The Royal Navy and the Battle of Britain: Air and Sea Power Development 1909-1940.
Dr. Anthony J. Cumming
Following his PhD at the University of Plymouth in 2006, Anthony J, Cumming won the Julian Corbett Prize for Research in Modern Naval History the same year. His book, The Royal Navy and the Battle of Britain (Naval Institute Press, 2010), was published to critical acclaim and the following article is based on a paper given for the Britain and the Sea Conference held in Plymouth in September 2012.
We suffer primarily not from our vices or our weaknesses, but from our illusions.
The main problem with writing the history of World War II is that most Britons do not want any fundamental changes to the traditional interpretations about how Great Britain and her allies emerged victorious in 1945. After all, the world shattering events that took place between 1939 and 1945 have already received intense scrutiny. Possibly the main reason for this is that the British won, so it is easy to ask, why anyone should bother to investigate further or correct any myths?
Indeed, writers return to this literary well to satisfy an insatiable commercial demand for good war stories because Britons are rightly proud of their wartime heritage and the ability to carry on regardless of ferocious odds has become an integral part of British self-identity. Nowhere is this more apparent than the story of how a handful of young fighter pilots saved the world in 1940 by denying Adolf Hitler’s Luftwaffe the air superiority he needed to protect his invasion armada. The result is a continuous rehash of the same old themes – the supposed impotence of warships to land-based airpower and how Hitler postponed the invasion solely because of the RAF’s valiant efforts. So, in 2006, when three historians from the Joint Services Staff Command College at Shrivenham were reported to have stated that it was the Royal Navy rather than the Royal Air Force that prevented a German invasion in 1940, there was media uproar.
My own comments in a national history magazine criticising the low standard of RAF gunnery training in 1940 – hardly a contentious matter amongst academics – were also perverted by the media into a supposed attack upon ‘our heroes’.  Unfortunately, this tendency to exploit the public susceptibility to ‘outrage’ continues to muddy the waters of genuine debate. From this evidence alone, it can be clearly seen that the RAF has achieved ‘cult-status’; an unhealthy situation because it means a branch of our armed services has become largely immune to criticism.
Indeed, it now seems that The Battle of Britain has become the final justification of independent air power. That is to say, air power independent of navy or army control and a convenient fallback position whenever the independent status of the RAF is called into question or whenever it is deemed necessary to defend it against spending cuts. This occurred in 1998 when the Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal Sir Richard Johns was quizzed at a Commons Defence Select Committee about the ‘unique functions of the RAF that make it important to preserve it as a separate service’. Johns’ successful defence of the RAF included a reference to the Battle of Britain and the circumstances that led to the RAF’s formation in 1918.  . It should also be noted that parliamentary discussion of the RAF’s front line restructuring for the 1990s was introduced with a traditional account of how it prevented invasion in 1940 by the Minister for Defence Procurement. During this debate, Neville Trotter MP, made the extravagant claim that the civilised world would not have survived World War II ‘but for the RAF in the Battle of Britain’.
It is easy to see how the spectre of having to fight another Battle of Britain in the air might still be used as a lever against politicians reared in the mythology of the world wars. In reality, there was no obvious direct air threat to the UK in the 1990s or any today. Indeed, the need for large numbers of strike aircraft is difficult to justify with the European barrier protecting the nation.
Using the air campaigns of 1940 in this way is hardly surprising given that it was once described (though not altogether accurately) as ‘a gentleman’s war’ by a popular writer. By contrast, and despite the favourable publicity given by the press to the new Bomber Command Memorial in 2012, any mention of the air war over Germany is invariably tainted by the controversial tactics deployed against German civilians. Another reason why myth and legend continues to hamper academic research and British defence strategy, is the over- compartmentalisation of military history where authors adapt their narratives to core-writers of other disciplines. Put in simple terms air force historians ‘do’ aircraft and naval historians ‘do’ warships and do not intrude much upon each other’s preserves.
A fresh approach is called for and my book The Royal Navy and the Battle of Britain viewed the defence of Great Britain in 1940 from both air and sea perspectives before concluding that it was the enormous strength of the Royal Navy that played the primary role in frustrating a German invasion. My research continues on similar lines and reviews both air and naval development between Louis Bleriot’s (1872-1936) cross-channel flight in 1909 and the Battle of Britain in 1940 and tries to gain fresh insight into why Winston Churchill and the Air Ministry stole the glory of our finest hour. Of course, the circumstances enabling the nation’s once loved senior service to be marginalised in such a way did not occur overnight. Indeed the public’s appreciation of the entire maritime sphere may have begun its decline from around the end of the 19th Century, ironically, sometime after the nation had become heavily dependent on foreign food imports. Of course, the maritime outlook in general is, at last, beginning to improve thanks to the sterling efforts of some individuals and organisations such as the Maritime Foundation. But it is fair to say that a positive attitude towards naval power is a shadow of what it was 100 years ago. Paul Kennedy viewed British naval power as steadily declining between 1897 and 1914. But because it came out of a gradual process of policy changes and events in the wider world hardly anyone was aware of it at the time. However, if we look for a year within Kennedy’s time frame in which attitudes really began to change, it must be 1909. Before 1909, progress in British military aviation was negligible and even in 1911, Field Marshal Douglas Haig (1861-1928) wrote, ‘flying can never be of any use to the army’.  But things were beginning to change. From Louis Bleriot flying the English Channel to the year of the Battle of Britain–the Royal Navy was heavily criticised by those who believed the creation of airpower made navies obsolete and unnecessary. Bleriot flew the English Channel to win £1000.00 from the press baron and owner of the Daily Mail, Alfred Harmsworth, Lord Northcliffe (1865-1922). Northcliffe immediately rang his private secretary and told her, ‘Our Country is no longer an island; Bleriot has flown the channel and history is made today.’ He continued, ‘Do you realise it is the first time an entry [to Great Britain] has been made otherwise than by ship.’
