The attack on Britain by the Germans from the air started on 10 July 1940. While aerial attacks on Britain would continue throughout the Second World War, the Battle of Britain is regarded as lasting from 10 July to 31 October 1940. Most historians break the battle up into roughly four stages (although some use five by splitting the first or last stages up even further).
STAGE ONE: 10 JULY–12 AUGUST 1940
The German Luftwaffe attacked sites along the British coast and ships in the English Channel by dropping bombs. In July, the Germans began preparations for Operation Sea Lion, the planned invasion of Britain. A central part of the plan was that there should be no air defences or aircraft capable of attacking the German troops as they approached from the sea and on reaching Britain.
STAGE TWO: 13–18 AUGUST 1940
The Germans started to focus the bombing raids on British airfields and radar stations. The German bombers were accompanied by fighter planes, which the British pilots and ground defences (anti-aircraft guns) needed to stop in addition to the bombers. The main German air-intensive assault was planned for 13 August, known to the Luftwaffe as Adlertag – Eagle Day.
That day was planned as the start of the final stages of the air attack. In harbours in occupied Europe, German ships were prepared for the sea attack. One of the hardest days of fighting between the RAF and the Luftwaffe was 18 August. Both sides took the highest number of casualties in one day’s fighting of the battle. The Germans managed to destroy British aircraft and airfields, but they did not stop the RAF from fighting back, and no sea invasion could be launched.
STAGE THREE: 19 AUGUST–6 SEPTEMBER 1940
The Luftwaffe began to bomb more non-military and industrial sites, and started to bomb towns and cities as well. The attacks went beyond the south-east coast and up into the South West, the Midlands, the North East of England and into Scotland. The British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, made a speech on 20 August that paid tribute to the courageous and important work and fighting of the RAF personnel: ‘Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.’
After attacks on British cities, the RAF sent its first planes to bomb Berlin on 25 August.
STAGE FOUR: 7 SEPTEMBER–31 OCTOBER 1940
The Germans decided to target more cities with mass bombing raids – the Blitz had started. On 15 September, one of the heaviest bombing raids was launched against London. However, the RAF Fighter Command continued to attack the Luftwaffe, and the Germans suffered huge losses. The day became known as Battle of Britain Day, and forced Hitler to postpone his invasion.
The Germans had damaged airfields and factories, but not enough to stop Bomber Command responding or aircraft being built. The radar stations suffered little damage, which meant that the early warning system was not stopped for any length of time during the battle.
Instead, night raids on British cities were increased, to try to exhaust the British public and to reduce German casualties. By the end of October, the Battle of Britain was over; the British air force was the first air force to defeat the Nazis. The Blitz would continue for years, as would aerial attacks, but the Germans would never mount a full-scale attack on Britain again.