So who did win the Battle of Britain?
By MAX HASTINGS
25th August 2006
RAF pilots run to their planes during the Battle of Britain.
They might as well have suggested that Winston Churchill was gay.
The cluster of historians who declared this week that the Royal Air Force did not win the Battle of Britain achieved the sort of instant notoriety usually reserved for Jeffrey Archer, and sent soaring the blood pressure of traditional British patriots.
It is August, and that jolly little magazine History Today likes to boost sales by rattling cages. In an article for its latest issue, author Brian James declares our belief that The Few saw off Hitler in 1940 to be ‘nothing more than a perpetuation of a glorious myth’.
In truth, said James, it was fear of the Royal Navy that deterred the Germans from invading this country. He found a battery of reputable historians to support his claim.
So much for Fighter Command, then, for Biggin Hill and ‘Stuffy’ Dowding, Angels Ten and Heinkels at six o’clock. Another great national legend goes down in flames. Shame on them.
The quick response to the legend-busters is a single salvo that should put them smartly back in their box. Consider the words of Admiral Sir Charles Forbes, Commander-in-Chief of the Home Fleet, on September 15, 1940, biggest day of the Battle of Britain. The triumphs of Fighter Command, said this doughty seadog, ‘had removed the threat of invasion completely’.
It is unlikely that a senior officer of the Royal Navy would overstate the claims of a rival service. If Forbes believed that the RAF had successfully frustrated the danger of a German landing on our shores, it seems pretty silly 66 years later for historians to suggest differently.
Yet it is true that, as a nation, we like to shroud Britain’s 1940 experience in romance and a little conceit. We kid ourselves, for instance, that Hitler regarded this island as his principal enemy.
In reality, from the first day of the war his chief purpose was to invade Russia. He wanted to create a great German empire in eastern Europe, whose peoples would become his slaves, whose lands would provide his granaries and oil wells. Everything else he did was subordinate to that aim. He wanted France out of the way before he turned east, and thus attacked in the west in May 1940. After his devastating success, and the French surrender, he believed that the western war was won.
He believed, not wrongly, that Britain could do little to interfere with his command of the continent. Forever an opportunist, he was willing to invade and occupy these islands if he could do so cheaply, without compromising his plans for Russia.
His naval commanders told him, in the words of the authoritative German official history of the war, that ‘the most important precondition of the success of the landing is German air superiority over the Channel and southern England’. Thus, he allowed Goering’s Luftwaffe to embark upon its great assault which began in July, rising to a crescendo in August and early September.
It was Britain’s good fortune that the only contingency for which this country was well-prepared in 1940 was that of meeting bomber attack.
A handful of inspired scientists, aircraft designers and airmen had created a defence system for Britain unmatched anywhere in the world. Other nations had radar — German sets were better than ours — but none had coupled the technology to the sophisticated fighter direction network of plotting tables, controllers and ground observers which Dowding’s force possessed.
When the Luftwaffe’s massed formations began to appear over southern England, the young pilots of Fighter Command rose to meet them backed by a brilliant organisation.
RAF tactics were at first rigid and unimaginative, their guns too small and marksmanship poor — a tiny handful of ‘aces’ accounted for most of the Germans shot down. But they learned fast and soon were mauling the enemy terribly.
The British had some lucky breaks. For instance, the Germans’ superb Messerschmitt Bf109 fighters could dogfight over England for only a few minutes. If Goering had fitted his planes with additional fuel tanks, for which the technology existed, Fighter Command’s outnumbered Hurricanes and Spitfires would have been in desperate trouble. If the Germans had persisted with their attacks on the RAF’s airfields and radar stations, instead of turning to attack cities, the results could have been disastrous.
Goering never devised a coherent plan.
Scattering bombs on Godalming, Aldershot, Haslemere and Farnborough, as German aircraft did on July 7, killed 62 hapless people, but did nothing to advance the cause of winning the air battle. There were always only just enough RAF planes and just enough pilots — only 3,080 qualified for the Battle of Britain medal clasp — to sustain the defence.
Dowding, as C-in-C of Fighter Command, understood what Winston Churchill did not: that his job was not to destroy the Luftwaffe, an almost impossible task, but simply to keep his force flying and fighting.
If Dowding had thrown everything into the battle, as the prime minister instinctively wanted, the RAF could not have supported its rate of attrition against the much bigger German air force. As it was, day by day and week by week, Luftwaffe casualties mounted and still Fighter Command was airborne.
Between September 7 and 15, for instance, the RAF lost 135 planes — but Goering’s men lost 189, and British factories’ output of fighters was rising fast.
