I’ve written before about some of the myths that perpetuate in modern British history that continue to resonate today, sometimes with current political salience. This piece on the spirit of The Blitz was an example. There is also cultural nostalgia that provide people with comfort blankets. The past and its claimed trappings often make us feel good about ourselves.
The Battle of Britain is one of those examples. The myth of British defeat of Nazi Germany’s air forces in September 1940 is rooted in the concept of ‘The Few’ – taken from Winston Churchill’s summation of the Battle: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owned by so many to so few.” The ‘few’ being the British RAF pilots sent up into battle over the skies of southern England to fight the Luftwaffe.
The place of the Battle of Britain in British popular memory partly stems from the Air Ministry’s successful propaganda campaign in July–October 1940, prioritising the value and effort of the defending pilots from March 1941 onwards. The three pence pamphlet The Battle of Britain sold in huge numbers internationally, leading even Goebbels to admire its propaganda value. Focusing only upon the fighter pilots, with no mention of RAF bomber attacks against German invasion barges assembling across the English Channel, the Battle of Britain was soon established as a major victory for Fighter Command. This inspired feature films, books, magazines, works of art, poetry, radio plays and Ministry of Information short films. Later, Hollywood and the film industry consolidated the myths into popular films like ‘Battle of Britain’ in 1969. Britain stood alone and prevented a Nazi invasion. Britain was different and had not suffered in the same way as other continental countries in Europe with occupation, dictatorship and the mass displacement of people.
However in reality the Battle of Britain was a lopsided affair. One side was much stronger and more modern, with advanced integrated detection technologies, superior logistics and intelligence, excellent fighter control, and much better production facilities churning out far more of the most important equipment.
The other side was plucky, flying from considerably less developed facilities, operating under severe handicaps in intelligence and flying time over the battle area, lacking the proper technology to achieve anything like what it wanted, and with a severely underutilized industrial base.
The stronger side was Great Britain and the plucky underdogs were the Germans.
The Battle of Britain was always one that the Germans were bound to lose quickly and disastrously. The key phase only lasted a few weeks during which German losses became unsustainably high and the Luftwaffe had to resort to the completely ineffective, if dramatic and dreadful for the civilian population, night time bombing of London and other British cities.
When the Battle of Britain entered this ‘Blitz’ stage in early September 1940, it was an admission by the Germans that they could not fly in the day over the UK and survive, and therefore they had no chance of actually damaging anything meaningfully in the UK.
Unfortunately this realistic vision of the Battle of Britain makes for both bad movies and bad politics, and for that reason a different vision has come down to us — that of plucky little Britain, relying on ‘the few’ to defend itself against the mass power of the Luftwaffe and Nazi Germany.
I think some of this is going on in Ukraine now as it happens – the Ukrainians are well equipped (or at least well organised and well trained) and the Russians disorganised with exposed supply chains to the extent the Ukrainians are not the underdog we first imagined when the war started in February. Myths are being created right now in the Oblasts of Ukraine with some excellent Ukrainian propaganda being generated that has very much influenced the West and its democratic populaces. (To some extent Britain used the same tactic to influence USA domestic opinion and sympathy too in 1940/1).
In reality, with the Battle of Britain, this myth — partly witting, partly not — started to be created even before the Battle of Britain actually reached its climax, and it became such a useful one that it has persisted to today. Winston Churchill’s famous speech that “never has so much been owed by so many to so few” was given on 20 August 1940, though the Battle of Britain did not reach its highpoint until the two weeks between 24 August and 6 September.
In that sense Churchill’s stirring phrase was a prophecy not a proper analysis — and it was a prophecy based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how strong the Luftwaffe and Germany were at the time. Churchill thought the Luftwaffe was twice as strong as it really was and that Germany was producing twice as many aircraft as it actually was. He believed that Britain had to rely on the few. It just wasn’t true. Again, we can see parallels with Ukraine now – the Russians might have been numerically superior in February 2022, but that has not equated, as far as we can tell, to battle effectiveness.
Britain won the Battle of Britain because it was more powerful than Nazi Germany in the key areas the battle tested (Ukraine and anti-tank weapons anyone?) and because Britain was not standing alone, but fighting with a world-wide network of assets that meant it was never going to lose.
The Germans had one advantage going into the battle — the number of aircraft on hand (though the numbers of deployable German fighters was only a little higher than that of the RAF). However even this numerical advantage was partly irrelevant as German bombers, small, slow two-engine machines such as the HE-111 and DO-17, were inadequate to the task and the famous Stuka dive-bombers, even slower and more primitive, were more dangerous for their crews to fly than they ever were to the British being bombed by them.
