9. The Battle of Britain

ADOLF HITLER STOOD TRIUMPHANT on the continent of Europe; he was master from the Neimen to the Pyrénées, from the North Cape to Sicily. No one for a century and a half had done what he had just done. His chief enemy may always have been Slavdom, or bolshevism, and the campaign in the West no more than a diversion of his true direction; in spite of all the words written about him, and quoting him, no one knows for sure. If he was just another military opportunist, then he had worked wonders; if his true aim was the Heartland of the World Island, then he had made a grievous mistake and like Caesar, grievously would he answer for it. As the leader who defeated the world’s greatest military power in six weeks, his mark on history was already made. What next?

There remained England, aloof across the “greatest anti-tank ditch in the world.” That twenty miles of water had once been a highway for invasion: Romans, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Danes, Vikings, Normans, and Dutch William had all used it freely; for a millennium England was one of the most invaded countries in history. But then the English had put their house in order and their faith in a powerful navy, and the highway of invasion became an impassable barrier to it. This was not the Ardennes. Philip II, Louis XIV, and Napoleon had all gazed across that narrow body of water, failed to cross it, and turned elsewhere in disgust. The French, when they were not trying to cross it, did their best to disregard it; it was only La Manche, “the sleeve.” But to Englishmen it became more than the Channel, it became the “English Channel.” Now once again it stood between them and conquest.

In truth, it was about all that did stand between them and Hitler. While Churchill in the Commons was rallying his country with words that might well have been lifted from Shakespeare—“Come the three corners of the world in arms and we shall shock them”—Englishmen were desperately looking for weapons to fight with. They dug holes in the fields to plant stakes against gliders; they organized a Home Guard, “Dad’s Army,” the newspapers called it; the hunt clubs of the southeastern counties turned out with their shotguns and fowling pieces, to be photographed wearing self-conscious looks of grim determination. The army rescued from Dunkirk was busy re-equipping and reorganizing; every day’s new production from the factories was precious—yet at the height of the battle, Churchill would send the last seventy tanks off to Egypt; he later said, “I have not become the King’s First Minister to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.”

Tanks, in the final reckoning, made little difference. If it ever came to using seventy tanks against the Germans the game would already have been lost. What counted now was whether or not the Royal Navy could hold the Channel: “It is upon the navy, under the good providence of God, that the wealth, safety, and strength of the kingdom do chiefly depend….” For two hundred and fifty years the navy had never let down its guard. In time of danger it had always coalesced in the Channel and it had always held. Now to the question, Could the navy hold the Channel? had to be added, Could the Royal Air Force hold the air over the Channel?

The problems faced by both sides were enormous, and they had never been faced before. Never in history had one nation tried to defeat another from the air. The whole Battle of Britain was so new, and in the end such a near-run thing, that it is probably the most tantalizing of all the single episodes of World War II.

Hitler ordered preliminary planning for the invasion of Britain, Operation Sea Lion, while the Battle of France was still in progress. This presented the Germans with problems they had not previously considered; there was no tradition of amphibious warfare in German history. The Wehrmacht was a land animal; it could do a river crossing, but the Channel was not quite a river. The navy was not much help; it had no tradition of amphibious warfare either. The German Navy grew up out of a branch of the Coast Artillery, fathered by the vaulting ambition of Admiral von Tirpitz. Except for Norway, it had never landed on a hostile shore, and the British were not likely to be gulled the way the Norwegians had been. Could you use canal barges to cross the Channel? did you have to have a seaport or could you go over open beaches? how much backup shipping would you need for logistics? No one was sure, but being German, the Germans began working, and the plan began to take shape. The Dutch and French Channel ports began to fill with barges and tugs; the troops began to practice clambering in and out of them. The army needed time to reorganize from its sweeping victory over France; the navy was still in bad shape from the beating it took in the Norwegian campaign. But slowly, things began to fall into shape.

