Blogs > Liberty and Power > The So-Called 'Battle of Britain': Another Political Myth Bites the Dust

Aug 26, 2006 1:13 am

The So-Called 'Battle of Britain': Another Political Myth Bites the Dust

An article in the September 2006 issue of ‘History Today’ does away with at least three myths surrounding the Battle of Britain:-
(1.) “it was not the RAF but the Royal Navy that saved Britain in 1940.…This is the contention of three senior military historians at the Joint Services Command Staff College.”
(Senior British officers in all three services attend the College. Inter alia, they do courses in military history.)

Dr Andrew Gordon, head of maritime history: “To claim that Germany failed to invade in 1940 because of what was done by the phenomenally brave and skilled young men of Fighter Command is hogwash. The Germans stayed away because while the Royal Navy existed they had not a hope in hell of capturing these islands. The navy had ships in sufficient numbers to have overwhelmed any invasion fleet – destroyers’ speed alone would have swamped the barges by their wash, hardly a need for guns.”

Dr. Christina Goulter, the College's air warfare historian, quotes Gen. Jodl: “an invasion would be to send ‘my troops into a mincing machine’.”

"Wing-Commander H. R. Allen, DFC, a Spitfire pilot with 66 Squadron, wrote in 1975: “Sadly we arrive at the conclusion that the Battle of Britain has been glorified to the point of hyperbole by historians… the omnipotence of the air situation greatly exaggerated… and the importance of… command of the sea… overlooked.” Dr Gordon:- “For writing that, his name became mud in air force circles.” "

(2.) Dr Gordon continues:- “What you need to remember – and this gets rid of another great myth – Hitler had no plans for a long, total war. He hadn’t prepared his economy for it, or made plans for it. He had a script for the short, brutal fight he had in Western Europe. He reached the last page of that script on the coast at Dunkirk…And, according to that script, Britain was [now] supposed [to] do a deal.”

(3.) Professor Gary Sheffield, the College's senior land warfare historian: “Another myth we might dispose of. Dad’s Army…and knives tied to broomsticks. In fact the average age of the Home Guard was around thirty-five. And about half these men had served in World War One. Once you had trained and fought in a modern war, you don’t forget everything you learned. They were poorly armed at first, but once 500,000 rifles arrived from North America in July, they would have had a key part in delaying German troops.”

The article continues: “Some historians have always tried to explode the myths surrounding the Battle of Britain, particularly that the RAF was outnumbered. In a detailed account of events (Battle of Britain Day, September 15th, 1940, 1999) Alfred Price pointed out that on that day the RAF twice put around 250 fighters into the air – and still used less than half its available strength, against a Germany that used every fighter it possessed. The losses that day – 56 German (compared with the 185 claimed at the time) against 29 RAF – convinced the Luftwaffe it was not winning. In 1990 Clive Ponting showed that while Britain had 644 fighters against Germany’s 725 at the beginning of the battle, by October superior British production methods had changed the balance in Britain’s favour….30 per cent of our trained pilots, Ponting claimed, were tied down in desk jobs throughout the conflict.”

“Did Churchill truly believe invasion was possible? Dr. Gordon:- “He was fairly frank in his books. Part of his defiance was a hook to draw the Americans in. Part was hype to keep the British public behind him. And hype to keep the trade unions quiet – the last six months in 1940 was the only time in WW2 that Churchill had no trouble with trade unions.” "

Pie in the Sky? 'History Today', September 2006.

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Sudha Shenoy - 8/27/2006

Sorry -- I certainly didn't mean to suggest that people didn't suffer!
I was thinking of the usual picture conjured up by the phrase, 'Battle of Britain' -- a few heroic, vastly outnumbered fighter pilots who alone held off the Nazi might & 'saved' Britain from German invasion. It is _this_ notion which the three military historians reject.

Grant W Jones - 8/27/2006

Thanks for linking to the article. I think it's your blog title that may get people's back up. There was nothing "so-called" about the battle for the men and women under the guns who fought and died in it.

Sudha Shenoy - 8/27/2006

1. The German navy had already refused in 1939 to invade Britain. Andrew Gordon: "an invasion fleet of Rhine barges,moving at about two knots..with a freeboard of a few absolute field day for [the Royal Navy]..that was the nightmare for the German navy."
The Royal Navy had enough ships to overwhelm any invasion fleet;"destroyers' speed alone would've swamped the barges by their wash, no need for guns." Hence Gen. Jodl's statement (already quoted.)

2. The Luftwaffe had _no_ (no) armour-piercing shells, or torpedo training. They had _failed already_ to stop the Royal Navy in Norway. So in Sept 1940, the Luftwaffe in effect supplied the German army & navy with an _excuse_ for refusing to invade Britain.

3. Hitler (as quoted already) expected Churchill to ask for terms, which Churchill didn't do. So Hitler had to develop other plans.

Read the original article. It's well-written & -argued.

Grant W Jones - 8/26/2006

I don't think there is any way of knowing if the RN could have stopped a German invasion. However, it is clear that the British didn't want to find out. The air battle was decisive in so far as Hitler had to cancel Sealion as a result.

Sudha Shenoy - 8/26/2006

A. _All_ these points were dealt with in the original article in the Sept 2006 issue of History Today. A link is available at the end of the blog entry: 'Pie in the Sky?'. Registration is required to read the full article.

B. Dr. Andrew Gordon the College's senior historian of maritime history. He is therefore well aware of the facts mentioned in the two comments. His points:
(1) In Norway [April 1940] the navy were under constant air attack. Nevertheless they suffered no significantlosses because they were free to move & attack back.
(2) Losses occurred at Dunkirk because the ships were _stationary_, picking up troops.
(3)"The Luftwaffe was..designed to support the army on the ground." The Germans had no armour-piercing bombs. They had no trained torpedo crews -- they only began such practice in preparation for the invasion of Crete, which occurred in May 1941.
The Battle of Britain was Sept 1940. No capital ship at the time had been destroyed from the air.
(4.) The _Japanese _did_ have armour-piercing bombs. Their fliers were the best in the world at destroying shipping.
(5.) In Singapore, it was the _Japanese, _not_ the Germans who attacked the Royal Navy. Similarly at Pearl Harbour, it was the _Japanese, _not_ the Germans, who attacked _stationary_ ships (see above on Dunkirk.)

Grant W Jones - 8/25/2006

Three days after Pearl Harbor a Brit battleship and battlecruiser, the Prince of Wales and Repulse, were sunk by Japanese land based bombers in open water. Without airpower Singapore was doomed.

Goring wanted to bring England to her knees with his Luftwaffe. Whether he could have succeeded is an open question, but it wasn't from lack of trying.

Oscar Chamberlain - 8/25/2006

I would be the last to denigrate the Royal Navy or its strategic importance, but without air cover its ships would have been toast.

The Navy's size and training did require that the Germans obtain a full mastery of the air as opposed to simply a balance, and I'm not sure that the Germans had any torpedo planes. But with dive bombers flying from land bases, an unhindered German airforce would have made an invasion possible, if still very difficult.