Thursday, July 31, 2014

Reflections on the Battle of Britain

  • There are few events in British History that are as dramatic or as inspiring as the Battle of Britain. Indeed, Winston Churchill suggested in his famous speech that the Battle of Britain was the British Empire’s “finest hour.” 

  • Pilots “Scramble” very early in the Battle. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

    From the point of view of a historian, the Battle of Britain was significant because it brought Hitler’s aggression to a halt for the first time after he came to power in Germany in 1933.  Admittedly, Hitler considered his failure to defeat the Royal Air Force in the summer of 1940 an annoyance rather than a major strategic set-back; his real objective was the Soviet Union, and to this day most Germans have never even heard of the Battle of Britain!  Yet for Britain, the United States, and occupied Europe, the significance of the Battle of Britain can hardly be over-stated.  

    If the RAF had been defeated in 1940, the Luftwaffe would have been able to continue indiscriminate day-light bombing almost indefinitely, and paved the way for a German invasion of Britain. Although many doubt this would have been successful, there is no certainty that it would have been repulsed either.  The Royal Navy had been seriously weakened by the losses during the evacuation at Dunkirk and was over-stretched trying to protect the Atlantic lifeline.  Furthermore, the Royal Army was had been mauled in France and the British Expeditionary Force had abandoned all its heavy equipment in France. In consequence, the British ground forces lacked tanks and artillery for fighting the heavily mechanized Wehrmacht. Churchill was not only being rhetorical when he spoke about fighting a guerrilla war against the invaders!

    But the invasion did not take place because the Royal Air Force, or more specifically Fighter Command, prevented the Luftwaffe from establishing air superiority over England. Without air superiority, the Wehrmacht was not prepared to invade. So Hitler (more interested in invading the Soviet Union anyway) first postponed and then cancelled the invasion of Britain altogether.

    This was more than a military victory. The Battle of Britain was a critical diplomatic and psychological victory as well. The psychological impact of defeating the apparently invincible Luftwaffe was enormous at the time. The RAF had proved that the Luftwaffe could be beaten, and by inference that the Wehrmacht could be beaten. This fact alone encouraged resistance and kept hope alive all across occupied Europe.

    Even more important, as a result of British tenacity and defiance in the Battle of Britain, the United States, which at the start of the Battle had written Britain off as a military and political power, revised its opinion of British strength.  Because of the Battle of Britain, the U.S.A. shifted its policy from ‘neutrality’ to ‘non-belligerent’ assistance. With American help, Britain was able to keep fighting until Hitler over-extended himself in the Soviet Union. This in turn made it possible to forge the wartime coalition of Britain, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, which would eventually, defeat Hitler’s Germany.


    Yet, any such purely objective assessment of the Battle of Britain does not explain the appeal of the Battle of Britain to people today.  There were, after all, many other decisive battles in WWII from Stalingrad to Midway. The appeal of the Battle of Britain is less military and diplomatic than emotional. 

    The Battle of Britain was a drama that has captured the imagination – and hearts – of all subsequent generations because of just how much hung in the balance and of just how little stood between Britain and a Nazi invasion. The Wehrmacht had just defeated the French in six weeks! The British Expeditionary Force had been rescued by the skin of their teeth in a dramatic, improvised evacuation – but only at the cost of abandoning all its equipment on the beaches of France. Thus, in the Summer of 1940, it seemed like only RAF Fighter Command stood between Britain and invasion, between freedom and subjugation.

    Yet RAF Fighter Command was tiny!  Even including the foreign pilots flying with the RAF, there were only roughly 1,200 trained fighter pilots in Britain at this time. (Numbers varied due to training, casualties and recruiting.) These men were a highly trained elite that could not be readily replaced. Pilots were not mere “cannon fodder.”  They were specialists that took years to train. In the summer of 1940, they stood against apparently overwhelming odds. Churchill – as so often – captured the sentiment of his countrymen when he claimed that “never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.”


    This image of a small “band of brothers” standing up to a massive and invincible foe in a defensive battle for their homeland was reminiscent of other heroic battles – Henry V at Agincourt, Edward the Black Prince at Poitiers, Leonidas and his 300 at Thermopylae.  Such battles, pitting  a few defenders against a hoard of enemy, have always appealed to students of history and readers of historical fiction like almost nothing else.

    Furthermore, it must be remembered that pilots were very, very young (averaging 22 years in age), and they were they were fighting with beautiful, fragile machines that still awed most of their contemporaries. Furthermore, the casualties were devastating. In the short, four month span of the Battle, Fighter Command lost roughly 40% of its pilots.  That means that each pilot had only a slightly better than 50% chance of surviving the Battle.  Furthermore, the effective casualty rate of killed and wounded was closer to 70%.  This situation was aggravated by the fact that, as a rule, the more experienced pilots had a 5-6 times greater chance of surviving than did the replacement pilots coming into the front line with very little flying and no combat experience.  The most critical period for a replacement pilot was his first fortnight in a front-line squadron.  Many pilots did not survive four hours.  




    This meant that a smallish core of experienced pilots watched waves of replacements arriving and then being shot-down in a short space of time, until sheer exhaustion wore down even the most experienced pilots. By the end of the Battle, Squadron Leaders, Flight Lieutenants and Section Leaders were increasingly getting shot down as a result of mistakes, inattention, and ‘sloppy flying’  that resulted simply from fatigue.

