As the 75th anniversary of the airborne battle is celebrated, Britain is still deluded about the terrible mistakes made by the country’s wartime leaders
Seventy-five years on from the Battle of Britain, the question remains: was Churchill right to reject peace overtures from Germany in 1940? Did the moral grounds for a continuation of the war – a just cause, a proportionate cost and a realistic likelihood of victory – exist? Was more war morally justifiable?
It certainly could be argued that the British were wrong not to seek peace. The Danes, for example, did so hours after the Germans invaded, and soon returned to (albeit limited) self-government. In the longer term, this led to the survival of almost all of Denmark’s Jews (who, contrary to folklore, were not saved by the king, or the Danish resistance, but mainly by SS Governor Werner Best). Of course, Hitler was a psychopathic criminal, but he was not completely blind to his own interests. These were best served by peace with a Britain that was still unconquered, and faithfully guarded by the mightiest navy in the world.
I can’t say at this point what might have happened in my peace scenario, for I’m not dealing with subsequent “what-ifs” but existing, ascertainable facts. So what was the Battle of Britain about? To prevent a German invasion? Peace talks would have achieved the same result – though anyway, no invasion could have occurred in 1940. The German navy adamantly was against it. The British Home Fleet could muster 130 destroyers, some 40 frigates and cruisers, two aircraft carriers and five battleships. In 1940, the German navy had no seaworthy battleships – the Bismarck and Tirpitz were still being built, and the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were undergoing repairs. What it did have were seven destroyers, one cruiser and three dozen motor torpedo boats, and most crucially of all, no landing craft.
The Wehrmacht certainly had plans for invasion, and had assembled hundreds of unpowered Rhine barges, but this doesn’t necessarily mean an invasion would have resulted. (After all, British Army staff officers at the same time were working on plans to invade Sicily.) However, the Luftwaffe refused to cooperate with the army; its photo-reconnaissance operations were dedicated solely to finding strategic targets for its bombers. So Wehrmacht planners were reduced to culling Berlin’s libraries for old maps of Britain. Long-since vanished timber bridges built by Brunel were included as military objectives, and the Wehrmacht chart for the Victoria Embankment included a windmill that had been demolished in the 1890s.
The outline plan was that the first “wave” – and such metaphors now really do become meaningless – would take 10 days for 380 tugs towing 1,900 barges to carry 250,000 men, 600 tanks and yes, 55,000 horses (for Germany’s was still a horse-drawn army) to land across a 200-mile front. These river barges had no bow-doors, sea-keels, plumbing or latrines, and usually came with a freeboard (distance between the sea and the gunnel) of only 2ft – quite delightful for ferrying heavily laden troops across the brutally choppy Channel.
The second wave was entirely dependent on those same barges returning at four knots (at best) to the invasion ports; if they missed the ebb-tide, they’d be stranded on England’s beaches. Either way, they’d be easy pickings for the many hundreds of armed coastal craft the Royal Navy could deploy. The Luftwaffe had in 1940 no air-launched torpedoes, and its superb Stuka pilots were not trained in maritime warfare – though their rapidly acquired skills at sea in 1940 from the invasion of Norway onwards suggests that anti-invasion operations by larger RN ships – destroyers upwards – would have been rather fraught affairs.
However, that is speculation; what is not is that in 1940, Hitler had neither the means nor the intention of invading Britain. Indeed, he admired the racial principles on which the empire was run, such as Churchill’s disgraceful order that white British soldiers should not salute ethnic Indian officers in the Indian Army.
No doubt the propaganda threat of a German invasion was a useful morale-booster after the humiliating defeat of the BEF in France. However, Britain’s defences were in the summer of 1940 boosted by the fully equipped Canadian 1st and 2nd divisions and New Zealand’s 5th brigade. (So unrealistic was the invasion threat that two other NZ brigades were sent to Egypt.) Meanwhile, that June and July, from the US army docks in Raritan New Jersey began the flow of weaponry to Britain, from stocks that totaled half a million rifles, 125 million cartridges, 900 field guns and 80,000 machine guns.
So why did Britain not open peace talks with Germany in 1940, not so much to prevent an invasion as to forestall the mass murder of British civilians from the air? Certainly, that summer no one in London knew that Hitler had already begun focusing on the conquest of the Soviet Union, meaning that any forthcoming aerial assault on British cities would inevitably be of limited duration. Indeed, quite the opposite expectation prevailed. With the return of longer days in 1941, aided by the arrival of deep-penetration escort fighters with drop-tanks, Germany could have begun the systematic destruction of British ports and the mining of their sea-lanes, along with a 24-hour bombardment of London and of the crucial industrial areas, such as the Spitfire-producing factories in Castle Bromwich and the Rolls-Royce plants in Crewe.
