Printer Friendly

Pie in the sky? As battle of Britain Day approaches Brian James has been finding out why some of today's leading military historians argue that it was not the RAF but the Royal Navy that saved Britain in 1940.

ON SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 17TH, Britain will once again remember the epic struggle of Fighter Command in the Second World War at a service of thanksgiving and rededication in Westminster Abbey before a congregation of airmen past and present. Like the great flypast of three hundred airplanes last September, the event will encourage Britons everywhere to recall how a handful of heroes saved these islands from invasion. But is this true--or the perpetuation of a glorious myth?

It is not mere revisionist history that puts this question, and indeed offers the suggestion that it would be at least equally fitting if, on this Battle of Britain Day, the Royal Navy were to send its ships in procession along our coasts--for it was the navy, not the RAF, that prevented a German invasion in 1940. This is the contention of three senior military historians at the Joint Services Command Staff College. Together they run the High Command course that teaches the past to the air marshals, generals and admirals of the future. What today's senior officers learn of Britain's military history they learn from this trio--and some of what they may be told goes against many popular beliefs.

In the words of Dr Andrew Gordon, head of maritime history:
   I cheered like crazy at the film of the Battle of
   Britain, like everyone else. But it really is time
   to put away this enduring myth. To claim that
   Germany failed to invade in 1940 because of
   what was done by the phenomenally brave and
   skilled young men of Fighter Command is hogwash.
   The Germans stayed away because while
   the Royal Navy existed they had not a hope in
   hell of capturing these islands. The navy had
   ships in sufficient numbers to have overwhelmed
   any invasion fleet--destroyers' speed
   alone would have swamped the barges by their
   wash, hardly a need for guns.

It could perhaps be argued that Andrew Gordon looks back to the past from a sailor's perspective. Yet Dr Christina Goulter, the air warfare historian, supports his argument.
   While it would be wrong to deny the contribution
   of Fighter Command, I agree largely with
   Andrew's perspective that it was the navy that
   held the Germans from invading. As the German
   general Jodl put it, so long as the British
   navy existed, an invasion would be to send 'my
   troops into a mincing machine'.
   They had first to get past the RN. They simply
   hadn't the warships to do so. Then they'd need
   to think of the threat from our own air power.
   When Churchill talked of 'the Few' he meant
   all the RAF. It was not just Fighter Command,
   but other elements, the bombers and especially
   Coastal Command. They monitored the German
   build-up in France, they tracked German
   capital ships, and they sunk 366 Germans merchant
   ships. Their bravery and persistence was
   costly--they had a chop rate [deaths in action]
   of nearly 50 per cent. So I take a holistic
   approach--it was all of the RAF, not just the
   fighter pilots, involved in that huge effort.

This is powerful testimony by expert witnesses. Yet it is doubtful if it will change the popular perception of 1940. Few conflicts have been better documented--even the engine number of every airplane that flew is recorded. Generations of historians have examined the records and re-clothed the events in better documented facts. Yet many still prefer to believe that in the course of that summer a few hundred outnumbered young men so outfought a superior enemy as solely to prevent a certain invasion of Britain. Almost none of which is true.

That myth even survived what an airman, Wing-Commander H. R. Allen, DFC, a Spitfire pilot with 66 Squadron, wrote in 1975. 'Sadly we arrive at the conclusion that the Battle of Britain has been glorified to the point of hyperbole by historians ... the omnipotence of the air situation greatly exaggerated ... and the importance of ... command of the sea ... overlooked.' 'For writing that, his name became mud in air force circles,' says Dr Gordon. As Dr Goulter remarks:
   This is an extremely sensitive subject, even
   today. The Battle of Britain was a formative
   experience for the RAF--like Waterloo for the
   army, Trafalgar for the navy, a sacrosanct event.
   That is why there is more than a modicum of
   hostility to any suggestion of re-examining this
   history. The single-seater fighter pilots of today
   see themselves as inheriting the mantle of the
   Few; they especially do get a bit twitchy.

Dr Gordon's position challenges many long-accepted facts about the non-invasion, for example the claim that the navy could not have protected Britain had the Luftwaffe ruled the air. In his view 'The navy's rock-solid conviction was that fast-moving ships at sea, able to manoeuvre, were pretty safe from air attack.'

But weren't ships lost at Dunkirk?
   We lost six destroyers and had a cruiser damaged.
   But they were virtually stationary, picking up
   troops. A better example is Norway--where
   despite constant air attack the navy suffered no significant
   loss. There was damage from shock, from
   splinters. Nothing more. Because ships were free
   to move and fight back.

