For over 100 years the Royal Air Force has defended British skies. In 1940 it experienced its greatest test in the Battle of Britain.

Using science, ingenuity, and support from across the UK and overseas, the RAF defended the UK from Nazi Germany’s air force, the Luftwaffe. It was the first major battle fought entirely in the air, and Nazi Germany’s first major military defeat.

This victory was made possible by the hard work and determination of 'The Many', to the courage and sacrifice of 'The Few' - the 2,945 RAF aircrew who faced the Luftwaffe from July to October 1940.

A nation in Peril

By summer 1940, much of Europe had fallen to Nazi Germany. Backed by its allies overseas, the British Government refused to make peace with Hitler. In this country's darkest hour, the British Armed Forces prepared to defend the United Kingdom.

Enable Victory

Millions of ordinary men and women across the UK played vital roles, including Air Raid Wardens, firefighters and members of the Home Guard. Thousands across the UK worked in aircraft factories, building the aircraft that would defend the country. Between June and October 1940, around 2,000 Hurricanes and Spitfires were built.

Through the Team Tempest project, the RAF continues to work with industry partners to develop the next generation of combat aircraft.

Team Tempest

Detect and observe

By 1940, dozens of radar stations had been constructed along the British coastline. This system, called ‘Chain Home’, was the first early warning radar network ever built. Men and women in the radar stations could detect approaching German aircraft from up to 80 miles away.

On arrival to British shores, Luftwaffe aircraft were then tracked by the Observer Corps. Mostly civilian volunteers, 30,000 people worked as observers in a thousand observation posts across the UK.

Control the skies

Fighter Command

Speed was crucial. Information gathered by radar and the Observer Corps went to RAF Fighter Command Headquarters at Bentley Priory in North London. They checked the information, and circulated this by phone to RAF Groups across the country. Each Group controlled the RAF aircraft, anti-aircraft guns, searchlights, and barrage balloons in their areas. Every action was plotted on a large map. Known as the ‘Dowding System’, it was the world’s most advanced air defence network.

The UK’s air defence network – the ‘Dowding System’ – was critical to the RAF’s victory in the Battle of Britain. It used the latest science and technology to detect hostile aircraft and coordinate how air defences would respond.

The primary role for the RAF to this day continues to be the protection of the skies of the UK, through the Quick Reaction Alert system.

Quick Reaction Alert
It is a very tense time, because you’ve got to get it absolutely right, because everybody’s depending on you, especially the pilots
Joan Bouverie Brine, Plotter, Women’s Auxiliary Air Force
20 minutes Time taken for Luftwaffe aircraft to reach UK target once detected
16 minutesTime taken to scramble RAF fighters to successfully intercept a raid
4 minutesTime the RAF had to decide how to respond to a Luftwaffe raid

Ground Crew

The bravery and sacrifice of RAF aircrew was matched by the ceaseless effort and devotion of RAF ground crew. RAF engineers, mechanics, and armourers, as well as countless others on the ground, worked day and night to keep the RAF ready for battle.

RAF stations were often targets for bombing, so RAF ground crew often found themselves in the line of fire. 312 RAF personnel were killed on the ground during the Battle of Britain.

At the height of the Battle of Britain, the RAF had only 749 fighter aircraft available, against 2,550 Luftwaffe aircraft.

The RAF's Battle of Britain Memorial Flight continues to operate six Spitfires and two Hurricanes. One of these Spitfires - P7350 - flew in the Battle of Britain

The Few

Consisting of 2,945 aircrew, the RAF was joined by volunteers from 13 different nations, some of whom had battle experience against the Luftwaffe in their own air forces. This international force became known as 'The Few'.

The Battle of Britain was an international victory. Aviators from across occupied Europe, the Commonwealth, and the wider world flew for the RAF during the Battle. Roughly a fifth of the RAF's Battle of Britain aviators were not British.

20 yearsAverage age of an RAF Pilot in 1940
2 weeksTraining time for an RAF fighter pilot in August 1940
544Members of 'The Few' killed during the Battle of Britain

The First Victory

Facing unsustainable losses, the Luftwaffe abandoned its attempt to establish air superiority over the United Kingdom. It was the first major military defeat of Nazi Germany.

Unsubdued, the UK and its allies continued to wage war on Nazi Germany. Five years later, in May 1945, with the Allies advancing into Germany from all sides and Berlin in Soviet hands, Nazi Germany surrendered.

Visit the Royal Air Force Museum to learn more about the Battle of Britain.

Podcast: Untold battle of britain

The RAF, the RAF Museum, and The National Archives released a collaborative podcast episode of On the Record at The National Archives, called 'Untold Battle of Britain'.

This episode focuses on lesser-known figures from the Battle of Britain to highlight the variety of people who contributed to the military campaign.

Fighter Command