By any measure, the Battle of Britain stands with the October revolution as among the most historically decisive few weeks of the 20th Century. Little wonder its spirit is evoked so often in our national mythology and popular culture. It really was, by any reasonable measure, “Our Finest Hour.”
As a playwright I try very hard to look at historical stories in the present tense, as if we didn’t know how it was going to come out. Because that’s what it must have been like at the time. And in the late summer of 1940, what had happened in the past year, from a British point of view, was not going to fill you with confidence.
True, the Chamberlain Government, which would have almost certainly have made a deal with Nazi Germany rather than fight on alone, had been replaced by Churchill leading an unlikely coalition (still forming) consisting mainly of the Labour Party and a few Tory rebels. The most dangerous potential Quislings had either been interned, like Mosely and the Tory MP for Peebles, Colonel Ramsey…while other less immediately dangerous but untrustworthy individuals, including the ex King, were being put out of harm’s way. True, the British Army and a good chunk of the French had escaped from capture and death at Dunkirk…but even a successful retreat is still a retreat.
To the shock of the world and the Germans…and the French…Churchill had recently ordered the destruction of the French fleet at Oran …with the loss of 1500 French lives…partly to keep the ships from being added to the German navy, but also to show the Germans…and the Americans, crucially, that he wasn’t going to mess about, that he could be as big a criminal as he had to be to win. At this point, the Germans were forced into serious preparation for invasion of Great Britain…the prerequisite of which was, of course, air superiority, without which an invasion across the Channel was unthinkable. (As it was in 1944.)
So the RAF had to be bombed and blown out of the war.
Had we lost the Battle of Britain, then, the Germans would almost certainly have invaded the South of England before the bad weather came in October 1940…Roosevelt would likely have lost the Presidential election in November. And the King…or his older brother… would have shaken hands with Hitler on the balcony of Buckingham palace. The Americans could never have supplied the Russians when the Nazis inevitably turned on them and the Americans would have had no forward base in Europe from which to launch the invasions of North Africa, Italy and France.
So far, excepting with a few minor details of interpretation, I imagine I’d be in agreement with Boris Johnson and William Rees Mogg…at least in the summary of what was at stake when “we” took to the skies over the South East of England to take on the Luftwaffe in August and September 1940. Where we might differ is in recalling the details of who “we” were…who WERE the “few” to whom so much was and is still owed by so many?
Nearly three thousand pilots – fought in the Battle of Britain. Nearly 600 of them, 20%, were not born in Britain. Around 300 came from the Commonwealth…Canada, New Zealand, Australia…Jamaica, India… Nearly 300, however, came from future EU countries. France, Belgium, Ireland…and from Poland and Czechoslovakia. The most “kills” by any Squadron during the fighting was 201…by 303 Squadron. Who were ALL Polish…
They don’t just do kitchens, you know.
So the only REASONABLE conclusion from the Battle of Britain…and of the fact that 20% of the few weren’t British…and that 10% of them, including the single most effective group of them…were from Europe… is that it was a jolly good thing they were here. And that Britain was saved from Nazi Invasion in 1940 not by standing alone, but by welcoming immigrants…
Sometimes history doesn’t quite teach the lessons that everybody thinks it does.