Operation Sealion and the Battle of Britain

June-November 1940


On 18 June 1940, Hitler met Mussolini in Munich to inform him of the armistice terms with France. He did not want to impose punitive conditions, so he would not allow Italy to take over the French fleet or any of the French colonies, as Mussolini had hoped. There would not even be an Italian presence at the armistice ceremony. Japan, meanwhile, wasted little time in exploiting the defeat of France. The government in Tokyo warned Petain’s administration that supplies to Chinese Nationalist forces through Indochina must be halted immediately. An invasion of the French colony was expected at any moment. The French governor general buck led under pressure from the Japanese, and allowed them to station troops and aircraft in Tongking.

On 21 June, preparations for the armistice were complete. Hitler, who had long dreamed of this moment, had ordered that Marshal Foch’s railway carriage in which German representatives had signed the surrender in 1918 should be brought back from its museum to the Forest of Compiegne. The humiliation which had haunted his life was about to be reversed. Hitler seated himself in the carriage as he, Ribbentrop, the deputy Fuhrer Rudolf Hess, Göring, Raeder, Brauchitsch and Generaloberst Wilhelm Keitel, chief of the OKW, awaited General Huntziger’s delegation. Hitler’s SS orderly Otto Günsche had brought a pistol with him in case any of the French delegates tried to harm the Führer. While Keitel read out the armistice terms Hitler remained silent. He then left and later rang Goebbels. ‘The disgrace is now extinguished,’ Goebbels noted in his diary. ‘It is a feeling of being born again.’

Huntziger was informed that the Wehrmacht would occupy the northern half of France and the Atlantic coast. Marshal Petain’s administration would be left with the remaining two fifths of the country and be allowed an army of 100,000 men. France would have to pay the costs of the German occupation and the Reichsmark was fixed at a grotesquely advantageous rate against the French franc. On the other hand, Germany would not touch France’s fleet or its colonies. As Hitler had guessed, these were the two points which even Petain and Weygand would not concede. He wanted to divide the French from the British and simply ensure that they would not hand over their fleet to their former ally.

The Kriegsmarine which had longed to get its hands on the French navy ‘for continuing the war against Britain’, was sorely disappointed. After signing the terms on Weygand’s instruction, General Huntziger was deeply uneasy. ‘If Great Britain is not forced to its knees in three months,’ he is supposed to have said, ‘then we are the greatest criminals in history.’ The armistice officially came into effect in the early hours of 25 June. Hitler issued a proclamation hailing the ‘most glorious victory of all time’. Bells were to be rung in Germany for a week in celebration and flags flown for ten days. Hitler then toured Paris in the early morning of 28 June accompanied by the sculptor Arno Breker, and the architects Albert Speer and Hermann Giesler. Ironically, they were escorted by Generalmajor Hans Speidel, who was to be the chief conspirator against him in France four years later. Hitler was not impressed by Paris. He felt that his planned new capital of Germania would be infinitely more grand. He returned to Germany where he planned his triumphal return to Berlin and considered an appeal to Britain to come to terms, which would be delivered to the Reichstag.

Hitler was, however, disturbed by the Soviet Union’s seizure of Bessarabia and the northern Bukovina from Romania on 28 June. Stalin’s ambitions in the region might threaten the Danube delta and the oilfi elds ofPloesti, which were vital to German interests. Three days later, the Romanian government renounced the Anglo-French guarantee of its frontiers and sent emissaries to Berlin. The Axis was about to gain another ally.

Churchill, as determined as ever to fight on, had meanwhile come to a harsh decision. He evidently regretted his telegram to Roosevelt of 21 May, in which he had raised the prospect of British defeat and the loss of the Royal Navy. Now he needed a gesture to the United States and the world at large which demonstrated a ruthless intention to resist. And since the risk of the French fleet falling into German hands still preoccupied him greatly, he decided to force the issue. His messages to the new French administration urging it to send its warships to British ports had not been answered. Admiral Darlan’s previous assurances no longer convinced him after he had secretly joined the capitulards. And Hitler’s guarantee in the armistice conditions could easily be discarded like all his previous promises. The French fleet would be of inestimable value to the Germans in an invasion of Britain, especially after the Kriegsmarine’s losses off Norway. And with Italy’s entry into the war, the Royal Navy’s mastery of the Mediterranean could be challenged.

The neutralizing of the most powerful French naval force was bound to be an almost impossible mission. ‘You are charged with one of the most disagreeable and difficult tasks that a British Admiral has ever been faced with,’ Churchill had signalled to Admiral Sir James Somerville as his Force H left Gibraltar the night before. Somerville, like most Royal Navy officers, was deeply opposed to the use of force against an allied navy with which he had worked closely and amicably. He questioned his orders for Operation Catapult in a signal to the Admiralty, only to receive in return very specific instructions. The French could either join the British to continue the war against Germany and Italy; sail to a British port; sail to a French port in the West Indies, such as Martinique, or to the United States; or scuttle their ships themselves within six hours. If they refused all of these options, then he had ‘the orders of His Majesty’s Government to use whatever force may be necessary to prevent [their] ships falling into German or Italian hands’.

