The Royal Family and The Battle of Britain
by Garry Toffoli
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the will which says to them “hold on”.
…… from the poem If, by Rudyard Kipling
War is, to a great extent, a battle of technology and a battle of wills and the Battle of Britain was a classic example of this. The late summer and early autumn of 1940 was one of those moments in history when the attention and the fate of the world were riveted on one place – in that instance the skies over Britain.
To put the Battle of Britain into perspective a brief summary of the world in the summer of 1940 is necessary. Following the German conquest of Norway, the Low Countries and France, Britain and the Commonwealth stood alone against Nazi Germany. The Soviet Union and the United States were not yet in the war. Although the Empire and Commonwealth comprised a quarter of the world’s population the key was the mother country. If Britain fell, despite pledges to carry on the fight from Canada and elsewhere, the conflict would have been lost. There would have been no El Alamein, no D-Day, no ultimate victory. Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, was merely stating the obvious when he said that the Nazis must “break us in this island or lose the war”.
To invade and defeat Britain, the seas around the British Isles, in particular the English Channel, had to be controlled – at least long enough for an invasion fleet to cross. It was the same challenge faced by Napoleon and the Spanish Armada in their times. But in the Mid-Twentieth Century, to control the seas the skies above had to be controlled. This meant that Germany’s Luftwaffe had to defeat Britain’s Royal Air Force first.
The Battle of Britain lasted from 10th July to 31st October, 1940, though in a sense it lasted throughout the war, as Britain was always a target for German bombs and later rockets. On the 10th July the preliminaries began as Hitler waited for a British response to the peace overtures he had issued following the fall of France. Attacks were limited to coastal shipping and ports so as not to irrevocably alienate the British. At least that was the fantasy that dominated Hitler’s mind – that Britain was not his natural enemy. But Britain knew that negotiations with Hitler were a chimera; his promises worthless; and did not fall into the Fuhrer’s snares. As Churchill described it, Nazism was the “abyss of a new Dark Age”.
So, by mid-August, Hitler decided on a serious assault against Britain. On 13th August, code-named “Eagle Day” by the Germans, the Luftwaffe’s major assault on the radar stations and airfields of the Royal Air Force began.
This campaign begun on “Eagle Day”, the beginning of a concerted assault against significant military targets was strategically sound. The plan was to destroy the infrastructure of the RAF, destroy the aeroplanes on the ground if possible and otherwise in the air in a battle of attrition. While the RAF got the better of the contests that followed it was, in fact, being gradually worn down by attrition within a month. The German strategy was working. As the British were outnumbered by more than three to one (counting the operational strength of German bombers – 1,300, and fighters – 950, against 650 RAF fighters), it was not enough for them to be more successful, they had to be more than thrice as successful, which was perhaps asking too much.
The RAF had three technological advantages – radar, central command and control for fighter defence and the Spitfire. Radar was not a secret but the RAF had developed it to a higher quality than any other military force in the world.
The Spitfire fighter aeroplane is the legend of the Battle of Britain, and it was clearly the superior aircraft, but two-thirds of the RAF’s aeroplanes were actually the effective but inferior Hurricanes. On the German side was the Messerschmitt 109 fighter, which was fast and maneouvreable but light, and therefore could take less punishment than the British aircraft. The main bombers were the Heinkel level bomber and the Stuka dive bomber. The former was a good plane but with only two engines it did not have the range or endurance of the four-engine British, Canadian and American bombers who would later bring the war to the German homeland. The Stuka was a good terror weapon, the whine of the bombing runs being part of its effect, but it was at its best after air superiority had been achieved. It was slow and it was clumsy. It proved an easy target for the RAF fighters.
It should be noted that the Luftwaffe was not developed as a strategic air force in its choice of aircraft. They were designed primarily to support the army. They were not designed to fight another air force in an air war. In short, the Luftwaffe was not built for the Battle of Britain; the RAF was. But the Luftwaffe had the numbers to balance its weaknesses.
Other than in numbers, the area where the Germans were clearly superior was in their air tactics. The RAF divided the 12 aircraft in a fighter squadron into four flights of 3 aircraft each. This left the third aeroplane in a vulnerable “tail end Charlie” position without anyone to cover it. As a result the third aeroplanes were frequent victims to German attacks. The Luftwaffe divided the twelve into three flights of four aircraft and then, within the flights, there were two pairs of aeroplanes. Each pair could attack with the second plane, or wingman, covering the rear of the lead craft. After the Battle of Britain, although they had been victorious, the RAF adopted the German tactics for the rest of the war. And it is still the standard squadron structure throughout the world in the 21st Century. Although few squadrons fight as groups of twelve anymore, they almost always fight as pairs or combinations of pairs.
