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Part of the Battle of Britain
A British convoy under air attack, 14 July 1940. The attack was filmed by a BBC crew and radio listeners tuned in to listen to the commentary.
Date4 July—11 August 1940
LocationSouthern England and English Channel
Result German victory[1]
United Kingdom United Kingdom Nazi Germany Germany
Commanders and leaders
United Kingdom Hugh Dowding
United Kingdom Keith Park
United Kingdom Trafford Leigh-Mallory
Nazi Germany Hermann Göring
Nazi Germany Albert Kesselring
Nazi Germany Hugo Sperrle
Nazi Germany W. von Richthofen
Casualties and losses
115 fighters destroyed
42 fighters damaged
71 pilots killed in action
19 pilots wounded in action
4 pilots missing in action[N 1]
Royal Navy:
35 transport ships sunk
7 fishing vessels
a number of naval vessels

4 destroyers
losses include some neutral ships[3]
80 fighters destroyed
36 fighter aircraft damaged
22 Dive bombers destroyed
22 Dive bombers damaged
100 medium bombers destroyed
33 medium bombers damaged
13 naval aircraft destroyed
1 naval aircraft damaged
201 airmen killed
75 airmen wounded
277 airmen missing
16 airmen captured[N 2]

The Kanalkampf or the Channel Struggle was the name given to a series of Second World War air battles fought during from the 4 July and 11 August 1940, between the German Luftwaffe and British Royal Air Force (RAF). In June 1940 the Allies were defeated in Western Europe and Scandinavia. Rather than come to terms with Germany, Britain rejected all overtures for a negotiated peace resulting in Adolf Hitler issuing the German armed forces (Wehrmacht) Directive No. 16 ordering the invasion of the United Kingdom.[5]

The invasion of the United Kingdom was codenamed Operation Sea Lion (Unternehmen Seelöwe) however before this could be carried out, air superiority or air supremacy was required. The Luftwaffe was to destroy the RAF in order to prevent it from attacking the invasion fleet or providing protection to the Royal Navy's Home Fleet that might attempt to intercept a landing by sea. Hitler ordered the Luftwaffe's commander-in-chief, Reichsmarschall (Empire's Marshal) Hermann Göring and the Oberkommando der Luftwaffe (High Command of the Air Force) to prepare for the assault. The primary target was RAF Fighter Command: the destruction of which, would deny the British their air superiority asset. However, in June and July 1940 the Germans were engaged in an enormous logistics effort, moving two entire Luftflotten (Air Fleets) into airfields in France and Belgium along with all their administrative, manpower and material resources. Unable to begin operations against the mainland immediately the Luftwaffe began a series of military operations against British merchant convoys and shipping passing through the English Channel from the Atlantic on their way to ports in eastern England. The German operations were designed to help cut off British shipping communications in the south and to encourage the RAF to battle as a prelude to the main effort in August. The attacks against the Channel Convoys are considered to be the start of the Battle of Britain.

The Luftwaffe achieved success against the convoys. RAF Fighter Command did not protect the convoys adequately and German attacks inflicted heavy casualties on British shipping. Those losses caused friction between the Air Ministry and the Admiralty which lingered for some time. German attacks also forced the Royal Navy to order a cessation of Convoys in Channel waters and the abandonment of those sea lanes to all major sea-going vessels until the late summer, 1940. The battles did draw out Fighter Command as planned but British losses were not crippling and it remained a formidable obstacle for the Luftwaffe in the coming campaign.


