Untouched cathedral. The most famous picture - the symbol of the Battle of Britain. Untouched St.Paul's Cathedral amidst the burning City. Later some bombs fell onto the cathedral too.


The fall of France deprived Great Britain not only of a powerful ally and its large armed forces. First of all it deprived her of a moral support on the European continent and menaced to shove her into political isolation. The disoriented world public opinion, especially the American one, was still inclined to listen to sedative propaganda oozed not only from fascist sources, and claiming necessity to pacify and reorganize the restless Europe. Of course this historic mission was supposed to be assumed by Germany. From the perspective of Idaho or Oklahoma the mosaic of European countries did not look better than Latin America with its proverbial wars, or just brawls, for Gran Chaco and other bigger pastures. It even looked worse, for Gran Chaco never threatened the world with a global conflict. Europeans did not, and do not realise the degree of degeneration of the American society. The society, which evaluates everything in categories of debit and credit; the society, which has narrowed its mind to its backyard and regarded the war in Europe for yet another annoying adventure, in which everybody was equally guilty, and in which the strongest guy should have bossed others and introduced some logical order. France's surrender to the heralds of the "new world order" only strengthened that dangerous naїveté. Only the American president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, with a handful of his associates were capable to see beyond the tip of their noses and understand the danger fascism brought not only to Europe, but also to the United States and the whole world. However the Americans were under influence of short-sighted followers of so-called Monroe doctrine - America for Americans, and Americans do not care what is going on elsewhere. Those isolationist views were effectively augmented by the propaganda of the influential German "fifth column" since long rooted in the USA and Canada, as well as of various fools from pacifist groups. An average American breadwinner therefore looked at England, always unpopular in the United States, as at a European thug, which denied the Germans their historic mission.

It certainly did not make the life easier to the British prime-minister, Sir Winston Spencer Churchill, who knew that he could not win the war without the consolidation of all the democratic forces for one, common goal. Therefore he could not do without Europeans from the continent, who solely by their authority, their voice and their attitude blurred the simple and unsophisticated panorama laboured out by fascist propaganda. In the situation of summer 1940 those Europeans gathered in London were worth as much as divisions of the best soldiers. Saving the governments of the countries conquered by Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini was not only an act of allied solidarity, but also, or perhaps above all, the matter of urgent political need. Sir Winston understood it faster than many of his associates and advisers. The Czechs, Albanians and Norwegians were already in London, the Belgians and Dutchmen were coming, General Charles de Gaulle was organizing a handful of French patriots around his Committee Free France, and one could not ignore the Poles, who after all were waging the war from the very beginning and after the defeat restored and offered their army, navy and air forces at the Allied disposal. So Churchill sent to France his personal envoy, Józef Hieronim Retinger, a Polish expatriate of a colourful but somewhat murky biography, with the task of finding and bringing to London the Prime Minister of the Polish government in exile General Władysław Sikorski. Both prime ministers met in London at 10 Downing Street on 19 June. At once Sikorski informed Churchill, that the Poles were not going to capitulate together with the French and got Churchill's assurance, that Great Britain was also going to reject crippled compromise. Sir Winston offered the Polish government hospitality on the British soil and ordered to send British ships to France to evacuate remnants of the Polish troops. Mr. Prime-Minister, said Sikorski, we are coming to win or die with you. [Terlecki O. (1982).] Both statesmen had tears in their eyes.

This scene, which took place amidst the chaos of France's collapse, certainly looks pathetic, but the Allies' situation in the summer 1940 was pathetic indeed. After the debacle in Flanders, no more than 340,000 troops concentrated in the British Isles faced the perspective of German invasion. They made 24 divisions deployed along the coasts of East Anglia and Scotland. They mostly had complete wartime establishments, but lacked heavy equipment left on the beaches of Dunkirk. New equipment did not arrive yet from the factories in Middle England or Canada. British troops were reinforced with Canadian and Australian units; they were actually well equipped but had no combat experience. For auxiliary tasks there was formed the Home Guard - a civilian popular militia armed with mostly obsolete shotguns, or even just pitchforks and sticks. To strengthen the morale among the Britons all the newspapers emphasized the participation of foreign troops in defence of Britain. They generously described, even to the edge of annoying exaggeration, their combat values, gallantry, inflexibility and determination to continue the struggle alongside the British ally. For the reasons of wartime censorship numbers were not published. After all they were not so impressive. Of 120,000 French soldiers saved from Dunkirk and Brittany, most repatriated to Philippe Pétain's "free state", having left de Gaulle with few troops. Others did not exceed 36,000 men - mostly the Poles, Czechs and Slovaks, Norwegians and Dutchmen. For obvious reasons those were largely rear, often non-combat units. Fortunately among them happened to be many airmen. Very soon they all and each of them would be worth their weight in gold.

