A RAF fighter squadron 'scrambles' after receiving the signal to engage the enemy during the Battle of Britain.

The Battle of Britain

Explore the key events of the Battle of Britain with clips from over 50 years of BBC television and radio programmes

The Battle of Britain was the German air force's attempt to gain air superiority over the RAF from July to September 1940. Their ultimate failure was one of the turning points of World War Two and prevented Germany from invading Britain.

Photo: A RAF fighter squadron 'scrambles' after receiving the signal to engage the enemy during the Battle of Britain. (Getty Images)

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Hitler plans the invasion of Britain

On 18 June 1940, Churchill gave a rousing speech to the British people, announcing: "... the Battle of France is over. The Battle of Britain is about to begin." Four days later, France surrendered to Germany and Hitler turned his attention to Britain.

German air superiority in the south of England was essential before Hitler could contemplate an invasion so Hermann Goering, the head of the Luftwaffe, was instructed that the RAF must be "beaten down to such an extent that it can no longer muster any power of attack worth mentioning against the German crossing".

British and German aeroplanes

The Luftwaffe's principal fighter planes were the Messerschmitt Bf109 and the Messerschmitt Bf110. It had a number of favoured bombers: the Dornier 17, the Junkers Ju88, the Heinkel 111, and the Junkers Ju87 (also known as the 'Stuka' from Sturzkampfflugzeug, the German word for dive bomber). The RAF had the high-performance Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire fighters.

Although on paper the Luftwaffe appeared to have the advantage in numbers of planes, pilots and experience, the two air forces were, in fact, evenly matched. The short range of the German planes and the fact they were fighting over enemy territory were both serious disadvantages for the Luftwaffe. The RAF also had radar, a priceless tool for detecting enemy raids.

The battle begins

The battle began in mid-July and, initially, the Luftwaffe concentrated on attacking shipping in the English Channel and attacking coastal towns and defences. From 12 August, Goering shifted his focus to the destruction of the RAF, attacking airfields and radar bases. Convinced that Fighter Command was now close to defeat, he also tried to force air battles between fighter planes to definitively break British strength.

However, Goering grew frustrated by the large number of British planes that were still fighting off his attacks. On 4 September, the Luftwaffe switched tactics again and, on Hitler's orders, set about destroying London and other major cities.

Eleven days later, on what became known as 'Battle of Britain Day', the RAF savaged the huge incoming Luftwaffe formations in the skies above London and the south coast.

The invasion is postponed

It was now clear to Hitler that his air force had failed to gain air superiority so, on 17 September, he postponed his plans to invade Britain. His attention was now focused on the invasion of the Soviet Union, although the Luftwaffe continued to bomb Britain until the end of the war.

It's difficult to establish an exact figure of how many aircraft were shot down in the Battle of Britain, partly because both sides tended to exaggerate their successes and downplay their losses. However, it's estimated that between 10 July and the end of October 1940, the RAF lost around 1,023 aircraft whilst the Luftwaffe lost 1,887.