Our new Battle of Britain – Have the lessons of history been forgotten or misunderstood?

This is a guest post by Dr. Anthony J. Cumming, graduate of Plymouth University and winner of the Julian Corbett Prize for Research in Modern Naval History. This piece provides a historical perspective on myths about defending Britain that continue to influence allocation of precious defence resources.

Recent weeks have seen incursions into British airspace by Russian Bear bombers following a worsening of the military situation in the Ukraine. Few will have missed the parallels that vested interests wish us to draw. Typically, The Week’s front cover depicting waves of Russian bombers flying over Dover’s white cliffs watched by a hapless Captain Mainwaring (Dad’s Army) implies that any new Battle of Britain must see us at the mercy of Russia’s bomber force. Genuine wake-up calls from the press are very welcome, but their coverage hardly mentions these Russian aircraft do not need to drop bombs. In war, their function is to release air-launched cruise missiles outside British airspace and away from intercepting fighters. The only viable defence is from our surface to air missiles and therefore the main beneficiaries of these incursion stories is, it seems, the Royal Air Force leadership and BAE Systems, both threatened by the government’s imminent Strategic Defence and Security Review. Considerable embarrassment was saved over the vastly expensive Typhoon farrago when the publicity seemingly obliged our relatively inexperienced defence secretary to praise the intercepting Typhoon pilots. Does he understand the true nature of this threat or was he influenced by the story of the Battle of Britain ?

Typhoon and Russian BearDoes the RAF Typhoon force provide credible defence against against long-range cruise missile armed aircraft ? (MoD photo)

It might be said that we mostly have an informed opinion on education and the NHS, but are at the mercy of the media for defence matters. Sadly, their coverage is neither comprehensive nor objective. As I describe in my book, The Battle for Britain, the Daily Mail proprietor Alfred Harmsworth, Lord Northcliffe made enormous efforts to aggrandise the potential of aircraft following Louis Bleriot’s lone cross-Chanel flight in 1909 – indeed Bleriot was the harbinger of a new age. Admirable though this was, Northcliffe then tried to diminish the role of the Royal Navy to make his point. However, his lobbying did not prevent the nation’s airpower trailing behind that of France and Germany at the outbreak of World War I. The Battle for BritainBut energetically led by Winston Churchill, the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) soon found itself at the cutting edge of military aviation. Later, two German Gotha daylight bomber raids on London in the summer of 1917 had far reaching consequences as the Times berated Lloyd George’s government for alleged inaction. They claimed the air defences had been neglected; co-operation between the army’s Royal Flying Corp (RFC) and the navy’s RNAS was lacking and counter-strikes against the German homeland were now the best way of securing victory. A panic-stricken government, wary of potential public unrest in the wake of Russia’s recent revolution responded with alacrity. Within weeks, a government enquiry heard evidence behind closed doors from aviation proponents and on the basis of what later turned out to be inaccurate and fallacious intelligence recommended the two air forces be merged, a strategic bombing force created and made independent from army and naval control.

In effect, aviation enthusiasts from both services had snatched the ball without sufficient political scrutiny but the rest of the war saw little change in the way airpower was deployed. In other words, the Royal Air Force continued to support the army and navy as their predecessors had done. The war in the air over the western front had been almost a private affair with no real impact on the land fighting. But still, the aviators cut colourful and romantic figures in a war dominated by squalor, mechanised slaughter and alleged monumental incompetence of the military leadership.

After the war, Sir Hugh Trenchard, one time opponent of a unified air service, but now Chief of Air Staff fought off demands for return of the aircraft to their former owners. With the help of publicity stunts such as the Empire Air Days at Hendon and the assistance of Lord Harold Rothermere (Northcliffe’s brother), Trenchard popularised and saved the new service. By making extravagant and inaccurate claims for policing the British Empire ‘on the cheap’, Trenchard won the support of Air Minister, Sir Samuel Hoare. Rothermere, now head of Northcliffe’s newspaper empire fought the air lobby’s corner by publishing illustrations of warships being sunk by bombers and arguing that Germany’s large number of civil airliners meant that a potential enemy possessed thousands of aircraft capable of conversion to bombing roles. This argument proved fallacious. However, as Lord Ernle Chatfield, Minister for Coordination of Defence, 1939-40, wrote “Rothermere’s ‘one-sided campaign for the air force’ finally pushed the polititicians into action on behalf of all three services”. Even by the late 1920s, the idea of a sudden knock-out blow from the air had become a credible and frightening idea in British minds and the Munich Crisis of 1938 resulted in the Royal Air Force becoming, for the first time, the biggest spender of all three services.

