World War II: The Battle of Britain
And the Third Reich could not win a war of attrition. The fighting lasted only 90 minutes and was very one-sided, but this was undoubtedly a major battle — six aircraft carriers with more than planes attacked the main American naval base. Crippling the enemy battleship fleet allowed Japan to overrun south-east Asia without interference. Fierce anti-Japanese sentiment also led to a readiness to use firebombing and nuclear weapons three years later. The Japanese Fleet put to sea to threaten Midway Island northwest of Hawaii , hoping to lure the Americans to destruction.
In reality it was the Japanese who were ambushed, losing four of their best carriers. The Midway victory allowed the Americans to take the strategic initiative in the South Pacific. It would be a year and a half before an American offensive directly across the Central Pacific began, but the Japanese had not had time to fortify their island defence line. The Allied landings in Morocco and Algeria were an easy battle: Vichy French troops were the original opponent, and they quickly changed sides. Victory in Tunisia, the invasion of Sicily and the Italian surrender followed.
The mid-November mobile operation to cut off the city demonstrated for the first time the skill of the rebuilt Red Army. The capitulation of the Sixth Army in the Stalingrad pocket on 31 January was the first major German surrender. Both the German leadership and the population of occupied Europe realised the significance of what had happened: the Third Reich was now on the defensive. The Battle of Kursk July is commonly regarded as one of the three great Soviet victories, and the first achieved in the summer unlike Moscow and Stalingrad. The Red Army took and held the initiative along the whole southern front.
Its advance to the Dnepr River and across the western Ukraine to the pre-war border would then continue without significant pause until February The technical complexities of putting huge, largely untried armies across the Channel and supplying them there were very great. The Germans thought that they had a good chance to repel any invasion. After D-Day Hitler chose to mount a stubborn defence of the Normandy region, and when the main American breakout came, in late July, the burned-out defending forces had no option but to beat a rapid retreat to the German border.
Read more about D-Day here. Surprised by the location of the attack, the Germans were then overwhelmed by the pace and uninterrupted nature of the advance — within six weeks an entire army group had been destroyed, most of Soviet territory had been liberated, and spearhead units had advanced as far as central Poland. The greater significance of the offensive coupled with the defection of Romania in August was that the Red Army would end the war in control of all Eastern Europe.
The 11 most significant battles of the Second World War Second World War battles took place across the globe; some lasting days, others months or even years. August 28, at am. During the Dunkirk Evacuation in , the French village of L'Epinette was the scene of the only Second World War combat death caused by a particular weapon. What was it? But how many were killed during the raid? The Waffen-SS divisions numbered 13, 21 and 23 were predominantly comprised of…?
Which French port witnessed an Allied amphibious raid by a largely Canadian force in August ? Which charismatic British military commander of the Second World War ate raw onions, wandered about naked and was one of the fathers of guerrilla warfare? Better luck next time Not bad German tanks and infantry advancing into a village in the district of Volokolamsk during the battle of Moscow. Smoking hulk of the Japanese heavy cruiser Mikuma, which was destroyed during the battle of Midway.
That day, the Luftwaffe flew 1, sorties, the RAF nearly a thousand on an air front of miles. Then Shirer saw the German bombers coming back, some of them streaming smoke. But the German "minders" did not allow Shirer to talk to the returning pilots — he specifically asked for Galland — with good reason. The ghastly, flesh-burned creatures in those wounded planes were to be kept from the world.
His almost forgotten record of the air war, Heaven Next Stop — regarded as a conflation of not only his own memories but those of his Luftwaffe colleagues — includes the terrifying moment when a Luftwaffe friend crashes on landing, his Me toppling upside-down and bursting into flames:. A human being burning alive before our eyes! At intervals we could make out the condemned man writhing and jerking convulsively — hammering on the unyielding walls of his glass cage, every moment more and more enveloped by the roaring flames His despairing cry made us all realise simultaneously the only thing which could be done to ease our comrade's torment Another pilot, identified only as Ulrich, walked into the flames and shot the burning man in the head.
Earlier, Bloemertz himself had shot down an RAF fighter, at the same time willing his British victim to jump from his burning aircraft. Instead I see him bathed in the red of his own blood; his body strains half over the side to hang there, mutilated. Then the waves close over him Falling slowly through a dark pit. I was dead.
I saw it with my mind, my mind that was redness in front of my eye, the dull scream in the ear, the grinning of the mouth, the skin crawling on the skull. It was death and resurrection. Terror, moving with me, touched my cheek with hers and I felt the flesh wince I was hot now, hot, again, again one with my body, on fire and screaming soundlessly.
My own father, First World War veteran Bill Fisk — in head of the local Home Guard in Maidstone — was to recall the shriek of uncontrolled Merlin engines as a fiery ball fell out of the sky over the centre of the town.
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He lay on the cobbles behind the Star Hotel as the Spitfire blew up a few hundred metres away, his own body bouncing on the road as the blast waves came down the High Street. On the golf course, he found the three-feet-deep perfect imprint of a German pilot who had jumped from his burning plane — without a parachute. Bill's future wife Peggy, on the outskirts of Maidstone, saw a pyre of black smoke and cycled off with her sister Bibby to see the burning wreckage of another Messerschmitt. When Harry Saltzman produced his epic Battle of Britain — using more than a hundred real British and German fighters and bombers, for these were pre-digital days — he employed a real and terribly disfigured ex-fighter pilot to explain to a burned pilot's distraught wife Susannah York that plastic surgeons could do "wonderful things" these days.
