Charles Gardner, BBC Journalist, 14 July 1940
On Sunday 14 July 1940, the BBC decided to cover the action. With aerial battles visible to cliff-top watchers along the south coast of England, its reporter Charles Gardner joined the crowds to witness German attempts to stop an eleven-ship convoy being run through the Straits of Dover.
At close to eleven in the morning, a Dornier twin-engined medium bomber escorted by ten Messerschmitt 109 fighters made the first attack. Then, in the early afternoon, a force of about 120 enemy aircraft collected behind Calais and approached the convoy. At around three in the afternoon, as the sky reverberated to the drone of aircraft, Gardner began to make his now famous recording:
The Germans are dive-bombing a convoy out to sea! There are one, two, three, four, five, six, seven German dive-bombers! – Junkers Eighty-Sevens! There’s one going down on its target now – Bomb! No! He missed the ships – it hasn’t hit a single ship. There are about ten ships in the convoy, but he hasn’t hit a single one and … There! You can hear our anti-aircraft going at them now. There are one, two, three, four, five, six … there are about ten German machines dive-bombing the British convoy, which is just out to sea in the Channel.Despite the large numbers of German aircraft, there were just three single-seater Hurricane fighters thrown into the fray. Heavily outnumbered and outclassed by the superior Me 109s, they belonged to Red Section of No. 615 Squadron (Sqn). As they went into action, the excited Gardner described the fighting:
I can't see anything. No! – We thought he had got a German one at the top then, but now the British fighters are coming up! Here they come. The Germans are coming in an absolute steep dive, and you can see their bombs actually leave the machines and come into the water. You can hear our guns going like anything now. I am looking round now – I can hear machine gun fire, but I can’t see our Spitfires, they must be somewhere there. Oh! Here’s one coming down!Like most journalists of his day, Gardner had not acquired any expertise in aircraft recognition. He had that in common with many Royal Air Force (RAF) fighter pilots, some of whom flying Spitfires in early September 1939 had shot down two Hurricanes. Others were later to claim Heinkel 113 fighters as trophies – a type that did not exist. Gardner saw Spitfires when only Hurricanes were in action. As he watched the spectacle, he joyously exclaimed:
There’s one going down in flames! Somebody’s hit a German and he’s coming down with a long streak – coming down completely out of control – a long streak of smoke. And now a man’s baled out by parachute! The pilot’s baled out by parachute! He's a Junkers Eighty-Seven and he’s going slap into the sea. And there he goes – SMASH! A terrific column of water and there was a Junkers Eight-Seven. Only one man got out by parachute, so presumably there was only a crew of one in it!Fortunately for Gardner's immediate reputation, these comments were for radio. A Hurricane had now become a "Junkers Eighty-Seven" and it was this from which a mortally wounded Pilot Officer M. R. Mudie had just bailed out – the "crew of one". Mudie was eventually picked up by the Royal Navy and hastily transferred to Dover Hospital, where he died the following day.3 By then, Gardner's commentary had been broadcast. The BBC's own listener research noted that it was "enormously appreciated". But some were troubled by the "football style". A policy of treating war as a sport "would be asking for trouble".
What was not explored at the time was how much of the narrative was factually wrong. For instance, Gardner had been confident that the ships had escaped unscathed. They had not. The collier SS Island Queen had been badly damaged. Taken in tow by the trawler Kingston Alalite, she sank before reaching harbour, with three crewmen lost. Less than two miles south of Dover Pier, the SS Mons had been damaged. The Norwegian steamer Balder took a hit and caught fire. The flames were extinguished but she had to be towed into Dover Harbour. Yet, to all of this drama, Gardner had been oblivious.
However, despite its manifest and egregious errors, the piece has been rebroadcast many times and it is still celebrated by the BBC on its website – with no reference to or acknowledgement of its errors. That, in many ways, typifies the Battle of Britain experience. The account of the battle is flawed, yet it is repeated again and again, without any acknowledgement of its errors. It has become obscured by myths.
Part of this book is an exploration of these myths. Mainly, it is a fundamental re-evaluation of the Battle of Britain, addressing the simple question: who won? The traditional answer is "the few", that gallant band of Fighter Command pilots in their Spitfires and Hurricanes, led by Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, the man who should not have been there. By some strange stroke of fate, he had been due to retire on 14 July 1940, but had been asked to stay on by the then Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Cyril Newall. The man with a nickname of "Stuffy", a man with many enemies who would have been pleased to see him go, was now assured a place in history.
Desperately outnumbered, "the few" fought off the Nazi hordes in their Messerschmitt fighters, their Dorniers, Heinkels and Stukas. As to the essence of the myth, in the summer of 1940 Britain stood alone against the dark forces of Nazi Germany, prostrate after the fall of France and the "miracle" of Dunkirk. All that stood between it and invasion was Fighter Command. In a series of battles, the gallant few stopped the German air force establishing air superiority. The turning point came on 15 September 1940, when in an epic battle, the Luftwaffe was sent packing, a victory which caused the invasion to be postponed and then cancelled. The fighter pilots had saved the nation, Europe and the entire free world.
