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On This Day: “Eagle Day” Attack Marks the Beginning of the Battle of Britain

Last updated: February 15, 2023

On Aug. 13, 1940, the Battle of Britain began when the German Luftwaffe launched Eagle Day, its first major offensive against the British Royal Air Force.

“Eagle Day” Attack a Failure

In the spring of 1940, Nazi Germany stormed through Scandinavia, the Low Countries and France with little resistance, wiping of nearly all opposition in continental Europe. Britain stood alone against the Nazis.

On June 18, the day after France asked for an armistice, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill declared before the House of Commons, “What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. … Let us, therefore, brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘this was their finest hour.’”

The German air force, the Luftwaffe, began launching attacks on shipping centers along Britain’s south coast July 10. On July 16, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler ordered the military to prepare an amphibious invasion of Britain, which became known as Operation Sealion. Germany would first have to weaken the Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy and coastal defense stations through aerial attacks.

Hermann Goering, commander of the Luftwaffe, issued the “Eagle Day” directive on Aug. 2, ordering the Luftwaffe to focus its attacks of the RAF Fighter Command. The Luftwaffe launched its first major attack on the RAF on Aug. 12, and the next day it launched the “Eagle Day” attack.

Just after 5 a.m., the German bombers took off and soon began attacking Royal Air Force commands on Britain’s southeast coast. The RAF was ready for the attack, armed with technologically advanced radar systems that could detect air movement.

There were three occasions where Luftwaffe's communication was compromised, leading to a lack of organization that left the German attackers vulnerable. The Luftwaffe suffered a high number of casualties and the mission was considered a failure.

Hugh Dowding, the commander of the RAF, called the day’s outcome a “miracle.” The day would portend the events of the following weeks, as the Luftwaffe would not be able to break the resistance of the RAF.

The Battle of Britain

Sources in this Story

  • The BBC: The Battle of Britain
  • The Churchill Centre: Selected Speeches of Winston Churchill
  • Imperial War Museum: Battle of Britain
  • Battle of Britain Historical Society: The Battle Of Britain
  • Royal Air Force: The Battle of Britain History Site

Over the next two weeks, the outmanned RAF held firm against Luftwaffe assaults. Though the overworked pilots were growing weary and the crewmen were struggling to repair planes in time to defend the next attack, their stubborn resistance was frustrating the German leadership, which had expected the British to capitulate quickly.

Churchill praised the RAF pilots in an Aug. 20 House of Commons speech. “Never in the field of human conflict,” he said, “was so much owed by so many to so few.”

On Aug. 23, during a night raid, the Luftwaffe accidentally dropped bombs on a civilian center near London. Britain responded by launching on attack on Berlin; this attack angered Hitler, who ordered nightly bombing attacks on London, a campaign that became known as the Blitz. This would prove to be a crucial mistake.

“Just as their attacks on Fighter Command's airfields were threatening to become a decisive advantage for the Germans, they made a tactical mistake which was of such importance that it was arguably the turning point of the battle,” explains the Imperial War Museum.

The refocused attacks gave the weary RAF the opportunity to recover and repair planes. It also became easier for the RAF to defend as the Luftwaffe attacked further in the interior.

On Sunday, Sept. 15, the Luftwaffe launched raids throughout the day, but the RAF repulsed the attacks and inflicted heavy losses on the Germans. “The Luftwaffe threw everything that they had into the attack, morning, afternoon and in the evening, but they could not succeed,” says the Battle of Britain Historical Society. “Disillusioned and demoralized, Germany had to revise its tactics.”

Two days later, Hitler postponed Operation Sealion. The Luftwaffe continued raids on RAF targets, but its efforts became concentrated on civilian attacks, which continued until May 1941 and killed more than 40,000 people.

Hitler and the German military leadership shifted their efforts from Britain to the Soviet Union, beginning the plans for an invasion called Operation Barbarossa.

“The Battle of Britain was over,” writes the Royal Air Force Web site. “Strangely, for such a ground breaking Battle, the first to be decided purely in the air and the first real test of air power as a defensive and offensive weapon, it did not really end, so much as petered out.”

Historical Context: World War II

Britain stood alone against Germany and the Axis Powers for an entire year. In June 1941, Hitler turned against the Soviet Union, and in December the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, drawing the United States into the war. Britain now had two powerful allies, changing the course of war.

The findingDulcinea Web Guide to World War II links to the most comprehensive and reliable sources on the war.

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