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DUNKIRK

AND

THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN 

 

Catastrophe during May 1940. Across the Channel in France over 350,000 British and French troops are rescued off the sands at Dunkirk from the tanks of the encircling German army. Though the British have lost 68,000 killed and leave behind all their tanks, guns, trucks, vast reserves of ammunition and spare parts and stores - more than 600 tanks, nearly 2500 guns including all their heavy artillery, some 84,500 vehicles including over 20,000 motorbikes, some 77,000 tons of ammunition, over 416,000 tons of stores and 165,000 tons of petrol. As Winston Churchill told the House of Commons - wars are not won by evacuations.

A British/French expeditionary force escapes from Norway though again only through abandoning all its equipment and losing an aircraft carrier, HMS Glorious, sunk by German battlecruisers. Particularly sad is the loss of most of the pilots who with great skill had flown their Hurricane fighters onto the Glorious to bring their aircraft home.

Meanwhile the victorious Germans swing west towards Paris driving before their tanks the remnants of the French Army and the remaining British formations on the Continent. The French surrender in late June. After headlong retreat for the western ports the last British troops escape though, once more, must abandon much their equipment though save a surprising amount including guns, vehicles and even a few tanks apart from their personal weapons. None-the-less, of the 700 tanks sent to France over previous months only 25 are brought back across the Channel. Britain's army has suffered its greatest defeat.

The Royal Air Force has lost almost 1000 aircraft during only a few weeks fighting. Terrible losses were suffered trying to destroy the bridges over the canal at Maastricht to stop the German advance west. Between the 10 May and the end of the Dunkirk evacuation the RAF has lost no less than 432 Hurricanes and Spitfires. Some 40 destroyers have been sunk or severely damaged as a result of the Royal Navy's epic rescue of the Army from the Dunkirk beaches and French ports.

Winston Churchill, who had been Prime Minister only a few weeks, warned the nation, ' The Battle of France is over, the Battle of Britain is about to begin.'

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Identical threads run through the choices facing Winston Churchill's government throughout summer 1940 - confronted by the threats of massive air bombardment before invasion from across the Channel - and the decisions facing Hitler four years later during the months before D Day.

The Royal Navy patrols the Channel with destroyers but withdraws its warships from Dover which now lies within range of huge guns on the French coast. The more powerful ships of the Home Fleet are held further north, ready to dash south and sink the invasion fleet, though meanwhile kept beyond the range of the Luftwaffe's newly acquired airfields in northern France. The fighter and bomber pilots of the Royal Air Force become the front line.

Hitler gives the job of destroying the British defences to the Luftwaffe whose pilots though confident of victory, know their task will not prove a walkover. The Luftwaffe has lost 1300 aircraft over the Low Countries and France, many of them to RAF fighters; over Dunkirk more than 130 aircraft have been lost in a few days as the Luftwaffe and the RAF fought each other to a stalemate. For the Luftwaffe these are heavy losses of combat experienced aircrew.

At the height of the Battle of Britain during the next months as countless dogfights between Spitfires, Hurricanes and Messerschmitts trailed vapour across the summer sky and the Luftwaffe's bombers droned overhead, Winston Churchill's War Cabinet grappled with awesome questions.

 

 

Could the RAF fighter pilots, heavily outnumbered and facing an enemy attacking from only forty miles across the Channel, beat off Goering's so far, invincible Luftwaffe? If not, should the Royal Navy risk its capital ships attacking the invasion fleet in the narrow seas or send them across the Atlantic to Canada?

 

 

When would the invasion come? Where would the enemy land? Would that prove the main point of attack? Should they attempt to defeat the invasion on the beaches? Or should the already thin defences risk the enemy gaining a foothold by holding back mobile reserves? And where would such mobile reserves come from? Britain's army had lost most of its armour, artillery, transport and ammunition in France.

Emergency supplies from the United States were still crossing the Atlantic. Would these desperately needed convoys arrive in time? 

Leaving aside their political leadership, the young pilots of the Luftwaffe were professional, experienced and highly courageous. Their combat tactics were ahead of the RAF doctrine, who still flew according to pre-war ideas of modern air combat, based on the false assumption that bombers would attack without fighter escorts. Indeed, during the great air battle disagreement festered between the two leading Group commanders over whether the Spitfires and Hurricanes should scramble in squadron or wing strength against the huge Luftwaffe formations and the argument was never resolved until the battle was finally won by late October.

The powerful air fleets of the Luftwaffe about to attack Britain outnumbered the RAF in fighters alone. All the odds were in their favour. How long could the RAF pilots survive? Some, including the American Ambassador, Joe Kennedy, father of JFK, believed that the British faced defeat and argued that no more American supplies should be sent across the Atlantic because they would soon fall into the hands of Adolf Hitler. Fortunately for the British, President Franklin D Roosevelt who sent his own advisers over to Britain throughout the summer, thought otherwise and the lifeline stayed open. While none of these supplies could help the RAF in its coming air battle, they were vital towards allowing the British Army restore its stocks of weapons and ammunition during a summer when Britain faced the real possibility of invasion from across the Channel.

Our tour helps answer many other intriguing questions.

Captain Bill Pritchard and the Harrison Family - about to board the former Royal Flight aircraft, Mayfair Dove, at the famous Spitfire fighter base of the Royal Air Force at Biggin Hill a dozen miles south of London.

SCRAMBLE!

