The Battle of Britain Saved Western Democracy

It’s been said that winning entities -- whether sports teams, warring countries or business rivals -- share one overriding characteristic: they minimize their serious errors. An occasional misstep along the way perhaps, but they rarely beat themselves with a critical unforced error.

Certainly, Boston’s two highest-profile sports teams have displayed opposite sides of that trait: for decades the hapless Red Sox would find a way to snatch defeat from the virtually-certain jaws of victory, from Johnny Pesky inexplicably holding the ball allowing the Cards to win the World Series in 1946, to no defensive replacement for Bill Buckner against the Mets in 1986, to leaving Pedro in against the Yankees too long in 2003 when it was obvious to everyone that he was out of gas. The Patriots, on the other hand, always seem to find a way to win, defying the odds time after time and making all the clutch plays. They hardly ever commit grievous mistakes that doom their effort. Talk to the great golfers and they’ll tell you the same thing: It’s not scoring eagles and holes-in-one that count, it’s the avoidance of the disastrous double and triple bogeys that makes for a winning round. Not so much getting the “2” on a Par 4 as it is avoiding the “7.” In boxing, they say, “Don’t fight the other guy’s fight. Don’t hook with a hooker.”

Minimize the errors. Avoid the mistakes. Play or fight smart. War is no different -- the winning side is usually the one that commits fewer major blunders.

This is instructive as we look at Germany and Britain in the early stages of World War II. War in Europe erupted on September 1, 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. Poland fell within weeks and after a quiet winter period known as the “Phony War,” Germany resumed large-scale hostilities in the spring of 1940. German forces smashed through the “Low Countries” of Holland and Belgium and swung around to invade France from a point behind its main defensive eastern border with Germany.

With German forces slicing through the French countryside, France found itself in grave danger of quick defeat. The British sent military aid to France (The British Expeditionary Force or BEF), but it was a lost cause. The French -- despite their world-leading military efforts against Germany in World War 1 (1914-1918) -- showed no real interest in fighting for their homeland’s survival this time, and French resistance quickly collapsed. By the end of May 1940, the Germans had pushed French, British, and other Allied forces to the French coastal town of Dunkirk. There, virtually the entirety of the European Allied armed forces were cornered and defenseless, awaiting destruction at the hands of German Panzer divisions.

However, using sports analogies again, Germany 3-putted. They dropped the game-ending pop-up. They missed the “gimmie” 20-yard winning field goal. They let the Allied armies escape largely intact, as Britain organized an unlikely, heroic boatlift and carried nearly 400,000 soldiers off the beaches and safely back to England. Confusion and political infighting on the Germans’ side over what forces to use and how best to attack led to one of history’s greatest military “unforced errors.” With a decisive victory easily within their grasp, the Germans let it get away. And almost a half-million Allied soldiers lived to fight another day.

Still, the big-picture war situation for Britain was dire. They stood alone against Germany and a very substantial portion of their equipment had been abandoned on the beaches of Dunkirk. A final, conquering German invasion of England was sure to come, probably by fall 1940.

But before a sea-launched invasion could take place, Germany would need to establish air superiority over southern England, destroy their major logistical and defensive targets and reduce the effective fighting strength of the Royal Air Force (RAF) to the point where it didn’t pose a major threat to German invasion forces.

The German air offensive against Britain that began in the summer of 1940 is known as The Battle of Britain. All of Western society and culture as we have come to know it depended on the outcome of this battle. Had Britain lost, the world would be in a completely different condition today. Very, very few large-scale armed events from the last 50-75 years -- not Stalingrad in 1943, Korea 1950-53, Vietnam 1964-75 or Iraq in 1991 -- carried anywhere near the same “everything in Western culture will change instantly” potential as did a British loss to the Germans in 1940.