The Daily Mail was the first ‘mass-market’ newspaper with a powerful influence and Northcliffe’s personal grip on the paper was strong. Northcliffe and his brother Harold Rothermere (1868-1940) were the first real press barons and even in 1902 the Daily Mail had a circulation of over one million making it the largest paper in the world at that time. The brothers were great aviation patrons and the paper continued to offer prizes until 1930 to encourage development. Harold also became the President of the Air Council at the point when the two existing military air arms became the Royal Air Force. Rothermere took over the paper when Northcliffe died in 1922.
In the weeks following Bleriot’s flight, the Daily Mail ran articles by well-know writers such as Herbert George (H G) Wells (1866-1946) on the theme ‘we are no longer an island’ boosting the circulation and ramping up prevalent invasion paranoia and Germanophobia.Northcliffe had already commissioned flying enthusiast William Le Queux (1864-1927) to produce the best-selling invasion novel The Invasion of 1910 (1906) and subsequently serialized in the Daily Mail and credited with ‘doing wonders for the circulation of the newspaper’.
Northcliffe also invited the Secretary of State for War, Lord Richard Haldane (1856-1928) to a reception in Bleriot’s honour and tried to persuade Haldane of the threat to national security posed by the aeroplane. Haldane – best known for his army reforms and instigation of the Committee of Imperial Defence (CID) – was not noticeably impressed by Northcliffe’s advocacy of the air but Haldane was the founder of the Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (ACA), created only weeks before Bleriot’s landmark flight in order to undertake, promote, and institutionalize British aeronautical research. This institution was quickly copied abroad and in the longer term, the deliberations of the ACA led to the formation of the Royal Flying Corps in 1912, comprising both military and naval wings. Haldane told the House of Commons shortly after Bleriot’s flight that very little progress had so far been made in the field of military aviation. So far, he claimed, ‘the aeroplane would have to rise much higher before it can be a safe instrument for reconnoitring’ but he believed Bleriot’s crossing and other recent events had shown it would eventually be ‘capable of great results’.A few months earlier, Haldane told the House that the army ‘is going in for dirigibles, and the authorities are considering the best pattern’ but this statement, described as ‘cold comfort’ had not protected him from criticism in the Times for the lack of progress to date.
While 1909 was a landmark year for military aviation the writing was already on the wall for the Royal Navy. Superficially, all was well and the institution had enormous public support. Furthermore, ordinary people were chanting ‘We want eight and we won’t wait’ at music halls – a reference to the popular demand for dreadnought battleships. Despite ongoing Anglo-German naval rivalry there was increasing competition for money from other government departments. Surprisingly, and despite the defence focus moving towards land power and a continental commitment, it was welfare expenditure rather than army spending that became the Navy’s main competitor for resources by 1913.
Chart 1. 
As can be seen from the chart, Army expenditure was overtaken by the Navy from 1905 and remained flat between 1908 and 1913. In fact welfare spending grew by more than a third between 1909 and1913 and by 1913; more was being spent on welfare than on the Army. This is largely attributable to The Peoples Budget of 1909 and old age pensions starting that year.
Surprisingly, perhaps one of the main critics of high naval spending was Winston Churchill (1874-1965) President of the Board of Trade. With David Lloyd George (1863-1945) Churchill represented part of the ruling Liberal party that wanted more emphasis on welfare to retain working class support for the party. Both fought the traditionalists that believed public spending must be reserved for police and defence. However, in 1911 Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty. This was attributable to several reasons but mainly to give the Navy a more dynamic political leader to champion its cause in committee and parliament against the growing influence of the Army. 
Chart 2. 
Chart 2 shows that Churchill proved unable to halt escalating naval expenditure despite looking for cheaper alternatives to the big dreadnought battleship such as submarines and aircraft. Churchill was heavily influenced by a former First Sea Lord, Admiral of the Fleet, Sir John (Jacky) Fisher (1841-1920) who had already been working on these lines. Fisher pushed through the dreadnought battleship concept, which temporarily halted the arms race, and from 1906 to 1908, naval expenditure fell. But he was also a fan of the submarine and the lighter faster battle cruiser. Sadly, he was also an abrasive and divisive figure – blamed for pushing the navy into opposing continental and maritime schools.
In fact, both imperial protection and building a naval deterrent in home waters were crucially important but not for the last time it meant the Navy was being pulled in two directions simultaneously. 1909 was also the year in which the Two-Power Standard was quietly dropped. Herbert Asquith (1858-1928), the prime minister, denied this was the case but in 1910, it was admitted that Britain was only building against Germany. By the outbreak of war in 1914, the continental school achieved dominance with a huge concentration of capital ships in home waters known as The Grand Fleet. Unfortunately, a negative outcome was having to misuse the lightly armoured battle cruisers (designed primarily for trade protection) in the line-of-battle with tragic results at the Battle of Jutland in 1916. However, in one sense the Two-Power Standard vis-à-vis the German High Seas Fleet had been achieved by 1914 because the alliance with France allowed an approximate 2:1 numerical battleship advantage favouring the Entente powers. 
