Peter and The Battle of Britain


At an early age I became interested in history, and one area of great interest to me is military aviation history. I have always been fascinated by the Battle of Britain for several reasons, but predominately because it was the first major defeat that Germany suffered in World War II, the first sign that maybe we could defeat Evil.

Germany, with help from the Soviet Union, had conquered Poland in less than a month. Then came a lengthy period of inactivity before the Wehrmacht a) overran most of Europe except for the neutral countries b) and part of France, a process which took about 10 weeks to accomplish. It should be noted that these victories did not come cheaply to the Germans, either in lives or in materials. As the German forces then regrouped on the Atlantic coast, Hitler made plans to subjugate England. In order for him to succeed, the Royal Air Force would have to be destroyed, or at least seriously weakened.

Dover – Britain’s Front Line

The resulting campaign became known as “The Battle of Britain”. Western historians consider that the Battle lasted from July 10, 1940 until October 31, 1940…..except in Germany. German historians, for the most part, don’t even consider that there was a “Battle of Britain”. They do acknowledge a “Kanalkampf”, that is, a battle over the (English) Channel, which segued into night bombing attacks on England, the so called “Blitz”. And in fact, the dates mentioned above were arbitrarily assigned sometime after these events had taken place, when, in 1946, Air Chief Marshal Dowding c) wrote a report on the events of that fateful summer.

Although the Royal Navy was much larger than the German fleet, this imbalance could be addressed if Germany had air superiority over the Channel. The British would have no choice but to risk their naval forces in attempts to repulse the seaborne landing forces, and the confines of the English Channel would present a golden opportunity for the Luftwaffe to inflict serious damage and maybe even neutralize the Royal Navy.

And so the battle began with probing attacks on British channel convoys, gradually growing in strength. The Germans then began to attack Fighter Command’s airfields and its radar warning and control systems. These attacks bore fruit, as far as the airfields were concerned anyway, and Fighter Command came very close to collapsing under the strain of German bombing.

However the Germans suddenly switched their bombing offensive to London d). The British took advantage of this unexpected respite to rebuild Fighter Command. The last major daylight attack occurred on September 27, after that date the Germans concentrated on mass night bombing and daylight “hit and run ” raids by fighter bombers until the worsening weather of autumn put an end to offensive operations by the Luftwaffe.

The Battle of Britain had ended with the Luftwaffe failing to achieve its mission, the defeat of the Royal Air Force. Although there was still a very long way to go before “peace” returned to Europe, England was safe and Hitler was already planning his next major move, the invasion of Russia e).

So that’s my abridged version of events during the Battle of Britain. I am now going to address some of the more interesting points about this battle.


Spitfires and Hurricanes

The RAF was never “down to its last half dozen Spitfires “. Hurricanes and Spitfires f) were built under license and the “shadow factory scheme” enabled the benefits of assembly line mass production to ensure a steady flow of new aircraft. A number of hastily organized Civilian Repair Organization sites kept a constant stream of repaired aircraft on hand, and the pilots, both male and female, of the Air Transport Auxiliary were on hand to ferry the finished products to wherever they were needed.

There were just over 3000 Allied pilots in the Battle. Most were British, but there were Canadian, Australian, Free French, Polish, Czech and other nationalities as well. Many Americans identified themselves as Canadian, because America was neutral, so it was illegal for them to serve with a combatant nation.

All of the Allied aircrew who served in the Battle identified as male. There were women involved, however, at least in a passive role. For example, many of the ATA pilots were female. There were also, for example, female controllers and radar plotters as well as those who served in more traditional roles. Several of these women were awarded medals for gallantry in action g). All of them served faithfully. During the war, by the way, these women would have enlisted in the ”

Women’s Auxiliary Air Force”, which was created in June 1939 from the “Women’s Royal Air Force”, which in its turn had been formed in 1918 as an adjunct to the RAF. As an aside, the WRAF was reactivated in 1949 from the WAAF. Finally, in 1994, this exclusive group was disbanded and women were accepted into the R.A.F..

