The Germans call it Luftschlacht um England, but to the rest of the world it is better known as the Battle of Britain, unique in the history of warfare to that point in time in that it was fought entirely in the air. The campaign which followed the fall of France in June 1940 was simply for control of the skies over England. If it won, the German war machine would be able to press home its advantage with an attempted invasion.
Between July and October, 1940, Britain suffered bombing on a scale never experienced by any country before, as Coventry, Clydebank, Southampton, Sheffield, Bristol, Birmingham, Liverpool and London were subjected to an aerial bombardment in which 23,081 were killed.
But Hitler’s Luftwaffe failed to defeat the Royal Air Force, which defended itself well and shot down increasing numbers of enemy planes.
It was hardly a decisive victory. In fact, when the statistics of aircraft downed on both sides were revealed many years later it was apparent how close Britain had come to defeat. Nevertheless, it was a watershed in the war. Although the bombing continued, Hitler was forced to abandon the invasion plans and turn his attention to Russia in 1941.
In a speech made in the House of Commons on August 20, 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill anticipated the gratitude of the British people when he said: ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.’ The following day, the Royal Air Force destroyed two-hundred enemy aircraft, and within a few weeks Britain’s air supremacy was assured. Later, the second Sunday in September became Battle of Britain Day.
On the 25th anniversary of that day, September 13, 1965, a set of eight stamps was released, including a real novelty. Six of them were 4-pence designs, printed se-tenant where the stamps of the set differed in design but were printed in the same sheet. This was a first for British commemorative stamps.
The stamps featured Supermarine Spitfire fighters, a close-up of the cockpit of a Hawker Hurricane, the wings of a Spitfire and a Messerschmitt fighter showing the RAF roundel and the German cross, Spitfires attacking a Heinkel bomber, Hurricanes attacking a Stuka dive-bomber, and a formation of Hurricanes flying over a ditched Dornier bomber.
Designed by husband-and-wife team Rosalind Dease and David Gentleman, the stamps were predominantly olive-green and black on a white background. The same couple also designed the 1-shilling 3-pence stamp, showing St Paul’s Cathedral rising above the ashes of the City of London during an air raid on December 29, 1940.
The British Post Office followed its practice of farming out different parts of a set to various designers, resulting in the 9-pence stamp being developed by Andrew Restall. The stamp featured a anti-aircraft gun battery in action.