Unfortunately the vastly increased spending on airpower did not assist the RAF in making much impact upon the battlefield in the early campaigns of World War II. This was because army cooperation had been neglected owing to the joint indifference of the War Office and Air Ministry in between the wars. Naval airpower fared slightly better, but owing to Admiralty and Air Ministry neglect and the fact that the Navy’s carrier borne aircraft did not return to full naval control until 1939, their equipment was obsolete and many lessons learned in 1914-18 had to be re-learned. This apathy, though unforgivable, was understandable given the Air Ministry had controlled the means of production and were obsessed with strategic bombing – a situation that also handicapped Fighter and Coastal Commands in the early phases of World War II.

However, the sorry state of British airpower in 1940 was disguised by the heroic actions of a handful of young fighter pilots during the Battle of Britain. The Few fought valiantly but faced great challenges. What limited their effectiveness was the loss of so many experienced flight commanders in the earlier Battle of France; the need to condense new pilot training within a short time frame; flawed tactics and dissention within the Fighter Command leadership. Night air defence techniques were also lacking. The Luftwaffe also made mistakes, but their fighter pilots were fortunate in having received more hours of training, a higher level of combat experience and greater firepower from their aircraft. Fortunately, The Few’s courage and dedication were skilfully publicised by British and American correspondents; used to sustain British morale and convince a nervous American public that Britain was worth supporting with logistical aid. Stirring exploits of Americans in RAF service became widely popular in the USA something that Foreign Office officials naturally encouraged as they believed it would affect the aid Britain was hoping to receive from America. Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, was happy to go along with this. He identified with the young pilots and his famous speeches were influenced by American press editor, William Simms, who told Churchill to say that Britain would fight to the end and the whole existence of world civilization was now at stake. Churchill obviously could not admit that he thought an invasion was unlikely at this time – this was not made known until publication of his memoirs after the war. However, by then the concept of an invasion thwarted by airpower alone had become part of the ‘Finest Hour’ narrative.

Royal Navy WWII DestroyersShips of the Royal Navy Home Feet – the ultimate guarantee of Britain’s security in WWII (Photo: Imperial War Museum)

Churchill’s scepticism and Hitler’s prevarication was rooted in knowing that the German surface fleet had been decimated in the earlier Norway campaign and that British naval resources in and around the English Channel crossing area were overwhelming and if these weren’t enough, then the heavy ships of the Home Fleet at Rosyth could swiftly reinforce them. Although the Luftwaffe had shown itself capable of inflicting heavy damage on smaller warships in some situations, neither the Luftwaffe nor the RAF had the ability to inflict sufficient damage on shipping as they lacked relevant training and equipment. As the Germans planned to sail at night, aircraft could play little part and the Royal Navy had amply demonstrated its command of the Channel at night by repeatedly bombarding invasion ports without losing a single ship. This then, represents the unappreciated but far less colourful reality of the 1940 invasion crisis.

Significantly, the current 2% of GDP defence budget is approximately the same as it was in the year Hitler came to power and the worsening international situation means it must be increased if our defence capability is to be maintained.

The taxpayer is entitled to value for money and the hype surrounding some of these early airpower achievements must not affect decisions on the future of a service whose main function is now to support the army and navy.

Surely this function would be better carried out under the direct control of the army and navy with home defense properly unified under naval control using naval fighter aircraft operating from carriers and airfields (whenever appropriate) to provide additional flexibility, cost savings and much needed command unity. The incoming government must no longer allow defence policy to be dictated by myth and legend.