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Adlertag, or Eagle Day - The turning point of the Battle of Britain

13 August 2015

Reichsmarschall Goring, head of the Luftwaffe, had every reason to be confident that he could achieve his aim of knocking out the Royal Air Force in one major operation before a ground invasion could take place on this day 75 years ago. With the RAF on the ropes and its pilots strained, Goring planned a massive assault on its airfields to knock the RAF out entirely. This offensive was codenamed Operation Adlerangriff, or 'Eagle Attack' and the start date 'Eagle Day'.

It was, however, a resounding failure.

Operation Eagle Attack

'Eagle Attack' represented the first major and concentrated attack on RAF airfields of the campaign. The plan was to put these airfields out of action and prevent the RAF from defending the skies above the channel in the same force they had achieved thus far. Once this had been achieved, the Luftwaffe would prevent the Royal Navy from being able to contest landings of the Heer, the German army, who would force a surrender.

The Heinkel 111, a medium workhorse bomber used extensively during the Battle of Britain by the Luftwaffe

The operation started badly and never really recovered for the Germans. Confusion reigned over whether the operation was actually happening at all: Goring only gave final confirmation that the operation was on at 2pm, well after the first bombers had taken off having failed to receive the order to abandon operations due to bad weather. Once the operation was finally confirmed 'on', the Luftwaffe found itself harassed at every point over southern England, with RAF fighters using the 'Dowding System' to successfully intercept the raiders. The number of downed aircraft reported by the press varies dependent on newspaper, but the official figures put it at around 50.

The Dowding System

The 'Dowding System' of fighter control was incredibly important to the RAF and the defence of its airfields, and had been perfected by the time Eagle Attack was launched. Radar stations, assisted by observers, would acquire the raiders and feed information back to a fighter control station. Fighter controllers would then plot the raid on a board, and then scramble fighters to meet it. This pamphlet from 1941 shows the system, albeit without Radar (which was still secret at the time).

The 'Dowding System' from a 1941 pamphlet

The raids had very little effect on the day to day running of the target airfields or on aircraft production, with all targets that were hit operational again within 24 hours. Most of the targets hit were not even RAF Fighter Command airfields, but those used by Bomber Command and Coastal Command. Eagle Day also saw some of the first night-raids by German aircraft on cities, with a number targeted for their aircraft production facilities. Again, very few of these targets were knocked out or destroyed.

Dundee Evening Telegraph - Tuesday 13 August 1940

Gloucestershire Echo - Tuesday 13 August 1940

Despite the failure of Eagle Day, 'Eagle Attack' would continue into early September, at which time the Luftwaffe would switch its main effort to 'morale bombing', specifically targeting London at the personal request of Hitler. This new period would be called 'The Blitz'. Failure did however cause the Germans to reassess their plans to invade, and caused a revision of the date of Operation Sea Lion. It was finally suspended on September 20th 1940, a full month after the start of 'Eagle Attack.'

For more information on Eagle Day and the Blitz, explore our collections of historic newspapers!