The Germans had avoided bombing major cities in July and August, 1940. This was not due to moral concerns – they had destroyed Warsaw and Rotterdam earlier in the war, but such a strategy was militarily irrelevant to the campaign against the RAF. Shock and awe (to use a modern term) were part of the campaigns in Poland and the Low Countries and included attacks on civilians. Bombing of cities would probably have been part of an invasion of Britain, therefore. But, as previously mentioned, first the RAF had to be destroyed. It would not be destroyed by the bombing of London.
By the end of August the RAF was losing the war of attrition, despite their superior strategic planning, although they were winning most tactical encounters. The numbers were simply against them – they were losing too many aircraft and too many men. The Germans were losing more, but they could afford to. Then on 5th September a Luftwaffe bomber lost its way, thought it was over the Channel and ditched its bombs before returning home. In reality it was over London, which it thus accidentally bombed. Churchill jumped at the opportunity handed to him and ordered a small raid on Berlin the next day in retaliation. Churchill had wanted to bomb Berlin, with the hope of goading the Germans into diverting their airfield attacks, but could not bomb German civilians if Germany had not first bombed British civilians. He now had his excuse and the Nazis fell into his trap. Herman Goering had boasted that no bombs would ever fall on Berlin. Little damage was actually done by the raiders but Hitler was enraged and, in one of his great blunders, switched the Luftwaffe’s attacks from airfields to London and other cities on 7th September. It was the beginning of the Blitz. The professional leadership of the Luftwaffe was appalled and opposed the decision, but to no avail. Given an unexpected chance to catch their breath, replenish their ranks in men and aeroplanes, and repair their airfields, and continuing to be led by superior radar technology and strategy and superior aeroplanes, the men of the RAF outfought the Luftwaffe through the month of September when cities became the targets, and Hitler abandoned his invasion plans.
The 15th September, 1940 was the climax of the contest – the largest German assault on London (over one thousand planes) and a day of clear victory for Britain. Two days later Hitler deferred Operation Sea Lion, the planned invasion of the United Kingdom. In mid-October he cancelled it. The campaign officially known as the Battle of Britain lingered on until the end of October however. The15th September is commemorated each year as Battle of Britain Day. The “Few” of the RAF, Commonwealth and Allied air forces to whom, as Churchill famously noted, “so much was owed by so many” had prevailed.
The fiftieth anniversary of the great victory was celebrated in London in 1990 and was the most spectacular observance. There was a parade of 1,400 men and women down the Mall to Buckingham Palace before their Queen. The marchers gave a good indication of who was involved in the victory. They included the Royal Air Force of course, but also Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, Princess Mary’s RAF Nursing Service, the Women’s RAF, the Royal Observer Corps, the RAF Volunteer Reserve, the RAF Association, the Air Sea Rescue Association, Coastal Forces Veterans, the Royal British Legion, police and fire services, the Red Cross and war widows, representing the varied contingents that played out their roles in the Battle of Britain.
The colours of seventeen RAF squadrons and of 401 Squadron Royal Canadian Air Force paraded with them. Overhead 163 aircraft, led by two Spitfires and two Hurricanes, performed the largest fly-past since the Queen’s Coronation. Among the Canadians in the fly-past were several officers on exchange duty with the RAF. Thirty regulars, thirty-eight reservists, 156 Royal Canadian Air Cadets and many veterans marched in the parade. Forty-seven of the cadets wore black armbands with the names, ranks, squadron numbers and dates of death of the forty-seven Canadians killed in the Battle of Britain.
In all, the RAF and Allied forces lost 1,017 aircraft, the Germans 1,882. 544 Allied aircrew out of 2,936 were killed, about one in six, including forty-seven of the ninety-four Canadians who fought – one in two. Only about half of the “Few” survived the war and today it is believed that there are fewer than one hundred alive.
The Canadians served in Number 1 Squadron RCAF (later renumbered 401 Squadron), the equally famous 242 “Canadian” Squadron RAF, led by Douglas Bader – the indomitable legless pilot portrayed in the book and film Reach For The Sky, and individually in squadrons throughout the RAF. Number 1 Squadron shot down thirty enemy aircraft, eight probables and thirty-five damaged, while losing sixteen of their own with three pilots killed and ten wounded.
The RAF did not actually defeat the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain. During and after the battle the Luftwaffe remained a formidable fighting force capable of achieving tactical victories. But the RAF won the battle in the strategic sense because the Luftwaffe could not defeat it. By not losing the RAF won. Neither the RAF nor the British civilian population cracked under the strain. The British not only won the battle of technology, they won the battle of wills. As a result the Germans were denied air superiority, which denied them the control of the English Channel necessary for an invasion.
