Battle of Britain Day 80th anniversary: What is it?

The courage of ‘the few’ will be remembered today (Tuesday, September 15) as the nation marks the 80th anniversary of Battle of Britain Day.

In the summer of 1940 during the Second World War it seemed likely the UK would be defeated as Royal Air Force pilots battled to stem the flood of German Luftwaffe planes that crossed the channel to attack cities and airfield.

September 15 saw the RAF gain a decisive victory over the Luftwaffe in what was Nazi Germany’s largest daylight attack.

Some 1,120 Luftwaffe aircraft were sent to attack London but were repelled by just 630 RAF fighters and two days later Hitler postponed his plans to invade Britain.

Some 544 RAF aviators and 312 RAF ground personnel lost their lives during the battle and the airmen became known as ‘The Few’ following a tribute by prime minister Winston Churchill, who said: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

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Commemorations are limited this year due to coronavirus restrictions, though alternating Union and RAF Ensign flags will fly on The Mall, at Buckingham Palace, from September 15 to 20.

The Westminster Abbey Battle of Britain service is still due to take place on September 20, though attendance will be significantly reduced.

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The MoD, in collaboration with the National Archives and the RAF museum, has also produced a special episode of the On The Record podcast, called Untold Battle of Britain.

What is Battle of Britain Day?

To help younger generations understand the significance of the date, we have teamed up with former primary school teacher Laura Steele of education resource creators PlanBee for an at-a-glance guide.

What was the Battle of Britain?

The Battle of Britain was a decisive air battle between Britain and Germany in the Second World War, which took place between July and October 1940.

How did the Battle of Britain begin?

Germany, led by Hitler, had invaded much of Europe, and Britain was the only country left to conquer. Hitler ordered the Luftwaffe, Germany’s air force, to fly over and bomb towns and army defences on the south coast of England, hoping to weaken the British defences before invading by land. The first bombs were dropped on 10th July 1940.

How did Britain respond?

Hitler did not anticipate the strength of the Royal Air Force, and Britain’s determination to fight back. He decided to focus the attack on the air force bases of Britain instead, bombing airport runways and radar stations, hoping to weaken the RAF. Hitler became impatient at how long it was taking to defeat Britain, so he also ordered the bombing of large cities such as Cardiff, Glasgow, Belfast and London.

What was ‘The Hardest Day’?

18th August 1940 was named ‘The Hardest Day’ after a particularly fierce air battle between the RAF and the Luftwaffe. Germany aimed to destroy RAF Fighter Command, the control centre of Britain’s fighter aircraft. Both sides suffered heavy losses. Despite shooting down twice as many German planes in the sky, the RAF lost many of their aircraft when they were destroyed on the ground.

What happened on ‘Battle of Britain Day’?

The Germans felt that they were getting close to victory. On 15th September, a huge bombing attack was launched on London. Immediately, RAF pilots took to the sky in their fighter planes, shooting down many German aircraft. This was a key turning point; although more air raids occurred after this date, they became less frequent.

How did it end?

At the end of October 1940, Hitler abandoned his plans to invade Britain. After the Battle of Britain, the RAF had seriously weakened the Luftwaffe and caused Hitler’s first major defeat of the war.

Seven fascinating facts about the Battle of Britain

? The name ‘Battle of Britain’ was coined by Prime Minister Winston Churchill. In a speech he made after the defeat of France, he said, ‘ …the Battle of France is over. The Battle of Britain is about to begin.’

? The leader of the RAF was Sir Hugh Dowding. The leader of the Luftwaffe was Hermann Göring.

? Despite the Luftwaffe having more aircraft, the RAF had the advantage of radar which gave them advance warning of where and when German aircraft were approaching.

? The Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire were the main RAF fighter aircraft. The Hurricanes were responsible for 60 per cent of German losses.

? The Messerschmitt bf 109 was the most dangerous German fighter plane. The Luftwaffe’s Heinkel He III was capable of carrying bombs weighing up to 250kg.

? At the beginning of the Battle of Britain, the RAF had 1,963 aircraft while the Luftwaffe had 2,550. By the end, the RAF had lost 1,744 and the Luftwaffe 1,977.

? After the Battle of Britain, Winston Churchill said, ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.’ This is why the pilots who fought in the battle became known as ‘The Few’.

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