Guest Post: The Battle of Britain

A guest post by David Garrett:

The Battle of Britain was  fought eighty years ago next year

Eighty years ago, on 1 September 1939, World War II began when Germany invaded Poland, and refused a British ultimatum to withdraw from that country. Eighty years ago next year is the anniversary of the first and last major battle to be fought in the air: the Battle of Britain. Because of advances in technology – most notably drones and precisely targeted missiles – there was never and  will never be a battle like it again.  While revisionism among historians means its significance is arguable, for me it was one of the most decisive battles of all time, and  probably prevented a successful invasion of Britain by the Nazis.

By the (northern) summer of 1940, Germany under Hitler had experienced nothing but victories. The low countries were overrun in days; after Germany attacked France on 10 May 1940, Paris was in their hands five weeks later. Between 26 May and 4 June, the “Miracle of Dunkirk” saw more than 300,000 British and French forces – minus almost all their equipment – evacuated from the beaches. The inability of the Luftwaffe to prevent such numbers escaping was arguably Germany’s first setback of any significance.

While Hitler’s true intentions regarding an invasion of Britain are now hotly debated among revisionist historians, in my view Hitler’s intention was undoubtedly to invade Britain following  what he saw as its  arrogant rejection of his various “peace offers”. Whether an invasion would have been successful given the Royal Navy’s unquestioned control of the sea is a much more arguable question – it may well be that such an attempt would have failed as had every other attempt to invade across the channel since 1066. What is unarguable is that before such an attempt could be made, Germany had to wipe the RAF from the skies, and achieve total air supremacy. In June and July 1940,  that  they would so do  seemed a foregone conclusion.

The British began the battle outnumbered 4:1 in aircraft. Both sides had superb fighter aircraft: on the British side the famous spitfire and hurricane, on the German the Me Bf. 109 E . One could write a book about the various strengths and weaknesses of both sides’ aircraft; suffice it to say that taken overall, I believe both sides had machines of roughly the same caliber. Where one had – say – a slight advantage in speed, its opponent was slightly more maneuverable.

Against German superiority in numbers, the British had a number of advantages, most notably radar, which although still rudimentary, was much better than the German. In addition, radar was primarily a defensive weapon at that time; it gave the British the crucial 20 minutes or so warning that an attack was imminent – long enough, all going well, for the spitfires and hurricanes to take to the skies to meet the invader.

Another major British advantage was simply that the battle was fought over its own soil – downed RAF pilots stood a better than even chance of surviving to fight another day, while German pilots – if they survived – became prisoners.  Another related advantage was time – the German fighters only had enough fuel for 15 minutes or so over England before they had to break off and retreat back across the channel. On the British side, it was not uncommon for pilots to undertake two or three sorties per day. At the height of the battle, on 15 August, some pilots flew 7 sorties in one day.

A crucial advantage on the British side was the way the battle was fought, largely under the hand of New Zealander Air Marshal Sir Keith Park. Park directed the operations of 11 Group, Fighter Command, whose aircraft were the closest  to the channel, and who bore the brunt of the fighting. Although Park’s contribution was recognized at the time, it is only perhaps in the last 10 or 15 years that its significance has been fully appreciated.

In 1947, Lord Tedder, Chief of Air Staff, said of Park:

“If any one man won the Battle of Britain he did. I do not believe it is realized how much that one man with his leadership, his calm judgment, and his skill, did to save not only this country but the world”

Nowadays, revisionist historians argue that the last part of that statement is hyperbole, and that the various undoubted obstacles other than  the RAF which  existed to frustrate any invasion would have put paid to it. As I have said,  I myself believe that if the Battle had been lost, Hitler would undoubtedly have attempted an invasion; whether it would have been successful can never be known, and will always be a matter of debate.

 There is certainly plenty of evidence that an invasion would be attempted once air supremacy had been achieved. Europe was scoured for barges which were either already  suitable or could be converted for use as troop carriers. There is evidence of training for water borne landings on a hostile coast. It is also important to realize just how weakened Britain by then was – while 300,000 members of the BEF had been successfully evacuated from Dunkirk, for the most part the British army was left without military equipment, particularly artillery and tanks. Almost all of that had been left behind in France.

But back to the Battle. The leader of the Luftwaffe, Reichsmarshall Herman Goering, made two major blunders which together, arguably lost him the battle. The first was his complete failure to appreciate the crucial role of radar, then almost exclusively a defensive weapon –  which assisted the  British to precisely identify their target,  direction height and numbers – when they were still a long way off.

On 12 August 1940, the day before the battle began in earnest, the Luftwaffe attacked the British “chain home” radar stations around the south coast. Several were badly damaged, and one put out of action – but not for long. Crucially, those attacks were not repeated. Unlike Goering,  Park’s boss, Air  Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding  fully appreciated radar’s significance, and set up what was the world’s first integrated air defence system; radar and observer stations linked to Fighter Command’s headquarters. The crucial 20 or 30 minutes warning radar gave enabled the fighters to be scrambled to meet the German invaders. And scrambled again if necessary.  As the battle wore on, the German pilots became demoralized because the RAF always seemed to be waiting for them.

Notwithstanding the “home” advantages, and the courage of the pilots and the ground controllers behind them, mostly women,  by the 24th of August things were dire: the British losses were mounting and crucially, the airfields in the south  were being damaged faster than they could be repaired. But on the 24th of August providence intervened. A German squadron of bombers became lost, and bombed London – the first ever bombing of a non military target in the battle.  Churchill immediately retaliated by ordering an attack on Berlin the following night. The damage done was immaterial, but the attack enraged Hitler and led to a switch from bombing airfields to bombing cities.  After the failure to appreciate the importance of radar, it was the second major strategic  blunder.

On 17 September, Operation Sealion, the planned invasion of Britain was postponed indefinitely, while the Battle of Britain morphed into what became known as the Blitz – London was bombed for fifty nights in succession in what proved to be a futile attempt to break the British will to fight on.  

As I have said, whether Operation Sealion would have even  been attempted remains  a question worthy of debate. Whether it would have succeeded in landing troops in sufficient numbers is equally debatable. What is probably unarguable is had Sealion succeeded in doing so, Britain would have been knocked out of the war, if only through sheer force of numbers. A seaborne invasion would almost certainly have been combined with attacks by paratroops, as occurred later in Crete, and again by the allies in June 1944 before D Day.

There are no New Zealand Battle of Britain veterans left, and when I last checked, there were fewer than five alive in the world. Eighty years on, such veterans would all now  be aged 100 or more. In addition to Park, we as a nation  have every reason to be proud. Despite a population one fourth the size of Australia’s, we had more “aces” – those pilots  who shot down five or more aircraft.

Overall, the British  losses dwarfed those of Bomber Command over the following  five long years; Bomber Command lost more aircrew in one raid  than were lost in the entire Battle of Britain. Nevertheless, Churchill’s famous quote then remains as true now as it was then:

“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”

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