It Just Stopped

…What is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.

—from Death In The Afternoon by Ernest Hemingway

On Sunday 15 September, the final all-clear sounded at HQ 11 Group, Uxbridge, at 3:50 p.m. The battle that Winston Churchill had watched with trepidation for almost five hours in the underground Ops Room was over For the Premier it had been a tense yet static battle, its crisis points marked by the red bulbs glowing ominously on every squadron panel, beside the legend “Enemy Intercepted.” By contrast for the twenty-one squadrons airborne it had been a wheeling snarling non-stop saraband of planes in the overcast skies above London—in the words of 242 Squadron Leader Douglas Bader, “The finest shambles I’ve ever been in.” It was a day when even a veteran like Squadron Leader Bryan Lane, of 19 Squadron, could exclaim with awe: “Why, it’s the whole Luftwaffe”—seeing their planes advance towards the city like a dense black swarm of insects, trailing ever lengthening ribbons of white exhaust smoke above the huddled rooftops. It was a day when combat was joined so fiercely, and so many parachutes blossomed white above the south coast, that one cheerful Pole yelled a warning, “They’ll take us for a bloody parachute division.” Everyone knew it as the day when The Few claimed 183 German aircraft shot down for a loss of under forty—a claim later ruefully amended to fifty-six.

In short, it was a day instantly recognised for everything save what it actually was: the last classic intercept of the Luftwaffe by Dowding’s fighters, the moment when the Battle, like a spent rocket, hesitated, then sputtered into extinction.

Monday, 16 September saw the growing recognition of this in the Luftwaffe camp: the first of many bitter inquests in the Pas de Calais and at Karinhall, punctuated by Goering’s increasingly irrational outbursts. From August through September Luftwaffe losses totalled some 1, 140 planes of all types—and at this rate of bomber losses, as Mölders and Galland had warned all along, the force would surely bleed to death. Attacks by single fighters rendered clumsy by 500-kilo bomb loads, in the tradition of Test Group 210, would persist until December—but their losses too, would begin to spiral as the surprise element Hauptmann Rubensdörffer had pioneered against the radar stations was lost altogether.

Unknown to any group commander, “Operation Sea-Lion” had not been geared to air supremacy since 29 July—ten days before the historic Channel convoy attack of 8 August. On that day, at Bad Reichenhall, Bavaria, Oberst Walter Warlimont and the officers of Hitler’s Operations Department (Section L) were astounded to hear from General Alfred Jodl that a major attack on Russia—later code-named “Operation Barbarossa”—was scheduled for May, 1941. The Führer had decided “once and for all” to rid the world of the “disease of Bolshevism.”

When one of Warlimont’s officers protested that England was surely the first priority, Jodl’s reply was revealing: “The Führer is afraid that the mood of the people after a victory over England would hardly permit him to embark on a new war against Russia.”

Thus, on 15 August, the day when all three Air Fleets made the greatest effort of the battle, the War Diary of the German Navy recorded: “Independent of the eventual decision, the Führer wishes the threat of invasion to be maintained against England in every way. The preparations must therefore proceed, however the decision may fall.” It was thus logical that on 17 September, Grosadmiral Erich Raeder dictated for the War Diary: “The enemy air force is by no means defeated. On the contrary, it shows increasing activity. The Führer therefore decides to postpone “Sea-Lion” indefinitely.

Flight Lieutenant Brian Lane of 19 Squadron based at Fowlmere.

Some felt that this decision rankled. To Oberst Karl Koller, Sperrle’s chief of staff, Hitler announced angrily: “The world would have been very much better off if the aircraft had never been invented.” Oberst Martin Harlinghausen, the 10th Flying Corps chief of staff, found the Führer’s decision more rational, rooted in the fertile lands of the Ukraine: “I want colonies that I can walk to without getting my feet wet.” At the Reich Chancellery, on 23 September, Major Werner Mölders, awarded the Oak Leaves to the Knights Cross, sensed that Hitler, inexplicably, had sickened of the whole campaign.

“The way across the Channel will soon be clear,” Mölders had predicted cheerfully, but at once the Führer’s face had clouded. Totally disregarding Mölders’ remark he turned irritably away. An uneasy thought crossed Mölders’ mind: If “Sea-Lion” was no longer reality, then why were lives still being put at risk.

