In the early months of World War II, the German air force swarmed relentlessly all over Western Europe, setting up a showdown with England. How much do you know about the Battle of Britain?
Britain's Royal Air Force (RAF) was the major Allied force during this battle. It was tasked with finding a way to stop the seemingly unstoppable Nazi military, which had previously crushed all opposition.
The English Channel divides Britain from the rest of Europe. If Germany was to send a ground invasion force into Britain, it would first have to gain air superiority against the English air force. Thus, two huge air forces clashed in the world's first all-air battle.
The Battle of Britain started in July 1940 and lasted until October, for a total of around three months. Part of the battle occurred during the Blitz, a period of intense nighttime bombings that the Nazis used to rock English cities.
Germany unexpectedly crushed Allied resistance in France on June 22. France, as it happens, was the last bit of territory separating Britain from the Axis powers. The defeat of the French left England and her Allies making one last stand against the Nazis.
Churchill said that the survival of Christian civilization depended on the battle's outcome. He told his fighters that if they succeeded, it would be their finest hour.
As Germany stormed through France, Britain decided to send many of its warplanes in the hopes of slowing or stopping the Nazi advance. Instead, Germany took Paris and the RAF lost many of its planes, meaning Britain had fewer planes to defend the homeland.
The Netherlands put up a hard fight against the German invasion, and their anti-aircraft teams destroyed many German planes. This left the Germans wanting for more aircraft as the Battle of Britain commenced.
After pounding Britain with major airstrikes, Hitler planned to launch Operation Sea Lion, a full-scale airborne and amphibious invasion of Britain. But first, he had to wait for his airmen to take control of the skies over England.
That spiteful guy named Hitler? He actually really liked the British people and didn't want to attack England. He was convinced that the British people would want to negotiate a truce to avoid war -- and he was very, very wrong.
Because the Treaty of Versailles forbade Germany from creating new pilots, the Nazis found a workaround -- they established civilian programs for pilot training. They also trained some pilots in secret.
The Germans had very poor intelligence during the battle. They didn't fully understand the British air defense system and their attack plans were muddled … meaning that the British were fighting against an enemy that lacked direction and cohesion.
In the span of just three months, the Allies -- mostly Britain -- lost more than 1,700 warplanes. More than 1,500 service members perished defending their country.
With the country on high alert, plane manufacturing was cranked up to about 300 per week. The country also trained plenty of pilots, but many of them lacked experience, resulting in high casualty rates.
The He 111 bombers had few weapons and not much capacity for bombs. However, they could take a beating. Many of these planes were shot hundreds of times by British bullets but still managed to return to base.
In the middle of August, the Germans launched Operation Eagle Attack, which was intended to decimate the RAF and create air superiority for the Nazi planes. Bad weather and fierce RAF resistance made the operation very difficult.
The German air force tended to send its planes in packs (or Rotte) of two planes, one leader and one wingman. The small formation was meant to create flexible formations that still offered good team vision against enemy attacks.
The RAF's voracious fighters blasted too many German planes (and their crews) out of the skies. The Nazis did their best to replace the men they lost, but the high casualty rates made this task impossible, meaning they had a shortage of qualified pilots.
The Hawker Hurricane was the most common British fighter. It was known as a rugged fighter even though the frame was made out of wood.
In preparations for a German attack, Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding developed an integrated air defense system that leaned heavily on newfangled radar detection abilities. Radar was a key tool that the British used to fend off German attacks.
The British shot down many German planes, so their wounded aircrews bailed into the English Channel. The Rettungsboje were rescue buoys scattered through the sea, and they contained life-saving gear, from blankets to food.
The Seenotdienst was a group of German service members trained to rescue downed airmen, particularly those that crashed into the sea. After landing in the water, crews would release a glow-in-the-dark chemical so that the rescue crews could find them.
Hitler didn't want to inflict indiscriminate civilian casualties as the battle began. As the weeks dragged on, he changed his mind and decided that terror bombings might be the only way to win.
The Spitfire became one of the battle's iconic fighters. With a metal frame and powerful engine, it was fast and nimble, capable of attacking German fighters like the Messerschmitt Bf 109.
The Spitfires became associated with British gallantry during the battle. They registered 529 kills while losing only 230 of their own.
The Germans had very little intelligence on the condition of British forces, in part because the RAF kept shooting down Nazi reconnaissance planes. Between inaccurate reports (and outright lies) they thought that Nazi forces were actually winning.
Crews that parachuted were at the mercy of Mother Nature, and the English Channel's waters were cold and cruel. Many German planes included inflatable life rafts that kept the men out of the water (and warmer) so that they could stay alive.
The Germans pushed and pushed for a breakthrough, but their losses simply kept mounting. By the time the battle ended, they'd lost more than 1,900 planes. More than 2,500 airmen were dead or missing.
In September of 1940, Hitler was exasperated and angry about the lack of progress over Britain. He allowed his aircrews to begin bombing areas filled with civilians, a strategy that went on for months and became known as the Blitz.
At high altitude, the Bf 109 was faster than the Spitfire, and it carried more weapons, too. At lower altitudes, though, the Spitfire was faster, giving British pilots an advantage.
The Germans steamrolled across Europe with their sights set on London. The buzzsaw of the RAF cut them to pieces, leaving them licking their wounds from their first major war defeat.