Sunday, March 26

Dowding and Churchill and The Battle of Britain

I just finished reading A Summer Bright and Terrible by David Fisher (sent to me by wonderful Paul Stokes). It tells the story of the Battle of Britain mostly from the point of view of Hugh Dowding, Air Marshall in command of the RAF Fighter Wing.

If Fisher is close to the truth, then Dowding was absolutely instrumental in winning the Battle of Britain. He held out hope that bombers could be combated (the conventional wisdom was that they were irresistible and the only hope was a kind of Mutually Assured Destruction with bombers) and poured his R&D and procurement dollars theretoward. The RAF came up with Spitfires, Hurricanes, and radar with which they held off the Germans in the summer of 1940.

I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.

Dowding continually pressed for an adequate number of fighters. The RAF concluded that they needed about 50 fighter wings to defend Britain. Dowding held them to that number. When Churchill tried to send fighters to the aid of France, Dowding fought him for every last one and finally argued him to a stop.

We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, "This was their finest hour."

Further, Dowding's strategy against the Luftwaffe was critical. He understood that Hitler could not invade without first destroying the RAF. Göring expected a stand-up fight, full force against full force, and Dowding never gave him one. Dowding understood that all he had to do was make it to autumn when the Channel would become impassable. He didn't have to win the air war with Göring. He just had to outlast the Luftwaffe and not lose.

At one point Göring started attacking the RAF air bases and was within a few days of finally defeating the fighters. But then, inexplicably, the Luftwaffe bombed London instead, and the British bombed Berlin, and Hitler went berserk, and Göring retaliated against London, and the air bases had time to recover.

Again, if Fisher is telling the basic truth, and I assume he is, there were so many ways the Battle of Britain could have gone wrong, and what a different war it would have been if it had. For one thing, the British Expeditionary Force, the bulk of their army, had evacuated safely from Dunkirk but left all of their material behind. Had the Wehrmacht shown up on the islands that summer, the army would have had basically nothing to fight them with, and they knew it.

Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.

The end of Dowding's career came during the subsequent Blitz. The British (indeed, the Western World), had no military technology to counter bombers at night. Dowding's command was working on airborne, fighter-carried radar, but it wasn't ready yet. He told Churchill that he had no solution to the Blitz and, to Churchill, that was the wrong answer. Old enemies inside the RAF conspired to sack him, and Churchill let it happen.

A major part of the perspective of this book is that Churchill was extremely talented... and a big, fat, egotistical jerk. Churchill was stubborn. He gave Hitler no quarter. He wouldn't dream of an armistice. But he interfered unforgivably with his commanders and glorified himself in his story (his-story) of the war.

Something I learned about Chamberlain was that he's been a little too vilified, and I myself thought of him as an appeaser. Had he stood up to Hitler over Czechoslovakia, the British had nothing to fight him with then, either. When Hitler's direction became clear at about that time, the British war machine cranked up and eventually cranked out just enough material to hold off Germany until the Great Factory's (the US) entrance into the war.

Churchill was undoubtedly a great man to whom civilization owes much. For one thing, he was an amazing thinker of the spoken word. His quotes frame this very post, much of which is critical of him. I couldn't have posted about the Battle of Britain without quoting him. I particularly have him in mind as Tom speaks at UT's Baker Center conference: Churchill and the Special Relationship next week. In learning about his greatness, I also note his flaws.
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