Reflections on the Battle of Britain
PUBLISHED: 17:20 01 October 2015 | UPDATED: 10:42 10 July 2020
Philip Whiteman TW11 9DA
A reflection on things learnt by Dr Michael A Fopp, who has closely studied the Battle of Britain.
All countries are defined by their history. Their national character, self-belief and sense of place in the world are formed by the deeds and behaviour of their predecessors. It is the same for organisations and, particularly, the military. The Royal Air Force was only 22 years old when its defining moment came with the Battle of Britain, and its image and reputation were sealed forever by the immortal words of Winston Churchill when he spoke of “The Few”. For this last major anniversary, when survivors of the Battle of Britain are still around to accept the homage due to them, it has been appropriate to mark their great achievement. But it has also been an opportunity to review the accepted wisdom about that short period during the summer of 1940 when our island stood alone.
The official dates of the Battle, as designated by the Ministry, set it between July and October, but for those who fought these dates are arbitrary – if you are being shot at your thoughts are not on whether you are in a named battle! In fact, the Battle of Britain was unique in three specific ways: it was the first battle in history to be named before it began; the first to be declared won before it was over; and the first to be fought between two opposing forces entirely in the air.
Most of us know that it is one of the most prolifically written about battles in the history of warfare. I have studied it since I was a boy, having discovered that my father had flown Hurricanes with 17 Squadron in France and during the Battle. I have curated the Battle of Britain Museum and been Director General of Royal Air Force Museum at Hendon and Cosford. I was fortunate to know many of the survivors when they were in their prime and have been privileged to spend time discussing events with them.
Here I don’t tell the story of the Battle, or put forward a treatise on equipment or tactics, but give a reflection on things learnt by someone who has studied it closely, but is by no means a definitive expert on the subject.
In the past 75 years we have given ourselves the accolade of ‘defeating’ the Germans. I suppose it depends on how you define the word defeating. Hitler’s Germany was a formidable war machine, but the world he built around him was fatally flawed at the outset because of his paranoia and Aryan beliefs. He created a society where everyone fitted into a stereotype and anyone who didn’t was excluded, or worse. The result was a ‘shoot the messenger’ culture where the only way to be safe was to say what your superiors wanted to hear. The best example of this is the Luftwaffe intelligence picture of the Royal Air Force compiled before the Battle. In this “Studie Bleu”, the RAF was categorised as being led by officers with little experience and tied rigidly to their bases. RAF aircraft and pilot numbers were grossly underestimated and an overall opinion was expressed that the Luftwaffe was superior in every respect.
On our side we overestimated the Luftwaffe’s size and capabilities, but this gave senior planners in the RAF the opportunity not only to develop unique secret strategies for defence (the famous ‘Dowding System’), but also to lobby and convince decision makers that expansion and greater production was absolutely necessary. Our ability to overestimate turned out to be as decisive as Germany’s wishful thinking in underestimating its enemy. Who was going to tell the High Command in Germany that the Luftwaffe was going to find it difficult to obtain air supremacy, when the Commander-in-Chief himself (Goering) had promised the Führer that he would smash England with his air force in a couple of weeks? The Third Reich had created a culture of sycophants and ‘yes-men’ only interested in their own well-being and advancement.
In England it could not have been more different. Three times during the Battle attempts were made to retire Dowding, yet his pre-war work on the system of defence made him (and Keith Park) the very best people to oversee the defence of the UK. Unlike his German counterparts, Dowding had no reason to fear being unpopular – he already was. He had written formally to his boss – knowing full well that his letter would reach the highest levels in Government – that the Prime Minister’s promise to the French regarding aircraft would mean the threat of invasion becoming a reality. His advice was taken, and the steps he advocated led directly to sufficient aircraft being based on home shores when France was evacuated at Dunkirk.
