Maybe Not the Best or the Brightest, but Definitely the Bravest

Not the Best or the Brightest, but the Bravest

By Jay Holmes

Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding and some of “The Few,” image by UK Government, public domain

Today on this Veterans Day, I’m seated in a nice chair in a comfortable house in a safe neighborhood doing whatever I want. I live in a free nation so in spite of the continuing best efforts of the world’s worst political criminals, and in spite of our own politicians’ corruption and stupidity, I still get to spend my day how I please.

Ours is an imperfect and not yet completed democracy, but it is a democracy that requires very little of me as a citizen and, as of today, still doesn’t infringe much on my personal freedoms. I am allowed this comfortable life in large part because of the efforts and sacrifices of young Americans who risk their lives so that I and my loved ones may remain free. I appreciate every one of them. To all who serve and have served this nation, I offer my thanks today.

I also offer my thanks to those few other democratic nations who defend the collective freedom of the free peoples of the world. Today, I would like to take a look at one of those rare groups of people who fought for freedom in this world, the people of Great Britain. I don’t like their cuisine, if you can even call it cuisine. They’ve been around since some Neolithic clods made their way across the English Channel, and yet they still haven’t produced an artist worth remembering. And government? Those self-indulgent slobs called “Parliament” are no better than the fools we call “Congress.”

And yet, I like Brits. Because in this barbaric, uncivilized world, most of them are decent and civil. And because although most are some sort of “socialists” and pacifists to some degree, when faced with grim choices, they still stand up and defend themselves and others against tyranny. That might not sound like much, but not everyone would do the same.

RAF Wellington Crew, image from UK Government, public domain

Today, I have been thinking about a particularly stubborn and unreasonable bunch of Brits who helped the world defeat the Nazi plague 62 years ago. “The Few.” That “few” of whom the famous half American/half English and frequently fully drunk politician by the name of Winston Churchill spoke of. The men and women of the Royal Air Force (“RAF”) who, in part thanks to Churchill’s willingness to ignore Air Marshall Hugh Dowding’s wise counsel, found themselves in the role of the “few” against a determined enemy, the German Luftwaffe.

Over the decades, a variety of folks from many nations have written much about what Churchill dubbed “The Battle of Britain.” If anyone is curious about it, I recommend Len Deighton’s “Fighter” and RAF Ace Peter Townsend’s “Duel of Eagles.”

The great air battles over England and the English Channel that we like to call the Battle of Britain are generally thought of as taking place from June – Ocober in 1940, more than a year before the US entered the fight. It is a popular notion that the RAF won those battles because of radar and the superiority of the Spitfire over the German ME-109. The radar indeed helped, but it was far from perfect, and Spitfires came to the Battle in too few numbers to be decisive. During that time, the majority of fighters in service in the RAF Fighter Command were Hurricanes.

Unfortunately for the RAF pilots who defended Great Britain, their Hurricane and Spitfire fighters were rushed to production without anything like adequate testing. If this sounds reckless, consider that the Bolton Defiant aircraft that these two new fighters replaced were sad, slow-moving, barely flying coffins. The Spitfires and more numerous Hurricanes the RAF flew were not yet adequately developed, but they were at least well-designed. A dog fight with an ME-109 was a hell of a place and time to test an aircraft, but the Luftwaffe was not affording the Brits convenience so the RAF took to the skies with what they had.

RAF Hawker Hurricanes, image from UK Government, public domain

What the RAF did have was a fledgling radar system that allowed two underappreciated geniuses by the names of Air Marshall Hugh Dowding and Vice Air Marshall Keith Park to devise tactics that let them use their thin resources to challenge the daily bombing raids the Luftwaffe sent. Dowding and Park understood what was at stake. As long as the RAF survived, the Germans could not bring an army across the Channel. If the Luftwaffe gained air supremacy, the Germans could overcome the Royal Navy, and the vastly superior German army could invade the UK and finish its conquest of the European peoples. Dowding and Park did not intend to let that happen.

Great Britain also had the inadvertent help of Luftwaffe Commander Hermann Goering. The Luftwaffe was filled with the best and brightest young German warriors. They were carefully selected and extensively trained. And then there was Goering.

Goering was a highly successful fighter pilot during WWI. He then followed his brilliant youth with years of eating and drinking with Nazi pals. While the rest of the aviation world advanced in leaps and bounds during the interwar years, Goering waddled his way to the command of the Luftwaffe in spite of being possibly the least brilliant of Luftwaffe officers. Many of his emotionally founded decisions helped the RAF defeat the well-prepared and well-equipped German air power.

