The Uncomfortable Truth About The Battle of Britain
The Battle of Britain is a strange one. As a country we romanticise the idea of a few Spitfires holding back an entire invasion. We perpetuate the tale of us good-guy underdog British beating the evil Germans on our own turf, and whilst it was the British that won it, the true reasons for why we won or how we won, are not always revealed.
Don't get me wrong, I'm by no means belittling the role of the airmen and ground-crews responsible for defending Britain during WWII. Nor am I however prepared to call the Germans evil for their role in this part of the war either, it is what it is at the end of the day, but the Allied war-time propaganda needs to be dispelled, and the mentality of our leadership (Churchill especially) at the time of war needs to be exposed. I have no doubt in my mind that if modern day international law would have been applied, we could quite easily have put the entire RAF Bomber Command's leadership and many in the War Cabinet on charge for crimes against humanity for reasons which will be explained in a bit.
This is a difficult subject for me to write about. I love aviation, and like for most English people, the image of a Spitfire or Hurricane has a huge emotive response for me. They're not just a flying machine, they're Nationalistic art-piece. It is to the British what the Longboat must have been like to a Norse peoples, it's almost in our blood. When you begin reading into WWII and the intricate details of why certain things happened, the sound of Rolls Royce Merlin engines transforms from a triumphant anthem into a swan song for the hundreds of thousands that needlessly lost their lives.
So what is 'the truth' regarding this air war? At this point it becomes fairly difficult to pin point exactly where I should start writing from. Do I write from the fall of France? Or do I write about the circumstances that led to the invasion of Poland? Or perhaps international finance's outrage at Germany's economic miracle that arguably led to the Allies reluctance to discuss key issues such as a Danzig corridor? You could in theory even go back a hundred years ago to give a truer detailing of why certain events were happening. In order to keep on track though, I think we must take the Battle of Britain at face value.
It's fairly prudent to point out though that before the Battle of Britain Hitler had twice offered peace to Churchill which obviously wasn't taken up on. So the entire war by 1940, on the western front at least, was totally needless.
The first stage of the battle of Britain was Germany's plan to attack the merchant fleets supplying food, fuel and munitions from America and Canada. This meant raids on ships, ports and quite an extensive mine laying operation even inside busy shipping lanes in estuaries and ports.
The second stage involved the Luftwaffe bombing airfields and factories relevant to the on-going British war effort. It's often stated that had Germany continued its tactical bombing of genuine military targets, then the RAF would have been neutralised and Britain would have had to have launched fresh peace-talks with Germany. Arguably it would have been the best outcome that would have saved the lives of millions on both sides of the conflict.
The third stage of the Battle of Britain though is now so ingrained in the psyche of the English, that it makes impartiality rather difficult, especially for those English who's family lived in London like my own family were. People tell the tale about the Luftwaffe suddenly stopping its bombing of airfields and aircraft factories, and instead begun the now infamous Blitz of London and on other cities such as Coventry. The suffering of British civilians therefore became a turning point for the war because it did two things. First, it took the strain off of the battle-weary Fighter Command and secondly, it silenced the anti-war lobby in Britain and gave Churchill and the War Cabinet justification for perpetuating a war which some politicians were so keen to wage.
So why did the Germans start bombing English cities then?
It seems that at the start of the campaign against Britain, Hitler had at first wanted to prevent as much destruction to civilian property as was feasibly possible. His original orders were;
'The war against England is to be restricted to destructive attacks against industry and air force targets which have weak defensive forces ... The most thorough study of the target concerned, that is vital points of the target, is a pre-requisite for success. It is also stressed that every effort should be made to avoid unnecessary loss of life amongst the civilian population.'
Officially, the British also had similar rules of engagement initially, but the the disastrous day-time bombing results early in the war with out of date aircraft like the Bristol Blenheim and Handley-Page Hampden's had meant that indiscriminate night bombing raids were the only option left to Bomber command. It is clear that British propaganda at the time tried its utmost to justify all future operations against Germany's civilian population by manufacturing outrage in the British public through propaganda and deliberate provocation.
The 'gloves came off' in regards to Britain's bomber targets when Germany had sought control of the strategic city of Rotterdam in the Netherlands, shortly after the fall of much of France. The British war cabinet used the German bombing of Rotterdam and the death of Dutch civilians to justify the deliberate bombing of German cities, but the facts about the German assault on the city were totally twisted by the world media at that time.
