Principal Authors View: Was the Battle of Britain the Pivotal Battle off the 2nd World War?

Posted on November 27, 2010


Author: Alexander Clarke

The Battle of Britain is imbedded in our history. It took place 70 years ago this year. The question is though, was it as important as it is often portrayed? This is and always will be an emotive issue, but when it is used as justification for the continuation of an armed service or procurement policy today, it has to be more than just nostalgia, myth, glamour or imagery…it has to be real.

Everyone knows the stories and the reasons why the Battle of Britain is so vaunted. After all, it was the Battle of Britain which secured the British Isles from invasion allowing it to become a base for democracy. Those heroic pilots and fitters, the ‘Few’ as Churchill so memorably called them, were undoubtedly virtuous in their sacrifices. The RAF, helped by pilots from the Commonwealth, the Fleet Air Arm, the Free French and Poland, flew many missions every day, stayed up most of the night slaving over battered Spitfires, or, more likely, Hurricanes as there were more of them than their iconic cousins. Finally, the other reason for it being pivotal is that of course it was the first big defeat that the Nazis suffered during the Second World War.

Unfortunately the reality is not quite the same as the image. Whilst undoubtedly the pilots, fitters and all the other parts of the British air defence network were undoubtedly heroes; that is not enough to make the Battle of Britain the pivotal battle of the whole war.

To start with the threat of invasion was never really that great, as Operation Weserübung, the invasion of Norway had gutted the German surface fleet, the Kriegsmarine lost 1 of their 6 heavy cruisers, 2 of their 6 light cruisers and practically 50% of their destroyer fleet. The reason this is a critical fact, is that this meant the Royal Navy Flotillas of Motor Torpedo Boats, Submarines and Destroyers – let alone the larger ships would have been able to break into the invasion force and massacre the proposed, but never built, invasion barges.

Even more telling is the fact that the relatively small German force required for the invasion of Norway stretched the Kriegsmarine’s amphibious capability beyond breaking – their forces were reliant upon pre-placed merchant ships hiding in the fjords. This option was vital to supply of the mainly infantry based forces employed by the Germans in the invasion, but it would have been impossible in an invasion of Britain. Whether the German’s would have been able to support their forces once they had invaded is a subject which does not seem to have been investigated or debated by academics, as the majority of academics have preferred to investigate whether the German’s would have been able to transport the invasion forces across the Channel. This latter topic is one of heated debate, mainly theoretical and presuming two years of construction and the decision by Hitler not to launch another invasion, which ended the possibility of any invasion of Britain. This was Operation Barbarossa the invasion of Russia. After this the flow of German men and material, both for army and Luftwaffe was decidedly more to the east than the west; and the Kriegsmarine cut back all building programs other than submarines to a point of almost stagnation.

So the threat of invasion was not that large in reality, of course though in the minds of the time actual capability will not have read that high – so perhaps this should not be used as the judgement of how pivotal the Battle of Britain was. The battle itself is rather interesting; as it did not really end so much as fizzle out. Firstly, there was possibly the largest tactical error of Herman Goering during the 2nd World War, based on the belief that the RAF was beaten, so it was time to prove the theory of Douhet, Mitchell and Trenchard…that Strategic Bombing could bring a country to its knees, and so began the Blitz. The RAF was of course, whilst certainly on its last legs, not at death’s door and, with the support of allies, rapidly recovered. This decision was itself exacerbated by the fact that the Luftwaffe were never able to put their full strength into it, and as has been said earlier, they were soon focusing on snowy nations to the east, rather than soggy islands to the west. However, enemy disinterest and lack of commitment does not stop it being the pivotal battle; the problem with the Battle of Britain being the pivotal battle of the 2nd World War is that there are so many more to pick from.

Yes, the Battle of Britain was a moment of high danger. Countless people saw it being waged above their heads, so Churchill rightly used it to rally a battered and bewildered Nation. But was it more dangerous than previous times of conflict? Not really, radar and the Observer Corps were the equivalent of a close blockade, giving warning of any incoming attack and mirroring the flotillas or battle fleets of both the 2nd World War and previous conflicts. Fighter aircraft were scrambled to meet the attackers. If any invasion had been launched, it would have undoubtedly been met by a combination and not by just one service. The superiority of the Royal Navy coupled with even a neutral to slightly enemy dominated sky would have proved crushing…after all the primary anti-ship weapon of the Luftwaffe the Ju87 dive bomber had proved like most aircraft of its type, unable to perform well when given attention by enemy fighter aircraft.

When all the facts are put side by side with those of other battles such as the Battle of the Atlantic, which allowed the vital flow of fuel, food, men & material which created the base of democracy, Dunkirk and the recovery of the BEF, those vicious battles of Kursk and Stalingrad; calling the Battle of Britain the pivotal battle, is rather RAF centric. – The contribution of its personnel should, of course, never have their sacrifice in anyway lessoned.

However, the pivotal battle of the Second World War will be something that will probably never be agreed upon, not in this historian’s lifetime anyway, but the Battle of Britain whilst maybe being a contender will not be it. If the airpower theorists had been proved right and Britain had crumpled under the weight of bombing, perhaps, but it did not, and the phrase ‘Blitz Spirit’ was coined, therefore the Battle of Britain was not pivotal. It was just crucial.