With the formation of the Royal Flying Corps in 1912 Churchill worked on the RFC’s naval wing with the visionary Captain Murray Sueter (1872-1960) – a dedicated exponent of aircraft. Along with army Captain Bertram Dickson (1873-1913) Sueter had given important evidence to the Aerial Sub-Committee of the CID and accurately predicted the nature of air warfare in the years to come. The Royal Flying Corps had army and naval wings but with reconnaissance and artillery spotting at its core. This first experiment in joined-up airpower was to last until 1914 when Churchill removed the naval wing and renamed it the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). This expanded rapidly because Churchill and Sueter foresaw a wide variety of maritime roles for aircraft such as fleet reconnaissance, the hunting of submarines and ships, the launching of attacks upon enemy coastlines and defending the homeland against all kinds of enemy attack. The official air historian later stated, ‘The navy naturally paid more attention than the army to fighting in the air’ pointing out that as the navy had to operate further from the enemy on the ground, they wanted machines that were more than observation platforms ‘machines that could fly far and hit hard’. The Admiralty ‘diligently fostered the efforts of the leading motor car companies … and so were instrumental in the production of very efficient engines of high horse-power.’  From the very beginning the Royal Navy worked on ways of operating aircraft from ships and during the course of the war, introduced and developed the aircraft carrier. This became one of the most effective weapons systems in the history of warfare proving its worth in August 1917 when an RNAS Sopwith Pup from HMS Yarmouth shot down Zeppelin L .23 off Denmark.
Meanwhile the RFC developed reconnaissance and artillery spotting over land. Air fighting developed to gain air superiority to carry out these tasks over enemy lines and to stop the enemy doing this. Bombing and ground attack evolved slowly but neither the Imperial German Air Force nor the RFC developed these to the point that the land battles were decisively influenced. The German Air Force gained a short term advantage using a Fokker Monoplane with a forward mounted machine gun firing between the propeller blades and this enabled German aces such as Max Immelman (1890-1916) and Oswald Boelke (1891-1916) to develop the first fighter tactics. But continuous technological leap-frogging meant the advantage of air superiority swung back and forth over the next few years.
When the air situation became critical during the Battle of Arras in the spring of 1917, the Admiralty sent naval squadrons to fight alongside the RFC. These tipped the balance back during the Summer of 1917 where it mostly stayed for the rest of the war. A total of six naval squadrons became attached to the RFC along the Western Front where they achieved great success. Furthermore, the Admiralty surrendered its private sector contracts for the famous Sopwith Camel to the RFC. Unfortunately, the RFC had depended heavily on the mediocre products of the state-run Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough. Except for the SE5a and (briefly, the FE2 series), their aircraft were not fit to engage the German fighters.
With the Germans generally outmatched in quantity and technical quality over the Western Front by mid-1917, they responded by using their larger Gotha bomber aircraft to bomb England and divert British resources away from the front.  Previous attempts to bomb Britain using Zeppelins and other airships had not met with much success because of the airships inherent limitations including susceptibility to the weather, structural fragility and small bomb loads. Therefore, the wartime Zeppelin offensives cost Germany far more in construction and maintenance than it cost the British in terms of property damage. Aircraft were a different matter and considerable resources including the crack 56 Squadron, RFC were diverted from the front despite protests from Field Marshal Haig and his RFC commander Sir Hugh Trenchard (1873-1956).
The government panicked as press criticism mounted. The Gothas were bombing in broad daylight and brushing aside the feeble air defences. Prime Minister Lloyd George worried about the working class emulating the Russian Revolution because of recent battlefield disappointments and the imposition of food rationing. Lloyd George distrusted almost all his military leaders considering Haig too careless of lives and repeatedly calling for the admirals to be sacked. In desperation, he turned to lawyer and former Boer guerrilla leader Field Marshal Jan Christaan Smuts (1870-1950) to sort the situation out. While Smuts had no specialist knowledge of aircraft, this German bombing campaign had features akin to a guerrilla war that he was familiar with. Smuts quickly submitted two reports, firstly about reorganizing London’s air defence, and secondly, about the direction of future airpower. The first report resulted in a reorganisation of London’s air defences under army Brigadier-General E B Ashmore (1872-1953) that bore many resemblances to the command and control system famously used in 1940. However, because of the exhaustion of German bomber crews and relentless wear-and-tear on machinery strained to its limit, the Germans switched to night bombing after 22 August 1917 and the system was never fully tested. 
But it was the second report that had the most far-reaching consequences. Because it was wartime (and a British cultural preference) Smuts heard his evidence in private at the Hotel Cecil on the Strand. Smuts seems to have been persuaded by evidence from Rear Admiral Mark Kerr (1864-1944) that Germany was building a massive fleet of Giant heavy bombers to devastate London and S E England and Kerr’s assertion that the only defence was to bomb German civilian centres first.  Sir David Henderson (1862-1921), a former head of the RFC gave evidence to justify his proposal to merge the army and naval wings of the RFC and form a bombing force independent of Army and Navy control. Evidence by the industrialist William Weir (1877-1959), forecast a surplus of aero engines for the coming year and this could provide the basis for the new bombing force. However, no mention was made of providing additional airframes to which these ‘surplus’ engines could be fitted.
All this was meant to eliminate the damaging inter-service rivalry that many claimed existed between War Office and Admiralty. It was widely believed the RNAS had monopolised all the good equipment and this was preventing the RFC from doing its job properly. There was some truth in this. Aircraft such as the Sopwith Camel were not specifically naval and since Churchill’s departure from the Admiralty in 1916, a certain innovative spirit had been lacking in the RNAS. Not sufficiently emphasised anywhere was the lack of drive and enthusiasm among pre-war senior army commanders for developing their air arm. But there was also much press exaggeration and frustrated flying enthusiasts from both army and navy exploited the situation.
