Last Hope Island

June 1940–June 1941

History is now and England.

T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding, July 1941

‘The British between June 1940 and June 1941’, writes an historian, ‘stood completely alone.’1 Of course they did not, having the vast resources of the British Commonwealth and Empire behind them, as well as their alliance with Greece. Nonetheless, on the ground in Britain itself, as distinct from in the air and on the waters, there was very little to oppose a German landing if one had come in 1940.

Despite having to fight the November 1940 election on a semi-isolationist platform, promising American parents in Boston on 30 October, ‘I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars,’ President Roosevelt largely rearmed the British Army after Dunkirk, sent very encouraging messages to Churchill via his confidant Harry Hopkins, made fifty destroyers available to the Royal Navy during the election and pushed for the Lend-Lease Act until it was finally and only very narrowly approved on 11 March 1941. In a speech at Charlottesville, Virginia on 10 June 1941 Roosevelt made it clear he would provide the democracies with arms, and the Lend-Lease programme enabled America to supply Britain and later other Allied countries with war materials. Congress appropriated $7 billion for it in 1941, followed by $26 billion in 1942, and in all during the war $50 billion was given under the programme to thirty-eight countries, more than $31 billion of it to Britain. All this allowed the United States massively to extend her involvement in the war without direct military intervention.

It has been revealed that soon after Dunkirk Anthony Eden and the new Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir John Dill, convened a secret meeting in a hotel room in York which was attended by the senior officers of formations based in the north of England. The War Secretary asked whether the troops under their command ‘could be counted on to continue to fight in all circumstances’. Brigadier Charles Hudson vc recalled that ‘There was an almost audible gasp all around the table. To us it seemed incredible, almost an impertinence, that such a question should be asked of us.’ Eden explained that in the circumstances the Government were envisaging, ‘it would be definitely unwise to throw in, in a futile effort to save a hopeless situation, badly armed men against an enemy firmly lodged in England.’2 They would have fought on the beaches, it seems, but not so far north as York.

The subsidiary question that Eden and Dill put to the officers was ‘Whether our troops would, if called on, embark at a northern port, say Liverpool, while it was still in our hands, in order to be withdrawn to, say, Canada? Without such a nucleus of trained troops from the Home Country, the Prime Minister’s declared policy of carrying on the fight from overseas would be infinitely more difficult.’ Hudson related that it soon became very apparent that the officers were all of much the same opinion. While the proportion who would respond to the call among Regular officers would be high, and of Regular NCOs and men who were unmarried nearly as high, ‘No one dared, however, to estimate any exact proportion amongst those officers and men who had only come forward for the war; a smaller proportion of unmarried men might respond but the very great majority of these would insist on either fighting it out in England, as they would want to do, or on taking their chances whatever the consequences might be.’ The upper reaches of the British Army were therefore of the view that the majority of its troops would refuse to embark for Canada to continue the struggle from abroad, just as many French had not embarked for Britain for the same reason earlier that month. It was all the more vital, therefore, to prevent the Germans from landing in the first place.

Although Britain’s gold reserves were transferred to Canada, and plans were made for the royal family, the Cabinet and ultimately whatever was left of the Royal Navy to follow them, it was not even certain that the British Establishment would be universally welcomed by the North Americans. Ever loyal Canada was sound, of course, but on 27 May 1940 Churchill’s private secretary, John ‘Jock’ Colville, noted in his diary that the British Ambassador to Washington, Lord Lothian, had telegraphed that afternoon to say that President Roosevelt had told him that ‘provided the Navy remains intact, we could carry on the war from Canada; but he makes the curious suggestion that the seat of Government should be Bermuda and not Ottawa, as the American republics would dislike the idea of monarchy functioning on the American Continent!’3 (Churchill and Roosevelt were to clash over the concept of monarchy later on in the war with regard to Italy, when Churchill showed himself to be as instinctively monarchist as FDR was knee-jerk republican.)

Despite that discouraging message, however, a fortnight later, on 11 June 1940, the United States transferred to Britain – for legal and political reasons it was done via the US Steel Corporation – 500,000 Enfield rifles with 129 million rounds of ammunition, 895 guns of 75mm calibre with 1 million rounds of ammunition, more than 80,000 machine guns, 316 mortars, 25,000 Browning automatic rifles and 20,000 revolvers plus ammunition. This helped arm the Home Guard and those members of the Regular Army who had returned from Dunkirk without their weaponry. Furthermore, ninety-three Northrop light bombers and fifty Curtiss-Wright dive-bombers came over, which were soon used to attack German ships and barges assembling for invasion. By February 1941 the US had shipped over 1.35 million Enfield rifles, and, as the US Army historians point out, this ‘resulted in a serious shortage of rifles for training the vastly larger [American] forces mobilized after Pearl Harbor’.4

In the complicated maelstrom of fury and resentment that made up Adolf Hitler’s political philosophy, hatred against Britain was hardly present, at least until the British behaved so illogically as to refuse his peace offer, dropped over Britain in mid-July 1940 in leaflet form and entitled ‘A Last Appeal to Reason’. Nothing in the National Socialist canon prescribed war against the Reich’s fellow Anglo-Saxon empire, and references in Mein Kampf to the British were in general highly complimentary. ‘How hard it is to best England’, Hitler wrote, ‘we Germans have sufficiently learned… I, as a man of Germanic blood, would, in spite of everything, rather see India under British rule than any other.’5 In direct contrast to perceptions of national stereotype, when it came to the projected invasion it was the British who were ruthlessly efficient and the Germans who attempted to muddle through haphazardly. Because Nazi ideology did not call for the invasion of Britain – in the way that it called for that of Poland for racial reasons, France for revanchism and eventually Russia for Lebensraum – the Nazis and the OKW had failed to plan coherently for Operation Sealion.

Even during the campaign against France, Hitler had spoken of his ‘admiration of the British Empire, of the necessity for its existence, and of the civilization that Britain had brought into the world’, saying of the ‘harsh’ measures that Britain had employed in creating it: ‘Where there is planing, there are shavings flying.’6 He went on to tell his Staff officers General Rundstedt, General Georg von Sodenstern and Colonel Günther Blumentritt that the English were an essential element of stability in the world – along with the Catholic Church – and that he would offer troops to Britain to help her keep her colonies. Small wonder, therefore, that he did not exert himself to make Sealion a reality. ‘He showed little interest in the plans,’ recalled Blumentritt after the war, ‘and made no effort to speed up the preparations. That was utterly different to his usual behaviour.’7 His love-hate relationship with Britain, curiously reminiscent of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s, is also clear from Mein Kampf and must partly explain his lack of energy in attempting invasion in 1940.

An indication of how slapdash the Nazi plans for the subjugation of Britain were is provided in the Sonderfahndungsliste G.B. (Special Search List for Great Britain) drawn up by Walter Schellenberg, head of the counter-espionage unit of the Directorate of Reich Security, the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (Head Office of Reich Security, or RSHA). This document, known as the ‘Black Book’, listed the 2,820 Britons and European exiles who were to be ‘taken into protective custody’ after the invasion. Of course it included Churchill – whose address was given as Westerham in Kent, as if he would be quietly waiting there for the Germans to call – but also writers such as H. G. Wells, E. M. Forster, Vera Brittain and Stephen Spender. (When the list was published after the war, one of those featured on it, the writer Rebecca West, telegraphed another, Noël Coward, to say, ‘My dear, the people we should have been seen dead with!’) Yet the Black Book was out of date before it was even printed: Sigmund Freud and Lytton Strachey had both died, the latter a full eight years earlier, and it featured others who were no longer living in Britain such as Aldous Huxley, who had been in America since 1936; Colonel Kenneth Strong, the former military attaché in Berlin, was shown as being in the Navy. The Germans’ attitude to neutrality can be seen from the inclusion of several American journalists working in London. To their shame, George Bernard Shaw and David Lloyd George were absent from the list, because of the public statements they had made in favour of peace after the war had started. They would have escaped an unpleasant fate: the man who would have been responsible for commanding the six Einsatzkommandos (action groups), to be based in London, Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool, Manchester and Edinburgh, SS Colonel Professor Dr Frank Six, went on to be indicted for war crimes in the USSR.

