One of the defining founding myths that drives many of the brexiters is the early day’s of world war II, “the Dunkirk spirit” and Britain’s victory over Germany at the battle of Britain. However the reality is that there are a whole host of myths surrounding this period that are simply not true. It is therefore important to debunk these myths, as doing so reveals a lot of hard truths that the brexiters seem anxious to ignore.
Dunkirk was a defeat
Firstly it has to be acknowledged that Dunkirk was a defeat and there’s no real way to sugar coat that one. While yes a significant number of British soldiers did manage to escape encirclement and get back to the UK, the British did ultimately lose large numbers of men, the majority of their heavy equipment, and quite a number of ships and aircraft. The word by which we would describe one side fleeing the battlefield while losing a significant quantity of its forces in the process is “defeat”.
Keep in mind that in military terms any losses greater than 10% is considered bad. Losing more than 25% in a single engagement is considered a rout. The charge of the light brigade saw 16% of the attacking force killed (with a further third of the force wounded or de-horsed), while Pickett’s charge during the American Civil war saw 22% of the attacking force killed (and again a further third of the attacking force were wounded). So by any yard stick, while yes a significant portion of the British army did escape, the losses they took were significant. Soldiers and their equipment doesn’t grow on trees, losing large numbers of either isn’t a sustainable strategy.
Its also important to acknowledge how the British and the French (who also were evacuated at Dunkirk) got themselves into this mess in this first place. Both went into the war assuming it would be fought under the same conditions as World War I. The French devoted the bulk of their forces to the Maginot line, so they looked to the British to take the strategic initiative. The British instead took up positions along the Belgian border waiting for Belgium to be attacked, upon which they’d rush into to stop the Germans.
What both sides failed to understand was that developments in combined arms tactics (i.e. the blitzkrieg) meant waiting to be attacked meant waiting to lose. Only a well fortified position could hope to halt the enemy and tank warfare allowed such strong points to be simply bypassed and outflanked. The Belgians (and the low Countries) also have to take some of the blame. It should have been obvious after the attack on Poland and then Denmark that Belgian neutrality would not be respected. And, as noted, it should have been obvious from the early battles of the war that there was no way the Belgian army could hope to defend the country. Hence Belgium’s options were to either join the allies and invite in the British and French forces prior to a German attack. Or conclude that if you can’t beat’em join em.
The German ruthlessly exploited this naivety with their attack through the Ardennes forest, which directly lead to the fiasco at Dunkirk. As one British tank commander confessed at the time, of the month or so his forces spent in France, they spend most of that time in retreat, barely got to fire a shot, other than the odd rear guard action. And his men spent a significant portion of the their time in France drunk. He was then forced to abandon his tanks on the beaches and in some cases the first use of the tanks ammunition was when the crews scuttled them.
Furthermore, the British were only able to evacuate because of a major tactical error by Hitler. Convinced by boasting from Goring that the Luftwaffe could finish them off, he halted his armies. Of course, as with most of Goring’s boasts, the Luftwaffe failed. That said, there was a certain logic to the Germans letting the British forces escape. If the British forces had been captured, then the Germans would have had hundreds of thousands of prisoners to look after, a drain on their resources. By all accounts it looked like Germany had won, the British would be forced to negotiate a peace deal.
And it should be remembered that the Nazis admired the British and their Empire. As they saw it, what Britain was doing in India or Africa (concentration camps remember were invented by the British during the Boer war), they were doing in the East. So even when it became obvious that a significant proportion of the British forces were going to escape, they probably thought no harm done.
Britain did not stand alone
The enduring myth is that Britain stood alone against Europe. Not really! As noted, quite a few French made it over to Britain, including more than a few pilots, crucial given that the British were desperately short of experienced pilots. Also many Polish and Norwegian pilots had made it to Britain, where they played a key role in the Battle of Britain.
A spitfire…..with Polish markings…damn Poles comin over here, defending us from the nazi’s…
The Poles also brought with them most of the their intelligence apparatus. Much of the Ultra code breaking set up at Bletchley park owes its origins to Polish code breakers. The Poles had come up with many of the very tactics the British would later utilise to good effect. Even the design of the first mechanical computers (the Bombe) was based on a Polish design. The problem for the poles is they lacked in terms of resources and had basically run out of time to complete their work by the time the Germans invaded. So their arrival would prove crucial to the outcome of the war.
