The Battle of Britain
Britain in 1940 was still a mighty imperial and industrial power. It had the largest merchant navy in the world and the largest fleet of warships to protect it. We like to think of Britain as weak, alone and endangered during World War Two, but it was never so: British tank and aircraft production outstripped Germany’s from 1940 until the war ended. So secure did Churchill’s cabinet feel in their island fortress that, facing the threat of invasion, they had no hesitation in sending ship-loads of tanks and fighter-planes to North Africa and the Far East. They never doubted they would win.
Hitler sensed this. He wasn’t convinced that ‘Operation Sea-Lion’ was viable. Like Napoleon, he was happiest with land warfare, where he more-or-less knew what he was doing. But his aura as a supreme war-lord demanded punishment for the recalcitrant British, so barges were assembled in the Channel Ports and barracks hastily built on the cliff-tops facing Dover.
Two factors stood in his way. The first was the Royal Air Force. No barge would reach Kent unless the RAF’s thousands of aircraft in Fighter Command, Coastal Command and Bomber Command could be neutralised. Goering promised to do this. Like most of Goering’s commitments, it was impetuous and ill-thought-out. The Luftwaffe started by trying to destroy the RAF’s radar chain and airfields. The radar installations were too hard to hit, and too easy to re-build, while – to the Luftwaffe’s surprise – attacks on the airfields were met by swarms of fighters who always seemed to know where the Germans were going.
From July to October the Germans threw everything they had at the Royal Air Force. They felt they were close to victory because they consistently over-estimated their combat successes and under-estimated Britain’s capacity to produce new Spitfires and Hurricanes. They got this completely wrong: the RAF had more fighters at the end of the Battle of Britain than at the beginning.
Morale was another problem for the Germans. Their own morale was excellent, but as nothing compared with the visceral hatred felt by Europeans whose homelands had been over-run by Hitler’s myrmidons. Among the band of fighter pilots who won the Battle of Britain was a large contingent of Czechs, many of whom had escaped by way of France. Born airmen, then as now, they fought with flair and fury: the fourth-top-scoring Battle of Britain ace, with 17 kills, was Josef Frantisek. He and over 2,000 compatriots who fought with the RAF are commemorated by the Winged Lion Memorial at Klarov in Prague.
By the end of September the Germans realised they couldn’t win and switched to bombing civilians in cities: The Blitz. That didn’t work either. The barges were quietly dispersed and the barracks disassembled. Hitler officially ‘postponed’ the invasion.
The second factor standing in Hitler’s way was the Royal Navy. Even if Goering’s air-fleets had beaten the RAF, there was not the slightest possibility of an army crossing the Channel while the Royal Navy existed: it was vast, aggressive, intimidating and unbeatable. We may conclude that ‘Operation Sea-Lion’ was a case of sabre-rattling. Or we may conclude that Hitler was deranged.
But the Battle of Britain was a turning-point in history. It showed the oppressed nations of Europe, and the Americans, and the Russians, that the Germans were not invincible. The RAF – a multinational organisation if ever there was one – had struck a resounding blow for freedom. These young pilots inspired hope and resistance throughout occupied Europe. For the Axis, in spite of many military successes to come over the next four years, it was the beginning of the end.