German build up

The campaign did not start against the RAF until August. Throughout the intervening period, the Luftwaffe undertook its third major operational move within the space of two months. The first had seen it push forward its Air Fleets into the Low Countries and the second into southern France. Now it was expanded into northern France and Belgium, along the English Channel coast. It took time to establish the signal system in France owing to a shortage of trained staff officers while the units replenished after losses through the Ergänzungsverbände (supplemental formations).[6] The logistics challenge was also evident in the lethargic build up. Matters were not helped by the fact that the Luftwaffe and army had to repair the French and Belgian infrastructure it was responsible for damaging. The army was forced to rebuild bridges to supply forward bases. Air bases required rebuilding after war damage in May and June. This often meant short-range dive bombers and fighters were sent to forward airfields which needed electricity and running water.[7] Upon the French surrender the Luftwaffe supply system was breaking down. For example, on 8 July only 20 of the 84 railway tanks with aviation fuel had reached the main depot at Le Mans. The Transportgruppen could not pick up the slack and barely kept its units running. Preparations continued at a glacial pace since the men responsible for the organisation and shifting German air power to the Channel in the most efficient way were enjoying the fruits of their new assignments in Paris. Senior staff members were distracted toward victory parades and accepting their promotions, including Göring who was promoted to Reichsmarschall. In the event, during the phase of the Kanalkampf the Germans succeeded in compiling powerful air forces to strike at convoys in the Channel. It took some 40 days after the French capitulation for the Luftwaffe to begin its assault on the British mainland.[8]

Evolving strategy

Aside from a very few, isolated cases, the Luftwaffe did not operate over Britain in any force until France was on the brink of collapse. Any diversion of effort during the continental campaign ran contrary to the German methods in concentration of force.[9] When German bomber crews flew over the country they did so a night and sorties were recorded in May and June 1940. When it was clear that Britain would not accede to Hitler's demands, the Luftwaffe undertook preparations to neutralise the country and end the fighting in Western Europe. This involved the transfer of two Luftflotten (Air Fleets)—Luftflotte 2 and Luftflotte 3—into France and Belgium. Over the course of June and July sporadic attacks were carried out at night, both inland and along Britain's east and southern coastlines to keep the civil population awake and to damage British morale. However, these attacks were ill-directed and it was not clear to the British exactly what German intentions would be.[10]

Operations against British sea communications did not appeal to Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring. The Luftwaffe was not prepared for naval warfare and this strategy was tantamount to Blockade. Blockade, which the German government announced would be in effect against Britain (from 18 July), required the cooperation of the Luftwaffe for the benefit and support of the Kriegsmarine (German Navy). It was not forthcoming.[11] Göring loathed the navy and its Commander-in-Chief Großadmiral Erich Raeder. In Göring's eyes, both Raeder and the navy represented the bourgeois clique of German society the National Socialist revolution had pledged to eliminate.[12] Cooperation would not be easy and the Reichsmarschall consistently refused to accept the navy's calls for assistance in the war against the Royal Navy and British commerce throughout the war.[13] Nevertheless, it was always the intention of the Reichsmarschall and the Oberkommando der Luftwaffe (OKL—High Command of the Air Force) Staff's to strike at the RAF to establish air superiority or air supremacy and this aspect of future operations was clear in Göring's 30 June directive.[14] Göring hoped that a victory in the air battle would preclude an invasion of Britain by persuading the Churchill Government to either submit, or reach a peace settlement with Germany.[15][16] This was most evident during a conference in Berlin on 31 July when Hitler outlined Operation Sea Lion and its objectives. Not a single Luftwaffe representative was present and Göring had ignored a number of summonses by Hitler to conferences aimed and inter-service cooperation.[14] While the army and navy made tentative steps toward planning an amphibious assault, the OKL was engaged in an internal debate about which target sets should be attacked to attain control of the air as quickly as possible. Though Göring's directive mentioned cutting off British supplies he did not discuss shipping. On 11 July Chief of the General Staff Hans Jeschonnek ordered that coastal shipping should be attacked as a prelude to the main battle against the RAF and its infrastructure. His order was sanctioned by Göring. The two Luftflotten commanders, Hugo Sperrle and Albert Kesselring, had already begun such operations as the indecision of the OKL had left them with little else to do.[17]

