Their Finest Hour
The Battle of Britain’s 70th anniversary has been attended by announcements of new memorials (“Briefing,” P. 9), tributes to the gallant airmen (“‘The Few’ Live on at Duxford,” P. 56) and an avalanche of new books (“Reviews,” P. 62). Time is running out for the air battle’s RAF participants, fewer than 100 of whom survive today. In this issue’s “Aviators” (P. 20) we pay homage to one, Gerald “Stapme” Stapleton, who died on April 13.
Much has already been written about the battle, most of which naturally focuses on the British perspective. But in a forthcoming book tentatively titled The Battle of Britain: The German Experience, C.G. Sweeting, who wrote about Adolf Hitler’s private air fleet in our September issue, takes a different tack. His authoritative text will be complemented by the illustrations of John Batchelor, whose detailed drawings frequently grace these pages (see “Airplanes of the Battle of Britain,” P. 44).
While it can be dangerous to ascribe too much importance to a single historical event, Sweeting makes a strong case that a relatively minor German raid “changed the course of the battle and perhaps the war.” On the night of August 24-25, 1940, a force of Heinkel He-111s attempted to bomb the oil terminal at Thameshaven. Due to a navigational error that was most likely the result of dense cloud cover, the German bombs instead fell on a residential quarter in London’s East End. It was the first time during the battle that central London had been bombed, and the raid, in combination with mounting civilian deaths elsewhere, spurred Winston Churchill and the War Cabinet to order retaliatory strikes against Berlin.
The following night, 81 twin-engine RAF bombers set out for Berlin, 29 of which managed to reach the German capital and release their bombs. Damage, mostly to suburban areas, was light, although a bomb killed the only elephant at the Berlin Zoo. Four more minor raids followed in the next 10 days, killing and wounding some civilians.
Hitler was furious, and for the first time ordered the mass bombing of London. This change in tactics from focusing on destroying RAF airfields, radar sites and other strategic targets to terror bombing civilians ultimately proved fatal to the Germans. It gave Fighter Command the time it needed to rebuild its facilities and forces, and increased the British resolve to fight on. “Hitler misjudged the British public,” says Sweeting. “The bombing raids made them mad as hell!”
Would the outcome have been different if Hitler hadn’t switched tactics? Perhaps. Would the Germans have been able to successfully invade the British Isles, assuming the Luftwaffe had gained air supremacy? Probably not. As ever, the British showed incredible will to repel the invaders. And as Churchill aptly summed it up in January 1939, long before the battle had been joined, “War is horrible, but slavery is worse, and you may be sure that the British people would rather go down fighting than live in servitude.”