The urgency was less theirs than the Luftwaffe’s, anyway. For the Germans to invade, the navy must dominate the Channel. But before it could do that the Luftwaffe must dominate the air over the Channel. By now, after Norway, both the British and the Germans recognized it would be naval suicide to take their big ships into the narrow waters under enemy air control. So it was up to the Luftwaffe; it must gain control of the airspace over northwest France and the Low Countries, the Channel, and southeastern England. In yet another of their legendary feats of organization, the Germans were getting set by the end of June. The units of the ever-victorious Luftwaffe moved into the Channel airfields of France, Belgium, and Holland. Though the newest of the Germans armed services, they considered themselves the elite; they were also particularly the “Nazi” service, built by Hitler, commanded by his old friend and close supporter, Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering. They believed in what they were doing. Unlike the “decadent” British, they marched out to their planes in the morning, singing. At least for a while.

They would be hampered in the coming battle by the inadequacy of their equipment. In the Messerschmitt Bf109e they had one of the world’s great fighter aircraft; it was marginally better than the most plentiful British fighter, the Hurricane. Unfortunately, it was marginally inferior to the newer Spitfire. The Germans had a twin-engine long-range fighter, the ME110; it would prove disastrous. Their bombers, the Heinkel and the Dornier, were already obsolescent and would lack range, carrying capacity, and defensive armament. In the mid-thirties, the Germans had made their choice; they had gone for tactical aircraft and medium bombers. Now, with a strategic objective in view, they were about to overreach themselves.

This was not known at the time. Neither the British nor the Germans knew what was going to happen. No one even knew what it would take to achieve the kind of conditions desired. If the Germans overestimated their strength, the British underestimated their residual resources. They were hopelessly weak on the ground, and the army would stand little chance against the Germans if it came to that. But the air force was still intact. Most of the Advanced Air Striking Force had gone down the drain in France, and there had been a steady bleeding of squadrons from Britain into the fighting over Dunkirk and northern France. But they reached a point where the Air Staff had put its foot down: if any more squadrons were sent to the aid of France, they would not be responsible for the safety of Britain. It was embarrassing for Churchill to tell Reynaud, but it had the effect of preserving the fifty-nine squadrons of the Metropolitan Air Force for home defense. There would be crucial problems of providing trained pilots, but there was one advantage here: fighting largely over their own territory, the British pilots would often live to fight again. German pilots would go into the Channel or into P. O. W. cages. So crucial would the question of pilot availability become that at one point the British would order their planes to shoot down German air-sea rescue seaplanes carrying the Red Cross, an order that was little publicized and bitterly resented by the R. A. F. itself, whose pilots knew they might well find themselves in the same situation as the Germans someday.

The British did have one advantage over the Germans: they had a radar net to give them early warning of the German approach. It was a crude system but it worked. Radio direction-finding, as it was originally called, had been developed by both the British and the Germans just before the war. It was, ironically, a by-product of the search for a “death-ray” in the science-fiction days of the early thirties. The Germans knew the British had such a system; after all, they had a similar one themselves. Why they paid it so little attention remains one of the mysteries, like so many other things, of World War II.

In the last analysis, it was none of these material or technological matters that saved Britain in the summer of 1940. It was intelligence misassessments and command failures—human errors.

The Battle of Britain went through a series of different phases, marked by the Luftwaffe switching targets as they went along. In the first of these, or the first two of them, depending on how one counted, the Germans attacked the east coast shipping lanes and then the port and docking facilities of southeastern England. The whole period, lasting from early July to the second week of August, was called by the Germans the Kanalkampf, the “Channel Battle.” This was only a preliminary phase, before the Germans really hit their stride, and to a certain extent it was a misdirection of effort, concentrating on what the eighteenth-century French Navy had called “the ulterior motive”; the primary motive was the destruction of the Royal Air Force. Nonetheless, Channel strikes were a two-edged sword: either the R. A. F. would defend the shipping, and be sucked into a battle of attrition, or it would not defend them, in which case the shipping would be sunk, leading to paralysis of the east coast cities and eventual strangulation of the battle area anyway.

