I have nothing to offer you, but blood, toil, tears and sweat.
Churchill; 13 May 1940

The Battle of France is over, I expect the Battle of Britain is about to begin.
Churchill; 18 June 1940

Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.
Churchill; 20 August 1940

Britain Prepares for War

Sunday September 3rd 1939 was the date, eleven am in the morning was the time.
"Although France had agreed in principle with Great Britain that an Anglo-French Agreement had been drawn up between the two countries [ Document 1 ] both of these countries would declare war on Germany if no answer had been received by the designated hour regarding the withdrawal of German troops from Poland. The announcement to the French people was made later in the day by the French President Edouard Daladier. [ Document 2 ]

In Britain it was a mild day where most people went about their usual Sunday morning business, some went to church, others mowed lawns, some got themselves ready for their midday drink down at the 'local'. But the talk and gossip everywhere was about the possibility of war. Over the fence, in the bar, on the bus, at the corner shop as well as in the sermons and prayers in the churches of all denominations. Adolf Hitler had refused to reply to the request by Neville Chamberlain, by withdrawing his military forces from Poland. Great Britain, on Sunday 3rd September 1939 at 11.00am was at war with Nazi Germany.

Over the last couple of years, the British media had been reporting on the situation in Europe, but now the news was a little closer to home. Germany had struck the first blow. The British liner Athenia en route from Britain to America and carrying 1,400 passengers was sunk in the Atlantic Ocean at 2100 hours (9.00pm) the same day as the declaration of war. Britain accused Germany and added further that it was a cowardly act to target harmless civilians. Germany denied this, stating that no warships were in the vicinity at the time, but records now show that it was German submarine U-30 that torpedoed the liner 200 miles west of the Hebrides. [1]

With the British people now knowing that their country was at war, and already hearing of the first blow being struck by Germany, was, as always trying to keep 'that stiff upper lip'. This was the British way of life, where everybody, whether it be royalty, politicians, celebrities or just people, share the discomforts of the situation and provide encouragement and support to everybody. King George VI went on national radio and in what sounded as a rather nervous tone, made his reply to the Prime Ministers speech.

News came through that on Monday September 4th 1939, Blenheims and Wellington bombers had attacked Wilhelmshaven Harbour where the German warships Admiral Scheer, Admiral Hipper and the Emden were docked. No damage was done to the ships, many of the bombs failing to explode, but the first British casualties of the was had been sustained. 17 officers and NCO's of Bomber Command had been killed on these raids. At many of the British airfields of Bomber Command, the sound of bombers taking off from Bomber Command airfields started to become a regular occurrence. Most of the sorties were leaflet drops, but to the average Englishman wandering the countryside and seeing squadrons of bombers roaring into the sky, suddenly realized that his country was at war in earnest. [2]

But the period up until early April 1940 was to be dubbed by the Americans as 'The Phoney War', or what we might term today as 'The Clayton's War'.....the war you have when your not having a war. Everybody had visions of German bombers coming over the Channel and demolishing British cities and towns, of German tanks, infantry and paratroopers dropping out of the sky. The action at this time was still in Europe. Hitler and his armies were still busy taking Poland and marching on Warsaw, which they could do uninterrupted because, although Britain and France stated that they would stand by Poland in the event of any invasion by Germany, they done nothing. Nothing was done to assist the Polish in any way, a disgrace? maybe, but we should remember, that although Britain had declared war on Germany, it was really not prepared for war at that time. The RAF was not strong enough both in manpower or in aircraft, the Army was not a trained fighting force and lacked numbers to launch any form of attack. The only strong force, was the Royal Navy as it had always been, but, you cannot fight a war on land with a Navy. This 'Phoney War' gave Britain the time needed to strengthen its military forces, and prepare the situation on the Home Front.....at the expense of Poland.

Although many plans and precautions had been laid out prior to the outbreak of war, none had been brought in to affect the British peoples prior to the declaration of the war. Immediately after 3rd September 1939, most of these basic plans would now be brought into service and tested. The people were now to feel the effects of all these precautionary measures, yet still were not to experience any form of war over England for some months. The rationing of food, clothing and petrol [ Document-3 ] became a reality, prices began to change, [ Document-3a ] and then there was protection from bombing raids were by way of air raid shelters [ Document-4 ], the Anderson shelter was supplied by local councils while solid brick and concrete shelters were built in roadways. The government arranged the mass evacuation of children [ Document-5 ], women and the elderly.

