THE SECOND WORLD WAR (1939-1945)

THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN (1940)

S/L Ernie McNab, pictured in October 1940, flew a Hurricane during the Battle of Britain with No. 1 Squadron and scored the RCAF’s first aerial victory of the war.

 “Never in the field of human conflict was
so much owed by so many to so few.” 
- Winston Churchill

The summer of 1940 was a dark time for the Allies. With shocking rapidity, Adolf Hitler’s forces had overrun most of Europe. By mid-June, Allied forces had been pushed off the continent and Nazi forces were at the English Channel, preparing to invade England.

“The Battle of France is over,” said British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. “I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin.”

Hitler directed that the Royal Air Force (RAF) be eliminated to allow the invasion to take place. The air battle began on July 10, with Nazi attacks on British convoys, ports and coastal radar stations. August was marked by massive efforts to destroy British fighter capabilities in the air and on the ground. One of the most savage days was August 13. A few days later Churchill praised the brave airmen in words that have echoed through the decades: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

In late August, Allied forces began dropping bombs on Berlin in retaliation for an accidental Luftwaffe bombing of London. A furious Hitler ordered massive bombing attacks on British cities, and the Blitz began on September 7.

But as bombs rained down on London, the shift in targets turned Luftwaffe attention from airfields and ground elements of the air defence system. More importantly, the change allowed Fighter Command to have more warning of Luftwaffe attacks and to be better prepared.

Pilots "scramble" for their aircraft.

On September 15, the Germans launched a massive attack but, although the fighting was fierce, the RAF, using new tactics, was victorious.

Two days later, Hitler postponed the invasion; he never again considered it seriously. By the end of September, the Battle of Britain came to an end without fanfare. It was the first military confrontation won by air power and Germany’s first defeat in the war.

More than 2,300 pilots and aircrew from Great Britain and nearly 600 from other nations participated in the Battle. Of these, 544 lost their lives, including 23 Canadians.

More than 100 Canadians flew in the battle, principally as members of the Royal Canadian Air Force's (RCAF) No. 1 Squadron (later renamed 401 Squadron) and the RAF’s 242 Squadron. An estimated 300 Canadians served as groundcrew.