At the height of the Battle itself, the meddling of the German High Command in the day-to-day tactical operations of the Luftwaffe led to two important changes in the way the Germans conducted the Battle. When the two most senior Luftwaffe Wing Commanders complained to Goering, they witnessed him flying into a temper and accusing them of cowardice and defeatism. When attempting to placate them by asking how he could help them implement his ridiculous order to close-escort the bombers, Adolf Galland asked him to equip his Wing with Spitfires! Until his dying day Galland would exclaim that he could never understand how he got away with such insubordination.
History proclaims that our invention of radar was the key to our success. But first, we did not invent radar, and secondly the Germans were well ahead with the technology before the war began. What the RAF did, under the leadership of Dowding and Park, was perfect an early-warning system which was so sophisticated it enabled reasonably precise positioning of our defending fighters, after first determining what the enemy was up to.
The Germans were well aware of our technology, and the radar masts all along the east coast were obvious to them. But their knowledge of the system underpinning this technology was all but non-existent and this led to the RAF having a force-multiplier which was a significant advantage in the Battle. The Germans had entered the war at least three years before they were ready, and Hitler’s megalomania and major territorial successes had given his armed forces a false sense of security. His Luftwaffe was not equipped with strategic weapons in 1940, neither was his bomber force capable of being protected for more than ten minutes over London by his best fighter. The Luftwaffe was so self-confident that it did not even seem to have bothered to test its twin-engined Bf110 against its single-engined Bf109. Had it done so it would have found that the so-called “destroyer fighter” was going to be no match for the RAF’s Hurricanes and Spitfires.
Dunkirk had already shown the Germans how effective the RAF’s fighters were, and by the time of the Battle significant further improvements had been made to both types which gave them even greater performance. These modifications to the aircraft were yet another example of an overall attitude of the British that was not shared by the Germans. The Germans militarily (bolstered by their own propaganda) had been successful in everything they had attempted for so long that they were both tired and complacent. Their fighting moral was high, but to such an extent that they found it difficult to cope with failure, and even more difficult to communicate that failure to their superiors. The German civilians had no great fear of suffering for they had been told that, “no enemy ‘plane will bomb the Reich” by Goering himself. Their lives were good and the majority believed in their ordered, disciplined and enthusiastically led dictatorship.
The British, on the other hand, had witnessed appeasement and kowtowing to a country they had, a mere 22 years before, defeated in the “War to End All Wars”. Whilst they had no appetite for yet another war so quickly, when they were thrust into it following the invasion of Poland in September 1939 they threw themselves in with hard work, determination and vigour. No other country, except the Soviet Union in the latter years of the War, enlisted virtually all the working-age population regardless of age, class, gender or background. From the very start the attitude was dictated by Churchill when he said, “We will fight them on the beaches…”
People from all walks of life volunteered to do their day job and another task. The Air Transport Auxiliary was formed and took women pilots – albeit to fly simple aircraft at first, but eventually to fly anything and to be the first government employees on equal pay. The factory workers stood 12-hour shifts and by the middle of the Battle were producing three times more fighters than the Germans – a fact it took the enemy some months to appreciate! The network of early warning, set up by Dowding and Park, could not have existed, or flourished during the Battle, without the tireless work of General Post Office engineers working 24 hours a day to ensure telephone lines were reliable. The Empire and Commonwealth sent men and materials immediately and made their safe-haven lands available for our training. Churchill and Roosevelt struck a deal which provided ships, guns, 100 octane aviation fuel (which added 10 knots to the speed of our fighters), and food. In characteristic style Roosevelt told his isolationists “when your neighbour’s barn is burning down you lend him your fire hose”.
In Germany Hitler made pacts with Stalin, Mussolini, Tojo and others in the hope that he would secure his country the natural resources and gold it needed to fuel his ambitions. His friends were few and far between and most times were loyal only to preserving what independence they had won against the threat of aggression. His population was content that his rhetoric would leave them the ultimate rulers of Europe, and wealthier for it. Their almost universal acquiescence to the treatment of the Jews and other ‘undesirable’ minorities left them with such a sense of superiority that they felt they could not lose a single battle once France had fallen. A dangerous complacency at home left the front line exposed to criticism whenever there was a suggestion that somehow things were not going to plan. All we had to do, as we had done so many times before in our history, was to wait until the weather turned and the prospect of invasion became unthinkable.
