Is the Story of ‘The Few’ More Myth Than Reality?
Eighty years on from the height of the Battle of Britain, four historians confront the nature of this key episode in the Second World War.
‘British industry outproduced German fighter output by a wide margin’
Richard Overy, Professor of History at the University of Exeter
Embedded in British popular memory of the Second World War is the image of ‘the Few’ of the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain. It is easy to understand the power of this image: Britain alone, David of the democratic world, facing the totalitarian Goliath. Yet this image masks the historical reality. It would have been very difficult for the Luftwaffe to win the Battle of Britain. The balance of forces was never ‘the Few’ facing ‘the great many’. The Germans certainly had more bombers, dive-bombers and heavy fighters than the RAF, but they were adapted chiefly to support a land battle and were highly vulnerable to a well-organised fighter defence. Dive-bombers and heavy fighters (the Me110) were soon withdrawn; German medium bombers ploughed on but hundreds were shot down. The key battle was between the rival fighter forces, for they were vital to air superiority, and here the RAF enjoyed growing advantages as the battle wore on.
The first advantage, little understood by the German side, was the tight web of communications (telephones, radio command and control, the observer corps and radar), which enabled Fighter Command to direct its force in the most economical way. Second, the British aircraft industry outproduced German fighter output by a wide margin during the battle: 2,091 against 988. By September the RAF could field more fighter aircraft than the Luftwaffe. Third, a crash programme of pilot training ensured that the RAF always had a larger cohort of fighter pilots on hand than the Luftwaffe, a margin that also widened as the battle went on. The principal advantage the Luftwaffe enjoyed was better training and more battle experience, which explains why British losses were marginally worse than German. After weeks of ineffective pounding of RAF bases – many of which were up and running again within days – the Luftwaffe failed to win air superiority. Hitler postponed any planned invasion. Every effort by historians to play down the importance of the aerial battle, or to argue that Hitler was never serious about invasion, misses the point that with complete air superiority German options opened up. There is no doubt that the British Army would have been the few against the many, even if the RAF was not.
‘This risks setting up an unproductive false binary, which equates myth with lies’
Frances Houghton, Simon Research Fellow, University of Manchester
Humans need heroes. And, if 2020 underscores anything, it’s that when cataclysm strikes, Britons love to emotionally invest in a publicly affirmed hero, be it an NHS nurse or an elderly veteran laboriously fundraising in his garden. Eighty years ago, in another summer of fear and uncertainty, the British similarly poured their hopes and energies into heroicising the pilots of RAF Fighter Command as they beat back German efforts to establish air superiority in preparation for invasion.
A dominant tale of ‘the Few’ rapidly emerged. With their courage, élan and skill, fighter pilots were imagined as restoring some much needed romance to combat. They became fashioned in the nation’s cultural imagination as ‘knights of the air’, modern reincarnations of a chivalric medieval past jousting in a glorious aerial arena to defend the British way of life. A handful of dashing, devil-may-care ex-public schoolboys, this story goes, thus held the sky suspended against the might of the Luftwaffe.
The ‘reality’ was nothing like this. ‘The Few’ were drawn from all social backgrounds and corners of the world. Aerial combat was ugly and brutal and survival frequently depended on your ability to surprise your opponent. Aircrew were physically burned up and mentally burned out. I adore historian Stephen Bungay’s acerbic remark that ‘the Few’ ‘often fought more like medieval foot soldiers peering through a visor and slashing with an axe at anyone they thought might be on the other side’.
However, in thinking about the story of ‘the Few’ it’s important not to fall into the trap of pitting ‘myth’ against ‘reality’. This risks setting up an unproductive false binary, which equates ‘myth’ with lies. After the blood-soaked failure of the Norwegian campaign, Dunkirk, the Fall of France and amid fears of invasion, the totemic cultural narrative of ‘the Few’ spoke to the British nation’s desperate need to find heroes and hope among the horrors of 1940. Is the story of ‘the Few’, those youthful winged Arthurs who took to the skies on gallant flying steeds in defence of cricket, pubs and oak trees, a myth? Of course it is. But therein lies its enduring appeal.