If, on coming to power in 1933, Hitler had developed long-range heavy bombers, built more fighters than he did and trained the Wehrmacht for amphibious operations; if he had not dissipated his naval forces by invading Norway; and if he had attacked much earlier to give himself months of better weather in the Channel, then the always risky Sealion would have stood far greater chances of success. If he had landed large numbers of well-supplied paratroopers on the major British airfields of southern England during the opening stages of the battle of Britain, though such an operation would undoubtedly have been risky, it might also have paid off. Yet as Eden sagely observed after the war: ‘If you think, it took us four years of tremendous effort with all the resources of the United States behind us to prepare for the invasion of France, it’s hard to see how Hitler… could find the resources to switch quickly to attack Britain.’8

As it was, surprised by his successes in France in May and June 1940, Hitler wasted precious time going sightseeing to the Great War battlefields and Paris – he and the Eiffel Tower shared an 1889 birth year – and then he retired to the Berghof, his Alpine retreat at Berchtesgaden, a clear indication that his heart was not truly in the next necessary step. ‘The British have lost the war, but they don’t know it,’ he told Jodl at Compiègne on 22 June; ‘one must give them time, and they will come around.’ Clearly he could not have been reading their prime minister’s speeches. The British meanwhile used those precious weeks to bring their squadrons up to strength and prepare airfield defences.9 Lord Beaverbrook, as minister of aircraft production, managed to treble the rate of aircraft production during 1940, when the Germans only doubled theirs.10

That Hitler was wrong about the Churchill ministry and the condition of the British psyche should have been revealed to him by the sinking of part of the French fleet by the Royal Navy at Oran (or Mers-el-Kébir) in Algeria on 3 July, and even more surely on 22 July when Lord Halifax rejected the peace offer that Hitler had made at the Kroll Opera House in Berlin three days earlier. The fratricidal nature of the action at Oran was underlined by the fact that the commander of the Vichy fleet, Admiral Marcel Gensoul, had commanded a force at the outbreak of war that had included HMS Hood, one of the ships that fired upon his fleet at Oran six months later and helped kill 1,297 French sailors, disabling three of the four French capital ships there.

Of course the OKW was already drawing up plans for Sealion, but these served only to show how differently the Wehrmacht, Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine viewed the operation. Whereas Franz Halder and the German Army wanted to cross the Channel ‘in the form of a river crossing on a broad front’, with thirteen divisions assaulting the 190 miles between Ramsgate and Lyme Regis, Admiral Raeder’s losses in Norway persuaded him that only a far narrower front – between Folkestone and Eastbourne – would be possible, which Halder thought ‘complete suicide’. Meanwhile Göring boasted that the RAF could be smashed with relative ease, allowing an altogether less dangerous crossing. What none contested was that, before any invasion could be launched, total air superiority needed to be established over southern England, which could then be translated into naval supremacy once the British Home Fleet was driven from the south coast by unfettered German dive-bombing, as Norway had shown might be possible.

Despite the Luftwaffe’s undeniable successes in Poland, Norway, France and the Benelux countries, these had been won fighting as merely the air arm of Blitzkrieg, with surprise on their side, close to their own bases and over areas that were shortly to be occupied by the Wehrmacht. In the battle of Britain, however, the Luftwaffe was acting on its own, with Stuka dive-bombers flying horizontally at speeds much slower than when diving, over hostile territory far from their bases, and where surprise was on the side of the RAF owing to the fortuitous invention only half a decade earlier of Radio Direction Finding (RDF or ‘radar’).

The first phase of the battle opened on 10 July, with the systematic bombing of British naval and merchant shipping and port installations. Even this shows how uncoordinated German plans were, because the Luftwaffe was often bombing harbours and airfields that would have been needed by the Wehrmacht if it had landed.11 On 16 July, Hitler issued his Directive No. 16, which ordered that ‘The British Air Force must be eliminated to such an extent that it will be incapable of putting up any substantial opposition to the invading troops.’ Twenty divisions would be landed following the Jodl plan between Ramsgate and Lyme Regis, although issues such as how to transport across the Channel the vast number of horses needed to pull the majority of the Wehrmacht’s artillery were not directly addressed.

Hitler’s failure to grasp the fundamental principles of air warfare were in large part responsible for his defeat in the battle of Britain. ‘The Führer had little understanding of a strategic plan by which Britain could be forced to sue for peace by the employment of air power,’ concludes an historian of the battle. ‘He never demonstrated wide awareness of the value of either air fleets or navies; subsequently the waters of the Channel proved too great an obstacle for his land-based military thinking. The crossing of a boisterous and unpredictable sea was too much for his vision, which therefore travelled elsewhere across the map table, allowing the impetus of the attack on Britain to be lost.’12 Just as bad a strategist, though with far less excuse, was Göring, who not only spent much of the coming battle 735 miles away from Calais at his country house, Karinhall near Brandenburg in Prussia, but also regularly displayed an ignorance of the detail of logistics, strategy, technology and the capabilities of aircraft which was all the more reprehensible because he had been a First World War flying ace. For the coming assault, the Luftwaffe was split into three Luftflotten (air fleets), altogether totalling 1,800 bombers and 900 fighters and consisting of Marshal Albert Kesselring’s Luftflotte II based in northern France, Marshal Hugo Sperrle’s Dutch- and Belgian-based Luftflotte III and General Hans-Jürgen Stumpff’s Norway- and Denmark-based Luftflotte V. A further two, Luftflotten I and IV, were kept in defensive reserve. There were over fifty air bases in northern France and Holland available to the Luftwaffe, but their wide distribution afforded them none of the tight, centralized, interior defensive lines enjoyed by the RAF waiting for them in England. Nor did Kesselring and Sperrle properly co-ordinate their attacks.

The Commander-in-Chief of Fighter Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, had an initial total force of fewer than 700 fighters, divided between fifty-two squadrons.13 He admitted to Lord Halifax that when he heard of the fall of France he ‘went on my knees and thanked God’ that no more RAF squadrons would be sucked into that losing battle.14 A calm, resolute, highly intelligent and somewhat unemotional man, ‘Stuffy’ Dowding, based at Bentley Priory in Middlesex, kept as many squadrons as he possibly could in reserve throughout the battle. As Churchill had said of Admiral Jellicoe at the time of the battle of Jutland in 1916, Dowding was ‘the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon’.

Führer Directive No. 17, issued on 1 August, stated that very soon the verschärfter Luftkrieg (intensified air war) would begin, in which ‘The Luftwaffe is to overcome the English Air Force with all means at its disposal and in the shortest possible time. The attacks are to be primarily directed against the planes themselves, the ground organization, and their supply installations, also against the aircraft industry, including plants producing anti-aircraft material.’15 This would have been devastating had it been adhered to. The second phase of the battle of Britain began at 09.00 on Thursday, 8 August, with a series of vast, virtually continuous German raids against British targets over a 500-mile-wide front. The 1,485 sorties undertaken that day had risen to 1,786 by the 15th. Owing to the invention of radar in the mid-1930s by Professor Robert Watson-Watt of the radio department of the National Physical Laboratory, and its enthusiastic endorsement by the Chamberlain ministry – which also produced the majority of the fighters that won the battle – the country was ringed by a network of radar stations that transmitted generally accurate information about the position, numbers, height and direction of Luftwaffe planes to the RAF sector control stations. Dowding secured funding for Watson-Watt’s research and encouraged Air Ministry officials to attend trials. Sophisticated ground-to-air communications meant that once RAF squadrons had been scrambled, usually only minutes after receiving warning of a raid, they could be constantly updated by radio-telephone with virtually real-time intelligence as they flew off to intercept. In what was known as the Dowding System, radar operators, Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) plotters, sector controllers, ground crew and of course pilots each had their interactive roles efficiently allotted, and although there was some tension between Dowding and the Air Staff in Whitehall, the System ran remarkably smoothly during the battle. The life-or-death stakes generally surmounted the usual pleasures of departmental infighting and blame-gaming.

