Wednesday, 15 September 2010

And now for something different: Battle of Britain Day

Today is the official Battle of Britain Day in the UK. Most years it passes without much fanfare, but as this year is the 70th anniversary of the campaign there has been a much greater focus on it through television programming, newspaper and online coverage.


The Battle of Britain was fought in the summer of 1940 and, at the time and still in the British popular imagination, marked the defeat of the most serious threat to the continued existence of the UK in nine centuries. Seven decades of historical research and access to the German archives have shown that the danger was considerably less than imagined at the time. The ability of the Germans to mount an invasion of Britain in the summer or autumn of 1940 can best be described as 'risible', something that Hitler was well aware of, and the preparations for invasion were effectively a smoke-and-mirrors campaign designed to shock the British into coming to terms before the Germans turned their attention eastwards. The German navy had been mauled in the Norway campaign and it had absolutely no landing craft to speak of, certainly nothing to compare to the array of specialised, multi-purpose machines fielded by the British and American forces on D-Day. The prospect of the Wehrmacht storming ashore at Eastbourne from pleasure yachts and canal barges (basically an offensive version of the retreat from Dunkirk), with little to no support from Panzers or mobile artillery, seems rather farcical, a notion shared by Hitler and most of his commanders.

Of course, Hermann Goering, in typically understated style, declared that the Luftwaffe could do the job of artillery, tanks and ships all one go, knocking out the RAF, sinking the Royal Navy and providing effective air cover for the invasion force (despite the slight problem that the Luftwaffe's best fighters only had enough fuel to stay over south-eastern Britain for 15 minutes at a time, and couldn't reach the north of the country at all). The RAF disabused him of this notion over the course of three months of fierce combat, during which time the Luftwaffe lost a startling five times as many pilots and aircrew as the British and their allies (French, Czech and Polish pilots also played major roles in the battle, as did many from the Commonwealth countries and a single squadron of Americans, notably not including Ben Affleck).

Eventually, admitting that the Luftwaffe could not do this job (causing a loss of face for Goering that he never entirely recovered from), Hitler ordered his air forces to switch their focus to bombing London and other cities in a terror-bombing campaign, which was not particularly successful either. Even this campaign was drastically reduced the following year when the frustrated Germans launched their invasion of the Soviet Union instead, beginning the two-front war Hitler had once vowed never to launch and which led to his eventual demise.

Whilst the UK was not in as great a danger of invasion as envisaged at the time, the Battle of Britain was still strategically important. It demonstrated to the rest of the world that Britain was still in the fight, and the defeat of the perceived serious threat of invasion was regarded as Hitler's first major military upset during the Second World War, denting his aura of invulnerability (in fact, it was arguably the first time Hitler had not taken a gamble and won since the Munich Putsch of 1923). American popular and political support, which was somewhat lukewarm whilst it appeared that Britain's defeat was imminent, was rallied and helped convince the American government to increase its material support of Britain over the following year. In addition, the demonstration of the effectiveness of British airpower led to aerial offensives against military and industrial targets in Germany and occupied France continuing with cessation until the end of the war, hampering German military adventures elsewhere. British technology, particularly in the fields of radar and aircraft design, was also improved immensely by experiences during the battle (the Spitfire, whose contribution to the battle is sometimes overstated to the detriment of its cousin the Hurricane, went on to become a very fine aircraft in later stages of the war). Finally, the simple fact that Britain was still in the fight tied down roughly a million German troops in France and Norway that were not available to reinforce the Eastern Front, troops whose absence the Germans would come to rue in December 1941 outside the suburbs of Moscow.

The battle also impacted on my family. One of grandfathers was an ARP warden working in London during the battle and the Blitz that followed, whilst the other worked as RAF ground-crew on several airfields in the south-east. My home town of Colchester was not directly attacked, but dozens of airfields were located all around it which took part in the battle, whilst my older aunts and uncles watched the battle as children from their back gardens. I grew up with stories of this time, which informed my later interest in this period.

One thing that cannot be disputed is that thousands of pilots and aircrew (many still in their teens), and thousands more civilians, were killed during this period. The heroism and sacrifice of these people should not be forgotten.

11 comments:

Wise Bass said...

I grew up with stories of this time, which informed my later interest in this period.

Same here. My paternal grandfather worked in a factory in London (he volunteered for military service, but was turned down due to flat feet and inadequate eyesight - it really pissed him off, according to my father), and my paternal grandmother did something in London at the time (I can't remember where she worked).