Shortly before dawn on Wednesday, 3 July, the British made their move. French warships concentrated in southern British ports were taken over by armed boarding parties, with only a few casualties. In Alexandria, a more gentlemanly system, blockading the French squadron in the harbour, was arranged by Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham. The great tragedy was to take place at the French North African port of Mers el Kebir near Oran, the old base of the Barbary Coast pirates.

The destroyer HMS Foxhound appeared off the harbour at dawn and, once the morning mist had risen, Captain Cedric Holland, Somerville’s emissary, signalled that he wished to confer. Admiral Marcel Gensoul, in his flagship Dunkerque, also commanded the battle-cruisers Strasbourg, Bretagne and Provence, as well as a small flotilla of fast fleet destroyers. Gensoul refused to receive him, so Holland had to carry out a very unsatisfactory attempt at negotiations through the gunnery officer of the Dunkerque whom he knew well.

Gensoul insisted that the French navy would never allow its ships to be taken by the Germans or the Italians. If the British persisted in their threat, his squadron would meet force with force. Since Gensoul still refused to receive Holland, he passed on the written ultimatum with the different options available. The possibility of sailing to Martinique or the United States, which even Admiral Darlan had considered an option, has seldom been mentioned in French accounts of this incident. Perhaps this is because Gensoul never mentioned it in his signal to Darlan.

As the day became hotter and hotter, Holland kept trying, but Gensoul refused to change his original reply. As the deadline of 15.00 hours approached, Somerville ordered Swordfish aircraft from the Ark Royal to drop magnetic mines across the harbour entrance. He hoped that this would convince Gensoul that he was not bluffing. Gensoul finally agreed to meet Holland face to face, and the deadline was extended to 17.30 hours. The French were playing for time, but Somerville, revolted by his task, was prepared to take that risk. As Holland climbed aboard the Dunkerque, no doubt reflecting on the unfortunate coincidence of its name, he noted that the French ships were now at battle stations, with tugs ready to pull the four battleships clear from the jetty.

Gensoul warned Holland that it would be ‘tantamount to a declaration of war’ if the British opened fire. He would scuttle his ships only if the Germans tried to take them over. But Somerville had come under pressure from the Admiralty to settle matters quickly, because wireless intercepts indicated that a French cruiser squadron was on its way from Algiers. He sent a signal to Gensoul insisting that if he did not agree to one of the options immediately, he would have to open fi re at 17.30 hours as stipulated. Holland had to leave rapidly. Somerville waited nearly another half an hour beyond even the delayed deadline in the hope of a change of heart.

At 17.54 hours, the battle-cruiser HMS Hood and the battleships Valiant and Resolution opened fire with their 15 inch main armament. They soon found their range. The Dunkerque and the Provence were badly damaged while the Bretagne blew up and capsized. Other ships remained miraculously untouched, but Somerville ceased fire to give Gensoul another chance. He did not see that the Strasbourg and two of the three fleet destroyers, hidden by the thick smoke, had managed to reach the open sea. When a spotter plane warned the flagship of their escape, Somerville did not believe it because he had assumed that the mines would have prevented it. Eventually, the Hood gave chase and Swordfish and Skuas were launched from the Ark Royal, but their attacks failed when intercepted by French fighters scrambled from Oran airfield. By then, night was falling swiftly over the North African coast.

The carnage aboard the stricken ships in Mers el Kebir was appalling, especially for those trapped below in engine rooms. Many suffocated from the smoke. Altogether 1,297 French sailors were killed and another 350 wounded. Most of the dead were from the Bretagne. The Royal Navy quite rightly regarded Operation Catapult as the most shameful task it had ever been called upon to perform. And yet this one sided battle had an extraordinary effect around the world in its demonstration that Britain was prepared to fight on as ruthlessly as it needed. Roosevelt in particular was convinced that the British would not now surrender. And in the House of Commons, Churchill was cheered for similar reasons, and not because of any hatred of the French for seeking an armistice.

The rampant anglophobia of Petain’s administration, which had shaken American diplomats, turned to a visceral loathing after Mers el Kebir. But even Petain and Weygand realized that a declaration of war would achieve no benefit. They simply broke off diplomatic relations. For Charles de Gaulle, it was naturally a terrible period. Very few French sailors and soldiers in Britain were prepared to join his nascent forces, which at first numbered just a few hundred men. The homesick majority asked for repatriation instead. Hitler too was forced to reflect on these events as his great triumphal entry into Berlin was prepared. He had been about to make a ‘peace offer’ to Britain just after his return, but now he felt less certain.

Most Germans, having feared another bloodbath in Flanders and Champagne, were overjoyed by the astonishing victory. This time, they were certain that the war would come to an end. Like the French capitulards, they were convinced that Britain could never hold out alone. Churchill would be deposed by a peace party. On Saturday, 6 July, girls in the uniform of the Bund Deutscher Madel, the female equivalent of the Hitler Youth, strewed flowers along the road from the Anhalter Bahnhof, the station where the Fuhrer’s train would arrive, all the way to the Reichschancellery. Vast crowds had begun to gather six hours before his appearance. The fever of excitement was extraordinary, especially after the strikingly muted reaction in Berlin to the news of German forces occupying Paris. It far surpassed the fervour following the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria. Even opponents of the regime were caught up in the frenzied rejoicing of victory. This time it was galvanized by a hatred of Britain, the only remaining obstacle to a Pax Germanica across Europe.

