Summary: Our history consists to a shocking degree of myths, which means we stand on sand — not rock. This weakens us, diminishing our ability to clearly see the world and prepare for the future. Our cousins across the Atlantic share some of these myths about WWII. Today we look at one of these. For us it’s historical trivia, but we have to make a start somewhere.
Did the Battle of Britain Alone Stop Hitler?
By Derek Robinson.
Reviewed by Michael Kiene (Major, US Army Reserve).
Originally published in the Marine Corps Gazette of April 2006.
Republished here with their generous permission.
The Battle of Britain is a stirring tale of how a handful of brave pilots of the Royal Air Force (RAF) thwarted Hitler’s plans to invade Great Britain. During the summer and fall of 1940 the RAF battled the Luftwaffe over the skies of southern England, while on the ground the British Army was still trying to recover from the debacle in Belgium and France that ended at Dunkirk. Its weapons abandoned on the beaches of France, and reduced to hastily trained recruits practicing drill with broomsticks instead of rifles, the British Army could offer little more than token resistance had the Germans crossed the channel. The future of Western civilization was at stake. If the RAF had lost the Battle of Britain, England would have been helpless to stop the German invasion that was sure to follow.
Or so the common wisdom goes. The truth, according to author Derek Robinson, is somewhat different from the legend. In Invasion, 1940 Robinson sets out to debunk many of the common misperceptions (or “myths” as he calls them) about the Battle of Britain and the events leading up to it. He offers a compelling argument that while the RAF may have been England’s first line of defense, it was by no means the last. Robinson contends that even if the RAF had lost the Battle of Britain, the Germans could never have successfully invaded England.
After their stunning success in France, the Germans had a few months (at most) in order to plan the invasion, train their troops, and assemble the vast quantities of boats, equipment, and supplies such an operation would require. In contrast, the D-Day planners had years to prepare for their cross channel invasion, as well as the advantage of having the industrial output of the largest economy in the world on their side. Even then, the success of D-Day was far from guaranteed. Germany never came close to having the ability to cross the channel. While Britain was wracked with fear over a possible German invasion, in Germany the planning for the invasion rarely rose above the level of wishful thinking.
The legend of the RAF’s “finest hour” has grown over the years. Winston Churchill, speaking before Parliament, said of the RAF, “Never before have so many owed so much to so few.” Movies made during and after the war (and all seeming to star Errol Flynn) depicted dashing young pilots rising up in the sky in their Spitfires and Hurricanes to valiantly do battle with the Luftwaffe. All of this fueled the myth that the RAF alone saved England. What’s left out of the picture is the Royal Navy. The navy survived the fall of France unscathed and stood as always as Great Britain’s primary means of defense.
Derek Robinson does not in any way set out to belittle the RAF or its contribution to the war. However, he does seek to correct many of the popular myths about the war that have grown over the years. As a novelist, he has written several books about the RAF and the Royal Flying Corps, extolling their bravery and accomplishments during both world wars. Invasion, 1940 is based on his years of extensive research to ensure the historical accuracy of his stories. In the end, however, Robinson is first and foremost a novelist.
His assertion of an overwhelming myth regarding the role of the RAF may be relevant for the general population. The academic community has long acknowledged the role of the Royal Navy, the lack of a viable plan on the part of the Werhmacht, and the overall improbability of an invasion. As a result, professional military officers also harbor few illusions.
Even the homepage of the RAF,, acknowledges that even if the RAF had lost the battle, the Royal Navy could have stopped any invasion:
It has been postulated by many naval experts that due to the type of flatbottomed barge built by the Germans, simply running a Destroyer Squadron at full speed through their ranks would have caused many to capsize in the wake from the ships. The troops and their equipment would have suffered heavy casualties, and the invasion effectively stopped with little or no gunfire.
While not breaking any new ground historically speaking, Invasion, 1940 is worth reading for the person who wants to learn more about the true story of the Battle of Britain, instead of the myths that have grown up around it.
About the Derek Robinson
From his website:
I am an author, English, who has cornered the market in flying novels – three about the Royal Flying corps in WW1, three about the RAF in WW2 . Best known is Goshawk Squadron, which would have won the Booker Prize in 1971 if Saul Bellow, one of the judges, had had his way. “The most readable novel of the year,” Nina Bawden said in the Daily Telegraph. “I laughed aloud several times, and was in the end reduced to tears.”
… I’m told these novels reveal a streak of black humour and a certain debunking of the myths of war, plus what Paul Scott called “a narrative gift that sets up the hackles of involvement”. The American critic Paul Fussell commented, “I defy the reader to put the book down once Robinson has got him into the air.”
… A policeman’s son from a council estate, I reckon I was born lucky. I had parents who read books, a public library on the corner, and the 1944 Education Act (State Scholarships for bright lads). I crossed the class barrier by going to Cambridge, got a degree in history, and learned to write boringly. Stints in advertising in London and New York changed all that. In 1966 I went to Portugal, wrote two unpublishable novels, returned to England flat broke, married, and finally got it right with Goshawk Squadron, which bought enough time to write the next ripping yarn.
I’ve also done a lot of broadcasting, starting in the 70s with radio, when editing a tape meant brisk work with a razor blade, moving on to TV in the 80s, when Autocue was new and not always reliable, so that a 60-second piece to camera tested the memory and the nerves. I made a few dozen documentaries and did a ton of rugby commentary. I also chaired the first-ever Radio 4 phone-in, which used big-name studio guests (Robert Mugabe was the first), and created and presented a Radio 2 show called Hit List that was an inverted Desert Island Discs – six bits of music you never want to hear again. Very funny, and why the BBC dropped it is beyond understanding. As for pastimes, I was a grassroots rugby referee for 30 years, and still play more squash than my friends, or my knees, think wise. All of which is fine and good, but what really matters are the books. The rest is just ink, sweat and taxes.
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