Wednesday, September 14, 2011

"Some Chicken...Some Neck."

So said Winston Churchill in a speech before the Canadian Parliament following the Battle of Britain, the air war that took place in the summer and fall of 1940. 

(Though the Blitz, the Nazi bombing of British cities and factories, continued into mid-1941, Britain's victory in the preceding air war crushed Hitler's ambitions of launching a naval invasion of England.)

Shortly before the Nazi onslaught began in July 1940, the commander-in-chief of France's armed forces Maxine Weygand predicted, "In three weeks, England will have her neck wrung like a chicken." (Of course, it should be noted that by the time Monsieur Weygand made his forecast the Germans had overrun his country.)

Nonetheless, England was at the precipice. No nation had been able to withstand the Nazis advances. The Luftwaffe's sinister shrieking dive bombers had proved terrifyingly effective in Poland and Spain. Worse, Germany's air force was twice the size of Britain's. Many British leaders, even its foreign minister, thought their best hope was a negotiated surrender. American ambassador Joseph Kennedy told FDR England was doomed. (Even after the British won the campaign and withstood the Blitz, Kennedy told the press in November 1940 that "Democracy in England is finished.")

Yet Britain won. And decisively, as recounted in this 2008 feature in Air Force Magazine, which is published by the U.S. Air Force Association. How did Churchill pull it off? The reasons run across the board: 

* The British had superior technology. They made better use of radar, allowing them to scramble their fighters at the last minute, saving fuel. Even the gas they used had more bang—100 octane shipped from the U.S.—which boosted their fighters' performance. 

* They had better intelligence, having cracked the German's top-level "Enigma" code. 

* Their fighters—the planes and their pilots—were equal to the Nazis. The Germans had no experience in air-to-air combat. The clumsy Stuka dive bomber was little use in dog fights. The Messerschmitt Me 109 fighter, though a formidable machine, lacked the fuel capacity to spend long periods over England, reducing its ability to escort bombers. The British more than matched both, sending slower Hawker Hurricanes against the Stukas and the faster, more maneuverable Supermarine Spitfires (below) to shoot down bombers protected by the Me 109s. (Even from a manufacturing standpoint, the British outclassed the Germans, building replacement fighters at a faster rate than the Nazis could.)

* The Nazis made tactical and strategic errors. Just as their bombing of British radar sites was proving effective, Hitler ordered resources diverted to a bombing campaign against civilians in London. Thus, the RAF had time to regroup. Meanwhile, British civilian morale rose, as Churchill ordered reprisal raids against Berlin suburbs, strikes that shocked Germans.

* It should go without saying that the British had Churchill, one of history's greatest leaders. His ability to inspire his citizens to fight for the light of freedom far surpassed Hitler's dark ambitions. One man's will can turn the tide of history.