Hitler’s Roman triumph lacked only the captives in chains and the slave murmuring in his ear that he was still a mortal. The afternoon was sunny for his arrival, which again seemed to confirm the miracle of ‘Fuhrer weather’ for the great occasions of the Third Reich. The route was packed with ‘cheering thousands who shouted and wept themselves into a frantic hysteria’. After Hitler’s convoy of six wheeled Mercedes reached the Reichschancellery, the ear piercing cries of adulation from the girls of the BDM mixed with the roar of the crowds as they called for their Fuhrer to appear on the balcony.

A few days later, Hitler came to a decision. Having mulled over possible strategies against Britain and discussed an invasion with his commanders in chief, he issued ‘Directive No. 16 for Preparations of a Landing Operation against England’. The first contingency plans for an invasion of Britain, ‘Studie Nordwest’, had been fi nalized the previous December. Yet even before the Kriegsmarine’s losses during the Norwegian campaign, Grossadmiral Raeder had insisted that an invasion could be attempted only after the Luftwaffe had achieved air superiority. Halder, for the army, urged that an invasion should be a last resort. The Kriegsmarine faced the almost impossible task of assembling enough ships and craft to transport the fi rst wave of 100,000 men with tanks, motor transport and equipment across the Channel. It also had to consider its decided inferiority in warships against the Royal Navy.

The OKH initially allocated the Sixth, Ninth and Sixteenth Armies, positioned along the Channel coast between the Cherbourg Peninsula and Ostend, to the invasion force. Later, this was reduced to just the Ninth and Sixteenth Armies landing between Worthing and Folkestone. Wrangling between the armed forces over the insuperable problems made any operation look increasingly unlikely before the unsettled weather of the autumn. The only part of the Nazi administration which seemed to take the invasion of Britain seriously was Himmler’s RSHA (Reichssicherheitshauptamt, the Reich Security Head Administration) which included the Gestapo and the SD (Sicherheitsdienst). Its counter espionage department, led by Walter Schellenberg, produced an extraordinarily detailed (and at times amusingly inaccurate) briefing on Great Britain, with a ‘Special Search List’ of 2,820 people whom the Gestapo intended to arrest after the invasion.

Hitler was cautious on other grounds. He was concerned that the disintegration of the British Empire might lead to the United States, Japan and the Soviet Union grabbing its colonies. He decided that Operation Sealion should go ahead only if Göring, now promoted to the new rank of Reichsmarschall, could bring Britain to its knees with his Luftwaffe. As a result the invasion of Britain was never treated with urgency at the highest levels. The Luftwaffe was not ready. Göring had assumed that the British were bound to sue for peace after the defeat of France and his Luftflotten needed time to reequip their squadrons. German losses in the Low Countries and France had been far higher than expected. Altogether 1,284 of its aircraft had been destroyed, while the RAF had lost 931. Also redeploying fighter and bomber units to airfields in northern France took longer than expected. During the first part of July, the Luftwaffe simply concentrated on shipping in the Channel, the Thames estuary and the North Sea. This they called the Kanalkampf. Attacks mainly by Stuka dive bombers and by fast S-Boote (motor torpedo boats which the British called E-boats) virtually closed the Channel to British convoys.

On 19 July, Hitler made a lengthy speech to members of the Reichstag and his generals assembled with great pomp in the Kroll Opera House. After hailing his commanders and exulting in Germany’s military achievements, he turned to England, attacking Churchill as a warmonger and making an ‘appeal to reason’, which was immediately rejected by the British government. He had completely failed to understand that Churchill’s position had now become unassailable as the epitome of dogged determination.  Hitler’s frustration was all the greater after his triumph in the railway carriage in the Foret de Compiegne and the huge increase in German power. The Wehrmacht’s occupation of northern and western France provided overland access to the raw materials of Spain and naval bases along the Atlantic coast. Alsace, Lorraine, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and Eupen-Malmedy in eastern Belgium were all incorporated in the Reich. The Italians controlled part of south eastern France while the rest of south central France, the unoccupied zone, was left to Marshal Petain’s ‘French State’ based in the spa town of Vichy.

On 10 July, a week after Mers el Kebir, the Assemblee Nationale gathered in Vichy’s Grand Casino. They voted full powers to Marshal Petain, with only eighty members out of 649 opposing. The Third Republic had ceased to exist. The Etat Francais, supposedly incarnating the traditional values of Travail, Famille, Patrie, created a moral and political asphyxiation which was xenophobic and repressive. It never acknowledged that it was assisting Nazi Germany by policing unoccupied France in the German interest. France had to pay not only for the costs of its own occupation, but also a fifth of the costs of Germany’s war so far. The inflated calculations and the exchange rate for the Reichsmark fixed by Berlin could not be questioned. This was an enormous bonus for the army of occupation. ‘Now there’s a lot to be bought for our money,’ wrote one soldier, ‘and many a pfennig is being spent. We are stationed in a large village and the shops are almost empty now.’ Those in Paris were stripped bare, especially by officers on leave. In addition, the Nazi government was able to seize what raw material stocks it needed for its own war industries. And the military booty taken, in weapons, vehicles and horses, would furnish a considerable part of the Wehrmacht’s needs for the invasion of the Soviet Union a year later.