A number of inferences can be drawn from the decision to pursue coastal targets. The first was that these targets and locations were easier to find than targets inland. The second, was the Royal Air Force (RAF) would suffer a higher degree of attrition in comparison to fighting over land in defending them, since they would be fighting over an area which could and would be strongly contested by the bulk of its enemy. Moreover, RAF pilots that abandoned their aircraft over water would face the same peril as their German counter-parts. Unlike the Luftwaffe, the RAF lacked an air-sea rescue service at that time. A third was the obvious advantage in eliminating the English Channel as a conduit through which British imports could supply Greater London via the Thames Estuary. Shipping could still travel north of Scotland, but it would slow down the supply of materials for the British war effort. Air Officer Commanding Fighter Command, Hugh Dowding preferred the navy to re-route its convoys that way to ease the burden on his forces.[18][19]

Air Ministry and Admiralty

The Air Ministry and the Admiralty had a tempestuous history. Since the inception of the independent air force in April 1918 through the early 1930s, the two Services had been fighting over resources, influence and the right of the RAF to exist. Both the British Army and to a greater extent to the Navy, had attempted to divide the RAF into two, abolish the independent force, and return army and naval aviation to the older services. By 1940, tensions had cooled but suspicion on the part of the Air Ministry remained.

Fighter Command had cooperated in joint operations with the navy over Dunkirk when the RAF provided air superiority support for the naval forces withdrawing the British Army. These operations were not completely successful and incurred heavy casualties to both services.[20] By 1 June the RAF was reducing its effort and saving its strength for the defence of Britain. On this day one minesweeper, one transport, and three destroyers were sunk and a further two destroyers damaged in their absence.[21] Absence of air cover was not uncommon and the RAF believed itself to be more successful in battle than it was. The RAF over claimed German losses by 4:1. Of the 156 German aircraft lost over the entire theatre, some 35 were downed by fire from naval vessels leaving 102, aside from other causes, likely to have been shot down by the RAF against 106 British losses.[22]

Air cooperation was not helped by Fighter Command retaining rigid control of its units. The Admiralty complained that RAF methods did not permit the direct contact of operational staff allocated for duty with he naval command. Much time was lost and the fluidity of battle meant that in the ever-changing operational situation RAF forces were brought into play at the wrong time or place and often without adequate resources to defend shipping.[23] The Dover Naval Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Max Horton, was responsible for organising the evacuation and he asked if he could meet Hugh Dowding in late June 1940 to prevent the same operational difficulties occurring in future. Horton was told to put his complaints on paper and send them to Dowding with a copy to the Air Ministry. The two men did not meet to discuss the issues facing British coastal defences. The indifference displayed by the Air Service perhaps demonstrated a measure of division between the two organisations. It was felt by the Admiralty that the RAF was fighting a separate war with little consideration given to join operations.[24]

The Air Staff did not disregard coastal or convoy defence completely and they assumed a place in fighter defence policy. Dowding had to decide how best to employ Fighter Command to meet the German threat which he did so, apparently without the input of the navy. In the pre-war era the Command had expected attacks only by unescorted German bombers upon the eastern part of the country. The German occupation of the French coast put western targets in reach of German aircraft. Dowding considered that airfields and factories, but also convoys and British ports would be German targets. He assumed the German intention was to destroy these as a priority, while the attacks would serve to draw RAF fighter forces into battle and weaken them. Dowding was prepared to offer a defence over these targets if necessary.[25]

The protection of shipping was a source of controversy in the RAF. The commitment of Fighter Command was substantial. On average the 12 convoys passing through the Channel waters needed cover every day and roughly one-third were attacked. It became an immediate burden to No. 11 Group RAF under the command of Keith Park which was responsible for defending south-west England. The employment of convoys from the Suffolk coast to Lyme Bay negated the value of using the sea as a protective shield because the location, from an operational perspective, meant the fighting conditions favoured the attacker. Coastal radar could give little advance warning of incoming raids since the location of the battlefield and the close proximity to Luftwaffe airbases allowed German aircraft to make their attacks and withdraw very quickly. Interception during this early phase of the battle was difficult.[26]

