80 Years ago. . .
This weeks random meandering through the musty bits of my head in search of something useful, have been waylaid by the 80th anniversary of one of the most pivotal points in modern history.
Social media is awash with Spitfires and the occasional Hurricane. And with jolly good reason (although there are never enough Hurricanes):
15th September 1940 - Battle of Britain Day.
John Terraine states:
'The hour of destiny' September 15th, a date thereafter commemorated as 'Battle of Britain Day'.
The title has been disputed; Alfred Price, for one, says that September 15th "has singularly little to commend it. . . the day when the British victory claim was furthest from the truth. . ." Yet forgetting the 'numbers game', it is hard to dispute Winston Churchill's verdict that it was, in fact, 'the crux of the Battle of Britain'. He made that judgment in the light of his knowledge of what happened to Operation Sealion - which was, of course, from beginning to end, what the Battle of Britain was really about.
John Terraine The Right of the Line Hodder & Stoughton 1985 pp210-211
I don't agree with Price - in conventional set piece terms, the summer of 1940 had a field of combat, it had two protagonists and a victor and a vanquished at the end of that fateful Sunday. The victor not so much carried the day as carried out a strategy to resist the advances of the enemy, while the vanquished not entirely carried from the field in dissaray, discovered that their fighting prowess had met its match and been bested.
Unternehmen Seelöwe - Sealion: The invasion and subjugation of the United kingdom by finishing off the interrupted destruction of an army never happened. Forgetting contemporary arguments and suppositions about Hitler's true intent to invade, the prevention of the second invasion of the British Isles rests solely with the fighter squadrons of the Royal Air Force.
The preceding months of aerial combat, bombing and the tumultuous 15th is testament to the well documented aim of a mad man, a gambler, drunk on his own idioms and cult of personality who sought to dismantle the British Empire. Remove this superannuated old-matron from the world stage thought Hitler, and the US would work with Germany as a trading partner (IBM, Ford and the Kennedy's were already making overtures) The ally Japan would be granted unfettered access to resources in the Far East (and would have no need to enter into a futile war of attrition), and the Fascist duke could have his way with the Levant and Africa. As for the Georgian psychopath, he could be kept at arms length with an uneasy pact until a nuclear solution was within reach.
Forget Pearl Harbour, forget Singapore, El Alamein. . . Stalingrad. . .D-Day, if the 15th had gone badly I possibly wouldn't be sat here writing this and you wouldn't be reading it. Or you and I wouldn't be doing any number of things which we take for granted as part of our largely free, liberal and open societies. Such was the enormity of the Summer of 1940.
Sunday September 15th 1940, was not only the turning point of the Battle of Britain, it was the pivot point of the entire war. It is not an exaggeration to say the history of the entire world rested on those frantic hours, and the actions of those young men. These New Zealanders, Canadians, Australians, Poles, Czechs, South Africans, as well as Belgians French, Americans and even one pilot from Jamaica were the immortal 'Few'. Actually RAF records state that 2,937 flew during the recognised period between 10th July and 31st October. But on the 15th it was just under 600 who took to the skies.
Every Fighter Command aerodrome was involved, every squadron within 11 Group participated, as well as the Duxford Big Wing from 12 Group and a number of squadrons in 10 Group were called upon to protect areas in the south west. There were no real reserves, no second line of defence, no backstop, no renegotiating a 'let's come back tomorrow and we'll have another crack at it'.
No, this was the bottom line.
But as many veterans have pointed out over the years, it wasn't just 'The Few' who saved the world's collective bacon it was a multitude of people, the ground crews who had to make efficiency a top priority in getting aircraft patched up, refuelled and rearmed in between the relentless sorties, the RDF operators, the Observer Corps. . . and then there were the merchant marine and the convoys who fed the country and brought the aviation fuel and raw materials from the US and the Dominions.
As Squadron Leader Geoffrey Wellum DFC said shortly before his death in 2018: 'All they ask is to be remembered".
'They who also served'.
While at 11 Group Headquarters Air Vice Marshal Keith Park busily controlled the situation drawing on all his experience and expertise. Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding remained at Fighter Command Headquarters keeping silent vigil over the large map below indicating to him the events and the unfolding battle that was taking place over the south-east of England. The weight of the day must have been immense.
Across a scant 22 miles of water time was now running out for Hitler. If Sealion was to take place on September 17th as planned, the lead-up would have to commence no later than September 15th.
For the Luftwaffe, and the bold claims of its commander who had failed to destroy the Allied armies at Dunkirk, it was imperative that Britain's ability to exercise air superiority over the planned beach-head was prevented, and this required nothing short of annihilation, just as the Polish and French Air forces had been dealt to a few short weeks and months before.
For the RAF it was simple, it wasn't so much about downing as many Luftwaffe machines as possible, it was retain control of sovereign airspace. Much has been written about the myths, the stories and the visceral events. The meticulously researched and documented truths are that contrary to the populist view of a country at odds and on its own, the RAF was actually in better shape and in terms of pilot strength, was more resilient than the Luftwaffe who were worn and under strength after continuous action since September 1939.
Regardless of the numbers and statistics, the weight of the situation makes the day a tumultuous global event.
The night of the 14/15th could be argued as a component of the Luftwaffe's major action with the eighth consecutive night bombing of London but in terms of Fighter Command's nocturnal combat actions, night-fighting was in it infancy and the daylight battle proper commenced around 8.00 when a reconnaissance He 111 was destroyed over the Channel. It wasn't until around 11.00 that the day and the unfolding battle started to materialise as the bomber units started to appear on the Chain Home RDF screens . The battle ebbed and flowed in three dimensions until just after 16.30hrs. . . On this day 13 RAF pilots gave their lives.