And of course there’s the role played by the empire, notably Canada, Australia and New Zealand. And there was also the contribution of the Indians, something which is often forgotten. Quite apart from the direct support they offered in terms of men, machinery and supplies, they also took over roles guarding overseas bases, allowing more of the British forces to be moved back to the UK.
And while countries like the US or Ireland were officially neutral, it was a strange form of neutrality. The American blatantly favoured the British, openly shipping military supplies across, in some cases without proper payment. At one point, when the German U-boat attacks proved problematic, US sailors began dressing up as Canadians and served on ships escorting supplies across the Atlantic.
Similarly, while German pilots were interned, the Irish looked the other way while British pilots escaped. They supplied the UK with food supplies and took no action to stop thousands of Irish going to the UK to join the British military (one of my relatives actually came to the UK during the war and worked in an airfield as an aircraft mechanic). Weather forecasts were strictly controlled, with none broadcast over the Irish radio’s during the war, yet weather data was quietly passed on to the allies (a weather forecast from Valentia Island would prove to be crucial later in the war regarding the timing of the D-Day landings).
The Spitfire was, at best, a mediocre aircraft
For the British the spitfire is an almost mythical beast. The best fighter of the war, if not ever made. The reality was a little different. It was certainly fast, however it also came with a number flaws and quirks. The most notable of these was its engine was prone to cut out if the aircraft was inverted, a quite serious flaw to have in air to air combat, not least because the Germans soon figured it out and began exploiting this flaw, forcing the British to develop a quick fix.
The Spitfire design had evolved from a racing floatplane of the 1930’s (which only had to fly in a straight line, hence it had a carburettor engine and hence the problems with the engine cutting out), which made them fast but left them stuck with lots of legacy issues. Faced with a faster opponent, a Spitfire was in trouble. Fortunately, the German pilots were at the limit of their range during the Battle of Britain and could not use their aircraft to their fullest extent.
Also the obsession with the Spitfire ignores the fact that the mainstay of the RAF during the Battle of Britain was the Hawker Hurricane, which equipped the majority of RAF squadrons and accounted for the bulk of RAF kills. The Hurricane was a workhorse next to the Spitfires fancy dressage pony. It was simple and rugged, not particularly fast (but not exactly slow either) and surprisingly nimble for such an old aircraft.
So while the Spitfire wasn’t a bad aircraft, it certainly wasn’t any sort of wonder weapon and its role in the battle is somewhat exaggerated.
Radar wasn’t a secret weapon
Another myth is that the British had a secret weapon the boffins had come up with that the Germans didn’t know about – radar. This allowed the British to have their airforce in their air waiting for the German raiders, acting as a sort of forces multiplier. While the second half of this statement is true, the British did use radar to good effect, the idea that this was a secret is not.
The Germans were more than familiar with the existence of radar, they were working on it themselves. They were a bit behind the British, but by 1939 they had their first working units. They certainly knew the British had radar as well and one of the first things they attacked was British radar stations along the coast.
The problem for the Germans was that Hitler saw radar as a defensive weapon and he prioritised work on offensive weapons. So the technology was never pursued or deployed effectively during the Battle of Britain.
Hitler’s policy did have repercussions later in the war. It meant the Germans sought to miniaturise their radar such that it could be fitted into an aircraft, which they then used to equip night fighters. These night fighters would become so effective as a result that it meant being over Germany at night was just as dangerous as the American daylight raids.
Enigma code breakers played only a minor role in the battle of Britain
The cracking of the Enigma code (code named Ultra) proved crucial to allied victory in world war II, no question. However, its benefits would only kick in much later in the war, notably during the Battle for the Atlantic and the run up to D-Day. During the battle of Britain it played a minor role.
In part this was simply because it was early days, Ultra had limited resources and their successes were a lot of hit and miss. As noted, the Polish code breakers had only just gotten their feet under the desk and their British counterparts were still digesting all that they’d learnt. Indeed, they’d only succeeded in breaking the Luftwaffe code for the first time around the end of May. Also at this early stage, the penny hadn’t dropped with military high command as to just how valuable Ultra intercepts could be.