   People forget that no capital ship had ever been
   sunk by aircraft at this time. The US air force
   staged a 1920s bomber demonstration. Against old
   German warships moored, unmanned, with no
   anti-aircraft guns, no damage control. Even so it
   took three waves of bombers to sink these sitting
   ducks. Tackling the big ships of the RN in 1940
   would have been a very different task. Especially as
   the Germans could no more than dent our capital
   ships--they had no armour-piercing bombs.
   They'd had no reason for such weapons.

Yet HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, big ships, were sunk from the air off Malaya in December 1940. 'Sunk by the Japanese who did have armour-piercing bombs. And anti-shipping skills among their fliers beyond any in the world. Not until Fliegerkorp X was made ready for the attack on Crete did Germans even begin to practise attacking an enemy at sea.'

But wasn't the Bismarck cornered from the air by British forces? 'It was slowed by a brave--but lucky-torpedo of the Fleet Air Arm. But the Germans simply did not have such similarly trained torpedo crews--the Luftwaffe was a strike force designed to support an army on the ground.'

What about the suggestion that German minefields would have created a cordon across the Dover Straits to prevent RN interference with the invasion fleet? Gordon rejoins: 'A minefield, laid by whom?' The British in 1940 had fifty-two minesweepers, plus sixteen minesweeping trawlers in home waters. The Germans had just four minelayers with their western fleet.
   The disparity between the navies was huge: as with
   destroyers--we had thirty-six close by, as many
   more escorting convoys which could have been on
   station in two days. They had perhaps eight in
   total: we had five capital ships in home waters; they
   had none available--Graf Spee, sunk; Scharnhorst,
   Gneisenau, damaged by torpedoes, the Hipper, by
   ramming: the Bismarck, still under construction.

   Anyway, in an emergency, the Royal Navy steams
   straight through minefields as they did when pursuing
   the Scharnhorst. They have a drill, following
   line astern--'each ship can sweep one mine' is the
   rather grim joke.'

So even if German aircraft had placed a minefield?
   The navy would have steamed straight through.
   Can you imagine the RN's targets? An invasion
   fleet of Rhine barges, moving at about two knots
   over the water, with a freeboard of a few feet ... an
   absolute field day for our navy. So that was the
   nightmare for the German navy. They knew it just
   couldn't happen.

So if the Germans were neither capable nor prepared to tackle the Royal Navy, then why even contemplate invasion?
   Perhaps they didn't. What you need to remember--and
   this gets rid of another great myth-Hitler
   had no plans for a long, total war. He
   hadn't prepared his economy for it, or made
   plans for it. He had a script for the short, brutal
   fight he had in Western
   Europe. He reached the
   last page of that script on the coast at Dunkirk.
   'Show over, now the fat lady sings.' And, according
   to that script, Britain
   was supposed, at this
   point, to be reasonable--
   do a deal. It was only
   when Churchill said no
   deal that Hitler had to
   come up with a new
   game plan.

Andrew Gordon says that the German navy had already done all the planning back in 1939, and had utterly rejected the whole notion of an invasion. 'I am not saying that no Germans in a first wave would have got ashore. But how to supply and reinforce them? It would take twelve days to get a second wave of invaders across the channel. By then the Royal Navy would have run riot.'

The third member of the JSCSC academic team, Professor Gary Sheffield, is its leading land warfare historian. What does he think?
   I go along largely with Andrew's scenario. I am
   more certain than he that some Germans would
   have got ashore. But how long they could have
   stayed is a different matter. It depends when we
   are talking about. In May 1940 our forces were
   in a pretty bad state. An enemy landing there
   would have been hard to pin down. By September
   things had changed dramatically: the army
   had 500 anti-tank guns compared with 170 earlier;
   350 medium tanks and 500 light tanks compared
   with 80 and 170.

   But even in the early weeks of invasion threat,
   we had just enough force with the remnants of
   the BEF to have delayed German troops. An
   outer 'crust', including the Home Guard
   which would buy time by the day, the hour,
   until the Navy arrived.

The Home Guard? But surely ...
   Another myth we might dispose of. Dad's
   Army ... and knives tied to broomsticks. In
   fact the average age of the Home Guard was
   around thirty-five. And about half these men
   had served in World War One. Once you had
   trained and fought in a modern war, you
   don't forget everything you learned.
   They were poorly armed at first, but once
   500,000 rifles arrived from North
   America in July, they would have had a key part
   in delaying German troops. In fact it is almost
   impossible to come up with a creditable scenario
   in which a German invasion could have
   sustained itself so long as the navy existed.

