by Dr. Helena P. Schrader
From the point of view of a historian, the Battle of Britain was significant because it brought Hitler’s aggression to a halt for the first time after he came to power in Germany in 1933. Admittedly, Hitler considered his failure to defeat the Royal Air Force in the summer of 1940 an annoyance rather than a major strategic set-back; his real objective was the Soviet Union, and to this day most Germans have never even heard of the Battle of Britain! Yet for Britain, the United States, and occupied Europe, the significance of the Battle of Britain can hardly be over-stated.
If the RAF had been defeated in 1940, the Luftwaffe would have been able to continue indiscriminate day-light bombing almost indefinitely and paved the way for a German invasion of Britain. Although many doubt this would have been successful, there is no certainty that it would have been repulsed either. The Royal Navy had been seriously weakened by the losses during the evacuation at Dunkirk and was over-stretched trying to protect the Atlantic lifeline. Furthermore, the Royal Army was had been mauled in France and the British Expeditionary Force had abandoned all its heavy equipment in France. In consequence, the British ground forces lacked tanks and artillery for fighting the heavily mechanized Wehrmacht. Churchill was not only being rhetorical when he spoke about fighting a guerrilla war against the invaders!
But the invasion did not take place because the Royal Air Force, or more specifically Fighter Command, prevented the Luftwaffe from establishing air superiority over England. Without air superiority, the Wehrmacht was not prepared to invade. So Hitler (more interested in invading the Soviet Union anyway) first postponed and then cancelled the invasion of Britain altogether.
This was more than a military victory. The Battle of Britain was a critical diplomatic and psychological victory as well. The psychological impact of defeating the apparently invincible Luftwaffe was enormous at the time. The RAF had proved that the Luftwaffe could be beaten, and by inference that the Wehrmacht could be beaten. This fact alone encouraged resistance and kept hope alive all across occupied Europe.
Yet, any such purely objective assessment of the Battle of Britain does not explain the appeal of the Battle of Britain to people today. There were, after all, many other decisive battles in WWII from Stalingrad to Midway. The appeal of the Battle of Britain is less military and diplomatic than emotional.
The Battle of Britain was a drama that has captured the imagination – and hearts – of all subsequent generations because of just how much hung in the balance and of just how little stood between Britain and a Nazi invasion. The Wehrmacht had just defeated the French in six weeks! The British Expeditionary Force had been rescued by the skin of their teeth in a dramatic, improvised evacuation – but only at the cost of abandoning all its equipment on the beaches of France. Thus, in the Summer of 1940, it seemed like only RAF Fighter Command stood between Britain and invasion, between freedom and subjugation.
Yet RAF Fighter Command was tiny! Even including the foreign pilots flying with the RAF, there were only roughly 1,200 trained fighter pilots in Britain at this time. (Numbers varied due to training, casualties and recruiting.) These men were a highly trained elite that could not be readily replaced. Pilots were not mere “cannon fodder.” They were specialists that took years to train. In the summer of 1940, they stood against apparently overwhelming odds. Churchill – as so often – captured the sentiment of his countrymen when he claimed that “never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.”
This image of a small “band of brothers” standing up to a massive and invincible foe in a defensive battle for their homeland was reminiscent of other heroic battles – Henry V at Agincourt, Edward the Black Prince at Poitiers, Leonidas and his 300 at Thermopylae. Such battles, pitting a few defenders against a hoard of enemy, have always appealed to students of history and readers of historical fiction like almost nothing else.
This meant that a smallish core of experienced pilots watched waves of replacements arriving and then being shot-down in a short space of time, until sheer exhaustion wore down even the most experienced pilots. By the end of the Battle, Squadron Leaders, Flight Lieutenants and Section Leaders were increasingly getting shot down as a result of mistakes, inattention, and ‘sloppy flying’ that resulted simply from fatigue.
These are the “human interest” stories that so fascinate us today – the inexperienced teenagers with less than 20 hours on combat aircraft being thrown into the bloody fray, and their experienced commanders, the “killers” who had to shoot down enough German aircraft to convince Goering and Hitler that the Battle could not be won , while at the same time leading, encouraging and advising their young colleagues so they could live to fight another day.
How did they do it?
Obviously one factor was sheer motivation. British pilots were fighting over their homes – and their historical and national heritage – acutely aware of being the last line of defense in a war against a widely abhorred enemy. But this alone would hardly have given them victory. The Poles and Danes and French etc. had also been fighting for their homes and country against the same aggressor.
Technology and organization were other critical factors and these have been analyzed and discussed in great detail in many good history books. I will only mention here radar, without which Britain would certainly have lost the Battle of Britain, and the system of ground control over dispersed fighter squadrons, which was equally important to Britain’s victory in 1940. The Spitfire deserves at least an honorable mention since it was such a magnificent fighter, even if honesty compels me to note that in the Battle of Britain more squadrons were equipped with and more German aircrafts shot down by Hurricanes.
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Helena Page Schrader is a career diplomat, who earned a PhD in History from the University of Hamburg with a ground-breaking dissertation about the mastermind behind the coup attempt against Hitler in July 1944. She has published non-fiction works on the German Resistance, women in aviation in WWII, and the Berlin Airlift. Her novels on the German Resistance (Hitler’s Demons, the Battle of Britain (Chasing the Wind, Kindle Edition: Where Eagles Never Flew), and Ancient Greece have won praise and awards. (View a video teaser on her Leonidas Trilogy.) She is currently working on a ten Tales of Chivalry, novels set in the 13th and 14th century against the backdrop of the crusades. (View a video teaser on her Tales of Chivalry series.) The first novel in this series, A Widow’s Crusade, was released April 9, 2013 and can be purchased on amazon.com. You can find out more about Helena and her books at her website: http://www.helenapschrader.com.