Unlike the Pacific, where it could be convincingly argued that America’s inherent structural advantages over Japan in raw materials, industrial capability, and matériel would eventually prevail, no such absolute guarantee could be made for the West vs. Germany, especially absent the logistical staging/launching point that the actual physical island of England represented. Germany had immense industrial capability, very advanced technology and unfettered access to crude oil reserves, crucial to sustaining long-term military operations.

Therefore, without Britain, a continued European war against Germany might have proven impossible -- hence the significance of the immediacy of Britain’s survival.

Germany began its air operations in July 1940. Even though its Heinkel 111, Dornier 17, and Junkers 88 bomber aircraft were better-suited for tactical close-support missions than the longer-range strategic responsibilities they were being tasked with here, the Germans could have accomplished the goals set before them had they followed a sound strategy.

Broadly stated, those responsibilities were:

  1. Destroy the ability of British early-warning radar stations to detect incoming German flights. Radar was in its infancy in 1940, and Britain was an early-adopter of the nascent technology. The Germans failed to recognize its strategic significance and thus let both the radar installations and their very vulnerable above-ground operations centers get away essentially unscathed.
  2. Degrade the RAF’s southern airfields and reduce the fighting strength of British Fighter Command. Britain’s survival essentially came down to the ability of their fighter planes to mount effective defensive measures against incoming German bombers. If the Germans pressed home repeated, relentless attacks directly against British airfields, then the Brits would be drawn into an aerial war of attrition that would soon cripple their ability to implement an effective defense of the country. German and British fighter planes and pilot quality of the time were roughly equal; an extended air-to-air fighter plane conflict favored the Germans because of their greater numbers and less threatened resupply resources. They needed to keep the pressure on the British fighter assets: engage its fighters in deadly combat, damage and degrade their airbase facilities and damage the logistical support system that supplied those bases.

This was all well within Germany’s equipment and technical capabilities at the time. Initially, they followed the “anti-fighter base” strategy and it was effective. British commanders privately worried amongst themselves that Fighter Command would not remain an effective fighting force much past late summer of 1940 if German attacks continued apace. But the Law of Unforced Military Errors intervened and Britain’s fighter force -- the West’s lifeline -- was spared virtually certain destruction.

Rivals: British Supermarine Spitfire I and German Messerschmitt BF109 E-4

For reasons still not entirely clear to historians, Germany abruptly switched its tactics from attacking British fighter airfields and instead began bombing British cities. Some people have put forth the theory that the Germans mistakenly bombed London in late August, causing the British to retaliate by bombing Berlin on August 25th. The Germans, not realizing their navigational error that led to them bombing London, thought that Britain was initiating a war on their cities, so they responded in kind.

Others posit that Hitler, accustomed to very fast victories early in the war and growing increasingly impatient with the slow progress of the air campaign that was dragging on for months, wanted to switch tactics. They say he felt that bombing British cities would break the will and spirit of the British public and cause them to pressure their government into surrender in order to stop the destruction and civilian casualties.

Regardless of the actual reason, the Germans did change their tactics from a game-winning strategy to a game-losing one. With the pressure off their airfields, British fighter strength recovered. Technical and performance shortcomings of German bombers (such as short range/limited time-over-target and inadequate, small bomb loads) were exacerbated, since the large cities were farther away (forcing the Germans to trade bombs for added fuel) and the small bomb loads limited the amount of truly serious damage that could be inflicted.

British fighter strength increased. German losses mounted. The amount of strategic damage inflicted by the Germans that curtailed the Brtis’ ability to actually wage an effective defensive war was markedly reduced. Although tragic, the air attacks on London increased the British public’s resolve to keep fighting.

By the late fall of 1940, far from having established air superiority in preparation for an invasion of Britain, the Germans had been fought into a bloody stalemate. Numerical fighter losses on each side were roughly equal. German tactics and bomber aircraft had been exposed as woefully inadequate for the task. A likely winning starting strategy to the battle was switched for no militarily sound reason partway through the conflict, and Britain survived.

And so too, arguably, did Western culture and democracy as we know it today.