Above all this a battle raged – in the full view of the populace below. Young men with an average age of 21 piloted their Messerschmitts, Spitfires and Hurricanes with skill, determination, fear and passion. Their purpose was to employ all the skills they had been trained for, to follow the orders of their superiors and to support their mates in battle. The fear of letting down a colleague was almost as bad as the fear of death. It was like this for both sides; the Germans were as skilful as the multi-national Royal Air Force they were up against. Their weakness was their interfering leadership and the lack of suitable long-range escorts for their determined but beleaguered bomber crews. Ours was a shortage of experienced pilots (our aircraft production far-outstripped the Germans at nearly 3 to 1) and an extraordinary willingness of high commanders to listen to a Squadron Leader who advocated an inappropriate change of tactics at the very height of the Battle, and would not be told “No”.
I counted Douglas Bader a good friend, but was always astounded that he and Leigh-Mallory had tried to force Dowding and Park to change strategy at such a crucial time. My father, based at Debden, used to become quite animated when he recalled returning to his airfield and finding it had been heavily bombed, a fact he blamed on 12 Group failing to provide the protection necessary.
But, which society would stand a better change of victory? One in which the cult of personality and total obedience to every order ruled, or one where relatively junior officers could question their superiors and be listened to? Indeed, Churchill, Beaverbrook and Dowding all had close personal contacts within Fighter Command (with fighter pilot sons in the latter two cases) who they could call on for an unbiased opinion. Hitler, Goering, Milch, Udet, Kesselring and Sperrle only had themselves to upstage or impress. When they sought the advice of experienced pilots many were so heavily indoctrinated they really believed the rubbish they gave as a reply. The Stuka, for example, was an even match for the Spitfire or Hurricane according to its greatest proponent, Hans Ulrich Rudel – a claim he made until he died some years after the war.
Many of the lessons learned by the Luftwaffe were also learned by the Royal Air Force. Indeed, the German tactics proved so superior that we adopted them piecemeal, squadron by squadron, as we realised our own were outdated and dangerous. The lack of a long-range fighter was only really rectified by us when the P51 Mustang was developed later, but why the Germans never used drop tanks during the Battle remains a mystery, as they had the shackles on their aircraft and the tanks sitting in storage at home. Their bomber force was formidable and until some years later the RAF was no match for its accuracy and navigational ability. That is not to say that Bomber Command was sitting on its hands. More bomber crews were lost during the Battle than fighter boys. And later, on one raid to Nuremburg, Bomber Command lost more men in one night than were lost in the whole of the Battle of Britain.
Our memories of the summer of 1940 are formed by the legend which followed Churchill’s historic speech, “Never in the field of human conflict…” They are illustrated by the unique and beautifully artistic shape of the Spitfire and they conjure up that most exciting superhero: the young, handsome man, fighting a dangerous battle of life and death against supreme odds. And all for the freedom of a little island being threatened by an all-conquering villain who, in due course, is realised to have controlled one of the most odious regimes in human history. Is it any wonder that the Battle of Britain is still celebrated all these years later?
It is right that we honour “The Few”, and celebrate a victory against tyranny when we stood alone. It is even right we suggest that we saved the world from a fate which is difficult to contemplate. But let us also remember that holding off the Germans long enough to make it impossible for them to do to us what they had done to the rest of Europe was part luck, part a result of the meddling and mistakes made by our enemy, and part foresight by a few people who realised the threat in time for something to be done about it. More importantly, we won the Battle because our society had something the Germans had lost – the traits of openness, tolerance, a work-ethic and a willingness to listen that had been suppressed by the Nazi regime.
Dr Michael A Fopp is past Master of the Honourable Company of Air Pilots. He was Director General of the Royal Air Force Museum for 22 years and is the son of a Battle of Britain Pilot who served a full career in the post-war Royal Air Force. Michael has been a Commercial/Instrument-Rated pilot for 35 years. This is an extended version of the article published in the September edition of Pilot magazine.