At about 03.40 on 3 June 1940, the destroyer HMS Shikari sailed from Dunkirk en route to Britain. As the last ship to leave France laden with men, her departure brought to an end the most famous part of the evacuation of British troops following the French capitulation.
Eleven days later German troops paraded through Paris. On 22 June the French Government signed an armistice with Germany. Now Britain faced the possibility of a Nazi invasion followed by all the horrors of brutal occupation suffered by many countries across Europe. Led and inspired by the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, the people of Britain prepared to fight for their freedom.
No modern invasion can succeed unless the invading force has air superiority. So it fell to just under 3000 men of Royal Air Force Fighter Command to be at the forefront of British resistance. To the Prime Minister they were “The Few”; to their leader, Air Chief Marshal Dowding, they were “My Dear Fighter Boys”. Well over 500 of them died between 10 July and 31 October 1940 – the official dates of the Battle and nearly 800 more did not live to see the end of the war in 1945. Today we honour them as men who played the key role at a fulcrum of British history.
In July and early August they fought mostly over the English Channel. The Germans designated 13 August, Adler Tag, “Eagle Day”, when Fighter Command would be eliminated. After this utter failure of the Luftwaffe, it was not long before enemy attacks were concentrated more and more on the fighter airfields, the radar stations and the aircraft factories. Some historians and participants in the Battle argue that by early September Fighter Command was close to breaking point, many of the experienced airmen had been killed or wounded. Those that were left were nearing exhaustion. Replacements were coming through and fighting heroically, but they were desperately inexperienced and under trained.
Then on 7 September, the Luftwaffe changed its tactics and began bombing London. On that Saturday night the East End and the docks burned –
“Send every pump you’ve got, the whole bloody world’s on fire”
was the message from a London Fire Brigade officer in the Surrey Docks. For Londoners this was the start of the blitz, with night after night of bombing. For Fighter Command the change provided a respite, because at the time there was little that fighters could do against German bombers at night.
The last major daylight raid on London took place on 15 September, now commemorated as Battle of Britain Day.