We owe our freedom to the brave pilots who fought the Luftwaffe.
When I was a boy my favourite film was the epic war movie ‘The Battle of Britain’. The whole thing fascinated me. The chilling scream of the Stuka dive bombers. The relentless pummelling of British airfields. The men and women of the RAF and the WRAF fighting on under incredible pressure. The merciless carpet bombing of London. The rousing theme as the RAF ‘big wing’ assembled. The final battle – silent but for the taut, tension-filled score as Spitfires and Messerschmitts duelled and burned and fell from the sky.
As I grew older I found that many of the impressions I had gained about the ‘battle’ were based on myth. Hawker Hurricanes played a far bigger role than the legendary Spitfire. Britain didn’t stand ‘alone’ – it had the entire Commonwealth behind it. The Germans were not hell bent on invading Britain – Hitler saw Operation Sealion as an expensive distraction from his upcoming Russian conquest. The aerial bombing of British cities didn’t stop in 1940, it intensified.
But for all the stories we’ve attached to it over the years, I still think the Battle of Britain matters. In fact I’ll go one step further. I think it was the decisive moment of the war.
The war was not going well in the Summer of 1940. Hitler’s Germany seemed unbeatable. Czechoslovakia, Poland and France had all fallen to the Nazi blitzkrieg. The British had been driven out of Norway and had been given a bloody nose at Dunkirk. Winston Churchill might give stirring speeches, but to any impartial observer it was obvious we were losing badly.
Although the whole of the British Empire stood against the Germans, Britain itself was but a tiny island in the path of the National Socialist storm. No wonder so many leading British politicians opposed Churchill and favoured peace with Hitler.
Worse was to come. Hitler had given the go-ahead for Operation Sealion, the invasion of Britain. The irritating thorn in his side would be plucked out, and the Third Reich would be free to roll into eastern Europe unmolested. All along the channel coast the invasion barges were made ready. All that remained was for the Luftwaffe to clear the skies. The Royal Navy would be swarmed from the air.
If Britain had fallen then we – all the generations yet to come – would have lost everything. Today we are free to argue about liberty, equality, democracy, the size of the state and the many, many, many misdeeds of our political class.
If the Nazis had invaded – or if Britain returned to appeasement and appointed a National Socialist puppet government (perhaps headed up by that nice Mr Mosely and his jackbooted friends) – we’d have had none of that. Those who opposed Nazism, or happened to be Jewish, or were otherwise deficient in the eyes of our new Aryan overlords, would almost certainly have ended up in the concentration camps.
Churchill’s decision to keep fighting was undoubtedly the right one.
It is sometimes asserted by those of an anti-war disposition that we should not have gone to war in 1939, or that having gone to war we should have sued for peace in 1940. Certainly by doing so we would have kept our Empire and our independence – for as long as Hitler allowed us to have either.
But that would have meant abandoning our allies to the depredations of vile racist totalitarianism. How much worse would the Holocaust have been if the National Socialists had been allowed 75 years to carry it through?
And if the German advance eastwards was beaten back, how much worse would a Europe dominated by Stalin have been? Leaving Europe to a struggle between two monsters would have been cowardice plain and simple.
If Britain had fallen there would have been no El Alamein, no Arctic convoys, no base for D-Day. The US would not have entered the European war. The Russians would most likely have lost Moscow and been driven back to the frozen wastes of Siberia.
By defeating the Luftwaffe in the skies – and forcing Hitler to postpone Operation Sealion indefinitely – the RAF halted the German juggernaut in its tracks. The Battle of Britain showed that the National Socialists were not invincible. They could bleed, just like us. They could be beaten.
The pilots who fought in the skies above South-Eastern England were a motley crew. English barrow boys flew beside Scottish aristocrats. Indians flew beside Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians and even American volunteers. French, Polish and Czech pilots had the chance to avenge the loss of their countries. Socialists flew wing-to-wing with Tories. The battle for freedom was fought by a microcosm of the entire free world.
Today we are free to argue about liberty, democracy and equality only because a few good men fought for our freedom.
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” – Winston Churchill