The intelligence provided by Kerr was certainly exaggerated as Germany launched a night bombing offensive in the autumn of 1917 using Gothas and a few Giant bombers. While they caused much property damage and panic out of proportion to their small numbers they failed to bring Germany closer to victory. Likewise the forecast of aero engines for the new RAF bomber force turned out to be erroneous as British industry failed to meet the service requirement, far less produce a surplus during 1918.  However, the outcome of all these deliberations led to the RAF being created in April 1918 and a portion of it christened The Independent Air Force (IAF) using former naval bombers. But the RAF fought the rest of the war in the same way as their predecessors. The IAF concentrated on supporting the army and never penetrated far into Germany because of the limitations of range and navigation. It only requires a map to see how much easier it was for the Germans to bomb England than for the IAF to bomb Germany. Providing there was a moon, the Germans could fly from Belgium and follow the Thames estuary to reach London. Meanwhile the rest of the RAF supported the army in bombing and ground strafing roles but without any conspicuous success. The Germans launched their last all-out ground offensive in March 1918 and despite the RFC warning of a German build-up and bombing their concentrations, the Germans still achieved a tactical surprise when they broke through the British line. Ground strafing delayed the attack in certain places and never for very long.
Ultimately the German offensives ground to a halt. This was the result of several factors, including stubborn British resistance and increasing numbers of fresh American troops. That they did so was the result of the Royal Navy winning the first Battle of the Atlantic. Except for those based around electronics, radar and missiles, most techniques involving aircraft at sea were pioneered by the RNAS between 1914 and 1918.  The introduction of convoying combined with food rationing had narrowly averted starvation for the population in 1916/17 but new anti-submarine techniques including the use of aircraft by the RNAS broke the U-boat threat in 1917 enabling 500,000 fresh American troops to cross the Atlantic during June and July 1918. At the same time the naval blockade, combined with a series of German agricultural failures and the severing of land routes by the war pushed the German and Austrian home fronts towards collapse. Unfortunately, the failure to achieve a clear unambiguous victory over the German High Seas Fleet at Jutland proved a huge disappointment to the British public at a time when the British Expeditionary Force was suffering enormous casualties and this caused resentment against the sailors. By contrast, public appreciation of the aviators’ efforts soared as the romantic ideal of the knights-of-the-air took root.  Genuine acts of chivalry by pilots of both sides were widely reported and seemed worlds away from the squalor of the trenches or the relative anonymity of the war at sea. Inevitably perhaps, chivalry declined as the air combats intensified during 1917 but the memories lingered. The RAF ended the war as the largest air force in the world but the war in the air over the trenches had been almost a private war with minimal impact upon the ground situation.
Wholesale disarmament followed the armistice as politicians now had to consider how to finance the promises given to the working class in order to retain support for the war. Those few aircraft that were to remain were widely expected to return to Army and Navy control. Furthermore, the professional head of the RAF was now Sir Hugh Trenchard, a one-time opponent of a new air ministry and independent air service but now, with the help of articulate academics such as Maurice Baring (1874-1945), was making his airpower case. He now became a fervent convert to independent airpower. With Winston Churchill’s assistance as Secretary of State for War, Trenchard won his fight by creating a new role whereby the RAF was to police the British Empire ‘on the cheap’. Theoretically, aircraft could bomb rebellious tribesman into submission rather than sending punitive ground expeditions by sea. This worked well for minor uprisings, suppressing caravan raiding and enforcing tax collection. But the most publicized airpower achievement was the suppression of the revolt in Iraq that had been going on since 1920. Trenchard and the Air Ministry took over Iraq from October 1922 and, while DH4 biplane bombers were used extensively, it was really a joint operation that made substantial use of armoured cars and troops.  The noted airpower and counterinsurgency expert Dr James Corum has highlighted financial arrangements that misled press, public and politicians. By replacing British troops with Indian troops the British government pushed the financial burden onto the Indian government enabling the Air Ministry to claim the campaign had been won at minimum expense through the application of airpower. 
This perceived success made it difficult to persuade cost-conscious politicians of the naval case. Trenchard therefore repulsed the Navy’s demands for their airpower to be returned, as he needed to keep the RAF to a viable size. The result was extremely damaging as naval airpower was subsequently relegated to Cinderella status within the Air Ministry and the Fleet Air Arm was not returned to full Admiralty control until 1939. Admiral Sir David Beatty’s (1871-1936) efforts were now doomed to failure but having foolishly agreed to lay off criticising the RAF for one year, he allowed Trenchard a vital breathing space to get the RAF’s reputation firmly established among press and cost-conscious politicians. 
But imperial air policing had many flaws. In Iraq, the insurgents were not over-awed by aircraft and modern weaponry.  Many had served with British and Ottoman forces a few years before and they possessed several weapons dumps with rifles, machine guns and ammunition. Corum has written that imperial air control was hardly justifiable as a policy in the 1920s and those who use it as a model for modern air operations in places such as Afghanistan make a grave mistake. The experience of imperial air policing also meant there had been no need to develop the complicated and expensive equipment such as modern aircraft, bomb sights, bombs and navigation aids needed to fight more technologically advanced potential enemies. 