Churchill did not try to hide the grim future before his countrymen. I have nothing to offer, he said in one of his famous speeches, but blood, toil, tears and sweat. Nevertheless, the Britons' spirit was high to the astonishment of even such experienced foreigners like de Gaulle:

It should be said that a tense atmosphere enveloped England at that time. The German offensive was expected from one moment to the next, and, faced by this prospect, everyone entrenched himself in exemplary steadfastness. It was a truly admirable sight to see each Englishman behaving as if the safety of the country depended on his own conduct. This universal feeling of responsibility seemed the more moving because in reality everything was going to depend on the air force. [Gaulle Ch. de (1998).]

As a matter of fact the Royal Navy was stronger than the Kriegsmarine and the Germans would not risk a clash with the British naval forces in open seas, far from their air bases. But in the waters washing the east and south coasts of England there was no place, which would not be reachable to aircraft. Battleships, cruisers and large destroyers did not sail south to Firth of Forth in Scotland and east to Plymouth in Cornwall. Only smaller units patrolled the English Channel. The times of the Great Armada, Napoleon or even the First World War were gone since long. The sea barrier did not protect England any more and her defence could not rely solely on her navy.

On 18 July Hitler, in his speech in the Reichstag, once again offered peace. Of course provided, that he would keep all the grabbed lands. In Stockholm and Vatican, Bern and Madrid German diplomacy and intelligence tried to negotiate with the Britons. Churchill ordered to ignore those attempts. He left no shadow of doubt about his intentions in another famous speech of his:

We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills, we shall never surrender.

After all the German intentions were also clear: on 16 July Hitler ordered his staff officers to prepare the plan of invasion of the British Isles within a month. This deadline was not realistic: neither German staffs nor troops were prepared for amphibious operations. They had no necessary training, no experience, not even special equipment, which would be able to carry tanks and guns and to disembark them on the beaches. Nevertheless German highest command echelons started works on the draft of the operation, which had got the codename Seelöwe (Sea Lion). It foresaw the landing of 25 German divisions, including several armoured ones, in the area between Dover and Portsmouth, airborne operations in the British rear, cutting London out from the rest of the country from the west, and annihilation of the core defence forces there. Apparently the authors had assumed that they would be left more time than a month, and that the British air force would be beaten before the operation commence. The German air force would then paralyze the activities of British battleships and cruisers while the landing fleet would sail for British coasts protected from attacks of the light British forces by their surface ships and a pack of submarines. So the Luftwaffe had to make the first and decisive blow.

The Luftwaffe actually had been conducting intensive reconnaissance operations since mid-July. Then on 8 August 1940 came the Adlertag (Day of Eagle) - the first day of the greatest air battle ever, which lasted three months and is known as the Battle of Britain. The Germans threw against the British three out of their five air fleets: 1600 combat aircraft including 700 fighters. The other two fleets, which had about 1000 aircraft, were kept in reserve, but soon they also joined the fights. The minister of German air force, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring himself was in command.

The Royal Air Force (RAF) at that time had 42 squadrons of modern fighters Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire, altogether 500 machines. Theoretically they had also 10 squadrons of Bristol Blenheim and Bolton-Paul Defiant planes, but they were not adequate for daylight fights. In command was Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding. He was the officer, who had opposed with effect sending additional aircraft to France at the end of its ill-fated campaign. It is enough to say that the British lost in France 250 Hurricane planes, it means almost half of the fighters left for the Britain's defence. Further losses, which in that situation would inevitably be very severe, could exhaust RAF to the point, that they would not be able to deliver a serious resistance any more. The British also possessed 35 bomber squadrons of about 400 planes. Although those were mostly obsolete, often single-engine machines, during the Battle of Britain they gallantly supported their fighter comrades bombing enemy ports with amphibious equipment being gathered there. The British effort was supported by foreign forces: two Canadian fighter squadrons, in which also served some American volunteers, two Polish and two Czechoslovak ones. The Australians, South Africans, French, Belgians, Dutchmen and Norwegians each provided one squadron. Moreover there were some New Zealand, Lithuanian, Danish, Icelandic, Yugoslav and Caribbean pilots flying in British squadrons; among them had also found itself a group of Russian emigrants.

