(Author's note: This article is dedicated to Avril Joyce Fellows (nee Burrows) who lived through the Battle of Britain as a young girl.)
It is seventy five years (to the month) since the great turning point in the Second World War: a most unusual battle that climaxed on September 7 1940: unusual because it was the first war waged solely in the air, and also unusual because the war was named before it even began.
The name? The Battle of Britain. The namer? England’s brand new Prime Minister: Winston Churchill.
Churchill's greatest success at the time of the Second World War was as an author. He supported his family and his estate by payments he got for his books. Churchill was a gifted writer, and this talent translated well into oratory and political rhetoric.
There was more to the sixty-five year old Prime Minister than writing, however. Churchill was a maverick politician, military man, and descendant of royalty. He was thoroughly disliked by liberals and mistrusted by conservatives, as evidenced by Parliament’s open and purposeful snubbing of Churchill for appointment to an open Cabinet position in 1936.
Winston had spent the decade in strident opposition to Germany’s post World War I rearmament. He was also outspoken in his disgust over the “appeasement of Germany” policies of Britain’s Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain.
The common folk of England were split between those wanting peace (some at almost any price) and those who wanted to stand up to Germany and Hitler’s bullying ways. Churchill wanted a fight and he wanted everyone to know. Winston had a big mouth, and he wasn’t afraid to use it.
For example, he declared that England’s choice was between “war and shame.” If “shame” was chosen the result would still be war, but in even worse conditions than previously. Churchill’s rhetoric made him political enemies – he simply spoke too plainly for liberals and conservatives alike - but won over many of the common folk.
Like Churchill, Germany also wanted war. They started one in 1939 and in short order conquered much of continental Europe. In 1940 Hitler invaded France and took the country over easily. His next target laid just a stone’s throw across the English Channel: Great Britain, formerly an empire, now a small island about to be swallowed up by a super power.
England was very important because of geography. It could provide a convenient jumping off point to continental Europe for Hitler’s enemies - especially the United States. Churchill had forged a solid, positive relationship with American President Franklin Roosevelt, and was perceived as having influence on American foreign policy. Germany did not want America or any of England’s allies using the island as a base for operations against Axis powers on continental Europe.
Hitler was convinced England would agree to an armistice because of the weak appeasement policies of Prime Minister Chamberlain. His generals preferred an armistice to get their armies, navies, and air forces back up to fighting conditions. Although Hitler made conquering a continent look easy, it was not: his forces were depleted and needed time to be replenished.
Hitler’s ego was in fighting form, however. His counterpart across the waves was also ready to fight – rhetorically speaking, of course. Winston Churchill had been a cavalry officer back in the day, but now he fought not with a horse, but with a pen - and his remarkable voice. It was at this point in history, after the defeat of France and of Europe, that Churchill gave one of many memorable speeches, declaring:
The Battle of France is over ... the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization (sic). Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.
But 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. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, This was their finest hour (emphasis supplied).
The speech was given on July 18 to the House of Commons in Parliament. Even his political enemies (well, many of them) rose in applause and acclaim.
Twenty years previously Churchill had in similar terms decried the menace of that day as a “threat to civilization.” This particular threat was Bolshevism, which Churchill (and others) called “Jewish Bolshevism.” “This worldwide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilization”,” was, Churchill wrote, the result of Jewish influence: “”The majority of the leading figures are Jews,” he declared, “the principal inspiration and driving power comes from the Jewish leaders.”
Churchill wasn’t more anti-semitic than anyone else. A lot of Europeans believed that about Communism, including Adolf Hitler. Unlike Churchill, Hitler really made hay with the idea, selling to his fellow Germans the ideas that all their post World War I problems were caused by Jews: Jewish Bolsheviks, Jewish capitalists, Jewish usurers – well, you get the idea. Where that road led needs no elaboration at this time…
In the summer of 1940 it was obvious Hitler had England in his sights. It was also obvious that Neville Chamberlain had no stomach for war. He resigned, and died later that same year. Who would lead the nation soon to be at war? In an unusual move viewed with dismay by conservatives and liberals, the King appointed Winston Churchill to be Prime Minister.
A month after his appointment came Churchill’s “Finest Hour” speech. It was a gauntlet thrown down at Hitler, something no one had yet done. Churchill had very little to back up his fighting words with. Perhaps his greatest ally at this time was the English Channel, which prevented Germany from marching in and taking over, as they had done everywhere else.
Hitler began talking to his generals about a land invasion, nicknamed Operation Sea Lion. The generals were almost unanimously opposed. The Kriegsmarine (German navy) had taken a beating conquering Norway, and would be outnumbered and over matched by a rested, fully operational British Royal Navy. The German Army, moreover, had no experience with amphibious landings under battle conditions. The generals thought, however, that if Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF) could be neutralized, a land invasion of England might work. This flawed strategy was the basis for the Battle of Britain.