Even with the the wise leadership of men like Dowding and Park and the determination of excellent RAF fighter pilots, things were grim by August of 1944. The Germans and Brits both took heavy casualties during the Battle of Britain, but the Germans had a better pool of reserves in manpower and aircraft.

Thanks in part to the brilliant work of Lord Beaverbrook, the UK kept the RAF adequately supplied with fighters, but it took a long time to train pilots to take to the skies in fighters. For fighter pilots to both take to the skies and return alive, it takes a minimum of a year and a half of intense training. The UK didn’t have the 18 months.

The RAF needed the best and brightest pilots to man their half-developed Spitfires and Hurricanes. Too many of those best and brightest were shot down early on while operating in France with inadequate maintenance on mud airfields. More went down in the Channel or crashed into the English countryside in June and July.

When things were desperate in September of 1940, some replacement “pilots” as young as 17 who had never even trained in Hurricanes flew them into battle. They weren’t given time to become the best and the brightest, but they were certainly the bravest. I have been told that boys as young as sixteen flew in the Battle of Britain, but I have not been able to verify that. Whoever they were and whatever their age was, I salute them all.

RAF Station under attack during the Battle of Britain, image from UK Government, public domain

The RAF did not just need pilots, it needed skilled people on the ground to service planes, care for pilots, and man radar and control facilities. The British Army and the Royal Navy quickly expanded as well, and young men were in short supply. Against the advice of some in the British military and government, women trained to handle radar plotting, communications, and fighter control in vulnerable forward sector fields. Some thought that when bombs fell on British air bases, the women would run in panic. They didn’t. While 544 RAF pilots died in the Battle of Britain and many more were badly wounded, hundreds more ground crew also perished. Among them were young women who remained at their posts while under bombing attack, and the replacements who didn’t hesitate to take their vacant positions.

In addition to the brave young women who manned so many RAF positions during the Battle, we should remember the approximately 26,000 civilians who were slaughtered by the Luftwaffe during that period. The civilian casualties at the hands of Luftwaffe bombers and later German missiles continued long after the Battle of Britain was won by the RAF.

But counter to Goering’s and Hitler’s prediction, the people of Great Britain didn’t break. They kept going to work in their factories, turning out war munitions, knowing that the next bomb dropped might hit them at their work. They kept plowing their fields, mining their coal, driving their trucks and doing all else that was necessary to keep Great Britain on her feet. And they won.

So though I find the concept of “bangers” and biscuits for breakfast silly, and I might not be impressed by Great Britain’s best painters, I respect you, Great Britain. I remember what the seniors among you did before I was born and before my father fought in the Pacific. I remember what your nation did when you stood alone against the Nazi juggernaut after the rest of Europe had fallen under the fascist boot. Revisionists be damned. The Battle of Britain was your finest hour, and none of us should ever forget it.

Memorial stained glass in St. James Church, image by Oxfordian Kissuth, wikimedia commons

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

*‘Jay Holmes’, is an intelligence veteran of the Cold War and remains an anonymous member of the intelligence community. His writing partner, Piper Bayard, is the public face of their partnership.

© 2012 Jay Holmes. All content on this page is protected by copyright. If you would like to use any part of this, please contact us at the above links to request permission.


45 comments on “Maybe Not the Best or the Brightest, but Definitely the Bravest

  1. I just got chills reading this. Thank you.

  2. tomwisk says:

    A wo0nderful history lesson. As time passes we are losing more and more of the people who witnessed this part of history. We need to be reminded.

  3. Loved this! Thanks. (I, too, have cuisine issues….they can keep their black puddings and their kidneys)

  4. They did give us Shakespeare. Just sayin’!

  5. Dave says:

    Lesser known, but also very important is the sacrifice by all the merchant seamen that lost their lives in the North Atlantic. It could have all turned out so differently without their courage and sacrifice.

    History balanced on a knife-edge. We owe them all a great debt.

    • J Holmes says:

      Hi Dave. Yes, I was tempted to write about Captain Johnie Walker RN and his Second Support Group. What they and others endured in the Battle of the North Atlantic also needs remembering.

  6. A great write up, Holmes, even if I am a little biased. The Brits are, to steal a word from Piper, an ornery lot. The aerial defense of Britain owed a lot of making the best use of what they had on the ground and in the air. And as you say, Goering leant a hand, too. Of course, the Battle of Britain would have been for nothing if it weren’t for the support of others who treasure freedom.

