Seventy-five years ago today, fierce aerial battles were taking place over London and southern England, and later that evening, after the fighting was over and there was still no sign of a German invasion, reporters on the news announced some 185 enemy planes had been shot down. To all who heard it, and a large proportion of the population did, it appeared a significant victory had been won. Later, it emerged Sunday 15 September had also been the target date for Operation Sealion, the planned German cross-Channel invasion. With the RAF Fighter Command still in robust health, attempting such a high-risk venture was unthinkable. Two days later, Hitler postponed Sealion and then, on 12 October, put it off indefinitely. Air battles continued and the night-time blitz lasted until May the following year, but the risk of invasion had passed.
The Battle of Britain is ingrained in our national consciousness as a seminal moment in history and our ‘finest hour;’ certainly, there can be no doubting it was a highly significant victory and a major turning point in the Second World War. By losing the battle, Hitler was forced to turn east and invade the Soviet Union far earlier than initially planned. This consigned Germany to fighting a two-front and long, attritional war, for which the country was not equipped; it had neither the resources nor access to the world’s sea lanes to sustain such a long conflict.
Few moments in British history have been so mythologized, however. Woven into the story is the image of plucky Little Britain, David against the Goliath of Nazi Germany. We portray ourselves as backs-to-the-wall amateurs, with those young and gallant Few the last line of defence against the mighty Molloch – after all, the Home Guard were not going to be much good against hordes of Panzers. By a whisker, we held out – but it was a close run thing and thank God Hitler decided to switch from attacking airfields and turned on London instead. It was tough on the East End, but it gave the RAF breathing space and the fight back was on.
While it must have seemed that way at the time, the reality was somewhat different – even the Home Guard had more to offer than Captain Mainwaring. Indeed, Britain was far better than that image suggests and won the Battle of Britain because it was ready and prepared to fight such a battle. It had the world’s first and only fully co-ordinated air defence system, aircraft production that was out-producing Germany at a ratio of 2:1 and had the mechanisms to fight a protracted war. The Luftwaffe had poor intelligence, was under strength for the task in hand, used poor tactics and only managed to knock out one airfield for more than twenty-four hours in the entire battle.
While individual squadrons were often sent to attack much larger formations, collectively they were not always so hopelessly outnumbered. On 15 September 1940, for example, the morning raid of some seventy-five Luftwaffe aircraft were attacked by around 275 British fighters, while the afternoon raid of 300-plus enemy aircraft was met by 330 Spitfires and Hurricanes. Knowing this in no way diminishes the immense courage of the pilots, however; rather, it underlines the effectiveness of the RAF.
The image of Britain as the plucky underdog has also spread to our wider perception of the war. There has been a tradition of belittling Britain’s contribution, but in fact, the country fought a highly technological and industrial war and did so very efficiently. ‘Steel not flesh’ was the mantra, and Britain used not only her vast empire but her even larger trading empire to maximum effect. Having massive armies is inherently inefficient because the bigger the army the more men will become casualties. Britain consciously chose to keep numbers of frontline troops as low as possible and to build machines and rely on advances in technology instead. It was a policy that worked because at the end, and despite fighting for the duration and all around the globe, the country had lost around 440,000 – half the dead of the 1914-1918 war, which lasted two years less. In contrast, both Germany and the Soviet Union lost considerably more than they had a generation earlier.
From the war came innumerable British inventions: the cavity magnetron, the computer, and the world’s most advanced jet engines to name but a few, as well as the Liberty ship, huge developments in engineering, and a staggering 132,500 aircraft and over a million military vehicles. We built a number of the world’s international airports and from the moment the first US soldier arrived in Britain until VE Day, we provided the USA with 31% of all their supplies in the European Theatre of Operations. In other words, Britain was pretty amazing – and not just because of our pluck in continuing the fight in 1940, but because of the enormous contribution we made to winning the war and the effect that had on the future of the world. It is time we moved on from the myths and declinist view of Britain in the war for good.