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The Battle of Britain: who really did win it ? . . . the font size of this page can be increased if it's too small . .

There has been some rather silly and misleading speculation of late as to whether the RAF prevented the invasion in 1940, or whether it was the benign presence of the Royal Navy that stopped it. This view is apparently being promoted by 'military historians' at one of our leading Military Staff Colleges, but I suspect their words are being mischeviously twisted by sections of the media. The older media types that knew about these things .. some took part .. have mostly now retired, and it leaves us with these young media 'graduates', so-called news editors, mostly in their 20s and 30s, who wouldn't know real history if it jumped out from behind a bush and bit them up the behind. So, this page is an attempt to inform younger local readers of this site the accepted facts and place things in a bit more perspective.

These seven points should be considered as the situation was seen at 15 Sept 1940 .. and not just with the clever hindsight that history gives us. It should be remembered that for some long time after the Battle of Britain, it wasn't certain that the Allies could, or even would, win this war. The end was always in doubt, right up to about 1943. For generations that came later .. including mine .. simply knowing that we won decades after the event tends to colour our judgement of momentous decisions made at the time.

  1. On that day, 15 Sept, although we commemorate it now as Battle of Britain Day, the Luftwaffe were not 'beaten' in the full sense of the word. The Luftwaffe still existed, and in some quite considerable strength. They had merely been "stopped." They'd had a bloody nose, and then they just gave it up, thinking they could not sustain their own losses. They just didn't know how close they had really come to destroying Fighter Command. But that same Luftwaffe was still strong enough to make a good mess of unprotected warships lacking air cover.
  2. Likewise, the RAF and Air Chiefs did not know they had won at the time. Dowding had reported to Churchill just over a week before, just when the Germans were about to switch attacks from airfields to London's East End, that we had almost no serviceable aircraft left, our pilots and ground crews were almost at the limit of their endurance, and if the Germans kept coming, he didn't have anything much left to fight them off with. As Wellington once famously said, " . . it was a damned close run thing."
  3. The RAF was exhausted, being seriously depleted of both aircraft and pilots, and so, far from thinking then that they had won, they actually expected either more air attacks on airfields and squadrons, or the start of the very invasion itself. The Luftwaffe's switch to bombing cities gave the RAF an unbelievable much-needed breathing space, one that even now, history finds incredible.
  4. RN capital ships (battleships, battlecruisers and aircraft-carriers) were very vulnerable to air attack, as witnessed the following year by the loss of the Prince of Wales and Repulse, and did not have sufficient air cover of their own, having only one really modern aircraft carrier, and two or three others that were poor conversions and not up to a modern air-sea war. They mainly carried Swordfish torpedo bombers, slow bi-planes which were no real match for the Messerschmitts and Stukas that would have protected the German invasion fleet. The main carrier capability didn't become effective for nearly another year or more, and there were still many senior naval types of 'the old school' who really believed that air cover wasn't all that neccessary even then. Not a few believed that carriers were a waste of materials and money that could have been better spent on more battleships! Modern war is a steep learning curve, as we say now.
  5. To add to their vulnerability, our capital ships would not have had enough sea-room to manoeuvre as a fleet off the Kent coast, particularly on or around the Goodwins and other sand-banks, or close into the shores of the Thames estuary. Groundings on sand-banks would have cost us more loses than the enemy, and made our fleet sitting ducks. Most of the attacks on the German armada would have therefore had to have been by elderly destroyers and torpedo boats, of which we now had precious few, with so many being lost at Dunkirk. German e-boat strength at that time was superior to ours, with newer and faster boats and better weapons. Lend-lease hadn't started, and many destroyers were simply not up to anti-aircraft warfare. Even cruisers with their heavier guns would have been tragically vulnerable to Stuka dive-bombers, again proved a year or so later at Crete where we lost about 6 cruisers and hundreds of men in a mere evacuation, let alone preventing a full-scale invasion. The famouse 'Oerlikon' anti-aircraft gun, that gave such magnificent service later on Malta and Arctic convoys, was only just being sourced, and wasn't widespread in the fleet for another year or more.
  6. The RAF could not have provided effective air cover for the RN for at least another 2 weeks, to give time for pilots to be rested, and depleted squadrons to refresh with both aircraft and new pilots. Pilots were being fished out of the Channel and returned to unit so quick, that those with only minor injuries of cuts and bruises were back in the air often within hours, we needed them that desperately. Trauma and stress didn't come into it, this country's very survival was at stake. Besides, for the most part, our pilots actually wanted to get back into the war.
  7. The British Army, such as it was then in Sept/Oct of 1940, was a defeated army, spread all over southern England, consisting largely of around a third of a million demoralised men recently evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk, minus their kit, and in most cases, their rifles and small arms. Almost no artillery or heavy transport, let alone tanks, were recovered. What few small arms they had consisted mostly of ageing .303 Lee-Enfields from the First War, and very little ammunition. Considered now a miraculous deliverance, because we won in the end, but at the time it was a humiliating defeat. Still trying to regroup and re-equip in the autumn of 1940, our army was in no position to fight off a full-scale invasion.