French industry, meanwhile, reorganized itself to serve the needs of the conqueror, and French agriculture helped the Germans live better than they had since before the First World War. The French daily ration of meat, fats and sugar had to be reduced to around half that of the German. Germans regarded this as a just revenge for the hunger years they had endured after the First World War. The French, on the other hand, were encouraged to console themselves with the idea that as soon as Britain came to terms a general peace settlement would improve conditions for everyone.

After Dunkirk and the French capitulation, the British were in a state of shock similar to a wounded soldier who feels no pain. They knew that the situation was desperate, if not catastrophic, with almost all the army’s weapons and vehicles abandoned on the other side of the Channel. And yet, helped by Churchill’s words, they almost welcomed the stark clarity of their fate. A self comforting belief developed that, although the British always did badly at the beginning of a war, they would ‘win the last battle’, even if nobody had the remotest idea how. Many, including the King, professed a relief that the French were no longer their allies. Air Chief Marshal Dowding later claimed that, on hearing of the French surrender, he had gone down on his knees and thanked God that no more fighters needed to be risked across the Channel.

The British expected the Germans to follow up their conquest of France with a rapid invasion. General Sir Alan Brooke, now responsible for the defence of the south coast, was most concerned about the lack of weapons, armoured vehicles and trained units. The chiefs of staff were still deeply worried by the threat to aircraft factories, on which the RAF would depend for replacements for the aircraft lost in France. But the time the Luftwaffe took to get ready for its onslaught on Britain provided a vital period of preparation. The British may have had only 700 fighters at the time, but the Germans failed to appreciate that their enemy was capable of producing 470 a month, double the rate of their own armaments industry. The Luftwaffe was also confident that its pilots and aircraft were manifestly superior.

The RAF had lost 136 pilots, killed or captured in France. Even when reinforced by other nationalities, they were still short. Flight training schools were pushing through as many as they could, but freshly qualified pilots were almost always the first to be shot down. The Poles formed the largest foreign contingent, with over 8,000 air force personnel. They were the only ones with combat experience, but their integration into the RAF was slow. Negotiations with General Sikorski, who wanted an independent Polish air force, had been complicated. But, once the first groups of pilots were brought into the RAF Volunteer  Reserve, they rapidly proved their skill. British pilots often referred to the ‘crazy Poles’ because of their bravery and disdain for authority. Their new comrades soon showed their exasperation with the bureaucracy of the RAF, and yet they acknowledged that it was far better run than the French air force. Discipline was often a problem, partly because the Polish pilots were still angry with their own commanders for the state of their air force at the time of the German invasion the previous September. They had faced the prospect of fighting the Luftwaffe with fierce joy, convinced that although their P 11 machines were slow and badly armed they would win by skill and courage. Instead, they had been overwhelmed by the numerical and technical superiority of the German air fleets. That bitter experience, to say nothing of the dreadful treatment of their country by Hitler and Stalin, had created a burning desire for revenge now that they had modern fighters. Senior RAF offi cers could not have been more wrong when they arrogantly assumed that the Poles had been ‘demoralized’ by their defeat, and wanted to train them for bomber squadrons.

The difference in British attitudes, manners and food had been a shock to the Poles. Few got over the memory of the fish paste sandwiches offered them on arrival in England, and they were made even more homesick by the horrors of British cuisine, from overcooked mutton and cabbage to the ubiquitous custard (which also appalled the Free French). But the warmth of their reception by most Britons, greeting them with cries of ‘Long live Poland!’, astonished them. Polish pilots, seen as dashing and heroic, found themselves mobbed and propositioned to an extraordinary degree by young British women achieving a degree of freedom for the first time. Language proved less of a problem on the dance floor than in the air.

The Polish pilots’ reputation for reckless bravery was misleading. In fact their casualty rates were lower than those of RAF pilots, partly because of their experience, but also because they were better at constantly searching the sky for ambushes by German fighters. They were certainly individualistic and showed contempt for the RAF’s outdated tactics of flying in tight formations of V shaped ‘vics’ of three. It took time, and many unnecessary casualties, before the RAF began to copy the German system learned in the Spanish Civil War of flying in double pairs, known as ‘finger four’. By 10 July, there were forty Polish pilots in RAF Fighter Command squadrons, and the number mounted steadily as more and more of their men from France became qualified. By the time the Battle of Britain reached its climax, over 10 per cent of the fighter pilots in the southeast were Polish. On 13 July, the first Polish squadron was formed. Within a month, the British government relented, and agreed to Sikorski’s request for a Polish air force, with its own fighter and bomber squadrons, but under RAF command.

