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WInston Churchill - Part 3, In the Skies of Britain

Brian Wolfe

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Winston Churchill, Britain’s Lion

Part three: In the Skies of Britain





“The Battle of France is over, I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin.†– Winston Churchill, 18 June, 1940.

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In writing about Winston Churchill I often have found myself writing about the history of the Second World War itself rather than just about the man. In a way, I suppose, that is unavoidable as the story of Winston Churchill from 1939 to 1945 is about the War and the War about Winston Churchill. It would not be a stretch to even suggest that Winston Churchill was the personification of Britain itself for much of the world during this time period.

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A most interesting point is that Churchill actually named the Battle of Britain a little less than a month before the battle actually took place, starting on 10 July, 1940. One should probably not be surprised that of all leaders throughout the history of warfare it would be Winston Churchill to name the battle beforehand. Was this due to intuition or that Churchillian Luck again? I would put it at 80% intuition; however that is open to opinion and debate. Historians tend to compartmentalise history into neat linear easy to follow stories due to the complexity of the events of the Second World War. I believe this has been done so often that most people tend to think that one event takes place and then by some convenient coincidence the next follows comfortably on the heels of the other. As we know this is seldom the case and the Second World War was no exception to the general rule. The North African Campaign, as an example, started on 10 June, 1940, one month before the Battle of Britain. The Russians entered Romania in June of 1940 to take back the province of Bessarabia which put the Soviet forces alarmingly close to the Romanian oil fields so important to Germany. This triggered an action on the part of Germany in 1941 that had a profound effect on the North African Campaign as we will see later.

As we have read Churchill wanted to avoid a head to head clash with the German Army on the continent. This was now a moot point as there were more Germans in France at this time than at a Bavarian Oktoberfest. To recap, Churchill, and Chamberlain, agreed that a naval blockage and aerial bombardment by the RAF would bring Hitler and his army to their knees. This would serve to avoid the war of attrition brought about by the trench warfare of the Great War. Both Britain and France thought any future wars would be static and fought from fixed positions and not the fluid warfare of the Blitzkrieg that they had just experienced. The Maginot Line was perhaps the best example of this common held, though erroneous, belief. What is not generally known is that Churchill actually lacked confidence in the British Army’s ability to meet and even hold their own against the German Army. While this sounds scandalous and perhaps even impertinent of me to say I think we need to realize that the size of the British Army was greatly reduced after World War One in favour of a large navy and air force. Added to this the material was not very modern compared with Germany’s and what they did have was, to a great degree, left behind on the beaches of Dunkirk. The situation in the aftermath of Dunkirk was that the British Army as a whole was not up to the task of an invasion. However, this is and was not to say that the individual British soldier was less than willing and capable of any challenge put before them; it was a matter of numbers and material.

In order for Germany to invade England (Operation Sea Lion) they first needed control of the skies over Britain requiring the elimination of the Royal Air Force. An attempted amphibious invasion of England without the elimination of the RAF would mean that the Germans would be attempting the crossing while being attacked by the RAF and the Royal Navy, not to mention the shore batteries of costal artillery. Two factors were against the Germans using their navy as support for Operation Sea Lion, one known and one still to be realized. The first, and known, factor was that the loss of so many ships during the British invasion of Norway left the Germans short of necessary naval support. The second point was that larger battle ships are fairly easy targets for bombers. While both sides were aware of this the magnitude of this fact was not brought to the forefront of military thinking until the great sea battles in the Pacific Theater between the American and Imperial Japanese Navies, much later in the War.

The Battle of Britain was to turn out to be the first major campaign fought entirely by air forces and involved the largest and most sustained aerial bombing campaign to that date. The initial targets of the Luftwaffe were coastal shipping convoys and shipping centers such as Portsmouth. It was later that the Luftwaffe shifted their concentration on RAF airfields then aircraft factories and other such infrastructure. Much late, as we will see, the German bombing targeted areas of political significance including the employment of terror bombing strategies, (as an example, the London Blitz). As stated earlier, the British put emphasis on bombers, (due to the naval blockade and bombing strategies before the War); therefore the German concentration on bombing the airfields and aircraft factories put a great strain on fighter command. Up until this time Fighter Command was operating at full capacity and without any reserve fighters to replace those lost through battle and wear and tear.

