Today is the official Battle of Britain Day in the UK. Most years it passes without much fanfare, but as this year is the 70th anniversary of the campaign there has been a much greater focus on it through television programming, newspaper and online coverage.
The Battle of Britain was fought in the summer of 1940 and, at the time and still in the British popular imagination, marked the defeat of the most serious threat to the continued existence of the UK in nine centuries. Seven decades of historical research and access to the German archives have shown that the danger was considerably less than imagined at the time. The ability of the Germans to mount an invasion of Britain in the summer or autumn of 1940 can best be described as 'risible', something that Hitler was well aware of, and the preparations for invasion were effectively a smoke-and-mirrors campaign designed to shock the British into coming to terms before the Germans turned their attention eastwards. The German navy had been mauled in the Norway campaign and it had absolutely no landing craft to speak of, certainly nothing to compare to the array of specialised, multi-purpose machines fielded by the British and American forces on D-Day. The prospect of the Wehrmacht storming ashore at Eastbourne from pleasure yachts and canal barges (basically an offensive version of the retreat from Dunkirk), with little to no support from Panzers or mobile artillery, seems rather farcical, a notion shared by Hitler and most of his commanders.
Of course, Hermann Goering, in typically understated style, declared that the Luftwaffe could do the job of artillery, tanks and ships all one go, knocking out the RAF, sinking the Royal Navy and providing effective air cover for the invasion force (despite the slight problem that the Luftwaffe's best fighters only had enough fuel to stay over south-eastern Britain for 15 minutes at a time, and couldn't reach the north of the country at all). The RAF disabused him of this notion over the course of three months of fierce combat, during which time the Luftwaffe lost a startling five times as many pilots and aircrew as the British and their allies (French, Czech and Polish pilots also played major roles in the battle, as did many from the Commonwealth countries and a single squadron of Americans, notably not including Ben Affleck).
Eventually, admitting that the Luftwaffe could not do this job (causing a loss of face for Goering that he never entirely recovered from), Hitler ordered his air forces to switch their focus to bombing London and other cities in a terror-bombing campaign, which was not particularly successful either. Even this campaign was drastically reduced the following year when the frustrated Germans launched their invasion of the Soviet Union instead, beginning the two-front war Hitler had once vowed never to launch and which led to his eventual demise.
Whilst the UK was not in as great a danger of invasion as envisaged at the time, the Battle of Britain was still strategically important. It demonstrated to the rest of the world that Britain was still in the fight, and the defeat of the perceived serious threat of invasion was regarded as Hitler's first major military upset during the Second World War, denting his aura of invulnerability (in fact, it was arguably the first time Hitler had not taken a gamble and won since the Munich Putsch of 1923). American popular and political support, which was somewhat lukewarm whilst it appeared that Britain's defeat was imminent, was rallied and helped convince the American government to increase its material support of Britain over the following year. In addition, the demonstration of the effectiveness of British airpower led to aerial offensives against military and industrial targets in Germany and occupied France continuing with cessation until the end of the war, hampering German military adventures elsewhere. British technology, particularly in the fields of radar and aircraft design, was also improved immensely by experiences during the battle (the Spitfire, whose contribution to the battle is sometimes overstated to the detriment of its cousin the Hurricane, went on to become a very fine aircraft in later stages of the war). Finally, the simple fact that Britain was still in the fight tied down roughly a million German troops in France and Norway that were not available to reinforce the Eastern Front, troops whose absence the Germans would come to rue in December 1941 outside the suburbs of Moscow.
The battle also impacted on my family. One of grandfathers was an ARP warden working in London during the battle and the Blitz that followed, whilst the other worked as RAF ground-crew on several airfields in the south-east. My home town of Colchester was not directly attacked, but dozens of airfields were located all around it which took part in the battle, whilst my older aunts and uncles watched the battle as children from their back gardens. I grew up with stories of this time, which informed my later interest in this period.
One thing that cannot be disputed is that thousands of pilots and aircrew (many still in their teens), and thousands more civilians, were killed during this period. The heroism and sacrifice of these people should not be forgotten.