On 3 July Dowding asked for convoys to be re-routed via Scotland, appreciating not all could be adequately protected. He also wanted to reduce the burden on his forces and reduce their exposure to the enemy in an effort to preserve Fighter Command's strength for the main battle. Yet four weeks later the Air Ministry (ostensibly after complaints from the Admiralty) instructed him to meet the enemy with large formations while shipping maintained the Channel as a primary route. Pressure on Dowding and the Admiralty was applied until August. On 9 August Winston Churchill was still asking the navy to use the convoys as bait to lure German bombers out for Fighter Command to destroy. This method, while successful, led to much greater casualties in Fighter Command.[27]

Forces involved



The Channel battles

1—3 July: prelude

Events on the Channel Front began to unfold with the German occupation of the Channel Islands on 30 June. On Monday 1 July 1940 the first air battles were fought between the Luftwaffe and the RAF. Early morning mist had curtailed operations by Luftflotte 2 and Luftflotte 3. Limited reconnaissance by the Aufklärungsgruppen took place and two Dornier Do 215s were shot down by British ground defences. A Junkers Ju 88 from 3.(F)/121 was also lost to mechanical failure. The British attempted to carry out reconnaissance over Abbeville. A number of Bristol Blenheims escorted by No. 145 Squadron RAF Hawker Hurricanes made flights without any losses.

Combat soon followed. No. 72 Squadron RAF engaged an Heinkel He 59 seaplane and the Supermarine Spitfires dispatched it. The crew were rescued by a British cruiser. They complained that they were a Red Cross service and should not have been fired upon. However, the British later issued a warning that any naval aircraft operating in the vicinity of the convoys did so at their own risk. A scramble was issued soon afterwards to protect the convoy JUMO that was approaching Portsmouth. It came under attack by Ju 87s which vacated the area before RAF fighters could reach it. In further skirmishes, fighters from No. 235 Squadron RAF claimed a Dornier Do 17 damaged while Spitfires from No. 64 Squadron RAF engaged and shot down another Do 17 from Kampfgeschwader 77 (Bomber Wing 77) that was approaching RAF Kenley.

Dowding was still in the midst of re-organising his forces and changing his Command's order of battle. With shipping now apparently a target he utilised coastal airfields. In the afternoon he transferred 79 Squadron to RAF Hawkinge from Biggin Hill to be nearer the battlefield.

4 July: Portland Harbour and Convoy OA.178


Jack Mantle, VC.

In the morning of the 4 July, the Luftwaffe targeted Portland harbor, and exposed port on the English coast, located near to the Pas de Calais. Messerschmitt Bf 110s from V.(Z)./Lehrgeschwader 1 (Experimental Wing 1) and two Staffeln (Squadrons) of Messerschmitt Bf 109s from I./Jagdgeschwader 1 (Fighter Wing 1)—re-designated III./Jagdgeschwader 27 (Fighter Wing 27) the next day—were ordered to provide escort to a large force of Junkers Ju 87 Stukas. The Ju 87s were from II./Sturzkampfgeschwader 51 (Dive Bomber Wing 51) (also re-designated as II./Sturzkampfgeschwader 1 the following day). Their target was the naval base at Portland.[28]

At 08:15 the Ju 87s arrived over the harbour. With no RAF fighters in sight they began their attacks. The German pilots singled out HMS Foylebank, a converted pre-war merchant ship which was armed with four twin four-inch high-angle guns, multiple two-pounder Pom-Pom guns and 0.5 inch caliber machine guns. The ship was stationed in Portland on 9 June to protect the Harbour but only succeeded in attracted the bulk of the 26 Ju 87s.[28]

