It may seem strange to say that the Nazis lost World War II on the 15th September 1940. The war between Britain and Germany had only been going on for just over a year, since the declaration on 3rd September 1939 after the German invasion of Poland. The Nazi war machine had crushed Britain's allies on the Continent. The only countries still fighting against Nazi Germany were Britain and its Empire and Commonwealth. Winston Churchill’s famous "The End of the Beginning" speech would not be made until 10th November 1942; over two years away. How, then, could this be considered the day the Nazis lost the war?
The Battle of France
The Battle of France was the name for the German invasion of France and the Low Countries. The invasion started on the 10th May 1940, ending the period known as the Phoney War.
The German push through the Low Countries avoided the French fortifications of the Maginot Line. The British Expeditionary Force and other Allied forces were largely cut off. Attempts to break free from German encirclement failed, and they made a retreat to Dunkirk on the Channel coast.
The Miracle of Dunkirk
The evacuation was carried out by 850 ships of all sizes. As well as 42 British destroyers and other large ships, a flotilla of about 700 merchantmen, RNLI Lifeboats, pleasure craft and fishing craft aided in the evacuation, a flotilla known as the little ships of Dunkirk. Some of the ships that aided in the evacuation still exist, and may bear a plaque commemorating their participation in the evacuation.
The evacuation was protected by British and French naval vessels, with air protection provided by the Royal Air Force. Three French and six British destroyers were sunk, over 100 planes were lost and over 200 other Allied sea craft were sunk.
Although a significant amount of troops were evacuated, the cost was the lost of most of their material; about 65,000 vehicles and 20,000 motorcycles, 2,472 guns, 377,000 tons of stores, 147,000 tons of fuel and 68,000 tons of ammunition. Although Britain still had an army, this army was nearly defenceless until lost equipment could be replaced.
The Battle of Britain
"...the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin." Winston Churchill, June 18th 1940
The Battle of Britain was the attempt by the Luftwaffe to gain air superiority over Britain by destroying Britain's air defences, and either defeat Britain or force it to sign an armistice. The Battle is considered to have started on the 10th July 1940.
Initially, the Luftwaffe's attacks were directed against convoys over the English Channel, in the Kanalkampf, which ran from the 10th July to the 11th August. From the 12th August to the 23rd August, the Adlerangniff was launched against the coastal airfields, which increased in intensity from the 24th August until the 6th September.
Fighter Command, formed in 1936, was designed to handle fighter aircraft and allow their more specialised control. Various Groups in Fighter Command were assigned responsibility over different areas of the United Kingdom. 11 Group was in charge of London and southeast England, and took the brunt of the Luftwaffe attacks. 10 Group, covering southwest England, 12 Group, covering the Midlands and East Anglia and 13 Group, covering the North of England and Scotland provided reinforcement for 11 Group.
The Dowding System
The Royal Air Force
Unlike how it is often portrayed in film, the RAF was not composed solely of the upper classes. Prior to the war, the selection process was opened up to all social classes through the creation of the RAF Volunteer Reserve in 1936. At the German invasion of Poland on 1st September 1939, 6,646 pilots had been trained through the RAFVR. Although there were an above average number of pilots from the upper classes, they were still a minority.
The largest number of foreign pilots came from Poland. The Polish aircrew were the most experienced pilots in the battle. Pilots from other Commonwealth and Allied countries, such as New Zealand, Canada and France, also served in the RAF, as well as some United States pilots. It was against the law for US pilots to participate in the war, and they risked imprisonment, so the actual number may be higher than the known seven, as some US pilots probably lied about their nationality in order to fight.
Operation Sea Lion
Operation Sea Lion was Germany's planned invasion of the British mainland across the Channel. To successfully launch the invasion required Germany to achieve both air and naval supremacy over the Channel. The Luftwaffe's record against naval units was less than impressive, as was its performance against merchant shipping. The Kriegsmarine was already inferior in number to the Royal Navy.
The shift from attacking air bases to communications, manufacturing and logistics was largely due to the mistaken assumption that Fighter Command had been effectively eliminated.
15th September 1940
The 15th of September 1940 is known as Battle of Britain day. The Luftwaffe launched a large scale attack on Britain, German intelligence having come to the conclusion that the RAF was on the brink of collapse. Luftwaffe bombers had encountered little resistance during the bombings of London started on the 7th September. This led to Luftwaffe crews being told that the RAF was down to its last reserves, and one more assault would mean victory. Over 1,500 aircraft took part in the actions fought on this day.
What had actually happened was that the change in German strategy had allowed the RAF to get a break after the previous operations against the Luftwaffe. Britain had many more aircraft than German intelligence thought.
The Luftwaffe launched 620 fighters and 500 bombers during the course of the day, and the RAF launched 630 fighters. Losses amongst fighters were about equal, but the Luftwaffe lost a lot of bombers. The more bombers were sent, the more were shot down.
The initial attack was the eighth consecutive night of raids upon London. Throughout the day of the 15th there were two more attacks, from 10:10 to 13:00 and from 13:35 to 15:45. One final attack was launched in the early evening at 17:40.
The Luftwaffe were unlikely to have achieved victory on this day without incompetence on the part of the RAF commanders. They were simply attacking a much larger force than they expected due to poor intelligence. The losses were about 183 aircraft for the Luftwaffe in comparison to 29 for the RAF.
Although the Battle of Britain is considered to have continued until the 30th October 1940, it was effectively lost on the 15th September, when even a massive attack by the Luftwaffe was unable to achieve anything close to victory.
Between the 10th July and the 30th October, the Luftwaffe lost 1,652 aircraft. During the same period, the RAF lost 1,087, plus 386 planes from Bomber Command and 148 from Coastal Command. Germany simply lacked the resources to build enough planes and train enough pilots to defeat the RAF. Britain was building more planes than the Germans, even when the country was under heavy attack and German factories were largely unmolested.
"Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few" Winston Churchill, 20th August 1940
This was the first defeat suffered by the Nazi war machine. The Luftwaffe had failed in their attempt to achieve air superiority over Britain. Although Göring was still convinced that Britain was rapidly running out of aircraft, and could still be easily overcome in a matter of days, this was not the case.
On the 17th September 1940, Hitler delayed Operation Sea Lion, although the actual operation was not cancelled until 3rd March 1942. The Luftwaffe continued the strategic bombing of the UK.
The ability to withstand a campaign of strategic bombing increased British morale. Theories prior to the war had greatly exaggerated the fears and effects of strategic bombing. Even the 1,000 bomber raids carried out on Germany in the later stages of the war were not as effective as they were thought.
Germany turned its attention to the Soviet Union, launching Operation Barbarossa on 22nd June 1941, in an attempt to eliminate Britain's last possible ally in Europe.
During the Battle of Britain, the opinion of Joseph Kennedy (father of John F and Robert F Kennedy), the US ambassador to London, that Great Britain could not survive, was widely believed in the US. "Wild Bill" Donovan, sent by F D Roosevelt to get a second opinion, was of the contrary view and believed that Britain could and would survive and should be supported as much as possible. The end of the Battle of Britain marked a shift in US opinion regarding Britain's chances.
The failure of the Luftwaffe to win the Battle of Britain left behind a nation that was still able to threaten Germany and a place to launch attacks on Nazi Germany from. After the victory, Britain was able to rebuild its defences and military forces. If Britain had not withstood the Luftwaffe's attacks, the United States would have had great difficulty in attacking Continental Europe. Operation Barbarossa was launched without the resources needed to defeat the Soviet Union.