We know that Britain was powerless in reply. Night-fighter radar was in its infancy and Luftwaffe bombers, operating almost with impunity, killed 41,728 civilians between August 1940 and May 31, 1941. The medieval hearts of Coventry and Southampton were obliterated, as was much of London’s East End. A less celebrated casualty was the Supermarine B13/36 bomber, which had been designed by the late Reginald Mitchell, the architect of the Spitfire: intended to fly at 350mph to Berlin and back, it was the most potent long-range heavy bomber in the RAF’s imminent armory. The prototype, blueprints and all its vital jigs were completely destroyed in a German air-raid in September 1940.
That was it. Britain now had no means of seriously attacking Germany for at least two years. Nobody in London could possibly have foreseen that within that same time frame, Hitler would have blundered into assembling a coalition against him of the UK, India, South Africa, Australasia, Canada, the US, Brazil and the Soviet Union. In exchange, he got the martial splendours of Italy.
One of Churchill’s more famous justifications for fighting on was that a people that go down fighting will arise in triumph again. Who had he in mind? The Sioux? The Maoris? The Carthaginians, perhaps? The swiftly conquered Danes had promptly returned to self-government – and 75 years ago, Hitler had no power whatever over the future governance of a still-undefeated Britain.
Moreover, Hitler had publicly promised in January 1939 that in the event of Germany being engulfed in a world war, he would exterminate the Jews of Europe. Nearly three years later, with Germany now in that very war he had warned about, the Nazis convened the Wannsee conference to begin the Final Solution. Ah, but had not the Nazi extermination of Soviet Jews begun after Operation Barbarossa, the year before, in 1941? Quite so; and how did Britain being at war in any way prevent or diminish that?
The continuation of the war involved, but certainly did not require, the destruction of the French fleet in Oran. That the announcement of this perfectly deplorable attack on a navy that was still a legal ally should have aroused cheers in the House of Commons tells us how emotionally and psychologically we are removed from that time. Nonetheless, Admiral Somerville, the Royal Navy commander who on Churchill’s orders had to open the bombardment of what was a helpless fleet at berth, to his dying day fiercely opposed the operation, as did the crews responsible for it. Not merely were 1,500 French sailors slaughtered in this shocking affair, but a loathing of Britain was infused into the Vichy French colonial troops. The Empire’s assault on the Vichy French client state of Syria a year later was fiercely opposed, as the 554 Commonwealth war graves in Aleppo and Damascus would testify: the forgotten price of Oran.
As for Churchill’s fear that French warships would become incorporated into the German navy, the battleship Strasbourg managed to escape the bombardment and find sanctuary in Toulon, where it remained until it was scuttled by its crew in 1942. It is hard to regard the sinking of the French fleet at Oran than as anything other than a war crime, and those who ordered it – namely the Admiralty and Churchill – could only have escaped a trial within that entirely unprincipled jurisprudence which dispenses victors’ justice.
Hypothetically, if Britain had to indulge in such an exquisitely brutal treachery in 1940, Germany would surely have been a more appropriate victim. In which hypothesis, after a bogus peace, a ruthlessly cynical British renewal of war against the Third Reich following Operation Barbarossa would have been an option, perhaps spearheaded by fleets of no-longer hypothetical Supermarine bombers. This would have required a deviously subtle, Machiavellian and deeply un-Churchillian statecraft against the Führer, a creature who naively thought that lesser, more civilised peoples invariably kept their word. But as Chamberlain had discovered, no prudent soul, Christian or otherwise, should ever behave honorably towards such a barbarian, particularly once their own civilian populations had become hostages to his homicidal vagaries.
However, such moral licence nonetheless takes one to fresh dilemmas, and not entirely imaginary ones, as the fate of German cities from 1943 to 1945 was to show. The only way that Britain had of prosecuting a renewed war after Barbarossa would have been by murdering tens of thousands of German civilians. So list, please, the moral differences between killing Jews because they’re Jews and Germans because they’re Germans. And does the resulting tally really satisfy you as to what makes a war moral?
The British “Victory” of 1945 is largely mythic. The cost of not ending the war in 1940 included the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Britons, the ruination of most British cities, and a debt burden to the US that lasted three generations. Beyond these shores, the price was unspeakable: this included the murder of most of Europe’s Jews, the destruction of Poland’s independence for which the war had been started, the enslavement of Eastern Europe, and the metamorphosis of their most cynical conqueror, the Soviet Union, into an imperial superpower. Matters steadily worsened. The USSR was soon nuclear-armed, while over the coming decades, within its freshly created client-regimes China, Vietnam and Korea, some 100 million people were to die. The destruction of much of Italy and Germany constitute slightly lesser catastrophes.
Moreover, any logical analysis must conclude that had Hitler really wanted, in 1941, he could have slowly tortured Britain to death. Instead, he reserved that fate for Western Europe’s Jews, who might otherwise have survived – though we cannot say. Rather more probably, the tens of thousands of Britons who died in the winter-blitz of 1940-41 would not have perished. But what absolutely would not have happened 75 five years ago this autumn was an invasion of Britain, partly because it wasn’t operationally possible, but primarily because Hitler didn’t want it. He rather liked the Empire the way it was.
Kevin Myers is a journalist and author of Watching the Door (Atlantic Books)
This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (14/8/15).
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