The Battle of Britain, which raged between July and October 1940, pitted the Royal Air Force against the German Luftwaffe in a duel for air superiority over southern England. Pilots on both sides were at the controls of some of the most iconic aircraft in aviation history, including the Spitfire, Hurricane and Messerschmitt Bf 109.

Here are 9 iconic aircraft of the Battle of Britain: 

Spitfire Mk Ia, X4179 QV-B, of No. 19 Squadron running up at Fowlmere, as the pilot undertakes a cockpit check prior to take off, September 1940.
© IWM CH 1447
1. Supermarine Spitfire

The Spitfire was the iconic aircraft of the Battle of Britain and became the symbol of British defiance in the air. Designed by Reginald Mitchell, it had an advanced all-metal airframe, making it light and strong. It took longer to build than the Hurricane and was less sturdy, but it was faster and had a responsiveness which impressed all who flew it. Crucially, it was a match for the Luftwaffe’s Messerschmitt Bf 109 and was superior to it at lower altitudes. The Spitfire entered service with No. 19 Squadron at Duxford in August 1938. Production was slow at first, but by September 1940 it was in service with 18 RAF squadrons. Spitfires shot down a total of 529 enemy aircraft, for a loss of 230 of their own.

Hawker Hurricane Mk I, P3408 ‘VY-K’, of No. 85 Squadron in flight, October 1940.
© IWM CH 1501
2. Hawker Hurricane

The Hurricane was the most numerous of RAF Fighter Command’s aircraft during the Battle of Britain, equipping 33 squadrons by September 1940. Its traditional design - a wood and metal framework covered in fabric - was derived from earlier biplane fighters and was essentially out of date despite later improvements. However, it was a stable and rugged aircraft that could be maintained and repaired more easily than the Spitfire. Its limitations meant that, where possible, Hurricane squadrons were directed against enemy bombers while the superior Spitfires dealt with the fighter escorts. Despite its shortcomings, the Hurricane accounted for 656 German aircraft during the Battle of Britain - more than the Spitfire. Between 30 July and 16 September, 404 Hurricanes were destroyed.

Boulton Paul Defiants of No. 264 Squadron in flight, August 1940.
© IWM CH 885
3. Boulton Paul Defiant

The Defiant was a two-seat fighter with a four-gun power-operated turret. It had no forward firing armament, which meant it could not shoot down enemy aircraft from behind. It was intended primarily as a bomber interceptor, but the turret fighter concept was outmoded and the extra weight made the aircraft sluggish in combat. In early battles over Dunkirk, Defiants had proved very vulnerable to conventional enemy fighters. RAF Fighter Command rashly sent its two Defiant squadrons - Nos. 141 and 264 - into action in July and August, which resulted in two separate massacres at the hands of the Luftwaffe. As a consequence the aircraft played no further part as a day fighter in the Battle.

Airmen and soldiers inspect Messerschmitt Bf 109E-4 (W.Nr. 5587) flown by Ofw. Fritz Beeck of 6./JG 51, which force-landed at East Langdon in Kent while escorting an attack on Manston, 24 August 1940.
© IWM HU 73432
4. Messerschmitt Bf 109

The Bf 109 was arguably the best fighter in the world in 1940. It was faster than the Spitfire at high altitude, could dive more rapidly and carried a more effective armament of two cannon and two machine guns. Most Bf 109 pilots had more combat experience than their RAF counterparts, at least at first, which also conferred a major advantage. However, the Messerschmitt did not have the range to fly beyond London and carried only seven seconds worth of cannon ammunition, which limited its operational usefulness. The Luftwaffe started the Battle with about 1,100 Bf 109s and 906 pilots available. Some 650 aircraft were shot down.

Messerschmitt Bf 110C of 5./ZG 76 wearing the 'Haifischmaul' (shark's mouth) marking of II Gruppe.
© IWM HU 108211
5. Messerschmitt Bf 110

The two-seat Bf 110 was designed as a long-range heavy escort fighter or Zerstörer (destroyer). It was fast and well-armed, but lacked manoeuvrability. It was markedly inferior to the more nimble RAF fighters and became a liability when attempting to guard the bomber formations. The Germans were forced to use Bf 109s to escort the Bf 110s. However, the aircraft was more effective when used for low-level attacks against factories and RAF airfields. The Germans failed to see the potential of the Bf 110 in this fighter-bomber role and only one Luftwaffe unit was trained for such work.

