When Brit grit met German dithering

The Burning Blue
September 22, 2000

The Battle of Britain resonates as the quintessential symbol of British defiance against the threat of domination by European powers. It fits the preferred image of the British military tradition whereby resolute, plucky and cheerful British lads stand on the defensive against an overwhelming onslaught of swaggering foreigners. The Battle of Britain thus takes its place with Crecy, Agincourt, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, Waterloo and Rorke's Drift as one of the battles that the British most like to remember. When politicians invoke the "spirit" of 1940, they really mean the Herculean efforts of "the few" against great odds.

The participants in the battle (rather like Pickett's men at Gettysburg) had no idea that air operations in the summer of 1940 would turn out as something memorable. Paul Addison and Jeremy Crang's reconsideration explores the ramifications of this symbolic significance. A volume of essays rather than a true history, it includes contributions on cultural aspects, as well as the strictly military. Perhaps the most fascinating is Owen Dudley Edwards's dissection of the significance of the battle in children's literature. This book is a first-class piece of work, stimulating, informative and concise.

The authors tend to agree on essential points. The Battle of Britain was determined just as much by German errors as British successes. It was the first large-scale, sustained strategic bombing offensive waged by an air force alone, so the Germans moved into uncharted territory.

Nonetheless, the Luftwaffe was over-confident and made a number of miscalculations. Its intelligence and targeting were poor. It misunderstood the significance of radar and assumed that the screen would crumble as the battle proceeded. The Germans also underestimated the strength of British fighter production, which was actually double that of Germany, by the summer of 1940.

The notion that the British were fighting against great odds is qualified by a number of contributors. Luftwaffe losses in France and the Low Countries were greater than over Britain. In July 1940 Luftflotten II and III between them could muster only 700 bombers. German aircraft were not designed to carry out a strategic role, despite the Luftwaffe's enthusiasm to wage independent operations and cut its doctrinal umbilical cord to cooperation with the army. The weaknesses of its bombers meant that the Me109 fighter could not concentrate on warding off Spitfires and Hurricanes, but had to stay close to the bombers and thus surrendered the initiative.

Strategic objectives were thus sacrificed to tactical. And Hermann Goering and his staff failed to think through the precise nature of the campaign's objectives and concentrate their available strength to secure them.

The RAF had been given time to prepare and enjoyed the advantage of bad weather at critical moments. Air superiority eluded the Luftwaffe over southern England and German losses increased as it flew inland. Several contributors agree that the German performance during the battle was, as Richard Overy suggests, "better than might have been expected", and the success of the German attacks against the RAF's airfields supports his view. The RAF was saved from defeat by the quixotic decision to attack London.

Sebastian Cox dissects authoritatively the controversies that have dogged Fighter Command's conduct of the battle. The quarrels between Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory's 12 Group and AirVice Marshal Sir Keith Park's 11 Group over the former's advocacy of "big wings", which took time to assemble, is resolved in favour of Park. As for the slighted hero of the battle, Fighter Command's C in C, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, Cox is critical of his role. He argues that Dowding should have stamped his authority more firmly on his subordinates; worse, he blighted his record by attempting to defy the Air Council over night defence, the issue that led to his relief after the battle. Cox has no time for the time-honoured story that Dowding was stabbed in the back by a Machiavellian plot orchestrated by Douglas Bader.

The consequences of the battle are surveyed in a number of chapters. The most important of these effects were felt in the United States. The Battle of Britain served as a public-relations triumph for the "internationalists" who favoured involvement in European affairs.

They claimed that the epic British struggle against the odds revealed a shared adherence to "frontier values", as if Heinkels circling London resembled Apaches riding around a wagon train. Certainly the battle knocked the bottom out of the isolationist case that all Europeans were indistinguishable. American observers in Britain were also quick to reach conclusions that buttressed their preconceived ideas. US Army Air Force observers, led by Carl Spaatz, decided that the British had won because the Germans had failed to create a strategic bomber force; an air force had to be independent to win. Here was the evidence that Spaatz was looking for to support the creation of a separate USAF. Consequently, he overlooked the enormous contribution made by radar. If an effective screen had been put in place around Hawaii by December 1941, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor might have met a different fate.

Overy agrees that US belligerency would have been a remote prospect if the RAF had lost the Battle of Britain. He argues persuasively that Hitler's decision to attack Soviet Russia, taken in July 1940, and the decision to invade Britain, were linked, not least in a general quandary about how to bring the war to an end. The Battle of Britain is perhaps most significant for revealing German strategic dithering - a fatal lack of precision. The Allies, for all their errors, were able to strike back and exploit this failure ruthlessly and negate German operational and tactical advantages, especially after 1942.

Brian Holden Reid is professor of American history and military institutions, King's College London.

The Burning Blue: A New History of the Battle of Britain

Editor - Paul Addison and Jeremy A. Crang
ISBN - 0 7126 6475 0
Publisher - Pimlico
Price - £14.00
Pages - 292

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