There was a pilot named Ian Gleed. After pilot training, he was assigned to 87 Squadron, which was based at the time in France. Gleed fought through the debacle of the fall of France, returned to England and served through the Battle of Britain. He was a skilled leader and tactician and was eventually promoted to Wing Commander. He was eventually transferred to the Western Desert, but was shot down and killed in April 1943. His nickname was “Widge”. Ian Gleed fought valiantly in the Battle of Britain. Ian Gleed was gay, as came to light after World War II. I found it sad that it took some time for this information to become common knowledge. h)

There has been much created about the Battle including books, documentaries and other visual media. I enjoy most of it, although some of it is not very good, and I don’t waste my time with things like that. I leave it to you, Loyal Reader, to judge for yourself what you would like to peruse, should you wish to find out more about this important event. i)

I do recommend the movie “The Battle of Britain” as an excellent, albeit simplistic primer on the subject.

There are a number of good books as well, such as “Fighter” by Len Deighton, “The Battle of Britain Then and Now” by Winston Ramsey et al, “The Narrow Margin ” by Wood and Dempster and ” Battle Over Britain ” by Francis K Mason. I enjoy reading all these books.

I will finish off this week with another great source of information about the Battle. Some of the pilots wrote books which are entertaining and informative. Some of these include, “Nine Lives ” by Alan Deere, “First Light” by Geoffrey Wellum and “Duel of Eagles ” by Peter Townsend. I remember reading “The Last Enemy ” by Richard Hillary. It is a profound statement and it was written by someone not much older than I was at the time. It’s out there for those interested.

There were over 60 Allied squadrons which participated in the Battle of Britain. Changing technology and requirements mean that only 11 of them are still operational, including one Canadian squadron, 401 which flies CF-18s at Cold Lake, Alberta.

There are a few aircraft still in existence which were in service during the Battle. One, P7350, is still airworthy and flies with the RAF Battle Of Britain Memorial Flight.

Of the 3000 odd Allied fliers who flew in the Battle, only one remains alive as of publication date. John Hemingway recently turned 100 years old. All the rest, all those fine young people, are gone. I remember them………often.

See you soon

  1. a) The German Army.
  2. b) The major ones being Switzerland, Sweden, Portugal and Spain.
  3. c) The Commander In Chief of Fighter Command during the Battle.
  4. d) I have to leave a lot out, but this subject bears further research if you are interested.
  5. e) Less than 4 years after Operation Barbarossa began, Berlin was in ruins and the Third Reich was defeated.
  6. f) The 2 main British fighters of the Battle.
  7. g) Elspeth Henderson and Joan Mortimer spring to mind.
  8. h) It is possible to build models of several of Gleed’s aircraft. ( Eventually he had Figaro the Cat painted on “his kite”. )
  9. i) You can always PM me for advice  😉 .

4 Responses to “Peter and The Battle of Britain”

  1. Damon Hines Says:

    Lots to unpack and savour here, Peter, as a boy who had much of the legend and lore imbuing the air with its aromas of blood, sweat and tears, plus heroism, loyalty and sacrifice in my first 7 and a half years on earth spent in England inhaling from stories in Eagle Boys Annuals, etc.
    Sadly distracted and distraught at more immediate threats and more mundane menaces as well as existential perils and signs of a Great Unravelling, and perhaps, hopefully(?) a Great Reordering imminent. Cheers, all the best.

  2. Kevin Broadbent Says:

    I was worried that the soundtrack on the Spit and Hurricane vid was going to drown out the real music, but happily it ceased half way through. Years ago I bought the BoB on DVD. It included a “Ma
    king of” that had interviews with the consultants including Bob Tuck, Douglas Bader and Adolf Galland.

    • Peter Montreuil Says:

      Thanks, I just saw this. I am glad that you liked it. I could watch “The Battle of Britain ” all day. Great movie.

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