The Battle of Britain was the most important campaign in the history of the RAF. That it was fought and won was down to three men. The first was Winston Churchill. He decided to fight it. The second was Hugh Dowding. He built the system that made victory possible. The third was Keith Park. He wielded the weapon that Dowding had forged and Churchill decided to use
– Stephen Bungay
Before any account of the Battle of Britain, fought in our skies during the glorious summer of 1940, it is important to understand why it came to be fought at all. While Hitler re-armed massively throughout the 1930s, Britain and France relentlessly pursued the suicidal policy of appeasement. Our Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, was in favour of scrapping the RAF as useless in modern warfare because, as he said: “The bomber will always get through.” We helped the Luftwaffe by selling them 118 Merlin aero engines – the same superb machine which powered our Spitfires. When Churchill objected to this he was told by Baldwin and Chamberlain that any attempt to stop the sale would amount to an interference with free trade. But Churchill was slandered as a warmonger. When he was being mentioned as the best man to head our national defence, Baldwin refused, saying, appeasingly: “If I appoint Winston, Hitler will be offended.”
There were three occasions in particular when Hitler could have been stopped in his tracks. The first of these was his illegal occupation of the Rhineland in 1936 with what amounted to no more than a detachment of ceremonial troops. Although this was a provocation and a clear breach of the Treaty of Versailles, 100,000 French soldiers a mere 20 miles away did nothing. The German General Jodl declared at the Nuremberg war trials in 1945: “If the Allies had repelled Hitler at that moment, that would have been the end of the Third Reich.” Seeing he had got away with this incursion, Hitler was emboldened to annexe Austria and to invade Czechoslovakia, and shamefully Britain and France dishonoured their promises to help defend these countries. Chamberlain referred dismissively to Czechoslovakia as, “…a faraway country of which we know little”.
Baldwin would not have the German dictator upset at any price. He sacked our ambassador to Berlin for his reporting that concentration camps had been set up and that storm-troopers were beating people to death in the streets. Henderson, the new ambassador, was a Nazi sympathiser who toadied up to Goebbels for years. Here in Britain there was widespread admiration for Nazism. In Mayfair, fashionable ladies wore swastikas on their bracelets and bright young men were parting their hair like Uncle Adolf. There was a prominent Nazi sympathiser in Buckingham Palace, King Edward VIII, who subsequently went off to Germany on his honeymoon with “that woman” and raised his arm in sieg heils in the street. Lloyd-George described Hitler as “the most impressive man in Europe”. And Lloyd-George, Butler and Halifax were still attempting to sue for peace with Hitler even after the Battle of Britain was won.
It is not an exaggeration to describe Baldwin as a traitor. In 1934 he reluctantly promised Parliament that we would match Germany in aircraft production. When, two years later in the House of Commons, Churchill cornered him about why this had not been done, Baldwin replied: “I cannot think of anything that would have made the loss of the election from my point of view more certain.” Talk about party before country. Talk about degraded self-interest.
Whenever the disastrous policy of appeasement is criticised, the reply is always to the effect that people remembered with horror the loss of millions of lives in the First World War which had ended only a dozen years earlier and they desired to avoid another war at all costs. Churchill and his associates were alone in pointing out tirelessly the truth that, far from preventing war, appeasement was the one policy guaranteed to cause war. But he who feeds the man-eating crocodile, thinking that thereby he himself will not be eaten, is mistaken: he will merely be eaten last.
On May 10 1940 Hitler’s armies invaded France and effected a rout so swift and spectacular that the French surrendered on 22nd June. Upon the invasion of France, the British Parliament bowed to the inevitable and overwhelmingly expressed no confidence in Neville Chamberlain. Winston Churchill became Prime Minister. On June 1940, Winston Churchill said: “The Battle of France is ended. The Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this coming battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions… If we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.”
On July 16 1940, Hitler issued Directive Number 16: “As England, despite her hopeless military situation, still shows no sign of willingness to come to terms, I have decided to prepare, and if necessary to carry out, a landing operation against her.” He knew that the success of such an operation would depend on his first destroying the RAF. He said: “If, after eight days of intensive air war, the Luftwaffe has not achieved considerable destruction of the enemy’s air force, harbours and naval forces, the invasion will have to be put off until May 1941.”
There were to be three timed phases to the invasion of Britain which was given the code-name Sealion. First, from the middle of July until August 18, the harrying of British convoys in the Channel. Secondly, from August 24 until September 27, devastating attacks on the RAF’s air fields, installations and continuous heavy bombing to demoralise the population and sever communications between London and our important defences on the south coast. Only when these aims had been achieved could the third phase, the invasion, begin.
There is no doubt that Hitler had more than adequate forces for this task. In August 1940 the Luftwaffe could boast 1,015 bombers, 346 dive bombers – the terrifying, screaming Stukas – 933 fighters and 375 heavy fighters. This was almost three times the firepower of the RAF. The German planes, particularly the Me109, were faster than our Spitfires and Hurricanes with a better rate of climb, but they were not so manoeuverable. Fortunately for us, the German fighters, which escorted their bombers, had fuel enough for only half an hour or so in our air space.
