History Tells us Winston Churchill's Genius Saved Western Civilization

History Tells us Winston Churchill's Genius Saved Western Civilization

But he had to overcome two big obstacles.

During the summer of 1940, Winston Churchill was fighting a two-front war. The first was against Adolf Hitler and his war machine, particularly his Luftwaffe. The second was against a United States that was determined to remain neutral at all costs: against a defeatist U.S. Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy; against an isolationist American public; and against a politically pragmatic President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

On July 16, 1940, Adolf Hitler issued “Directive No. 16 on the Preparation of a Landing Operation Against England”: “Since England, despite her militarily hopeless situation, still shows no willingness to come to terms, I have decided to prepare a landing operation against England, and if necessary to carry it out.”

Actually, Hitler did not look forward to an invasion of England, and would have preferred an armistice. But he had absolute confidence in his military forces. In just six weeks, the German Army and Luftwaffe had overrun Belgium and the Low Countries and forced France to surrender—something that the Kaiser’s armies had not been able to accomplish in more than four years. During July, the Wehrmacht began preparations for Operation Sea Lion, the invasion of England’s channel coast. At the same time, Luftwaffe bomber and fighter units began moving to bases in northern France, a few minutes’ flying time from southern England.

Britain Declines German Offer

Britain had made it very clear that it had no intention of asking for an armistice. Three days after he had issued his Directive No. 16, Hitler delivered a peace proposal to Britain in a speech from the Reichstag, which he called “a last appeal to reason.” “I really do not see why this war should continue,” he told his audience, and called Prime Minister Winston Churchill a “criminal warmonger” for refusing to come to terms with him. But British correspondent Sefton Delmer broadcast a reply to Hitler’s “last appeal” the same day. He told Hitler that “we hurl it right back at you, right back in your evil-smelling teeth.” It was not an official response, but it said exactly what Winston Churchill had in mind.

Churchill realized that the impending battle would be critical. He also knew that Britain was in no condition to fight a protracted war against Germany. The French campaign had been a disaster for British forces. Although over 300,000 British and French troops had been evacuated from the beaches at Dunkirk, most arrived in Britain without any of their equipment. Only one fully equipped division could be activated against a German invasion, and that was a Canadian division. RAF Fighter Command also had been heavily depleted, having lost nearly half of its strength over France—more than one hundred fighters had been shot down over Dunkirk alone.

Support Of A Reluctant United States Needed

Churchill could see that Britain could not survive alone and desperately needed allies. Specifically, Britain needed the backing and support of the United States—American money and materiel. But he was also well aware that Americans were determined to remain neutral. A Gallup poll taken in May 1940 indicated that 64 percent of Americans opposed sending any help to Britain and wanted no part of the war. Charles Lindbergh, the aviation hero of the 1920s and a blunt isolationist, spoke for the majority of his countrymen: “We must not be misguided that our frontiers are in Europe. What more could we ask for than the Atlantic Ocean on the east, and the Pacific on the west?”

The American ambassador to Great Britain, Joseph P. Kennedy, was just as outspoken as Lindbergh and even more negative in his opinions. Ambassador Kennedy told anyone who would listen, including American journalists, that Britain was not only losing the war but stood no chance of winning it. Britain’s only chance, he told a group of American officers, was for the United States to “pull them out.”

Some opposed helping Britain because “the damn Redcoats” had been America’s traditional enemy for generations, or because they saw the war against Hitler as Britain’s war and not theirs. But the most popular sentiment was pure isolationism, which is deeply ingrained in the American character—whatever the British do, 3,500 miles away, is none of our concern.

Churchill Aims To Change U.S. Opinion

This attitude was not just a matter of public opinion, but also was official policy. In July 1940, when the battle was just beginning, the United States was still bound by two of the three neutrality acts that had passed Congress between 1935 and 1937. These had been designed to keep the country from involvement in any “entangling alliances,” to use Thomas Jefferson’s phrase, and were very popular with the vast majority of Americans. (The act that prohibited the sale of U.S. arms and munitions to a “belligerent nation,” as well as the use of American ships to carry them, was repealed in 1939.) Generally, the country wanted nothing to do with the European war, and still had two neutrality acts that legalized this point of view.

