The Many Not the Few

Readers quiz Richard North on his latest literary offering

Summary: The top-down narrative of the Battle of Britain has been firmly established – Britain was saved from German invasion by the gallant band of Fighter Command pilots. Richard North’s radical re-evaluation dismantles this mythical retelling of events to show that the civilian experience was integral to the battle.


As part of our reader book club, BBC History Magazine gave people the chance to read The Many Not the Few by Richard North, former research director at the European Parliament and the author of Ministry of Defeat. Here’s what they had to say…

Would you agree that there were numerous mythologies created during the bombings that helped the average person survive the war in the British cities?
Michael O’Brien, Glasgow

Richard says: I don’t think there was an average person in the war. Most civilians survived the war because they were not targets, or within the lethal radius of ordnance. Myth has very little to do with their survival rate – those in the direct line of fire tended to find air raid shelters more useful.

But numerous mythologies undoubtedly helped the government survive – those such as ‘your government knows what it is doing’, that it is ‘concerned for your welfare and survival’ and such like. The mythologies were not, however, sufficiently powerful to prevent the great war leader Winston Churchill being thrown out in the 1945 election.

How quickly were the British able to replace losses in pilots and machine compared with the Germans?
Lawrence Waller, Worcestershire

Richard says: As regards fighter pilots, one supposes that it was considerably faster than the German rate for, in one period in battle, loss rates were three times that of their German equivalents, mainly as a result of poorer tactics, inferior training and the lack of a dedicated air/sea rescue service. For machines, as far as I understand it, the RAF replacement rate was slighter faster overall. Both sides came out of the battle with roughly equal losses, but the Luftwaffe suffered a slight drop in the number of aircraft available, whereas the RAF enjoyed a slight gain. Not all of these were replacements, though. A considerable number of aircraft were salvaged by the Civilian Repair Organisation.

What preparations were taken by civilians to prevent a ground invasion? (for example the formation of underground networks of guerilla fighters)
Lawrence Waller, Worcestershire

I really have no idea. I suspect, though, that there were none at all. Had there really been a serious attempt to invade Britain, it is unlikely that there would have been any civilian attempt to prevent it – such a task would have fallen to the Royal Navy and the RAF. Had there been landings, it would have been for the Army then to have defeated the German land forces, again without civilian intervention.

Had the invasion then succeeded, I understand that there were small groups of civilians prepared to stay behind enemy lines. These were known as Auxiliary Units, or “Auxiller Special Patrol”. As far as I am aware, they were intended to adopt guerrilla tactics, but units were designed to operate independently rather than as networks, especially as they lacked communications.

Does the fact that we could defy government restrictions, like not using tube stations, and the government then provided amenities in those tube stations, indicate that the government did listen to its people?
Jen Best, Hampshire

Richard says: Initially, the government did not listen at all. Even after crowds had defied the authorities, and taken possession of some tube stations – by force in some instances, and with the complicity of station officials in others – the government sought to hold the line and keep people out of the tubes. Churchill was even speaking of taking “strong measures” against demonstrations for better shelter provision.

Eventually, in the face of mass disobedience, the government had a choice of enforcing its own restrictions, by brute force, or caving in. It caved in. Then, largely through fear of epidemics and the possibility of disorder, it introduced a series of piecemeal improvements, effectively making a virtue of necessity. It can be said that the government eventually ‘listened’. But figuratively, it was at the point of a gun.

Has writing the book changed your perception of ‘the few’?
Jen Best, Hampshire

Richard says: Not in any way. The few are still the few, just as brave and just as dedicated as they ever were, and just as badly led. My perception of their leaders has changed somewhat – not least in thinking that adequate defences against the night bombers seem to have been unduly delayed.

What has changed is the perception of historians, and in particular, politicians masquerading as historians, setting the framework for a battle that was much more complex and interesting than they have made out. I think we are ill served by the perpetuation of the ‘shoot ‘em up’ narrative, which distorts the nature of the battle, and the roles of the many and diverse actors.

One also comes to have a much higher regard for that wider range of actors, from the diplomats, to the civil defence services, the Royal Navy and the merchant marine, and the host of others, in uniform and out. Most of all, though, I have ended up with a profound admiration for the ordinary people who were sorely abused by their own government. They survived, in the first instance largely in spite of, rather then because of, the actions of their government.

Given the state of censorship which existed at the time, how much opportunistic crime committed during the Blitz was reported? According to one career criminal, Frankie Fraser, it was a boom time for the criminal fraternity. 
John Parker, Cambridge

None. If one takes as a guide the 1940, annual report of the Commissioner for the Metropolitan Police, “opportunistic crime” was not a reportable offence, or even a reporting category. Whether it was thus a “boom time” for the criminal fraternity is moot. The total number of indictable crimes in 1940 was 93,869, or one percent less than in the previous year.

But, whereas in 1939, the outbreak of war was followed by a reduction in crime, in 1940 the air raids in London produced an increase. A comparison of 1940 with 1939 shows that in every month from January to August there was a reduction in the total number of indictable crimes committed and this was followed by an increase of 8.3 percent in September, 31.4 percent in October and 7.8 percent in November. The December figure was still high but actually less than that for December 1939, which was the worst month of that year.

Through 1940, 4,584 offences which appeared to be in the nature of “looting” were recorded, with a peak in October of 1,662. There wereno comparable offences the previous year. Whether they were “opportunistic”, or any more opportunistic than peace time crimes, is not known. Some looting episodes were quite deliberately planned.

Next month we’ll be looking at Wilberforce: Family and Friends by Anne Stott


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