Things were looking bad for Fighter Command and Britain in general at this time. It was desperate enough that a significant number of the British population and politicians favoured a negotiated peace with Hitler. Churchill and a majority of his cabinet refused to even consider negotiations with the Germans. Churchill gave the following speech on 4 June 1940; I think it is appropriate that we review it here to give some insight into his determination and resolve.

“We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France,
we shall fight on the seas and oceans,
we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be,
we shall fight on the beaches,
we shall fight on the landing grounds,
we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
we shall fight in the hills;
we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.â€

On 24 August, 1940 Churchill’s luck would once again serve him well when a German bomber accidently dropped bombs on London. Churchill grasped the opportunity handed him and ordered the bombing of Berlin. He calculated, correctly it turns out, that the bombing of the German capital would enrage Hitler and he would order his bombers away from RAF targets to the cities of England. A terrible choice had to be made but the saving of the RAF form destruction would mean the salvation of the Nation itself. It was from this point on that the Germans were at a disadvantage in the battle. The Luftwaffe was at a disadvantage from the start which was offset by the British lack of reserve fighters. The disadvantage was in the German strategic use of their bombers. Up until the Battle of Britain bombers were used to support ground troops and this worked very well. The whole “machine†was run on the theory of fighter/bomber/ground forces supporting one another. During the Battle of Britain they were faced with the use of radar giving their position away to the RAF, this included their fighter escorts. With no ground support to take out the radar stations the German fliers were in a very vulnerable position. While the London Blitz continued until May 1941 the failure of the Luftwaffe to break the RAF led to the postponement and finally the cancellation of Operation Sea Lion.

The London Blitz was the one event, perhaps above all others, was the making of the image of Churchill. His tours through the bombed out areas of the City, famous hat and coat, cigar in one hand and the two fingers held up in the form of the “V for victory and numerous photo opportunities catapulted him to world celebrity. The Battle of Britain itself was the turning point of the whole war, though this was not recognized at the time. Up until Hitler lost the Battle of Britain he had not suffered a significant defeat. This is not to come as much of a surprise as the vast majority of his victories, up to this point, had almost been gifts; in some cases bloodless campaigns. This is where the Germans were stopped and from this point forward, with exceptions, the course of the war would go against the Nazis. Even the great battles such as Stalingrad, which has been held up as breaking the German military might, it was the Battle of Britain that showed both the world and the Germans themselves that Hitler was not invincible and a determined nation could indeed make a difference.

Winston Churchill summed it up well in his Battle of Britain speech,
“If the British Empire and its Commonwealth lasts a thousand years, men will say, ‘This was their finest hour’â€.



Next month: The North Africa Campaign.

Brian



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Brian  -  a well written continuation to this important look back on Winston

Churchill.   Your historical facts and their presentation are excellent and

combined with the biographical side, brings the story along very well.

Congratulations for your perseverance , research and the ability to make

this such an interesting story  -  despite all the many previous histories.

 

I very much look forward to your next in the series.   Mervyn

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Thank you Mervyn.

Some stories are worth tell again and again.  For many in our generations Churchill was an important part of our lives; what would current events have been without him.

 

Regards

Brian

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  "For many in our generations Churchill was an important part of our lives; what would current events have been without him."

 

I can think of several things that Churchill's participation in events had very negative consequences.

