"those who had fought in the Battle of Britain"

 

Luftwaffe Preparations in France
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeLuftwaffe Preparations in France - Credit: Deutsches Bundesarchiv

Hitler ordered the invasion of Britain in July 1940 under the name Operation Sealion.  For the invasion to succeed, German air superiority was necessary, and so wave after wave of Luftwaffe bombers and fighters were dispatched to break Fighter Command in the skies over Southern England.  An estimated 4,074 Luftwaffe aircraft flew against less than half as many RAF and Allied planes.

 

Winston Churchill coined the name given to the world's first exclusively aerial campaign.  On 18 June 1940, he used the phrase in a famous speech in the House of Commons:

Heinkel He 111s in the Battle of Britain
Public DomainHeinkel He 111s in the Battle of Britain - Credit: Crown Copyright
 What General Weygand has called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.

  But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, 'This was their finest hour'.

 

Never was so much owed
Public DomainNever was so much owed - Credit: Crown Copyright

At the height of the Battle, on 20 August 1940, Winston Churchill honoured the contribution and sacrifice of Fighter Command with the words:

RAF Pilots Scrambled
Public DomainRAF Pilots Scrambled - Credit: Crown Copyright
 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 War by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. All our hearts go out to the fighter pilots, whose brilliant actions we see with our own eyes day after day.

Pilots who fought in the Battle have been known as The Few ever since.

View from Spitfire firing on Heinkel
Public DomainView from Spitfire firing on Heinkel - Credit: Crown Copyright

The Battle of Britain lasted from July until October 1940. In July most battles were fought over the English Channel, but in August the Luftwaffe targeted British airfields. By September they had changed tactics again and started bombing British cities.  The Blitz had begun.

As a result of the Luftwaffe's failure to defeat the RAF in 1940, Hitler abandoned his invasion plans and turned his attention - most unwisely - to Russia.

Battle of Britain Day in the UK is on 15 September.

RAF History Site

History Learning Site

Film -  The Battle of Britain