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World War II (1939–1945)

by: History SparkNotes

The Battle of Britain

The London Blitz

In early September 1940, Hitler directed the Luftwaffe to shift its focus to the major British cities, including London. The attacks began on September 7 and continued into May of the following year. At times, they continued day and night for weeks at a time without letup. Tens of thousands of Londoners lost their lives during this time, along with thousands of residents of other British cities. In the meantime, however, British bombers were also conducting nightly air raids on central Berlin.

Although this London Blitz continued, Hitler decided on September 17, 1940, to put his plan for an invasion of Britain on hold indefinitely. It was clear that air superiority over England would be difficult to attain. Instead, Hitler turned his attention to Russia.

The First Turning Point

The Battle of Britain marked the first turning point in the war, as it was the first time that German forces failed to achieve a major goal. The Royal Air Force’s strong and effective resistance caused Hitler to abandon the idea of invading Britain and to turn his attention to Russia. Although the Blitz continued to terrorize London and other cities for months to come, Britain no longer faced the threat of a ground invasion. It demonstrated to the world that with enough stubborn resistance, Hitler could be forced back.

The Importance of Air Power

The Battle of Britain was also the first time in history when air power alone decided the outcome of a major battle. Hitler knew that there was no way he could invade Britain on the ground without first gaining air superiority. Churchill and the British military leadership also knew that stopping the Luftwaffe would be the key to their survival. The German air attacks against Britain were massive, but their initial intensity could not be maintained if the Germans were consistently losing twice as many aircraft as the British. Indeed, by the battle’s end, Germany had lost 1,700 planes to 900 British planes.

The value of the new technology of radar was also effectively demonstrated for the first time. The British had built a net of radar stations along their coastline prior to the battle, and this system proved invaluable, as British controllers could see the enemy coming and scramble fighters in the right place at the right time. Radar also prevented the loss of large numbers of aircraft on the ground, as happened during the initial days of the invasion of France. Although the Germans made an effort to bomb radar stations early on, by mid-August they gave up this strategy, believing it ineffective. It was a major mistake.

Moreover, British pilots had a considerable advantage in fighting over their own turf. Whereas German pilots had limited time over their target areas before having to return home to refuel, British pilots could stay in the air longer and even return to base, refuel, and then resume the fight. Thus, the mere act of engaging the German planes, forcing them to expend fuel by diverting them from their course, meant that fewer bombs would reach intended targets. For both Britain and Germany, this air combat was a new kind of warfare, and each side’s strategies were experimental in nature.