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A formation of Heinkel He 111 bombers, 1940.
© IWM GER 530
6. Heinkel He 111

The He 111 was the most important of the Luftwaffe's early bombers, but was obsolescent in 1940. Its bomb load of 2,000 kg was insufficient for a strategic bombing campaign and it was slow and poorly armed. Measures to increase its defensive armament proved ineffective and the Heinkel, like other German bomber types, was acutely vulnerable to RAF fighter opposition. In its favour was a structural strength that could soak up punishment – many aircraft managed to return to base with hundreds of bullet holes in their fuselage and flying surfaces.

Two German Dornier 17 bombers over West Ham in London during a raid on the first day of the Blitz, 7 September 1940.
© IWM C 5423
7. Dornier Do 17

The Dornier Do 17 - nicknamed the ‘Flying Pencil’ - was based on a pre-war design for a high speed mail plane, which was converted into a bomber by the Nazi air ministry. The Do 17Z became the main production version, equipping three Luftwaffe bomber wings at the height of the Battle of Britain. The aircraft was already virtually obsolete. It was nimble at low altitude but could only carry 1,000 kg of bombs and had a limited range. Like the Heinkel He 111, its defensive armament was weak and losses were severe. In a famous action on 18 August eight Dorniers were shot down and nine damaged in attacks on RAF Kenley, to the south of London. Dornier Do 17 production was terminated in the summer of 1940.

Blitzkrieg: The Junkers Ju 88A-1. The original bomber version of the highly adaptable Junkers 88 aircraft.
© IWM MH 6115
8. Junkers Ju 88

The Junkers Ju 88 was the most modern of Germany’s bombers in 1940. It was designed as a fast medium bomber and first flew in December 1936. However, the promising new design was compromised by Ernst Udet, deputy to the Luftwaffe’s Commander-in-Chief Hermann Göring. Udet demanded that the Ju 88 be capable of dive-bombing. The necessary structural changes increased the aircraft’s weight, which reduced its performance and also delayed production. It proved just as vulnerable to RAF fighters as other Luftwaffe bombers during the Battle of Britain, but later matured into one of the most versatile and important of the Luftwaffe’s aircraft.

Junkers Ju 87 'Stuka' in flight - viewed from the right and slightly above.
© IWM HU 24780
9. Junkers Ju 87

The infamous ‘Stuka’ achieved notoriety during the Blitzkrieg triumphs of 1939-1940. Its name derived from an abbreviation of the German term for dive bomber - Sturzkampffleugzeug. The Ju 87 was the chosen weapon of the Luftwaffe High Command, designed to deliver pin-point bombing attacks in a near vertical dive. It was effective during the campaigns in Poland and France, when German forces operated largely in an environment of air superiority. But in the skies over Britain the story was very different. After some initial successes by heavily escorted formations, the Stukas were slaughtered by RAF fighters. On their worst day, 18 August, 12 Ju 87s were shot down and many others damaged or written off in crashes on their return. Such losses meant the aircraft was gradually withdrawn from the battle.

Which is your favourite?

Spitfire or Stuka? BF 109 or Hurricane? Heinkel or Junkers?

In the summer of 1940 the skies above southern England became a battlefield.

The Battle of Britain is on Göring is pouring his air force across in waves to try and break our spirit.

For three long months the Luftwaffe and the RAF went toe to toe in a battle for air supremacy with Britain's survival the last hope for occupied Europe. Pilots sat at the controls of aircraft that would become legends of aviation history on both sides. So today we're gonna take a look at 8 iconic aircraft of the Battle of Britain, we're not gonna rank them, but you can in the comments below.

Let's start with something obvious the Spitfire. The brainchild of Reginald Mitchell, the Spitfire entered service in August 1938, but it became an icon. The first Spitfires were delivered to no. 19 squadron at what is now an IWM site at RAF Duxford. An all-metal airframe
made the Spitfire light and strong, it was fast too and responsive. Crucially though it was a good match for the Luftwaffe's Messerschmitt BF 109, which we'll come to a bit later on. By September 1940 Spitfires were in service with 18 RAF squadrons and over the course of the Battle of Britain they shot down a total of 529 enemy aircraft for the loss of just 230 of their own. But despite the Spitfire's reputation, that doesn't make it the most successful RAF fighter in the Battle of Britain.

