Episode 46 – The Battle of Britain versus D-Day

Time to head on over to the battles bracket with an ironic set of turning point clashes between the Allied forces of World War II and Nazi Germany, the air bombing of England known as the Battle of Britain and the invasion of the European mainland, D-Day is also known as the Normandy Invasion.

My sources for these two major events of the Second World War are numerous. They include, Battles that Changed History: The Battles that Decided the Fate of Nations by Dougherty et al, 100 Decisive Battles by Paul K. Davis, Battle: A Visual Journey Through 5,00 Years of Conflict by R.G. Grant the Human Story: Our History from the Stone Age to Today by James C. Davis, D-Day by Antony Beevor and Blackout by Connie Willis.

Battle of Britain Observer
Battle of Britain Observer

The name, the Battle of Britain comes from a speech done by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill of June 18, 1940, when he pronounced, “The Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin… The whole fury and might of the enemy must be very soon be turned on us.”

The Battle of Britain was conducted by the Germans against the British from July 10, 1940, to September 15, 1940, although raids were to continue on a smaller basis until May 1941. The Germans were intent on invading Great Britain after sweeping through Western Europe so that its western flank would be free from the threat with a plan to attack the Soviet Union in the east. The planned invasion was called Operation Sea Lion in which the Nazi’s would come over the English Channel with an amphibious assault. This was ludicrous as the German Navy was vastly inferior to the might of the British Navy both in numbers and quality of ships and commanders.

Hitler thought if he couldn’t make the British surrender, he could pressure them to at least sign an armistice. His inability to correctly read the people of Britain was a grave mistake and would be one of the turning points of the war. 

It would pit the mighty Luftwaffe led by World War I ace, Hermann Goring against the vastly smaller but dogged Royal Air Force led by another flying veteran of the first world war, Air Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding.

To show how outnumbered the British were, you have to hear the numbers. According to R.G. Grant, the RAF had a total of 900 fighters while the Luftwaffe had 1,464 fighters and 1,380 bombers. That represents a three to one advantage for Nazi Germany. Paul Davis has both sides having slightly lower numbers, but the ratio seems to be about the same.

What those numbers don’t tell you is some of the advantages that the British had. There were artillery stations throughout Great Britain but in particular around the airfields where the majority of the planes took off and were stored. They had also developed a critical defensive tool that allowed them to spot the German planes as they neared the British coastline, radar.

German pilots during the first phases of the conflict were battle-tested as they had fought in Poland, Spain, and France before the Battle of Britain. Their Stuka dive bombers were a significant threat to the British Royal Navy which kept them out of the English Channel. Hitler believed that if he could destroy the RAF, he could even the playing field against the Royal Navy and win the war.

As in the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, the weather would play an essential part in things, although for different reasons. If you’ve ever been to Great Britain, you know that its weather can be dicey, and rainy. Heavy cloud cover is the enemy of bombing raids, and this would plague the Germans at times.  

Starting with small probing clashes in early July 1940, Things began to get serious in mid-August with fleets of bombers protected by fighters flying over the English Channel with targets mainly in southern England. The principal planes used were the RAF Spitfires taking on the escort planes of the Germans, the Messerschmitt Bf-109‘s. Hawker Hurricanes were sent out to attack the German Bombers. 

The British had several key advantages. First off, the Spitfire was better at air-to-air combat then the Messerschmitt and the German fighter was also hampered by their limited fuel supply which let them only fight for about 15 minutes before being forced to return to their base. 

Radar was crucial to the defense of the English countryside. Here is a description of the RAF fighter pilot and the need for rapid response to an incoming wave of bombers and fighter escorts from Dougherty’s book Battle. “A pilot from a front-line squadron dressed in full flight gear. His day could begin as early as 03:00, carrying on until a stand-down at 20:00. It was impressed on each pilot that the need for fast scramble was vital. Each 30-second delay in getting airborne meant 305 meters (1000 ft) less altitude when it came to meeting the enemy. A Spitfire in a climb was an easy target for a Messerschmitt attacking in a dive.  

The British people were emotionally prepared for a brutal campaign against them by the contestant in episode 13, Winston Churchill. In a speech before Parliament on June 18, 1940, he said, “Let us, therefore, brace ourselves to our duties and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and the Commonwealth should last for a thousand years, men will still say: ‘this was their finest hour.’”

The beginning of the significant raids on England was to start on August 13th, but inclement weather stalled it until the 15th. Hermann Goering’s targets were the forward airfields near the city of Kent as well as any radar stations, docks and ships. The massive air invasion stretched from the northeast down the eastern coastline all the way to the south in Devon. This extended the German lines, causing a loss of 74 aircraft on day one and 45 on the second day. The British would lose 34 fighters on the first day and less on the second. In the first ten days of fighting, the Germans would lose 363 aircraft with the RAF losing 211.