Adolf Galland, a German fighter ace of III/JG26 Squadron, recalled: “Two or three sorties daily was the rule, and the briefing read, ‘Free chase over south-east England.’ The physical as well as the mental strain on our pilots was considerable. The ground personnel and the planes themselves were taxed to the limit. Failure to achieve any notable success, constantly changing orders betraying lack of purpose and obvious misjudgment of the situation by the Command, and unjustified accusations had a most demoralising effect on us fighter pilots. We complained of the leadership, the bombers, the Stukas and were dissatisfied with ourselves.
“We saw one comrade after the other, old and tested brothers in combat, vanish from our ranks. Not a day passed without a place remaining empty at the mess table. The reproaches from higher quarters became unbearable. We had the impression that whatever we did we were bound to be in the wrong. In those days, all the loudspeakers of the Greater German Reich, from Aachen to Tilsit, from Flensburg to Innsbruck, and from the army stations of most of the occupied countries, blared out the patriotic song ‘Bomben auf En-ge-land’. We pilots could not stand this song from the very start.”
We have recently discovered that in the early part of the war our intelligence sources were able to break the top-secret German cipher system, but it is doubtful whether what we were able to read there was of very much direct help to RAF commanders. These so-called ULTRA decrypts were only a marginal advantage to Fighter Command in 1940. They provided a general overview. For instance, they uncovered Goering’s full battle plans, but not the local strength or state of repair of his bombers and fighters. Also the results were unreliable, encouraging us to believe that, between August and October, we had shot down 1,112 enemy aircraft when the actual number was 635. Happily, Air Intelligence also vastly overestimated the Germans’ operational serviceability rates and so the two mistakes, taken together, balanced each other out.
Peter Townsend, a fighter pilot of 85 Squadron, Croydon, said: “Our dispersal point, with ground crews’ and pilots’ rest rooms, was in a row of villas on the airfield’s western boundary. Invariably I slept there half-clothed to be on the spot if anything happened. In the small hours of August 24 it did. The shrill scream and the deafening crash of bombs shattered my sleep. In the doorway young Worrall, a new arrival, was yelling something and waving his arms. Normally as frightened as anyone, not even bombs could move me then. I placed my pillow reverently over my head and waited for the rest. Worrall still had the energy to be frightened. I was past caring. It was a bad sign. I was more exhausted than I realised.”
The biggest and most intensive confrontation in the whole battle took place on August 15 – and it happened almost by chance. The German commander Goering had originally planned no attack for this day, but the weather cleared unexpectedly and he decided on surprise and overwhelming force. It began with a diversion: 100 bombers launched against Tyneside as an attempt to draw our defenders from London and the south-east. But Air Chief Marshal Hugh “Stuffy” Dowding had held back seven squadrons to guard the north and these enjoyed tremendous success, shooting down 30 German planes for the loss of only two of our pilots injured. We should not imagine that the battle consisted only of dog fights over Kent and Sussex. For the whole of this stage in the battle, Hitler’s bombers pounded provincial towns in the effort to stretch the RAF past breaking point and to terrify the civilian population. They refused to be terrified. Hitler could not believe that we would not sue for peace.
Hans Karl Mayer, a German fighter pilot of 1/JG53 Squadron, recalled: “A Hurricane opened fire at long range. Simultaneously I fired, also at long range, and the enemy aircraft broke away downwards. While I was attacking, my wingman warned me that I was in danger from above and behind. Some seconds later, he called that he had been hit. I followed the Hurricane in the dive and closed to 50 metres. I fired and the Hurricane went up in flames, the pilot baling out at 500 metres.”
In the late morning the main attack, comprising 800 bombers with fighter escorts, attacked our airfields in the south. Altogether on August 15 five major actions were fought across a front of 500 miles. And “the score”, as the newspaper billboards always called the result of engagements, was 76 German planes destroyed for the loss of 34 of ours. A good score, but even this favourable rate of attrition could not be sustained indefinitely – because our failure to re-arm had left us catastrophically outnumbered. That the imbalance was speedily rectified was owing almost entirely to the superhuman efforts of Lord Beaverbrook whom Churchill had put in charge of aircraft manufacture and supply.
Sandy Johnstone, fighter pilot of 602 Squadron, noted: “Everywhere the strain is beginning to show. I notice people are becoming edgy and short-tempered, and one wonders for how long the lads can go on taking it. Yes, things are tough. There is little doubt that Hitler is preparing to launch an invasion. Everyone is also keeping a superstitious eye on the wind direction, for many of us believe it would not be unreasonable to expect poisonous gases to be let off as a prelude to the main strike.”
