21 October, 2012

About this blog

As one of the "baby bulge" children, born in 1948, I am of a generation that missed the war. But it is still very close and very real. As a child, much of my time was spent exploring bomb sites, old bomb shelters, pill boxes and the paraphernalia of war. My stamping ground was Hackney Marshes, and the River Lea, where we watched the barges being unloaded, much as they were in the 1940s.

Churchill was still alive when I was born. He was to have a spell as prime minister as I grew up, too young then to understand what was going on. But I was one of the hundreds of thousands who filed past his coffin after he had died, and I watched his funeral. You really did then have a sense that a moment in history had passed.

With that, the war is part of my make-up. It shaped my generation and gave us much of our "world view", defined who we were and how we felt about ourselves. And within that period of the war, there is of course that very special time - the Battle of Britain. It may not mean as much to the current generation – especially as history teaching is so poor – but it really did have a very, very strong influence.

It was about our parents, and the British nation which stood up against the forces of evil. We, us, the Commonwealth and Empire, held the line. The forces of good prevailed. And the Battle of Britain had a certain innocence and purity about it. It made you feel good about yourself because you were British. It was a British achievement. It was part of your heritage.

On the 70th Anniversary of the start of the Battle, therefore, I decided set up a blog as a personal tribute to the "few" - the gallant RAF pilots who were the heroes of the battle. My entirely unambitious objective was to write a daily summary of events as they happened on each day, each exactly seventy years previously. There was no ulterior motive, and no expectation of doing anything more in an area where all the main historical issues seemed to have been settled.

The process of writing, however, focused the mind on events and the narrative in a way that just reading a series of books and reports cannot do. I thus found myself being drawn more and more into the established narrative than I had originally intended.

Responding to comments on the blog forum and my own innate curiosity, my source list widened and my reading deepened. But, contrary to my expectations, that process led not to an improved understanding and appreciation of events, but exactly the reverse. Away from what might be termed the classic "shoot 'em up" narrative, there are huge areas of disagreement on the sequence of events, their meaning and their importance. None of the crucial issues, it seems, are at all settled.

The artificial battle

First and foremost though, what emerges is that the battle, at the time of its fighting, had no separate or distinct identity. For it formally to exist as the event which is currently recognised, it had to be defined - as to its nature, its participants and timespan.  As a battle - with a beginning, an end and a recognisable outcome - it is an artificial creation.

The currently accepted definition is that component of the air war fought between 10 July and 31 October 1940 over British soil and adjacent seas. The aim was to deprive the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) of the air superiority it needed to achieve over the English Channel and Southern England, in order to permit the execution of Operation Sealion - the invasion of Britain. The participants are defined as aircrew members of RAF Fighter Command who flew one or more authorised sortie during the period.

In so far as the Luftwaffe did not achieve local air superiority during the period of the battle (at least, during daylight hours), and the invasion of Britain did not take place, Fighter Command is deemed to have won the battle. It is thus lauded as our saviour, having claimed t have prevented the subjugation of this island race - and by inference the whole of the "free" world - by the Nazis.

A conceptual problem

With all of these concepts, I now have a serious problem. Firstly and mainly though, it is highly unlikely that Sealion, the invasion of Britain, would ever have been launched by the Germans, irrespective of whether air superiority had been achieved.

Even in peacetime, during daylight with perfect sea conditions and the best possible equipment, the task required, of delivering over 100,000 men and their supplies and equipment, the first wave to land near simultaneously on a series of beaches in Southern England - and then keeping them supplied and reinforced - would have been an amazing feat of organisation and seamanship.

Here, too many writers and analysts are simply not thinking straight, and it is not hard to work out why.  Take away the threat of an invasion and the classic Battle of Britain narrative falls.  Then as now, they need the threat of the invasion to be real, or the conventional narrative does not stand up.

But it takes little imagination to work out why the narrative is false. The "invasion", on which so much depends, was fraught with danger - even without hostile intervention. The invasion fleet was to be an ad hoc collection of river barges and ships. The river barges, many unpowered, were not designed for sea voyages and barely seaworthy even under optimum conditions. And the conditions were far from optimum.

The journey itself was to be undertaken at night, with poorly-trained and inexperienced crews, without the benefit of large-scale rehearsals, into highly dangerous and unpredictable waters. Furthermore, this was to be done without basic navigational aids - such as lighted buoys, beach and harbour lighting, and lighthouses - all in waters where sailors approaching the coast in daylight, without local knowledge, are advised to take on pilots.

Amazingly, this feat of navigation and ship handling was also supposed to be done without radio communications. The Germans thus picked dates for the invasion when there was to be a quarter moon, giving (supposedly) enough light for visual signals (flags and some such) to be used. In confined waters, in darkness, nearly 3,000 vessels were supposed to be co-ordinated through a series of complex manoeuvres to bring them to the beaches.

Then there was the minor problem of the British response. To deal with that, air superiority was a necessary condition for embarking on the exercise. But then, for far too many commentators, the thinking stops. Too few go on to consider whether it was also sufficient - i.e., that the invasion could have gone ahead, had air superiority been achieved.

