Winston Churchill, 18 June 1940
In setting the scene for the battle to come, two days after France had capitulated, Churchill had Hitler wanting to "break us in this island", predicting that he would do so by means of an invasion. Although that was to shape the now traditional version of the Battle of Britain, there were two other ways to achieve that end. On 25 May 1940 – in response to a request from Churchill to assess Britain’s prospects for fighting on after the fall of France – the Joint Chiefs of Staff had identified them. The first was an “unrestricted air attack”, not as a prelude to invasion, but aimed specifically at breaking public morale. The other was a “blockade”.
The idea of an “unrestricted air attack”, later dubbed the “Blitz”, was held in the same awe as was the post-war threat of nuclear annihilation. The period immediately after the fall of France, in terms of public nervousness, could almost be equated with the Cuba Crisis of 1962. The bomber was the original weapon of mass destruction, employed on what was called “terror bombing”, a concept which stemmed from the 1920s and the theories of Italian General, Giulio Douhet. He held that destroying a country’s “vital centres” – government, military headquarters and industry – could break a people’s will to fight, the so-called “morale effect”, and secure a rapid end to a war. The essence of his theories, though, was that airpower could mount an offensive that could win a war decisively in lieu of a ground offensive.
This thesis was reflected in observations by the then former Conservative Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, chairman for five years of the Committee of Imperial Defence, having sat continuously for ten years on that committee. Responding to a Commons debate on disarmament, on 10 November 1932, he declared: “the bomber will always get through”. “Any town which is within reach of an aerodrome”, he said, “can be bombed within the first five minutes of war from the air, to an extent which was inconceivable in the last war, and the question will be whose morale will be shattered quickest by that preliminary bombing?” He went on to say that: “The only defence is in offence, which means that you have to kill more women and children more quickly than the enemy if you want to save yourselves".
The potential of the bomber was then brought to a wider audience by the 1936 film, Things to Come. With a script written by H. G. Wells, it had "Everytown" (based on London) being overwhelmed by a single, massive air attack. Seemingly confirming the prophets of doom, there was the bombing of Guernica, in the Spanish Civil War, followed by the Nazi bombing of Warsaw and Rotterdam, depicted in newsreels shown in the nation’s cinemas.
Thus, the British Chiefs of Staff, in common with virtually the entire nation – and especially the political élites – genuinely believed that this so-called “terror bombing” could bring defeat. The proletariat “were bound to crack, run, panic, even go mad, lacking the courage and self-discipline of their masters or those regimented in the forces”. In the chaos that followed, the government (or its replacement) would be forced to capitulate. Furthermore, this was a view shared by Hitler, the Luftwaffe High Command and its so-called England Committee, a unit established to provide specialized guidance on target selection. They all believed that the poorer working classes could “be incited against the rich ruling class to bring about a revolution”.
In sharp contrast, the blockade option was more of a slow strangulation of Britain’s supplies, but it was also potentially a war winner. A blockade had been instrumental in causing the downfall of Germany in 1918, by bringing that unhappy nation to the brink of starvation. Hitler, a man of that war and of long, bitter memories, meant to turn the tables. On 29 November 1939, he had issued Führer Directive No. 9 to set up the German version of the blockade. The directive was amended on 24 May 1940 but the aim remained the same: to “cripple the English economy by attacking it at decisive points”.
To help him in this aim, Hitler had his Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C) naval forces, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder. A career officer, formerly captain of Kaiser Wilhem II’s private yacht in the run-up to the First World War, Räder had fought in the Battle of Jutland in 1916 and had remained a naval officer in the lean, inter-war years. He had risen to Rear Admiral in 1922 and become C-in-C of the Weimar Republic Navy in 1928, then building the Kriegsmarine for the new Chancellor. He had at his disposal cruisers and ultra modern battleships, including Bismark, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, his U-boat fleet under the command of Admiral Karl Dönitz, and long-distance Focke Wulf 200 “Condor” bombers, plus surface torpedo boats, raiders and mine layers.
With the Luftwaffe, Hitler also planned attacks on all the principal ports in England, by bombing and mining. And, with the fall of France, the Germans had moved into Channel and Atlantic ports and airfields. Medium-range aircraft, fast motor torpedo boats, called E-boats by the British and S-boats by the Germans (S for schnell – as in fast), destroyers and even the long-range artillery in the Pas de Calais region could all take part.