Caught by surprise the ship could not take evasive action and gunners did not have the time to man their weapons properly. 104 bombs were dropped and a great many struck the vessel.[28] A direct hit destroyed Foylebank's tender. Within a few minutes 176 Royal Navy sailors had been killed.[29] One four inch gun fired, expending 55 rounds. In their attacks, pilots dived up to 90°. At around 1,500 feet the angle was decreased to 45° and the pilot's gunsight was lined up on the ship's Stern. The pilots fired their MG 17 machine guns and as the altitude decreased the fire wound move along the ship and when the rounds struck the water ahead of the Bow, they released the bombs. In this way the machine gun aided in bombing accuracy and subduing enemy gunners. When the Ju 87 pulled out of its give the rear-gunner would take over to maintain suppression fire.[30]

The tactic caused massive casualties amongst the crew. Leading Seaman Jack Foreman Mantle manned one of the guns. After unjamming the gun he opened fire at the Ju 87s but was mortally wounded by machine gun fire. After the battle the ship's Captain, H.P. Wilson praised his actions in a report to the Commander-in-Chief of Portsmouth naval base. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions.[30] The Stukas were not finished. They hit and sank the Silverdial while merchantmen East Wales (4,358 tons), William Wilberforce (5,004 tons), City of Melbourne (6,630 tons) were all damaged. The latter suffered a flooded engine room.[31] Not a single RAF fighter intercepted the raid. Only one British aircraft, a Fairey Battle of the No. 10 Bombing and Gunnery School based at RAF Warmwell was present. On a training flight, pilot A.W Kearsey fled the scene at full speed, apparently unnoticed by the German fighters.[30] The Germans suffered minimal loss. One Ju 87 had been shot down by fire from Foylebank and Leutnant Schwarze and his gunner were posted missing. Another landed with light damage. Both machines were from StG 51. One Bf 109 was damaged.[32]

The Luftwaffe also drew blood from British naval convoys on 4 July. Convoy OA 178 (Convoy Outbound Atlantic) left the Thames Estuary and passed Dover safely on 3 July. The convoy was made of 14 heavily-laden merchantmen carry cargoes to west coast. German radar had picked up the convoy and the Luftwaffe was ordered to intercept the ships after the Portland operation.

As smoke was still rising over Portland a single Junkers Ju 88 reconnaissance aircraft from 1.(F)/123 flew out over the Channel to check on the progress of Convoy OA 178. It reported the convoy south west of Portland and a strike was immediately ordered. I./Sturzkampfgeschwader 2 (Dive Bomber Wing 2) took off, led by Geschwaderkommodore (Wing Commander) Oskar Dinort, from Falaise with 24 Ju 87s with escort from a single staffel from I./JG 1. The attack was followed by 23 Ju 87s of the hastily re-fueled and re-armed III./StG 51. The ships were close to the French coast at the time of the attack. Four of the convoys ships were sunk. Dallas City was crippled and engulfed in flames and later sank. It collided with Flimson which was also hit and the two ships were locked together for 15 minutes. Antonio was also damaged. Antonio and Flimson limped into Portland Harbour where the Foylebank was still sinking. Another ship, the SS Canadian Constructor, was also damaged. No losses were sustained in the attacking force. Once again Fighter Command had failed to intercept the Germans.[33] Deucalion (1,796 tons), Kolga (3,526 tons) and Britsum (5,225 tons) were destroyed.[31]

The day had been a victory for the Luftwaffe and a complete failure for the RAF defences. The air attack on Portland inflicted the heaviest loss of life in history against British military personnel based in the British Isles.[34] [35]

7—9 July: The battle of Convoy HG37

10 July: Battle over BREAD

Göring's 30 June order had delegated responsibility of attacking shipping to Bruno Loerzer's Fliegerkorps II (Air Corps II) and Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen's Fliegerkorps VIII (Air Corps VIII) since they contained powerful concentrations of Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive-bombers. Loerzer nominated one of his senior airmen as the field commander responsible for carrying out the tactical strikes. Geschwaderkommodore Johannes Fink, who commanded Kampfgeschwader 2 (Bomber Wing 2), was given the title Kanalkampfführer (Channel Battle Leader) and the first airmen to lead his unit into battle against the convoys as part of the OKL's strategy.