Arguably, in order for the Germans to proceed, they would also have had to have gained command of the sea. That, they never had, and neither did they have the means of securing it. Yet, without it, ranged against the might of the Royal Navy, a contested invasion could not have succeeded.

This particular issue, though, has been argued out over the decades and, as it stands, this is denied by the traditionalists. But again, they are not thinking straight. Firstly, it is undeniably the case that any invasion fleet approaching British shores would have done so at night. Under cover of darkness, the Royal Navy could operate freely, without the intervention of air power which was wholly ineffective between dusk and dawn.

Secondly, while the limitations of the Home Fleet are constantly highlighted, those who would deny the role of the Navy also have to deny or downplay the presence of over a thousand small craft employed by the navy, ranging from sloops and armed trawlers, to armed yachts, MTBs and MGBs, and smaller craft. While not a formidable force against heavily armed warships, against the barges, small ships and motorboats of an invasion fleet, these could have caused great slaughter and chaos.

The perilous nature of the venture, and the almost certainty that it could not succeed, begs the question as to whether Hitler, and some of the main players, such as Goering or Raeder, the C-in-C of the German Navy (Kriegsmarine), actually wanted to carry out the operation - or what their real motives were.

Hitler, perhaps did not want an invasion because it thought it might fail. Mostly, though, his enthusiasm waned because he thought it an unnecessary risk. He expected the government of Britain to collapse, and was constantly putting out peace feelers in the expectation that the British government would see sense and sue for peace.

Räder most certainly believed it would fail, and thought Britain could be defeated by a blockade. Nor was he far wrong in his expectation - the U-Boat and long-range air assault on shipping, the mining of the coastal seas and the bombing of the ports very nearly brought the UK to her knees. Göring lacked commitment to the invasion. He never seriously planned for it and never took part in the planning meetings. As with Dunkirk, he wanted to win victory for himself and his Luftwaffe, without having to share the glory with the navy or the army. Like so many of his time and generation, he also had an inflated view of the effectiveness of air warfare and, in particular, the power of the bomber.

Necessarily, what emerges from this is the view that, as a military exercise, the battle conducted by Fighter Command was strategically irrelevant. There was never any realistic prospect that Britain was going to be exposed to a contested invasion. And had there, despite all the odds, been a German invasion, it would have been defeated in detail not by the RAF but primarily by the Royal Navy.

Re-defining the battle

If it is the case that the invasion threat was not real, then the Battle of Britian has been wrongly defined. If you prefer, it has been expropriated by a group which is claiming exclusive ownership of something which is much bigger and more important than that which they project. For, while Fighter Command's day battle may have been of little strategic importance, that is not to say that there was not a different battle going on, the Battle for - Britain.

Certainly, it is the case that Hitler sought to defeat Britain, but an invasion was only one of his options. The first was the traditional blockade, Hitler seeking to turn the tables on the British and do to them what they had done to his country in the 1914-18 war. Another option was the utilisation of air power as a weapon of terror, cowing the population to such an extend that they would force their own government to sue for peace.

What emerges from this is that - from the German perspective - there were three interlinked and overlapping components to a battle which could rightly and properly lay claim to be components of a larger and real Battle of Britain, any one of which could, in theory, have brought Britain to the point of surrender. When all three are taken into account, the battle lasted much longer than the 114 days attributed to the very limited part of the war fought by RAF Fighter Command.

Briefly the order in which the battle played out was the the "blockade" phase, when the Germans sought to deprive us of the supplies essential to the prosecution of the war and, indeed, our very survival. This was overtaken for a short time by the second component, the invasion phase, during which Fighter Command fought with the Luftwaffe for the daytime control of the sky, on the assumption that Germany did, in fact, intend to invade. The third "terror" phase, more commonly called the Blitz, then took over, during which time the "blockade war" continued. That part, more commonly styled as the Battle of the Atlantic, was not defeated until 1943.

The Churchill agenda

If the Germans had their own agendas, so did Churchill, and they were not simply the mirror image of the German ambitions. The most obvious agenda would have been the defeat of the Germans but, right from the start, Churchill recognised that Great Britain, without the support of France, could not amass a land army on the continent of Europe big enough to take on and defeat the German.

Therefore - and it is vitally important that this is properly understood - in the early days, Churchill's strategic objective was not to win the war. He neither sought nor intended to defeat the Germans. The first task he set, with the approval and agreement of the military chiefs of staff, was to survive long enough for the United States to enter the war and field an army which could, alongside the British, defeat the Germans.

From this devolved a second and intimately linked task, which was to convince a neutral, reluctant and largely isolationist United States to join the war on the side of Great Britain. That required projecting a narrative to the people and the government of the US, creating, in effect, propaganda war between Great Britain and Germany, the latter's objective being to keep the United States out of the war.