Both of them talked about bombing during the "Battle of Britain" period, as well as some of the unpleasant later stuff (like the V-1 and V-2 bombs).

Lagomorph Rex said...

I wish that I had something really great to say, something to honour these men, and women, who flew the planes and operated the radar stations and the switchboards. But I really have no words that are good enough for what these heroic people deserve.

vacuouswastrel said...

I've said this before, but it's worth repeating: I think the stories we tell about the importance of the Battle of Britain are tasteless self-aggrandisement.

What was the strategic significance of the Battle of Britain? Well, look at it's scale. During the whole of the war, German losses across the WHOLE of the Western (and African) Front were about 300,000. 400,000 maybe max.

That is: more Axis soldiers died at Stalingrad than on the whole of the Western Front. In total, more than ten times as many died in the East as in the West.

Britain's skirmish against Germany was only ever a minor sideshow beside the real war. Those million men held back in the west? Leaving aside that for most of the war the western forces were only the reserves anyway, mostly those not trusted to fight well in the east, the Axis army had five times more soldiers TAKEN PRISONER in the east than they had IN TOTAL in the west. The west had one million men - out of EIGHTEEN MILLION Germans in total, not even including their allies. And since they would have needed troops to keep the West pacified, and guard against possible American invasion, and since they needed somewhere to put units not on active service in the east, it's not as though capturing britain would have freed up that one-eighteenth of their total forces.

The Eastern Front was a war of 35 million Soviet soldiers against 20 million Axis soldiers. The million or so who were diverted to the west, many of whom would have been there anyway, were frankly irrelevant to the outcome. And if, in the final account, those million men had been defending Berlin and seemed somehow to be making a difference that the other twenty million couldn't make... well then, I imagine Stalin wouldn't have attacked Japan! Since he sent more men to Manchuria than Hitler sent to France.


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No, I don't want to devalue the sacrifice of those who died. I want us to value that sacrifice by not making it hinge on some other, imagined, significance. The important thing about Britain not being conquered is that Britain was not conquered. This was incredibly important... for the British. And quite important for those living under occupation in other Western countries.

We just shouldn't have to make claims about how important every moment of British history is in terms of world affairs, in order to respect our own dead, who died for our own people. One day we're just going to have to face up to the fact that what's important to us may not be important to everyone; that maybe it shouldn't be. They have their own histories.

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Anyway, I'm not trying to argue with you. Just trying to express some perspective for others.

vacuouswastrel said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
vacuouswastrel said...

Oh, apologies if I posted twice. It gave me an error message, and I've only just seen that you're now screening posts. Sorry about that.

Adam Whitehead said...

Next summer, as we get to the 70th anniversary of Barbarossa, the Siege of Leningrad, the Battle of Moscow and so forth, certainly expect to see more blog posts about those parts of the conflict.

As for the other points, they are largely spurious. In the summer of 1940 Britain was the only country fighting against Nazi Germany, aided by those elements of conquered countries which had sought refuge in Britain. Soviet Russia was hiding behind its cynical pact with Germany, smugly believing themselves to be safe until Hitler showed them how thin a paper shield can be. Russia suffered catastrophic losses in the war, it is true, but many of those losses can be attributed to Stalin's own actions and his inaction in the face of overwhelming evidence of the imminence of a German attack.

That Russia can take say 85% or more of the credit for defeating Germany is not in question. However, it cannot take 100%. And using overall total-war figures of men mobilised doesn't really apply to the specific situations in 1940 and 1941, when manpower and mobilisiation rates between the various countries were at different levels. Those million men held in the west would have made little overall strategic difference if sent to the Eastern Front in 1944 or 1945, but in 1941? That would have expended the German attacking strength by about a third again, adding an entire fourth army group to the Barbarossa invasion forces, which would have been the knock-out punch the Germans needed to take Moscow, complete the encirclement of Leningrad or push further south towards the Caucasus.

Yeah, Russia's role has been undersold shamefully in the past and that is now being rectified, but in the process the important role played by the Western Allies certainly does not need to be belittled.

Marc said...

That was a good write-up, Adam, with careful balancing of the legend and the reality. The Battle of Britain was important, even if it didn't actually "save" Britain.