By contrast, as the German flying ace Colonel Adolf Galland of Jagdgruppe (hunting group) 26 was to complain, ‘When we made contact with the enemy our briefings were already three hours old; the British only as many seconds old.’16 Since, as Galland also pointed out, ‘The first rule of all air combat is to see the opponent first,’ the RAF started off with an edge over its opponents. Of their radar and ground-to-air control, Galland wrote that ‘The British had an extraordinary advantage which we could never overcome throughout the entire war.’ Wing Commander Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook’s fighter-pilot son, thought that ‘Radar really won the Battle of Britain… We wasted no petrol, no energy, no time.’17

The standard German plane, the Messerschmitt 109E (Me-109), was a shade faster than the Supermarine Spitfire fighter and the Hawker Hurricane, and better in diving and climbing, although crucially not at turning.18 ‘The bastards make such infernally tight turns,’ reported one German pilot. ‘There seems no way of nailing them.’ The Me-109 had three 20mm cannon and two 7.9mm machine guns, a top speed of 350mph and a ceiling of 35,000 feet, but it could only carry enough fuel to keep it airborne for a very little over an hour, which meant that, with twenty minutes spent flying across the Channel and back, it had very little time for fighting. The twin-engined Me-110 had greater range but much less manoeuvrability, a distinct disadvantage when pitched against the highly mobile Hurricanes and Spitfires.

The Me-109’s effective range of only 125 miles was likened by Galland to ‘a dog on a chain who wants to harm his foe, but cannot’. As a result, much of the dogfighting took place in 1940’s glorious summer weather above ‘Hellfire Corner’, the region of southern Kent around Folkestone, Dover and Lympne that is closest to France: more fighter pilots on both sides died over Hellfire Corner than over the whole of the rest of the UK during the battle.19 The contrails their exhaust fumes made in the stratosphere that summer – as caught so perfectly in Paul Nash’s 1941 painting The Battle of Britain – might have been thought beautiful had they not depicted murderous gladiatorial struggles to the death. These were watched by the civilian population below, and when a German plane was shot down there would be, in the words of one spectator, ‘cheering as if it had been a goal in the Cup Final’.20

The Hurricane, designed by Sydney Camm in 1934, shot down many more German planes during the battle than all the other RAF planes combined, could fly at 324mph at 16,200 feet and was the first British fighter to exceed 300mph in level flight.21 The Germans badly underestimated the Hurricane, thinking it inferior to the Me-110, which it turned out not to be. It was also a sturdier plane than the Spitfire, could take more damage and was easier to repair. Its four .303-inch Browning machine guns in each wing produced a heavy concentration of fire outside the propeller arc. Yet pilots who flew the Spitfire, which was designed by R. J. Mitchell, tended forever afterwards to employ the language of love to describe ‘her’ (never ‘it’). ‘She was a perfect lady,’ enthused the South African ace Adolf ‘Sailor’ Malan. ‘She had no vices. She was beautifully positive. You could dive till your eyes were popping out of your head… She could still answer to a touch.’ Another pilot agreed, writing: ‘Nothing is perfect in this world, I suppose, but the Spitfire came close to perfection.’ Alternative names considered for it were the Shrew and the Snipe, but in the event the word Spitfire proved sublime. An Elizabethan term for a fiery personality, it was also a popular name for warships and racehorses, and combined the best qualities of all three. Mitchell died in 1937 aged only forty-two, so he never saw what his brainchild would achieve. With its 1,030-horsepower Rolls-Royce Merlin liquid-cooled engine, two-bladed wooden propeller, bulletproof windscreen, raised canopy for increased visibility, elliptical wing shape and twenty-one variants of design by the time the last of more than 20,000 of them saw service in 1955, it fully deserved the encomia of its pilots, such as ‘my personal swallow’ and ‘the fabulous Spitfire’.22Had the war started when Hitler originally intended, during the Munich Crisis, it would have had to have been fought largely without the Spitfire, because although the Air Ministry had ordered 310 of them in 1936, not a single one had been delivered by mid-1938.

It was Dowding who persuaded the Air Ministry to fit Hurricanes and Spitfires with bullet-proof Perspex hoods. ‘If Chicago gangsters can have bullet-proof glass in their cars,’ he told the Air Ministry, ‘I can’t see any reason why my pilots cannot have the same.’ They also had armour-plated backs to the pilots’ seats, but pilots still sat only a few feet away from 85 gallons of high-octane fuel.23 ‘In the mounting frenzy of battle,’ recalled one RAF fighter ace, Group Captain Peter Townsend, ‘our hearts beat faster and our efforts became more frantic. But within, fatigue was deadening feeling, numbing the spirit. Both life and death had lost their importance. Desire sharpened to a single, savage purpose – to grab the enemy and claw him down from the sky.’24

On Tuesday, 13 August 1940, Adlertag (Eagle Day), the Luftwaffe launched a formidable 1,485 sorties over Britain, but forty-six German planes were shot down for thirteen of the RAF (of which six pilots survived); the next day saw twenty-seven Luftwaffe planes lost for eleven RAF. Those figures fail to take into account the number of German bombers that returned too damaged for repair, and with dead and wounded aircrew. An obvious advantage for the RAF was that those pilots who survived being shot down were often back up in the air that same day, whereas German pilots wound up in British captivity, or worse still in the English Channel. It was thought marginally better to land on water than to parachute into the sea, because the pilot had around forty seconds to exit the cockpit before the plane sank. Kanalkampf (Channel War), as it was known, for all its heroism and seeming chivalry on occasion, was overall a ghastly engagement for both sides, with devastatingly high casualty rates.

A major problem for the Luftwaffe was that its intelligence division wildly exaggerated the RAF’s casualty rates, with ultimately disastrous results. It took its information from no fewer than ten different agencies, several of which were politically hostile to one another.25 Between 1 July and 15 August, the Luftwaffe’s intelligence unit under Colonel ‘Beppo’ Schmid estimated that 574 RAF planes had been destroyed by fighter action, anti-aircraft fire or on the ground, with a further 196 put beyond repair by crash-landings and accidents, a total of 770. As Schmid believed that the RAF had had 900 planes on 1 July, and that the British were building new fighter aircraft at the rate of between 270 and 300 per month, he estimated that there could be only 430 left, which meant 300 operational if one assumed 70 per cent serviceability.26 He was hopelessly wrong on almost every count.

In fact the RAF had lost only 318 planes in that period. Furthermore, Beaverbrook’s factories spurred on by his encouragement, and subjected on occasion to his ire, had produced 720 planes in those six weeks, far more than Schmid reckoned. ‘I must have more planes,’ said Beaverbrook, who was appointed to the War Cabinet in August. ‘I don’t care whose heart is broken or pride hurt.’ Whereas Fighter Command started out on 1 July with 791 modern single-engined fighters, which was over a hundred fewer than the Germans thought, by 15 August it had 1,065 Hurricanes, Spitfires and low-wing, 1,030 horsepower Defiants, and the serviceability rate was 80 per cent. Nor did that include 289 in storage and 84 stationed at training units. So when Schmid estimated that the RAF was down to its last 430, in fact there were 1,438, over thrice the number.27

Schmid’s problem derived not so much from German pilots boasting or exaggerating their ‘kills’ when reporting to Luftwaffe intelligence officers on their return as from the fact that very often they simply did not have time to witness the demise of an opponent, because as soon as one fighter had been disposed of the next dogfight commenced. Smoke or even flames emanating from an opponent’s plane over southern England did not always mean that it and its occupant had been destroyed. However the figures were arrived at, Schmid’s massive miscalculations were to result in a demoralization of the Luftwaffe pilots, who were told to expect little resistance as they escorted bombers later in the battle, but in fact were regularly met with wave after wave of RAF fighters. Because of radar, the aircraft-spotters of the Observer Corps, the decryption of codes by the Government Code and Cypher School (GCCS) at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire, and Y Department of Bomber Command listening to German telegraph traffic, almost every single bombing raid during the battle was intercepted.

