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England Carried the Load in 1940

Hugh Dowding
Air Marshall Hugh Dowding (UK Public Domain)

Only a few months into the Second World War--against overwhelming odds--the Royal Air Force victory during the iconic Battle of Britain set the stage for many more Allied victories to come. But had it not been for three key individuals behind the scenes in leadership roles making vital decisions prior to commencement and in the early stages of the war, England would have fallen to Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany that crucial summer of 1940. As a result of these three stubborn minds, England held on. Furthermore, the Battle of Britain--celebrating its 80th anniversary this summer--helped change the entire course of the war.

In the early 1930s, Adolf Hitler’s takeover of Germany sent shockwaves throughout the world. As Hitler assembled his military forces and hardware, the British began to look seriously at their own military affairs on the island, especially their air operations. The benchmark thought in Europe and the United States at the time was, “The bomber will always get through,” a theory that had been flying around--no pun intended--since World War I. The German Luftwaffe had now become a serious threat. The British powers-that-be demanded bombers, bombers, and more bombers in order to out-build the German aerial war machine.

Hermann Goering
Reichsmarchall Hermann Goering (Worldwide Public Domain)

In 1936, the British Minister for the Co-ordination of Defense, Sir Thomas Inskip, decided to break ranks. He saw the bomber war couldn’t be won, so why try. Fighters were his answer. He foresaw a defensive war where fighters could knock down enemy bombers by the dozens before they could appear over the target. If war was on the horizon, the fighters would keep the Luftwaffe at bay until allies such as France and America could come to the rescue. Inskip summed up his attitude by stating, “The role of our Air Force is not an early knockout blow, but to prevent the Germans from knocking us out.”

By the end of the 1930s and just in time for World War II, Britain had the frontline new generation fighters: fast, maneuverable Hawker Hurricanes and Supermarine Spitfires, both powered by the potent V-12 Rolls Royce Merlin liquid-cooled engine. Britain also had radar masts--along the southern and eastern coast where there were no obstructions--that would register when the enemy bombers were coming the minute they were in the air over the mainland. In addition, Inskip pushed for fighters because they were much cheaper to build than bombers, about a quarter of the unit price. Armed with his own stats and opinions, Inskip sold the British cabinet on his ideas in late 1937. 

A second person who cleared the way for the British fighter construction and deployment was Sir Hugh Dowding, a senior staff member of the Air Council. He had become head of the newly formed RAF Fighter Command in 1936, thought to be one step below bombers in RAF importance at the time. Undaunted, his military goal was to crush the German bombers which, as a result, would leave their fighter escort--which turned out to be Messerschmitt Bf 109’s--at a distinct disadvantage over enemy territory where they would be too low on fuel to dog fight and, if shot down, would be unable to return to base and grab another fighter, an advantage that any unscathed, shot down Hurricane and Spitfire pilot had. 

Along with radar, Dowding arranged another imperative part to his air defense system that included the Royal Observer Corps, well-trained human observers who could identify enemy aircraft in numbers and altitude, oftentimes too low to be picked up on radar.

MK I Spitfire of 19 Squadron, September 1940 (UK Public Domain)

When the war did start in early September 1939 and Germany quickly overran several European countries, France was the last mainland holdout the following spring. In response, they demanded British fighters and crew for help in the process. Dowding resisted by sending only a token force, knowing damn well France was a lost cause and that he had to preserve his boys and machines for Britain’s stand. France eventually fell to Hitler the end of June 1940, causing Prime Minister Winston Churchill to utter before the House of Commons: “The Battle of France is over. I expect the Battle of Britain to begin.”

An important third key figure in all this was the Minister of Aircraft Production, William Maxwell Aitken, otherwise known as Lord Beaverbrook, a Canadian-British newspaper publisher of note who was appointed by Churchill May 1940. Beaverbrook and Dowding thought alike. Like a bull in a china shop, ignoring government red tape, Beaverbrook, the successful businessman that he was, sidestepped the stuffy bureaucrats and had hundreds of Spitfires and Hurricanes built when the rest of the London elitists still wanted bombers. He then directed the shiny, new machines straight to the squadrons where they were put into training and subsequent action. The only trouble was the shortage of pilots. So, they had to be trained in a hurry.

On July 19, a few weeks after France fell to the Nazis, Hitler addressed the German Reichstag where he threatened the Brits with utter destruction unless they made peace. In answer, Churchill’s government told Hitler and his cronies where to get off. Two days later, the Germans approved (on paper) Operation Sealion, an invasion of Great Britain with the date set for September 15. But first, the Luftwaffe had to clear the skies over the island to make the invasion possible.

And so, the mission to knock out the Royal Air Force fell to Supreme Commander of the Luftwaffe Hermann Goering who had been given the new rank of Reichsmarschall following the fall of France. At the height of his power now, Goering believed the same myth that the British had believed: “the bomber always get through.”

World War II poster
World War II poster honoring the RAF Battle of Britain pilots (UK Public Domain)

In short, the four-month-long Battle of Britain went thus…

In July and early August, Goering sent his Luftwaffe bombers to attack English Channel shipping and coastal ports. Then in the last half of August, the radar stations and RAF airfields were hit in order to catch the fighters on the ground and in the air. After a few weeks, Hitler thought he had England on the ropes. For the final phase, the Luftwaffe bombed London and other cities in mid-September which turned out disastrous for them because they lost 80 aircraft--heavily damaged or destroyed--in a single day. On September 17, Germany--now totally deflated--decided to postpone Operation Sealion indefinitely. 

England lived to fight another day thanks to RAF Fighter Command who won the first battle of World War II that had been fought predominately in the air. For the next few years, the island became a base for RAF Bomber Command and the US Eighth Air Force bombing operations, as well as the crucial launchpad for D-Day, the largest amphibious landing force in the history of mankind.

The Battle of Britain stats speak for themselves. The RAF lost more than 1,000 aircraft; the Luftwaffe, nearly double that. Almost 3,000 airmen from 15 countries (about 100 Canadians) flew for England. Over 500 lost their lives, while Germany lost 2,600 men, due heavily to the large bomber crews. As the Battle of Britain drew to a close in late 1940, Lord Beaverbrook had put more fighters on squadron than he had at the beginning of the fight. For this, Hugh Downing paid his associate a huge compliment, saying, “The country owes as much to Lord Beaverbrook for the Battle of Britain as it does to me. Without his drive behind me I could not have carried on during the battle.”

To fully honor what the Battle of Britain had accomplished, we should all remember Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s memorable words from 1940: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

Moreover, let’s not forget the three who pulled the strings and helped produce that vital victory…Thomas Inskip, Hugh Dowding and Lord Beaverbrook.


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