Despite the political enthusiasm for imperial air control, it did not help the RAF to expand. The RAF only received about 15% of the annual defence spends for most of the inter-war period. However, Trenchard had spent most of his limited funding on bricks and concrete for separate facilities intended to foster a separate ‘air spirit.’ This meant there was little left for technical research with disastrous results for the next generation of airmen. But the relentless PR from the air lobby gradually changed public perceptions in favour of the potential of bombing. Trenchard launched the Hendon Air Day (later Empire Air Day) from 1919 to support an RAF charity but also to publicise the RAF. Crowds were treated to lavish spectacles including parachute displays, mock-dogfights, formation flying and displays of precision bombing. The crowds were unaware that the bomb whistles were recordings played over the public address system and the explosions were detonated on the ground.  Using wild theories from foreign airpower theorists such as General Giulio Douhet (1869-1930) and sensationalist claims from British theorists such as Major John F Fuller (1878-1966) the idea steadily took root that navies had become irrelevant. 
In the years before Hitler – it was the French, not the Germans that everyone assumed would be the future enemy. Because the French could not embrace wholesale disarmament owing to the danger posed to their land frontier by a potentially resurgent Germany, the press made facile comparisons between British and French air strength to manipulate their readers insecurities. At the same time, the Daily Mail and other publications were showing illustrations of bombers casually dispatching warships in the English Channel. In reality, the Royal Navy had paid great attention to the problems of defending warships against air attacks and practised new tactics against air attack in the tactically important Mediterranean fleet of the 1930s. Admiral Alfred E Chatfield (1873-1967) who became the Minister for Co-ordination of Defence accused the Rothemere Press for smearing the Admiralty for its supposed reactionary attitudes and newspaper demands that more funding be spent on the RAF at the expense of the Royal Navy. Indeed, the Admiralty sometimes had budget reductions deferred but Chatfield pointed out this was because the Admiralty had a clearly defined written responsibility – such as a two-power standard. This helped them argue their case in committee in a way the other services were unable to do. 
In the 1930s, Churchill was still identified with the air but as a political outcast did what bitter political has-beens usually do which was to stir up trouble for those in power. Britain rearmed from 1934 but only in line with its ability to finance military expansion. In general though, politicians stood firm against demands for greatly increased air spending but by 1938 even they surrendered to the national psychosis of bombing and the RAF became the only service to expand without regard to the nation’s ability to pay.In the fiscal year 1938/9 the RAF spent 35% of the defence budget, the Army 31.7% and Navy, 33.3% – meaning that the RAF was, for the first time, the biggest spender of the three armed services. Whilst Churchill’s admirers have blamed the ‘appeasers’ of the 1930s, for Britain’s difficulties in the early phases of World War II, it must be remembered that a culture of severe military restraint was established during the 1920s because of the demand for increased social spending, international treaty arms limitations and the infamous Ten-Year Rule. It must also be remembered that Churchill was a prime mover in having the rule established and then having it made self-perpetuating in 1928.  Churchill was also Chancellor of the Exchequer during 1924/29 with considerable responsibility for the nation clinging to the Gold Standard, prolonging the economic depression and making it even more difficult for the Baldwin and Chamberlain administrations to finance increased military spending in the period Churchill notoriously described as “The Locust Years”. Unfortunately, Britain remained on the Gold Standard until 1931. It therefore served his purposes for the appeasers to take the blame for the state of Britain’s armed forces in 1939.
Britain went to war in 1939, but to everyone’s surprise including the German High Command, the German attack in the west from 10 May 1940 was a spectacular success. Good generalship, planning and the use of newly developed techniques cut the allied armies in two and pushed the British Expeditionary Force on the continent back to the port of Dunkirk. A key part of the German success had been their blitzkrieg techniques, which used the Luftwaffe as airborne artillery in a way the RAF could not replicate because they had neither the equipment, training nor doctrines. Against all expectations, the bulk of the BEF, including 338,000 Anglo-French troops were rescued by the Royal Navy and Merchant Navy including the little ships that performed invaluable service ferrying men from the beaches to the larger ships. The brilliant success of Operation Dynamo was heavily downplayed by Churchill’s statement that ‘wars are not won by evacuations’. Churchill brought out of political exile in 1939 and now prime minister was more concerned to praise the efforts of the RAF over Dunkirk and explain why it had not been able to prevent German bombers reaching the port and beaches. Considerable rancour between soldiers and airmen occurred at the time because low cloud hid the RAF aircraft from the soldiers’ view and they naturally assumed there had been no attempt to protect them.  Such internal conflict during wartime was extremely dangerous. Shortly after the evacuations at Dunkirk (and other locations), and the French request for an armistice, Churchill announced that the Battle of Britain was about to begin.
The defence of Great Britain in 1940 is a very large topic and cannot be given detailed coverage in one short paper covering the wider topic of air and sea development. Nevertheless, the relative importance of the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy in the summer of 1940 can be shown with reference to just a few main points.
a) The Limitations of the Combatant Air Forces in a Maritime Role
Firstly, neither the RAF nor the Luftwaffe had the doctrines, expertise or equipment, such as torpedoes, to sink shipping on the scale required. Most people understand that Hitler’s invasion prerequisite of air superiority was made to balance German naval inferiority. In some situations, German dive-bombers had caused alarming casualties to British destroyers and other smaller units at Norway and Dunkirk but this had never been enough to prevent the Royal Navy landing or evacuating troops whenever the land situation required. Naval casualties off Norway had often been the result of operating in fjords where the ability to ‘dodge’ falling bombs was heavily circumscribed by lack of manoeuvring space and the mountains shielding the approach of aircraft, thus reducing the time available for early-warning. After initial losses were incurred it was soon realised that the best defence against bombing was to bring the smaller ships closer to the larger ones where they could shelter under their protective barrage. Furthermore, at Dunkirk, a heavy dependence on destroyers was necessary because they could operate more effectively in shallow waters. Many of these destroyers were hit while stationary or moving very slowly during the embarkation process, hardly a situation likely to occur in a naval Battle of Britain.
