Your problems are our opportunities.

Not the Best or the Brightest, but the Bravest

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding and some of “The Few,” image by UK Government, public domain

I like Brits. In this barbaric, uncivilized world, most of them are decent and civil. Also, although most are some sort of “socialists” and pacifists to some degree, when faced with grim choices, they still stand up and defend themselves and others against tyranny. That might not sound like much, but not everyone would do the same.

RAF Wellington Crew, image from UK Government, public domain

Today, I have been thinking about a particularly stubborn and unreasonable bunch of Brits who helped the world defeat the Nazi plague 62 years ago. “The Few.” That “few” of whom the famous half American/half English and frequently fully drunk politician by the name of Winston Churchill spoke of. The men and women of the Royal Air Force (“RAF”) who, in part thanks to Churchill’s willingness to ignore Air Marshall Hugh Dowding’s wise counsel, found themselves in the role of the “few” against a determined enemy, the German Luftwaffe.

Over the decades, a variety of folks from many nations have written much about what Churchill dubbed “The Battle of Britain.” If anyone is curious about it, I recommend Len Deighton’s “Fighter” and RAF Ace Peter Townsend’s “Duel of Eagles.”

The great air battles over England and the English Channel that we like to call the Battle of Britain are generally thought of as taking place from June – Ocober in 1940, more than a year before the US entered the fight. It is a popular notion that the RAF won those battles because of radar and the superiority of the Spitfire over the German ME-109. The radar indeed helped, but it was far from perfect, and Spitfires came to the Battle in too few numbers to be decisive. During that time, the majority of fighters in service in the RAF Fighter Command were Hurricanes.

Unfortunately for the RAF pilots who defended Great Britain, their Hurricane and Spitfire fighters were rushed to production without anything like adequate testing. If this sounds reckless, consider that the Bolton Defiant aircraft that these two new fighters replaced were sad, slow-moving, barely flying coffins. The Spitfires and more numerous Hurricanes the RAF flew were not yet adequately developed, but they were at least well-designed. A dog fight with an ME-109 was a hell of a place and time to test an aircraft, but the Luftwaffe was not affording the Brits convenience so the RAF took to the skies with what they had.

RAF Hawker Hurricanes, image from UK Government, public domain

What the RAF did have was a fledgling radar system that allowed two underappreciated geniuses by the names of Air Marshall Hugh Dowding and Vice Air Marshall Keith Park to devise tactics that let them use their thin resources to challenge the daily bombing raids the Luftwaffe sent. Dowding and Park understood what was at stake. As long as the RAF survived, the Germans could not bring an army across the Channel. If the Luftwaffe gained air supremacy, the Germans could overcome the Royal Navy, and the vastly superior German army could invade the UK and finish its conquest of the European peoples. Dowding and Park did not intend to let that happen.

Great Britain also had the inadvertent help of Luftwaffe Commander Hermann Goering. The Luftwaffe was filled with the best and brightest young German warriors. They were carefully selected and extensively trained. And then there was Goering.

Goering was a highly successful fighter pilot during WWI. He then followed his brilliant youth with years of eating and drinking with Nazi pals. While the rest of the aviation world advanced in leaps and bounds during the interwar years, Goering waddled his way to the command of the Luftwaffe in spite of being possibly the least brilliant of Luftwaffe officers. Many of his emotionally founded decisions helped the RAF defeat the well-prepared and well-equipped German air power.

Even with the the wise leadership of men like Dowding and Park and the determination of excellent RAF fighter pilots, things were grim by August of 1944. The Germans and Brits both took heavy casualties during the Battle of Britain, but the Germans had a better pool of reserves in manpower and aircraft.

Thanks in part to the brilliant work of Lord Beaverbrook, the UK kept the RAF adequately supplied with fighters, but it took a long time to train pilots to take to the skies in fighters. For fighter pilots to both take to the skies and return alive, it takes a minimum of a year and a half of intense training. The UK didn’t have the 18 months.