One day late in August we enjoyed a tremendous stroke of luck – or, as some said, the benefit of a benign Providence. A German raider, sent to attack our airfields, lost his way and dropped his bombs on London. Hitler had forbidden attacks on London without his explicit permission. The RAF responded to this attack by bombing Berlin – something which Hitler had promised his people would never happen. Mortified, he directed the Luftwaffe to target London regularly. While this, the beginning of the Blitz, inflicted untold destruction and thousands of civilian casualties, it worked to our advantage: by turning his attention away from the destruction of the RAF stations, the enemy unintentionally eased the pressure on our vital military infrastructure.
George Barclay, fighter pilot of 249 Squadron, recalled: “I woke as the airman orderly tapped my shoulder and repeated: ‘Come along, Sir. Come along, Sir. 4.30’ in my ear. It was very cold in the hut and dark, so I wrestled with myself for a few minutes and then jumped out of bed and put on my flying kit quickly. Irvin trousers over my pyjamas, sweater, flying boots, scarf, Irvin jacket. I left the hut to look at my aeroplane. I climbed into the cockpit out of which the fitter had just stepped. I said: ‘Morning, Parish, morning, Barnes – put my chute on the tail please.’ I checked the instruments one by one: petrol tanks full; tail trimming wheels neutral; airscrew fine pitch; directional gyro set; helmet on reflector sight with oxygen and R/T leads connected – in fact, everything as I liked it for a quick getaway when we scrambled. Returning to the hut, I found Kapan, the orderly, lighting the fire by the light of a hurricane lamp, while Ginger lay fast asleep in a deck chair, his head lolling on his yellow Mae West. I lay down and immediately became unconscious, as if doped. What seemed the next moment, I woke with a terrific start to see everyone pouring out of the hut. I could hear the telephone orderly repeating: ‘Dover 26,000 feet: 50-plus bandits approaching from the south east.’ Percy shouted.’ Scramble, George – lazy b—–d!’ Automatically I ran out, parachute on, pulled into cockpit by crew who had already started the engine. Straps, helmet, gloves, check the knobs, taxi out, get into right position in my section and take off. I put the R/T on, and only then do I wake up and realise I am in the air flying number 2 in Yellow Section.”
On September 6, 68 bombers attacked London and the following day saw the first large-scale raid on the capital when 300 enemy aircraft rained down havoc. This marked the middle of the most intense phase of the battle. Between August 24 and September 6, out of 1,000 pilots we lost 103 killed and 128 seriously injured. Some 466 Spitfires and Hurricanes were destroyed. There was only one VC awarded in the Battle of Britain. It was to the pilot James Nicolson who was shot up by a Me110 and set on fire. Despite his predicament, he remained in his cockpit and shot down one of the enemy planes, finally baling out himself with severe burns to his hands and face.
Many pilots reported after the war that there had been little hatred between combatants. The picture of downed German fighters being offered cigarettes and a nip of brandy by their captors belongs to reality and not just legend. Ships in the Channel would pick up those who had baled out, with no regard for whose side they were on. There were very few instances of survivors being shot on sight. Of worse danger to a British pilot was that of being shot down over Sussex or Essex and roughly handled by the local villagers who took him to be a German.
Air Vice Marshal Park flew his Hurricane over the City. He said: “It was burning all down the river. It was a horrid sight. But I looked down and said: ‘Thank God for that.’ Because I knew that the Nazis had switched their attack from the fighter stations, thinking that they were knocked out. They weren’t, but they were pretty groggy.”
The climax came on September 15 which, as with the Battle of Waterloo, was a Sunday. Hundreds of bombers and fighters hurled themselves against us in wave after wave of attacks. We were defended by the commander of 11 Group, Air Vice Marshal Park’s 25 squadrons of fighters. On this day, Churchill and his wife went to Fighter Command’s HQ, 50 feet below ground at Uxbridge. This network, which was to prove crucial to the outcome of the battle, had been set up by Dowding immediately before the war. It was augmented by the 50,000 men and women in the Observer Corps, 200 anti-aircraft batteries and the recently invented radar.
Churchill later wrote, “We took our seats in the dress circle.” The day began quietly and Park said to the Prime Minister: “I don’t know whether anything will happen today.” Suddenly, the gigantic blackboard with its six columns of electric bulbs flashed into life, indicating 40-plus raiders… 60-plus… 80-plus. Park phoned Dowding and asked “to borrow” three squadrons from 12 Group.
In the middle of the afternoon Churchill asked Park: “What other reserves have we?”
“There are none,” said Park.
In Park’s words, at this point Churchill “looked grave”.
Churchill recorded: “Well I might. The odds were great; our margins small; the stakes infinite.”
And the score? We shot down 56 enemy aircraft for the loss of 28. Two days later, Hitler cancelled Operation Sealion.
Air Chief Marshall Dowding, Head of Fighter Command, said: “It’s a miracle – the miracle of Marne all over again! The pilots were wonderful, but it’s a miracle.”
Churchill said: “At the summit, the stamina and valour of our fighter pilots remained inconquerable and supreme. Thus Britain was saved. Well might I say in the House of Commons: ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.’ ”
The Rev Dr Peter Mullen is a liveryman and Chaplain of the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators