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.

Lobby card for the film ‘Spitfire’, released in 1943 in the US; re-edited from the 1942 British film, ‘The First of the Few’.

‘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 Dive-bombers and heavy fighters (the Me110) were soon withdrawn; German medium bombers ploughed on but hundreds were shot down.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.

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