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Britain's Air Defences and the Munich Crisis

Was Britain prepared for war in 1938? Not in the air, argues John Crossland, as he investigates the myths and penny-pinching that nearly scuppered the Spitfire victors of the Battle of Britain.

At the time of the emergency all RAF Commands were at a transitional stage of expansion, and in consequence preparedness for war, especially in home defences and counter-offensive units were not at a high level. (Air Ministry report on the lessons of the Munich Crisis, September 1938).

Cinemagoers in the summer of 1935 flocked to see a futuristic film which pandered to their most ingrained fears. Things to Come translated H.G. Wells' fantasy of air power into potent, familiar images – of the West End outside the cinema doors going up in smoke and flame as bombs and death rays descended. It underscored the message which in that fearful and largely nerveless decade was widely taken as holy writ, that no matter what, the bomber would always get through. Three years later, in the autumn of 1938, Britain, and also France, were faced with the consequences of years of purblindness, if not pusillanimity, and decided at Munich not to call Hitler's bluff.

To the man in the street, donning his gas mask and digging a slit trench in obedience to the emergency orders, issued as the Czech crisis mounted, it seemed as though his nightmares were about to become reality. It is possible that if he had known how lamentably ill-prepared was the war machine for which he had reluctantly paid his taxes and which would have to make good any ultimata to the Axis powers, he would have dug himself in and pulled the cover over his head.

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