The Battle of Britain: a brilliant triumph that involved far more than just the chosen few
The Battle of Britain has long been hailed as the triumph of the plucky underdog over the Nazi goliath. Yet, says James Holland, when rival fighters clashed over England in 1940, it was the RAF that held all the aces...
At 4.30pm on 14 August 1940, 87 Squadron scrambled to their Hurricanes, quickly got airborne and started speeding towards Weymouth on the Dorset coast. “One hundred and twenty plus approaching Warmwell from the south,” came the calm voice of the ground controller in the pilots’ ears. “Good luck, chaps.” Pilot Officer Roland ‘Bee’ Beamont swallowed hard and began desperately to scan the sky.
They were over Lyme Regis and flying at around 12,000ft when Beamont saw them, still out to sea – what looked to him like a gigantic swarm of bees all revolving around each other in a fantastical spiral from around 8,000 to 14,000ft.
As the Hurricanes drew closer, Beamont could see there were about 50 Stuka dive-bombers and two-engine Messerschmitt 110s above, and single-engine Me109s above them. Although there were just 12 Hurricanes, the squadron commander shouted, “Tally ho!”, the attack signal, and then they were diving into the fray.
In a brief, manic and confused melee, Beamont nearly hit a Stuka, then came under attack himself, managed to shoot down a Me110 and then another before running out of ammunition and heading for the safety of a cloud bank, emerging into the clear over Chesil Beach. He was hot, his uniform was dark with sweat, and he felt utterly exhausted. He was also astonished to discover he’d been airborne a mere 35 minutes.
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Beamont’s experiences fit very neatly into the familiar narrative of the Battle of Britain, in which that small band of brothers in RAF Fighter Command repeatedly found themselves battling a vastly superior enemy over a sun-drenched southern England.
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On that day, Beamont and his fellows in 87 Squadron were just 12 men taking on 120. Others regularly found themselves facing even greater odds – odds that have come to represent Britain’s wider experience in the summer of 1940. It was a time when she was all alone, with her army defeated on the continent, her back to the wall – little Britain as David, defiantly fighting on against the Goliath of Nazi Germany. Above all, Britain’s finest hour was a triumph of backs-to-the-wall amateurism against the professional militarism of the Germans.
It is, however, a myth, and one that, 75 years on, we should put to bed once and for all. Britain was not alone, nor dependent on just a handful of young men in Spitfires and Hurricanes and the Captain Mainwaring figures of the Home Guard.
Rather, Britain was one of the world’s leading superpowers, and at the centre of the largest global trading network the world had ever known, with the kind of access to resources of which Germany could only dream. Britain had the world’s largest navy, largest merchant fleet, access to around 85 per cent of the world’s merchant shipping, and trading and business interests that went well beyond its empire. Within the Dominions and Commonwealth, there were also some 250 million men it could potentially call upon to fight.
What’s truly remarkable about Britain’s story is not its post-imperial ‘decline’ but the fact that it became a global superpower in the first place, says David Reynolds
There was nothing amateurish about Britain’s defence against potential German invasion. The conquest of France and the Low Countries had been fought on Germany’s terms, but what followed was fought on Britain’s. The Few, the pilots in their fighter aircraft, were one cog that made up the first fully co-ordinated air defence system in the world. This saw modern radar, an Observer Corps, radio and a highly efficient means of collating, filtering and disseminating this information being combined with a highly developed ground control to ensure that Luftwaffe raids such as those on 14 August were intercepted and harried repeatedly.
This defence system meant that Spitfires and Hurricanes would be in the air chipping away at the enemy and at the same time ensuring they were not being destroyed on the ground. Fighter Command could have put up more than 700 fighters at a time had they chosen to, but its commanders preferred different tactics – one of dispersal of forces and airfields more suited to a defensive battle. For a pilot like Beamont, however, it seemed as though just a few were taking on the many.
Moreover, Fighter Command was only one part of the RAF – both Coastal and Bomber Commands also played a full part in the battle. Bomber Command, especially, was repeatedly striking targets inside the Reich as well as Luftwaffe airfields in northern France. And the RAF was only one of three services.
There was also the Royal Navy, Britain’s ‘Senior Service’, and vastly superior to the Kriegsmarine, especially after the bloody nose it had inflicted on the German navy in Norway. And there was the army, admittedly rebuilding, but, by August, nearly two million-strong when including the Home Guard, many of whom were far more proficient than Dad’s Army would suggest. There were also significant coastal defences and chemical weapons ready to be deployed. Collectively, these were formidable defences.
In contrast, the German plans were disjointed, lacked any kind of combined services co-operation, and were supported by a transport lift that was frankly risible, and which was made to look even more so in light of future wartime amphibious operations. Fortunately for the Germans, they never had the chance to test their plans to cross the Channel. Rather, the Luftwaffe fell some way short of destroying RAF Fighter Command, the first line of Britain’s defence, rather than the last as is usually portrayed.
So where does this view that Britain won the Battle of Britain by a whisker come from? In part it came down to public perception at the time. France had been defeated in just six weeks, the British Expeditionary Force had been forced into a humiliating retreat back across the Channel, and this had followed defeat on land in Norway. That Britain had won at sea off Norway counted for less in the public’s eyes now that the swastika was fluttering over the continental coastline from the Arctic to the Spanish border.