Theo Osterkamp's Jagdgeschwader 51 (Fighter Wing 51) was based at Wissant not far from KG 2. Until now he had been carrying out fighter sweeps over Kent. He disliked the idea of fighter escort for bombers since the fighters were tied to them and prevented from chasing the enemy or exercising freedom of action. Fink compromised. The Messerschmitt Bf 110 heavy fighter could be used for close escort but JG 51's Messerschmitt Bf 109s were free to roam and engage enemy fighters on their own terms.

11—12 July: BOOTY and AGENT

13—18 July: Sporadic fighting

19 July: Disaster for the Defiants

20 July: Battle over BOSOM

21—28 July: Skirmishes

29 July: Air battle over Dover

30 July—7 August: Weather and relative quiet

8 August: Battle over PEEWIT

11 August: BOOTY, AGENT, again, and ARENA


Effects on British trade

Battle of Britain


  1. Smith 2007, pp. 98-99.
  2. Mason 1969, pp. 141, 142, 144, 146, 150, 155, 158, 162, 165, 167, 171, 174, 177, 180, 183, 185, 187, 188, 191, 193, 194, 195, 197, 200, 201, 207, 208, 209, 217, 218, 227, 228.
  3. Hooton 1997, p. 43.
  4. Mason 1969, pp. 141, 142, 144, 146, 147, 150, 155, 158, 159, 162, 163, 165, 167, 168, 170, 173, 171, 174, 177, 180, 181, 183, 185, 187, 188, 191, 193, 194, 195, 196, 197, 198, 200, 201, 202, 207-213, 218, 219, 220, 227, 228-230.
  5. Trevor-Roper 2004, pp. 74–79.
  6. Hooton 2010, p. 74.
  7. Hooton 1997, pp. 13-14.
  8. Hooton 2010, pp. 74-75.
  9. James and Cox 2000, p. 17.
  10. James and Cox 2000, pp. 17–19.
  11. Isby 2005, pp. 109-110.
  12. Hooton 1997, p. 42.
  13. Neitzel 2003, pp. 448-463.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Hooton 1997, p. 17.
  15. Shores 1985, p. 34.
  16. Bungay 2000, p. 337.
  17. Bungay 2000, pp. 122-124.
  18. Isby 2005, p. 126.
  19. James and Cox 2000, pp. 20–21.
  20. Smith 2007, p. 45.
  21. Smith 2007, pp. 55-60.
  22. Smith 2007, P. 67.
  23. Smith 2007, p. 68.
  24. Smith 2007, p. 93.
  25. Ray 2009, pp. 51-52.
  26. Ray 2009, pp. 66-67.
  27. Ray 2009, p. 67.
  28. 28.0 28.1 28.2 Saunders 2013, p. 18.
  29. Saunders 2013, p. 19.
  30. 30.0 30.1 30.2 Saunders 2013, p. 20.
  31. 31.0 31.1 Smith 2007, p. 94.
  32. Mason 1969, p. 141.
  33. Saunders 2013, pp. 21-22.
  34. Weal 1997, pp. 66–67.
  35. Ward 2004, p. 105.
  1. 45 Spitfires destroyed
    20 Spitfires severely damaged
    4 Spitfires lightly damaged
    64 Hurricanes destroyed
    12 Hurricanes severely damaged
    6 Hurricanes lightly damaged
    6 Defiants destroyed
    10 crewmen killed
    2 wounded[2]
  2. 53 Bf 109s destroyed
    21 Bf 109s damaged
    27 Bf 110s destroyed
    15 Bf 110s damaged
    22 Ju 87s destroyed
    22 Ju 87s damaged
    24 Ju 88s destroyed
    10 Ju 88s damaged
    28 Do 17s destroyed
    17 Do 17s damaged
    33 He 111s destroyed
    6 He 111s damaged
    10 He 59s destroyed
    1 He 59 damaged
    3 He 115s destroyed[4]

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