Battle of Britain in Detail Part 1
No Stranger to Attack
The Battle of Britain surely ranks alongside the Battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo as one of the most significant in British History. As with the Battle of Trafalgar, it lifted the threat of invasion; like Waterloo it limited the ambitions of an expansive European power in thrall to a megalomaniac. It was the first significant strategic defeat suffered by Adolph Hitler’s Third Reich during the Second World War. Although it took place in the summer of 1940, and the War was to last another five years, it nevertheless ensured that, if Hitler was to recognise his ambition of expanding his empire and authority across most of the democratic nations of Europe and eastwards into the Soviet Union, then he must still reckon with a belligerent United Kingdom at his back. This would mean, at the very least, facing all the complexities of a two front war. In the longer term, the Battle ensured that Britain could serve as a hostile launch-pad and unsinkable aircraft carrier, enabling the Western Allies, including the USA and Canada, to launch their invading armies into continental Europe on D-Day to free the peoples of Western Europe from the yoke of Nazi oppression.
The iconic vision of Spitfires and Hurricanes battling to preserve our democratic freedoms as they swept into action against large formations of German aircraft adorned with black crosses in the skies above southern England is an accurate one. However, it gives us only a partial understanding of what was a far more complex picture and one that generally reflects well on a myriad cast of characters and a host of participating organisations, extending well beyond the RAF fighter pilots, sweating in their cramped cockpits high above the hop fields of Kent. The aerial defences of the nation had not been improvised from thin air, nor were they the end product of that supposed (if perhaps exaggerated) British genius for “muddling through”. The air battles of 1940 were a struggle for supremacy rooted in a fiercely technological domain, where science and its application were as important as the courage and skill of the pilots, vital though these last attributes were to its successful outcome. The pilots of the Luftwaffe, whatever we may think of the perverted cause for which they fought, were not lacking in either respect, and yet they lost. If we are to identify the many factors that resulted in this most famous and crucial of victories, we must probe deeper and look beyond theyoung men in their undeniably beautiful if deadly machines.
Britain was no stranger to air attack in 1940. Indeed, our story begins more than two decades earlier, when German Zeppelin airships and Gotha and Giant aircraft bombed London during the First World War. The sight of formations of German bombers flying apparently unmolested* over the capital in broad daylight in the summer of 1917 caused a political storm, and the subsequent enquiry led directly to the formation of the RAF. The Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, appointed the razor-sharp South African General, Jan Christian Smuts, to investigate, and it was Smuts who recommended that the effective aerial defence of the nation required a single professionally qualified and expert air service. His recommendation was approved and the necessary legislation put in place. As a result, on 1 April 1918, the RAF was formed, although steps had already been taken to create an effective air defence organisation for the British Isles. As we approach the centenary year of the Service and witness Russian bombers regularly flying as close to the UK as the English Channel, it is perhaps a salutary reminder that this was and is one of the primary reasons why the nation’s taxpayers maintain an air force that is ready to respond to such threats and defend the nation’s airspace 24 hours a day and 365 days a year.
* Only one German aircraft was shot down and one was badly damaged and made a forced landing on the beach at Ostend