31 October, 2010

Day 114 - Battle of Britain

Officially, it's over. Today, after 114 days, the Battle of Britain formally ends. For the fliers, it is the quietest day for four months.

A few bombs are splattered over East Anglia and Scotland but neither side loses any aircraft in combat. The RAF loses a Beaufighter in a landing accident and the Germans lose two Do 17s in non-combat incidents.

This one time, even the night is quiet. The "raiders passed" siren sounds at the earliest time since September.  People in shelters look at each other "almost in disbelief". But, warns the Daily Mirror, in a front-page headline the next morning: "Don't think air war is over". Curiously absent are the headlines declaring that the Battle of Britain is over - or even any sense that a turning point has been reached.

To inject a note of reality, the government issues an edict that the closing hour for shops through the winter — from 17 November to 2 March - will be 6pm, with an extension to 7.30 one night a week. That is the effect of a defence regulation, similar to that which was in force the previous winter. That much, at least, has changed.

That is one of the very few things that does change. The Mirror's warning is well made. Overnight on 1 November, heavy raids on London and a number of other towns and cities resume. Göbbels remarks in his diary that "Churchill invents a new lie about a massive attack on Berlin that never actually took place. Things must be very bad for him", he says. And the next day, and the days after than, it is bombing just the same.

Despite this, whatever the definition of the battle, and the time frame, it is indisputable that the Germans eventually lost. But could the Germans have ever won? That is a question posed by Lt Col Earle Lund, USAF, who carries out a Campaign Analysis Study in January 1996.

Lund asserts that the Luftwaffe at least twice, held victory in hand, yet failed to gain that victory. The point is simply this, he writes: all efforts should have been directly linked to the primary objective, which in both cases they were not. As proponents of Clauswitzian-style theory, and purveyors of the Principles of War - even of Douhet - the Luftwaffe failed miserably in the application of air warfare.

We are cautioned to bear in mind, though, that major air operations against Britain were discontinued not because they were recognized as hopeless or because they could no longer be justified in terms of the losses incurred. They ceased "by order of top-level command because the German Air Force was needed for the forthcoming war with Soviet Russia." In the final analysis, Lund asserts that the Germans could have won. Perhaps, if they had aggressively pursued either campaign strategy they could have won, he says, adding the rather obvious caveat that this "will always remain conjecture".

Therein though, lies the bigger story. As we saw only a few weeks ago Hitler's campaign against Russia was intended to serve many purposes, not least further isolating and cowing England - and thus helping to keep the US out of the war. After a swift victory, the bombers could return in force in the autumn of 1941. And in the meantime, out in the Atlantic, the U-Boats waited, augmented by the dreaded FW Condors.

In the autumn of 1940, therefore, the battle was far from over. It was to continue into the Spring of 1941 and then only the air component was put on hold while the Soviets were fought. That the campaign against the Soviet Union faltered on the outskirts of Moscow and then to become bogged down and founder in the cauldron of Stalingrad is perhaps the real reason why the Battle of Britain was finally lost by the Germans.

Hitler's fantasy, largely supported by his Generals, was that the Soviet Union could be conquered within six months. Had that happened, there is every reason to believe that, come the winter of 1941, the Luftwaffe air fleets would again have been camped in northern Europe, resuming the nightly blitz against London and other British cities.  With the Soviet Union then out of the war, and the United States still sitting on the margins, who is to say that Britain would have resisted the renewed onslaught?

What then of the Battle of Britain? Beyond the hype and the rose-tinted spectacles, it really does have to be said that the short period of the daylight air fighting through mid-August to early September, was a strategic irrelevance.  The much-vaunted "defeat" of the Luftwaffe on 15 September, celebrated as Battle of Britain day, was thus far from being the victory which it is so often portrayed.  For sure, it was a reverse, but the effect was to enforce a change of policy, from day to night bombing - which was happening anyway.  But from then, until the end of the Blitz in May 1941, far more damage was done than had hitherto been achieved.

One then has to ask what was the strategic purpose of this activity.  The answer for this phase of the battle is the same as for the early phase (or phases) - to take Britain out of the war, achieving a cessation of hostilities. Missing here is the word "defeat" in the sense of securing the overwhelming military victory of the type inflicted on France. All the evidence indicates that Hitler would have accepted a deal, which kept the UK as an unoccupied nation, with its Empire largely intact.

This, then, points to a much-neglected aspect of the Battle of Britain - the politics.  Having pieced together some of what went on and looked at those events as part of an integral whole, the entire complexion of the Battle changes.  Essentially, the first phase of the fighting, up to 13 August 1940, is simply skirmishing - the greater strength of the Luftwaffe being held back while various peace initiatives were pursued.

It was only in early August, when Churchill finally rejected the peace proposal brokered by the King of Sweden, that the full force of the Luftwaffe was finally committed.  We then see an attack on the RAF, which actually has very little direct relevance to preparations for an invasion.  The invasion is best seen as more threat than reality, alongside the air campaign, creating psychological pressure on Churchill and his government, in the hope of a moral rather than military collapse.

This, in the context, is far from unreasonable or illogical. The fall of France was engineered as much by moral dominance as military victory, and Hitler quite clearly had expectations of repeating the trick.  And when the direct assault on the RAF - together with the "hype" about an impending invasion - failed to have a desired effect, the tactics were changed, and London was bombed.

Far from being a "mistake" as is commonly portrayed in the standard hagiographies, this was effectively a repeat of the earlier strategy, albeit on a more intense scale - an air assault followed by peace "feelers" in the expectation of a deal.

Here, although we lack clear documentation, there are unmistakable signs and extremely good evidence that peace initiatives recommenced in early September, alongside that start of the Blitz.  There is, however, no clear evidence as to when these were concluded - as we see with the August rejection. Perhaps it continued into the Spring, culminating in the mysterious flight of Rudolf Hess in May 1941, about which even today there is much controversy.

The point in our narrative though is that we see three phases to the Battle of Britain. First, there was an intensification of the fighting through July, accompanied by a peace initiative, the two issues closely interwoven. Then we see an intensive air assault through August - this one in the expectation of a moral collapse of the British government. This was followed by phase three, the Blitz, again accompanied by a peace initiative(s), running through until May 1941. The air battles of phase four, to be commenced in the winter of 1941, never happened - although the background economic war continued in the form of the Battle of the Atlantic.

That we never had to suffer a renewed air assault of the intensity of the earlier Blitz is something for which we have to thank the Soviet Union. Its defence of its territory proved to be the saviour of Britain, and paved the way for the victory of the Allies in 1945. But the British contribution was to stay in the war.  But that Battle did not last a mere 114 days.  It ran from the fall of France to December 1941, when the first and most important strategic aim of the British was achieved. The United States joined the war.

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