The Strategic Context of the Battle of Britain

Britain, led by the fearsome Winston Churchill, stood alone and defiant in that summer of 1940.  Britain had been driven unceremoniously from the continent; first from Norway and more recently from France.  Even though the “Miracle at Dunkirk” had largely saved the British Army, almost all of Britain’s heavy equipment was left on the battlefields of France.

From the German perspective, Hitler fully expected Britain to sue for peace after the defeat of France.  But faced with British defiance and strategically aware enough to want to avoid a two front war Hitler issued “Fuehrer Directive No. 16; On the Preparation of a Landing Operation against England” which read in part:  “Since England, despite its militarily hopeless situation, still has not shown any signs of being prepared to negotiate, I have decided to prepare a landing operation against England. . . “ And “The English air force must have been beaten down to such an extent morally and in fact that it can no longer muster any power of attack worth mentioning against the German crossing.”

The real strategic operational question was if the Luftwaffe had the wherewithal to achieve the goal of defeating the Royal Air Force so thoroughly.

From the British point of view the strategic context was a question of pure survival. There was some talk of turning the government over to the British Union of Fascists, led by former Labour party minister Sir Oswald Mosley,  if this act would be acceptable to Hitler. However, after Churchill gave his famous   “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat” speech there was little doubt that Britain would fight on.  Unfortunately, being on the defensive left the strategic initiative to Germany. This meant that the Luftwaffe would be able to pick and choose its points of attack, while the RAF could only react.

Britain’s strategic and operational position was enormously simplified by their circumstance. Simply put, Britain had to survive and the way to that survival was to fight a battle of pure attrition, killing German pilots and destroying their planes faster than the Germans could kill RAF pilots and destroy its capabilities.

It soon became clear, despite some desperate days, that the Germans did not have the weapons, tactics or operational skill to actually defeat the RAF over its home ground. Further, it is not clear that, even if the RAF had been largely destroyed, the German invasion  would have been successful in the face of a powerful Royal Navy.


Tim Clayton and Phil Craig, “Finest Hour: Battle of Britain”, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999).


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