Myths of History: The Battle of Britain (July -October 1940)

After the defeat of France in June 1940, Britain alone and faced the might of the armed forces of Nazi Germany which plans for the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) to sweep the skies over Britain to make way for an invasion. Nothing stood between British defeat but the men of the ‘few’, the British Fighter Pilots of RAF Fighter Command. After intense air battles however, the RAF won by the narrowest of margins and Hitler is forced to turn his attention to Russia.

Makes for a great story doesn’t it? But no this isn’t quite what happened. Despite the above often being the popular narrative of the Battle of Britain, especially in the area of public history, it just simply isn’t the full story and elements are pure myth. So often with history the true story paints a much more interesting picture of events. As historians our job is to uncover the truth and often the more interesting true story shines greater light on the incredible events of history. So, let’s take a look at a few points about the Battle of Britain that seem to hang in the collective memory.

The RAF in 1940 compromised of numerous ‘Commands’. The three we will examine are Fighter Command (made of fighter aircraft), Bomber Command (Yup, bomber aircraft – see how this works) and Coastal Command (okay slightly different here but these were a mixture of aircraft types that were stationed near the…well coast and would mainly be used in…well coastal operations.) All these commands would play an invaluable role in the Battle of Britain.

As this headline suggests, the Battle of Britain was just as much an offensive battle for the RAF as a defensive and the offensive operations would be critical to the RAF’s success. Image:

As Fighter Command defended the skies over Britain, Bomber and Coastal Command launched numerous raids over Germany and the occupied territories which included a raid on Berlin that forced Hitler to order the Luftwaffe to focus on bombing British cities rather than the RAF airfields – an event made famous as the turning point in numerous books and in the 1969 film Battle of Britain. Again, these raids diverted resources away from the offensive. However, there is more to even this key event, and these raids were vital to the Battle, demanding and came at a huge loss of aircraft and aircrew.

A key and often forgotten fact is that Bomber and Coastal Commands raided Luftwaffe airfields over a longer period than the Luftwaffe ever did on RAF airfields during the battle. This campaign on Luftwaffe airfields began on 19th June 1940 and would consist of 1097 sorties (a combat mission of an individual aircraft) over the whole course of the Battle, the raids by the Luftwaffe on RAF airfields lasted, sporadically, from the 12th August until the 7th September. The damage done by the RAF raids varied, but there were cases of airfields suffering severe damage and these raids occurred night and day proving a thorough nuisance to the Luftwaffe. Luftwaffe fighters were diverted to provide cover for these raids and away from the offensive on Britain. Numerous German sources from Luftwaffe personnel attest to the irritation and damage of these raids.

The RAF Bomber and Coastal Command aircrews’ part in the Battle of Britain is often completely forgotten’. Here a painting depicts German Messerschmitt 109’s engaging with Blenheim bombers in 1941. Similar scenes were frequent in 1940. © Robert Taylor

The RAF bombers would also attack the invasion barges along the coast. From July to September the RAF would destroy roughly a tenth of the invasion fleet assembled to invade Britain and two Victoria Crosses (the highest gallantry award in the British military) would be awarded to Flight Lieutenant Roderick Learoyd on 12th August Sgt John Hannah on the 15th September for raids against the invasion barges. These raids would disrupt invasion preparations, force German forces to the defensive and send a clear message that the skies not only over Britain were denied to the Luftwaffe but also that the RAF’s presence was clearly visible over mainland Europe. A key part of denying the option of invasion.

In May 1947 an official Roll of Honour for aircrew lost by the RAF in the Battle of Britain was published and stood at 1497, which included the Bomber and Coastal Command losses and copy of which lies in Westminster Abbey. Today though, the numbers given for losses stands at 537 with the members of Bomber and Coastal Command omitted. Why the change?

The Battle of Britain ‘Roll of Honour’ at Westminster abbey in London. Image:

Well, Bomber crews don’t perhaps make for ‘natural heroes’. Later raids such as that on cities like Dresden would question the use and conduct of the bomber crews and play a part in the removal of their part in the battle. Attacking civil targets would eventually become a war crime under the UN. The bombers also often flew from airfields hidden away deep in the countryside, frequently at night and their actions took place over enemy territory. The air battles the fighter pilots took part in were clearly visible for the British public to see during the day and often over built up areas, including London and over the ‘Home Counties’ whilst bomber squadrons were stationed much more north. Additionally, if we compare Luftwaffe losses (1400) to RAF losses including the bombers crews in the Battle (1800), the RAF come off much worse than the usual figure of around 500 only including Fighter Command losses. Hardly the statistics for a British victory.

The RAF aircrew were not all officers, many were NCO’s (often Sergeants) and came from a variety of backgrounds. If we were to walk through a typical RAF airfield in 1940 the air would be filled with a variety of accents, we might hear a Yorkshire accent or an Irish one. You could perhaps hear American accents, or maybe French or Polish. The countries recognised for Fighter Command are (in no order): Canada, Poland, New Zealand, France, Jamaica, Ireland, Czechoslovakia, Australia, South Africa, South Rhodesia, Belgium, Barbados and the USA. (I want to add here that the cover image of this article includes, on the far left, Sgt Billy Strachan from Jamaica who flew in Wellington bombers during 1940)

‘The Men who saved the World’ by Frank Oswald Salisbury in 1946 located at the RAF Museum Hendon. Such heroic and superhuman imagery would rarely be depicted of the bomber crews. The white male dominated arena of the battle in title of the painting is a common popular conception of the Battle after the war © Photograph James Jefferies 2015

The effort was a multi-national and multi-cultural one. Later in the war the list of nations would grow and even include some Germans. A famous example being Ken Adams who was born in Germany in 1921 and emigrated to Britain in 1934 to escape the Nazi’s (Ken and his family were Jewish). He would later go on to fame as a set design and win numerous awards working on films that included James Bond and Dr Strangelove.

Women also played a critical role as members of the Woman’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). These would act as plotters for maps of raids over England, drive lorries and act as radio operatives guiding aircrew as well as take on many other crucial roles. There were also women in the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) who would deliver aircraft to RAF airfields. Additionally, Women would crew the anti-aircraft guns and barrage balloons. Women played many vital roles in the Battle.

Though the role of women supporting the RAF was made evident at the time, as seen by this Picture Post cover, the narrative changed post war and the public memory has only recently started including the important role that women played.

The battle is shrouded in many more myths, but just taking the above examples and looking at the true story, an ever more fascinating and inspiring story is revealed. The survival of Britain during the Battle of Britain meant that it’s Empire, Commonwealth and allies, with vast resources and access to these could carry on the fight to Nazi Germany, which, with ever demanding drains on resources, needed a quick victory that it failed to achieve. Once the USSR held off invasion from Nazi Germany and the USA entered the war in 1941 (interesting fact: RAF aircraft were armed with American Browning Machine Guns during the Battle of Britain) it merely quickened the inevitable defeat of an overstretched and out resourced Nazi Germany. There is a lesson here in unity, not solidarity, to be taken. The truth of history is so often more fascinating than the myths that nations, societies and cultures tend to build. As historians, I feel it is our duty to tell the more nuanced truths of history and confront the prevailing myths to tell fuller, richer and inspiring lessons from our past.