This year marks the 78th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain, the first decisive battle in history fought entirely in the air. Battle of Britain Sunday commemorates a dramatic turning point in both the Battle itself, and the history of the Second World War.
The German objective in the summer of 1940 was to eliminate Britian's Royal Air Force, both in the air and on the ground, in order to obtain air superiority in preparation for a seaborne and airborne invasion. Operating mostly from airfields in France and Belgium, the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) began their first heavy onslaught early in July 1940, directed against British shipping and the Channel ports. Then from 8th to 18th August, they attacked coastal radar stations and fighter airfields. Then after a five-day lull due to poor weather, they hit fighter airfields in the London area and increased night attacks on Britain’s cities.
The first daylight assault on London was made on 7th September and marked London as the Luftwaffe’s primary target. These attacks, although serious in themselves, brought vital relief to the airfields, which until that time had been under considerable pressure. The Battle reached a climax on 15th September, when the Luftwaffe flew more than 1,000 sorties over England during daylight hours. On that occasion the Luftwaffe lost 56 aircraft. It was, in Sir Winston Churchill’s words: “One of the decisive battles of the war.”
Throughout October, there was a decline of enemy daylight attacks on London and an increase in the night bombing of Britain’s major ports and industrial centres. At the beginning of the struggle the Luftwaffe had approximately 2,700 aircraft to launch against England. Britain had fewer than 60 fighter squadrons — around 700 aircraft — and the groundcrew had to work sometimes 16 hours a day to keep aircraft in the air. Between 24th August and 6th September alone, Fighter Command lost 103 pilots and 128 were seriously wounded; 366 fighters had been destroyed or badly damaged. Fighter Command lost over 1000 fighter aircraft during the Battle and the Luftwaffe nearly 1900. Through the efforts of fewer than 3000 aircrew from Britain, the Commonwealth, and Allied and even some neutral nations, together with the men and women who supported them, the Nazi war machine suffered its first significant strategic defeat. In all 544 aircrew from Fighter Command were killed during the Battle. The cost was grievous but the stakes immeasurably high.
New Zealand played a huge role in that fight. Many of Britian's Ace Pilots were Kiwi's and the mind controlling the strategic Air Defence of Britian was New Zealander Keith Park. Keith Park’s role in the battle was crucial. In marshalling the scarce resources of his fighter group, and successfully employing tactics that allowed timely interception of the enemy forces, he excelled in the most significant wartime role ever undertaken by a New Zealander. His reputation has grown with historical assessment of the battle - reflected in the decision to place a statue of him in London’s Waterloo Place (unveiled on Battle of Britain Day 2010).