Susanna McLeod

Susanna McLeod

Glimpses of Canadian History : Email: Scribbles@cogeco.ca

Canadians in the Battle of Britain

The Battle of Britain was waged from July 10 – October 31, 1940. The German Luftwaffe attacked but, with the help of the RCAF and Canada, Britain was saved from capture.

Refuelling a Hawker Hurricane, Oct 6, 1940 - DND, Library and Archives Canada

“For the first time in modern history the people of England are now to feel the full and direct impact of war on their own soil. Their morale is expected to deteriorate in consequence,” spoke German Reich Marshall Herman Goering to his Luftwaffe Chief of Air Staff Hans Jeschonnek in early August 1940. Battle of Britain.net noted that Goering also warned him not to underestimate the British,. “An Englishman is like a wounded bull, he is most dangerous when he is injured.”

Under Chancellor Adolf Hitler’s command, the German army was determined to take England. France had already succumbed to their force and it wouldn’t be long before all of Europe would be his. Before making an outright assault on England named Operation Sea Lion, the Royal Air Force had to be crippled. The Luftwaffe tackled the task by bombing British radar installations, striking air fields and attacking planes in the air. The Germans were making progress, gaining superiority, possibly about to win… then they changed tactics.

Daylight bombing raids on London were terrifying

From attacking British air services, the Germans began bombing London in bold, terrifying daylight raids in an attempt to crush the British spirit. The strategic change gave the RAF a chance to regroup. Soldiers and pilots from Canada and New Zealand joined the RAF in the offensive. The 1st Canadian Division under General McNaughton had been in “intense preparation for a role of counter attack against the expected German assault.” It was to be a fight in the skies – the first and last air-only battle.

Manning Spitfires and Hawker Hurricanes, the No. 1 Royal Canadian Air Force unit was armed with modern eight-gun fighter planes. To limit confusion, the RCAF squadrons were operated as separate units from the RAF, generally keeping the Canadians together. (Some Canadian pilots were spread throughout the RAF also.) Though the allies were outnumbered by more than double, they were able to shoot down German Luftwaffe’s Messerschmitt, Junkers, Dornier and Heinkel planes, two for one. This was not an easy job – the Messerschmitt fighter planes were able to reach higher altitudes, and were faster and more flexible than the RAF fighters, said junobeach.org.

The Canadians met the Luftwaffe in air-battle

The Canadians first engaged the Luftwaffe in air battle on August 26, 1940. While Canadians suffered the loss of one plane and pilot in that skirmish, the German air force lost three aircraft and incurred damage to four others.

Something changed on September 15, 1940. The allies suddenly gained the upper hand. “This time,” said Squadron Leader Douglas Bader, 242 Squadron RAF Fighter Command. “for a change, we outnumbered the hun, and believe me, no more than eight got home from that party. At one time you could see planes going down on fire all over the place, and the sky seemed full of parachutes. It was sudden death that morning, for our fighters shot them to blazes.”

Though battle had changed, the war was not over

The mid-September day was a turning point for the Battle of Britain, with the German assaults coming less frequently than earlier. The battle was not yet over, though. London and area was bombed by the Luftwaffe for another torturous 57 nights. Goering instituted night attacks on London, knowing the RAF had no night fighter units capable of repulsing his squadrons. Civilian fear was his greatest weapon. Goering also continued daylight bombings on British aerodromes and aircraft production facilities.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill is now famous for his quote at the end of the battle: “Thus Britain was saved… Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

The Battle of Britain ended on October 31, 1940. Of 103 Canadian fighter pilots in battle, 23 were killed in action. German aircraft destroyed – 1733, British aircraft destroyed – 915. According to world-war-2.info, over 20,000 British people were killed, over 32,000 injured. World War Two was far from over, and the allied soldiers and pilots, including the Canadians, continued battle in other areas of Europe.

More information:

See Battle of Britain, containing detailed battle information, quotes and statistics by the day.

This article was first published on Suite101.com in 2007.  Copyright Susanna McLeod

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