In reality, German forces had wanted to take Rotterdam without the need of any unnecessary violence, but the Dutch military leadership at that time refused to hand the city over or accept surrender, despite having no anti-aircraft capabilities, fighter aircraft or armoured fighting vehicles to defend the city with. The Dutch were asked a second time on the 14th of May 1940, and given an ultimatum, but due to a communication break-down, a squadron of He.111's bombed the city earlier than what they should have (some of the bombers had received a stand-down message and returned, whilst others didn't because their radio aerials had been retracted.) All in all, 900 dutch civilians and armed forces were killed in the bombing. The world media however deliberately gave false reports on the bombing, claiming that 30,000 civilians had died when in fact most of the civilians had already fled days before any bombs fell anywhere near the city. Whilst 900 deaths is a tragedy, it is a far-cry from the carnage that had been reported in the news.
The Rotterdam raid had given the British War Cabinet the justification needed to launch an offensive bombing campaign against the German mainland. Since daylight bombing operations had proved unsuccessful during initial attacks in 1939 and early 1940, Bomber command instead concentrated on night attacks. On the 15th of May 1940, a day after the bombing of Rotterdam, 99 bomber aircraft, most likely a large component of Hampden bombers, started the first of many night-time raids on Germany. This initial raid saw the RAF striking industrial regions in the Ruhr area, but due to the difficulties acquiring targets in the dark, many of the bombs that would have been dropped would have failed to have hit anything of military value. The lack of aiming capabilities would have seen a great deal of civilian collateral damage. The RAF that night were given orders to return home via Rotterdam, presumably to drive home the"30,000 deaths" propaganda to the bomber crews and to avoid the RAF aircrews from feeling guilty about their own hand in killing German civilians. Fires were still visible in many areas of Rotterdam for a few days after the raid, and would have no doubt left an impression on those young men.
As you look at the raiding timeline for both countries throughout the battle of Britain, a pattern emerges.
The RAF dropped bombs in a totally haphazard way in pitch black, often inflicting civilian deaths in Kiel, Wilshelmhaven, Dortmund, Bremen, Gelsenkirchen, Kassel, Dusseldorf, Wismar, Hamm, Soest and Essen. These raids all occurred before the 1st of August 1940, happening way before the blitz on civilian targets like those on London and Coventry. The Germans did not start deliberate attacks on civilian targets arguably until 24th of August, and not in earnest until the 7th of September when the Luftwaffe swapped completely to night-time city raids like it's RAF opponent.
The problem is, whilst it would be easy to say that the British establishment regretted the deaths of German civilians, the truth is actually rather more insidious. Rather than the German civilian deaths being regrettable, it was actually mostly the War Cabinets ultimate goal.
Whilst the Luftwaffe for the most part used day-time raids for accurate attacks on legitimate targets like airfields, shipping and radar towers, the RAF were bombing in the dead of night on highly populated areas, albeit in the pursuit of hitting legitimate targets. As the weeks went on however, the losses the Luftwaffe were suffering with did mean that some bombing operations were now taking place at night. In the early hours of the 24th of August, a small number of German bombers dropped their bombs over a London suburb killing a number of civilians. There are still debates about whether or not this attack was accidental or not, but judging by the small number of bombs dropped, it seems unlikely that the Londoners themselves were a deliberate target. This situation seems to have been the catalyst that enabled the British war cabinet to unleash attacks on Berlin without any real consideration for, or premise of finding legitimate targets once over Germany. On the 25th of August, the RAF sent around a 100 aircraft to bomb Berlin in retaliation for a handful of He.111s which had dropped bombs on London the day before.
Despite the Luftwaffe's attempts to minimise civilian casualties, the RAF bomber command had a totally different strategy up until that point in late August 1940. Granted, civilian deaths had taken place on both sides of the conflict, but you have to consider the fact that it was the German forces that were launching day-light raids throughout most of the Battle of Britain whilst the RAF had launched attacks inefficiently at night-time. You cannot really compare a daylight precision strike from a Stuka on a radar base with a random night-time raid over a populated area.
Although the plan adopted by the Luftwaffe early September had mentioned attacks on the population of large cities, detailed records of the raids made during the autumn and the winter of 1940–41 does not suggest that indiscriminate bombing of the civilians was intended. The points of aim selected were largely factories and docks. Other objectives specifically allotted to bomber-crews included the City of London and the governmental quarter round Whitehall.