The blows, which began on 8 August had to overwhelm the British fighters, destroy their aircraft and deprive them of airfields. They also were aimed at ports and sea convoys with supplies. Every day up to 400 German aircraft were engaged in action: dive bombers Junkers Ju-87 Stuka against the airfields and convoys, and horizontal bombers Heinkel He-111, Junkers Ju-88 and Dornier Do-17 against ports and general targets. The Ju-87's were particularly infamous for the "glory" they had gained while bombing defenceless towns and refugees in Poland and France, but in real fights they proved very vulnerable and became an easy prey to the fighters. So the Germans started sending strong fighters' escort with their bombers, and they possessed formidable machines. The Messerschmitt Bf-109 was actually weaker and slower than the Spitfire was, but more agile, and it was superior to the Hurricane. The twin-engine Messerschmitt Bf-110 was heavily armed and armoured. Nevertheless it could not help. British fighters were catching up German formations, dispersing them, shooting down as many aircraft as possible, and coming back to their airfields without big casualties, which in no way could they afford. It is worth to emphasize that for the whole duration of the battle the British were outnumbered by the Germans four times, and they had to spare their forces for its culminating stage. Dowding's tactics, which resembled rather an air guerrilla, was supported by the radar being efficiently used in that war for the first time. Thanks to the radar staff officers could quickly estimate the location and strength of the incoming German formations, and distribute or concentrate fighter squadrons without waste of time and fuel, which significantly compensated for their combat weakness.

On 26 August the German high command decided to postpone the invasion for one month. Since 19 August Luftwaffe's effort was focused on fighters' airfields in the vicinity of London; it tried to destroy them at any price either in the air or on the ground. In this second stage of the battle German losses somewhat dropped while the British ones dramatically increased. The RAF's situation in the end of August was worse than in July. The enemy actually lost several hundreds of aircraft, but losses were inflicted on the defenders too. Particularly painful was the toll of young, inexperienced British pilots, who used to be shot down by Luftwaffe veterans too often and too easily. The industry, harassed by air raids, could not keep reinforcements up to the losses in squadrons. The aircraft production decreased 26%. The Battle of Britain reached its critical point.

On 30 August the first foreign fighter, Flight Officer Ludwik Paszkiewicz from the Polish Squadron 303 shot down his first German. This victory came somewhat incidentally - during a training flight. Dowding so far did not trust foreign pilots and their experience gained over the continent. Paszkiewicz's success had dismissed his prejudices. The next day he ordered to introduce foreign squadrons to fights. After all he had no other sources of reinforcement, and it was about time to consolidate the defence. On 7 September the third stage of the Battle of Britain began: the Germans struck against the British cities, especially London. They wanted to destroy the industry, terrorize the population, paralyze the administration and force capitulation. The fights over London were particularly eager; British pilots had to take off four or five times a day to compensate their inferiority in numbers. Their mechanics were working 24 hours a day, even during the air raids. The day 11 September brought the record number of air fights. On 14 September the Germans twice bombed London with 400 planes. Next day, on Sunday 15 September, they sent onto the British capital 500 bombers. This day is regarded for the turning point. Since morning Churchill was at the commanding post of the Fighter Command No.11 Group in Uxbridge near London. Twenty-one squadrons were fighting at that time. By early afternoon they nearly collapsed. The commander of the group, Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park, needed to give some rest to his pilots and time to refuel their planes. For that they needed some air cover in case of another air raid. In the presence of Churchill he demanded support of three more squadrons from the No.12 Group (Air Vice-Marshal Trafford Leigh Mallory), which was defending industrial centres of Middle England and East Anglia, and was less engaged in the fights. Sir Winston has noted the state of moods in his wartime memoirs:

The young officer, to whom this seemed as a matter of routine, continued to give his orders, in accordance with the general directions of his Group Commander, in a calm, low monotone, and the three reinforcing squadrons were soon absorbed. I became conscious of the anxiety of the Commander, who now stood still behind his subordinate's chair. Hitherto I had watched in silence. I now asked, What other reserves have we?