The third phase of the battle opened on Saturday, 24 August when the Luftwaffe began concentrating on bombing the RAF’s major air bases further inland. This was the most perilous period for Britain, because had the Luftwaffe managed to put the airfields out of action even for a short period, and had it been able to redirect its attacks against the British Home Fleet, an invasion attempt might have been possible, especially if accompanied by large-scale parachute landings on airfields. The raids were often conducted by eighty to a hundred bombers accompanied by a hundred fighters, and within a week the RAF bases at Biggin Hill, Manston, Lympne, Hawkinge and elsewhere were either heavily damaged or effectively put out of action.

The Luftwaffe flew 1,345 sorties over Britain on 30 August and even more than that the following day. Fighter Command lost thirty-nine fighters on 31 August alone. During that calendar month, 260 RAF pilots finished their training, whereas 304 had been killed or wounded.28 This rate of attrition and replacement was clearly unsustainable if the Luftwaffe were able to keep up its punishing attacks on British airfields, and some RAF pilots were being sent up with only twenty hours’ training. By the end of the month eleven of the forty-six squadron leaders and thirty-nine of the ninety-seven wing commanders had also been killed or wounded. There were some extraordinary tales of heroism and devotion to duty. An historian of the Spitfire records that, in the course of destroying no fewer than seventeen enemy aircraft in the period up to August 1940, the New Zealand ace Al Deere ‘was shot down seven times, bailed out three times, collided with an Me-109, had one Spitfire of his [at an aerodrome] blown up 150 yards away by a bomb, and had another explode just seconds after he had scrambled from its wreckage’.29

As well as victory or defeat in the struggle with the RAF hanging in the balance, Saturday, 31 August found Adolf Hitler having trouble with his domestic staff. On that day his adjutant at the Berghof, SS-Hauptsturmführer Max Wünsche, wrote to Himmler in Berlin to say that two of the Führer’s personal servants there, Hauptscharführer Wiebiczeck and Oberscharführer Sander, had been dismissed for theft, and sent to Dachau. The Führer had not yet made up his mind about ‘the duration of their imprisonment in the concentration camp’.30 History does not record their ultimate fate, but we can safely assume that Adolf Hitler was an unsympathetic person from whom to thieve.

Just as Fighter Command was stretched to its outer limit, with two months still to go before the autumn weather made the Channel impassable to the flat-bottomed boats and barges that the Kreigs-marine was collecting across the Channel, the Germans made a cardinal strategic error. They changed the Schwerpunkt in the middle of the campaign, from Britain’s airfields to her cities. This vital shift in emphasis gave Fighter Command a desperately needed breathing space in which to repair its heavily damaged bases. The reason that Hitler and Göring altered the campaign objective was primarily political. They fell for a trap of Churchill’s making, which played on Nazi psychology. Inherent in National Socialism was utter intolerance of contradiction. Pluralism and debate were anathema to a political creed based entirely on the Führer’s supposed omniscience and infallibility. Thus when on 25, 28 and 29 August the RAF attacked Berlin – with eighty-one bombers in the first instance – in response to a single Heinkel He-111 bombing the City of London on 24 August (possibly by mistake when lost), Hitler’s promises to the German people to protect the capital were exposed as worthless, and in the most blatant possible way. It was inevitable that he would react with irrational fury, promising the German people on 4 September: ‘When they declare that they will attack our cities in great strength, then we will eradicate their cities.’31 Yet by switching from bombing airfields to bombing cities three days later, Hitler made as fundamental an error as he had when he ordered his Panzers to halt outside Dunkirk on 24 May.

The fourth phase of the battle thus began on the late morning of Saturday, 7 September, with a massive raid on London’s docklands. Three hundred tons of bombs were dropped by 350 bombers, protected by 350 fighters. ‘Send all the pumps you’ve got,’ one fireman told his central command station. ‘The whole bloody world’s on fire.’ Because it was high summer, the Thames was low and water correspondingly hard to pump, and burning petrol, sugar and rum from destroyed warehouses set the river alight. It was both the first and the worst attack of the eight-month Blitz, the German bombing campaign against Britain (which should not be confused with ‘Blitzkrieg’); and it has been estimated that the inferno of that single day caused more damage than the Great Fire of London of 1666.32 That afternoon – also in broad daylight – the Luftwaffe returned with a further 247 aircraft, to drop 352 tons of high explosive (HE) and 440 incendiary canisters. ‘Each of the participants realized the importance of the hour,’ recalled Adolf Galland of that first raid, as the vast docks of what was then the world’s greatest maritime trading nation began to burn. The valour of the firemen was ably recaptured by the Humphrey Jennings movie Fires Were Started (1943), and the heroism of the bomb-disposal units also inspires awe. Indeed, the raid was so heavy that the Home Guard convinced itself that the invasion was under way, and sent the codeword ‘Cromwell’ to mobilize all troops and ring the church bells as a warning tocsin. ‘If ever there was a time when one should wear life like a loose garment,’ wrote the American military attaché in London, General Raymond Lee, ‘this is it.’

Dowding’s personal assistant, Flight Lieutenant Robert Wright, later recalled: ‘The Germans launched the heaviest raid we had ever known, but the attack didn’t go to the airfields, it went to London. So we were able to pull ourselves together, repair things, and, most important of the lot, it gave the pilots more of a chance for a little rest.’33 Bomb craters were filled in on runways, planes were repaired in hangars not now under immediate threat of bombing, and control and communication lines that had been damaged over the previous fortnight were put back into operation. In a short period, the hitherto heavily pressed RAF was fully restored on almost all its most important bases, and receiving more planes from the factories than it could fill with pilots. The RAF had more fighters operational at the end of the battle of Britain – despite the high attrition rates – than at the beginning.

Mid-September 1940 saw bombs fall on the West End of London, Downing Street, Buckingham Palace, the House of Lords, the Law Courts and eight Wren churches. Whereas Hitler never visited an air base or bomb-site throughout the war, probably fearful of being publicly connected to failure, Churchill, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth regularly did so, and were often cheered there (although on at least one occasion Churchill was booed by those whom the local authorities had failed to re-house quickly enough). General Lee recorded in his diary on 11 September that there was not one unbroken pane of glass in the Air Raid Precautions (ARP) and Civil Commissioner Headquarters in London, but the working area deep underground, which was gas-proof and air-conditioned, continued to function ‘quite undisturbed’. In Ovington Square in Knightsbridge he noted that two houses ‘had had their fronts blown out and pictures and carpets hung forlornly out in the open.’ The City had suffered heavily, and Threadneedle Street was roped off because of ‘a giant crater’ in front of the Bank of England. More severe was the damage to Whitechapel and Docklands. ‘When a bomb hits one of those dismal brick houses,’ Lee observed, ‘it goes on into the ground, blows a big hole and all the dreary fragments of the house fall into it.’ He noted that although people were ‘grubbing about in the wreckage to salvage what they could’, nonetheless ‘no one was complaining,’ and one workman told him: ‘All we want to know is whether we are bombing Berlin. If they are getting all or more than we are, we can stick it.’34

