Myth and Legend of the Battle of Britain
Sir Christopher Foxler-Norris
I apologize for reproducing this text without permission. It is printed in a brochure published by the Guernsey branch of the RAFA, without any bibliographic reference and no mention of copyright. The brochure was distributed on the occasion of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Air Display on sept 12th, 2002. It bears no indication whatsoever. I wrote to the Guernsey branch of the RAF association and upon getting no answer, undestood it as a tacit approval.
Sir Christopher Foxley-Norris served operationally throughout World War II, starting on Lysanders during the withdrawal from France in 1940, through Hurricanes in Scotland during the Battle of Britain and finishing on Beaufighters and Mosquitoes in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Baltic He rose to the rank of Air Chief Marshal and became Commander in Chief RAF Germany/Commander 2nd Allied Tactical Air Force. Since 1958 he has been a most energetic and effective chairman of the Battle of Britain Fighter Association and on retirement in 1974 he became chairman of the Leopard Cheshire Foundation. These are his thoughts on the Battle of Britain.
There has recently been some revived interest in the Battle of Britain, encouraged by the media, and there is at least some knowledge about it among the general reading and watching public. But, unfortunately. much of what is known is inaccurate. The average man in the street can tell you something about the Battle but, unhappily, much of it is legendary and inaccurate.
What does the man in the street known? He knows that the Luftwaffe attempted to establish, in the summer of 1940. air supremacy over Southern England and the English Channel which could enable the launch of a full scale invasion. He knows that invasion was prevented by a few dashing young British officers flying Spitfires. But what he thinks he knows is far from the truth. Let us examine the facts.In the summer of 1940 there is no question that Germany intended to invade this country and that air supremacy was needed to make this feasible. But by no means the whole of the summer of 1940 qualifies, to the historians, as constituting the Battle of Britain.
Some knowledgeable authorities, presumably in the Air Ministry, decided that the Battle of Britain should be spanned by the period 12 July to 31 October. This was indeed the critical period but it was not the only period when there was intense fighting.
To take one classic example, our top qualifying 'ace' Johnnie Johnson, only flew one uneventful sortie during the Battle which did not prevent a recent copy of the Dally Telegraph issuing a picture of him standing by his Spitfire in which 'he shot down 38 German aircraft during the Battle of Britain
To say this is not to question for a moment his record. Indeed, it enhances it because the aircraft he shot down after the final battle were nearly all fighters and therefore all the more difficult to down. Again, when we were about to celebrate the 40th Anniversary, I received a rather sad letter from a pilot who, before 12 July had shot down 8 aircraft, been awarded the EFC, and been badly wounded so he did not fly again and officially he was not entitled to the award. He asked if I could make an exception in his case which I did most willingly, and there were others like him
For the rest your average man or woman knows that a few dashing young British officers flying Spitfires defeated the enemy and prevented the invasion.
Thereafter they were known as 'The Few', but this alone was a misnomer because it assumes that only the few who flew in fact contributed to victory whereas what ensured it was the performance not just of the RAF aircrew but of the population of the whole county.
Until the mid 1930s, Guernica and other places like it surrendered when they were heavily bombed The British did not . They were the first population to stand up to heavy bombing although, to do them justice, it must be acknowledged that the Germans later sustained even heavier bombing without surrendering. Clearly everybody in this country contributed to victory in the Battle of Britain, from the RAF ground crew to the anti-aircraft gunners, the transport workers, the miners and, in particular, the Merchant Navy crews.
All played a critical part. It was by no means a victory for the few. Indeed, it was the many who won by their outstanding and unexpected performance under fire Nor, indeed, were The Few' all that few. Nearly 2000 aircrew (and let us not forget the gunners in the Defiants and the observers in the Blenheims) officially qualified for the Battle of Britain clasp. Nor were they all dashing The more dash the less likelihood of survival. It was the prudent pilot who knew when to save his skin and when the odds were not just heavy but ridiculous and he lived to fly another day.
Nor were all the pilots 'young'. Men like Broadhurst, Beamish and Bader were all well into their 30s when the Battle was fought and many of our gallant Polish allies were past 40 all they never admitted it
Mention of the Poles reminds us how many nationalities other than the British fought in the Battle. There were. of course, the outstanding pilots from the Commonwealth, men like Alan Deere and Sailor' Malan but there were also others who by a stretch of the imagination could be called British.
Everyone seems to know about the Poles and Czechs who contributed large contingents; but many are surprised to hear that the French made a contribution, as did many other countries, even Israel. Nor were the Germans faced only by commissioned officers. Non-commissioned officers such as Ginger Lacey, George Unwin, 'Sticks' Gregory were all NCOs and before the war the NCO fighter pilot formed the hard professional backbone of the majority of RAF fighter squadrons Later, these NCOs were joined by the newest of the new but in early 1940 the proven and expert NCO pilot contributed enormously not only to the numbers but also to the efficiency of such squadrons.
Finally, Spitfires The statistics show that there were twice as many Hurricanes fighting in the Battle as Spitfires and they shot down twice as many aircraft. But the Spitfire has somehow appealed to the public imagination as the Hurricane has not and even now, in talking of 1940, we talk about 'Spitfire Summer'.
Even the Germans contributed to this phenomenon. For some reason, they seemed to resent being shot down by a Hurricane. It was somehow infradig and they always heatedly denied it when all the evidence showed that it was a Hurricane that had been their undoing.
So much of the history that we learn about the Battle of Britain is inaccurate. Was the Battle worth fighting at all ? The best evidence that we have on this came from Field Marshal von Rundstedt. After the end of the war he was interrogated and one of the most important questions asked of him was when he felt that the tide was beginning to turn and when the uninterrupted catalogue of German victories became more and more doubtful. Was it Stalingrad or Leningrad or even El Alamein? "Oh no" replied the Field Marshal, "it was the Battle of Britain" .
This answer certainly surprised his interrogators and they questioned him further. "Well you see", he said, "that was the first time I realised that we were not invincible". So, it was worthwhile having the Battle, whatever the cause, and it was as critical as is portrayed. The one thing that should never be forgotten about the Battle is that we won it.
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