Copyright Canadian War Museum (CN 83190).

Battle for Britain, by John P. Cuthbert.

A giant John Bull is depicted standing on the shores of Great Britain and defending his land against the aerial onslaught of the Luftwaffe.
United States, National Archives and Records Administration. Available online at Images of American Political History, [22 December 1999].

London during the Blitz, 29 December 1940.

St. Paul's Cathedral is visible amidst the dust and smoke. Starting in the summer of 1940, the German air force targeted major British cities, such as London, in an effort to defeat Britain. Although the bombing raids caused much destruction and loss of life, British morale was not broken.

Having seized firm control of western Europe, Hitler turned his attention to Britain, a country he admired and hoped to bring into his sphere peacefully. If diplomacy failed, an invasion would likely be required, and the defeat of the RAF was a precondition to the success of such an operation. In July 1940, the Luftwaffe therefore began an air war against Britain. Initially, the Germans wanted to establish air supremacy over the Straits of Dover as a prerequisite to invasion. Recent research has shown that many of the common perceptions of what became known, after the fact, as the Battle of Britain have been false. One of these is that the conflict was a "David and Goliath" struggle. The facts are that the RAF was not outnumbered. In August 1940, it had slightly more fighter aircraft that did the Luftwaffe, and Britain's aircraft industry was also producing fighter aircraft at a higher rate than was Germany's. This myth of the outnumbered RAF has its origins in RAF intelligence assessments of the enemy that are now known to be erroneous. Indeed, one of the fascinating aspects of the air war is the consistent inability of the adversaries to accurately estimate the others capabilities. One popular belief that is not a myth, however, was the superiority of the RAF's command and control and early warning system, an advantage based largely on a new technology, radar.

Another example of failed intelligence is the long held belief that German bombers strayed off target and mistakenly bombed civilian areas of London on the night of 24 August 1940. The facts are that the Luftwaffe, based on its estimates of British fighter strength at the start of the battle, was convinced that the RAF's Fighter Command was a spent force. The Luftwaffe thus believed it could now embark on the pre-planned second phase of the battle, the engagement of British industrial, military, and transportation targets in and around major urban centres. Collateral damage to civilian targets is a common consequence of strategic air campaigns; a normal by-product of this damage is the galvanization of morale in the threatened population. The British prime minister, Winston Churchill, immediately ordered the RAF to stage a raid on Berlin in response. Contrary to the perceived myth, the changed nature of the German air assault was not Hitler's reaction to this Bomber Command raid.

Copyright Canadian War Museum (CN 78052).

Hawker Hurricane I, by Philip De Lacey Markham.

Life for a fighter pilot may seem to have been safer and more glorious than life for the infantryman or the sailor. In fact, fighting in the skies over Europe was perilous. The RCAF lost scores of aircraft during bombing runs and lost many more good men in aerial battles.

In hindsight, this decision was clearly a major strategic blunder. Instead of continuing to concentrate the air campaign against the RAF's Fighter Command, Goering directed his force to attack London and other major British cities. Under intense bombing, many buildings were levelled and thousands of people perished. Yet the bombing campaign seemed to strengthen the resolve of the British people to continue the struggle with Germany at all costs. It also took pressure off the RAF's Fighter Command and enabled it to recover from August's heavy losses.

Canada's Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) made a particularly important contribution to the air defence of Britain. In May-June of 1940, as France was falling to German Panzer divisions, several Canadian pilots were already serving with RAF fighter squadrons. The No. 1 Fighter Squadron of the RCAF arrived in Britain too late to take part in Allied fighter operations on the continent. However, under the command of E.A. McNab, the squadron trained for a few weeks, and then, on 19 August 1940, entered the battle. On 26 August, Canadian flyers gained their first real taste of combat, when the Canadian Hurricanes engaged a group of German Dornier Do215 bombers. The Canadians fared well, downing three of the Dorniers. By the end of October, Fighter Command ordered the No. 1 Squadron to Scotland. In all, RCAF pilots scored 31 confirmed "kills," while suffering three pilots killed in action.

 

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