Battle of Britain, July 1940. Spitfires of 609 Squadron returning to their satellite station airfield at Warmwell to re-arm and re-fuel, following an intercept mission against enemy aircraft trying to disrupt shipping along the South Coast of England. Like many other RAF Squadrons, No 609 the (West Riding) Auxiliary Squadron distinguished itself in many great air battles with honour and courage.
The very visible French failure on the Western Front was followed by the glories of the Battle of Britain. From the summer into the early autumn, RAF fighters based in southern England destroyed 50 per cent more enemy bombers and fighters than they lost. The resulting defeat of the Luftwaffe by the RAF in the summer of 1940 was in many respects the culmination of steady planning in air defence over many years. One crucial aspect was completely unexpected and unprepared for – the famous dog-fights between Spitfires, Hurricanes, Messerschmitt 109s and 110s. Fighters were expected to intercept bombers, not deal with other fighters. Dog-fights were regarded as things of the past, specifically of the Western Front in the Great War. Otherwise it was a triumph of system and organization, of radar, of observers, of command and control systems. British victory was not, however, the result of what are usually taken as British values triumphing over what are taken to be German or Nazi values. If any air force conformed to the usual image of how British fighters operated – a matter of improvisation and individualism – it was not the RAF but the Luftwaffe. If one of the forces was organized with Teutonic efficiency and regimentation, it was the RAF, not the Luftwaffe.
The pacifist writer Vera Brittain noted in 1940 that ‘The bombers have a heavy, massive hum, quite different from the lighter, more casual-sounding British machines. All the difference between the Teutonic and Anglo-Saxon temperaments seemed to lie in those two familiar noises.’ For all the propagandistic image of the Germans destroying Warsaw and then Rotterdam from the air, the commitment to the bombing of cities was a British rather than a Nazi phenomenon. British bombing of Germany was not in retaliation for the Blitz, a case of the Germans reaping the whirlwind they had sown. It predated not only the Blitz, but also the Battle of Britain. Bomber Command launched the first general bombing offensive against cities in the war on 11 May 1940. The Luftwaffe was prohibited from bombing cities not in the front line. It was not till September 1940 that Hitler allowed the Luftwaffe to start British-style bombing of Britain, following the bombing of Berlin.
There was no shortage of new aircraft in Britain in 1940. Modern types had been in production for years, and just as importantly gigantic new factories were ready to increase production. In 1940 Britain out-produced Germany in aircraft, just as the propagandists stated. Even the high level of production before May 1940 was not deemed enough. One of Churchill’s very first acts on becoming Prime Minister was to create a new Ministry of Aircraft Production, under Lord Beaverbrook. Beaverbrook wanted a rapid increase in production, and issued appeals to workers and managers. More importantly he decided to give special priority to five types already in quantity production. On 15 May representatives of the Ministry of Aircraft Production agreed that at least until the end of September 1940 all efforts were to be concentrated on the production of Wellingtons, Whitley Vs, Blenheims, Hurricanes and Spitfires. We may note that three of these types were bombers, instruments of offence. The priority was over by October 1940. Indeed, we have the testimony of the Director of Engine Production that ministry officials and people from industry were pushing Beaverbrook hard to rescind the order. At a meeting on the matter in late June an unmovable Beaverbrook was called away to Downing Street to be told of the French capitulation. He returned to the ministry late at night and agreed to the plan to reintroduce production of new types, such was the continuing confidence in victory.
One of the main aims of the rearmament programmes was to build up a powerful air force which could bomb Germany. Big twin-engined bombers like the Wellington, Whitley and Hampden were built, aeroplanes at least as powerful as the Heinkels and Junkers of the Germans. Despite enormous efforts and expenditures these programmes were, as of 1940–41, failures. The British bombers soon discovered they had to fly at night because air defence was more effective than had been envisaged. Flying at night meant they rarely found their targets. Far from being capable of delivering a knock-out blow, they caused minimal damage to Germany. It is difficult to find a similar example of such a catastrophic failure of a new technical system on this scale. For the enthusiast for counterfactuals this raises the question: what if all the effort that had been devoted to the bombers had gone into tanks or rifles? A prescient prime minister might have done exactly that in the late 1930s. It is sometimes in effect suggested that the British government of 1938 was indeed prescient in anticipating 1940, but not in this sense. The idea is that Chamberlain wisely appeased and delayed war until Britain had enough Spitfires and radar gear to win the Battle of Britain. But using Spitfires and radar in the summer of 1940 stemmed from the military disaster which might not have happened if other policies had been followed.