The Luftwaffe might have improved their anti-shipping capabilities with reliable torpedoes and larger and more suitable bombs but these were lacking in 1940. The first use of specialised heavy amour piercing bombs against a capital ship was not made until January 1941 against the aircraft carrier Illustrious and even then the ship was not actually sunk. Large numbers of efficient torpedo bombers may well have changed the situation but beyond a few seaplanes and (from late 1940) a few Heinkel He.111 medium bombers using an unreliable aerial torpedo, the Luftwaffe had no torpedo bombing capacity to speak of.This contrasted with a Japanese Naval Air Force that used well-manned torpedo bombers to sink the capital ships Prince of Wales and Repulse in December 1941. Eighty-five aircraft including fifty-one torpedo bombers had swamped their antiaircraft defences and while both ships received bomb damage, it had been the torpedoes that finally sent both ships to the bottom. 
Though less effective than torpedo bombing, the Luftwaffe’s best weapon against warships was the dive-bomber, most famously, the iconic Junkers Ju.87 series. Originally developed by RFC/RNAS pilots during 1914-18 as an ad-hoc improvisation to improve the poor levels of bombing accuracy, the dive-bombing technique was virtually discarded by the RAF but further developed by the Fleet Air Arm and Luftwaffe during the 1930s. But the main German focus had been against targets on land and in 1940, German crews lacked the necessary training in attacking warships. Consequently, most British warships proved able to dodge out of the way.Dive-bombing also required a high cloud ceiling and good visibility, not factors that could be heavily relied upon in the unpredictable meteorological conditions that tend to prevail in the English Channel and North Sea.
The only other option available to Germany would have been an all-out magnetic mine offensive using submarines and aircraft during the summer of 1940 but the Germans ‘shot their bolt’ with their deployment of these mines in 1939. By the middle of 1940 effective counter measures including de-gaussing techniques had already been implemented and the magnetic mine was no longer the formidable weapon it once was.  No wonder that the German Naval Staff were relieved that the Luftwaffe failed to obtain the necessary air superiority as they did not believe this factor would compensate for their enormous naval inferiority.
But there would be no good reason for the British to feel smug about these German anti-maritime shortcomings as the RAF had little to show for their efforts. Outside of the Fleet Air Arm, the British had shown no discernible interest in dive-bombing. Whilst the Fleet Air Arm managed to sink the light cruiser Kӧnigsberg in Bergen harbour and support the BEF at Dunkirk with Skua dive-bombers, the German army advanced into Europe without hindrance from this form of attack by the RAF.
Gallant attempts to bomb the German fleet in harbour at the beginning of the war were abject failures as their small bombs had bounced harmlessly off armoured decks. This was because the Air Ministry had decided before the war that no bomb heavier than 500-1b would be needed. There was also confusion about the importance of time-delay fuzing and an exaggerated notion about the damage that blast effects could do to a capital ship. Only in 1944 when massive earthquake bombs and Johnny Walker anti-maritime bombs fell in repeated attacks on the battleship Tirpitz in harbour could the RAF claim any success against capital ships. In fact no German capital ship at sea was sunk at sea by free-falling bombs for the entire war. Gallant attempts were made by Bomber Command to sink invasion barges in harbour and there is no doubt that barges equivalent to the German reserves was sunk. However, the invasion ports had also come under constant attacks by naval forces operating at night and in all weathers from Plymouth, Portsmouth and the Nore, in many cases breaking into the harbours and sinking them with point-blank gunfire.  A satisfactory analysis of barge sinking by bombing or naval gunfire respectively seems not to exist but Churchill challenged at least one Air Ministry claim. After examining an aerial photograph submitted as evidence of a successful bombing mission, he wrote ‘I should have thought that sticks of bombs thrown along these oblongs would have wrought havoc, and it is very disappointing to see that they have all remained intact and in order with just a few damaged at the entrance.’ This lack of an effective anti-maritime capability was the result of the Air Ministry’s dead hand and a pre-war obsession with bombing that relegated Fighter Command, Coastal Command and the Fleet Air Arm (and predecessors) to Cinderella status for most of the inter-war period.
b) The Disparity of the Combatant Fleets
Secondly, it is not widely realised just how high the Germans needed to climb in order to conquer the naval mountain. Whilst the Kriegsmarine possessed a fleet that included a higher proportion of modern vessels, the naval operations off Norway had decimated it. In September 1940, the German surface fleet was two elderly and two modern battleships, five cruisers (including a gunnery training ship) and no more than ten destroyers. A small number of E-boats and other small vessels could be added to this number but there were no plans to use the handful of available U-boats owing to the difficulties operating in the shallow waters of the English Channel. Against this, on 14 September, the forces available for repelling invasion were ‘one aircraft-carrier, five battleships, 16 cruisers and 48 destroyers or corvettes, plus another 700 lighter, but increasingly strongly armed patrol vessels’. Most of the destroyers were based in or near the English Channel, but 12 destroyers, three battleships and two cruisers were ready to sail from Rosyth should the situation demand their intervention with most of the other capital ships at Scapa Flow. Those who doubt the ability of British capital ships to survive the relatively constricted waters of the English Channel should perhaps consider the success of a German heavy cruiser and two Scharnhorst class battlecruisers sailing from Brest to Germany. When these powerful ships ran the Channel gauntlet in daylight during February 1942, attacks were made by British destroyers, bombers and Fleet Air Arm torpedo-bombers together with bombardments from coastal artillery. Bomber command had launched 242 aircraft but owing to a variety of circumstances only 39 were able to engage. All the German ships received damage but made the journey back to Germany. Despite inadequate RAF fighter cover, six Swordfish torpedo bombers from 825 Naval Air Squadron attacked the warships but were all shot down. No damage was incurred by the German ships as a result of these suicidally heroic Swordfish attacks but their courage and determination was acknowledged by the award of a posthumous Victoria Cross to their leader, Lt. Cdr. Eugene Esmonde (1909-1942).