It’s been said that winning entities -- whether sports teams, warring countries or business rivals -- share one overriding characteristic: they minimize their serious errors. An occasional misstep along the way perhaps, but they rarely beat themselves with a critical unforced error.

Certainly, Boston’s two highest-profile sports teams have displayed opposite sides of that trait: for decades the hapless Red Sox would find a way to snatch defeat from the virtually-certain jaws of victory, from Johnny Pesky inexplicably holding the ball allowing the Cards to win the World Series in 1946, to no defensive replacement for Bill Buckner against the Mets in 1986, to leaving Pedro in against the Yankees too long in 2003 when it was obvious to everyone that he was out of gas. The Patriots, on the other hand, always seem to find a way to win, defying the odds time after time and making all the clutch plays. They hardly ever commit grievous mistakes that doom their effort. Talk to the great golfers and they’ll tell you the same thing: It’s not scoring eagles and holes-in-one that count, it’s the avoidance of the disastrous double and triple bogeys that makes for a winning round. Not so much getting the “2” on a Par 4 as it is avoiding the “7.” In boxing, they say, “Don’t fight the other guy’s fight. Don’t hook with a hooker.”

Minimize the errors. Avoid the mistakes. Play or fight smart. War is no different -- the winning side is usually the one that commits fewer major blunders.

This is instructive as we look at Germany and Britain in the early stages of World War II. War in Europe erupted on September 1, 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. Poland fell within weeks and after a quiet winter period known as the “Phony War,” Germany resumed large-scale hostilities in the spring of 1940. German forces smashed through the “Low Countries” of Holland and Belgium and swung around to invade France from a point behind its main defensive eastern border with Germany.

With German forces slicing through the French countryside, France found itself in grave danger of quick defeat. The British sent military aid to France (The British Expeditionary Force or BEF), but it was a lost cause. The French -- despite their world-leading military efforts against Germany in World War 1 (1914-1918) -- showed no real interest in fighting for their homeland’s survival this time, and French resistance quickly collapsed. By the end of May 1940, the Germans had pushed French, British, and other Allied forces to the French coastal town of Dunkirk. There, virtually the entirety of the European Allied armed forces were cornered and defenseless, awaiting destruction at the hands of German Panzer divisions.

However, using sports analogies again, Germany 3-putted. They dropped the game-ending pop-up. They missed the “gimmie” 20-yard winning field goal. They let the Allied armies escape largely intact, as Britain organized an unlikely, heroic boatlift and carried nearly 400,000 soldiers off the beaches and safely back to England. Confusion and political infighting on the Germans’ side over what forces to use and how best to attack led to one of history’s greatest military “unforced errors.” With a decisive victory easily within their grasp, the Germans let it get away. And almost a half-million Allied soldiers lived to fight another day.

Still, the big-picture war situation for Britain was dire. They stood alone against Germany and a very substantial portion of their equipment had been abandoned on the beaches of Dunkirk. A final, conquering German invasion of England was sure to come, probably by fall 1940.

But before a sea-launched invasion could take place, Germany would need to establish air superiority over southern England, destroy their major logistical and defensive targets and reduce the effective fighting strength of the Royal Air Force (RAF) to the point where it didn’t pose a major threat to German invasion forces.

The German air offensive against Britain that began in the summer of 1940 is known as The Battle of Britain. All of Western society and culture as we have come to know it depended on the outcome of this battle. Had Britain lost, the world would be in a completely different condition today. Very, very few large-scale armed events from the last 50-75 years -- not Stalingrad in 1943, Korea 1950-53, Vietnam 1964-75 or Iraq in 1991 -- carried anywhere near the same “everything in Western culture will change instantly” potential as did a British loss to the Germans in 1940.