Living in fear
In Britain there was mounting panic through May and June 1940 as it seemed the country would be next in the path of Nazi Germany’s apparently unstoppable military machine. This widely held perception that Germany was a highly developed modern military behemoth appeared to be borne out not only by the prewar newsreels of rallies and grand-standing but then by the speed with which they overran first Poland, then Denmark and Norway and then France and the Low Countries.
Few in Britain realised that only 16 divisions out of the 135 used in the attack in the west were mechanised, or that in Poland Germany had almost run out of ammunition, or that the Reich was already suffering stringent rationing. Or indeed that there were never more than 14 U-boats in British waters and the Atlantic at any one time at any point since the war had begun. Most Britons had no idea just how shaky were the foundations on which German military might was built.
The sense of German numerical and qualitative superiority was then further manifested in what British people were seeing with their own eyes once the battle got under way. A formation of 120 enemy aircraft would have looked awesome. However, as Bee Beamont had realised on 14 August, only around 40 of those were actually bombers, and it was bombers, primarily, that were expected to destroy the RAF by knocking out airfields, facilities and aircraft on the ground. The truth was that no matter how impressive such a formation may have looked in the summer of 1940, it was simply not enough.
Tom Neil was a pilot in 249 Squadron and, at the beginning of September, was operating from North Weald. On 3 September, Neil took off in his Hurricane along with 11 others and soon saw the airfield disappear under clouds of smoke as the Luftwaffe attacked.
He wondered how they were ever going to land again but an hour later they all did. “We just dodged the pot-holes,” he says. This was something the Luftwaffe had not really considered: destroying grass airfields of up to 100 acres required vast amounts of ordnance – ordnance the Germans simply did not have. Bomb craters were swiftly filled in, reserve operations rooms put into practice, and although many of Fighter Command’s front-line airfields quickly looked a mess, only Manston, in the south-east tip of Kent, was knocked out for more than 24 hours in the whole battle. Just one.
Ten days after the Luftwaffe launched an all-out attack on the RAF (known as Eagle Day) on 13 August, the Stuka dive-bombers, on which so many prewar hopes had been placed, were withdrawn. Losses were too great. There were not enough of the next-generation bomber, the Ju 88, which meant the lion’s share of the bomber work was carried out by Dorniers and Heinkels – both increasingly obsolescent. By the beginning of September, thanks to the rate of attrition and low production, numbers of fighters were also diminishing. Most Luftwaffe fighter squadrons were operating at half-strength. Some had just two or three planes left; others were beginning the day with none at all.
Yet it was at this point that Air Chief Marshal Dowding, the commander-in-chief of Fighter Command, and Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park, commanding 11 Group in the South East, feared they were staring down the barrel of defeat. It was not for lack of aircraft: the new Ministry of Aircraft Production was building more than double that of Germany while the Civilian Repair Units had increased numbers by a staggering 186 per cent. No, it was pilot shortage that so worried them, or specifically, trained pilot shortage.
This was largely due to an over-estimation of German strength. British intelligence was excellent, but it had been assumed that German staffeln were structured in the same way as British fighter squadrons – that is, with almost double the number of pilots to keep 12 in the air at any one time. For example, on 15 August, when Bee Beamont had been in action, Tom Neil had spent much of the day on the ground watching other members of the squadron taking off to meet the invaders. He finally flew later that afternoon, allowing those who had flown earlier a rest.
Park claimed that many of his squadrons were operating at 75 per cent strength – yet even then, he meant they were down to 16–18 pilots, not eight or nine. This was far more than the Germans could call on. On paper, Luftwaffe squadrons were 20-strong – not 24, as the British believed. In reality, the situation was even more critical – many had only nine aircraft at the start of the battle. Attrition and aircraft shortage reduced those numbers further after several weeks of fighting.
Neither Park nor Dowding had any idea about this gulf between perceived and actual strength. For the Luftwaffe, this meant fighter pilots were made to fly ever more sorties to make up the shortfall. Few British pilots would fly more than three times a day, and usually not more than twice. By September, their opposite numbers might fly as many as seven times. The physical and mental strain of this was immense.
In the traditional narrative, the crisis passed in the nick of time when the Luftwaffe changed tactics and began bombing London instead of airfields on Saturday 7 September. Since the attack on the airfields was failing, the change of tack, while making little tactical sense, was perhaps not as significant as the idea thought up by Park that very same day.
He suggested introducing a system of squadron classification. ‘A’ squadrons would be in the front-line and consist of experienced combat pilots. ‘C’ squadrons would be filled mostly by men straight out of training but with a few old hands and would be placed away from the front-line, such as in Acklington in Northumberland, where they could build up hours, learn the ropes and get some combat experience against the odd obliging German raider from Norway.
Category ‘B’ squadrons were in between the two. And pilots and squadrons could be moved around at a moment’s notice. In a trice, Park had done much to solve the pilot crisis. Thereafter, Fighter Command never looked back. By the time the battle officially ended on 31 October, it was stronger than it had been at the start. The Luftwaffe, by contrast, never really recovered.
Was the Battle of Britain the country’s finest hour? One of them, certainly, as it consigned Hitler to a long attritional war on multiple fronts – a conflict his forces were not designed to fight, and which materially meant they would always be struggling.
It was the victory that unquestionably turned the tide of the war, but was also a very well-fought, meticulously planned and managed battle that demonstrated many of Britain’s undoubted strengths. We should celebrate that brilliance as well as the courage of the Few.
James Holland is a historian, novelist and broadcaster