 

In the fall of 1914, Churchill ordered the seizure of two battleships being built for the Turkish government. That seizure led to howls of outrage in Turkey, and ultimately was one of the reasons the Tukish government decided to enter WWI on the side of Germany. It's quite possible if Churchill had not ordered the seizure of the two ships, Turkey might not have entered the war and stayed neutral. Without the Turkish involvement in WWI the history of the Middle East since 1914 would have been very different. The breakup of the Ottoman Empire might have worked out on internal lines, rather than the externally imposed treaty terms that have complicated the history of the region since the treaty of Sevres in 1920.

 

At Yalta in the closing days of WWII, Churchill's acquiensce to Stalin's demands regarding all of eastern Europe provided Greece was left alone, resulted in communist rule in all of the territories over-run by the Red Army, between 1945-ca 1990. Churchill had a huge effect on milllions of people in eastern Europe and not one that's well liked by people who lived there between 1945-ca 1990.

 

That's the short list of major blunders.... 

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Day old eggs that even ketchup can't revive, I'm afraid.  Nothing really new here.  Sorry, old friend.

 

"He calculated, correctly it turns out, that the bombing of the German capital would enrage Hitler and he would order his bombers away from RAF targets to the cities of England. A terrible choice had to be made but the saving of the RAF form destruction would mean the salvation of the Nation itself."

 

This is perhaps the key point.  And perhaps should be expanded upon.  Britain's "finest hour" really begins with many Britons taking their last breaths.  The "terrible choice" meant sacrificing British cities to save the RAF.  For the most part, we see Churchill as the "inspirational" leader - the V-sign photos you mention.  But could any other British leader have made that decision?  Chamberlain?  I doubt it.  It took someone like Churchill to make that "terrible choice."  A choice that he saw as singular.  It wasn't a choice really.  It was the only option in his view.

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I would agree that there is little new, perhaps nothing new, in my blog that was not previously generally known.  However, I don’t apologize for that as I see it as a platform upon which to express the views of the readers, which it has done to one degree or another. 

 

Next month I intend to wrap up the series with the North Africa Campaign which will include a summary that may not be as flattering as it could be but one that is as accurate as possible.  I do hope that I can keep the comments within the bounds of the rules and regulations of the forum but it may be quite close to the line from time to time. 

 

Thank you for your comments, they are appreciated.

 

Regards

Brian

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Rick  -  I must take issue with you  -  in a nice way, of course  -  over your

cynical view of the early part of the War.  To say that we bombed the Germans to make them bomb our cities is  quite untrue.   Had it been true you would have seen some war trials of our own after 1945.

 

There is much talk of the so called excesses of British bombing over Germany in the later parts of the war  -  however, Europe  and particularly Holland and Rotterdam were virtually raised to the ground.  Many British Cities had the most terrible damage  -  and the East End of London had to be

restrained from up-rising against the deaths and damage.  No, I totally 

dispute that we caused our cities to be bombed  -  that was done by a violent

and evil enemy  -  that saw civilians, prisoners and other races as just

expendable items.   Mervyn

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Mervyn, there is no question regarding the evil nature of the Nazi regime.  Also, please, do not misunderstand my view as being against Churchill.  Quite the contrary, as I said, his decisions on bombing are what make him more than simply an inspirational leader who was good at V-sign photo ops; these difficult decisions set him apart as a true leader - often in wartime - even desperate times - a leader has to make difficult, unpopular, and often times controversial decisions - for the greater good.

 

However, if I am a cynic regarding Britain's - thus Churchill's - bombing policy, then I have a lot company, including many Britons.  From the BBC website regarding Churchill's bombing policy early in the war:

 

"This was the time when Churchill began to think about the need for an 'absolutely devastating exterminating attack by very heavy bombers from this country upon the Nazi homeland.' When on the night of 24 August 1940 the German air force - the Luftwaffe - accidentally and against Hitler's orders - dropped some bombs over London, the British prime minister requested a retaliatory raid on Berlin. Hitler responded by going ahead with the Blitz, and the following months and years saw tit-for-tat raids on each country's cities."