Beset by a string of failures and defeats, which continued after Dunkirk, with the loss of Somaliland and Kenya, and the debacle at Dakar, it thus became imperative to convince the United States that Britain could hold its own, and stay in the war. A nation on the brink of defeat was not going to get the support of the US, and it therefore became necessary to deliver a victory. To achieve that, the propaganda was focused on Fighter Command, creating a version of the Battle of Britain which the British, through its gallant airmen, was winning. To that extent, the activities of the RAF were being used to create a drama to entertain and captivate the Americans.

But there was another agenda - of domestic rather than international relevance. This was to do with Churchill securing his political base with his own Party. A newly appointed prime minister in May 1940, head of a coalition government, leading the nation in an unpopular war, he had to secure the commitment of the British people as well.

Progressing the arguments

With such issues under consideration, and many more, the writing has developed its own momentum, especially as it has become evident that the story has not yet been fully told. One wonders whether it ever can be but, on the other hand, one knows that additional areas must be explored.

This blog now sets out to give as comprehensive an overview of the events as can be done within the limitations of the format. The central premise is that the battle can only be properly understood if the events are seen as an integral whole - the military, on the sea and land and well as in the air, the political, social and economic. The air battle, I assert, is only a very small part of the whole and not necessarily the most important.

That assertion, though, is not cast in stone. The blog has become a journey of discovery. My general technique (although not followed slavishly) is to write a basic narrative for each day, based on a limited number of (mostly secondary) sources, the objective being to tell a reasonably coherent story.

I then widen the range of sources, going back to original material, piling layer upon layer, correcting, adding, refining, revising and (I hope) improving the narrative as it develops, all to meld it into a single, integrated narrative. No one post is a definitive statement. Each and every one is subject to addition, revision and re-shaping.

In so doing, I bring to the table a synthesis of existing and original material. There is no point in re-inventing the wheel and, through the scholarship of people such as Francis K. Mason and his superb Battle over Britain, we have as good a record of the day-to-day Fighter Command air battle as we will probably ever get. In Larry Donnelly's The Other Few, we then have a useful record of other aspects of the air war, involving Bomber and Coastal Commands. This adds a necessary and wholesome balance and I use both sources freely, plus many more.

But what I then add is a whole raft of original and vastly under-exploited sources which are now available on-line and are thus accessible to the research process. And here, the internet brings a highly significant dimension to the research, which hitherto has been poorly understood. It offers a revolution perhaps every bit as profound as the Spitfire brought to air warfare.

The research process

The issue, as with the Spitfire, is speed. A wide range of sources have now become available, from across the world, which no longer require a physical presence in order to obtain access to them. With many of the databases also electronically searchable, it is also no longer necessary to plough through thousands or hundreds of thousands of papers to find relevant material. Tasks which often took weeks and sometimes months - with the attendant expense, which can itself cripple the research process - can now often be completed in seconds.

The sources that add a special dimension to the narrative are very substantial. Not least, is the entire archive of Flight magazine, the weekly specialist aviation magazine, which was published right throughout the war, and which provides as unique insight into the thinking and development in aviation, during the period. The publishers have made the searchable archive available specifically to enhance the research process, and are to be warmly commended for it.

To this, one can add the electronic archives of the Manchester Guardian and the New York Times, the "right wing" Daily Express, the left-leaning Daily Mirror, and that of the regional "county" newspaper, the Yorkshire Post. Latterly, I have also been able to acquire copies of Reynold's News, the Daily Worker and The Tribune magazine and the Scottish Herald. Accessible online are the complete editions of the daily Hansard, the record of the proceedings of both Houses of Parliament through the period, and the weekly briefings from the Chiefs of Staff to the War Cabinet, plus the War Cabinet minutes and associated papers.

With that, we also have half a dozen or so on-line narratives of the Battle of Britain, some new, some official (such as the RAF Campaign Diary) and some well established, all of which give immediate access to the bare bones of the events, and much else besides. And we also have, courtesy of the academic team who published it in book form, the complete set of reports from the Ministry of Information's Home Intelligence team.

On top of this, there is a vast range of local and regional web sites which have sprung up over the last decade, representing thousands of hours of research labour, by local historians, archivists, librarians, journalists and many others, adding a phenomenally rich source of material which has barely been tapped. The quality is obviously variable but the best is highly professional and has been extremely valuable.

As the work progresses, the information accrues and the arguments develop and mature. But this is an evolution as much as a revolution. What you read today is not necessarily exactly what you will read tomorrow, especially as the writing is being pursued in conjunction with the blog forum, where many readers are adding their own observations and information, which is then incorporated into the growing narrative.

On 31 October 2010, the daily narrative ended ... but the writing did not. It continued, and eventually became a book, The Many Not The Few, published in March 2012. And now the process has reversed. Progressively, I am inserting the text of the book back into the blog, adding to it where necessary, expanding the story - with additional photographs and other material as it comes available to me.

This, therefore, continues to be a live project. Updates have been entered up to and including October 2012, with the addition of the separate label category, "Shelter War". I will continue to add material, and expand entries, as time permits.

COMMENT: Battle of Britain thread