This debunks one of the great myths of World War II, that Churchill allowed the bombing of Coventry to go ahead in order to protect the secret of Ultra. This is contradicted by multiple sources and furthermore, it makes no sense. British commanders would consider an industrial city like Coventry as far more valuable than some boffin being able to read Goring’s e-mail….occasionally! Now granted, later in the war, when the true potential of Ultra had been realised, that’s a different story (which is probably how this myth got started). But certainly the impact of Ultra on the battle of Britain phase of the war was fairly limited. It had an impact yes, but it wasn’t decisive.
Churchill was not a great military leader…although he was a great drinker
If you believe the propaganda Britain won thanks to Churchill, who personally directed the battle from his war room under the the Treasury. This is simply not true, Churchill knew very little about aerial warfare so he wisely delegated this task to those who did, such as air chief Marshall Hugh Dowding.
And too be honest “great military leader” and Churchill are two things that rarely appear in the same sentence. Its more than usually “Churchill” and “military disaster”. In the first world war the fiasco of the British defeat at Coronel was largely Churchill’s fault, because he was too busy trying to help one of his aristocratic friends (a German) keep his job (for some reason someone thought it was a bad idea to have a German in charge of the Admiralty when the UK was fighting them). Then there was the small matter of Gallipoli one of the greatest military blunders of World War I, which was largely Churchill’s idea.
During the Irish war for independence, the Black and Tans were Churchill’s idea and they ultimately destroyed what support remained in Ireland for remaining part of the UK. And in World War II it is ironic that the defeat of British forces in Norway led to the downfall of Chamberlain and Churchill’s appointment, when it was largely Churchill’s fault things had gone so badly wrong for the British. So during the Battle of Britain Churchill instead did what he did best, he focused on keeping morale in the country up and basically staying out the RAF’s way.
Also it is difficult to avoid the topic of Churchill and not bring up the matter of his drinking, because he was a seriously heavy drinker. Now yes, it is true people drank more in those days that we do these days. And being Irish, me giving out about someone else’s drinking is bit of pot calling the kettle black. But he’d drink me under the table and probably a room full of my fellow Irish too. He’d have a bottle of champagne with his breakfast, beers with his lunch (not sure if that should be “with” his lunch or “for” lunch), and the best part of a bottle of Cognac in the evening, with several Whiskey and soda chasers throughout the day.
Do the maths and that’s at least ten times the recommended daily limit. If I drank that much in one day, I’d need a week’s detox to recover, nevermind doing it every day. They must have had an entire brewery going just to keep Churchill well oiled. Of course this means Churchill likely spent much of the war in a constant state of inebriation. I always thought his slurred speech was a speech impediment, but its more likely that its because he was permanently shitfaced. Which means that his infamous “fight them on the beaches” speech was basically a drunk roaring into a microphone for ten minutes. How very British.
So why did the British really win?
Well, as noted the British were better organised than the Germans. While radar wasn’t a huge secret, the British used it to good effect. They used home advantage, ensuring any pilots shot down were quickly picked up. Any RAF plane that got shot up, so long as the pilot could make it back down, the airfields had a pretty good system in place for repairing battle damaged planes and getting them airborne again pretty quickly, generally (according to my relative) within 24 hrs or less. By contrast German fighters faced a perilous journey back across the channel. And if they made it (and many of them didn’t), they could be waiting several days for spare parts to show up.
And while the nazi’s considered women to be little more than breeding machines for the master race, the British recruited many women (including the current Queen) into a wide variety of roles, land girls, the RAF wren’s, factory workers and transfer pilots (who flew planes from the factory to the airfield). This meant that the Germans neglected 50% of their work force.
So how is it that the Germans were so un-Germanic in their organisation? That was largely the fault of certain fat Prussian meat ball by the name of Goering, proof of everything that is wrong with the German diet. The only way he was going to kill a British airman was by falling on him. I have my own personal theory that Hitler became a vegetarian not long after meeting Goering for the first time. Suffice to say that even when Churchill was laying on his office floor nursing an empty bottle of Cognac he was still doing a better job than Goering was doing awake and sober.
