Stop Denigrating The Few

Revisionism and The Battle of Britain

I’ve got to say that personally, I’m quite sick of the wave of revisionist thinking that’s been going on with regard to the Battle of Britain.  I don’t think it’s prompted any healthy debate at all; rather it has merely denigrated the efforts of the Few. 

This recent spate began with the sixtieth anniversary of the battle in 2000 and the publication of Professor Richard Overy’s book, The Battle.  Overy is a fine and highly distinguished historian, not least of the air war, but this mini-book was badly flawed.  The remit he gave himself was to try and separate the ‘myths’ from the hard facts and so buried himself away at the Public Record Office, (since renamed The National Archives), where he produced a lot of figures to fit his argument.  Most contentious of these was the revelation that Fighter Command actually had more fighters for most of the battle than the Luftwaffe, and therefore wasn’t quite so outnumbered as the myth would have it. 

He did, however, forget two very important points.  First, the Germans had the twin-engined Messerschmitt 110, which although not very effective in the fighter role, was nonetheless considered a fighter by the Luftwaffe.  But because it was not single-engined, Overy took it out of the equation; yes, for the most part there were more Spitfires and Hurricanes than Me 109s, but there were not fewer German fighters than in Fighter Command.  Second, he discounted the thousand plus German bombers in his figures.  The point, of course, is that every bullet expended by Fighter Command in shooting down German bombers – and they were the primary target – was a bullet that could not be used on German fighters.  Moreover, numbers of aircraft are not necessarily as important as fire-power, and not only did the 109s have fewer targets than the British fighters, they also had cannons with a rapid rate of fire, which packed a considerably greater punch than the eight Browning machine guns the Spitfires and Hurricanes could call on. 

Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for these new theories to take hold.  The man in pub now says over his pint, ‘Well, I heard they weren’t quite so outnumbered after all’ – a line I have heard on several occasions.  This will be precisely the damage caused by this latest piece of news about the role of the Royal Navy in the Battle of Britain – a theory that was put forward last year by novelist Derek Robinson in his first work of history, Invasion, 1940, and which has now been revisited by a panel in the magazine History Today. 

No one would ever play down the skill of the Royal Navy’s sailors or the importance of the Navy as a whole.  But Hitler’s prerequisite for invasion was complete air superiority and the destruction of the RAF, not the Royal Navy.  As Hitler understood, and as the Allies would equally appreciate later in the war, seaborne invasions can only occur if the attacker has mastery of the skies.  The Luftwaffe failed in this because it was defeated in the air battle.  Similarly, the Allies were only able to invade Northwest Africa, Sicily, Southern Italy and make the D-Day landings because they had air superiority.

The other point that needs to be borne in mind is the nature of the Royal Navy in 1940.  Britain had, from the First World War and right through the inter-war years, been sniffy about submarines and had even tried to get a worldwide ban on the use of them in the 1920s.  It was an arm of the Navy that was seriously under-funded and so by the beginning of the war, the majority of British ships were surface vessels.  Many of these were also largely out of date and the majority of the capital ships – HMS Hood included – lacked the kind of armour plating being used on both Italian and German battleships and cruisers.  As the Navy discovered at Norway, at Crete and elsewhere in the Mediterranean, their fleets were highly susceptible to submarine and aerial attack.  Indeed, Admiral Cunningham, Commander of the Mediterranean Fleet for the first half of the war, continually demanded a) more armour plating for his ships, b) more aircraft carriers (and larger more up-to-date versions than the Royal Navy possessed at the start of the war), and c) more aircraft for his fleets.  As he correctly realised, the key to successful naval warfare was primarily aircraft, not surface vessels.  This, of course, was borne out spectacularly at the Battle of Midway, when the US Navy scored a resounding victory over the Japanese Navy using predominantly naval aircraft to achieve their success.

I’m not saying the Royal Navy in 1940 would not have repelled a German seaborne invasion, but I do think a concerted effort by the German U-boat fleets and by the Luftwaffe combined, would have been more likely to have destroyed the Royal Navy as an effective fighting force than the Luftwaffe’s efforts against Fighter Command. 

Playing a retrospective devil’s advocate might be a bit of fun, but it is important not to  look at the events of 1940 with the benefit of too much hindsight.  Britain in 1940 faced a very, very severe danger.  The continental threat – an enemy coastline that ran from Norway to North Africa – was far greater than the Napoleonic danger Britain had faced in 1805. America was not yet in the war, and with US Presidential elections scheduled for November that year, a Roosevelt victory and almost immediate American participation on the side of Britain was by no means guaranteed.  Britain had been stunned by the scale of defeat in France; the Army was, for the moment, finished as an effective fighting force; and the country was in the middle of a deep political crisis that had seen the Prime Minsiter resign, only to be replaced by a hard-drinking, seemingly unreliable maverick.  No punter would have put any money on Britain holding out.

And yet she did.  The summer of 1940 halted the Nazi avalanche and gave Britain – and the free world – the breathing space to regroup.  Furthermore, the continued threat from Britain – and subsequently America – almost certainly played a key part in Germany’s eventual defeat in Russia.  Not only did the Allies crucially provide the Soviet Union with arms and equipment, they also ensured that a large amount of German forces were tied up combating that threat rather than being pitted against Russia.

1940 should therefore still be seen as a crucial – if not the crucial turning point in the war, and in this, the Few more than lived up to the subsequent myth. 

2 replies
  1. David H. Lippman
    David H. Lippman says:

    I agree with your analysis above, and add that the German possession of Knickebein and X-Gereat would have made it easier for the Luftwaffe to find, fix, and strike the Home Fleet if it headed south to repel an invasion…under conditions of air superiority. The Luftwaffe would thus have been able to swiftly target and sink or damage British ships, once spotted by U-Boat.

    I also think that while British infantry training was sound, morale was high, and the British defenders knew the ground, their deficiencies in the face of the German tactics, operational ability, and equipment would have told in a battle in Kent or Surrey. I’m not sure how much British morale would have held if the British forces were defeated in that situation. The British are a tough people, and don’t crumble, but it could also have been the last straw…the British were short of everything but determination at that point.

    The 1940 situation was very near-run thing for Britain and the world in general. I have the utmost respect for the nation’s defenders of 1940, and also remember that many of them came from other countries: Australia, Canada, Rhodesia, South Africa, all united by ties of history, empire, and blood, as well as occupied nations like Czechoslovakia, Poland, and France. 141 of them were New Zealanders, the second-largest national representation. I have a special place in my heart for New Zealand.

  2. Sean Higgins
    Sean Higgins says:

    I also agree with the above comments. Also, the high & mighty revisionist/hindsight thinking does not take into account that the severe tactical constraints of the day that Fighter Command found itself fighting under. It would be fair to say that on most occasions Fighter Command was fighting at an extreme tactical disadvantage with regard to height (or lack thereof), their squadrons were generally fed into the battle in much smaller numbers than the opposing Luftwaffe formations and were therefore outnumbered (besides a few notable exceptions), overall they were fighting a more seasoned and experienced enemy, and perhaps the most serious consideration of all was a lack of fully trained and experienced pilots which Fighter Command could draw on to feed into the battle. Which makes the RAF acheivement all the more remarkable and memorable, and one that should not be diminished or downgraded as time marches on.

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