‘Successful landing followed by occupation would end war in short order,’ Hitler told a Führer-conference on 14 September 1940. ‘Britain would starve to death.’35 That day the bombing moved to the industrial area of the River Clyde. In all, between 7 September 1940 and the end of the first period of the Blitz on 16 May 1941, there were seventy-one major attacks on London – that is, attacks dropping more than 100 tons of HE – eight each on Liverpool, Birmingham and Plymouth, six on Bristol, five on Glasgow, four on Southampton, three on Portsmouth and at least one on a further eight cities. The Blitz is thus different from, but related to, the battle of Britain. The initiation of the London Blitz during the battle of Britain allowed the RAF to achieve victory in the air battle, although the Blitz continued long after that victory was won. In total 18,291 tons of HE were dropped on London during these months and more than 1,000 tons on each of Liverpool, Birmingham, Plymouth and Glasgow, as well as between 919 and 578 tons on other British cities.36 Despite this, ARP were so well advanced that it was very rare for the daily death toll to exceed 250 (in contrast with German cities that later were to see very many times that incinerated on a single night).37

Although Britain had 1,200 heavy anti-aircraft guns and 3,932 searchlights in July 1940, and 1,691 and 4,532 eleven months later, they were of limited use except for forcing German planes to higher altitudes than were ideal for accurate bombing. Overall during the night-time Blitz, more German bombers were lost to flying accidents than to anti-aircraft fire or night-fighters.38 Ack-Ack, as it was known, nonetheless gave the civilians, sheltering below in converted cellars, London Underground stations, public shelters and private Anderson shelters in gardens, the morale-boosting sense that Britain was fighting back. (Surprisingly enough, although two million people left London during the Blitz, 60 per cent of those who remained slept in their beds rather than going to shelters.) 39

Hitler’s intentions were clear from a monologue he gave to his architect-in-chief (and later armaments minister) Albert Speer at a supper in the Reich Chancellery in the summer of 1940, in which he said:

Have you ever looked at a map of London? It is so closely built up that one source of fire alone would suffice to destroy the whole city, as happened once before, two hundred [sic] years ago. Göring wants to use innumerable incendiary bombs of an altogether new type to create sources of fire in all parts of London. Fires everywhere. Thousands of them. Then they’ll unite in one gigantic area conflagration. Göring has the right idea. Explosive bombs don’t work but it can be done with incendiary bombs – total destruction of London. What use will their fire department be once that really starts!40

Although it sounds like the ranting of a pathological pyromaniac, the concentration on incendiary rather than high-explosive bombs did have logic behind it, as Hitler was to discover at the time of the bombing of Hamburg in July 1943.

The state of morale was obviously going to be vital if Britain was not going to buckle under the stress, pain and horror of the nightly bombing. Lieutenant-Commander John McBeath, who commanded the destroyer HMS Venomous that brought BEF troops back from Dunkirk, recalled that the attitude of their officers was ‘that although they were naturally defeated and had been kicked out of Europe, there was no sort of idea that they’d been beaten. It was just, “Well, we’ll get them next time.” ’41 Yet how could there possibly be a next time, considering that Hitler was now the unquestioned master of Continental Europe from Saint-Jean-de-Luz on the Franco-Spanish border in the south to Narvik in the north, and from Cherbourg in the west to Lublin in the east? For all its lack of logic, the feeling did nonetheless exist in Britain that fighting on without Continental allies was almost a relief. The playwright J. B. Priestley remembered a mood of ‘We’re by ourselves now and really we can get on with this war.’42 The King felt the same, telling his mother on 27 June 1940, ‘Personally I feel happier now that we have no allies to be polite to and to pamper.’43

British agencies attempted to boost national morale through the subtle use of public information, certainly far less blatant than the vainglorious untruths told nightly by Dr Goebbels’ vast propaganda machine in Germany. These British themes accepted vulnerability, something that was foreign to the Nazi self-perception. Thus the songs weren’t uniformly jingoistic: Anne Shelton’s haunting ballad ‘I’ll Be Seeing You’ could refer as much to a dead lover as to an absent one; Flanagan and Allen’s gentle ‘Run, Rabbit, Run’ expresses the hope that the rabbit will escape the British farmer’s pot; Vera Lynn didn’t know where or when she would see her man again, except ‘some sunny day’. The movie Waterloo Bridge (1940), starring Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor, was a stern defence of British decency and values. Set almost entirely as a flashback to the Great War, the beautiful ballerina Myra falls in love with the dashing aristocrat Captain Roy Cronin, but is forced into prostitution after he is listed as killed in action. When he reappears and replights his troth, she commits suicide sooner than sully the honour of her fiancé’s family and regiment. The three Rendellshire Fusiliers officers who appear in the movie are all models of decency, affability and courage (the hero had won a Military Cross at the battle of Cambrai).

The movie Mrs Miniver, covering the events of 1940, was made in 1942. The eponymous heroine, played by Greer Garson, is married to an architect played by Walter Pidgeon. The scenes of stoical devotion to duty – Mr Miniver sailing to Dunkirk in his small boat, his wife disarming a wounded German pilot, their son joining the RAF and their house being bombed – do not underestimate the bereavement of war, especially with the death through strafing of the Minivers’ beautiful young daughter-in-law, just returned from honeymoon. In the closing scene, where RAF planes can be seen through the bombed-out roof of the village church during Sunday service, the vicar concludes: ‘This is not only a war of soldiers in uniform, it is a war of the people, of all the people… This is our war. Fight it then.’ Civilian morale responded superbly during the Blitz, and when the Mass Observation polling organization asked Londoners in early 1941 what had made them most depressed that winter, more people cited the weather than the bombing.44

No propaganda was necessary to highlight the destruction of the city of Coventry, which became emblematic of the Blitz for many Britons after it was attacked by 500 German bombers on the night of 14 November 1940. Although the numbers killed and injured (380 and 865 respectively) were small in terms of the suffering of German, Russian and Japanese cities later in the war – and more RAF men died in raids on Germany than civilians died in the Blitz – the fact that it came early on in the conflict made it a powerful symbol of Hitler’s ruthlessness.

The battle of Britain reached its zenith on 15 September 1940, which Churchill noted fell, like the battle of Waterloo, on a Sunday. It started off with a large raid on London of 100 bombers and 400 fighters, but ended with fifty-six German planes shot down at the cost of twenty-six RAF (some accounts have sixty-one to twenty-nine, according to different criteria, but the all-important ratio is similar).45 ‘How many reserves have we?’ the Prime Minister asked the New Zealander Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park at the height of the battle. ‘There are none,’ came the reply. Although the numbers were minute by later standards – 400 Japanese planes were downed in the one-day battle in the Marianas in 1945 for example – in 1940 they were unsustainably large for the Germans.

After 15 September – today celebrated as Battle of Britain Day – morale in the Luftwaffe plummeted. ‘Failure to achieve any noticeable success,’ recorded Galland,

constantly changing orders betraying lack of purpose and obvious mismanagement of the situation by the Command, and unjustified accusations, had a most demoralizing effect on us fighter pilots, who were already overtaxed by physical and mental strain. We complained of the leadership, the bombers, the Stukas and were dissatisfied with ourselves. We saw one comrade after the other, old and tested brothers in combat, vanish from our ranks.46

At one meeting at Karinhall, Göring asked Galland what he most needed for the battle. When the much decorated ace, who was to have an oak-leaf cluster added to his Knight’s Cross after he shot down his fortieth Allied plane, over the Thames estuary on 24 September, answered, ‘An outfit of Spitfires for my group,’ the Reichsmarschall ‘stamped off, growling as he went’.