For those who were burned or smashed to death, wives and lovers re-lived the nightmare last moments or, broken in spirit, faithfully awaited the return of husbands who could never come back. In his often distressing Battle of Britain novel Piece of Cake, Derek Robinson describes the heartbreak of a fighter pilot's wife who turns up each day at the airfield perimeter to wait for her dead husband's Spitfire, a fearful presence which haunts his still- living fellow pilots:.
He began walking Cattermole stopped when he was 10 feet away. The sweat trickling into his eyes made him blink but his face was untouched by expression. I don't give a damn about you You're a jinx, a menace.
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Fitz is dead, he's not coming back If the nobility of warfare was upheld in the Battle of Britain, the Geneva Conventions were not. Their claim was correct. Churchill's War Cabinet formally announced that "it has come to the notice of His Majesty's Government His Majesty's Government are unable, however, to grant immunity to such aircraft flying over areas in which operations are in progress on land or at sea And Churchill wrote: "We did not recognise this means of rescuing enemy pilots in order that they might come and bomb our civilian population again.
Of course, the Battle of Britain did produce honour, even humour, amid the carnage. RAF pilots sometimes circled ditched German bombers in the Channel in an effort to save their crews' lives. One British pilot found a German's parachute tangled on his starboard wing and throttled back to allow his German enemy to float free and alive to earth.
Hillary remembered shouting German invective into his radio while climbing to 25, feet.
Several true stories were astronomically funny. Fighter pilot Peter Townsend — later to be Princess Margaret's lover — returned from a fierce battle over the Channel to find a German Heinkel bomber, wheels up, propellers bent, crash-landed on the runway of his RAF airfield.
Deadly skies: The bloody truth about the Battle of Britain 70 years on | The Independent
The pilot thought he had ditched in the sea and "before the astonished eye of the airfield control officer Rumour even had it that they dived into their dingy and began rowing. Inevitably, the pilots were fascinated by their enemies.
When the legless Douglas Bader was shot down over France — by one of his own Spitfires, although he would never admit it — Adolf Galland greeted him warmly at his Luftwaffe airbase at St Omer, enquiring how he had managed to bale out with no legs. Bader didn't remember. According to Bader's biographer, "mad thoughts" of starting the engine and throttling away to freedom passed through his mind.
But a snapshot sent to Bader after the war shows a junior Luftwaffe officer covering him with a machine pistol. As he stepped out of the , "Bader looked across country and saw the sea. Far beyond he thought he could glimpse the White Cliffs of Dover and for a moment felt quite sick. Galland recalled Bader's visit to his airbase at St Omer — "Wonderful fellow!
But the Battle of Britain was not a schoolboy game, a jape, a friendly match. It was harsh and cruel and thus — if it was an antidote to what had gone before and to what was yet to come — reflected the murderous war in which it occurred. The battle also remains a danger to us in a historical sense; our obsession with the RAF's victory tends to diminish infinitely more terrible and important turning points in a conflict that consumed upwards of 60 million lives.
And the pilots who fought were not, as hindsight might suggest to us, struggling to avenge Hitler's greatest crimes. The industrial slaughter of the Jewish Holocaust had not yet begun. The invasion of the Soviet Union was a year away. It was, perhaps, something more visceral that drove those pilots into the sky; the sheer bloody insult that the Luftwaffe committed by flying over the British coast from France.
Where do all these bloody Germans come from? There seems to be no end to them Rubbing his hands with delight, he announced that now they would be able to kill even more Germans. After the Normandy landings in June , some of those same pilots helped to massacre the encircled German army trapped in the "Falaise Pocket"; thousands of French civilians died in the Pocket and in the still occupied towns between Normandy and Paris.
While Bomber Command tore Germany's cities to pieces, fighter pilots — American and British, flying Spitfires as well as Typhoons and Mustangs — ranged the countryside to strafe German refugees, trains and even farm carts and horses, just as the Luftwaffe had done in France in Inevitably, they also attacked columns of British and American PoWs.
At the time, the Battle of Britain did not seem as coherent as it does today. Fate plunged onwards down its ordained path, and however we might try to protect ourselves it struck us exactly as it pleased. I couldn't block its way; and you — you who had wanted to kill me early in the morning — you couldn't do so either. Tommy, if you still live, are you perhaps drinking at this moment in some bar in the West End?
And yet. There is always an "and yet" with this battle. By June of , Britain was the sole country still in arms against the Nazis. If Britain failed, Churchill warned in June , "the whole world, including the United States and all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age, made more sinister and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science". And despite the historical manipulation of both the battle and Churchill by those miserable politicians who want to maintain our dishonest, illegal wars abroad today, his words, like the Spitfire, retain their integrity.
Perhaps it is what Richard Hillary, in a different context, called "the essential rightness of it all". For once — just once — Britain did the right thing and fought the right battle at the right time. And won. You can find our Community Guidelines in full here. Want to discuss real-world problems, be involved in the most engaging discussions and hear from the journalists? Try Independent Premium free for 1 month.
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Battle of Britain
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