There are none, said Air Vice-Marshal Park. In an account which he wrote about it afterwards, he said that at this I looked "grave." Well I might. What losses should we not suffer if our refuelling planes were caught on the ground by further raids of "40 plus" or "50 plus"! The odds were great; our margins small; the stakes infinite. [Churchill W. S. L. (1986b).]

However, no further attack had come. The radars indicated that German aircraft flew eastward. Ten minutes later the air alert, being effective since morning, was called out. And Churchill could finally light the cigar he had kept unlit in his mouth since morning. And the same day evening British bombers started a counter-offensive with the raid on the grouping of German vessels and barges in continental ports. The Berlin decided even earlier that the operation Seelöwe had to be postponed another week. The Germans still illuded themselves, that they could win the Battle of Britain. Particularly Göring still attached big hopes to the massive bombing of British cities. He could not understand that on 15 September he was practically defeated.

The Germans needed two days to rebuild their strengths. On 18 September they started the fourth stage of the battle, but with lesser forces. On 27 September 850 machines took part in the last large daylight air raid on London, Bristol, Birmingham and Liverpool. That day is regarded for the last day of the battle of London, the most critical campaign of the Battle of Britain. Since 6 October the Germans had switched to less efficient night bombings as well as daylight smaller but frequent fighter incursions at high altitudes and against many targets. They expected to exhaust the defence by forcing it to permanent alert and patrolling. In addition they undertook so-called "sweeping" - fast attacks against airfields, with hedgehopping flights, several metres above the ground, and undetectable for radars. This new German tactics however did not change the situation. Quite a contrary, their losses rapidly grew again. By 31 October the Battle of Britain extinguished. Yet before that date, on 12 October, the operation Seelöwe was called out and postponed till spring 1941. The next week started the dispersion of the sea transport equipment gathered in continental ports and idle since the summer. In November the Germans initiated so-called war of attrition by harassing the Isles with frequent, night air raids. As the British defence strengthened, Churchill could reasonably ask: Attrition? Whose attrition? With time the Germans would dearly pay for their challenge with all their cities and industrial centres.

As late as in December 1940 Hitler, having postponed the operation Seelöwe until 1941, realised that the British industry and air force could not be destroyed by air attacks. On 18 December he issued the Directive No.21 (Barbaroßa), which turned the Wehrmacht definitely eastward. Great Britain, which could not be beaten directly, was now to be beaten indirectly, by conquest of her only potential ally on the European continent: the Soviet Union. For that the Luftwaffe was diverted away from the British Isles without having achieved any of its objectives.

In the Battle of Britain the Royal Air Force lost 915 aircraft; the German air force lost almost two times more aircraft: 1733 in this 1437 shot down by RAF. However the most important were not the material losses. The prominent German militarymen, like Alfred Jodl, Walther Warlimont, Kurt von Tippelskirch or Günther Blumentritt witness, that in the Battle of Britain the Luftwaffe lost the cream of its fighter pilots and was never able to recover from those losses. The proportion of British and German personnel losses in the Battle of Britain was of 3:1; individual squadrons had achieved even proportion of 9:1. Almost one sixth of the victories in the British skies were achieved by foreign pilots - 203 by the Poles, 42 by the Czechs and Slovaks, 21 by the Belgians. Among fighter aces one can find names of the Australian Pat Hughes, New Zealander Brian Carbury, Pole Witold Urbanowicz, Frenchman Pierre Clostermann, Yugoslav Miroslav Ferić, Icelander Thorstein Jónsson, Czech Josef František, and Canadian Arthur Bishop - the son of the Canadian First World War fighter ace, Billy Bishop. Another Canadian, Douglas Bader, continued fighting even after having amputated both legs. They all were a part of what Churchill praised with short and mighty phrase: never before, in the field of human conflicts, so much was owed by so many to so few.