Although the Stuka Ju-87 unleashed bombing power equal to a 5-ton lorry hitting a brick wall at 60mph, this was nothing like enough to force a vast city like London, the capital of the British Empire, to its knees. The Stuka’s lack of speed and manoeuvrability in anything other than Blitzkrieg-style attack supporting ground troops made the plane a relatively easy target for Hurricanes and Spitfires. The complaints of Galland’s colleagues about ‘the bombers, the Stukas’ referred to the fact that Germany had no efficient long-range bomber, and was not to deploy the Heinkel He-177 until early 1944. The largest twin-engined German bomber of the battle of Britain, the He-111, had bomb-loads of 4,000 pounds, a great deal at the time but puny in comparison with the Allied bombs dropped on Germany later on in the war – those could weigh up to 10 tons. The heavy raids on London after 7 September were largely undertaken by bomber wings of fifty to eighty planes, protected by fighters which could remain over London for a maximum of fifteen minutes. Further, as Galland readily admitted, the bravery of the RAF pilots ‘undoubtedly saved their country at this crucial hour’. Nevertheless the rule that acts of extreme bravery have to be witnessed before a Victoria Cross can be given meant that only one was awarded during the battle of Britain. As the London Gazette recorded of the exploits of Flight Lieutenant J. B. Nicholson:

During an engagement with the enemy near Southampton on August 16, 1940, Flight Lieutenant Nicholson’s aircraft was hit by four cannon shells, two of which wounded him whilst another set fire to the gravity tank. When about to abandon his aircraft owing to flames in the cockpit, he sighted an enemy fighter. This he attacked and shot down although as a result of staying in his burning aircraft, he sustained serious burns to his hands, face, neck and legs. Flight Lieutenant Nicholson has always displayed enthusiasm for air fighting and this incident shows that he possesses courage and determination of a high order by continuing to engage the enemy after he had been wounded and his aircraft set on fire. He displayed exceptional gallantry and disregard for the safety of his own life.47

The citation did not mention that Nicholson also survived gunshot pellet wounds when the Home Guard opened fire at what they assumed was an enemy parachutist. Tragically he went missing while flying as a passenger in a Liberator over the Bay of Bengal on 2 May 1945.

Another aspect in which Britain did not stand alone in 1940–41 was in the vital help afforded her by foreign pilots. Of the 2,917 pilots who fought with Fighter Command during the battle of Britain, no fewer than 578 – one-fifth – were not British. On that roll of honour there were 145 Poles, 126 New Zealanders, 97 Canadians, 88 Czechs, 33 Australians, 29 Belgians, 25 South Africans, 13 French, 10 Irish, 8 Americans, 3 Rhodesians and a Jamaican.48 Indeed, statistically the most successful unit of the battle was 303 Squadron, composed of Poles. They and the Czechs were particularly ruthless pilots, their fanaticism fuelled by what their countries were suffering under German occupation and by what faced them if they were to be defeated in Britain, which Polish RAF officers dubbed Wyspa ostatniej nadziei (the island of last hope). Such were the strictures of American neutrality at the time that the Americans who volunteered were liable to lose their US citizenship under the 1907 Citizenship Act, and faced several years’ imprisonment and a $10,000 fine. Eight joined up anyhow, but only one – John Haviland of 151 Squadron, who had learnt to fly while at Nottingham University and went into battle after less than twenty hours’ flying fighters – survived the war.49


Two days after the Luftwaffe’s mauling on 15 September, Hitler, who had already postponed Sealion until 27 September, this time put it off ‘until further notice’. The last daylight raid on London took place on 30 September, although there were some heavy night-time raids thereafter. The first day that no planes were lost on either side was 31 October, by which time the battle of Britain could be safely described as over. Four nights later, on Monday, 4 November, no sirens sounded, for the first time since July. Britain was safe. By then, however, a quarter of a million people had been rendered temporarily homeless, with 16,000 houses destroyed, a further 60,000 uninhabitable and 130,000 damaged. Nonetheless the morale of the British people, though much further strained than the censored and self-censored press could admit, did not break, as Britain attempted to continue, in the phrase of the day, ‘Business as usual’. A government poster summed it up perfectly with the words: ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’.

The Blitz cost 43,000 British civilians killed and a further 51,000 seriously injured, but after September 1940 the country was out of mortal danger, for the moment at least.50 Of course only the tiny number of those in receipt of German cipher decrypts in Britain could know this, and since the British Government wished to keep the people in a state of readiness, ordinary Britons remained on high alert until Hitler ended the bombing campaign a month prior to his invasion of Russia. Overall, since May 1940 the Germans had lost 1,733 planes to the RAF’s 915. These were very modest numbers of planes compared to some of the losses that would be incurred in Russia and the Far East a few years hence, but at the time they were enough to decide the battle in Britain’s favour, especially once added to the 147 Me-109s and 82 Me-110s lost in the battle of France. It was the first engagement that the Allies had won against the Germans. Hitler’s demand in Directive No. 16, ‘to eliminate the English mother country as a base from which the war against Germany can be continued’, had been successfully resisted, and Britain was indeed to become just such a base.

Colonel Schmid’s belief that the RAF was small compared to the Luftwaffe was taken on by the British too. Naturally, the Prime Minister idolized the brave young pilots, and rewarded them with his most precious gift: an immortal phrase. Returning from the Operations Room at RAF Uxbridge, west London, on 15 August where he had been watching No. 11 Group’s battle in progress, he had told his chief Staff officer Major-General Hastings ‘Pug’ Ismay, ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.’ He repeated the phrase in the House of Commons five days later. On that occasion he added, ‘All hearts go out to the fighter pilots, whose brilliant actions we see with our own eyes day after day.’51 His words have helped to fix the battle and the heroism of ‘the Few’ in the collective consciousness of the British people ever since.

Churchill knew that, if Britain was to survive, what was called the Home Front needed to be made far more efficient, and so his ministry imposed radical changes on British society which were generally accepted in the mood of national emergency. The Chamberlain ministry had set in place the necessary legislative framework: compulsory military conscription had been introduced in April 1939 and the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act of August had given the Government sweeping powers. In May 1940 Churchill introduced a new subsection of the Act, numbered 18B(1A), which allowed him to intern Fascists without trial for the duration of the war, effectively an introduction of martial law in Britain. He disliked having to do this, describing the suspension of habeas corpus as ‘in the highest degree odious’, but he nonetheless took on powers that left him the closest Britain has come to a dictator since Oliver Cromwell.

Britain still imported 70 per cent of her food in 1939, so the invocation to ‘Dig for Victory’ meant the difference between life and death for the men of the Merchant Navy, 30,589 of whom lost their lives in the war. The amount of arable land was increased by 43 per cent, with 7 million acres of grassland going under the plough. The introduction of rationing and the virtual abolition of food wastage, as well as the swelling of the number of allotments to 1.7 million, meant that Britain could reduce food imports to the bare minimum. By the end of the war Britain grew about half her sugar consumption, enough for the entire domestic sugar ration.52

The Chamberlain ministry had achieved little in organizing the British economy for war. By May 1940 there were still more than a million Britons out of work and the labour force had increased by only 11 per cent, largely through the introduction of women into almost all areas of non-heavy industry. With men away serving in the forces, 80,000 women of the Women’s Land Army took their places in agriculture and horticulture, while 160,000 women replaced men in the various transport services. ‘Throughout the period of heavy German air-raids on this country, the arteries of the nation, the railways, with their extensive dock undertakings, were subjected to intensive attacks,’ Churchill told the House of Commons in December 1943. ‘In spite of every enemy effort the traffic has been kept moving and the great flow of munitions proceeds. Results such as the railways have achieved are only won by blood and sweat.’53 As often as not, this was the blood and sweat of women.

Such a revolution in the mobilization of manpower would have been unimaginable in any other circumstance than total war, and it changed British society for ever. By June 1944, of the total of 16 million women aged between fourteen and fifty-nine in Britain, 7.1 million had been mobilized for war work in some form, including the auxiliary services, Civil Defence and the munitions industries, and 1.644 million were engaged in ‘essential war work’ which freed up men for the forces or heavy industry. The figure for male employment in various aspects of national service was even higher by late 1944, at 93.6 per cent of the total of 15.9 million between the ages of fourteen and sixty-four.54 Yet despite this there were still enough men for 1.75 million to serve in the Home Guard and 1.75 million in Civil Defence, while many others took on Fire Guard duties. Despite general enthusiasm for the measures necessary for national defence, this was not all voluntary: for example, compulsory enlistment of women in the auxiliary services was introduced in December 1941, so all women between eighteen and sixty, married or single, could be ordered into factories, into the services or on to the land. Nor did they receive equal pay for equal work.

