane models.
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