Churchill and his advisers like Frederick Lindemann became blood thirsty in their vendetta against not the National Socialist state, but the German people themselves. The tactic for Allied bombing was not to directly bomb the enemy factories, but instead to bomb the residential area where the factory worker lived, thus creating not only disruption to the factory but also a psychological element against the local communities that worked there, plus the disruption caused by the need to dig out and relocate the survivors from such attacks.
‘I am in full agreement [with terror bombing]. I am all for the bombing of working class areas in German cities. I am a Cromwellian – I believe in slaying in the name of the Lord!’
~Sir Archibald Sinclair, Secretary for Air.
Beliefs like Sinclair's were not uncommon in the War Cabinet or Bomber Command, and the process of wiping out entire residential areas by Allied bombers only got more and more prolific and efficient throughout the war. Throughout the Battle of Britain, the British Government went out of their way to create a situation where civilians on both sides of the war paid the price for the ineptitude of their statesmanship. Over the course of three months, they eventually goaded Germany into retaliating with indiscriminate attacks on London and other English cities for two reasons. Firstly, to create a war-frenzy in the British people and in sympathetic countries such as America and secondly, to use British civilians as a form of shield for the RAF and war factories. It it often quipped that had the Luftwaffe continued its campaign against key military targets instead of swapping to 'The Blitz', that the Royal Air Force would have been defeated, and Operation Sealion a full blown conclusion.
‘Hitler only undertook the bombing of British civilian targets reluctantly three months after the RAF had commenced bombing German civilian targets. Hitler would have been willing at any time to stop the slaughter. Hitler was genuinely anxious to reach with Britain an agreement confining the action of aircraft to battle zones... Retaliation was certain if we carried the war into Germany... there was a reasonable possibility that our capital and industrial centres would not have been attacked if we had continued to refrain from attacking those of Germany... We began to bomb objectives on the German mainland before the Germans began to bomb objectives on the British mainland... Because we were doubtful about the psychological effect of propagandist distortion of the truth that it was we who started the strategic bombing offensive, we have shrunk from giving our great decision of May 11th, 1940, the publicity it deserves.’
~J.M. Spaight, CB, CBE, Principal Secretary to the Air Ministry, Bombing Vindicated.
Its long been known, but seldom mentioned that by bombing civilian targets in Germany the British goaded Germany into tit-for-tat reprisals on civilians, expending their own civilian lives and property to save industry and military units. As mentioned already, the flipping of German strategic objectives from daylight raids on military targets to indiscriminate night raids gave Churchill the moral support from the public to continue the war whilst maintaining the means to continue that war. As an example of this attitude, there has long been the suspicion of a conspiracy surrounding the bombing of Coventry. It is believed that the British war staff knew that Coventry was the target of a large raid named 'Operation Midnight Sonata' which struck on November 14th 1940, but did nothing to stop the loss of life there. It is believed that the forewarning came from the interception of the German enigma machines, and that the inaction was largely to prevent the Germans from knowing that they had de-encrypted the enemy broadcasts.
‘The attack on the Ruhr was therefore an informal invitation to the Luftwaffe to bomb London. The primary purpose of these raids was to goad the Germans into undertaking reprisal raids of a similar character on Britain. Such raids would arouse intense indignation in Britain against Germany and so create a war psychosis without which it would be impossible to carry on a modern war.’
~The Royal Air Force, 1939-1945, The Fight at Odds, p. 122. Dennis Richards, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.
The real cynical realisation is that the good vs evil mantra portrayed by mainstream history, media and even our education system is still totally falsified. We believe we won the Battle of Britain through grit and determination, the underdog succeeding on its own merit where little hope remained, but if the truth about the mentality of our leaders at that time ever became known by the majority, 75 years of propaganda would could come crashing down under the weight of the truth.
Whilst the war was totally avoidable, the civilian losses incurred by both sides in the war (and it has to be said, the German losses far exceed our own) were even easier to negate, had both sides been capable of restraint and diplomacy. The reasons why our own Bomber campaign during the Battle of Britain is seldom mentioned, and the role Fighter Command romanticised beyond all comprehension is merely to keep up the victimhood mentality. This victim complex to this day still brainwashes the world into believing 'reprisal' attacks like those committed against Dresden and Berlin were justified, but in reality such actions could never in any way be considered morally defensible - particularly when it was the British who began the wholesale slaughter of innocents.
Just to reiterate that in writing this, it is not my intention to belittle the efforts of those RAF servicemen who gave or risked their lives in defence of their country. Even those bomber crews who no doubt were tricked into believing that what they were doing was justified. My intention is to put the record straight, to point out that Governments always lie, and also to point out just how powerful propaganda can be even several decades later.