On 31 July, Hitler summoned his generals to the Berghof above Berchtesgaden. He was still perplexed by Britain’s refusal to come to terms. Since there was little prospect of the United States entering the war for the foreseeable future, he sensed that Churchill was counting on the Soviet Union. This played a major part in his decision to go ahead with his greatest project of all, the destruction of ‘Jewish Bolshevism’ in the east. Only the defeat of Soviet power by a massive invasion would force Britain to concede, he reasoned. Thus Churchill’s determination in late May to fight on alone had far wider consequences than just deciding the fate of the British Isles. ‘With Russia smashed,’ Hitler told his commanders in chief, ‘Britain’s last hope would be shattered. Germany will then be master of Europe and the Balkans.’ This time, unlike the nervousness shown before the invasion of France, his generals showed remarkable resolution when faced with the prospect of attacking the Soviet Union. Without even a direct order from Hitler, Halder had ordered staff offi cers to examine outline plans. In the euphoria of victory over France and the total reversal of the humiliation of Versailles, the Wehrmacht commanders in chief hailed the Fuhrer as ‘the first soldier of the Reich’, who would secure Germany’s future for all time. Two weeks later Hitler, privately cynical about the ease with which he could bribe his leading commanders with honours, medals and money, made a presentation of twelve field marshals’ batons to the conquerors of France.

But before turning against the Soviet Union, which Hitler had said would be ‘child’s play’ after the defeat of France, he still felt obliged to deal with Britain to avoid war on two fronts. The OKW directive had instructed the Luftwaffe to concentrate on the destruction of the RAF, ‘its ground support organization, and the British armaments industry’, as well ports and warships. Göring predicted that it would take less than a month. His pilots’ morale was high due to the victory over France and their numerical superiority. The Luftwaffe in France had 656 Messerschmitt 109 fighters, 168 Me 110 twin engined fighters, 769 Dornier, Heinkel and Junkers 88 bombers, and 316 Ju 87 Stuka dive bombers. Dowding had only 504 Hurricanes and Spitfires to defend southern England.

Before the main onslaught took place in early August, the two Fliegerkorps in northern France concentrated on reconnaissance of RAF air fields. They mounted probing raids to provoke the British fighters into the sky and wear them down before the battle started, and attacked the coastal radar stations. The radar stations, combined with the Observer Corps and good communications from command centres, meant that the RAF did not have to waste flying time on air patrols over the Channel. At least in theory, squadrons could be scrambled with enough time to achieve altitude, yet late enough to save fuel and keep them in the air for the maximum amount of time. Fortunately for the British, the radar towers proved hard to hit, and even when damaged they were soon back in service. Dowding had held back the Spitfire squadrons during the fighting over France, except during the evacuation from Dunkirk. He now husbanded his forces, guessing what the German tactics signifi ed. Dowding may have appeared aloof and sad after the death of his wife in 1920, but he was quietly passionate about his ‘dear fighter boys’ and inspired great loyalty in return. He had a good idea of what they were about to face. He also made sure that he had the right man commanding 11 Group, which defended London and the south east of England. Air Marshal Keith Park was a New Zealander who had shot down twenty German aeroplanes in the previous war. Like Dowding, he was prepared to listen to his pilots and allow them to ignore the hidebound tactics of pre-war doctrine and develop their own.

In that momentous summer, Fighter Command took on the character of an international air force. Out of the 2,917 aircrew who served during the Battle of Britain, just 2,334 were British. The rest included 145 Poles, 126 New Zealanders, 98 Canadians, 88 Czechs, 33 Australians, 29 Belgians, 25 South Africans, 13 Frenchmen, 11 Americans, 10 Irishmen and several other nationalities. The first major clash took place before the official start of the German air offensive. On 24 July, Adolf Galland led a force of forty Me 109s and eighteen Dornier 17 bombers to attack a convoy in the Thames estuary. Spitfires from three squadrons rose to attack them. And although they shot down only two German aircraft, instead of the sixteen claimed, Galland was shaken by the determination of the outnumbered British pilots. He berated his own pilots after they returned for their reluctance to attack the Spitfires, and began to suspect that the battle ahead would not be as easy as the Reichsmarschall had supposed.

With typical Nazi bombast, the German offensive was codenamed Adlerangriff (Eagle Attack), and Adlertag (Eagle Day) was set, after several postponements, for 13 August. After some confusion over weather forecasts, formations of German bombers and fighters took off. The largest group was to attack the naval base of Portsmouth, while others raided RAF airfields. Despite all their reconnaissance, Luftwaffe intelligence was faulty. They mostly attacked satellite fi elds or bases which did not belong to Fighter Command. As the sky cleared in the afternoon, radar posts on the south coast picked out a force of some 300 aircraft heading towards Southampton. Eighty fighters were scrambled, an unimaginable number in previous weeks. 609 Squadron managed to get in among a group of Stukas and shot down six of them. In total, the RAF fighters had shot down forty seven aircraft, losing thirteen themselves and three pilots killed. But the German loss of aircrew was far greater, with eighty nine killed or taken prisoner. The Channel now worked in the RAF’s favour. During the Battle for France, the pilots of damaged aircraft returning home had dreaded having to ditch, or crash land, in the sea. Now the Germans faced this greater danger, as well as the certainty of being taken prisoner if they had to bale out over England.