c) The Actions of Political and Military Leaders in the Battle of Britain
Churchill’s opening sentence in his Battle of Britain chapter of Their Finest Hour published in 1949 reads, “Our fate now depended upon victory in the air”. Nine years earlier and with the air battles at a crescendo he had broadcast to the nation that ‘This effort of the Germans to secure daylight mastery of the air over England is of course the crux of the whole war… we must regard the next week or so as a very important period in our history.’
These statements have endowed the air campaigns with an unwarranted significance because it is now clear that Winston Churchill did not seriously expect a German invasion at this time. While the daylight air battles were raging inconclusively over England during August, Churchill ordered Britain’s remaining tank force to the Mediterranean in preparation for an offensive against the Italians in North Africa. In a memorandum to Field Marshal Edmund Ironside (1880-1959), a few weeks before, the prime minister stated “I find it hard to believe the south-coast is in serious danger at this time”. If an invasion had really been expected this would have been a serious gamble given that the bulk of Britain’s modern heavy equipment had already been abandoned on the beaches of Dunkirk. Furthermore, if the invasion question had really hung on the outcome of the air battles, why then, did he not wait for the RAF to win the Battle of Britain? Churchill later admitted to Admiral Sir Charles Forbes, C.in.C (1880-1960) Home Fleet in 1940 that he never thought there would be an invasion. Forbes then provoked a slightly inebriated Churchill by retorting that he had ‘camouflaged it very well’. The diaries of Churchill’s private secretary also contain an entry during the invasion crisis stating that the prime minister did not think there would be an invasion but wanted to keep everyone on their toes.But whatever Churchill’s private thoughts it was necessary to maintain this illusion as Britain desperately needed to cultivate American sympathy and logistical support if Britain was to continue fighting. Having honed its PR skills fighting for the RAF’s very existence between the wars, the Air Ministry worked with the press, British Crown Film Unit, the Ministry of Information and the Foreign Office in a campaign to convince the USA of Britain’s ability to fight.
By August 1940, the Foreign Office viewed the RAF as Britain’s best weapon in the propaganda campaign to engage American sympathy. The easiest way to clarify the ‘British predicament’ and show British prospects was to encapsulate both ‘in a single statistic: the ratio of the losses of the Luftwaffe to the losses of the RAF’. The figures were hugely exaggerated but Churchill reinforced these perceptions with his personal appearance in an American propaganda film shown to British cinema audiences. Why We Fight-The Battle of Britain (Frank Capra, 1942) drew heavily on an Air Ministry pamphlet –The Battle of Britain (HMSO, 1941). In his introduction, Churchill assured British cinema audiences that facts and figures had been carefully recorded. One section of the film warned of the consequences of failure in the air by graphically depicting the destruction of the British fleet by aerial bombardment in the English Channel. Another section glossed over the RAF’s failure to protect the civilian population from night attack with a heroic portrait of cheery cockneys ‘taking-it’. This failure to protect the civilian population was an unforgivable Air Ministry let-down. Despite the harsh experience of night bombing during 1917/18, adequate night air defences did not exist and the Luftwaffe pursued its night attacks on London and other cities with minimal losses. This did not improve until the introduction of airborne interception radar (AI) in 1941, but only Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 ended the Blitz.
But what factors were influencing Adolf Hitler? With the fall of France, Hitler initially expected the British to see sense and come to terms. By July, he realised there would be no prospect of the British doing this, especially now the British had fortified their coast and reorganised their army. He therefore ordered the German Naval Staff to prepare for an invasion. Grand Admiral Erich Raeder (1876-1960), faithfully put the preparations for Operation Sea Lion into practice but not without acquainting the Fuehrer of the operational problems at every opportunity. Sabotaged harbours precluded the possibility of an immediate invasion and required clearing. The need for extensive preparation meant that the invasion could not be launched before September 1940 but Raeder made it clear he would prefer to wait until the spring of 1941. Lack of dedicated landing craft meant civilian river barges required extensive conversion. Long trains of barges containing troops and equipment had to be towed by tugboats across one of the most unpredictable and difficult stretches of water in the world. To protect the crossing routes, Raeder suggested flanking mine barriers but there were not enough mines to maintain a continuous barrier, and as Vice Admiral Frederick Ruge, acknowledged “mines are not an absolute barrier.” To obtain the freedom for his to operate and generally offset his naval inferiority, Raeder demanded air-superiority and had this pre-condition included in Hitler’s invasion directives. However, the problem that Raeder would always allude to in his meetings with Hitler was the immense British naval superiority in the crossing area. The final plan was to land forces on a narrow front between Folkestone/Dungeness, Dungeness/Cliff’s End, Bexhill/Beachy Head, and Brighton/Selsey Bill. At the German Army’s insistence, the landing’s were to be made at dawn meaning that the invasion flotillas would be vulnerable to the night fighting naval forces from Rosyth, Plymouth, Portsmouth and The Nore because the Luftwaffe could not provide air reconnaissance during the night crossing. Should the British naval forces be engaged with the German barges and their numerically paltry escorts at dawn, then neither the RAF nor the Luftwaffe could engage shipping without the risk of friendly fire.
