The Battle for Truth

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War and myth go together as closely as marriage and divorce. In the case of the Battle of Britain, myth making began six months after aerial combat ceased when the Air Ministry in London produced a slim account in March, 1941, which was distributed around the world. It sold more than a million copies in Britain alone. To mark the 60th anniversary of the air battle this year the bbc chose to infect a new generation by re-showing the lamentable 1969 Laurence Olivier-Michael Caine movie Battle of Britain, which glamorized the 1941 pamphlet's claims.

Richard Overy, professor of modern history at King's College, London University, has had enough of this generation-by-generation process of myth building. In The Battle (Penguin; 177 pages), a pocket-sized volume of no more than 30,000 words, he sets out to describe the real history behind the popular narrative and to reassess the true significance of the Battle of Britain. He succeeds brilliantly.

This is not revisionist history. Far from it. Overy stresses that British defeat in this air battle would have led either to Nazi invasion or to humiliating peace terms with Germany. By avoiding that defeat, America's later entry into the war in Europe became possible. Nor does Overy denigrate the heroic efforts of the Royal Air Force the first fighting force in Europe to show that the Luftwaffe could be resisted. But he puts the battle in context, and along the way a lot of myths bite the dust.

Myth One: The few against the many. Overy shows that the R.A.F. and Luftwaffe were closely matched in the air battle over southern England. In several important respects, including leadership, tactics, intelligence and above all aircraft production, the British had a substantial edge, although they didn't realize it at the time.

Myth Two: The Spitfire fighter aircraft gave the British the decisive edge. Hurricanes made up the bulk of Fighter Command and accounted for two-thirds of aircraft used. Spitfires were shot down faster than Hurricanes.

Myth Three: The British were so short of pilots by the third successive month of aerial combat (September, 1940) that youths with no flying experience were thrown to the Nazi wolves. Britain had an almost constant supply of 1,400 reasonably well-trained pilots available throughout the crucial weeks of the battle. The shortfall was never above 10%. The Germans did suffer a deficit, which reached a crippling one-third level by September. It was Winston Churchill who started the overwhelming-odds myth with his August, 1940, phrase, "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few." Comments Overy: "If Fighter Command were the 'few,' German fighter pilots were fewer."

Myth Four: Fighter Command alone saved Britain. In fact, the Royal Navy and other R.A.F. Commands, especially Coastal Command, were all closely involved, while in the Mediterranean and North Africa the British were fighting an increasingly tough battle with numerically superior Italian forces.

Myth Five: Hitler's personal intervention in early September (when he ordered the Luftwaffe to begin attacking London) saved Fighter Command from extinction and turned the battle Britain's way. But as Overy shows, the R.A.F. retained most of its strength at this time while Luftwaffe losses were becoming unsustainable.

Myth Six: The significance of the Battle of Britain was seen at once. In truth, there was a lack in Britain of any clear sense that the battle had ceased, let alone been won, in the autumn of 1940, not least because aerial bombing of London began in mid-September. Nor did the Nazi leadership, or German pilots, understand at the time that the Battle of Britain marked the high-water point of their dominance in Europe. Even the term Battle of Britain did not come into use until mid-1941.

So what did the battle achieve? Overy is as lucid on this as everything else. First, the R.A.F. prevented the Luftwaffe from gaining air supremacy over southern England a vital precondition for a Nazi invasion. Second, the combat of July-September, 1940, proved a key moment in rallying British morale. In Overy's phrase, it was "a necessary battle" in that it helped unite people and give civilians and military alike a sense of shared purpose. Third, it marked "the first point since 1931, when Japan occupied Manchuria, that the forces of violent revision in world affairs were halted."

Clearly, this is success "a victory of sorts" in Overy's words and the British achieved it at relatively low cost: 1,220 Hurricanes and Spitfires and 443 pilots were lost. In effect the Battle of Britain saved Britain from national disaster and made certain the country could not be conquered at one blow. But then the myth makers moved in.