The state also played the major role in the enormous programme of evacuation that took place in Britain in the early months of the war, then again during the Blitz, and later on during the attacks from the V-1 ‘doodlebug’ flying bombs and V-2 rockets. In all between 1939 and 1944 more than a million children were removed from the danger of the cities to the relative safety of the countryside, where in many cases they stayed with complete strangers for years far from home. Although there are many tales of happy evacuees, homesickness, lice, boredom, anxiety bed-wetting and a childhood separated from their parents were the sad experiences of many British children during Hitler’s War.

The compulsory carrying of gas masks, the evening black-out – ‘Put out that light!’ was the habitual shout of ARP wardens – and nightly recourse to shelters in back gardens, Underground stations and cellars form the staple part of civilians’ memories from the war. As does rationing. Butter, sugar, bacon and ham were rationed from January 1940, but the following year this had to be extended to almost all foodstuffs except bread. It was an indictment of British society of the 1930s that some people actually ate better under wartime rationing than they had during the Great Depression six years earlier.55 Clothes and petrol were rationed, soap and water for washing was limited, and scrap metal was collected for aircraft. For those of a naturally economical – even miserly – nature, the Second World War was a godsend; for those who enjoyed life’s indulgences, such as cosmetics and silk stockings, it was a series of tribulations.

If truth is traditionally ‘the first casualty of war’, then sound finance is the second. The British economy was driven into near-bankruptcy by the colossal expense of the struggle. Churchill was adamant that whatever needed to be spent on national defence would be, despite the repeated warnings of his chancellors of the exchequer Sir Kingsley Wood (up to his death in office in September 1943) and Sir John Anderson thereafter. Income tax rose from 7 shillings and 6 pence in the pound to 10 shillings, that is from 37.5 per cent to 50 per cent, and many people bought National Saving Certificates at patriotically low rates of return. Total employment in all the productive sectors of the British economy (that is, other than the armed services, health, education and so on) fell by 1.6 million during the war.56 With more than half of Britain’s industrial production devoted to arms, exports collapsed to the point where there was a negative balance of trade of £1.04 billion in 1945, against one of a manageable £387 million before the war. Although some in Whitehall recognized that a strong British economy was a powerful war weapon in itself, the sheer expense of keeping so much of the population out of productive employment and in uniform, as well as the cost of buying or producing war matériel, at a time of falling personal and corporate tax revenue, meant that Britain had to liquidate most of her financial reserves and sell almost all her foreign assets between 1939 and 1945.

By the end of the war Britain’s foreign debt had quintupled to £3.35 billion, making her the world’s most indebted nation, and had the economist John Maynard Keynes – who had predicted ‘a financial Dunkirk’ – not negotiated a $3.75 billion loan from the United States in December 1945, there was a real chance that Britain would have become technically insolvent. ‘Without the loan,’ considered the then financial editor of the Guardian Richard Fry, ‘there could have been real starvation and long delays in reconstruction (housing, power stations, railways, etc) and the political considerations might have been revolutionary.’57 Yet the Churchill ministry was willing to risk all that in order to keep Britain fighting the war to the best of her abilities. Though largely unsung compared to his other great acts of reckless courage, Churchill’s largesse with the British Treasury was nothing short of heroic.

If Britain had preserved her independence through her own efforts, other countries that had also not been invaded by Germany tried to preserve theirs by declaring their neutrality. These included Turkey (which both the Allies and Axis tried to coax into their camps), Switzerland (which had a large citizen army and easily defensible terrain), Portugal (which was generally, if not always dependably, pro-Allied), the Vatican (which was anti-Nazi, though not undiplomatically so), Eire (which had the English Channel, the RAF and the Royal Navy for protection) and Sweden (which in July 1940 gave Germany the right to move troops over her borders and guaranteed sales of her iron-ore deposits to the German armaments industry). Another was Spain, whose dictator General Francisco Franco owed Hitler much for the military support so recently given in the Spanish Civil War, but who trod a carefully neutral path, waiting to see who would win. Hitler, having met the Caudillo in nine hours of discussions at Hendaye on the Spanish border with France in October 1940 to try to persuade him to declare war against the Allies, later remarked, ‘Rather than go through that again, I would prefer to have three or four teeth taken out.’58

Churchill summed up the neutrals’ position in a radio broadcast of 20 January 1940: ‘Each one hopes that if he feeds the crocodile enough, the crocodile will eat him last. All of them hope that the storm will pass before their time comes to be devoured.’ Several neutrals complained about the characterization, but it was essentially accurate. Switzerland, despite having 450,000 men under arms and a virtually impregnable ‘national redoubt’, had declared her neutrality in March 1938. Yet the Swiss also allowed German and Italian military supply trains to pass through their country, baulking only at the passage of actual troops. They charged well for these facilities. Before the war, the Swiss state-subsidized timber company had built the concentration camp of Dachau, with the contract for 13 million Swiss francs being negotiated by the son of the then Swiss Commander-in-Chief, Henri Guisan.

It is impossible to calculate how many innocent lives were lost by the Swiss refusal to accept Jewish refugees escaping from the Vichy militia roundups of 1942–3. Pressure mounted for the Swiss to review their draconian immigration laws, by which only 7,000 immigrants had been allowed into the country since the outbreak of war. Nevertheless Dr Heinrich Rothmund, the chief of the police department of the federal Ministry of Justice and Police, instructed his men to repel Jews attempting to cross the frontier in the wooded area around Pontarlier–Besançon, and those found on Swiss soil were escorted back to France. ‘Incredible scenes developed,’ records the Swiss historian of his country’s neutrality. ‘Some committed suicide in front of the Swiss border guards.’59 The argument the Swiss Government gave for refusing entry to persecuted Jews was that subversive agents might enter the country too, that Swiss people might lose jobs to the immigrants, and that many immigrants would not move on to third countries. A ban was thus imposed upon any refugee or immigrant ‘engaging in any professional activity, paid or unpaid’. By May 1945, there were 115,000 refugees in camps, however, with more staying in hotels, in hostels and with friends or family. During the war a total of 400,000 people moved to or through Switzerland, including, of course, towards its end German and Italian Fascists.60

Swedish accommodation of the Nazis started early. Although they resolutely refused to allow the British and French expeditionary forces to cross their territory to aid Finland in her struggle against Russia in early 1940, the Stockholm Government allowed the Germans to cross it to reinforce their army of occupation in Norway later that same year. Between July 1940 and August 1943, no fewer than 140,000 German troops and countless thousand tons of military equipment and supplies had used the Swedish rail network, thus protecting the Kriegsmarine from the Royal Navy.

Just before the German invasion of Russia, the Swedes allowed an entire German division to traverse the country in order to take part in the assault. The next year, Swedish ships were carrying 53 per cent of Germany’s iron-ore imports – the raw material most needed for her armaments industry – to German ports, thereby saving the German Navy further trouble and danger. It was only after the battle of Stalingrad in February 1943, when she saw which side would probably win, that Sweden gave in to Allied pressure and forced the Germans to carry the ore in their own ships; not until April 1944 did Sweden stop selling Germany ball-bearings, and after the war crucial components for the V-2 rockets were found to have ‘Made in Sweden’ stamped on them. Albert Speer records that Hitler intended his vast new capital at Berlin – named Germania – to be very largely built from Swedish granite, which was being obligingly shipped to him throughout the war along with the iron ore and ball-bearings. Had Hitler won the war, of course, the sovereignty of Switzerland, Sweden, Eire and several other neutrals would have been swatted overnight. In late January 1942, after saying that the Swedes and Swiss were merely ‘playing at soldiers’, the Führer told cronies at the Berghof that ‘the Jews must pack up, disappear from Europe… they’ll have to clear out of Switzerland and Sweden. We cannot allow them to retain bases of withdrawal at our doors.’61

The most notable absentee from civilization’s line of battle, however, was Eire, whose actions cannot be explained, like Sweden’s and Switzerland’s, by a close physical proximity to Germany. Neither was it a case of malingering, for even when in the latter stages of the war there was no chance of a German invasion the Taoiseach, Eamon de Valera, still refrained from publicly denouncing the Nazis or Hitler himself. (When he criticized the invasion of the neutral Low Countries in 1940 he did not even specify who had been responsible.) Of his infamous gesture in visiting the German Legation in Dublin to express his condolences on the death of Hitler in April 1945, de Valera later said: ‘I acted correctly and, I feel certain, wisely.’ Since the concentration camp of Buchenwald had already been liberated by then, and the genocidal nature of the Nazi regime revealed, the British and Americans reacted with rage to this action, but it went largely unreported in Eire’s heavily censored press.