I was long a believer in the idea of the the Soviet contribution to the war being undervalued. But reading the works of John Mosier, especially Deathride, has reinforced many small points I picked up over the years in reading a variety of obscure unit histories and memoirs from this era. The Soviets would likely have been beaten, as the Czarist Russians were in WW1, if not for the massive aid provided by the British and Americans, and the opening of other fronts in Tunisia and in the air over Germany. These things, and threat of eventual invasion in Western Europe, drew away more and more German resources from the Eastern Front, and allowed Stalin to eventual achieve a hollow victory.

Adam Whitehead said...

I think the Russians themselves would be the first to agree that American and British equipment helped them out a lot, particularly the US jeeps, lorries and railway trucks which played a vital role in keeping their armies supplied later in the war, whilst Allied tanks were useful in rear-echelon duties (the Soviets disdained the somewhat underpowered Sherman M4, preferring to use their own, vastly superior, T-34s on the front) and British aircraft plugged the gap between the Germans wiping out most of the Soviet Air Force in the opening days of the conflict and their replacements eventually coming on-stream.

The problem is that the timeline is not favourable to the idea that Lend-Lease 'saved' the Russians. The attack on Pearl Harbour took place on the same day that the Russians managed to halt the Germans on the outskirts of Moscow. Whilst peacetime Lend-Lease had taken place before that, the scale was not particularly huge. The truly massive Arctic Convoys did not start arriving until months later in 1942, perhaps in time to play a role at Stalingrad or Kursk, but arguably only after the most dangerous most of the war for the Soviets during the battle for Moscow.

Certainly my conclusion (and I haven't read any recent research to suggest otherwise) is that Lend-Lease had a significant and probably undervalued contribution in hugely speeding the pace of the Soviet recovery and counter-attack, but that the Soviets did almost all of the legwork in saving themselves in late 1941.

Lagomorph Rex said...

The suspension system that made the T-34 so formidable, was itself based on a Design by New Jersey race car driver Walter Christie. It really is a shame that the US war department didn't pay close enough attention to his designs. But the Russians certainly saw the merit in them.


I don't want to ever be accused of trying to downplay the gargantuan efforts of the Red Army, or its tremendous sacrifices. But it really was a group effort.

I've been very interested of late in the efforts of countries you don't normally associate with the War. The Aztec Eagles of Mexico fought in the Philippines, and Brazil sent an Expeditionary force to the Italian campaign and conducted anti submarine warfare in the South Atlantic.

My great Grandmother worked in a munitions plant during the war in Britain, my Grandmother lived in London during the Blitz. And what would have been my great aunt died when a bomb struck her house. So I've heard a lot about the British side of the conflict.. But I still look forward to the Russian VE day parade every year.. nobody can put on a parade like they can.

Adam Whitehead said...

Yup, my grandmother, uncle and two of my aunts also came very close to being killed by a V1 that flattened their neighbourhood (and obviously I wouldn't have been here in that case, as my mother wasn't born until after the war) but left their house standing (although damaged).

The lesser-known facets of the war are fascinating. South America is often said to have sat out the war, but Brazil was a member of the Allies and the first major British success of the war, the scuttling of the German battleship Graf Spree, happened in Montevideo harbour. Christopher Priest's WWII/SF crossover novel THE SEPARATION also focuses on the political intrigue and clandestine contacts that took place between Axis and Allies agents in neutral countries like Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland, which is usually under-reported as well.

Marc said...

Actually, Mosier convinced me that the usual timeline of the Eastern Front is wrong. The Germans were beaten at Moscow, but the 1942 fighting in the south, that concluded with the German recapture of Kharkov in March 1943, ended up as a draw. Even with German losses at Stalingrad, they were killing vastly more Soviets than they themselves were losing. The Germans could likely have forced the Soviets into a draw in 1943 and beyond, but the lend-lease supply of vehicles allowed the Red Army to finally advance faster than the Germans could retreat, which is why the Germans never had the initiative again after the summer of 1943. There's more to it than this, but Deathride makes fascinating reading even if you don't fully agree with Mosier's ideas.

On the T-34, it was a great design on paper, and in the field it was in many ways superior to German tanks of 1941-42. But it is now being realized that the workmanship on wartime models was highly shoddy, to the point they had very short service lives, and with very few spare parts produced, the average T-34 was quickly out of action. The Soviets and the Germans both highly valued the Sherman for its mechanical reliability. The Red Army used them as battle tanks in elite units designed for deep thrusts (where the lack of broken down tanks was essential), while the Germans used any they could capture as turretless armored recovery vehicles. The Sherman was at a real disadvantage in fighting Panthers and Tigers, but it had its uses ;-)