Whatever the form of attack which comprised the Battle of Britain, for the British, it was a defensive battle that they could not afford to lose. Britain had to survive, in order then to rebuild her offensive strength and take the fight to the enemy. Whether she could avoid losing would depend, the British Service Chiefs thought, on three things. The first two were: “whether the morale of our people will withstand the strain of air bombardment”; and Britain’s ability “to import the absolute essential minimum of commodities necessary to sustain life and to keep our war industries in action”. Last, and by inference least, was the “capacity to resist invasion”.
Given that their report was written before the fall of France, it was remarkably prescient. Just over a month later, Colonel General Alfred Jodl, Chief of Operation Staff of the German Armed Forces Supreme Command (OKW ), came to the same conclusions in his own report labelled: “The continuation of the war against England”. This document had him declaring: “If political measures do not succeed, England’s will to resist will have to be broken by force”, whence he then listed the three forceful options: “siege – this includes war on the high sea and from the air against all shipments to and from England, the first against the English Airforce and all economic resources important to her war effort; terror attacks against English centres of population; and a landing of troops with the objective of occupying England”.
"Germany's final victory over England is only a question of time", Jodl then wrote. “Hostile operational attacks of great strength are no longer possible. Germany, therefore, can choose a form of warfare which husbands her own strength and avoids risks”. “Together with propaganda and temporary terror attacks – said to be reprisal actions – this increasing weakening of English food supply will paralyse the will of her people to resist and finally break it, and thus force the government to capitulate”, Jodl added, then going on to consider a landing in England. This could only be contemplated, he wrote, after Germany has gained control of the air:
A landing in England, therefore, should not have as its objective the military conquest of the island an objective which can be obtained by the Luftwaffe and the German Navy. Its sole purpose should be to provide the coup de grace, if it should still be necessary, to a country whose war economy is already paralyzed and whose air force is no longer capable of action.This situation, Jodl considered, would not occur before the end of August or the beginning of September. He anticipated having to deal with an opposition of about twenty English divisions so that at least thirty German divisions would have to be embarked. The invasion nevertheless must be prepared in all details as a last resort.
Thus, with uncanny symmetry, at the highest levels in the opposing militaries, the invasion was seen as the least favourable option, and by Jodl as the last resort. That qualification was constantly to recur but, through the course of the battle to come, Germans sought to implement all three options. Most times it was “pick and mix”. Their problem – and possibly even the reason for their downfall – was that they failed to concentrate forces on any one. At times, it seems as if they themselves did not know precisely what they were intending. Different parts of their famed – but actually quite chaotic – war machine were at odds with each other. Even at this early stage of the war, military (to say nothing of political) incompetence was by no means the exclusive provenance of the British.
Nevertheless, Jodl did not confine himself to military issues. “Since England can no longer fight for victory but only for the preservation of its possessions and its world prestige”, he argued, “she should according to all predictions, be inclined to make peace when she learns that she can still get it now at relatively little cost.” There was as strong a hint as could be made that Britain might be disposed to a peace deal, with a warning: “Against a complete destruction, England would fight to the bitter end”.
On the other side of the fence, when it came to evaluating the battle to come, the British Chiefs’ 25 May report was not their last word. A day later, they had produced another report, this one addressing the very specific question of whether the Navy and Air Force could resist an invasion. The short answer was “yes”, but with caveats. If Germany gained complete air superiority, they thought the Navy could hold out, “but not for an indefinite period”. Should German tanks and infantry gain a firm footing on our shores, British land forces would be “insufficient”.
But, echoing the findings of their earlier report, the Chiefs argued that if Germany attained air superiority she might attempt to subjugate Britain by air attack alone. An invasion would not be necessary. They then shifted their ground to discuss the importance of air attacks on aircraft factories, made “by day or by night”. By day, the Chiefs thought we could prevent serious damage. But, they said, “We cannot be sure of protecting the large industrial centres … from serious material damage by night attack”. Further, whether the attacks succeeded would depend “not only on the material damage by bombs but on the moral effect on the workpeople and their determination to carry on in the face of wholesale havoc and destruction”. This was back to square one. The “real test” was “whether the morale of our fighting personnel and civil population will counterbalance the numerical and material advantages which Germany enjoys”.
Whether a blockade could succeed would depend whether ships could be sunk, at a rate faster than they could be replaced. Hampering port operations and goods distribution was also part of the plan, slowing the turnaround of ships and the arrival of goods at their final destinations. Where air activity was involved, this would mostly take the form of daylight precision bombing.
As to the battlefield, the images of convoys, U-boats and escorts are all associated with the desperate Battle of the Atlantic, but they belong as much to the Battle of Britain. But the battlefield was cast much more widely than the ocean. The blockade was not only countered by military action but with the ration book, recycling and voluntary abstention.