At this time, different people had many and varied views as to how the war would come, but for the first few months at least, just about everybody was allowed to go about their business as they had done in the many months beforehand. In fact, if it were not for the number of precautionary measures that Britain was now implementing, one would not think that there was a war on at all.

As far as action was concerned, Hitler was still continuing with his Blitzkrieg (Lightning Strike) of Poland and moving closer to Warsaw, then he took the Polish corridor between Germany and East Prussia and claimed the important seaport of Danzig. Still Britain and France who by agreement did nothing to assist Poland. Germany continued the Blitzkrieg into Denmark and the way was clear for his further push north for the steel mines, industrial centres and seaports of Scandinavia. It was only when the Nazi Regimental Forces started their move through Norway on April 8th 1940 did Great Britain become involved and we shall see later how the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force suffered the first defeat of the war at the hands of the Germans.

Seven months had passed by the time of the Norwegian invasion and still Germany had shown no sign of aggression towards Great Britain. In fact the first bombs to fall on Britain was on May 9th 1940 in a wood near Canterbury (Kent) [1] During the Blitzkrieg on Poland, the Luftwaffe suffered many losses and over the next few months would have time to replenish its stocks of aircraft, bombs and spare parts. As far as administration was concerned, it remained very much the same prior to the outbreak of war as it did now, but it was a different story with the Royal Air Force. It had been way back in 1936 that the Air Defence System that had been originated just after the First World War had been reorganised. The Royal Air Force was divided into four commands, each one having a different function. These were Fighter Command, Bomber Command, Coastal Command and Training Command. Each command was given a high ranking officer that would take control of his respective Command. In July of 1936, Air Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding was appointed the Commander-in-Chief of Fighter Command. Dowding had to organise Fighter Command into a powerful yet functional means of defence of Britain. Radar was high on his list of priorities, Dowding had great faith in this, he had to organise Fighter Command in a way that it could work as a highly successful defence force, so he divided Fighter Command into four groups with a group commander in charge of each group.

The number of squadrons available to the RAF had been a much debated point since 1934 when news came through of Hitler's rise to power, Japan had departed from the League of Nations as did Germany who also walked out of the Disarmament Conference. Britain became aware of the fact that Germany was producing large numbers of civil aircraft and that a secret air force was being formed. [2]

During the 1930's, the aircraft used by the Royal Air Force were slow, cumbersome and were really only ideally suited to the conditions of WWI. Aircraft such as the Bristol Bulldog (1930), Hawker Hart (1930), Hawker Demon (1932), Gloster Gauntlet (1934), Hawker Fury (1936) and the Gloster Gladiator (1936) and now their was a need for improved aircraft to match those in operation by the Luftwaffe.

"Germany is already well on her way to become, and must become, incomparably the most heavily armed nation in the world and the nation most completely ready for war........ We cannot have any anxieties comparable to the anxiety caused by German rearmament."

Winston Churchill to the House of Commons 21st October 1933

Earlier, Adolf Hitler had made the statement:

It is intolerable for us as a nation of 65 millions that we should be repeatedly be dishonoured and humiliated. We will put up with no more of this.

Adolf Hitler 18th October 1933

But by 1938, the threats had started to flow:

There is no danger of a preventative war against Germany, I will decide to take action against Czechoslovakia only if I am convinced that France will not march and therefore England will not intervene.

Adolf Hitler 18th June 1938

Spending on the RAF in 1938 when it was apparent that an involvement could be possible in Europe was 73.5 million, which was a great deal more than the 17.5 million that was spent in 1934.[3] Although most was to be spent on aircraft production, (considerable amounts were spent on land acquisition, radar, defence installations and administration buildings) new aircraft were designed that would be faster, more agile and better armed. Some were to prove successful in the years to come, while others, especially in combat duties were to prove inadequate.

