Behind the legendary Battle of Britain
In the classic 1969 movie The Battle of Britain, Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding (Sir Lawrence Olivier) reviews the impending clash with a cabinet minister. After an unsatisfactory discussion, the minister exasperates, “So I tell the cabinet that you’re trusting in radar and praying to God?”
Dowding retorts, “More the other way around. I’m trusting in God and praying for radar.”
The basis for that prayer was laid long before a swastika-bearing aircraft entered British airspace.
It’s uncertain that the Battle saved Britain from invasion, for two reasons. First, although Hitler’s generals drafted the plan for Operation Sea Lion, his willingness to commit to the world’s largest amphibious operation is dubious. The Fuhrer believed in a bond among Anglo-Saxons, and his geo-strategic goal was the destruction of the Soviet Union. It seems more likely that Hitler hoped the threat of invasion would compel a cease-fire with Britain, freeing him to concentrate eastward.
Second, even granting the will, Germany lacked the ability to conduct “Overlord in reverse.” With too few amphibious craft—especially those with bow ramps to offload heavy vehicles—Hitler would have needed to seize one or more major ports intact. That was extremely unlikely, even assuming that the Wehrmacht achieved both air and naval superiority.
But one thing is clear. Radar—a new, still- evolving technology—emerged a major player on the global stage. It permanently changed the way air operations were conducted, spreading its electronic ripples throughout the world’s air forces, navies, and armies.
Yet for all the focus on the first radar war, other factors were essential. The most overlooked was communication—not only reliable two-way radio, but secure phone lines for coordination of Britain’s overall defense network. In that regard, Guglielmo Marconi and Alexander Graham Bell were as important as Robert Watson-Watt.
Other factors were technical and organizational: high-performance fighter aircraft, high-octane fuel to propel them, bases and maintenance, and an integrated air-defense establishment. All predated the onset of war, some by narrow margins.
Background to War
Britain had hard experience with aerial bombardment from the Great War. Zeppelin raids received most of the coverage but heavy bombers posed a more serious threat. In 1917-1918 speed of communication was important in countering the Gothas and Giants, even though the bombers seldom saw 80mph on the gauge. But Metropolitan London allowed police constables to claim priority on phone lines to provide current information on raiders’ location and direction of flight. Thus, even though technically limited, the basis for defending England from air attack in 1940 was laid two decades earlier.
After the “war to end wars” Britain, and most of the world, naively accepted that there would be no second world war. Forces in Germany, Italy, and Japan dictated otherwise, but liberal optimism insisted otherwise for nearly 20 years.
In 1938, Adolf Hitler rode the crest of history’s wave, sweeping all before him. Elected Germany’s Fuhrer five years before, in March 1938 he pulled off the successful Anschluss, bringing Austria into Greater Germany.
Thus emboldened, Hitler regarded Czecho-
slovakia’s ethnic Germans as part of the Reich. Britain and France, unwilling to risk another war, abandoned the Czechs at the Munich Conference. On September 30, 1938, Hitler signed the agreement formalizing annexation of the Sudetenland. The pact concluded Hitler’s “last territorial claim” in Europe. Without bloodshed he had added 10 million people and 42 million square miles to his realm.
While historians largely condemn British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain for appeasing Hitler, some note that the RAF badly needed the extra time to prepare. That Chamberlain was played a fool by Hitler is beyond doubt, but the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia gave Britain a precious 11 months to begin making up for nearly two decades of naive optimism and calculated neglect. After war was declared in September 1939, another 10 months passed before the aerial storm broke over southern England. Those 21 months, purchased at the expense of Czech independence, which proved crucial for the Royal Air Force.
By Barrett Tillman
Read the article from the August 2015 issue of Flight Journal, click here.