In response the RAF had radar, which could see the Germans coming and give the RAF time to prepare, could fly for far longer over the Battle areas from its bases in southern England than the Germans could fly from their bases in France, and could rescue the majority of its pilots show down while the Germans lost theirs that survived to British prisoner of war camps. The Ukrainians, I suspect, are getting an awful lot of Western intelligence – the equivalent of radar – those successes against Russian assets, including the cruiser sunk in the Black Sea wasn’t just plucky good luck.
Moreover in 1940 the British were actually out-producing the Germans two-to-one in fighters during the battle, meaning that every day it went on the RAF was growing stronger and the Germans weaker.
In a larger sense the UK had many more advantages. The Royal Navy, whose contribution to the victory is usually overlooked, maintained sea control in the waters around the UK and the North Atlantic; the Empire was gearing up to support Britain; and the British could draw on very important assets such as Polish pilots driven from their homeland.
From a holistic technological, productive, war-fighting perspective the British were the many and the Germans the few. Had the Germans ever attempted to invade the UK at any time in 1940, its famous Operation Sealion, the result would have been a debacle for them of historic proportions (as British policy makers understood but did not want to say publicly).
Britain’s easy victory in the Battle of Britain was also an indicator of British power in the war as a whole. Far from being a plucky underdog forced to compete with guile and courage against a frighteningly powerful Nazi Germany, the UK remained the superior air-sea power throughout the war. It out-developed and out-built the Germans in the most advanced and important technologies, from aircraft to ships.
Even without the US taking part, for instance, the UK would have been able in 1943 to unleash the kind of bombing campaign on Nazi Germany that the Germans could only have dreamed about in 1940.
To be honest, the British were not particularly plucky or courageous in the Second World War and here I would stop the comparisons with Ukraine for now. Life in Britain was considerably safer and easier than in almost any other European country at war. British casualties, civilian and military, were small as a percentage of the population, the British people had steady access to food (albeit rather dull), and apart from London in late 1940 and again in late 1944, British people could go about their lives with very little chance of being harmed by their enemy. In loss and lifestyle terms, the British had it easy.
Yet the myth of the plucky underdog, courageously getting by, obviously has more appeal than that the safe, sensible great power and that has the one that has come down to us — with disastrous implications for understanding Britain’s actions and place in the world today.
Britain during the Second World War really was one of the “great” powers in the world. It had the second- or third-largest economy during the war, some of the best technology, access to resources, and so on.
Since the war, however, Britain has lost that position. It is nothing like as powerful. To put it into perspective, if Britain during the Second World War was an equal in some ways superior competitor to Nazi Germany as a global power, its relative decline today would make it the relative equal to Mussolini’s Italy.
In relative global production and military capability today the UK deploys and can maintain forces that compare relatively well to what Italy could do between 1940 and 1943. This, however, is not a vision of itself that British politicians want to face, and instead the rhetoric returns to the false myth of the Blitz spirit and plucky Britain, as if somehow by magic the country can make itself more important in the world through determination and commitment. This may be why some British politicians today like to identify with Ukraine now and it’s plucky resistance against the Russians – there is some self projection going on here.
However, whilst Britain can be commended for supplying the Ukrainians with useful armaments and training, Britain is not a smaller version of the power it was between 1939 and 1945, it is a completely different and far less powerful force.
It’s a shame that this cannot be understood, as it might actually lead to one of the few positive results that could come from Brexit. The idea that leaving the European Union should be used as a justification to try and play a militarized role elsewhere in the world (given a recent deployment of a UK aircraft carrier to the Pacific) is frankly silly. The only benefit of Brexit would be if the UK understood from it that it is not a global power anymore and has the opportunity to realign its ambitions to match its actual position.
Britain should be a regional power, with a few areas of excellence (high-tech and cyber) not wasting resources sailing around the globe frantically pretending to be needed when it’s not.
The UK cannot recreate the resilience of the plucky few of 1940 in the world today — because the plucky few never existed in the first place. It was a myth. The Ukrainians are doing a much better job of forging their own mythology and they are very much ‘The Few’ in the contrast to Russian military resources they face. Unlike Britain and the Second World War, they are on their own to a large degree; and they will look back nostalgically in the future with a fair few of their own myths.