Straight after take off we fly past the neighbouring and equally famed Battle of Britain airfield at Kenley then on towards Central London and the River Thames. After comprehending the challenge faced by the RAF fighter pilots during summer 1940 we fly over Kent. Below are such places as the birth place of General Wolfe and Sir Winston Churchill's home near by at Chartwell in Kent as well as many other places such as Hever Castle, Leeds Castle, Canterbury Cathedral and Dover Castle.

Biggin Hill Airfield from where some of the RAF's most famous fighter pilots took off against Georing's Luftwaffe

Looking westwards along the River Thames towards Docklands and the City of London. On the afternoon of Saturday 7 September 1940 the Luftwaffe command launched 348 bombers escorted by 617 fighters in the greatest aerial armada yet seen. Nearly 1000 aircraft in a single huge formation stepped up from 14,000 to 23,000 feet crossed the Channel and advanced over Kent on a 20 mile front. At the headquarters of RAF Fighter Command and 11 Fighter Group defending southern England they prepared to fight off a massive attack on the already battered fighter airfields.

As the bombers and fighters droned inland the formation split into smaller groups flying at different altitudes, changing course, weaving and criss-crossing, making it hard for the defence to track and predict the intended targets. One huge group turned north, threatening the sector station at North Weald in Kent while another group veered west towards Biggin Hill and Kenley.

When the northern group reached the Thames Estuary suddenly it swung west and headed straight up the river. Meanwhile the western group ignored the sector stations, passed over Central London and swung eastwards. By this time a third group bringing up the rear advanced straight towards the East End of London.

Air Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding and his staff at RAF Fighter Command and Air Vice Marshal Keith Park at 11 Group realised immediately that the target was not the precious though damaged fighter airfields - but London's docks. Within a very short time all 21 fighter squadrons based within 70 miles of the capital were in the air or at readiness to take off. Small groups of RAF fighters, sometimes pairs of squadrons, climbed and attacked the massive phalanx, trying to shoot down bombers before the German fighters swarmed down in packs and the dogfight ruled every man for himself.

For an hour the air battle raged over the docks and poorer districts of East London as the bombs rained down and started a second great fire of London. The huge aerial duel spread westwards over Westminster and Kensington leaving hundreds of civilians killed and wounded along its grim wake.

By 1745 the Luftwaffe already turned south and headed home, scattered and disordered, but with their mighty formation still largely intact. German bomber and fighter pilots craned their necks searching the sky for new hunting bands of Hurricanes and Spitfires. Though by that time the RAF's fighter squadrons were streaming back to their airfields to refuel and rearm.  

 

That night the Luftwaffe's bombers came back. Navigation was not a problem, London's fires lit up the night sky. For many on the ground it seemed that Hitler's attempt at invasion was imminent. 

Martlesham Heath, today partly housing, mostly crops, in 1940 a forward airfield defending the north side of the Thames and the aerial path to London.

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OPERATION SEALION

After turning south and crossing the Thames we fly over Kent towards the south coast where we pass over defences built against the threat from Napoleon's army camped at Boulogne only forty miles across the Channel. After the fall of France Hitler's generals faced the problem of defeating Britain and their invasion plan was code-named Operation Sealion. We show you where Hitler's troops intended landing and how the same defences built to thwart Napoleon stood ready once more.

Trees mark the Royal Military Canal built against Napoleon. Even in 1940 the canal threatened a serious obstacle for Hitler's panzers.

During summer 1940 Lympne Airfield at right provided a front-line emergency landing field for fighters in trouble through damage or empty fuel tanks - also a key objective, focal point for the German parachute assault. Chosen as the airhead for invading German paratroops and air-landing troops, the main seaborne attack was destined for the long curving shore in the photograph.

Across the Channel we fly alongside the sands of Dunkirk from where thousands of troops in the British Expeditionary Force and French Army were rescued off the beaches in May 1940 from the encircling German Army. We also show you the remains of Hitler's big gun batteries that once bombarded Dover and Folkestone from over twenty miles range. 

We take lunch in France - bien sure!

The Garden of England - today peaceful - 70 years ago the most dangerous stretch of sky on the globe.  Looking northwards over Kent towards the Thames Estuary - arena for hundreds of duels between fighters and bombers throughout the long summer days of 1940.

By inflicting the first defeat on the until then victorious Luftwaffe, Royal Air Force Fighter Command forced Hitler's generals to abandon Operation Sealion - and thereby a thousand young fighter pilots changed history.

The Seven Sisters white cliffs and Beachy Head witnessed many dog fights in summer 1940

We'll talk about and show you lots more on the tour including Portsmouth naval base, Chichester Cathedral and Arundel Castle, Goodwood Race Course on the South Downs, Brighton Pavilion and the white cliffs along the Sussex coast.

After a packed day we return and land at Biggin Hill.

Last of the Few and First of the New

Hawker Hurricane with a Eurofighter Typhoon

For those staying near the United States Embassy, on the south side of Grosvenor Square stands a memorial to the small group of young Americans who flew for the RAF during the Battle of Britain, some eighteen months before Pearl Harbour.

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SEE ALSO

CHURCHILL COLLEGE CAMBRIDGE   and   BRITISH DEFENCE STRATEGY

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Our visitors number veterans of D Day, families, military historians - professional and amateur - companies because you can learn a great deal about leadership and thinking ahead from studying D Day and the liberation of Europe.

 

 

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