British Fighter Command, led by Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, did not plan to protect the coastal shipping, so they soon found themselves caught in the bind of the initial German strategy. They committed minimal support to the convoys, which took heavy losses. The pressure on the R. A. F. to provide more cover mounted, and there was a steady attrition of aircraft and pilots. The R. A. F. was not tremendously effective in this phase. Pilots had to learn new tactics, the radar and communications nets were still clumsy, and whole system needed a good shakedown period. As the Germans too were just getting organized, both sides had their troubles. Still, the initiative lay with the Luftwaffe; it was the more-experienced service in combat, and the Germans were satisfied with the way the battle was developing.

More than anything else, the British were conscious of the necessity to husband their resources. They waited until the Germans were at the limit of their range, over the coast or at least the English side of the Channel, then they intercepted with small groups of fighters—a dozen was a large-scale interception—and they kept a tight control from the ground over their pilots. The early German tactic was to send over bombers with a high-level fighter escort. The British responded by sending their Spitfires after the German fighters to keep them busy, and then sending the slower Hurricanes after the bombers to break up their formations.

For all the retrospective appearance of order and logical sequence, both sides were groping in the dark. This had never been done before, and neither the Luftwaffe nor the R. A. F. was fully in control of its battle. In Britain there were arguments between senior commanders about the best way to counter the enemy, there were mistakes with the communications system, there were misassessments all along the line. On the other side of the Channel the Germans were striking out equally blindly. They hit at convoys, then they hit ports, then they hit scattered factories; they were waiting for the big day, but they were not entirely sure what to do while waiting, or if the things they were doing would bring that big day nearer. Over the summer of the battle, they played out the same kind of learn-as-you-go game the Allied bomber offense would play for the next four years.

One mistake both sides made: they invariably overestimated the extent of the damage they were causing the enemy. The British were sure they knocked down about twice as many German planes as they actually did, and in spite of a severe system of checking battle claims, they constantly said they were shooting down far more Germans than they were. The Germans made the same error, but since the casualties fell over enemy-held territory, they had even less check on their pilots’ claims, and they seriously inflated their damage estimates. By the third week in July, they thought the R. A. F. was already within measurable distance of being wiped out. This would be a fatal mistake at the later stages of the campaign, and if any one mistake cost the Germans the battle, it was probably this one.

As July wore on, the problems of the R. A. F. became increasingly acute. The techniques of interception were running more smoothly, but the men and machines to effect the interceptions were disappearing. Maybe the Germans were right, and the R. A. F. would give out.

The fighter-production problem was solved by the appointment of an energetic Canadian businessman, Lord Beaverbrook, as Minister of Aircraft Production. His appointment had been one of Churchill’s first moves as Prime Minister, and he rode roughshod over all the happy dilatory routines of peace. Factory managers and senior air force officers alike came to hate him, but without him, or someone equally acerbic, it is hard to see how the British would have lasted through that summer. He provided a steadily increasing flow of aircraft, so that in spite of losses of well over 100 percent of strength, the R. A. F. still ended the battle stronger than it went into it.

What Beaverbrook could not find were the pilots to man the planes he produced. Only about 3,000 R. A. F. pilots took part in the entire Battle of Britain, but the wastage was such that they became progressively less skilled and experienced as the battle wore on. They started at a disadvantage; even the regulars among them had little combat time, compared to Germans who had often fought in Spain, and then over Poland and France. As fighting and accidents took their toll, newer and newer pilots were filtered into the fight. The first few days were crucial, and if they lived long enough to acquire some skills, their chances got progressively better. Then they peaked off, and as fatigue and fear told against them, their chances weakened again. Though about 80 percent of the pilots were British, there was a good number of dominion fliers among them, a smattering of Americans, and quite a few Czechs and Poles, experienced pilots whose major problem was coping with the English language but who were fanatically keen to kill Germans; the high-scoring R. A. F. pilot in the battle was actually a Czech, Sergeant Pilot Josef Frantisek.

