A last resort
The Royal Air Force springs into action the day Great Britain declares war on Germany (September 3, 1939), but it drops no bombs – only leaflets encouraging the German people to overthrow Hitler. The British doubt they can beat Hitler by themselves. They still carry billions in debt from World War I. The economy is weak, the military overextended, and the public's morale on the wane. In May 1940 the Nazis sweep the British army off the European mainland, and the nation braces for an invasion.
Bloodied but unbowed
Ten months of Nazi air raids are nearly too much for even the stoic British to bear. Thousands of civilians die in the Battle of Britain (July - September 1940) and The Blitz, a night-bombing operation lasting through May 1941. Working-class Londoners suffer most; tens of thousands are left homeless, living in filthy conditions amid the rubble. Anger mounts and sporadic riots erupt, but most Britons stand fast, organizing volunteer fire squadrons and air-raid drill teams. The RAF downs more planes than Hitler can tolerate, and in May 1941 he scales back the offensive. Britain survives, more unified than ever.
As a former pilot, Prime Minister Winston Churchill believes strategic bombing alone can defeat the Nazis. He's less certain after three-fourths of the RAF's bombs miss their targets during early missions. Flying at night over unfamiliar terrain and navigating by sight, British crews can't always find the landmark they're assigned to hit. In 1942, the RAF implements a radio-pulse navigational system to keep planes on course and a radar-based imaging device that lets bombardiers "see" the ground below. Precision improves somewhat, and bombing volume increases dramatically when the United States enters the war. The British bomb by night, the U.S. by day.
By the numbers
As the Battle of Britain opens, Royal Air Force commander Hugh Dowding observes: "Our young men will have to shoot down their young men at the rate of five to one." In truth, Dowding's forces are outnumbered only about two to one, but his point still applies. Fortunately, the British have superior radar, which tracks Nazi warplanes from the moment they take off, and they crack the Germans' communications code. To speed up production, the British manufacture just five types of aircraft, maximizing economies of scale.
From on high
When a Nazi bomb hits Buckingham Palace in 1940, Churchill exults: "Spread the news! Let the people know the King and Queen are sharing their perils!" The palace takes eight more direct hits, yet King George VI and his family stay in place, risking their lives. They eat the same wartime rations as ordinary citizens, and 16-year-old Princess Elizabeth (the future Queen) enlists in the Auxiliary Territorial Service, fixing military vehicles. After the Germans surrender on May 7, 1945, Princess Elizabeth slips out of the palace and joins the street celebrations. The triumph feels equally sweet for all Britons, regardless of birthright or privilege or class.