The British had one advantage, and it was that any pilot of their air force who could make it out of their plane in time to parachute out would have people on the ground on their side while that was certainly not the case for the Luftwaffe. 

Despite all of the losses, Hermann Goering continued to assure Adolf Hitler that Operation Sea Lion was still a go as he would defeat the British in the air by mid- to late-September. He felt that targeting the airfields would cripple the British RAF, and in theory and practical reasons, he was absolutely right. During the bombing, there was one city that was off-limits to the Luftwaffe bombers, and that was the city of London. The Germans believed that bombing the capital of England would bring a massive retaliation by the British on their own cities.

In one of those unexpected turns that pivots history to a different outcome, a fleet of Heinkel He 111s lost their way on a night bombing raid on August 24th and 25th and mistakenly dropped their load on London. The retaliation was swift and deadly. The next night, 81 British bombers raided the German capital of Berlin. Hitler was furious and ordered that the cities of England be razed to the ground. 

Goering along with Field Marshall Albert Kesselring agreed with the change to bombing cities instead of RAF targets. This was to be the fatal error that was to change not only the course of the Battle of Britain but the whole of World War II in the European theatre.

The British RAF was at their absolute breaking point. They felt that the battle was all but lost. They were running low on trained pilots as well as planes. The change by the German high command to leave them alone was the break they needed. They could rebuild their air fleet and train more men to fight on. 

London and Coventry were devastated by the air raids, but instead of demoralizing the people of Great Britain it stiffened its resistance. Goering decided against a major air invasion because his men were telling him that British strength was waning. That information was dead wrong. On September 15th, he sent a massive fleet out, but the air defense around London was anything but weak, it was stout. By the end of September, the Luftwaffe had lost 433 planes to the RAF’s 242. Also, the British air force was able to crank up production of planes to bolster their forces. For all intent and purposes, the Battle of Britain was over.

Hitler overrode the pleas of Goering and Kesselring and a slowdown in the air raids. As Grand Admiral Erich Raeder recorded, “The enemy air force is by no means defeated. On the contrary, it shows increasing activity. The Fuhrer, therefore, decides to postpone Sea Lion indefinitely. As Dougherty and his team right, “In effect, Hitler was focusing on long-cherished plans for the invasion of the Soviet Union.”

While no one really won the Battle of Britain, it changed the focus of the war and showed for the first time that the Germans were vulnerable and not as invincible as was once thought. The cost of lives to Great Britain was high. 23,000 civilians died in the bombings with a further 32,000 wounded.

Next up is another crucial battle in the European theatre of World War II, the Normandy Invasion, also known as D-Day.

Invasion of Normandy
Invasion of Normandy

Joseph Stalin and the Soviet military was pressing the Allies to invade Western Europe for years to alleviate the pressure on them post-Operation Barbarossa the invasion of the Soviet Union. The Allies were moving up the Italian countryside and were thinking about coming up through southern France, but they knew that to defeat the Nazi forces once and for all, they had to do it through western France. 

The original plan for the most massive amphibious invasion in world history was to begin in 1943 per the suggestion of U.S. Army Chief of Staff, George Marshall. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was opposed to the idea as he believed that it would be prudent to wait until the following year to bolster their forces.

Before the Normandy Invasion, the Allies swept the Germans and Italians out of Northern Africa, captured Sicily and moved up the Italian coastlines. This was diverting a lot of resources of the German’s away from the Russian front, but not enough for Stalin. When the Allies met in Tehran in late-1943, the Soviet leader berated Franklin D. Roosevelt and Churchill for not aiding his cause more. Roosevelt wanted to placate Stalin as he felt that he might need his help against the Japanese while Churchill was all in on Hitler.

The Prime Minister suggested an invasion of the Balkans and/or a more significant push-up Italy, but that wasn’t enough for Stalin, so Roosevelt pushed for the invasion of France instead. Also, Stalin in no way wanted any American or western European influence in the Balkans as he wanted to dominate the region post-war.

The Americans began to pour in troops and supplies into Britain beginning in early 1944. The Germans with their extensive spy network knew this, so the Allies had to develop a disinformation campaign. Their target was the beaches of Normandy which meant that they had to divert the Germans focus on the nearest place between the British Isles and France, the Pas de Calais.

Supreme Commander of the invasion forces, Dwight D. Eisenhower who we met in episode 14, had amassed a large force. As James C. Davis puts it in his book the Human Story, “In Britain, he assembled an armada. When ready, it comprised two million British, Canadian, and American soldiers; 80 warships, 5,000 other ships; 1,500 tanks; 12,000 airplanes, 4,000 landing craft; and two huge artificial floating harbors. The Allies planned to cross the English Channel, storm the western coast of France, emplace the harbors, land the tans and trucks, and battle eastward.”

