The Forgotten Few

September 1, 2000 Topic: Society Regions: Western EuropeEurope Tags: World War II

The Forgotten Few

Mini Teaser: There has never, thank God, been a Battle of America.

by Author(s): Daniel Johnson

There has never, thank God, been a Battle of America. Despite the Hollywood depiction of the British Redcoats as proto-Nazi butchers in Mel Gibson's disgraceful movie, The Patriot, the American Revolution (or American War of Independence, as it is still known in Britain) was not a struggle for survival, but a colonial conflict between more or less civilized combatants that divided both American and British opinion. If George III had followed the wiser counsel of statesmen such as Edmund Burke and negotiated a settlement with the colonists, or even if he had won the war, Americans would not have been enslaved. The United States, or something very like it, would sooner or later have achieved independence.

Within living memory, however, there was a Battle of Britain. Sixty years ago this summer and autumn, the first great air battle in history was fought between the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the German Luftwaffe in the skies over southern England and East Anglia. The blitzkrieg had defeated the Allies in France, but had stopped at Dunkirk for long enough to allow the British Expeditionary Force to be evacuated, along with great numbers of Allied troops. All their equipment, however, had been lost. Unless a German invasion could be prevented, the Wehrmacht would almost certainly overwhelm the denuded and demoralized British Army. Only the Royal Navy could deter an invasion, but it was fully engaged in the Atlantic and Mediterranean. If the raf lost control of the skies over the English Channel, the overstretched Home Fleet would suffer the same fate that American bombers later meted out to the Imperial Japanese Navy. After playing a decisive role in the fall of France, the Luftwaffe was confident of victory.

In its hour of peril, Britain turned to the only leader who promised "blood, toil, tears and sweat." Winston Churchill had become prime minister too late to prevent the catastrophe in France, but he succeeded in turning Dunkirk from an ignominious defeat into a "miracle" with the first of his great speeches to the House of Commons on June 4, 1940, which already anticipated an invasion:

We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

In that speech, which he did not himself broadcast but which was repeated to the listening nation by an announcer, Churchill also promised victory, "for without victory there is no survival." The historian John Charmley calls this "sublime nonsense." It was, however, far more than bravado. It served two purposes: to boost morale and to warn Hitler that he would pay a heavy price if he sought to impose on the British Empire the kind of humiliation he had in store for France. Churchill still hoped against hope that Roosevelt would promise to intervene. Privately, he did not yet rule out a negotiated peace. But within a fortnight, Churchill came to the conclusion that a deal with Hitler was not to be done.

It is worth remembering what was at stake. If Operation Sealion, the German invasion plan, had succeeded, thousands of British adult males would have been conscripted as slave laborers; many would have been deported to the Continent to be worked to death in the Nazi war machine. Churchill could not have known this at the time, nor could he have foreseen just how terrible the consequences of the German occupation of Europe would prove to be. The invasion of Russia and the Holocaust were still to come. But he understood very well that the struggle for air supremacy would decide far more than the destiny of Britain. The Polish, Czech and French pilots who flew alongside their British comrades in the raf already knew what fate had befallen their compatriots.

On June 18, 1940, Churchill gave one of his greatest speeches before the House of Commons. Later that evening, he repeated it on the BBC for the nation:
What General Weygand called the Battle for France is over. I expect the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, and all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, 'This was their finest hour.'

That same night brought the first major air raid over England, and though there has never been agreement about precisely when the Battle of Britain commenced, this seems as good a date as any. For with that unforgettable oration, hurling defiance at Hitler, the die was cast. There could be no compromise now, no negotiated peace that was not also surrender. Was Lloyd George waiting in the wings to become "the Marshal Pétain of Britain"? Chamberlain had asked Churchill that question shortly before he spoke. "Yes, he might, but there won't be any opportunity", the Prime Minister replied. He could not, however, be sure. After the speech he reflected that "rhetoric was no guarantee of survival." Perhaps not by itself, but it certainly made all the difference.

The enemy saw immediately what Churchill was about, but it grossly underestimated his support in the country. On June 23 Joseph Goebbels told the German press in his daily secret conference: "Well, this week things will come to a head in England. Churchill cannot hold on, of course. A compromise government will be formed. We are very close to the end of the war." The Nazi leaders did not believe a Battle of Britain needed to be fought. They expected British morale to collapse, just as French morale had collapsed. Thanks to Churchill, it did not. Goebbels, of all people, had misjudged the power of propaganda.

