Seventy-five years ago, July 10, 1940, one of the most signal battles in the history of war and one of the clearest demarcations between the evils of totalitarianism and the virtues of resisting that evil began in the skies over southern Britain. The Battle of Britain – Churchill coined the term – was a struggle between an experienced and battle-hardened Luftwaffe and the “chicks” (the young men, most of whom would die) of Fighter Command of the Royal Air Force.
Military historians today look back on this two-month battle and question whether Britain would have fallen had the battle been lost. Germany certainly lacked the fleet and the landing craft for an invasion of Britain, but perhaps the best response to this argument is that everyone thought that losing this battle would force Britain to seek peace. War, as we are learning, again, in our fourteen-year war with radical Islam, is about the will of the opponent.
The last of Churchill’s famous 1940 wartime addresses is summarized best in the line “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” The Luftwaffe was not fighting the British Army or Royal Navy or even the RAF. The Luftwaffe’s campaign was to destroy Fighter Command, a relatively small part of the RAF under the command of Sir Hugh Dowding, a fussbudget who had stayed on past retirement but the perfect man for the task.
Southern England had methodically been developed into a trap for Luftwaffe fighters and bombers. Radar was part of the system, but it included as well spotters, secure telephone lines, command centers, and pilots ready to take off in brief minutes. The Spitfire, the only airplane in the world at the time that could contend with the Bf 109 Messerschmitt, had been developed by a dying man who was, in fact, dead before the battle began.
Take away the Home Chain Defence or Fighter Command chief Sir Hugh Dowding or the Spitfire, and, despite Churchill’s resolve, the battle probably would have been lost. But that was not the only miracle in the campaign. Luftwaffe bombers accidentally bombed London, which changed the whole course of the campaign.
Most overlooked is the contribution of non-British pilots during the battle. The Dominion democracies provided not only essential numbers, but very high-quality pilots. Perhaps most unexpected was the outstanding courage and skill of the Polish and Czech pilots, whom Dowding had originally kept out of the battle. The Polish pilots, who had fought the Luftwaffe when Germany invaded their nation, were the most formidable and numerous of the European allies.
What does this battle mean for us today? Several things.
First, gain the moral high ground. Churchill and the British had done this by the time of the Battle of Britain, and Churchill’s eloquence seared that into the hearts of all free men. The “chicks” who were willing to die in the skies above southern England knew that their sacrifice was for a noble cause. (Has Obama defined the evil of our enemies…at all?)
Second, use and respect allies, particularly brave and motivated allies, to defeat the enemy. The Poles, the Czechs, the Belgians were invaluable, and, because their stake was the ultimate defeat of Hitler, they fought with unparalleled ferocity. (Obama treats true allies, like the Kurds, Israelis, and Jordanians, almost like pariahs while he kow-tows to those who show contempt for us and plan our murder.)
Third, conceive and articulate the final defeat of the enemy, no matter how far away that seems. Churchill made it clear that only the overthrow of Nazi Germany was acceptable. In July 1940 it was very hard to imagine how that end would come, but RAF pilots flew and died knowing that victory would come. (What, our fighting men must wonder, are we fighting for today? Obama does not even seem to believe that defeating radical Islam is a worthwhile goal.)
The conflict between benign and malignant forces in the world, as Reagan often reminded us, was not hard to grasp, but it took great moral and political courage to resist that malignancy and plan its demise. Seventy-five years ago, the forces of good began a desperate and grim struggle in which many good men would die awful deaths…but not in vain. That is the lesson for us today – not in vain.