    This is such a good write up I shalln’t take up the defense of Turner, Gainsborough, and Constable 🙂 And I can’t defend the food!


  7. J Holmes says:

    Hi Nigel. Yes you are right. The Brits used their spotters and other land lubbers to form the first effective air defense command and control system in history. Still the closer one looks the more one wonders how those men and boys managed to hold off the Luftwaffe for as long as they did. While boys with almost no training were going up in those Hurricanes, our US Ambassador to The Court of St. James was loudly proclaiming that Great Britain was “finished”. We can all be glad that he was wrong and that Franklin D. Roosevelt and General George C Marshall never believed him (about anything).

    Nigel will you consider doing pieces on the development of the Hurricane and the Spitfire on your page? Both are remarkable stories. You handle aviation questions very nicely.

    • Hurricane and Spitfire? Definitely. In fact I’m researching the engineers behind the Apollo program, so some ww2 technology would be a good lead in.


      • J Holmes says:

        In fact, if you would be so kind, to put things in perspective please start with the Bolton Defiant. The Defiant served one great purpose. It’s easy to love even the earliest model Hurricanes and Spitfires after considering the Defiant.

        Where would we all have been without the great engineers Sydney Camm and Reginald Smith? The US P-38 was delayed in development, the P-47 wasn’t flying yet and the P-51 was a distant dream. All that we in the US would have been able to send to the UK were some P-36 Cobras (in a state of early development), F-4 naval fighters and those only in very small numbers and our surplus F-3s which would have been useless against any model ME-109.

      • J Holmes says:

        correction: Reginald Mitchell.

  8. Donna Newton says:

    Like the majority of today’s Britain, I don’t know all the ‘ins and outs’ of what happened during the war – just the basics…. that we beat those Nazi arses back to Germany. 🙂

    I totally loved this post, Holmes, for every reason mentioned above. My stepdad was a soldier and he loved every minute of it. Remembrance Sunday (and your Veterans Day) is so very special. We owe so much to our Army, Navy, and Air Forces, and every single person who has stood or still stands on that line day after day to defend our countries. I have much admiration and respect for those people. May God be with them all.

    • J Holmes says:

      Hello Donna. Please give my greetings to your step dad and my thanks for his service in defense of freedom.

      Some folks like to think that the talk about the character of the British people during WW2 is a myth. The facts clearly prove otherwise. The summer of 1940 was a decisive moment for the history of civilization. What those boys and men stopped was more than another enemy in a European conflict. They stopped ruthless barbarity.

      • Donna Newton says:

        I totally agree.

        And, sadly, my step dad passed away two years ago. But, boy, did he love those days in the army. He had some brilliant stories and even helped me with plotting one of my books. He was a massive SAS fan. I think that is where he secretly wanted to be 🙂

        But, you also have to be thanked for doing the dangerous job you do. I know I speak for everyone when I say, ‘thank you’. xxx

  9. Julie Glover says:

    The Brits have my admiration for several things: Shakespeare (hey, he gave us “good riddance,” “in a pickle” and “wild goose chase”), James Bond, fabulous derby hats, the Beatles, The Avengers (original, not the crappy movie Americans made), and being the best dang ally the United States has ever had. Plus, they gave me quite a lovely last name…being the Brit-American I am.

    I’m also incredibly fascinated by Churchill and his leadership. But the British could have never prevailed but for its people–its devoted, brave people. Hats off to the RAF for taking it to the Nazis long before we got up the gumption to join the fight. I am proud of my country and its WWII veterans for finally getting involved and having Britain’s back.

    Great article, Holmes!

  10. Our (or, at least, my) perception of the RAF during these critical battles was that The Brits had well-trained and tested aircraft taking on the Nazi Luftwaffe.

    This makes their victory even more amazing than already recorded in history. I shudder when I visualize 17 YO brave young men signing to fly against the experienced Nazi’s. I can also imagine the “bullet proof” and “invincible” factors in those young men. My own 16 YO grandson has that, and he’s considering enlisting in the USMC in advance of pursuing a career in law enforcement.

    Do I want to talk him out of it? Part of me does. Hell, everyone who loves him has an underlying urge to talk him out of it. But, then I remember. Other families faced the same fears when their sons/daughters/siblings/grandchildren enlisted. Why should we be immune? I’ll be proud of whatever decision he makes.