First of all, you’ll recall what I said about the limited range of German fighters. They only had a range of about 700 miles, while a range closer to 1,000 miles (which the spitfire and hurricane’s had) is more appropriate for a cross channel battle. This meant that the German fighters had only a few minutes of combat time over England before they had to turn around and head for home. And they’d have been constantly watching the fuel gauge. And inevitably if the pilot miscalculated, they’d end up in the Channel. And as it was Goering and his air staff who specified the range for those fighters, when they were ordered them one has to wonder why they didn’t consider ordering a fighter with a longer range.
Also many German aircraft were just not up to the task. The attacks on radar stations was handled by Stuka’s, an excellent attack aircraft….so long as the enemy doesn’t have an airforce! The RAF inflicted dreadful losses on the Stuka’s, forcing them to be withdrawn. The Germans did have one long range fighter, the twin engined BF 110. However it had all the grace and manoeuvrability of a large brick. In the end they would suffer the indignity of needing single engined BF 109’s to escort them.
And Goering interfered with the tactics his pilots would like to adopt. Their preferred tactic was to try and catch the British fighters as they were climbing, ideally ambushing them by diving out of the sun. However Goering insisted they stick close to the bombers. Doubly disastrous given the range issues they were faced with.
Its worth noting that when the Allies were fighting for air superiority over Germany they were very quick to realise that needed to hit the German fighter forces while they were still climbing, or even still on the ground. Famously, when American General Doolittle arrived in the UK, on a tour of a base he noticed a sign saying the fighter squadron’s job was to protect the bombers. He ordered the sign taken down and made a new one which said the fighter’s job was to destroy the Luftwaffe.
In short he was saying to his pilots that this wasn’t an aerial jousting match between gentlemen, it was a dirty mean back alley brawl. He was telling his fighter pilots to use every underhand below the belt bastard trick they could think of, such as (as noted) jumping enemy fighters while they were on the ground or still climbing, following wounded fighters back to base and shooting them up as they landed. Or, as the British did during the battle of Britain, shooting down rescue planes as they picked up German pilots in the channel, even thought they had red cross symbols on them (which was against the Geneva convention).
Despite it all, the Germans were gradually wearing the British down with attacks on RAF airfields, by the end of August they were perilously close to succeeding. However, at this point they changed tactics and began focusing attacks on UK cities. There is debate about why Hitler ordered this change in tactics. Some argue that the German attacks on the airfield simply weren’t being effective and they Hitler sought to win through shock and awe tactics. Others content that he was angered by attacks by the RAF against Berlin.
However, what is often forgotten is that the Battle of Britain (or Operation Sealion to the Germans) was a two phase operation. Phase one was to win air superiority over the channel. Phase two was for the German army, with the aid of the Navy, to cross the channel and invade England. Now while the general consensus is that had the Germans stuck to their guns they should have been able to complete phase one. However, a cross channel invasion is a different matter entirely. Many German generals thought it was a silly idea and openly predicted disaster. Amphibious assault is one of the most difficult of all military manoeuvres to pull off. Recall what I said about 10% casualties being bad and 25% being a disaster. With an amphibious assault if you “only” lose 20% and achieve your objectives, that’s considered a success.
For the D-Day invasion the allies assembled a vast armada of nearly 2,000 ships, with lots of special equipment such as landing craft of various types, swimming tanks, obstacle demolition equipment, even a pair of portable harbours and a self assembly oil pipeline. The Germans in 1940 had only a few hundred leaky canal barges that they’d robbed off the French. So throughout the air war there had been quiet lobbying by some generals for the whole operation to be called off. Because even if the Luftwaffe could win (and few had confidence in Goering’s ability to do that), it won’t matter, an invasion in 1940 was impossible, they’d need time to prepare. So in that context, this change in German tactics doesn’t quite seem so crazy. And recall that the allies were also bombing cities, so nobody can really claim moral superiority at this point.
Of course the picture that emerges from a more realistic appraisal of the battle of Britain is very different. It portrays how the British only ended up in this mess because of past military failings and amateurist political dithering. That they were aided by allies and friends from abroad. And that had they done a brexit and gone it alone, they would have likely lost pretty quickly. That if any “boffins” and their secrets were responsible for victory, it was probably Polish immigrants rather than the engineers behind the spitfire. And it shows the allies as being a good deal more brutal and underhand than they’d like to think, and the British won largely because they were willing to fight a dirty war.