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B-25 Mitchell Bomber
U.S. B-25 Mitchell bomber in flight
Photograph from Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis


The main phase of what became known as the Battle of Britain began on August 13, 1940--a day that the German Luftwaffe called Adlertag, (Eagle Day). German strategists, planning the invasion of England, had given the Luftwaffe six weeks to destroy the Royal Air Force. With control of the air, Germany would then be able to launch Operation Sea Lion, the amphibious landing of the mighty German armies that had already defeated Belgium and France in June 1940.

By the time of the Eagle Day attack, the RAF Fighter Command had 909 first-line Spitfire and Hurricane fighters, plus 84 older aircraft. They would be up against a Luftwaffe air fleet numbering more than 2,000 fighters and bombers.

Unknown to the Germans, the British had discovered the German bomber navigation system, which was based on electronic beams sent out from the continent and crossing over the bombers’ targets. The discovery enabled the British Fighter Command to predict German targets and even deflect bombers by transmitting false beams.

On Eagle Day the Luftwaffe planned to destroy British air defenses by killing fighters in the air and at their bases, destroying airfields, and knocking out radar stations that could give warning of German air attacks. The Eagle Day raids began in the morning and continued through the day--wave after wave of bombers escorted by swarms of fighters. But, warned by radar, RAF fighters rose to attack, shooting down 46 German warplanes and damaging many more. The RAF lost 13 fighters in aerial combat.

Day after day a thousand or more German bombers attacked Britain. Although the Luftwaffe was losing more planes a day than the RAF, Britain’s surviving Hurricanes and Spitfires were wearing out. And so were their pilots.

Two or three fighter scrambles a day were normal; six or seven sorties a day were not uncommon. On August 30, for the first time, Fighter Command flew more than a thousand sorties in a single day. Some fighter pilots fell asleep as soon as they landed, leaving ground crews to turn off the engines--the pilots slept while their planes were rearmed and refueled.

From the end of August to the beginning of September, 103 fighter pilots were killed and 128 seriously wounded--out of a Fighter Command pilot strength of about a thousand.


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