The ‘Battle of Britain’ is one of the most iconic events in the history of the United Kingdom, memorably enshrined by Churchill’s famous phrase: ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.’ And, certainly in the popular consciousness, this victory in an air battle with the Germans over the English skies is perceived as the event which unquestionably prevented an invasion of Great Britain in 1940.
But the real history is not quite that simple. To begin with, Adolf Hitler was not that keen on sending his troops across the English Channel. As Professor Sir Ian Kershaw says, Hitler believed that after the German victory in France in June 1940, ‘Britain would fall into line and they would sue for peace and there would be some type of rapprochement, a deal done, a negotiated end to the war, Britain would be on side.’ Hitler, according to Sir Ian, ‘didn’t want to invade Britain’. Instead, the German leader wanted ‘a type of puppet government in Britain that would fall in with German demands, and then the way would be clear for the attack in the East which is the war that he’d always wanted. But it would now be an attack in the East with British support, with the West already taken care of.’ As a result, ‘the way would be clear for German dominance of the continent of Europe’.
Thus, when the Luftwaffe began to focus on air attacks on British targets, from June 1940 onwards, the aims of the offensive were not straightforward. Yes, the Germans were investigating whether a land invasion of Britain – ‘Operation Sealion’ – might be possible if the Luftwaffe neutralized the RAF, but equally, if the British could be bombed to the negotiating table, Hitler was just as interested in arranging some kind of negotiated peace that would leave his hands free for the forthcoming war against the Soviet Union.
None of these political machinations mattered, of course, to the brave pilots of the RAF who were tasked with repulsing the German attack. Their concerns were with the practical ability of their aircraft and air support to destroy the Luftwaffe. And in this respect the story of RAF Fighter Command is one of triumph - in a hurry. This was because during much of the 1930s the emphasis in the RAF had been on the development of bombers. The idea was that the retaliatory threat of bombing would act as a defensive weapon. Sizeable resources were not directed to Fighter Command until relatively late, and it was only in 1939 that the legendary fighters – the Hurricane and Spitfire – started to appear in any significant numbers in front line squadrons. But it was to be these fighters – combined with the advanced radar technology that allowed the RAF controllers to predict the direction and quantity of German ‘raiders’ – that were to prove decisive.
And though the Luftwaffe outnumbered the British in total numbers of attack aircraft – bombers and fighters combined – not all of their planes were effective. The famous Stuka dive bomber, for example, was slow and unwieldy in combat with Spitfires or Hurricanes. And – like the Stuka – the majority of German bombers had been built in order to support ground attack troops rather than to sustain a systematic and independent aerial threat.
Coupled with this question of the effectiveness of their aircraft, was the issue of the tactics of the Luftwaffe. Over the months of the battle these changed regularly – so much so that it was hard to see exactly what Hitler and Goering’s strategy really was. Initially the Luftwaffe attacked shipping off the British coast, then moved to the airfields and control centres of Fighter Command, then Bomber Command, then aircraft related industrial targets, and culminated in all out attack on British cities in the Blitz. The ultimate German aim was clear – get Britain out of the war. But they didn’t seem to have a clear idea how to do it.
Take ‘Eagle Day’ on 13 August, for example, and the series of attacks that followed it. These mass bombing raids were spectacularly unsuccessful for the Luftwaffe. The raid by German planes from Scandinavia on the north of England was particularly disastrous. ‘Suddenly the radio went absolutely mad, ‘616 Squadron scramble, 616 Squadron scramble,’’ recalls William Walker, who was a Spitfire pilot during the Battle of Britain, and who helped repulse the August raids. ‘So we jumped up, dashed out of the Mess and grabbed whatever transport we could, got down to dispersal and jumped into our plane and all took off individually and more or less formed up when we were airborne. And we were vectored onto what proved to be a raid of some 80 aircraft, mostly Junkers 88s. And I had never seen so many aircraft in the air before at one time. I was just amazed. And they were unescorted because they’d come from Norway, their fighter escort had to turn back as soon as they’d reached the coast because they hadn’t got enough fuel to get back to Norway, so they couldn’t escort them overland. And I managed to shoot at three before my ammunition ran out. And the squadron knocked out I think about ten or twelve altogether.’