    On a lighter note…

    Thank goodness Goering didn’t work undercover in Great Britain prior to WWII. His taste buds might have atrophied (as mine do) when faced with British cuisine.

    My patriotic tree now has both US and Canadian flags on it. Nigel? I’m waiting for flags from allies who fought with us in many campaigns. Leaving my Novella as Comment here to go pester Nigel on his blog.

  11. J Holmes says:

    Hi Gloria. I can understand your feelings about your 17 yr old grand son. In my teens I didn’t give it a second thought. By my twenties I had reason to and I began to hope that some day my children would not have to fight. We have not reached that noble ideal yet. I refuse to stop dreaming it but in the meantime I remain armed.

  12. KM Huber says:

    Well done, Holmes! I have long admired the “stiff upper lip” of the Brits for they just do what needs to be done. I ran across a Brit series, “Foyle’s War,” which I greatly admire for its portrayal of the home front during the war years. Once again, you bring that distinctive Holmes balance to history. Thank you for that.

    • J Holmes says:

      Hi Karen. Thank you. Based on my father’s recommendation I also watched “Foyle’s War” via Netflix. I was sorry when the series ended.

  13. I feel the same way about the Brits! Thanks for a great blog post. 🙂

  14. Texanne says:

    Another inspiring article, Holmes. Thank you.
    One of the comments bothers me. Donna says that most Brits don’t know much about WWII. That’s tragic and frustrating. History may not repeat itself like a Zerox machine, but there are important lessons to be learned from it. Why are we throwing it away? Letting it die, or just flat killing it with revisionist lies. That’s dishonorable.

    Flying. Such a glorious, wonderful, unnatural thing for humans to do. No wonder we are so fascinated by it. Nowadays, flying is safer than driving a car–so easy to forget how risky it used to be!

    And that’s without a determined enemy shooting at you. Keeping a stiff upper lip is important when you’re fighting for your existence against the forces of madness. Now we moderns laze around, watching “reality” TV and letting a very few young people exhibit all the courage the rest of us just can’t be bothered to develop. And we scoff at primitives who throw virgins into the volcano! Same-same.

    Without history, we wouldn’t know how great men could be. Thanks for reminding us. :)TX

  15. J Holmes says:

    Texanne. Thank you for your kind appraisal of the article. I too am saddened when I meet young Brits that know nothing about Passchendale, or what occurred in the summer of 1940. It’s frightening to meet fellow Americans who have never heard of Guadalcanal or Bastogne or for that matter don’t care a bit about what occurred in Benghazi this past September.

    We should never rely on schools to teach our children to read, write, do simple math, or understand our history. The best of schools can only do so much and those schools are few and far between. The modern education industry is about taking care of the administrators and risk management. The red tape is so thick that it’s a wonder that any decent teacher has any time to practice their craft.

    Our terrible failures in education during the last few decades have produced some very gullible and easily manipulated citizens.

  16. Dave says:

    They prefer the sunny comfort of lies than the messy gray and black that go with truth and evil.

    • J Holmes says:

      Hi Dave. I’m an idealist. I always see the bright young ones that don’t settle for comfort and know that they will do great things in spite of the fleecing we have given them and their children.

  17. It seems incredible, looking back, to think that a nation that gave the world Butlins holiday camps and kippers with mushy peas – who had boarding schools where children engaged in ‘ripping wheezes’ and went on to become ‘boffins’, where eccentricity was cultivated – could stare down the might of Hitler’s war machine. Yet the British – and its Commonwealth – did just that, and they did it because it had to be done. The stakes were higher than we perhaps imagine today. Back in the early twentieth century, democracy was a fragile entity in world measures, certainly in Europe. Communism and fascism were on the rise and there was every chance that this ‘new order’ might predominate, leading the world into a new dark age. The British knew what was at stake; and they knew Hitler had to be stopped – at all cost, whatever the sacrifice.

    • J Holmes says:

      Hi Matthew. I think you are absolutely right. It pains me that events like the Battle of Britain have been watered down by some that prefer a less frightening and uncomfortable past.

      Germany is to be given credit. Most modern Germans have never pretended that the Nazi plague was anything other than what it was.

      Sadly in Japan and China generations have been lied to about the realities of WW2. Both Chinese and Japanese history books are rubbish. What occurred in Asia in the twentieth century surpasses even the Nazi holocaust in deaths and human suffering and should not be ignored.

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