That crown belongs to the Hurricane. Where the spitfire was pace and elegance the hurricane was rugged, tough and steady. Its design, a wood and metal framework with the back covered in fabric, was actually a relic of previous biplanes and was pretty out of date when the battle started. But its old-fashioned design made it far easier to maintain and repair than the Spitfire. Where possible Hurricanes were directed against German bombers, leaving the Spitfires to deal with the fighter escorts. By September 1940, 33 squadrons were equipped with Hurricanes making it the most numerous aircraft in RAF fighter command. The Hurricane accounted for 656 German aircraft during the Battle of Britain making it by far the RAF's most successful fighter.

Together, the Hurricane and the Spitfire were the twin bastions of RAF fighter command's defense in 1940. Jeffrey Page was one of the few pilots to fly both aircraft, so who better to sum up the difference between them?

Jeffrey Page: "I tend to give an example of the bulldog and the greyhound, the Hurricane being the bulldog and the greyhound being the Spitfire. One is a tough, working animal and the other one's a sleek fast dog, but I think their characteristics were comparable to the dog world."

At the opposite end of the spectrum was the Bolton Paul Defiant, a two-seat fighter with a four-gun power-operated turret. Sluggish, outmoded and with no forward-firing armament, the Defiant proved highly vulnerable to enemy fighters during battles over Dunkirk in France. In July and August 1940, fighter command rashly sent two Defiant squadrons into action. The result was catastrophic, an aerial massacre and guaranteed that the Defiant would play no further role as a day fighter in the Battle of Britain. But
what about the opposing side?

In 1940, the Messerschmitt BF 109 was arguably the best fighter in the world. Designed as an ambush predator to attack from height, the BF 109 had even the spitfire for diving and altitude. But its range was limited, it couldn't get much further than London and it had only about seven seconds worth of cannon ammunition. At the start of the Battle of Britain the Luftwaffe had 1,100 109s, by the end, some 650 had been lost.

The Messerschmitt BF 110 was a two-seater, long-range heavy escort fighter or Zerstörer- destroyer. They were fast and well-armed, but they lacked manoeuvrability, a key weakness against those nimble fighters of RAF fighter command. The Bf-110 turned out to be more effective flying low-level attacks against factories and airfields, but the Germans failed to see this potential and only ever trained one Luftwaffe unit in this dual fighter bomber role.

Speaking of bombers, the skies weren't the only hunting grounds for the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain. they also needed to destroy fighter command's operations on the ground and for that they needed to send bombers. But the Luftwaffe's bomber force in 1940 was a bit of a mixed bag.

First up the Heinkel HE 111. It was designed in the mid-1930s, but it was obsolescent by the time of the Battle of Britain. It was slow, poorly armed and its bomb-load was insufficient for a strategic bombing campaign. It was acutely vulnerable then to RAF fighters,
but structurally it was seriously tough. The Heinkel could soak up huge amounts of punishment dished out by RAF fighters and would often return to base riddled with hundreds of bullet holes.

Next up the Junkers JU 88 which was probably Germany's most modern bomber in 1940. Originally designed as a fast medium bomber, its design suffered from interference from above. Ernst Udet, deputy to the Luftwaffe head Hermann Göring, demanded that the JU 88 be capable of dive-bombing. But this extra weight reduced the aircraft's performance. It was vulnerable then to RAF fighters during the Battle of Britain, but matured over the course of the war into one of the Luftwaffe's most versatile aircraft.

And finally the Junkers JU 87, the Stuka. Designed to deliver pinpoint bombing attacks in a near-vertical dive, the Stuka achieved much notoriety during the blitzkrieg victories of 1939 and 1940. But while in Poland and France the Luftwaffe had had air superiority, the skies over Britain were a different story. After a few initial successes, the Stuka suffered heavily against RAF fighters. On their worst day, the 18th of august 1940, 12 JU 87s were shot down and many more were damaged or written off. Such heavy losses then meant the Stuka was gradually withdrawn over the course of the battle.

So there you have it, that's 8 iconic aircraft from the Battle of Britain. Let us know your ranking or if we missed any aircraft that you love in the comments below.

Make sure you like and subscribe to the Imperial War Museum's Youtube channel and we'll see you for the next one!

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