There was also the expansion of the agricultural system. From 1939 in the British Isles, the area under cultivation was to increase from just short of thirteen million acres to over nineteen by 1945, while the number of tractors on farms from 1940 to 1943 increased from 1.5 to 1.9 million. Yield per harvested acre rose by thirteen percent between 1940 and 1942 and by the same amount again by 1945. These changes were the result of an intensive programme of agricultural development which was every bit as much part of the war as running convoys across the Atlantic.12 A ship’s worth of cargo saved was a ship that did not have to be fought through to a British port. And, to that extent, the people were as much part of the war as were the armed services and the merchant marine.
Turning to the invasion – this was perhaps the purest part of the battle, in the military sense, with the least direct civilian involvement. It comprised four components: the preliminary battle for the control of the air and sea; the assembly of an invasion fleet (including parachute aircraft and gliders); transport to the landing areas and the beach assaults; and the land battles by the invading forces. Only the first two components would be attempted.
The preliminary battle for control of air and sea would be fought on the German side mainly by the application of air power, involving the targeting of airfields, port installations, communications, warships and shore defences, all to pave the way for the landings. This would require daylight bombing, affording the accuracy needed to guarantee the destruction of specific targets.
During the day, however, British fighters could operate freely. They had to be engaged and defeated, their bases attacked and destroyed, in order to allow the bombers to do their work. One crucial tactic would be to use the bombers as bait, forcing the defending fighters up, allowing them to be shot down by the escorts. Then, immediately preceding the landings, the cities would be bombed to provoke terror and mass flight. The idea was to block the roads and railways, hampering the mobility of the defending forces, as had happened during the invasion of France. That terror bombing could be achieved by day or night, but was time-critical and dependent on shock. To have its effect, it had to be carried out only hours before an invasion.
The “Blitz” would also rely on “terror bombing”, but over a longer time-span, aimed at convincing people that they should give up the fight. This was indiscriminate bombing, carried out during daylight or, if losses were too high, under the cover of darkness. With then current technology, which was beginning to master the day bomber – thus confounding Baldwin – the night bomber was unstoppable.
A parallel part of this strategy, though, was continuous diplomatic pressure. The Nazis constantly tested the water to see whether the other side had had enough, constantly offering an easy way out with attractive peace terms, adjusting the military effort in an attempt to gain a political result. In psychological warfare, the Nazis, and Hitler in particular, excelled. Using such tactics, they had walked into Czechoslovakia, subdued Poland with minimal force and quelled France. Victorious troops had marched into Paris without a shot being fired. Now they were ready to take on England.
However, this was by no means the full extent of this complex battle. There were two other elements. The first of these was propaganda. As well as stiffening domestic morale, this was crucial for Churchill’s long-term war aim. While Hitler’s was merely to neutralize Britain, his was to crush Germany. For that, he needed the USA, and not only its financial and material support, but its active participation as a fully-fledged military partner. Bringing the USA into the war would require Britain to put on "a good show". The airmen would become a vitally important part of that. Additionally, they would have a specific, shortterm role in reassuring the American public and president that Britain was not about to collapse, with the risk of aid finding its way into German hands, as had happened with US materiel delivered to France.
The second of these additional elements was the domestic politics of Britain. In 1940, this was a country riven with dissent, a huge divide between the upper and lower strata of society, with what was seen as a decadent ruling class holding the line against an emerging and increasingly powerful labour movement, which was by no means enthusiastic about the war. The unions, with over five million members, represented a powerful and vocal political faction. In the context of a coalition government, they often performed the role of an extra-parliamentary opposition, and had to be kept on side.
At this stage, the war was expected to be over by 1942, and Churchill, the party politician, was looking at the post-war political settlement. The labour movement was seeking to use the war as an opportunity to impose a new order, a bloodless revolution, while Churchill was seeking to maintain the status quo built on the foundations of empire, king and country.
This internal conflict not only shaped the Battle of Britain, the battle itself became a tool to demonstrate Churchill’s prowess as war leader, to strengthen his leadership and to help reinforce his view of how the war – and the peace – should be managed and won. This made it as much a political as a military event. In this, there was never any sense from Churchill and those close to him that the outcome of the battle was ever seriously in doubt. But there was real uncertainty about the outcome of the peace.
Arguably, therefore, greater stakes were being played for in the battle to shape the post-war Britain – and Empire. Albeit in a different form, that same battle continues to this day. Our politics are still being shaped by those same forces which shaped the Battle of Britain, which is why it is perhaps as relevant today as it was then.