"Never in the field. . ." is a understatement of immense proportions.
That was then, this is now. . .
We are faced with a series of contemporary existential threats today which throw the actions of the fifteenth into sharp relief. That might sound a tad melodramatic in comparison, it's not.
A foe was tangible, visible in those days. They wore a sartorially elegant uniform, stamped about a bit, had angular machines with angular insignia to match their angular heads; and had an humourless arrogance that marked them out as a 'bit special' (murderous nazi/fascist twats for want of a better phrase).
But nowadays, it's a bit different, a bit less obvious as to who, what and where the threats to a longed for but often unattainable peaceful happy existence are. And that's without the evolving complexities of biological/neurological organic mechanisms which thanks to our connected post-war world, can travel around the globe that much faster than before.
Indeed before we even stop to think and no doubt argue about what the actions of September 15th stood for and what they circumvented (yes there were a multitude of other military engagements along with the connected crimes against humanity and the suffering of civilian populations during a global conflict), there is the primary question about why has the Battle of Britain (and the second world war in general) become such an all consuming trope for historians, documentary TV/film makers and us hobbyists?
In the next few waffles I'll attempt to unpack this from a perspective of an obsession with exact scale replicas of the machinery of aerial warfare.
I'll try to approach this from my own views as someone who was introduced to the Battle of Britain around the age of 6 and grew up in a household which liked nothing better than a good old-fashioned war film. There was no real questioning of what it was about, (the suffering and trauma was hidden by a sensor or the social mores of a cinematic style which didn't represent brutal death in real time) or sense of 'correctness' which is part and parcel of todays ultra-informed and at times overweening politically correct society. Indoctrinated perhaps. . . well maybe.
In all fairness would you try and discuss this with a six year old who had just been given a die-cast Spitfire with folding wheels and a working prop for his birthday? Probably not.
Waffle Mk1a: Why does the Battle of Britain endure?
I suppose the first response to the question is that it could be a generational thing, I happened to be at an impressionable age around the time that the Battle of Britain film was released. I was born 20 years after the end of the war and enough time had elapsed to move away from the memories and depravations to a country which was on the up. We'd never had it so good as some pompous oaf in a suit once said and celebrating the triumphs of a plucky little country which beat the Hun via grit, determination, tactics and technological genius was in vogue.
"Hello Pimpernel leader, Sapper calling. . . what are your angels?"
But you'd be excused for thinking that this would be like many other fads of the age, a transitional interest and that the Battle of Britain would quietly fade into the background of history as time moved us away from the event. I mean no one keeps banging on about the Crimea or other tales of heroic steadfastness against seemingly impossible odds on a weekly basis, so surely the Summer of 1940 should eventually go the same way?
Perhaps though, it's not yet quite far enough away in a temporally dislocated sense to organically slip from the public consciousness? Maybe that will only really happen once the last remaining survivor of the day has passed and the last flying examples become time expired or are legislated out of the air by a nanny state?
Perhaps though there's another not altogether savoury reason?
It's that the political agendas of our age need it to be remembered because it serves an altogether subverted and nefarious purpose? You see, the politicians of today equate their self aggrandised image of 'greatness' with a misguided nationalistic pride and to perpetuate this they need to sell the notion of a country which endured all manner of attacks and privations as somehow something to be returned to. By channelling the spirit of 1940 and the actions of a small band of young men towards a populace which are desperate for some fleeting sense of righteous superiority, they can do so again. Only this time the foe is a construct designed for their own purposes. A bogeyman.
But like it or not and however hard we might argue that it is the historical event and deeds we remember, commemorate and replicate in miniature, the battle did happen solely because of a political act and was an inevitable outcome. There had to be a Battle of Britain from the minute the first Stuka nosed over and placed its sights on Warsaw. That young men had to fight and die due to some political machination is largely immaterial because we remember them, not the flag or a notion of Britishness, we remember them.
So we should be wary of the current crop of political ner-do-wells and shysters who would seek to hijack the the deeds of brave men to perpetuate their own positions, via a skewed sense of national pride, conflating some imagined sovereignty and a collective love of the monarchy with other aspects of a long dead empire. An organisation which never really existed, at least not by the time the storm clouds of 1940 rolled in.
But I actually think that it's a much easier, straightforward and honest reason that the Battle of Britain is a self perpetuating and enduring historical even which is seared into our collective psyche.
The events surrounding the Battle of Britain from the crisp air of a May morning to the dying embers of October 1940 stir a subliminal, yet intense emotion. Call it pride, febrile excitement and a sense of awe, these are just three of a range of feelings which have different intensities for different people. Let me explain, when my mother-in-law was terminally ill with cancer we took her to see the BBMF flight at a local airport. It was a chance opportunity and as luck would have it a sunny Sunday afternoon in September. As the Hurricane tail chased the Spit around the control tower and beat up the runway before heading off to Conningsby, she cried. She'd no idea what a Spitfire was let alone that it was a MkXIX and never flew in the battle. It did something to her, to us.
We all cried. Unashamedly cried.
Not for a flag, or a roundel or an island nation, but for what these raw, loud, magnificent, beautiful deadly aeroplanes represented: A group of young men who will remain forever young.
Anthony, Wellington - 15th September 2020.