Friday, 3 February 2012

The Many, Not the Few...

According to official history, between July 10 and October 31, 1940, the RAF shot the Luftwaffe out of the skies over Britain.

But for the efforts of 1,000 or so Fighter Command pilots, Britain, standing alone against the might of Nazi Germany, would have been exposed to invasion and occupation.

In August 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill set this legend in stone by declaring: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."

The rhetoric was and remains stirring and uplifting. But is it a true reflection of what actually happened? No, says Dr Richard North in his about-to-be-published book, The Many, Not the Few: The Stolen History of the Battle of Britain. The book, subject of long and extensive conversations between him and I since he started chronicling Battle of Britain events on his blog to mark the 70th anniversary in 2010, is a reversion rather than a revision of history, he says - removing the layers of fiction and propaganda to get at the truth underneath. This fits with his much-blogged convictions about the state of the nation today and the reality gap separating the governed from the governing class.

Back in the summer of 1940, Churchill had a war to win in his own Cabinet. He had a propaganda war to win and, as with all powerful statesmen conscious of themselves as historical figures, Churchill also had an eye to posterity. For him history was a pageant of epic events. The Battle of Britain, a transition from his earlier view of it as the battle for Britain, was his Trafalgar of 1805, his battle of England's little ships against the mighty hulks of the Spanish Armada of 1588.

The commonly accepted version of history-as-heritage that we know best, struck Dr N as fraught with unexplained inconsistencies, in spite of the vast number of studies and personal reminiscences published since the end of the war.

For example, if the battle in the air was effectively won by the RAF by the end of October 1940, why, then, were Goering's Air Fleets dropping thousands of tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs on British cities for the best part of seven more months, until mid-May, 1941 when Hitler began to transfer his bombers eastwards to the borders of the Soviet Union?

Even after the D-Day landings from June 6, 1944 to March 1945, the V1 and the deadlier V2 rockets killed more than 6,000 British civilians and injured another 18,000.

Richard North's researches led him to conclude that the real story had been shot down to make way for the narrative of the helpless many being saved by the valiant few, a top-down version of events which he says is a "travesty" of the truth.

He says the battle for Britain was more extensive, longer-lasting and more inclusive than the official version allows. Central to resisting the three-pronged Nazi strategy of blockade, bombing and the bluff of invasion, were the seamen of the Merchant Marine and the Royal Navy; the pilots of Coastal Command, the Fleet Air Arm and Bomber Command, as well as regiments of anti-aircraft gunners, thousands of aircraft ground crew, firemen and many others. The Battle of Britain is a myth that has become exclusively the preserve of 1,000-plus pilots of Fighter Command (disbanded after the war).

When I was a boy the gallant few were depicted in popular fiction as devil-may-care Johnnies who wore spotted cravats, drove open-topped sports cars too fast along country lanes, and lept into Spitfire cockpits at the drop of a hat to blast more Huns out of the sky (while chewing a breakfast bacon sandwich). This version of events could have been written by Galton and Simpson for their Hancock's Half-Hour in which the lad from East Cheam has a fantasy about being a top gun sky jockey.

Subsequently, we learned that more than 400 of those Johnnies were foreigners - Poles, Free French, Czechs, South Africans, Irishmen, Australians. The Polish pilots, usually flying Hawker Hurricanes rather than Spitfires, had the deadliest reputation in Fighter Command, flying in close to kill German pilots, not just shoot down their aircraft from a distance.

Those familiar with Richard North's 2009 book Ministry of Defeat - an analysis of British military blunders and strategic miscalculations in Iraq - won't be surprised by his line of argument in The Many, Not the Few. Misleading narratives about recent and current conflicts persuaded him to take a fresh look at the past.

If we are to learn from history, it must be the right history, the true account, not a counterfeit put in place to conceal a theft, he says in the book.

My own view is that either through ignorance or design we rarely get the history right. More often than not all that happens is that the same mistakes are repeated but with more bland self-assurance. Arguably, Afghanistan is a good example of the hubris and Law of Unforseen Consequences that typified Ministry of Defence posturings about Iraq.

I think his latest book, written clearly and concisely, is a worthy companion to the history of the EU he wrote with Christopher Booker, The Great Deception. In my opinion, it is a sequel to Ministry of Defeat - but with far fewer acronymns.