Unlike the Pacific, where it could be convincingly argued that America’s inherent structural advantages over Japan in raw materials, industrial capability, and matériel would eventually prevail, no such absolute guarantee could be made for the West vs. Germany, especially absent the logistical staging/launching point that the actual physical island of England represented. Germany had immense industrial capability, very advanced technology and unfettered access to crude oil reserves, crucial to sustaining long-term military operations.

Therefore, without Britain, a continued European war against Germany might have proven impossible -- hence the significance of the immediacy of Britain’s survival.

Germany began its air operations in July 1940. Even though its Heinkel 111, Dornier 17, and Junkers 88 bomber aircraft were better-suited for tactical close-support missions than the longer-range strategic responsibilities they were being tasked with here, the Germans could have accomplished the goals set before them had they followed a sound strategy.

Broadly stated, those responsibilities were:

  1. Destroy the ability of British early-warning radar stations to detect incoming German flights. Radar was in its infancy in 1940, and Britain was an early-adopter of the nascent technology. The Germans failed to recognize its strategic significance and thus let both the radar installations and their very vulnerable above-ground operations centers get away essentially unscathed.
  2. Degrade the RAF’s southern airfields and reduce the fighting strength of British Fighter Command. Britain’s survival essentially came down to the ability of their fighter planes to mount effective defensive measures against incoming German bombers. If the Germans pressed home repeated, relentless attacks directly against British airfields, then the Brits would be drawn into an aerial war of attrition that would soon cripple their ability to implement an effective defense of the country. German and British fighter planes and pilot quality of the time were roughly equal; an extended air-to-air fighter plane conflict favored the Germans because of their greater numbers and less threatened resupply resources. They needed to keep the pressure on the British fighter assets: engage its fighters in deadly combat, damage and degrade their airbase facilities and damage the logistical support system that supplied those bases.

This was all well within Germany’s equipment and technical capabilities at the time. Initially, they followed the “anti-fighter base” strategy and it was effective. British commanders privately worried amongst themselves that Fighter Command would not remain an effective fighting force much past late summer of 1940 if German attacks continued apace. But the Law of Unforced Military Errors intervened and Britain’s fighter force -- the West’s lifeline -- was spared virtually certain destruction.

Rivals: British Supermarine Spitfire I and German Messerschmitt BF109 E-4

For reasons still not entirely clear to historians, Germany abruptly switched its tactics from attacking British fighter airfields and instead began bombing British cities. Some people have put forth the theory that the Germans mistakenly bombed London in late August, causing the British to retaliate by bombing Berlin on August 25th. The Germans, not realizing their navigational error that led to them bombing London, thought that Britain was initiating a war on their cities, so they responded in kind.

Others posit that Hitler, accustomed to very fast victories early in the war and growing increasingly impatient with the slow progress of the air campaign that was dragging on for months, wanted to switch tactics. They say he felt that bombing British cities would break the will and spirit of the British public and cause them to pressure their government into surrender in order to stop the destruction and civilian casualties.

Regardless of the actual reason, the Germans did change their tactics from a game-winning strategy to a game-losing one. With the pressure off their airfields, British fighter strength recovered. Technical and performance shortcomings of German bombers (such as short range/limited time-over-target and inadequate, small bomb loads) were exacerbated, since the large cities were farther away (forcing the Germans to trade bombs for added fuel) and the small bomb loads limited the amount of truly serious damage that could be inflicted.

British fighter strength increased. German losses mounted. The amount of strategic damage inflicted by the Germans that curtailed the Brtis’ ability to actually wage an effective defensive war was markedly reduced. Although tragic, the air attacks on London increased the British public’s resolve to keep fighting.

By the late fall of 1940, far from having established air superiority in preparation for an invasion of Britain, the Germans had been fought into a bloody stalemate. Numerical fighter losses on each side were roughly equal. German tactics and bomber aircraft had been exposed as woefully inadequate for the task. A likely winning starting strategy to the battle was switched for no militarily sound reason partway through the conflict, and Britain survived.

And so too, arguably, did Western culture and democracy as we know it today.

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