‘Concentrating on “the Few” risks obscuring the complex structures that put them into battle’
Daniel Todman, Professor of Modern History at Queen Mary, University of London and the author of Britain’s War I: Into Battle, 1937-1941 and Britain’s War II, 1942-1947: A New World (Allen Lane, 2016 and 2020)
The answer to this question all depends on what you mean by ‘the Few’, ‘myth’ and ‘reality’. Since no account simple enough to be widely known reflects historical complexity, shared ideas about the past are always mythic. What is interesting is how well they correspond with how historians understand the conflict and why particular versions gain traction at different times.
In this case, there’s a kernel of accuracy in that a high-technology air and sea campaign involved fewer, more highly trained frontline combatants than the vast land wars fought further east in Europe and in Asia. ‘The Few’ should, therefore, by that account, include sailors as well as bomber and maritime reconnaissance aircrew. The same term could be applied to the Luftwaffe and the Kriegsmarine, whose weakness relative to the Royal Navy was the fundamental reason that the UK was so safe from invasion in 1940.
Concentrating on ‘the Few’ fighting to defend the UK in 1940, however, risks obscuring the complex structures that put them into battle. That includes not only the information and maintenance systems that underpinned the RAF Fighter Command under Air Chief Marshal Dowding, but also the industrial, fiscal and political system – imperial and international – on which Britain’s war effort was based. An account of the Battle interested in ‘the Many’ would find room not just for Polish and Czech fighter pilots and British factory workers and taxpayers, but for indentured Indian labourers on Malayan rubber plantations – all those Spitfires and Hurricanes needed tyres to land and take off. Such a wider, global history of the Battle of Britain might encourage us to ask the more challenging questions about what was being fought for as well as against.
‘The power of the story of “the Few’’ lies in its statistics being both imaginable and individual’
Corinna Peniston-Bird, Senior Lecturer in Gender and Cultural History, Lancaster University
In a war of unimaginable magnitude, such as the Second World War, the power of the story of ‘the Few’ lies in its statistics being both imaginable and individual. This year is particularly poignant for such individual tales of valour: the deaths of Paul Farnes and Terry Clark have left only one surviving veteran of ‘the Few’, John Hemingway. Living memory is ceding to historical memory.
But we have been forgetting for some time now. In 1995, a conversation between two senior RAF NCOs at RAF Caltershore became the impetus for the Battle of Britain monument in London: ‘What was this Battle of Britain all about then?’ ‘I’ve no idea; something to do with the War, I think.’ A survey conducted in 2020 by the RAF Benevolent Fund found that 44 per cent of those asked were unfamiliar with the Battle of Britain (six per cent guessed that it was a Viking invasion) and in the youngest age group consulted (18-24), 75 per cent could not identify ‘the Few’. The narrative friezes of Paul Day’s ‘Battle of Britain’ (2005) are one way of countering this creeping amnesia, marking anniversaries another.
Why do we remember? An invitation to contrast myth and reality is an invitation to reflect on the stories we tell ourselves and the meanings we ascribe to them. In 1940, the pilots were feted as heroes and British morale boosted by evidence that the German advance was not inexorable. But what is the meaning of ‘the Few’ today? In the 2009 election campaign, the British National Party used a poster of a Spitfire to represent Britain’s struggle with Europe and echo the rhetoric of ‘standing alone’. Ironically, the poster depicted a Spitfire of No. 303 Squadron RAF, one of the two Polish squadrons – and one of the 66 Allied fighter squadrons – that flew in the battle. The meaning of ‘the Few’ to British national identity became contested ground.
This year, the global pandemic and growing anti-racism movements will create new relationships between past and present. Our tales of ‘the Few’ on the 80th anniversary will tell us not only who we were then, but who we want to be now and who we hope to be in the future.