The media is saturated with celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the “Spitfire summer” of 1940.
Young men, scarcely out of school, stood against terrific odds when they took to the air to protect Britain’s shores from the most powerful military machine yet seen—that of the German dictator Adolf Hitler.
In 1940, we are told, Britain stood alone after France, Holland and Belgium had surrendered.
Hitler threw his formidable airforce, the Luftwaffe, at Britain.
If he had won control of the air over southern England, invasion would have followed.
But what came to be known as the “Battle of Britain” is surrounded by a series of myths.
One is that it was the young sons of the British ruling class that saved the day, with the RAF pilots being overwhelmingly public school boys.
In fact 70 percent were state-educated—only about 200 of the 3,000 pilots went to public school. One in five of the pilots were Polish, Czech or from one of Britain’s dominions or colonies.
Another falsehood is that Hitler was planning to invade Britain. In reality he knew that Germany was not in a position to do this, even if the Luftwaffe won control of the air.
There are several reasons for this.
First, the British and US invasion of France in June 1944 required hundreds of battleships, troopships and landing craft.
Germany did not command such a force at any point during the war.
Second, in the skies there were problems too. In 1940 the main German fighter aircraft, the Messerschmitt ME109, was a match for the Spitfire, and outclassed the Hurricane.
But it could only carry enough fuel to stay airborne above Britain for 30 minutes.
And, Britain’s aircraft factories were able to out-produce those of Germany.
This was because Hitler could not implement the kind of total war economy being run in Britain until 1943.
He feared domestic unrest if consumer consumption was cut too harshly.
Another Battle of Britain myth is the idea that “we were all in it together” during the attacks on British cities, known as the Blitz.
While working class East London was being gutted by bombing, the king and queen did not dare sleep in the capital.
Meanwhile, prime minister Winston Churchill was either in a bunker or in the countryside.
Londoners had to force their way past the police to shelter in Underground stations because no bombproof shelters were available.
This lack of protection had devastating consequences. The civilian death toll far outnumbered military casualties.
In the six months between July and December 1940, 27,000 civilians were killed in the bombings, with as many injured.
On 7 September 1940 the Luftwaffe began bombing London. The docks were set alight and huge fires swept the city.
Some 430 civilians were killed, 1,600 seriously wounded, and thousands made homeless in just 24 hours.
For the next 76 days London was bombed, except for 2 November when bad weather kept the German aircraft away.
The Luftwaffe then switched its bombing raids to night time.
These only stopped in the spring of 1941, as Hitler shifted his airforce east for the invasion of Russia.
The Battle of Britain was vital in bolstering Churchill’s image as an implacable opponent of the Nazis.
The wartime leader was not a committed anti‑fascist, far from it.
He was an arch-imperialist who understood that if Hitler succeeded in dominating Europe, he would next turn his fire on Britain and Churchill’s beloved empire.
To continue the resistance Churchill realised that he needed support from the US, which Britain increasingly relied on for arms.
But these imports had to be paid for and Britain was heading for bankruptcy.
Prior to the Battle of Britain, US leaders were unsure whether Britain could hold out.
The air battles of 1940 were used to huge effect to win sympathy for Britain in the US.
It showed Washington’s politicians that Britain would fight on. The US eventually joined the war in December 1941.
But its price was the dismantling the British Empire, the very thing Churchill fought to preserve.