The Battle of Britain: Fighting for Freedom

September 15, 2015

Waged from July to October 1940, The Battle of Britain pitted a small group of Allied fighter pilots against a far larger German air force – the Luftwaffe. Their victory gave hope to the people of Great Britain and to other freedom-loving nations. The Battle of Britain was recognized immediately as significant not just because it was the largest air battle to date, but also because everyone knew that it was indicative of a possible invasion, and that the results of the battle would largely determine whether an invasion would take place.

Prelude to the Battle of Britain

In June 1940, France had fallen but England refused to give up the fight. The Nazis’ next objective was to subjugate Great Britain and thus have a free hand in Europe. Nazi planners realized that they would have to defeat the Royal Air Force (RAF) before mounting an invasion (Operation Sea Lion). The RAF, already weakened by losses from an effort to stop the Nazis in France, became the bulwark whose job it was to thwart the impending invasion.

Although many Canadians had made their way overseas to join the RAF during the 1930s, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) numbered fewer than 5,000 personnel when war was declared on September 10, 1939. Only No. 1 (Fighter) Squadron was equipped with modern Hurricane fighter aircraft and it was needed for home defence in those uncertain times. Still, with Great Britain’s back against the wall in June 1940, Canada quickly dispatched No. 1 Squadron overseas, although it would be several months before it was declared operational.

Phase I – The Channel Battles (Kanalkampf)

Although clashes between the RAF and Luftwaffe were continuous throughout this period, the official start of Phase I of the campaign – the Channel Battles (Kanalkampf) – is deemed to have begun on July 10, continuing until August 11. During this period, the Luftwaffe launched mass attacks against coastal shipping, which were met by whatever defensive forces the RAF had available. Although pilots on both sides died every day, in a very real sense both the attackers and defenders were building up their forces for the fierce contest that was yet to come. While No. 1 Squadron continued to train, Canadians flew throughout this phase as members of RAF units, including No. 242 ‘Canadian’ Squadron, which had already made a name for itself during the Battle of France.

Phase II – Eagle Attack (Adlerangriff)

On August 12, the Luftwaffe began their aerial assault in earnest by attacking coastal airfields in an attempt to destroy the RAF on the ground. Airfields were hit again and again, resulting in numerous casualties amongst the hardworking ground and support crews. After an attack, with scant time to treat the casualties and gather the dead, these men and women rushed to fill in bomb craters, put out fires, and made rushed repairs to damaged aircraft, as well as rearming and refuelling returning fighters for their next “go at Jerry”. Phase II lasted until August 23 and painted a picture of things to come with RAF casualty lists growing longer every day.

On August 20, as the Nazi Adlerangriff operation was in full flight, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill delivered his speech praising the airmen fighting the Battle in words that have echoed through the decades:

The gratitude of every home in our island, in our Empire and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the world by their prowess and their devotion.

Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. All hearts go out to the fighter pilots, whose brilliant actions we see with our own eyes day after day…

Phase III – Luftwaffe efforts increase

The critical phase of the battle started on August 24 and lasted until September 6. The Luftwaffe launched a massive campaign to destroy the RAF on the ground and in the air. Canadians, including the RCAF’s now fully-trained No. 1 Squadron, were in the thick of things. Hurricanes and Spitfires, alerted by radar and guided by sector control centres, clashed with German bombers and escorting Messerschmitt fighters multiple times per day. The English sky was painted with whispery white contrails whose delicate impermanence belied the brutality of the combat overhead. The countryside was littered with the wreckage of fire blackened aircraft and the bodies of young men.

Phase IV – The Blitz Begins

The RAF was pressed, but held its own against the Luftwaffe, despite being severely tested as an organization. The next phase of the Battle began on September 7 when the Luftwaffe shifted the focus of its attacks to London and other cities. The “Blitz” showed the inner strength and courage of British civilians as they endured a deluge of bombs day and night. Massed German formations of aircraft were met by equally large swarms of British fighters. The fighting reached a crescendo on September 15 when the Luftwaffe launched multiple attacks on London. By the end of the day, more than 1500 aircraft had engaged in combat with two enemy aircraft destroyed for the loss of one Allied aircraft. No. 1 Squadron engaged in combat twice that day, claiming three destroyed enemy aircraft, three that were likely destroyed, and two that were damaged, though two of No. 1 Squadron’s Hurricanes were destroyed and one pilot was killed.

Angered by the inability of his air force to destroy the RAF, Hitler postponed the invasion of  England on September 17.

The Battle Draws to a Close

On October 12, Hitler formally advised his service chiefs that Operation Sea Lion had been put off to the spring of 1941. In fact, attention had already turned towards Russia and the plan to invade Great Britain was never again seriously considered. The Battle of Britain had, by the end of October, as one historian put it, simply petered out.

The Blitz continued in an effort to destroy Britain’s will to fight. For 57 consecutive nights, bombs rained down on London and in total the British suffered nine months of aerial bombardment of their cities.

The Cost

More than 100 Canadians took part in the Battle of Britain, but only one Canadian unit – the RCAF’s No. 1 Squadron (soon renumbered to 401 Squadron) – participated. In 53 days of combat these young Canadians claimed 29 enemy aircraft destroyed, eight probably destroyed and a further 35 damaged. It was not without cost, as the squadron lost 16 aircraft and had three pilots killed in action with a further 10 wounded.

The vast majority of Canadians who flew in the battle did so with the RAF and the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm. Twenty of them died and are buried in graves throughout southern England or, if their bodies were never recovered, are listed on the Runnymede Memorial in Surrey, England.
These Canadian pilots distinguished themselves but they were not alone. Aircrew from 13 nations fought as part of the RAF’s Fighter Command. Joining the British and Canadians were personnel from Australia, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, France, Ireland, Jamaica, New Zealand, Poland, South Africa, the United States, and Zimbabwe (Southern Rhodesia). They were supported by thousands of ground crew, support personnel and civilian employees and volunteers who, although don’t often get the same level of recognition made vital contributions to the victory. It was an international effort to defend democracy but few of them recognized the significance of their actions at the time.

Canada’s role in the Battle of Britain, although not large, reflects a national commitment to collective defence in the face of unwarranted aggression. No. 1 Squadron, a small combat force deployed to fight with the best against the best, is the first of many examples of Canadian air power in action.

Additional information

  • The official dates of the Battle of Britain are July 10 – October 31, 1940.
  • The Allied forces flew the Spitfire and Hurricane Mark I aircraft.
  • The Battle of Britain was the first time Canada had deployed its own identifiable national air assets (No. 1 Squadron) to a combat mission.
  • 2,353 pilots from Great Britain and 574 from overseas participated.
  • 544 lost their lives, including 23 Canadians.
  • More than 100 Canadians participated as members of the RAF’s No. 242 “Canadian” Squadron, the RCAF’s No. 1 Squadron or as members of other RAF units.
  • All those who flew at least one authorized operational sortie with an eligible unit of the Royal Air Force or Fleet Air Arm from July 10 to October 31 were awarded the Battle of Britain clasp to the 1939-45 Star.
  • Three members of No. 1 Squadron received the Distinguished Flying Cross for their efforts during the Battle of Britain: the commanding officer, Squadron Leader Ernie McNab; his second-in-command, Flight Lieutenant Gordon Roy McGregor; and Flying Officer “Dal” Russel.
  • Two Canadian groundcrew were recognized for their contribution to the Battle of Britain: Flight Sergeant John R. Burdes was awarded a British Empire Medal and Flight Sergeant Cecil M. Gale was mentioned in dispatches.

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Associated Links

History of the Battle of Britain

Human Rights