CONCLUSIONS:

The Germans had a two-week 'window' in which they might have pulled an invasion off, but, as with us not knowing we'd actually won something, they didn't know the true situation either. The RAF had bluffed them into thinking there were more RAF reserves than there really was. It is true to some extent to say that the near presence and strength of the Royal Navy bluffed them into hesitating, but it is even more true to say that the main reason the Germans didn't come in the last two weeks of September was because they didn't believe they had full command of the skies. It was the RAF that denied them that.

Yes, the Kent beaches would have been a furious killing ground .. but for both sides. German admirals were correct in their assessment of the difficulty and dangers of Operation Sealion going ahead at that time, but that doesn't mean that if a determined and overwhelming attempt had been carried out in that last two or three weeks of September, they may well have gained a vital and fatal foothold on the Kent coast, albeit at great cost to themselves. But remember also that, at that time, they had the strength in manpower to afford great losses. A year later, they were losing more troops in Russia than they would have ever lost in Kent, and very still nearly pulled it off. So they had more men, with good kit and weapons, and moreover, theirs was already a victorious army with extremely high morale. They were 'up' for it, to use modern parlance. After Oct 1, the weather, winds and tides, plus a fast recovering RAF, failure to move meant that they had effectively blown it. By the following spring, it was too late.

Of course the RAF 'won' the Battle of Britain. No true military historians, nor those that took part, would claim otherwise. But it is also true that the mere presence of the Royal Navy, by it's strength and reputation, merely consolidated that win in causing a hesitancy amongst the German High Command that proved fatal to their future course of the war.

Looking back now, it would be fair to say that the Germans had effectively lost the war by the early October of 1940 in failing to capitalise on what they had achieved already . . . but we didn't know that then, and neither did they. For, on September 7, when they switched from raids on airfields to night attacks on cities, they made their first really big mistake in giving up any immediate invasion hopes. Indeed, within a few weeks, Hitler was turning his attention to an invasion of Russia instead. In that single decision, they made their costliest mistake of all, one that really did cost them the war. That is a fact that has been accepted by all historians, including Germans themselves, for over 50 years.

But we should also remember that, in accepting the premise that the RAF did undisputedly 'win' the Battle of Britain, things weren't quite as single-handed or as clear-cut as at first may appear. Firstly, although heavy units of the Royal Navy were some distance away in Scotland and Portsmouth, the anti-aircraft guns on destroyers and small ships of the fleet in places like Dover, and the Dover Patrol itself out in the channel escorting coastal convoys, did shoot down a good number of enemy bombers either bound for our shores, or returning to base. Either way, each downed bomber meant more British and allied lives saved.

Forget not either the contribution of the anti-aircraft batteries all along the south coast and in the countryside around our airfields, manned in the main by the army. They also notched up a substantial score. Not every bomber was brought down by a pilot. There were even instances of German aircraft being fatally damaged by small arms fire, the occasional lucky shot from a rifle or revolver from an individual soldier or sailor. Even farmers in their fields were having a pop with 12-bores. And finally, remember the crews of the small warships that were present, trawlers, minesweepers and sundry other craft who regularly fished downed pilots out of the channel, and under fire, to bring them home so they could fight again, usually within hours. Additionally, the RAF manned some air-sea rescue craft of their own and also played a major part in recovering their own aircrew.

The Battle of Britain was a joint-service effort, a real battle royal, though Churchill was not wrong in his lavish praise in that the biggest thanks of all was undoubtedly due to those Magnificent Few. Without them, there certainly would have been an invasion, navy or no navy. But it was a Battle for Britain, and ALL of Britain's Armed Forces took part, and many from the wider Empire too. Many pilots were Australians, New Zealanders, Canadian, South African and Rhodesians, either in their own air forces, or like those from the USA, signed up into the RAF itself with, in addition, Free French, Belgians, Dutch and the remnants of the Polish Air Force. And so, every year, on the 15 September, we should give thanks .. for all of that .. and all of them, and remember this battle was won, and at what cost to all our forces.


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