It was August before the Germans were fully ready for their main assault. Goering and the Germans designated it Adlerangriff, “the Eagle Attack,” and August 13 was set for Adlertag, “Eagle Day.” On the day before, as a useful preliminary, the Luftwaffe would send precision units in to knock out the main radar stations, and some writers date the attack from the 12th. The R. A. F. and its support system was to be the main target in this phase of the battle, and the Germans were going to go all out to achieve air superiority. On the 12th, they damaged but did not wholly destroy the radar chain on the south coast.

Next day, the day of the great assault, almost everything went wrong. The weather was chancy, and the assault was canceled. Only about half the units involved got the cancellation order, so half an attack was put in instead of the full-scale blow. The sky cleared in the afternoon, and the Luftwaffe came out in force, hitting radar stations, airfields, and aircraft factories. They flew almost fifteen hundred sorties, and the British responded with about seven hundred.

Two days later, the Germans decided on another all-out effort, with attacks not only from across the Channel but also from across the North Sea in Denmark and Norway. Again there was muddle and mix-up, with the weather playing tricks, and the Germans losing coordination. The R. A. F. lost about fifty planes, and the Germans perhaps slightly more. The Germans thought they had done poorly, however, and gloomily christened the 15th “black Thursday.” More important, they decided that their attacks on the radar stations were not paying off—just as they were beginning to—and they discontinued them, another in their chain of fatal mistakes.

Unable to assess the results of their work, the Germans began shifting targets, thus giving any stricken element in the British defense time to recuperate. The British were also modifying their tactics; they began to intercept the Germans farther out, in an attempt to break up their formations before they reached the airfields; the Germans responded by flying closer fighter escort. By the last week in August, the battle was approaching a crescendo. The Germans believed they had the R. A. F. on the ropes, and they were nearly right. The fighter pilots were exhausted; new pilots were coming into the battle with only the most rudimentary training. Some of the air stations nearest to the Germans were virtually inoperable. The Germans were taking heavy losses as well, but Goering now demanded from his Luftwaffe commanders, Kesselring and Sperrle, an all-out effort. For the last week in August and the first week in September they gave it to him.

These two weeks were like the climax of a prize fight, when two boxers, lost in the fight and oblivious to blows received, stand up and slug away at each other toe to toe. The Germans concentrated on the airfields in Kent and around London. Both sides took heavy casualties and both overestimated the damage they were doing.

To get at the London perimeter airfields, the Germans often flew up the Thames. On the night of August 25, one German bomber got lost, and dropped its bomb load on the center of London, the City. There had already been attacks on the dock areas and on some of the suburbs, where aircraft facilities of one kind or another were located. Up to this point, however, the Germans had generally tried, within the loose limits of their equipment, to strike at obviously military targets. After the Rotterdam raid during the campaign of Holland, British Bomber Command had begun raids on the Ruhr Valley. Now, after this stray hit in the heart of London, they ordered an attack on Berlin. The German leaders branded this an atrocity and swore vengeance. Out of these two arguable accidents, the bombing of Rotterdam and the hit against central London by a lost German aircrew, came all the attacks on civilian targets during the next several years. Perhaps, in a world that had already seen Guernica and the Japanese bombing of Chinese cities, such escalation was inevitable; that did not make it less a blot on twentieth-century civilization.

By the first of September, the Germans were winning; the R. A. F. had no more fresh squadrons to provide rotations, on several days in this period they lost more planes than their factories produced, the factories themselves were under attack, and if the Luftwaffe could keep up the pressure, they were home free. Then they made another mistake: they decided to believe their own figures. They gave up the direct strikes against the Royal Air Force.