All this was known to Hitler when he made the fateful decision to postpone Sea Lion on 17 September. Ostensibly, the decision was made because the Luftwaffe had lost fifty-six aircraft on the daylight raid on London during 15 September and this seemed to indicate that air superiority had not been obtained. But it is clear enough that Hitler knew the difficulties of invading with or without air superiority and he was seeking an exit strategy without losing face. The German Naval Staff had already observed both Hitler and Goering’s lack of enthusiasm for the plan and by 10 September, did not expect to have to go through with it anyway. In any case, Hitler was already planning Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union during August. Luftwaffe chief, Herman Goering (1893-1946), may or may not have believed his own rhetoric regarding the Luftwaffe’s ability to bomb the British into submission but with a seaborne invasion unlikely to succeed it is easy to see how a terror-bombing campaign seemed to have the potential to bring down the Churchill coalition and bring about a negotiated settlement. In the event, the Blitz was defeated by the ability of the civilians to soak up the punishment from the air. It was just as well because the RAF could provide civilians with scant protection for the rest of 1940.
- Military aviation had got off to a slow start in Great Britain and if a little more prescience had been shown by the generals and admirals prior to 1914 there would have been far less chance of the aviation ball being snatched away from them in 1917.
- British naval development in 1909, though proceeding at a vigorous pace because of the Anglo-German naval race, created resentment among politicians because of the staggering cost of warship building. The huge costs led to the consideration of submarines and aircraft as alternatives to battleship construction. But British naval aviation did not gather pace until Churchill removed the naval wing from the RFC and the new RNAS began to explore a wide range of roles for the aeroplane as war loomed in 1914.
- Although the Royal Navy played a key role in the eventual allied victory in 1918 it had failed to win an unambiguous clear-cut victory over the German High Seas Fleet and was slow to deal with the U-boat blockade that brought Britain closer to defeat than the Germans would manage in 1940. Nevertheless it successfully developed the naval air power that helped win the first Battle of the Atlantic and by 1918 the British were, for the time being, well ahead of every other nation in this respect.
- But at the close of hostilities it seemed that Jack Tar had lost the affection of the British public in favour of the aviator. Attempts to regain the fleet’s airpower from the RAF foundered in the face of Trenchard’s determination and political indifference for many years.
- Government panic induced by German air raids had led to the implementation of the Smuts Report, causing British policy thinking to veer sharply away from land and maritime defence. The situation could still have been rectified in the immediate post-war period but for the volte-face of former RFC/IAF commander Sir Hugh Trenchard. His policy of imperial air policing had many shortcomings but the politicians were convinced it offered a viable means of policing the British Empire in a cost-effective manner.
- Inter-service rivalry, far from subsiding, erupted as a result of the inevitable battle for declining resources in between the wars. While the Army and Royal Navy had been criticised for arguing there were now three competing services. But Trenchard won public support for the new air service with impressive public air displays aided by the Rothermere Press, a long-standing ally of the air lobby. Much of the press argument was in favour of increasing RAF funding at the expense of the Royal Navy and encouraging the unfounded belief that warships were impotent in the face of air attack. The RAF had maintained its independence by concentrating on bombing while neglecting their supporting roles for the army and navy.
- This gradual propaganda drip in favour of air expansion had little effect on the politicians of the 1920s who were determined to keep down public spending. But the Wall Street Crash of 1929 hit western economies hard and helped create the circumstances that led to Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, which in turn led to limited British rearmament from 1934.
- By the Munich Crisis of 1938 the government panicked over the state of the air defences much as a previous administration had done over 20 years before. However, greatly increased air spending did not in itself make the RAF an effective force by 1940 though it was certainly impressive enough on paper. Unfortunately, its experience of imperial air policing had not prepared it to fight a major industrialised nation such as Germany and in 1940 Bomber Command was neither adequately equipped nor trained for its role of strategic bombing.
- Another significant consequence was the inability of Fighter Command to conduct an effective night defence but equally serious was the RAF’s inability to sink warships at sea – a major deficiency for a traditional maritime power. Neither did the British Expeditionary Force, enjoy the level of air support the Luftwaffe provided for the German army in 1940.
- Indeed, as a continental power, it is clear that in the early phases of the war, Germany had an air force better suited to its needs than the British possessed. The Luftwaffe’s key weakness in the summer of 1940 was an inability to sink warships on the scale required for an invasion of Great Britain while simultaneously destroying the coastal defences. Nevertheless, prior to Dunkirk, few people would have believed the Luftwaffe could ever be in a position where it needed to support such an invasion.
- Treaty constraints and international pressures to disarm meant that the Royal Navy entered World War II with a fundamentally old fleet that had been partly modernised. But, in 1940, it was still the largest fleet in the world and early experience at Norway and at Dunkirk had showed that it could successfully operate in the face of land-based airpower. So powerful were German perceptions of British naval might that Hitler could not bring himself to launch Operation Sea Lion.
- Despite the highly publicised air battles viewed by British civilians and American war correspondents over southern England, there should no longer be any doubt that the defence of Great Britain in 1940 rested firmly on the foundations of British naval power. When will the media get the message?
A J Cumming ©
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 Those prepared to question long-held assumptions and seeking a fuller picture are recommended to read Hewitt G, Hitler’s Armada The German Invasion Plan, and the Defence of Great Britain by the Royal Navy, April-October 1940, Pen and Sword Maritime, 2008 and my own book and articles on the subject.
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