Göring, smarting from the disappointing result of Adlertag, launched an even bigger onslaught on 15 August, with 1,790 fighters and bombers attacking from Norway and Denmark as well as from northern France. The formations from the Fifth Luftflotte in Scandinavia lost nearly 20 per cent of their number, and they were not brought back into the battle. The Luftwaffe referred to that day as ‘Black Thursday’, but the RAF could hardly afford to be jubilant. Its own losses had not been light, and through sheer numerical superiority the Luftwaffe would continue to smash through. The constant attacks on airfields also killed and wounded fitters, riggers, batmen and even the drivers and plotters of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. On 18 August, 43 Squadron achieved a satisfactory revenge when its fighters swooped on to a force of Stukas dive bombing a radar station. They accounted for eighteen of these vulnerable predators before their escorting Me 109s joined the fray.

Fresh pilot officers arriving as reinforcements eagerly questioned those who had been in action. They were thrown into the routine. Woken before dawn with a cup of tea by their batman, they were driven out to dispersal where they had breakfast, and then they waited around as the sun came up. Unfortunately for Fighter Command, the weather during most of that August and September was perfect for the Luftwaffe, with clear blue skies. The waiting was the worst part. That was when pilots suffered from dry mouths and the metallic taste of fear. Then they would hear the dreaded sound of the fi eld telephone’s cranking ring, and the cry of ‘Squadron scramble!’ They would run out to their aircraft, their parachutes thumping against their back. The ground crew would help them clamber into the cockpit, where they ran through the safety checks. When their Merlin engines had roared into life, chocks were hauled away and the pilots taxied their fighters into position for take off; they had too much to think about to be scared, at least for the moment.

Once airborne, with the engines straining as they gained altitude, the newcomers had to remember to keep looking all around. They soon realized that the more experienced pilots did not wear silk scarves just for affectation. With a constantly swivelling head, necks were rubbed raw by regulation collars and ties. It had been drummed into them to keep their ‘eyes skinned at all times’. Assuming they survived their first action, and a number did not, they returned to base to wait once more, eating bully beef sandwiches washed down with mugs of tea while their planes were refuelled and rearmed. Most fell asleep immediately from exhaustion on the ground or in deckchairs.

When back in the air again, the sector controllers would direct them towards a formation of ‘bandits’. A cry of ‘Tally ho!’ over the radio signifi ed that a formation of black dots had been spotted. The pilot would switch on the reflector sight, and the tension mounted. The vital discipline was to keep fear under control, otherwise it would lead rapidly to your death. The priority was to break up the bombers before the umbrella of Me 109s could intervene. If several squadrons had been ‘vectored’ on to the enemy force, the faster Spitfires would take on the enemy fighters, while the Hurricanes tried to deal with the bombers. Within seconds the sky was a scene of chaos, with twisting, diving aircraft jockeying for position to ‘squeeze off’ a rapid burst of gunfire, while trying to remember to watch out behind. Obsessive concentration on your target gave an enemy fighter the chance to come in behind you without being spotted. Some new pilots, when fired on for the first time, felt paralysed. If they did not break out of their frozen state, they were done for.

If the engine was hit, glycol or oil streamed back and covered the windscreen. The greatest fear was of fi re spreading back. The heat might make the cockpit hood jam, but once the pilot had forced it open and released his harness straps, he needed to roll his machine upside down so that he fell clear. Many were so dazed by the disorientating experience that they had to make a conscious effort to remember to pull the ripcord. If they had a chance to look around on the way down, they often found that the sky, which had been seemed so full of aircraft, was now suddenly deserted and they were all alone.

Providing that they were not out over the Channel, RAF pilots at least knew that they were dropping on to home territory. The Poles and Czechs understood that, despite their uniforms, they might be mistaken for Germans by over enthusiastic locals or members of the Home Guard. The parachute of one Polish pilot, Czesław Tarkowski, caught in an oak tree. ‘People with pitchforks and staves ran up,’ he recorded. ‘One of them, armed with a shotgun, was screaming “Hande hoch!” “Fuck off,” I answered in my very best English. The lowering faces immediately brightened up. “He’s one of ours!” they shouted in unison.’ Another Pole landed one afternoon in the grounds of a very respectable lawn tennis club. He was signed in as a guest, given a racket, lent some white flannels and invited to take part in a match. His opponents were thrashed and left totally exhausted by the time an RAF vehicle came to collect him.

The honest pilot would admit to ‘a savage, primitive exaltation’ when he saw the enemy plane he had hit going down. Polish pilots, told by the British that it was not done to shoot German pilots who baled out, resorted in some cases to flying over their parachute canopy instead so that it collapsed in the slipstream and their enemy plummeted to his death. Others felt a moment of compassion when reminded that they were killing or maiming a human being, rather than just destroying an aeroplane. The combination of exhaustion and fear built up dangerous levels of stress. Many suffered from terrible dreams each night. Inevitably some cracked under the strain. Almost everyone had ‘an attack of the jitters’ at some stage, but pushed themselves to continue. A number, however, turned away from combat, pretending they had engine trouble. After a couple of occurrences, this was noted. In offi cial RAF parlance it was attributed to ‘lack of moral fibre’, and the pilot concerned transferred to menial duties.

The vast majority of British fi ghter pilots were aged under twenty-two. They had no option but to grow up rapidly, even while the nicknames and public school boisterousness in the mess continued, to the astonishment of fellow pilots from other countries. But as Luftwaffe attacks on Britain mounted, with increasing civilian casualties, a mood of angry indignation developed.