It was in the battle of wills that the Crown played its role. Even in peacetime the monarch’s role is incarnating society. In wartime that role is heightened. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth were the perfect monarchs for the occasion.
Perhaps the most important contribution of the King was in refusing to leave London. By remaining in the city that was the symbol not only of the spirit of Britain but the spirit of the Commonwealth, he assumed his rightful place as the personification of that spirit. And speaking in fact as the voice of all her people, the Queen sent a defiant message that was understood by friend and foe alike when it was suggested that her daughters, and perhaps she, should leave Britain for safer shores in Canada. “The children will not go without me. I won’t leave the King. And the King will never leave.”
The royal role was not merely a passive one either. The King and Queen visited defence establishments regularly and immediately visited communities that were bombed in the Blitz, walking amidst the rubble that often still contained unexploded bombs to be with their people when they needed them.
The 9th September was the King’s first visit to the East End after a bombing. In the contemporary book The Royal Family in Wartime the author relates that,
On that first visit to the bombed-out victims in the East End nothing in the King’s manner conveyed any hint of his knowledge that at that moment a time bomb weighing 250 pounds was lying in his own home at Buckingham Palace and might explode at any moment. It did, in fact, explode the next day, when the King and Queen were at Windsor, wrecking the swimming pool which had been built for the Princesses two years before, breaking windows in the King’s and Queen’s bedrooms, and doing other damage. Thus from the very start the King and Queen shared with their subjects the hardship of having their homes damaged by wanton bombs from the air.
In fact, BuckinghamPalace was bombed nine times during the war. At 11:00 a.m. on 13th September the King and Queen were in residence and watched from the windows as five bombs fell on the Palace, smashing a hundred windows and wrecking the Chapel. Two employees were injured and one was killed. On 15th September a bomb crashed through the roof and through the Queen’s apartments to the ground floor but, fortunately, did not explode.
On one of the bombings of the Palace a Canadian with 609 Squadron, Squadron Leader Keith Ogilvie of Ottawa, shot down the bomber after the German had dropped his bombs. Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands had watched from the balcony of the Palace and sent congratulations to Ogilvie afterwards.
The Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison, noted that, “the bombing of BuckinghamPalace was a blunder of the first order and had the effect, not of harming the Royal Family, but of increasing the affection of the people for the King and Queen who shared their perils”.
When Buckingham Palace was bombed the Queen said that she was glad, “Now I can look the East End in the face”. When she visited the East End however, she disagreed with suggestions that she should not dress up for the excursions. Such a decision would, she felt, show less respect, not more respect for her people. “If the poor people had come to see me”, she noted, “they would have put on their best clothes”.
The visits to bombed cities and communities followed a familiar pattern. Again quoting from The Royal Family in Wartime:
It was an astonishing experience to accompany the King and Queen on one of these expeditions, and to see the new representative monarchy in action. Travelling in an ordinary-looking saloon car with military number plate and splinter-proof windows, the King and Queen had none of the customary amenities of open roads, cleared in advance for a royal progress; instead, a police motor cyclist rode ahead, charged with the impossible task of clearing busy London traffic only a few seconds before the royal car approached. Then came a police car, the royal car, and perhaps a third containing the staff; no more. This little procession became familiar to Londoners. They would stand cheering at Westminster Bridge, the Marble Arch and other focal points as the cars sped by. Although the police cyclist would thrust his way unceremoniously into the traffic blocks when the King was held up on his own highway, and marshal lorries and carts, buses and military cars, this way and that until the road was clear, there were never any advance instructions; and when the King and Queen reached the bombed area, as often as not the wardens and rescue workers had no inklings that they were expected. If that was the case it was as the King desired.
The King received the news of the infamous bombing of Coventry in the evening while he was staying in the country. He drove to the city early in the morning while the walls were still falling. The King’s visits were not without humour at times however. Col Strome Galloway, of The Royal Canadian Regiment, related one such incident:
Shortly after the devastating cross-Channel bombardment of Dover, it was suggested that Their Majesties visit that city to see the damage and encourage the inhabitants. Because the German guns might try to harass the city during such a visit, the King and Queen’s arrival went unannounced. They drove through the streets viewing the damage and the King suggested that they should call on some humble home which had been closely affected by the shelling.
The mayor agreed and the King, wearing his customary naval uniform, alighted from the car with the Queen by his side. Their rap brought a teen-aged girl to open the door. “Is your mother home?” the King enquired, as he and Her Majesty stepped forward. “No, she ain’t”, replied the girl, “but she said, if a sailor and a lady calls, you’re to tell ‘em they can ‘ave the upstairs backroom for five shillings for an hour”.
