The Battle of Britain, which raged between July and October 1940, pitted the Royal Air Force against the German Luftwaffe in a duel for air superiority over southern England. Pilots on both sides were at the controls of some of the most iconic aircraft in aviation history, including the Spitfire, Hurricane and Messerschmitt Bf 109.
Here are 9 iconic aircraft of the Battle of Britain:
The Spitfire was the iconic aircraft of the Battle of Britain and became the symbol of British defiance in the air. Designed by Reginald Mitchell, it had an advanced all-metal airframe, making it light and strong. It took longer to build than the Hurricane and was less sturdy, but it was faster and had a responsiveness which impressed all who flew it. Crucially, it was a match for the Luftwaffe’s Messerschmitt Bf 109 and was superior to it at lower altitudes. The Spitfire entered service with No. 19 Squadron at Duxford in August 1938. Production was slow at first, but by September 1940 it was in service with 18 RAF squadrons. Spitfires shot down a total of 529 enemy aircraft, for a loss of 230 of their own.
The Hurricane was the most numerous of RAF Fighter Command’s aircraft during the Battle of Britain, equipping 33 squadrons by September 1940. Its traditional design – a wood and metal framework covered in fabric – was derived from earlier biplane fighters and was essentially out of date despite later improvements. However, it was a stable and rugged aircraft that could be maintained and repaired more easily than the Spitfire. Its limitations meant that, where possible, Hurricane squadrons were directed against enemy bombers while the superior Spitfires dealt with the fighter escorts. Despite its shortcomings, the Hurricane accounted for 656 German aircraft during the Battle of Britain – more than the Spitfire. Between 30 July and 16 September, 404 Hurricanes were destroyed.
The Defiant was a two-seat fighter with a four-gun power-operated turret. It had no forward firing armament, which meant it could not shoot down enemy aircraft from behind. It was intended primarily as a bomber interceptor, but the turret fighter concept was outmoded and the extra weight made the aircraft sluggish in combat. In early battles over Dunkirk, Defiants had proved very vulnerable to conventional enemy fighters. RAF Fighter Command rashly sent its two Defiant squadrons – Nos. 141 and 264 – into action in July and August, which resulted in two separate massacres at the hands of the Luftwaffe. As a consequence the aircraft played no further part as a day fighter in the Battle.
The Bf 109 was arguably the best fighter in the world in 1940. It was faster than the Spitfire at high altitude, could dive more rapidly and carried a more effective armament of two cannon and two machine guns. Most Bf 109 pilots had more combat experience than their RAF counterparts, at least at first, which also conferred a major advantage. However, the Messerschmitt did not have the range to fly beyond London and carried only seven seconds worth of cannon ammunition, which limited its operational usefulness. The Luftwaffe started the Battle with about 1,100 Bf 109s and 906 pilots available. Some 650 aircraft were shot down.
The two-seat Bf 110 was designed as a long-range heavy escort fighter or Zerstörer (destroyer). It was fast and well-armed, but lacked manoeuvrability. It was markedly inferior to the more nimble RAF fighters and became a liability when attempting to guard the bomber formations. The Germans were forced to use Bf 109s to escort the Bf 110s. However, the aircraft was more effective when used for low-level attacks against factories and RAF airfields. The Germans failed to see the potential of the Bf 110 in this fighter-bomber role and only one Luftwaffe unit was trained for such work.
The He 111 was the most important of the Luftwaffe’s early bombers, but was obsolescent in 1940. Its bomb load of 2,000 kg was insufficient for a strategic bombing campaign and it was slow and poorly armed. Measures to increase its defensive armament proved ineffective and the Heinkel, like other German bomber types, was acutely vulnerable to RAF fighter opposition. In its favour was a structural strength that could soak up punishment – many aircraft managed to return to base with hundreds of bullet holes in their fuselage and flying surfaces.
The Dornier Do 17 – nicknamed the ‘Flying Pencil’ – was based on a pre-war design for a high speed mail plane, which was converted into a bomber by the Nazi air ministry. The Do 17Z became the main production version, equipping three Luftwaffe bomber wings at the height of the Battle of Britain. The aircraft was already virtually obsolete. It was nimble at low altitude but could only carry 1,000 kg of bombs and had a limited range. Like the Heinkel He 111, its defensive armament was weak and losses were severe. In a famous action on 18 August eight Dorniers were shot down and nine damaged in attacks on RAF Kenley, to the south of London. Dornier Do 17 production was terminated in the summer of 1940.
The Junkers Ju 88 was the most modern of Germany’s bombers in 1940. It was designed as a fast medium bomber and first flew in December 1936. However, the promising new design was compromised by Ernst Udet, deputy to the Luftwaffe’s Commander-in-Chief Hermann Göring. Udet demanded that the Ju 88 be capable of dive-bombing. The necessary structural changes increased the aircraft’s weight, which reduced its performance and also delayed production. It proved just as vulnerable to RAF fighters as other Luftwaffe bombers during the Battle of Britain, but later matured into one of the most versatile and important of the Luftwaffe’s aircraft.
The infamous ‘Stuka’ achieved notoriety during the Blitzkrieg triumphs of 1939-1940. Its name derived from an abbreviation of the German term for dive bomber – Sturzkampffleugzeug. The Ju 87 was the chosen weapon of the Luftwaffe High Command, designed to deliver pin-point bombing attacks in a near vertical dive. It was effective during the campaigns in Poland and France, when German forces operated largely in an environment of air superiority. But in the skies over Britain the story was very different. After some initial successes by heavily escorted formations, the Stukas were slaughtered by RAF fighters. On their worst day, 18 August, 12 Ju 87s were shot down and many others damaged or written off in crashes on their return. Such losses meant the aircraft was gradually withdrawn from the battle.