German fighter pilots were also suffering from stress and exhaustion. Operating from improvised and uneven airfi elds in the Pas de Calais, they suffered many accidents. The Me 109 was an excellent aircraft for experienced pilots, but for those rushed forward from flying school, it proved a tough beast to master. Unlike Dowding, who circulated his squadrons to make sure that they had a rest in a quiet area, Göring was pitiless towards his aircrews, whose morale began to suffer from mounting losses. The bomber squadrons complained that the Me 109s were turning back, leaving them exposed, but this was because the fighters simply did not have the fuel reserves to remain over England for more than thirty minutes, and even less if involved in heavy dogfights. Pilots of the Me 110 twin engined fighters were meanwhile depressed by their losses and wanted Me 109s to escort them. British pilots with steel nerves had discovered that a head on attack was the best way to deal with them. And even a furious Göring was forced to withdraw the Stuka dive-bombers from major operations after the massacre on 18 August. Yet the Reichsmarschall, spurred on by hopelessly optimistic assessments from his chief intelligence officer, was certain that the RAF was about to collapse. He ordered an intensification of attacks on airfields. His own pilots, however, became dejected at being told constantly that the RAF was at its last gasp when they met as furious a response on every sortie.

Dowding had foreseen this battle of attrition, and the mounting damage to airfields was a major concern. Although the RAF downed more German planes than it lost on almost every single day, it was operating from a much smaller base. An impressive increase in fighter production had removed one worry, but pilot losses remained Dowding’s greatest anxiety. His men were so tired that they were falling asleep at meals and even in the middle of a conversation. To reduce casualties, fi ghter squadrons were ordered not to pursue German raiders over the Channel and not to react to strafing attacks by small groups of Messerschmitts.

Fighter Command was also affected by a dispute over tactics. Air Marshal Trafford Leigh Mallory, the commander of 10 Group, north of London, favoured the ‘big wing’ approach, concentrating numerous squadrons. This had first been advocated by Wing Commander Douglas Bader, a courageous but obstinate officer, famous for having made his way back as a fighter pilot after losing both his legs in a pre-war crash. But both Keith Park and Dowding were deeply unhappy about the ‘big wing’ innovation. By the time 10 Group had assembled one of these formations in the air, the German raiders had usually left.

On the night of 24 August, a force of more than a hundred German bombers overflew their targets and bombed eastern and central London by mistake. This provoked Churchill into ordering a string of retaliatory bombing raids on Germany. The consequences were to be grave for Londoners, but they also contributed to Göring’s fatal decision later to switch targets away from airfields. This saved RAF Fighter Command at a crucial stage of the battle.

Under pressure from Göring, German attacks intensified even more at the end of August and during the first week of September. On one day alone, Fighter Command lost forty aircraft, with nine pilots dead and eighteen seriously wounded. Everyone was under intense strain, but the knowledge that the battle was literally a fight to the finish and that Fighter Command was inflicting heavier losses on the Luftwaffe steeled the pilots’ resolve.

On the afternoon of 7 September, with Göring watching from the cliffs of the Pas de Calais, the Luftwaffe sent over a thousand aircraft in a massive attack. Fighter Command scrambled eleven squadrons of fighters. All over Kent, farmworkers, Land Girls and villagers strained their eyes watching the vapour trails as the battle developed. It was impossible to distinguish which side fi ghters belonged to, but every time a bomber came down belching smoke, there was a cheer. Most of the bomber squadrons were headed for the docks in London. This was Hitler’s retaliation for Bomber Command’s attacks on Germany. The smoke from the fierce fires caused by incendiaries guided the following waves of bombers to the target area. London, with over 300 civilians dead and 1,300 injured, suffered the first of many heavy blows. But Göring’s belief that Fighter Command was spent, and the decision to attack cities instead, mostly at night, meant that the Luftwaffe had failed to win the battle.

The British, however, still expected at any moment the ringing of church bells to announce the invasion. Bomber Command continued to attack the barges assembled in Channel ports. Nobody knew Hitler’s own doubts. If the RAF were not destroyed by mid September, then Operation Sealion would be postponed. Göring, well aware that he would be blamed for the failure to crush the RAF, as he had boasted he would do, ordered another major assault on Sunday, 15 September. That day, Churchill had decided to visit the headquarters of 11 Group at Uxbridge, where he stood in the control room alongside Park. He watched avidly as the information from the radar stations and the Observer Corps was converted into German raiders on the plotting board below.

By midday, Park, following his instinct that this was an all out effort, had scrambled twenty-three squadrons of fighters. This time, the Spitfire and Hurricane squadrons had received plenty of warning to gain altitude. And once the escorting Me 109s had to turn back when short of fuel, the bombers found themselves overwhelmed by the fighters of an air force they had been told was finished. The pattern repeated itself during the afternoon, with Park calling in more reinforcements from 10 Group and 12 Group in the west of England. By the end of the day, the RAF had destroyed fifty-six aircraft for the loss of twenty-nine fighters and twelve pilots killed. There were more attacks a few days later, but nothing on the same scale. And yet, on 16 September, Göring was convinced by his ever optimistic chief intelligence officer that Fighter Command was down to 177 aircraft. A fear of invasion remained, but Hitler decided on 19 September to postpone Sealion until further notice. The Kriegsmarine and the OKH were even less keen to invade now that the Luftwaffe’s failure to crush Fighter Command had become clear.