    These are the “human interest” stories that so fascinate us today – the inexperienced teenagers with less than 20 hours on combat aircraft being thrown into the bloody fray, and their experienced commanders, the “killers” who had to shoot down enough German aircraft to convince Goering and Hitler that the Battle could not be won, while at the same time leading, encouraging and advising their young colleagues so they could live to fight another day. 

    How did they do it?

    Obviously one factor was sheer motivation. British pilots were fighting over their homes – and their historical and national heritage – acutely aware of being the last line of defense in a war against a widely abhorred enemy. But this alone would hardly have given them victory. The Poles and Danes and French etc. had also been fighting for their homes and country against the same aggressor.

    Technology and organization were other critical factors and these have been analyzed and discussed in great detail in many good history books. I will only mention here radar, without which Britain would certainly have lost the Battle of Britain, and the system of ground control over dispersed fighter squadrons, which was equally important to Britain’s victory in 1940.  The Spitfire deserves at least an honorable mention since it was such a magnificent fighter, even if honesty compels me to note that in the Battle of Britain more squadrons were equipped with and more German aircrafts shot down by Hurricanes.


                                                                                                                              But I would like to draw attention to one aspect of the Battle that I believe has often been overlooked in favor of the above explanations for success. This was the very strong “team spirit” that predominated in the RAF –in sharp contrast to the Luftwaffe at this time.  The Luftwaffe enabled and encouraged individual fighter pilots to become “aces.” If a German pilot was an “ace,” he was not only lionized by the press and praised by his peers and superiors -- all the way to Hitler himself, but he was given a wingman and then an entire “Schwarm” to protect him so he could concentrate on killing. This way, German aces accumulated huge scores, sometimes over 100 attributed “kills,” while the highest scoring ace of the RAF, “Johnnie” Johnson, had only 38 recorded “kills.”

    Yet the RAF with its ethos of acting as a team inflicted losses on the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain at a rate of almost 2 to 1. Furthermore – and far more important - morale did not break.  Given the losses and the sheer physical demands placed upon RAF pilots at the time, it was their ability not only to keep flying but to keep drinking and laughing that awed their countrymen, their leaders and their enemies – when they found out.  

    B” Flight, 85 Squadron, July 1940. Courtesy of WAAF Edith Kupp

    Furthermore, it was not the pilots alone who won the Battle of Britain.  The RAF had worked hard to ensure that its pilots were supported by some of the best trained ground crews in the world.  With an ‘apprentice’ program, the RAF had attracted technically minded young men early and provided them with extensive training throughout the inter-war years. In fact, because of a unique program that enabled exceptional “other ranks” to qualify for flying training, many pilots flying in the Battle of Britain had come up from the ranks, starting as mechanics themselves. This made the pilots appreciate their ground crews more than pilots did in other air forces of the time.


    Perhaps most important, however, was that at this stage of the war, individual crews looked after individual aircraft and so specific pilots.  The ground crews identified strongly with their unit – and ‘their’ pilots. After the bombing of the airfields started in mid-August, the ground crews were themselves under attack, suffering casualties and working under deplorable conditions – often without hot-food, dry beds, adequate sleep and no leave.  The ground crews never failed their squadrons.  Aircraft were turned around – rearmed, re-fuelled, tires, oxygen, airframe etc. checked – in just minutes.  

    Last but not least, I would like to note that the RAF from the very start had an exceptionally positive attitude toward women.  The RAF actively encouraged the establishment of a Women’s Auxiliary, which by the end of the war served alongside the RAF in virtually all non-combat functions.  Even before the start of the war, however, the vital and highly technical jobs of radar operator and operations room plotter, as well as various jobs associated with these activities, were identified as trades especially suited to women.  The C-in-C of Fighter Commander, ACM Dowding, personally insisted that the talented women who did these jobs move up into supervisory positions – and be commissioned accordingly. During Battle of Britain over 17,000 WAAF served with the RAF, nearly 4,500 of them with Fighter Command. A number of WAAF were killed and injured and six airwomen were awarded the Military Medal during the Battle.  The presence of so many young women is another factor that contributes to its modern appeal.                                                                                                 

    WAAF in Fighter Command Control Room. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

    My novel on the Battle of Britain, Chasing the Wind (Kindle edition: Where Eagles Never Flew), pays tribute to the entire spectrum of participants, male and female, from mechanics and controllers to WAAFs as well as to the pilots. I based my account on the very meticulous records now available from both the UK and Germany to ensure that the raids, casualties, and claims each day are correct. Yet the most important research was reading the memoirs of dozens of participants and corresponding with others to try to get the atmosphere “right.” My greatest moment as a historical novelist came when I received a hand-written letter from a man I had only read about up until then: RAF Battle of Britain “ace” Bob Doe. Wing Commander Doe wrote to tell me I had “got it smack on the way it was for us fighter pilots,” and said that Chasing the Wind was “the best book” he had ever read about the Battle of Britain.  It doesn’t get any better than that for a historical novelist!
     
    Here’s a video teaser about the novel. Click here!

    (Note the Kindle Edition was published under the title Where Eagles Never Flew.) Buy here!











    No comments:

    Post a Comment