 

Some historians argue that the Luftwaffe was hemorrhaging pilots and aircraft at a faster rate than the RAF during the Battle of Britain.  Additionally, they argue that RAF airfields were usually back in operation within 24 hours after German attacks.  And they question whether Churchill really needed to risk British cities in Hitler's tit-for-tat escalation of the bombing of cities and civilians.  But Churchill did risk them.  As Brian's piece points out, this is often cited as having saved the RAF and Britain itself.

 

And as I pointed out above, Churchill was perhaps the only British leader who could make that difficult decision, unlike Chamberlain (who I've previously pointed out in the comments of this blog as a PM who lacked the ability to lead in difficult times).  From the BBC website again:

 

"Many felt that the Germans deserved to reap the whirlwind they had sown. Yet Bomber Command's policy of targeting residential areas clearly contradicted Chamberlain's pre-war statement in parliament that it was 'against international law to bomb civilians as such and to make deliberate attacks on the civilian population'."

 

Fighting an evil enemy like Nazi Germany requires difficult decisions - sometimes sacrificing the needs of the few, for the benefit of the many.  I believe Churchill had no choice but to risk further destruction of British cities by bombing German cities.  I don't think Chamberlain would have made that choice and the result for Britain may have been even worse.  Fortunately, Britain - and the world - had Winston Churchill at the helm in 1940 to make that very difficult decision.  Cynical?  I don't think so.  Admirable.

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Rick  -  the later bombing of German cities - following their earlier devastating attacks on British Cities - was something that was felt necessary at the time to draw a conclusion to the War.   However, in most later day assessments we

now feel that it was excessive.  However, 'Bomber' Harris was at that time following Cabinet orders.   Perhaps in the same way that the US used the

atomic bombs under the orders of President Truman.

 

Both decisions led to an earlier peace and saved untold lives - including

those of the adversaries.   The great pity was that it allowed Russia to gain

control over much of eastern Europe. A barbaric people who have used their numbers to dominate smaller countries for far too long.  This decision to allow them to have so much territory in exchange for Greece, was a serious mistake on Churchill's part.

 

However, to go back to our origninal discussion.  We bombed Berlin in the early part of the war for several reasons  -  one, to show Germany that it too could  face severe damage from bombings.  Secondly, to take pressure off

of eastern Europe.   I totally dispute that it was done as a temptation to Hitler to bomb British cities  -  although that was one of it's results.  German High Command had always planned to make peace with Britain and use our Forces to help conquer Russia.  When this didn't happen they decided to subdue us and then use our Forces.

 

The Bravery of the RAF stopped this happening  - and to quote Churchill  -

"Never have so many ,owed so much, to so few !"  I may not have this quite right , but all of Britain totally agreed with the tribute.

 

To be fair to the German pilots - most of them were following target guides -

unfortunately their instruments were not that accurate and we had the blackout.  That meant that many bombs were dropped by guesswork  -  others, overshot docks etc. and hit suburban areas.  My earlier blogs on my

childhood in London talked about the dradful damage caused by overshoots when they were after the Docks at Greenwich.  The blogs may still be on our section- they covered my memories of life as a small boy in London - I was 9 when the

war ended against Germany.

 

So, yes I agree that we did have a raid on Berlin to show our capabilities.

However, it had no intention of inviting Germany to bomb our cities.  That was 

already part of their "master plan"  - and well practised on Europe.   Mervyn

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Mervyn, thank you for you very detailed and personal insight. Like all controversial topics there are many perspectives. It is good to read one from someone who experienced the events.

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The topic of Churchill and the air war, is being relevant to the commemorations in Dreden today and tommorrow on the 70th anniversary of the 13/14th Feb 1945 area/carpet bombing there, the resulting firestorm and civilian death toll. There is a fair amount of controversy regarding the raid, and Churchill's part in it.

 

I'm not trying to divert the subject at hand, or engage in that controversy, only to note there is a link between the topic at hand and Dresden, and a rememberance being conducted today and tommorrow.

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