Goering too, veered wildly in his attitudes. And when Kesselring suggested that it was time to concentrate on the Blitz—which throughout the autumn was extended to Bristol, Cardiff, Newcastle, Plymouth, Glasgow, Belfast, and Hull—Goering was at first disdainful: “Night raids? What insanity! I can finish the air war without that.” But within days following the devastating London raid of 7 September, he had hailed this as the way to cripple British morale: “After all, man isn’t a nocturnal animal.” He rallied Oberst Johannes Fink, whose misjudged assault on Eastchurch had begun it all: “You must give the German people air superiority as a Christmas present to hang on their trees.”

In time, the historians surveying the Battle, would debate its place in the annals of war, and their verdicts too, were mixed. Certainly, it marked the first setback the Luftwaffe had suffered in World War II, and thus had dented their hitherto invincible myth. It had shown a demoralised Europe that the all-conquering Wehrmacht could itself, given time, be overthrown. Major the Baron Günthervon Maltzhahn, commanding the 54th Fighter Group, had voiced that certainty as early as 16 September: “We’re not going to win this war; we can’t”

The threat of British intervention from the west would pin down more than thirty-five German divisions in Europe—forces which could ill be spared from “Operation Barbarossa.” And Hitler’s tireless search for alternate routes to victory would founder time and again in costly ventures in the Balkans, the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

For the historians, Dowding would always rank high among the immortal commanders; the victory that he and his pilots achieved drew comparisons with Nelson at Trafalgar and Wellington at Waterloo. Yet perhaps the historian Christopher Dowling came closest in viewing Dowding’s achievement as akin to Lord Howard of Effingham’s worsting of the Spanish Armada of 1588—“not a set-piece encounter but a string of engagements of varying size and intensity. Both were successful defensive battles … more akin to the combat between Hector and Achilles than to that between David and Goliath.”

The shrewdest arbiter Dowling suggests, was the laconic 65-year-old Feldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, commanding Army Group A. Throughout the early summer of 1940, von Rundstedt, sceptical of what the War Diary described as “the fiction of an invasion,” had steadfastly refused to attend the invasion manoeuvres staged as a propaganda exercise at Le Touquet’s exclusive Paris Plage. His attitude towards the entire charade was summed up in one explosive comment, “Sea-Lion, rubbish!”

Изображение выглядит как человек, внешний, военная форма, дерево

Major Werner Mölders, a 68-victory ace by the end of the Battle of Britain, with Generalderflieger Albert Kesselring, commander of Luftflotte 2 in the Battle.

In the postwar period, when teams of Allied academics picked the brains of the German generals on “the other side of the hill,” a delegation of Russian historians called on von Rundstedt in captivity. What, they asked him, had been in his view the decisive battle of the war? Their notebooks open, they were poised to set down one word: Stalingrad. Von Rundstedt was to disappoint them. Had the Luftwaffe won the Battle of Britain, he told them, Germany would have defeated Russia in 1941. That had been the decisive battle. His verdict left the Russians dumbfounded. They closed their notebooks and went quietly away.

Be near me when my light is low, / When the blood creeps, and the nerves prick and tingle; and the heart is sick, / And all the wheels of Being slow. / Be near me when I fade away, / To point the term of human strife, / And on the low dark verge of life The twilight of eternal day.

—from Be Near Me When My Light Is Low by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Tuesday 24 September

I had just one and one blitz only (8:30). We were attacked by ME 109s and having made one attack on a 109 I was making a second at four who were well above, when I realised that I should stall so I levelled off. Suddenly, there was a blinding flash on my port wing and I felt a hell of a blow on my left arm, and then blood running down. I went into a hell of a dive and came back to Debden. A cannon shell had hit my wing and a bit of it had hit me just above the elbow and behind. The shell had blown away most of the port flap so I tried to land without flaps. I could not stop and crashed into a pile of stores just off the field, hitting my face and cutting it in two places. I was taken to the Saffron Walden General Hospital. They operated but had to leave small pieces in as it had penetrated the muscle.

—from the diary of Pilot Officer Denis Wissler, No. 17 Squadron

It’s the coming back, I hate worst of all. / It grates on my nerves worse than gall,

A wreck, they’ll say, when I land today, And with sighs of pity they’ll turn away.

—from We Are Coming Back by’ Buck Private McCollum

Friday 18 October

Got engaged today.

—from the dairy of Pilot Officer Denis Wissler No. 17 Squadron

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