Andrew Gordon says that by September 1940 the German army--which 'didn't have a clue how you scale up the technique they used for river-crossings to tackle swift tidal waters'--now had an excuse, like the navy, to blame the Luftwaffe. It had failed to deliver on Goering's boast. 'No great defeat in the air for the RAF? ... ah ha! Therefore, sorry, no invasion.'

Why did Hitler go through the motions of assembling barge-fleets and so on? 'To try to make Churchill be reasonable. Hitler would have offered very easy terms rather than let the fight go on.' Did Churchill truly believe invasion was possible? 'He was fairly frank in his books. Part of his defiance was a hook to draw the Americans in. Part was hype to keep the British public behind hint. And hype to keep the trade unions quiet--the last six months in 1940 was the only time in WW2 that Churchill had no trouble with trade unions.'

Some historians have always tried to explode the myths surrounding the Battle of Britain, particularly that the RAF was outnumbered. In a detailed account of events (Battle of Britain Day, September 15th, 1940, 1999) Alfred Price pointed out that on that day the RAF twice put around 250 fighters into the air--and still used less than half its available strength, against a Germany that used every fighter it possessed. The losses that day--56 German (compared with the 185 claimed at the time) against 29 RAF--convinced the Luftwaffe it was not winning. In 1990 Clive Ponting showed that while Britain had 644 fighters against Germany's 725 at the beginning of the battle, by October superior British production methods had changed the balance in Britain's favour. But what of the fliers? 30 per cent of our trained pilots, Ponting claimed, were tied down in desk jobs throughout the conflict.

Then why did the myth of outnumbered heroes and a nation about to be swamped take such hold--and resist amendment? Social historian Angus Calder has one answer:
   My sister lived through 1940 and she knows that
   every single day was sunny--no matter what
   meteorological records say. We had a need for
   heroes in 1940, the process of myth-building
   was absolutely necessary--myths are facts which
   circumstances needed to create. At that time
   they enabled Britain to feel stronger than it was
   --producing the men who stopped the Nazis in
   their tracks. So who now wants to know that the
   Luftwaffe lost fewer men in fighter aircraft than
   did the RAF? If it was necessary in 1940 to
   believe in our military heroes, later it became
   doubly necessary as our colonies fell away.

Why does only part of the RAF takes a bow each September? Richard Simpson, curator at the RAF Museum, says 'That by 'the Few', Churchill meant all the RAF is not in doubt; the perception that it was all down to Fighter Command is simply erroneous. However, for fighter pilots it was a clear-cut and clean victory, one without a moral dimension, one all could subscribe to. But mention the huge courage and bigger sacrifice of Bomber Command ... and how long before someone mentions Hamburg, or Dresden?'

Historian Richard Overy confirms this:
   The battle was a defining moment of the country's
   wartime experience--like Stalingrad for
   Russians. It has taken on a life of its own. In
   1940, the total acceptance of the story's simple
   broad-brush strokes was very necessary. Facts
   juggled to present the picture in the most simplistic
   terms, a caricature. And this has proved
   very difficult to dent. There has been critical
   writing about some of the "facts" for more than
   sixty years, but the public have no interest vested
   in beginning to disbelieve. Perhaps, in the
   50s and 60s, with the loss of empire, and clear
   evidence that Britain was no longer a world
   power, they had a vested interest in keeping the
   myth alive.

Who now remembers, asks Professor Overy, that Churchill's famous speech about 'the Few', on August 20th, 'had about six lines devoted to Fighter Command, and twenty-two lines to Bomber Command?'

Surely, it comes to this: that the epic Fighter Command air battle that we acknowledged again this month was simply a marvellously heroic thing of itself, and has no need to be tricked out in the colours of a false strategic importance? Andrew Gordon answers this way: 'The RAF's was a substitute victory--a substitute for the certain victory over Sealion, had the Germans been mad enough to attempt invasion.'

Brian James is an award-winning Fleet Street journalist now concentrating on military history.
COPYRIGHT 2006 History Today Ltd.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2006 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:TODAY'S HISTORY; Royal Air Force
Author:James, Brian
Publication:History Today
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 1, 2006
Previous Article:How our enemy made us better: Federico Guillermo Lorenz looks at Argentinian memories of the second world war during and after the Malvinas-Falklands...
Next Article:Poitiers: high point of the hundred years' war: Ian Mortimer remembers the English triumph at Poitiers in September 1356, and suggests that this...

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |