Britain's Finest Hour
 by Nick Barlow,
 Senior  foreign correspondent

Today, over sixty years after it ended, the Battle of Britain is still remembered throughout the UK and beyond
as being Britain's 'finest hour'. Looking back on it from our vantage point of a safe and free Britain where the
prospect of being invaded by anyone, let alone our EU partners in Germany, it can be hard to understand just
what all the fuss is about. After all, the Allies won the war, so what's so special about one battle?

All history looks simple and predictable in hindsight. We know now that Britain would hold off the Germans
during the summer of 1940 and stay in the war as a combatant nation waiting for the moment when Roosevelt
would be able to rouse the American people to stand up for liberty across the world and turn the USA into the
'arsenal of democracy'. We know that Hitler would soon turn his attentions to the East and launch the fateful
Operation Barabarossa, the might of the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe blunted against the Russian steppe.
And we know now that the Nazis would never be able to assert full control over Western Europe while
the Resistance movements were defying them across every country they occupied.

In 1940 though, the picture looked a whole lot bleaker. After the 'phoney war' of the 1939/40 winter, the
German war machine sprang back into life and a world that had been preparing itself for a return to the
trench warfare of the Great War discovered the full power of the blitzkrieg, or 'lightning war' where the
planes of the Luftwaffe destroyed defences with impunity before the panzer divisions rolled through,
gaining in days what had previously taking months or years to achieve. If that sounds familiar, it's because it
was almost exactly the same battle plan the allied forces used in the Gulf War, fifty years later.

Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium and France all fell in weeks. The British Expeditionary Force
had been surrounded in Northern France and only made it back across the English Channel because of the
near-miracle of the 'little ships' - the hundreds of fishing boats and other ships who managed to evacuate
thousands of troops from Dunkirk. Britain was left to fight alone, our only remaining allies thousands of
miles away in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the rest of the Commonwealth.

The Chamberlain government had collapsed and Churchill, who had been seen as just an old warmonger little
more than a year before led the new National government. Germany offered peace, where Britain could get out
of the war and keep the Empire and it was actively considered by the British government. (Lord Halifax, who it
is widely believed would have taken the peace terms, was actually offered the chance to become Prime Minister
ahead of Churchill, but the opposition Labour and Liberal parties refused to form a government with him.)

We know now that what plans Germany had for the invasion of Britain (operation Sealion) were unlikely to
have succeeded, but no one knew this then. After all, the Germans had invaded France past the 'impassable'
Maginot Line, so why would they not be able to become the first to successfully mount a successful invasion
across the Channel since William the Conqueror in 1066?

To invade, Germany would first need to gain control of the air over southern England to give the invasion
fleet any chance of getting past the Royal Navy and putting troops ashore. The Luftwaffe, who had already
won air battles over the rest of Europe, would have to put the smaller Royal Air Force (RAF) out of action,
using its size and seemingly superior planes.

It should have been a simple task for the Luftwaffe, but they failed. Not through incompetence on their part
but because the RAF had a couple of advantages. First and foremost, Britain was the first country to put a
successful radar defence into operation. Radar stations across the south coast kept a constant watch across
the Channel, giving squadrons vital warning of incoming attacks. We take radar for granted nowadays, but
then it was a revolutionary invention, changing the rules of air warfare. Secondly, the RAF had the Spitfire,
possibly the best fighter plane of its day, able to outperform the numerically superior attacking force.

Above all else though, was the courage and bravery of the men and women of the RAF. Not just a British
force, it contained pilots from all over the world, including squadrons of Poles, Czechs, French and others who
had escaped their countries and were willing to fight to freedom alive in Europe. They fought above and beyond
what could have been expected of them, returning to the skies again and again in thousands of dogfights
throughout the summer of 1940. They kept control of the skies, and forced the Nazis to give up their plans for
Britain as the Battle of Britain turned into the Blitz, with each side now trying to bomb the other into submission.

At the time, Churchill said of the RAF that 'never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by
so many to so few.' Britain had not just held on, but beaten the seemingly unstoppable Nazi war machine
back. The Royal Navy would continue to stop the German Navy at sea, while the 'Desert Rats' could
continue to fight Rommel's Afrika Korps across North Africa. Hitler's plan had been to eliminate the threat
from the West first, then turn to the East and take Russia. Because of the few of the RAF, the threat in the
West would remain so when he turned East, Russia would be able to find an ally in Europe.

Then, over a year later, the USA entered the war and the war became, as one historian as described it, 'the
proper application of overwhelming force', deploying the allied forces into Western Europe and sandwiching
the Wehermacht between the size of the Red Army to the west and the Anglo-American armies in the West.

If the Battle of Britain had been lost, that would never have happened. Even if Britain remained uninvaded,
German domination of the skies over England would soon have forced Britain to sue for peace and withdraw
from the war. There would have been no invasion of Italy, no D-Day and Europe would have been under the
total control of the Nazis, leaving them free to concentrate on destroying Russia.

But Britain held on, and while it would be American wealth and power that would turn and win the war, it
was the Battle of Britain that ensured there would still be somewhere to win it from. So many of us owe so
much to those few of the RAF.

To tell the entire story of the Battle of Britain would take days, even weeks.
The full scale of the conflict can be seen on the RAF's website:

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