One myth was immortalized by the famous Low cartoon of 14 June, on the fall of France. It depicted a defiant soldier on a rocky shore surrounded by tumultuous waves, shaking his fist at the encroaching Nazi bomber fleet, voicing Churchill's sentiment: "Very well, alone!" But we were not alone, the point made by a Fougasse cartoon in Punch magazine on 17 July. It showed two British soldiers sitting, overlooking the white cliffs of Dover. One is saying: "So our poor old Empire is alone in the world". The other replies "Aye, so we are – the whole 500 million of us".
Nor were we reliant wholly on the Empire. While, Great Britain supplied 2,341 aircrew to Fighter Command, they came from all over the world. From Australia came 32, Barbados 1, Belgium 28, Canada 112, Czechoslovakia 88, France 13, Ireland 10, Jamaica 1, Newfoundland 1, New Zealand 127, Poland 145, Rhodesia 3, South Africa 25 and the USA 9. This does not count career officers from the Empire and Dominions who had joined the RAF prior to hostilities, including Air Vice-Marshal Park.
Nor was Fighter Command just a fighter organization. It was also the umbrella body for Anti-Aircraft Command, alongside which there was the Balloon Command and the Observer Corps. At its height, the Anti-Aircraft Command alone mustered seven divisions, numbering over 350,000 personnel drawn from the Royal Artillery, the Royal Engineers, the Auxiliary Territorial Service (the women's branch of the Territorial Army), the Royal Marines and the Home Guard. They were led by Major General Sir Frederick Pile, working under the general direction of Hugh Dowding. The two men were friends.
At the beginning of 1940 there were only 695 heavy anti-aircraft guns (many of which were becoming old and on loan from the Navy) along with 253 light guns, against a projected requirement of 2,232 heavy and 1,200 light guns. Despite this, the Command claimed approximately 300 aircraft shot down during the battle of Britain – unfortunately, not all of them German.
Nevertheless, in 1941, on the basis of the exploits of "the few" alone, historians were invited to make comparisons between the Battle of Britain and Marathon, Trafalgar and the Marne. Many obliged and continue to do so, not least historian Richard Overy. He finds "more than a touch of irony" that the battle was won by a "tiny military élite". The few, he wrote, saved the many from a terrible ordeal. But they did not. This was a war of the many.
Even in the RAF, there were the Bomber and Coastal Commands. They were part of the fight. Many aircrew paid the ultimate price, in particular those in the 200 Blenheim bombers of No. 2 Group, which carried out multiple attacks on invasion barges in the Channel ports. They also attacked enemy airfields and other targets, including shipping, displaying almost suicidal bravery at times. These Commands also had a strong multi-national flavour and, in the case of Coastal Command, there was No. 10 Sqn Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian crew of which were in England at the time hostilities broke out. It had been intended that they would train in England before returning to Australia with their aircraft, but on the outbreak of war, the Australian Government agreed to keep them in Britain, where they had distinguished careers.
Then there were the other uniformed military services – especially the Royal Navy, often alongside the Merchant Marine – which populated the battlefield.14 But, above all, this was the people’s war. Part of that amorphous group, and making up a crucial part of the Order of Battle, was a network of organizations, ranging from local authorities, air raid precautions (to become Civil Defence) services, the firemen of what was to become the National Fire Service (NFS), the police, fire watchers, nurses, doctors and the whole range of voluntary services from the Red Cross and St John's Ambulance Brigade, to the Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS) and the Salvation Army, and many, many more.
In the dark days of 1940, these and millions of ordinary British people were tested to the extreme of human endurance and sometimes beyond. Their skill, their courage and, above all else, their endurance made the difference. Under direct attack from their bombers, they held on and defied the Germans. Had they broken, the war would have come to an abrupt end. By their endeavours, but also with the considerable help of the British Commonwealth, the Empire and the fighting men and women of conquered and captive nations, Churchill's island people prevailed.
That so many took part, and contributed mightily to the fight – many more giving their lives than the few – is not an arcane academic issue. How we see ourselves is important. Overy, very expertly and succinctly, defines the orthodoxy, and wants us to see ourselves reliant on the élite. But this is a top-down myth that defines the ordinary people as supplicants. This is a false image of the British people, even if it is one that present-day politicians are only too keen to endorse. But the British people actually took the brunt of the enemy attack, and survived, largely through their own efforts. The true image is of a self-reliant nation, which saved itself, to an extent in spite of, rather than because of the politicians and Overy's élite. This makes us different from the people of the myth.
This thesis, however, has to be proven and, to do so, we have to look anew at the battle, the people who fought it, the challenges they faced and how they responded. And to understand this complex battle, we need to look at a much wider perspective than the air war, putting events in their political and social context, reintegrating the events, bringing together all the inter-related parts, to present – as far as is possible – a rounded whole.
However, this book goes further. How and why our history has become so distorted is an important part of our history, and we look at how that happened. The results are startling, and lend strong support to an argument that our history was not simply changed, but stolen. We want it back.
That is the underlying message of this blog, and the book on which it is based.