The 1939-45 struggle was not only the second world war of the 20th Century, it was the first truly total war. London was as much the “front line” as was El Alamein in North Africa. Workers and civilians were not only collateral casualties, as they had been in most wars, but were targets themselves. Everyone was a combatant.
For the first time since George II led troops into combat therefore, the King was leading his people in battle, because that battle was fought in the skies over their homes. Death could, and did, strike at any moment, and did not regard rank or title. The purpose of total war is to break a nation’s will to continue the struggle and sustain the fighting troops. It was the role of the King and Queen to help to ensure that the will of the Commonwealth was not broken. And they carried out their duties magnificently. The King and Queen, together or on their own, undertook regular visits to bombed areas throughout Britain to be with their people and to reassure them that their plight was shared and that victory would come. They visited the soldiers of the Commonwealth while they were defending Britain and again before they were sent overseas, to wish them God speed on behalf of all.
The King and Queen were also aware that the ground war could come to Britain, if the air war was lost and the Germans invaded. Echoing the spirit of Winston Churchill’s declaration that “We shall never surrender”, the Royal Family, who were already experts with rifles, learned to fire pistols and other weapons as well. Referring to the conquered heads of state of Europe, the Queen declared, “I shall not go down like the others.”
On 13th October, 1940 Princess Elizabeth gave her first public broadcast on the BBC’s Children’s Hour, which was heard by children around the Commonwealth and Empire. To these children she said, “I feel that I am speaking to friends and companions who have shared with my sister and myself many a happy Children’s Hour. Thousands of you in this country have had to leave your homes and be separated from your fathers and mothers. My sister Margaret Rose and I feel so much for you, as we all know from experience what it means to be away from those we love most of all … We know, every one of us, that in the end all will be well. For God will care for us, and give us victory and peace. And when peace comes, remember, it will be for us, the children of today, to make the world of tomorrow a better and happier place.”
Another major role of the King during the Battle of Britain and the war was holding investitures of bravery decorations. His Majesty personally decorated 32,000 men and women during the war, expanding the pre-war practice of only personally investing officers to include all ranks who won gallantry awards and also the next of kin for posthumous awards.
Recognising that in 20th Century warfare there was no longer a frontline, and that the civilian population was at as great a risk from air raids as combat troops at the front, the King created the George Cross and George Medal in September, 1940 for gallantry not in combat, specifically as a result of the Battle of Britain. Nor did the King allow air raids to interfere with his programme. The King carried on with planned investitures at BuckinghamPalace even during air raids. The 1944 Birthday Honours were presented in the royal air raid shelter under the Palace, but they were presented nonetheless.
The specific engagement known as the Battle of Britain ended on 31st October, 1940. But the Battle did not really end for another four and a half years, until VE Day on 8th May, 1945. Strome Galloway’s description of that day, as one who was present, is a fitting end to this story of the Royal Family and the Battle of Britain.
On VE Day I joined the packed throngs dancing around the sandbagged pedestal of Eros in Piccadilly Circus. It was a day of wild rejoicing. There were to be no more air raids, no more V1 and V2 rockets, no more telegrams which began: “The War Office regrets to inform you …”.
Like Coronation Day, 1937, eight years before, the VE Day crowds were not only made up of Londoners, but included people from the four corners of the earth. Military uniforms were everywhere, not the scarlets and golds and blues and greens which in 1937 lined the streets for the royal procession to pass, but the universal khaki battledress of Allied fighting men. This time they were just part of the crowd; soldiers, sailors and airmen on home leave, or men and women of the Home Forces. There were Americans, Poles, Czechs, Free French, Belgians and troops from the Empire. All of a sudden the surge was felt. The vast concourse was moving by instinct down Lower Regent Street to the Mall, flowing into another throng moving Palace-ward from Trafalgar Square.
Outside the Palace the huge gathering stood. “We want the King!” they shouted as others had so often done before. And out onto the balcony he came; bareheaded, in the blue service uniform of an Admiral of the Fleet. Then came the Queen and the princesses, Elizabeth, the elder of the two, wearing the khaki uniform of the ATS, the women’s section of the British Army. With the Royal Family was the hero of the hour, Winston Churchill, the King’s first minister and the architect of Allied victory. But it was the King whom the people acclaimed – not Churchill. And so it should have been, and so Churchill himself would have agreed. He was only a servant of the Crown. It was the Crown that was victorious, not the prime minister. And so thousands of throats burst into “God Save the King”, and the King waved and Churchill gave his famous V sign, and then a marvellous thing happened.
The royal party remained on the balcony acknowledging the cheers of the thousands below. Finally, as dusk began to turn to darkness, the streetlights began to glow. For the first time in almost six years the lights of London shone again.
Copyright (c) 2013 Garry Toffoli