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Artillery Row

The Battle of Britain was not won by the Few

We credit pluck for what we really owe to imperial and industrial might

The Battle of Britain was a lopsided affair. One side was much stronger and more modern, with advanced integrated detection technologies, superior logistics and intelligence, excellent fighter control, and much better production facilities churning out far more of the most important equipment. 

The other side was plucky, flying from considerably less developed facilities, operating under severe handicaps in intelligence and flying time over the battle area, lacking the proper technology to achieve anything like what it wanted, and with a severely underutilized industrial base. 

The stronger side was Great Britain and the plucky underdogs were the Germans. 

The Battle of Britain was always one that the Germans were bound to lose quickly and disastrously

The Battle of Britain was always one that the Germans were bound to lose quickly and disastrously. The key phase only lasted a few weeks during which German losses became unsustainably high and the Luftwaffe had to resort to the completely ineffective, if dramatic seeming, night time bombing of London and other British cities. 

When the Battle of Britain entered this Blitz stage in early September, it was an admission by the Germans that they could not fly in the day over the UK and survive, and therefore they had no chance of actually damaging anything meaningfully in the UK.

Unfortunately this realistic vision of the Battle of Britain makes for both bad movies and bad politics, and for that reason a different vision has come down to us — that of plucky little Britain, relying on ‘the few’ to defend itself against the mass power of the Luftwaffe and Nazi Germany. 

This myth — partly witting, partly not — started to be created even before the Battle of Britain actually reached its climax, and it became such a useful one that it has persisted to today. Winston Churchill’s famous speech that “never has so much been owed by so many to so few” was given on August 20, 1940, though the Battle of Britain did not reach its highpoint until the two weeks between August 24 and September 6.

Churchill’s stirring phrase was a prophecy not a proper analysis

In that sense Churchill’s stirring phrase was a prophecy not a proper analysis — and it was a prophecy based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how strong the Luftwaffe and Germany were at the time. Churchill thought the Luftwaffe was twice as strong as it really was and that Germany was producing twice as many aircraft as it actually was. He believed that Britain had to rely on the few. It just wasn’t true. 

Britain won the Battle of Britain because it was more powerful than Nazi Germany in the key areas the battle tested and because Britain was not standing alone, but fighting with a world-wide network of assets that meant it was never going to lose. 

The Germans had one advantage going into the battle — the number of aircraft on hand (though the numbers of deployable German fighters was only a little higher than that of the RAF). However even this numerical advantage was partly irrelevant as German bombers, small, slow two-engine machines such as the HE-111 and DO-17, were inadequate to the task and the famous Stuka dive-bombers, even slower and more primitive, were more dangerous for their crews to fly than they ever were to the British being bombed by them.

In response the RAF had radar, which could see the Germans coming and give the RAF time to prepare, could fly for far longer over the Battle areas from its bases in southern England than the Germans could fly from their bases in France, and could rescue the majority of its pilots show down while the Germans lost theirs that survived to British prisoner of war camps.

Moreover the British were actually out-producing the Germans two-to-one in fighters during the battle, meaning that every day it went on the RAF was growing stronger and the Germans weaker. 

In a larger sense the UK had many more advantages

In a larger sense the UK had many more advantages. The Royal Navy, whose contribution to the victory is usually overlooked, maintained sea control in the waters around the UK and the North Atlantic; the Empire was gearing up to support Britain; and the British could draw on very important assets such as Polish pilots driven from their homeland. 

From a holistic technological, productive, war-fighting perspective the British were the many and the Germans the few. Had the Germans ever attempted to invade the UK at any time in 1940, its famous Operation Sealion, the result would have been a debacle for them of historic proportions (as British policy makers understood but did not want to say publicly).

Britain’s easy victory in the Battle of Britain was also an indicator of British power in the war as a whole. Far from being a plucky underdog forced to compete with guile and courage against a frighteningly powerful Nazi Germany, the UK remained the superior air-sea power throughout the war. It out-developed and out-built the Germans in the most advanced and important technologies, from aircraft to ships.

Even without the US taking part, for instance, the UK would have been able in 1943 to unleash the kind of bombing campaign on Nazi Germany that the Germans could only have dreamed about in 1940.

In loss and lifestyle terms, the British had it easy

To be honest, the British were not particularly plucky or courageous in the Second World War. Life in Britain was considerably safer and easier than in almost any other European country at war. British casualties, civilian and military, were small as a percentage of the population, the British people had steady access to food (albeit rather dull), and apart from London in late 1940 and again in late 1944, British people could go about their lives with very little chance of being harmed by their enemy. In loss and lifestyle terms, the British had it easy.

Yet the myth of the plucky underdog, courageously getting by, obviously has more appeal than that the safe, sensible great power and that has the one that has come down to us — with disastrous implications for understanding Britain’s actions and place in the world today. 

Britain during the Second World War really was one of the “great” powers in the world. It had the second- or third-largest economy during the war, some of the best technology, access to resources, and so on. 

Since the war, however, Britain has lost that position. It is nothing like as powerful. To put it into perspective, if Britain during the Second World War was an equal in some ways superior competitor to Nazi Germany as a global power, its relative decline today would make it the relative equal to (drumroll please) Mussolini’s Italy.

In relative global production and military capability today the UK deploys and can maintain forces that compare relatively well to what Italy could do between 1940 and 1943. This, however, is not a vision of itself that British politicians want to face, and instead the rhetoric returns to the false myth of the Blitz spirit and plucky Britain, as if somehow by magic the country can make itself more important in the world through determination and commitment.

It cannot and it will not. Britain is not a smaller version of the power it was between 1939 and 1945, it is a completely different and far less powerful force.

The only benefit of Brexit would be if the UK understood from it that it is not a global power

It’s a shame that this cannot be understood, as it might actually lead to one of the few positive results that could come from Brexit. The idea that leaving the European Union should be used as a justification to try and play a militarized role in the Pacific is frankly silly. The only benefit of Brexit would be if the UK understood from it that it is not a global power anymore and has the opportunity to realign its ambitions to match its actual position.

Britain should be a regional power, with a few areas of excellence (high-tech and cyber) not wasting resources sailing around the globe frantically pretending to be needed when it’s not.

The UK cannot recreate the resilience of the plucky ‘few of 1940 in the world today — because the plucky few never existed in the first place.

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