The Luftwaffe’s squadrons were constantly told that the British were at their last gasp, but every German raid met forces of 60 or 70 defending Hurricanes and Spitfires.
On September 15, General Raymond Lee, the shrewd American military attaché in London, wrote in his diary: ‘This is the date after which I believe Hitler’s chance will rapidly dwindle.
‘There are the beginnings of a Press campaign in Germany breaking the news to the people that England is to be subdued by blockade and bombing — I can’t for the life of me puzzle out what the Germans are up to. They have great air power and yet are dissipating it in fruitless and aimless attacks all over England.
‘Just as I finish writing this, the heavy guns commence giving tongue and the little Irish maid comes in to turn down the bed. She went over to Victoria to see the planes which crashed there and is very pleased because she saw the dead German crew extracted from the wreckage.’
The British Government clearly perceived that, from mid September onwards, the threat of German invasion was fading. RAF reconnaissance of the Channel ports showed the assemblies of invasion barges dwindling in numbers. On October 31, though the German night blitz of Britain was causing painful casualties and distress, the Prime Minister agreed that the threat of invasion had become ‘relatively remote’. In truth, however, long before that date Hitler had lost interest. As early as the end of July, the German Naval Staff declared that the prospect of a successful invasion must be in doubt, for 1940 at least.
The Fuhrer was disappointed that the Luftwaffe’s massive demonstration over England had failed to enable the British ‘peace party ’— the likes of Lord Halifax, Lloyd George and the Duke of Windsor — to overthrow Churchill and ask Berlin for terms. He did not think it mattered much, however. Hitler never intended to accept many risks in order to invade England.
He was content to leave Churchill’s people to stew in their own juice while he addressed himself to Russia. At the end of the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe remained a formidable fighting force. The RAF had not destroyed it.
German bombers continued to pound Britain by night through the winter of 1940. In the spring, most were transferred eastwards to support the invasion of Russia. Britain was left battered, bloodied — but undefeated.
Those who say that British victory in the Battle of Britain did not bring a day closer the defeat of Nazism are part-right: not until Russia and the United States became our allies could Hitler’s command of the Continent be challenged.
Yet had the Luftwaffe been successful in shooting Fighter Command out of the sky in 1940, Hitler must have been tempted to try invasion. It is true that, with or without the RAF, German naval officers were very fearful of the Royal Navy.
In the summer of 1940 Germany mustered only two fast battleships — Scharnhorst and Gneisenau — two old battleships, two heavy and two light cruisers, up to ten destroyers, 28 operational U-boats and about the same number of torpedo boats.
Against these, the Royal Navy deployed 32 destroyers and five corvettes in the Nore Command alone, supported by six cruisers, with the entire Home Fleet ready to move south from Scapa Flow and Rosyth if a German invasion armada put to sea.
It would have been extraordinarily difficult for the Germans effectively to protect their landing barges from such a force.
And yet, and yet . . . the whole course of World War II showed how devastatingly vulnerable were surface ships to air attack. At Dunkirk, in the Mediterranean, in the Pacific, again and again powerful fleets were devastated by dive-bombers and torpedo aircraft.
If the Luftwaffe’s full might had been concentrated on the Channel, and Fighter Command been destroyed, the Royal Navy would have suffered terribly, seeking to fight a battle barely 20 miles from German airfields.
Britain’s warships could probably have seen off a German invasion — the German Navy certainly thought so, and in that sense the historians who made such a splash this week are right.
But it would have been a bloody business, and could have disastrously weakened the Royal Navy for its other vital tasks — keeping open the Atlantic lifeline, and preserving Britain’s foothold in the Mediterranean.
We can go on arguing about possibilities until the cows come home: the British Army, aided by Dad’s Army, might have been able to defeat a German Army even if it had got ashore.
The Royal Navy might have achieved a victory in the Channel to rival that of Trafalgar. But neither of these contingencies was ever tested. What actually happened was that the Germans threw their air force at that of Britain — and failed to defeat it.
In the eyes of the world in 1940, and in those of sensible historians to this day, victory was won, and Britain saved to fight on, by the pilots of Fighter Command under the splendid Air Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, who was so unjustly ousted by jealous rivals within weeks of his triumph.
Of course Churchill exaggerated the scale of success. Much of his genius in 1940 lay in the deployment of rhetoric to convince the British people that, in the face of all logic, they could prevail against Hitler’s legions.
Had not Churchill been in Downing Street that summer, there is every chance his feebler colleagues would have thrown in the towel.