With the war in the west approaching a stalemate, indications of it turning into a global confl ict began to appear. The Japanese had recently been taken aback by Communist forces in northern China launching a series of attacks. The Sino-Japanese War was flaring up again in another round of brutal fighting. On 27 September, the Japanese signed a tripartite pact in Berlin. This was clearly aimed at the United States. President Roosevelt promptly summoned his military advisers to discuss the implications, and two days later Britain reopened the Burma Road for the transport of war materials to the Chinese Nationalists.

The Battle of Britain was deemed to have ended at the end of October, when the Luftwaffe concentrated on the night bombing of London and of industrial targets in the Midlands. If one takes the figures for August and September, the core of the battle, the RAF lost 723 aircraft, while the Luftwaffe lost over 2,000. A strikingly high proportion came not from ‘enemy action’ but from ‘special circumstances’, which mainly meant accidents. In October the RAF shot down 206 German fi ghters and bombers, yet the total Luftwaffe loss for that month was 375.

The so-called Blitz on London and other cities continued throughout the winter. On 13 November, RAF Bomber Command hit back at Berlin on Churchill’s orders. This was because the Soviet foreign minister, Molotov, had arrived the day before for talks. Stalin was uneasy about the presence of German troops in Finland and about Nazi influence in the Balkans. He also wanted a German guarantee of Soviet shipping rights from the Black Sea through the Dardanelles to the Mediterranean. Many found it strange to hear a Wehrmacht band playing the ‘Internationale’ on Molotov’s arrival at the Anhalter Bahnhof, which was festooned with red Soviet banners.

The meetings were not a success, producing only mutual irritation. Molotov demanded answers to specific questions. He asked whether the Nazi–Soviet pact of the year before was still valid. When Hitler replied that of course it was, Molotov pointed out that the Germans were establishing close relations with their enemies, the Finns. Ribbentrop urged the Soviets to attack south towards India and the Persian Gulf, and share in the spoils of the British Empire. The suggestion that the Soviet Union should join the Tripartite Pact with Italy and Japan for this purpose was not one that Molotov took seriously. Nor was he inclined to agree when Hitler, in a characteristic monologue, lectured him on how the British were as good as beaten, as did Ribbentrop. So when the air raid sirens sounded, and Molotov was led downstairs into the Wilhelmstrasse bunker, he could not resist remarking to the Nazi foreign minister: ‘You say that England is defeated. So why are we sitting here now in this air raid shelter?’

The Luftwaffe attacked Coventry the next night, but this had been planned in advance and was not a reprisal. The heavy raid hit twelve armaments factories and destroyed the ancient cathedral, as well as killing 380 civilians. But the night bombing campaign failed to break the will of the British people, even though 23,000 civilians were killed and 32,000 seriously injured by the end of the year. Many complained of the sirens, whose ‘prolonged banshee howlings’, as Churchill called them, were soon reduced to give people a chance to sleep. ‘The sirens go off at approximately the same time every evening and in the poorer districts queues of people carrying blankets, thermos flasks, and babies begin to form quite early outside the air-raid shelters.’ Boarded-up shop windows smashed by bomb blast carried stickers announcing ‘Business as usual’ and the inhabitants of houses destroyed in the east end of London placed paper Union Jacks on the piles of rubble which had been their homes.

‘Worse than the tedium of our days’, wrote Peter Quennell working in the ministry of information, ‘was the squalor of our restless nights. Very often we were required to work in shifts – so many hours in a stifling subterranean dormitory under hairy much-used blankets; so many above ground crouched at our usual desks or, during a lull, asleep upon the floor, ready to be woken up by an elderly offi ce messenger, who brought some hideous piece of news – say, a direct hit on a crowded bomb shelter – from which we had to draw the sting. Yet it is odd how quickly a habit forms, how easily we adapt ourselves to an unfamiliar way of life, and how often supposed necessities are revealed as superfluities.’

Although Londoners faced up far better than expected to the hardships, displaying the ‘spirit of the Blitz’ in Underground stations, a fear of German paratroopers continued, especially among women outside London. Rumours of an invasion spread from week to week. Yet on 2 October Operation Sealion had been effectively postponed until the next spring. Sealion had played a double role. The menace of a German invasion had helped Churchill unify the country and steel it for a long war. But Hitler was canny in the way he maintained the psychological threat for long after he had discarded the idea. This persuaded the British to maintain far larger defence forces in the United Kingdom than were necessary.

In Berlin, Nazi leaders were resigned to the fact that even the bombing campaign was unlikely to bring Britain to its knees. ‘The view now prevails’, wrote Ernst von Weizsacker, the state secretary of the German foreign office, in his diary on 17 November, ‘that starvation caused by a blockade is the most important weapon against Britain, and not smoking the British out.’ The very word ‘blockade’ carried an emotional note of revenge in Germany, obsessed with memories of the First World War and the Royal Navy’s blockade. This strategy would now be turned against the British Isles by submarine warfare.