Overwhelming odds and inevitable invasions: 3 myths surrounding the Battle of Britain
The Battle of Britain has a resounding legacy in Britain – an unlikely victory against overwhelming odds that could have seen the country stand or fall. However, as Victoria Taylor explains, the conflict is shrouded in myth that has somewhat shifted our understanding of its nature…
Please note: this is a transcript of an extract from an upcoming episode of the HistoryExtra podcast that has been lightly edited for clarity. The full episode will be released in September 2023 here.
There are three major myths surrounding the Battle of Britain that tend to be perpetuated within British wartime mythology.
The Luftwaffe vastly outnumbered the RAF
The first for me is this idea that the Luftwaffe vastly outnumbered the RAF. It's true, to some degree, that the RAF initially lacked in fighter pilots compared to the Germans – at the start of the conflict, the RAF numbered around 1,113 operational fighter pilots, with the Luftwaffe being closer to 1,450. There's also differences in the operational aircraft – the RAF is looking at around 650 operational fighter aircraft, whereas the Luftwaffe is a little bit closer to 1,000.
- Read more | 8 reasons why the Luftwaffe didn't stand a chance against the RAF in the Battle of Britain
But that really discounts from the fact that British aircraft production ramped up in this period. Both sides are pretty much at about 1,000 operational fighters apiece as we get into August 1940 and the real action of the Battle of Britain. So, that's the first myth for me.
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Operation Sealion was Germany’s ultimate goal
The second myth is that Operation Sealion was Germany’s ultimate goal. It's common for us in Britain to think of this moment as Britain's finest hour because it saw our defence of the realm against the entirety of the Wehrmacht, the unified armed forces of Nazi Germany. It wasn’t just defeating the Luftwaffe, but it stopped the Kriegsmarine, which was the German navy, as well as the German army from attacking Britain.
- Read more | What was Operation Sealion?
But, at the same time, this wasn't the German’s goal. They were hoping to try and get Britain to sue for peace. They were trying to go for the easy option because they've already had losses in the Battle of France, and they're hoping they're not going to have to replicate them again against the British. They've come up against Spitfires at Dunkirk – they don't want to be messing too much with the British.
As a result, it's important to remember that if the Germans can get out of this as cleanly as possible by attacking British shipping, getting a blockade going and trying to get British politicians to sue for peace, that suits them far easier than going into a difficult and complicated amphibious landing. That's a big hint for me that Operation Sealion wasn't inevitable – of course they made plans for it and these preparations were intense, but they were hoping that that was going to be the worst-case scenario.
It wasn’t always a gentlemanly joust
Finally, the third big myth of the Battle of Britain, and one which is perhaps the most controversial, is the fact that it wasn’t always a gentlemanly joust. It was common for Luftwaffe and RAF fighter pilots to forge bonds after the war, because of their shared experience. In a lot of cases there was some level of gentlemanly conduct in the skies – it was well known that some Luftwaffe and RAF planes let each other escape with a wave.
But, in other cases, we have to bear in mind that there were moments where British fighters shot down German air-sea rescue service planes. And there were points where German gunboats ended up opening up on British rescue vessels.
It's really important to remember that this isn't just a ‘knights of the skies’ narrative, but that this really was a fight to the death that did see moments of humanity creeping in.
Victoria Taylor is an aviation historian who is just completing her PhD in the Luftwaffe and its politicisation under the Nazis.