The Boulton-Paul Defiant first prototype was flown on August 11th 1937, Bristol Blenheim, the first prototype being flown in early 1938 and delivered to RAF squadrons later that same year, Bristol Beaufighter, the first prototype flying on July 17th 1939 and being cleared for RAF service on July 26th 1940, De Havilland Mosquito, the first prototype flying on March 1st 1940 and entered service with the RAF in March 1942, Hawker Hurricane first prototype being flown on November 6th 1935 the initial delivery of the first Hurricanes were delivered on October 6th 1937 to 111 Squadron, and the Supermarine Spitfire which first flew on March 5th 1936 and the first series of these aircraft began flying on May 14th 1938 although they did not enter service until July 1938, the first Spitfires going to 19 Squadron at Duxford. [4][5]

So, from the outbreak of war on September 3rd 1939 until April 1940, things were generally quiet for the British population. For an eight month period they had seen no German invasion, no bombs being dropped, no fighting in the streets and no waves of enemy bombers crossing the skies over England. Most were to go about life as they had always done, with the exception that is was now evident that the lifestyle could, and may have to change as there was considerable uncertainty about the future.

So ended the period that became known as "The Phoney War". Many took advantage of the evacuation scheme, but with all the combat action taking place in northern Europe, it was to leave Britain as it had very much been prior to the outbreak of the war, and most people were going about their business as usual. The cities and towns appeared to be rather safe and for this reason thousands returned back to their homes in the belief that the war would not be fought on British soil.

But times were changing. The lifestyle was not the same as it was. Food and clothing was now hard to get or in short supply, rationing was brought in and newspapers and periodicals informed everybody how to make do "in these unpredictable times'.

Many decisions had been made in parliament and within the walls of the War office. The results of these were to be seen all over London and the provincial towns and cities. Barrage balloons went up in many parks and open spaces as did anti-aircraft batteries. Even the royal parks in London did not escape the situation. Hyde Park, Green Park, Windsor Great Park all now showed signs of being taken over by anti-aircraft guns and barrage balloons.

Elsewhere, Fighter Command was attempting to gain strength, although very slowly. Air Vice Marshal Hugh Dowding believed that radar would be the "eyes" of Fighter Command and every effort must be made to get it working quickly and efficiently. Aircraft and personnel were still in short supply, and even though Fighter Command believed that they had superb fighting aircraft in the Hurricane and Spitfire, their experienced pilots had no true combat experience, while most of the pilots were 'green' with only minimal experience on aircraft flying let alone no combat experience.

By the end of May 1940, the "Phoney War" was over. German forces were making successful advances throughout Belgium and Eastern France. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and the French soldiers were no match for the experienced German infantry and the swiftly moving Panzer Tank divisions. The Allies were being pushed back into a small pocket at Dunkirk. Tired and exhausted, everything was being done to evacuate them back across the English Channel. They had been defeated again, but the brilliant way that Great Britain organised "Operation Dynamo" in getting over 50,000 tired troops back across the Channel was claimed as they sweetest victory of all and overshadowed the allied defeat at the hands of the Germans.

For the first time, the people of Britain saw the results of the heavy fighting that had taken place over the previous few months. They saw thousands of battle weary soldiers, many of them covered in bandages or on crutches come ashore at Dover or on the hundreds of special trains as they passed over level crossings between Dover and London. The BBC radio gave this account of the returning soldiers of the BEF:

We shall see how Fighter Command was administered over the next few pages, as it is important to see how AVM Hugh Dowding moulded Fighter Command into an organisation that he hoped would be solid, and strong enough to defend the British Isles against a very experienced Luftwaffe should Nazi Germany decide to attempt to attack.

[1] John Frayn Turner The Battle of Britain 1998 p18 Airlife Publishing
[2] Len Deighton Battle of Britain 1980 Jonathan Cape
[3] Len Deighton Battle of Britain 1980 Jonathan Cape
[4] William Green & Gordon Swanborough Fighters 1997 Salamander
[5] Peter Alles-Fernandez Great Aircraft 1988 Marshall Cavendish

Have you checked out all the documents linked from this page
Document 1.   Joint Anglo-French Agreement
Document 2.   Appeal by French President to the people
Document 3.   The Rationing of Food, Clothing and Petrol
Document 3a. Wages, Coupons and Prices
Document 4.   The Supply of Air Raid Shelters
Document 5.   The Evacuation of Women, Children and the Elderly

The Battle of Britain - 1940 website Battle of Britain Historical Society 2007