Eire’s neutrality aroused great resentment in the rest of the British Isles, and it was not just Churchill who considered the country to be ‘legally at war, but skulking’. In 1938, the Chamberlain Government had turned over to Irish sovereignty the three strategically valuable Atlantic ports that Britain had retained under the terms of the 1922 Anglo-Irish Treaty, and Dublin’s denial of their use to the Royal Navy on the outbreak of war the next year exposed this as having been a disastrous error by the British. As Churchill put it to the War Cabinet: ‘Eire was strangling England quite pleasantly.’62 For him the Irish joke of the day – ‘So who are we neutral against?’ – was not funny. The only explanation for Eire’s neutrality was a lingering hostility to Britain after centuries of mutual antagonism, which blinded the de Valera Government to the greater issues that were at stake by 1939.

The loss through diplomacy of the Atlantic naval bases in southern and western Ireland meant that escorts could not sail as far out into the Atlantic as in the Great War; destroyers and corvettes took longer to be refuelled; tugs could not be sent out to ships in distress, but instead escorts had to go ‘the long way round’ from Scottish ports. ‘To compute how many men and how many ships this denial was costing, month after month’, wrote Nicholas Monsarrat, the novelist who commanded a frigate during the battle of the Atlantic, ‘was hardly possible; but the total was substantial and tragic.’ Although Monsarrat’s classic tale The Cruel Sea was of course fictional, its hero, who also commanded a frigate on the transatlantic convoys during the battle, states:

it was difficult to withhold one’s contempt for a country such as Ireland, whose battle this was and whose chances of freedom and independence in the event of a German victory were nil. The fact that Ireland was standing aside from the conflict… posed, from the naval angle, special problems which affected, sometimes mortally, all sailors engaged in the Atlantic, and earned their particular loathing… In the list of people you were prepared to like when the war was over, the man who stood by and watched while you were getting your throat cut could not figure very high.63

If the neutrals could not be prevailed upon to help, it was necessary to stir up those former Continental allies that had been subdued by the Germans, and on 19 July 1940 Churchill set up the Special Operations Executive (SOE), ‘to co-ordinate all action by way of subversion and sabotage against the enemy overseas’.64 This was to be the romantic world of moonlit parachutists, arms caches, cyanide pills, forged papers, weapons-drops, gold sovereigns and guerrilla units that occupied so much literature and film, a concentration of attention out of all proportion to SOE’s actual operational importance.

‘Regular soldiers are not the men to stir up revolution,’ wrote the Labour politician Hugh Dalton of his new role in control of the newly founded SOE, ‘to create social chaos, or to use all those ungentlemanly means of winning the war which come so easily to the Nazis.’ Churchill had always been interested in irregular warfare, and SOE was his brainchild; on 16 July 1940 he appointed Dalton to the post with the inspiring invocation: ‘And now set Europe ablaze.’65 The intention was later to use resistance movements to hold down a large number of German divisions far away from the Eastern, and later the Italian and Western Fronts, but there was an horrific price to pay when this was put into operation. Targeted (and often untargeted) assassinations and the blowing up of communication lines behind enemy lines were sometimes strategically helpful before D-Day, but they tended to alienate the local populations upon whom the German wrath fell once the SOE operatives had got away. The Germans did not jib at mass shootings of hostages in reprisal against attacks on them in Occupied Europe, with entire villages occasionally paying the price for SOE operations that were strategically not worth the butcher’s bill. Where SOE did succeed was in the intangible sense of helping to return a sense of self-esteem to European peoples after crushing defeats that had been measured in mere weeks. This was especially true of France, which had always seen herself as – indeed had always been – la grande nation.66

SOE also played an important part in holding back Stalin’s ambitions. It was partly the arms provided by SOE that allowed the Yugoslav partisan leader Marshal Josip Broz Tito to stand up to the Russians in 1945–6 and the anti-Communists to triumph in Greece; the French Communists might have tried to stage a coup in the autumn of 1944 had not SOE distributed half a million small arms to résistants across France. SOE helped Queen Wilhelmina back on to the throne in Holland in March 1945; in Burma it persuaded U Aung San’s militia to turn their coats and join the Allied side in the spring of 1945. It also carried out important operations against German ‘heavy water’ nuclear research facilities at Telemark and Vermork, the success of which may have retarded the German capacity for developing an atomic bomb. Furthermore, operations undertaken on the ground could sometimes achieve accuracy denied to precision bombing. For example, the Peugeot factory at Sochaux near Montbéliard, which manufactured tank turrets, had its key installation wrecked by a satchel-bomb delivered by SOE on 5 November 1943, four months after an RAF attack had missed the target and resulted in heavy civilian casualties near by.67

A severe problem for SOE was that European resistance movements were often torn by internal animosities. In Greece and Yugoslavia monarchists hated Communists, whereas the French résistants covered the whole political spectrum between right-wing Gaullists and Communist francs-tireurs. Then there were the central internal contradictions of all operations: how to create secret armies while not attracting attention but simultaneously carrying out high-profile sabotage, and how not to lose the support of the local populace while your actions inevitably bring down the murderous wrath of the Germans. Furthermore, SOE repeatedly clashed with the RAF over plane allocations, with the Foreign Office over neutrals’ sovereignty, with local commanders-in-chief over strategy, and with the War Office (where SOE was nicknamed ‘the Racket’) over resources, and none of this was helped by the fact that Dalton was a naturally very combative politician.68

If Britons were willing to bring down the wrath of the Germans on innocent civilians, they were also prepared to do the same to themselves. The auxiliary units that were set up by Colonel (later Major Colin Gubbins in 1940 in order to continue the resistance after a German invasion of Britain took great care not to allow their (sometimes quite elaborate) hide-outs to be noticed by the local population, in case they were betrayed as a result of the threat of reprisals. As for the Regular Army, ‘We prepared road-blocks and cleared fields of fire; not that we had anything to fire except a few shot-guns,’ recalled Michael Howard of his service in the Coldstream Guards in the summer of 1940.

I scoured the neighbourhood for hollow lanes across which we could stretch wires and decapitate German motor-cyclists. The thought that if we did anything of the kind the Germans would probably shoot the entire population of the village did not enter our heads, or at least my head. Nor did the realization that if we lost the war I would be deported, along with all fit young men over the age of seventeen, as slave-labour to Germany, and that for my mother, 100 per cent Jewish, an even worse fate might lie in store.69

The death of Hitler’s Sealion meant that none of that happened in Britain as it did on the Continent. The British were thus saved from having to make the terrible choices and compromises which the populations of Occupied Europe were forced to make. The spirit of 1940 – the undoubted annus mirabilis of British history – was often to be called upon by Churchill in the remaining years of the war, and by many other politicians since.

For British strategists a vast void had opened up. Where were they to strike the Axis next, now that Europe was completely closed off? More out of a lack of any viable alternative than anything else, as well as to protect British interests further afield, the war was transferred to the North African littoral and the Mediterranean. Soon the victory of the battle of Britain was to seem like an all too isolated incident in a dangerously unpredictable struggle.

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