On the afternoon of September 7, nearly a thousand German bombers struck at London. Because of British misassessment of the objective, they were virtually unopposed. Covering a block of sky twenty miles wide by forty miles long, and almost two miles thick, they droned over the city sowing destruction. Goering himself came west in his special train, and he and his commanders stood not too far from Napoleon’s statue above Boulogne, to watch the armada pass overhead. The “London Blitz” had begun.

In a contradictory way, it was just what the British needed. London was like a vast sponge, and it absorbed damage as a sponge does water. Casualties were heavy, but the British rose to the occasion. Many children had already been evacuated from the city and resettled in the country or overseas in Canada and elsewhere. For the Londoners, it became a point of honor to carry on. They slept in the subways, they fought fires and manned auxiliary posts, they at last made sense of Chamberlain’s prosaic slogan “Business as usual.” The whole Blitz should have been an object lesson for those theorists of air power who said that civilian populations would never be able to withstand aerial bombardment.

The German attack on London achieved three of Britain’s objectives, and none of Germany’s. It allowed the Royal Air Force to get its second wind and survive. The British came back so strongly, and so surprisingly, that the Germans went from daylight bombing to night bombing, a tacit admission that they could no longer match the R. A. F. in the air over England during daylight. Secondly, it provided justification for the British to use their strongest—their only—offensive weapon more freely. Bomber Command of the Royal Air Force continued its strikes against Berlin. At this stage they were not as massive as the German attacks by any means, but that would not always be the case.

The third result was a psychological one. However much war is fought with material, it is not fought with that alone. One of Churchill’s great dreams, and his only real hope of ultimate victory, was that the United States would eventually realize that this war had more to it than a replay of World War I, that it was in the final analysis an assertion of human values against the negation of them, and that Americans would join in the war. He had an uphill struggle because of the residual attitudes from World War I, because of American isolationism, and because of the attitudes of leading Americans such as Ambassador Kennedy. But few things touched American opinion more than the photos of St. Paul’s Cathedral outlined against the flames of burning London, or of school-children in trenches watching while the battle raged overhead. Slowly the tide of opinion began to turn.

Of these three things, however, only the first was of immediate benefit. Britain saved herself by her own efforts, not by future goodwill. It was a close-run battle, and at times it looked as if Britain were losing it. On September 12 the government put out an invasion alert, but the scare passed. It was the first week of October before the Germans were forced back to night bombing, and the Blitz went on through November and into the bad-weather months.

One of the most famous events of the Blitz was the bombing, in November, of the city of Coventry. Heavy damage was done, the great medieval cathedral destroyed, and many people killed or injured. By that time the British had broken the German codes, and some authorities have written that the government actually had advance knowledge of the impending attack, but decided to take no extraordinary measures, on the belief that the security of their code-breaking system was more vital to the long-term war effort than the preservation of one city. Other writers have maintained with equal vehemence that the raid was not known of in advance. The British reading of German signals did become increasingly important as the war progressed but still entailed agonizing decisions.

By then the “Battle of Britain” was over. The British people and the point of their sword, the Royal Air Force, had stood up to the worst the Germans could throw against them. There was no admission that the battle had ended, just a lessening of intensity. The Blitz went on. But as the days shortened, it became obvious that there would be no invasion. The barge fleets were dispersed, the soldiers drafted off to other tasks. Put whatever face they would on it, the Germans had not managed to bring Britain down. As early as mid-October, Hitler was turning his attention elsewhere, to the Balkans and ultimately, to Russia.

By later standards, it was all a pretty small affair. At its peak strength the R. A. F. had 570 fighters on the line; throughout the battle they lost 790. The Germans seem to have lost nearly 1,400 airplanes of one kind or another. Yet the results were hardly small; had Britain succumbed, it is difficult to see how the war against Hitler would ever have been won. Churchill’s tribute to the Royal Air Force, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few” was well deserved, and it was indeed Britain’s finest hour.

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