On July 10, 1940, German bombers began attacking cargo ships traversing the English Channel. This Kanalkampf (Channel War) lasted a month, and favored the Germans. The bombing and destruction of ships by Nazi planes forced the English first to resort to night shipments, and then to abandon sea travel altogether. Cargo was sent by rail instead.
On August 13 1940 Germany changed its tactics. The Luftwaffe (air force) began bombing RAF bases all over Britain. This strategy, called Adlertag (Eagle Day), involved hundreds of German bombers dropping thousands of bombs on England. The goal was to destroy the RAF so that Operation Sea Lion could be implemented.
Churchill responded with a speech that electrified his audience and resonated with every citizen of the island. Words now cannot do justice to the effect this man had on his countrymen, but here is an example of a speech made during Adlertag:
“We shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
The Luftwaffe inflicted considerable damage to RAF bases, but not to their operations; a distinction that became a pattern in the conflict.
Germany also targeted airplane factories, railroads, ports, and other industries related to the war. The bombing continued day and night, with heavy losses of planes and men on both sides. Hermann Goring, commander in chief of the Luftwaffe, promised Hitler that the Luftwaffe would achieve air superiority in days. The Luftwaffe inflicted considerable damage, but they failed to destroy or permanently cripple the RAF. Air superiority remained elusive.
A crucial failure for the Luftwaffe was their inability to destroy England’s nation wide radar web. The RAF was always able to use radar to target German formations and their attack routes, then to communicate this to the targets in order to mount effective air and ground defense against the air raids.
Another failure of Adlertag occurred when German bombers went off course and accidentally dropped bombs on English civilians. Up until now Hitler had been scrupulous about not bombing civilians or civilian towns. He had even refused his general's advice to bomb civilians in order to demoralize the enemy.
Churchill retaliated by bombing Berlin. Hitler was furious. Moderation went out the window, and on September 7 1940 Hitler launched the Blitzkrieg against England. This is commonly (but not universally) recognized as the day the Battle of Britain began.
The Blitz (as it came to be known) was all out bombing every day and night. The primary target was London, which contained one quarter of the island’s population. London was bombed seventy one times. Much of the city was rendered to rubble, or charred beyond recognition by firestorms.
Firestorms occurred when Luftwaffe planes dropped bombs in combination with incendiary devices designed to cause fires. The combination was deadly. The bombs broke open roofs and building covers, allowing incendiary bombs to detonate inside the buildings and start fires.
The climax of firestorming in the Battle of Britain occurred on December 29 1940. The Germans picked the day deliberately because it was the low tide of the Thames River, which made it harder for fire fighters to combat the flames.
That night the Luftwaffe dropped an estimated 24,000 high explosive bombs, and over 100,000 incendiary bombs on London. It is estimated that 1,500 fires were started that night. Fires spread to other fires and became larger and larger. The intensity and violence of the flames eventually caused a firestorm.
The signal feature of a firestorm is the creation of gale force winds that blow towards the flames. On the night of December 29 1940, dozens of people were sucked into the firestorm and incinerated. Two hundred English citizens lost their lives that night. Scores of buildings were totally destroyed: bombed and burnt to the very ground.
The firestorm was near St. Paul’s Cathedral. Churchill exhorted the fire crews to save the church. They did – barely, and with many deaths and hundreds of injuries. The dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral shines to this very day, thanks to the bravery and resourcefulness of a few good men.
The other “few” were the RAF pilots who continually battled the Luftwaffe to a standstill, never allowing Germany air superiority over England. In another memorable speech, Winston Churchill referred to them thusly:
“The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the World War by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
RAF staff adopted the new nickname “the few” as a joke, but also as a badge of honor given them by their leader. It was true: the RAF had fought a larger air force to a complete standstill, and most likely saved their country from military invasion. How many other nations they saved by not surrendering will never be known.
They were not the only heroes. All the English citizens who endured daily and nightly bombing; who endured the loss of their homes; the loss of family members; who ate and slept in underground bomb shelters; who suffered all manner of deprivation without losing morale or surrendering in spirit – perhaps they are the true heroes of this unusual war.
And in those moments when hope wavered the citizens turned to their leader, who unfailingly restored their strength andresolve to fight another day. Although privately Churchill had doubts – “we will be dead in three months” he told an aide – publicly he was unflinchingly courageous in words and deeds. He was a mediocre Prime Minister (who was not reelected), but a supreme statesman an orator who, at the age of sixty-five, rose to the occasion during a decisive point in his nation’s history, and the history of our world.
Eventually Hitler got bored bombing the stubborn English. Having failed to conquer a small island, the Fuhrer proceeeded - with the logic of a madman - to invade Russia, the largest land mass in the world. His defeats would soon pile up, but the first country to defeat Germany in the Second World War will always be England.
Some historians view September 7 1940 as the end of the Battle of Britain. In fact indiscriminate bombing of military and civilian targets on English soil continued well into 1941.
Quentin Reynolds, The Battle of Britain, Random House, 1973.