"If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude better than the animating contest of freedom, go home from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or your arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains set lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that you were our countrymen."

Saturday, 10 July 2010

A Salute To 'The Few'

Battle of Britain is the name commonly given to the effort by the German Luftwaffe to gain air superiority over the Royal Air Force (RAF), before a planned sea and airborne invasion of Britain (Operation Sealion) during the Second World War.  The Battle of Britain was the first major battle to be fought entirely by air forces.  It was the largest and most sustained bombing campaign yet attempted, and the first real test of the strategic bombing theories developed since the previous World War.  The failure of Nazi Germany to destroy Britain's air force, or to break the spirit of the British government or people, is considered the Third Reich's first major defeat.

Neither Hitler nor the Wehrmacht believed it possible to carry out a successful amphibious assault on the British Isles until the RAF had been neutralized.  Secondary objectives were to destroy aircraft production and ground infrastructure, to attack areas of political significance, and to terrorize the British people with the intent of intimidating them into seeking an armistice or surrender.  Some historians have argued no invasion could have succeeded; given the massive superiority of the Royal Navy over the Kriegsmarine, Sealion would have been a disaster.  They argue the Luftwaffe would have been unable to prevent decisive intervention by RN cruisers and destroyers, even with air superiority.

British historians date the battle from 10 July to 31 October 1940, which represented the most intense period of daylight bombing. German historians usually place the beginning of the battle in mid-August 1940 and end it in May 1941, on the withdrawal of the bomber units in preparation for the attack on the USSR.

The Battle of Britain marked the first defeat of Hitler's military forces, with air superiority seen as the key to victory.  Pre-war theories led to exaggerated fears of strategic bombing, and British public opinion was invigorated by having come through the ordeal.  To Hitler it did not seem a serious setback as Britain was still not in a position to cause real damage to his plans, and the last minute invasion plan had been an unimportant addition to German strategy.  However, for the British the fighter pilots had achieved a great victory in successfully carrying out Sir Thomas Inskip's 1937 air policy of preventing the Germans from knocking Britain out of the war. It also signalled a significant shift in US opinion. During the battle many people from the US accepted the view promoted by Joseph Kennedy, the US ambassador in London, and believed that the UK could not survive.  However, Roosevelt wanted a second opinion, and sent 'Wild Bill' Donovan on a brief visit to Britain which convinced Donovan that Britain would survive and should be supported in every possible way.

Both sides in the battle made exaggerated claims of numbers of enemy aircraft shot down. In general, claims were two to three times the actual numbers, because of the confusion of fighting in dynamic three-dimensional air battles.  Postwar analysis of records has shown that between July and September, the RAF claimed over 2,698 kills for 1,023 fighter aircraft lost to all causes, where 147 Polish pilots claimed 201 out of that number, while the Luftwaffe fighters claimed 3,198 RAF aircraft downed for losses of 1,887, of which 873 were fighters.  To the RAF figure should be added an additional 376 Bomber Command and 148 Coastal Command aircraft conducting bombing, mining, and reconnaissance operations in defence of the country.

The British triumph in the Battle of Britain was not without heavy cost.  Total British civilian losses from July to December 1940 were 23,002 dead and 32,138 wounded, with one of the largest single raids occurring on 19 December 1940, in which almost 3,000 civilians died.

Winston Churchill summed up the effect of the battle and the contribution of Fighter Command with the words, "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few".  However, the brilliant leadership of Dowding and Keith Park in successfully proving their theories of air defence had created enemies amongst the RAF air marshals, and in a shabby episode both were sacked from their posts in the immediate aftermath of the battle.  Pilots who fought in the Battle have been known as The Few ever since.


  1. Dowding's and Park's treatment is often mirrored today and rife under Labours' 13 years in office.

  2. Had it not been for the Battle of Britain the western allies would have never been able to land in Normandy. If it were not for those pilots a lot more people would be speaking German right now.

  3. The better view, in my opinion, is that the U.K. was saved from invasion by the Battle of Norway. Only a few German surface warships survived the battle.

    As a result, even if the air forces of the U.K. had been greatly reduced in the Battle of Britain, the Germans could never have forced a Channel crossing against the RN.

  4. Nothing in the comment given above is intended to denigrate the achievement and the splendid performance against the odds of 'The Few' in the Battle of Britain.

  5. Yes, OR, there's something very spiteful & mean-spirited about begrudging the success of others and sadly it isn't limited to back-stabbing politicians.

    True, Trestin - the skies above the Channel were clearer for D-Day. Their courage was also a huge morale booster for ordinary Brits who were unaware of the terrible loss of life until after the war.

    Quent - I take your point and many people agree with you. The RN was superior to German forces but the BofB wasn't a stand-alone tactic and the defeat of the Luftwaffe together with the loss of German battleships shortened the odds. Besides, if you really want to win a war you have to wipe out plane for plane and ship for ship on the basis that the less of everything the enemy has the better the outcome for you.

    I don't know much about the Battle of Norway so I've put it on my reading list for tomorrow :-)

  6. GV it was such a close run thing that we should never quarrel over the ins and outs.

    The fact is that they were there at that time, at that place, in our sky, no one else was.

    One of them was laid to rest this past Thursday.


  7. There's nothing to add to that, Incoming - well said.


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