Their finest hour – in their finest planes

The Oldie Magazine|The Oldie magazine - July issue (389)

Their finest hour – in their finest planes
Eighty years ago, the Battle of Britain changed the course of history, thanks to the Hurricane and the Spitfire, says Leo McKinstry
Leo McKinstry

After the Second World War, the former German army commander Gerd von Rundstedt was asked in a television interview if Stalingrad had been the turning point in the conflict.

‘On no, it was the Battle of Britain. That was the first time we realized that we could be beaten and we were beaten and we didn’t like it,’ he replied.

His verdict was sound. The Battle of Britain (10th July-31st October 1940), whose 80th anniversary falls this summer, changed the course of history. If the Luftwaffe had gained the mastery of the skies over southern England in 1940, Hitler would have been able to enact his plan, code-named Operation Sealion, to mount a seaborne onslaught across the Channel.

More than 2,000 vessels stood ready in the occupied Channel ports to carry the vast invading army. But, by mid-September, thanks to the heroism of the RAF, the German dreams of conquest had ended in failure. Fighter Command’s resistance forced the Nazi war machine to look eastwards to the Soviet Union, with ultimately disastrous consequences.

The scale of the challenge that confronted the RAF at the start of the battle was daunting. Not only had Nazi Germany proved invincible in its brutal advance across much of Europe, but its air force was far larger than Britain’s.

By the summer of 1940, the Luftwaffe under Goering comprised over 2,600 operational aircraft, including 1,200 bombers, 280 dive bombers, and 980 fighters. Among this aerial armada was the single-engined Messerschmitt 109, one of the deadliest fighters in the world because of its speed at over 350mph and the lethal firepower from its cannons.

Against this colossal instrument of war, RAF Fighter Command had only around 900 operational planes, many of which were obsolescent, such as the Gloster Gladiator biplane. But this imbalance was outweighed by three crucial factors: the quality of the RAF’s two main fighters; the efficiency of its organization; and the courage of its airmen. With these assets, Fighter Command turned what could have been this country’s darkest hour into our finest.

At the heart of Britain’s defenses were the Supermarine Spitfire and Hawker Hurricane. Both were advanced monoplanes that had entered service in the late 1930s and had transformed the capability of the Fighter Command. Both had eight.303 Browning guns in their wings, capable of delivering 2,400 rounds, and were powered by the reliable, potent Rolls-Royce Merlin engine with its distinctive throb.

Combining grace with aggression, the Spitfire was the faster of the two, with a top speed that matched that of the Messerschmitt 109. The plane’s maneuverability made her a delight to fly, as George Unwin of 19 Squadron recalled: ‘There was no pushing or pulling or kicking. You breathed on it. She really was the perfect flying machine.’

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The Oldie magazine - July issue (389)