Churchill was determined to change America’s opinion. A British writer said that Churchill was “obsessed with getting America into the war.” Churchill may or may not have been obsessed, but he was certainly resolved that the defiantly neutral—and sometimes blatantly anti-British—Americans would have their viewpoint turned around.

At first, Churchill tried to frighten Roosevelt with the prospect of an early German victory and what that would mean to the United States. But he soon gave up that idea when he realized that if Americans thought that the Germans would win, they would be even less inclined to back Britain’s war effort. So Churchill and the Ministry of Information decided to use the opposite approach: create the myth of “Their Finest Hour”—the gallant young pilots of the RAF fighting the ruthless Hun and shooting him down in record numbers. The Ministry of Information gave American reporters all the help they needed and made certain that censors were on hand to give stories a pro-British slant.

British Fighters Shot Down At High Rate

The first “official” day of the Battle of Britain was Wednesday, July 10, 1940. For the next month, the Luftwaffe attacked British shipping. RAF Fighter Command’s Spitfire and Hurricane pilots came up to protect the coastal convoys, which sailed from the Thames Estuary through the Straits of Dover.

Both the Luftwaffe and the RAF spent the month getting the measure of each other—each other’s aircraft, each other’s tactics, each other’s strengths and weaknesses. The Spitfires and Hurricanes turned out to be much more advanced than any fighters the German pilots had encountered so far. During the first 13 days of the battle, the Luftwaffe lost 82 aircraft of all types, including bombers, while the RAF lost 45 aircraft, mostly fighters. But although the Luftwaffe was suffering more losses, the RAF was having its fighters shot down at an alarming rate. British writer Len Deighton noted that RAF losses were occurring at such a rate that “Fighter Command would cease to exist within six weeks.”

Detection System Gives RAF An Edge

Losses would have been far worse if not for Britain’s Chain Home RDF system (for Radio Direction Finding, later changed to “Radar”), which detected German aircraft while they were still gaining height over France. Twenty-nine CH stations stretched from the east coast of Scotland to the west coast of Wales. Each of these could detect an airplane at a range of about 120 miles. Chain Home Low stations, which used a shorter wavelength than CH stations, were able to plot low-flying aircraft about 50 miles from the coast.

The CH network gave RAF Fighter Command a vital edge over the Luftwaffe. By keeping track of the height, range, and course of an incoming raid, the radar stations eliminated the need for fighter pilots to fly standing patrols. These CH stations were also a constant source of frustration for German pilots. Whenever they approached the coast, with rare exceptions, the Spitfires and Hurricanes were always there to meet them. No one, including Luftwaffe Commander-in-Chief Hermann Göring, knew exactly how these radar stations operated, but everyone knew where they were located—the 350-foot-tall aerials were visible to anyone on the French coast with a pair of binoculars. Göring agreed that the stations should be put out of action and ordered a change of targets—from shipping in the Channel to the CH stations and Fighter Command’s sector airfields.

Battle, Public Opinion Setbacks Suffered

The Battle of the Channel, der Kanalkampf, had not been a clear-cut victory for the Luftwaffe, but it did give the German Air Force a decided edge. During July and early August, the RAF lost 148 aircraft, along with many veteran pilots. The aircraft could be replaced—Lord Beaverbrook, the Minister of Aircraft Production, was doing an outstanding job in supplying the depleted squadrons with replacement aircraft—but there could be no mass production of replacement pilots. The new pilots from training units may have been enthusiastic, but they were also inexperienced.

The other battle, the effort to sway the American public to Britain’s side, was also not going as well as Prime Minister Churchill would have liked. The American news media continued to broadcast stories about the air war over southern England, and most Americans were interested in hearing about this new kind of warfare. But the general opinion toward the war had not changed during July. The vast majority of Americans still preferred to remain neutral.