The Luftwaffe did have more success towards the end of August, when they changed their policy to attacking RAF airfields, but by then the Germans were beginning to believe their own inflated claims about how many British planes had been destroyed, and so German pilots became quickly disillusioned when more Spitfires and Hurricanes kept appearing in the sky.
The Germans changed policy yet again in the first week of September and started to attack London. It was during this period, on 15 September – now known as ‘Battle of Britain’ day – that they suffered their greatest single loss, when around 60 planes were shot down by a mass attack from British fighters.
By now it was clear to the German leadership that the RAF was not about to be eliminated as a threat, and so Operation Sealion was postponed – postponed forever, as it turned out. But whilst the bravery of the RAF pilots who confronted the Germans remains indisputable, many historians now question just how serious Hitler ever was about launching an invasion of Britain, or indeed whether the Germans would have been capable of managing such a feat even if the RAF had been destroyed. ‘I do think one has to understand the timeframes here,’ says Professor Adam Tooze. ‘They [the Germans] hadn’t started thinking about a war with Britain, let alone an invasion, until May 1938. The naval armaments programme doesn’t get into gear until January 1939. For the preceding five years Britain had been outspending Germany on the navy so the already enormous gap between the German navy and the British navy in 1933 had not been shrinking but growing larger every year. So when they [the Germans] then also go on to lose the vast majority of their modern naval forces in the Norwegian debacle which, from a German naval point of view, is a catastrophe, they essentially do not have a surface navy with which to protect an invasion in the summer of 1940.’
Andrew Roberts is unequivocal in his judgment: ‘I don’t think the Germans were going to be able to invade successfully in 1940. I think that the actual plans needed to get an army across the Channel, even in the event that the RAF was neutralised for a long enough period, were just not in place. Those flat-bottomed boats, there weren’t enough of them, they weren’t particularly sea-worthy, and if the Royal Navy had got amongst them there would have been a massacre.’
But because we are in the realm of counter-factual history – asking what would have happened had the RAF been defeated – it is possible, of course, for other historians to take a very different view about Hitler’s intentions and capabilities. ‘There’s a popular argument now that Hitler never really intended to invade Britain,’ says Professor Richard Overy, ‘and that the Battle of Britain was in some sense an unnecessary battle. Quite a bit of historical writing has suggested this argument. I think this is nonsense. Hitler’s plans to invade Britain are, of course, rather half-hearted, and it’s an extremely difficult operation to carry out. But if Hitler could have got a cheap victory in 1940 it would have absolutely suited him. It would have created the conditions which make possible the great drive to the East and so on. It would probably keep the United States out of any involvement in the war and it would have created, I think, a geopolitical position for Hitler which would have been entirely satisfactory.
‘The Germans have massive air power and they massively underrated the capacity of the RAF to withstand attacks. I think if Hitler had been able to get his cheap victory in the autumn by pounding British cities and so on, and killed… well, he kills 40,000 people. This had never happened before in war, numbers haven’t been killed like that at any point in the First World War or even in the Second World War. It’s a huge impact and I think that he did convince himself that by destroying the RAF and being able to bomb British cities you would create the circumstances in which either the British would give up or you could have a cheap invasion. He didn’t rate the British army at all and the British army’s ability to withstand half a dozen German divisions in 1940 was extremely limited.
‘If he could have picked up a cheap victory, transporting his divisions across to Kent and Sussex with British air power effectively neutralized then the Royal Navy, which people sometimes say would have been the barrier, would have suffered exactly the same way that the Prince of Wales suffered when it arrived in the Far East; it would have been sunk. Because you had to imagine the fleet coming down now with the RAF neutralised; so there’s no air help coming over from the RAF. I think the Royal Navy would have faced enormous difficulties if German air power was focused entirely on the invasion area. So I think we dismiss Sealion in Britain too readily and as a result fail to recognise how important the strategic and tactical decisions taken surrounding the Battle of Britain actually were.’
Of course, we will never know for certain what Hitler really would have done had the RAF been destroyed. Would he have ordered an invasion of Britain? Were the Germans even capable of such an operation? We’re just fortunate that the RAF defeated the Luftwaffe and the British never had to find out the answer to these questions for real.