Yet it was more than propaganda. What is most striking about the "finest hour" speech is the way in which Churchill places the unfolding struggle for the skies in the grandest possible historical context. He deliberately raises the stakes with destiny. The British find themselves cast in the role of the saviors of Christian civilization, as God's people of the Covenant, worthy successors to the ancient Israelites.

This is a powerful theme, one that has endured for almost as long as Britain itself. We find it already in the eighth century, in Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which treats the gens Anglorum as God's missionaries. This providential sense of British history lay dormant throughout medieval and modern times, but always resurfaced at moments of great national crisis. It was a bold claim for Churchill to make: even in 1940 many Britons were not Christians, nor did the invocation of the deity necessarily appeal to those who were. Yet Churchill was surely right to draw on the deepest wellsprings of patriotism in such an emergency; and the roots of national identity are, at least in part, religious. Churchill knew he needed God, so he reminded the British that God needed them, too.

By depicting the struggle with Nazi Germany in apocalyptic terms, Churchill re-inforced his subliminal transfiguration of secular into providential history. The United States, too, is reminded that its salvation, as another branch of the English-speaking family, is at stake. A new dark age, not unlike that which immediately preceded Bede's, threatens; again, a trope of historical and eschatological significance. The reference to "perverted science" sounds doubly prophetic today: it evokes not only the industrialized slaughterhouse of Nazi Europe, but also the fact that eugenics, euthanasia, genocide and other echoes of that perverted science are still with us.

The extraordinary resonance of the phrase, "This was their finest hour", is due not only to its biblical echoes ("mine hour is not yet come"), but to the fact that it was seen at the time not as Churchillian bombast, but as the literal truth. Richard Overy's excellent new short history, The Battle, confirms that, at the height of the conflict in August 1940, RAF fighter pilots were being killed faster than they could be replaced, even though aircraft production was just keeping pace. Overy does not accept the myth of British technical superiority: the Messerschmidt 109, not the Spitfire or Hurricane, was in his view "the world's best all-round fighter." It was primarily a battle of men, not machines. Their chivalry belied their casualties. About half of the 3,000 RAF and Allied airmen who fought in the Battle of Britain did not survive the war.

Churchill knew the sacrifice he demanded of them; he was "never more moved" than on August 16, when he watched the entire strength of Fighter Command in the air from raf Uxbridge. On the way home he made the remark that, repeated four days later in the Commons, became immortal: "Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few." These words elevate the heroic self-sacrifice of the airmen onto a transcendental plane-not only the British, but all mankind, present and future, are in their debt. Britain accepted this tribute to its pilots, not as hyperbole or panegyric, but as fact.
This was the moment when the Battle of Britain not only entered into the British national consciousness, but became constitutive of it: part of its heritage, its identity, of what it means to be British. Churchill's speeches of 1940 are to the British what Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is to Americans. And it is that sense of nationhood that now seems so problematic.

Continental Europeans nowadays rarely refer to the Battle of Britain, though when Adenauer first met Churchill, he acknowledged the Germans' debt to their former adversaries. It is no reproach to the Europeans to say that their debt to the British is incommensurate with anything that the British owe them. We must give their silence the benefit of the doubt and assume that it denotes gratitude.

That is not the case with Britain's own government. Its silence denotes embarrassment. It regards the British people as hopelessly nostalgic. It blames their pride on the past. The newly elected mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, even blames Bede. They blame the Battle of Britain most of all.

In a recent speech, Tony Blair claimed that he loved history. But he doesn't know much about it. He does not dare to offend Europeans by celebrating what was Britain's finest hour and their most shameful one.

On July 9 this year, 66 survivors of the Battle of Britain stood on a lonely cliff top near Dover as a Spitfire and a Hurricane flew above. This will probably be the last such gathering to commemorate Britain's finest hour. No minister was present. The Few grow fewer, the many forget, and Tony Blair does not care.
Americans should care. For the Battle of Britain was also a battle for America. The United States saved Europe three times in the twentieth century: in two world wars and the Cold War. Yet Britain in its finest hour saved not only itself, but also America, from Hitler.

Essay Types: Essay