Initially planned for mid-May, the weather proved to be a problem. Due to the tides, the next window of opportunity was June 5-6, 1944. The 5th was stormy and very windy, so that was a no go. The weatherman of the time, who were stationed out west of the British Isles, reported that the 6th was likely to have a window of better weather. Remember, no weather satellites were available back then.

With great fear, trepidation, and hope, General Eisenhower made the brave decision to go. He hoped that the deception that his men had laid out would hold a portion of the German forces back at Pas de Calais. What Eisenhower didn’t know was that the bad weather made the Germans believe that there was no way that the Allies would try an amphibious invasion. They were so sure that Erwin Rommel who was given command of the defense of the coastline went back to Germany to celebrate his wife’s birthday.

Before heading off, Eisenhower sent the following message to the Allied Expeditionary Force, “You are about to embark upon the great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months.” The Supreme Commander was so unsure of the success of the invasion that he wrote a speech taking full blame for its failure before it launched.

At dawn, the 5,000 ships headed off toward France with all the men and equipment ready for the assault. Five beaches were targeted. Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword would go down in history. The Americans would have the toughest beach to invade, Omaha. The casualty rate there would be nothing short of staggering. In Paul K Davis’s book, 100 Battles, he writes, “On one of the two U.S. Beaches, code-named Omaha, the invaders lost one man killed or wounded per square yard.” Just think of that, one man per square yard.

Returning again to Davis, he makes a significant point when he said, “Getting off the beaches as soon as possible was the key to success, and footholds inland were gained by all five invading armies by the end of the day.” 

While gaining a foothold was critical, they were not out of the woods just yet. They were benefited by Hitler’s hesitancy of providing aid to his beleaguered troops. He really bought into the Pas de Calais deception until days later when he was finally convinced that the Normandy Invasion was the real deal.

The landing and the subsequent penetration into the countryside was one thing, but the Allies had another big problem, they needed to create a harbor to unload the rest of the supplies and troops needed to push towards Berlin. They needed to take the city of Cherbourg, which they did but only after fierce fighting. 

Air superiority gave the Allies a big leg up on the Germans who tried to shore up their defenses. The Nazi army did have an advantage, and it was the bocage of Normandy whereby small fields were divided by thick and dense hedgerows that had been growing for centuries. These hedges gave the Germans ideal protected spots to fire at the unsuspecting Allied forces. It took them until August 1st, almost two months after landing at Normandy to break through. But, when they did make it through, it was a race to the Rhine River.

One part of the deception of the D-Day invasion was creating a completely fake large army under the direction of the most respected American general by the Germans, George Patton. We’ll get to know him better in episode 74. When the breakthrough came, the real army of Patton, the Third, was blowing through the German defenses like a hot knife through butter. 

The D-Day invasion and the subsequent capture of the French countryside was the death knell of the Nazi dream of Adolf Hitler to control Europe and defeat the Soviet Union. Within a year, Hitler was dead, the European theater of World War II was over, and the Cold War was about to start. 

There is another benefit to the Western Allies invading France, and that is preventing the Soviets from dominating the whole of Europe instead of just the Eastern half. The way the war was going, it looked as if the USSR would eventually takedown Nazi Germany, but at a terrible cost.

Now to score these two monumental battles.

First off, we have the fifteen points for the number of people involved in the battle. The Battle of Britain, if we leave out the civilian casualties, we have about 25,000 to 30,000 men combined from all sides in combat. As for D-Day, the June 6th invasion counted 250,000 men involved with a total of over 2 million for the entirety of the Invasion of Normandy. Fifteen points for the invasion and 5 points for the air battle. 

Next up is the twenty points of how the battle affected the rest of the world in their time. Boy is this a hard one to judge. Without the Battle of Britain, we would have had no D-Day. Had the Germans destroyed the RAF, the British would have been forced to sue for peace or be subject to invasion. D-Day was critical in protecting western Europe from Soviet domination and helped hasten the end of the war in the west. Here, I’m going to give an ever so slight edge to the Battle of Britain, 20 to 18.

The twenty-five points on the effect of the battles on world history is one where I have to lean towards D-Day. As I’ve mentioned many times, the western Allies had to build a foothold in France to protect against the encroachment of communism. The Battle of Britain protected England and allowed the war to move forward culminating in the eventual defeat of the Nazi’s. Twenty-five to the Normandy Invasion with 20 going to the air conflict.

Finally, I will be giving out forty points for how the battle affected the country or countries involved for the better. This one is a win yet again for D-Day. It stopped any thought of any more attacks on England, created the second front that sped up the doom on the Nazi’s and saved many countries from being under the yoke of the communists from Moscow. The Battle of Britain, while protecting the English from surrender or invasion, neither was guaranteed had they lost, but it did make it possible to win eventually. Forty points for D-Day, 30 for the Battle of Britain.

The final score is 98 for the invasion of Normandy and 75 for the air battle over Britain. D-Day moves on to the second round where it will face off against the Battle of Teutoburg Forest. 

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