The RAF needed the best and brightest pilots to man their half-developed Spitfires and Hurricanes. Too many of those best and brightest were shot down early on while operating in France with inadequate maintenance on mud airfields. More went down in the Channel or crashed into the English countryside in June and July.

When things were desperate in September of 1940, some replacement “pilots” as young as 17 who had never even trained in Hurricanes flew them into battle. They weren’t given time to become the best and the brightest, but they were certainly the bravest. I have been told that boys as young as sixteen flew in the Battle of Britain, but I have not been able to verify that. Whoever they were and whatever their age was, I salute them all.

RAF Station under attack during the Battle of Britain, image from UK Government, public domain

The RAF did not just need pilots, it needed skilled people on the ground to service planes, care for pilots, and man radar and control facilities. The British Army and the Royal Navy quickly expanded as well, and young men were in short supply. Against the advice of some in the British military and government, women trained to handle radar plotting, communications, and fighter control in vulnerable forward sector fields. Some thought that when bombs fell on British air bases, the women would run in panic. They didn’t. While 544 RAF pilots died in the Battle of Britain and many more were badly wounded, hundreds more ground crew also perished. Among them were young women who remained at their posts while under bombing attack, and the replacements who didn’t hesitate to take their vacant positions.

In addition to the brave young women who manned so many RAF positions during the Battle, we should remember the approximately 26,000 civilians who were slaughtered by the Luftwaffe during that period. The civilian casualties at the hands of Luftwaffe bombers and later German missiles continued long after the Battle of Britain was won by the RAF.

But counter to Goering’s and Hitler’s prediction, the people of Great Britain didn’t break. They kept going to work in their factories, turning out war munitions, knowing that the next bomb dropped might hit them at their work. They kept plowing their fields, mining their coal, driving their trucks and doing all else that was necessary to keep Great Britain on her feet. And they won.

So though I find the concept of “bangers” and biscuits for breakfast silly, and I might not be impressed by Great Britain’s best painters, I respect you, Great Britain. I remember what the seniors among you did before I was born and before my father fought in the Pacific. I remember what your nation did when you stood alone against the Nazi juggernaut after the rest of Europe had fallen under the fascist boot. Revisionists be damned. The Battle of Britain was your finest hour, and none of us should ever forget it.

Memorial stained glass in St. James Church, image by Oxfordian Kissuth, wikimedia commons

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4 thoughts on “ Not the Best or the Brightest, but the Bravest

  1. Cheering your last paragraph, Holmes. Well, minus the bangers and biscuits, which I don’t mind 😉 May the memory last that thousand years of Mr. Churchill’s and more.

    • on ,
      Jay Holmes said:

      Hi Justine. Credit for photos must go to Piper. I also hope that their memory will endure.

  2. There were a lot of New Zealanders in the Battle of Britain – Keith Park among them. My father actually met him, after the war. It was a crucial time. And while there’s no doubt in my mind that Churchill inflated the import of the RAF – for the Royal Navy played as crucial a role in deterring the German invasion – the fact remains that failure in the air would have probably jeopardised Britain’s ability to keep fighting, even if they hadn’t been invaded. As you say, it was vital: Britain had to stand. If it fell, Europe – and perhaps the world – was otherwise staring down the barrel of a very dark new age. There had been serious talk in Whitehall of coming to terms with Germany early in 1940, and it seems to me that Churchill, personally, played a very large part in ensuring that Britain did not buckle before the Nazi terror. And that’s why, for all his faults – his alcoholism, his ego and many others – I regard him as the greatest Englishman that ever lived.

    • on ,
      Jay Holmes said:

      Hi Matthew. If Churchill was not the greatest, he was certainly close. He is worthy of comparison to Alfred The Great, Charles Darwin, Sir Isaac Newton, Vice Admiral Nelson, and Queen Elizabeth the first.

      *I can’t include Cromwell on the list. Though he was in some ways a great reformer he was also a cruel oppressor. I do wish I had a “Cromwell in a Box” that I could periodically(and temporarily) unleash on the US Congress and various state legislatures.

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