Battle Of Britain: Kanalkampf

It was seventy years ago today that the Battle of Britain officially began.

It’s hard to remember, but seventy years ago today – within the lifetime of a huge number of Americans -Western Civilization itself was on the ropes, and the Nazis commenced what they hoped would be the endgame.

It was that bad.


It’s hard to imagine to us, today, engaged as we are in a counterinsurgency war that is very nearly a decade old, how different war was in 1940 than today.  It was very, very fast, in the same way that we conquered Hussein’s Iraq very, very quickly, with huge armored columns sweeping across the plains and clouds of aircraft pummeling opposition far behind the increasingly-meaningless “front line”.  And remember – it had been ten scant months since Hitler had conquered Poland, three months since the lightning campaigns in Denmark and Norway (where the Allies had finally pulled out seventy years and one month ago today on June 10, 1940); not quite two months since Hitler had conquered the Netherlands and Belgium; less than a month since France had capitulated.

In four months – less time than it takes to get through the Stanley Cup playoffs – all of Western Europe, save Switzerland (which watched the Germans warily from their mountain fortresses, mobilized for war on the one hand and needing to accomodate a power that completely surrounded them on the other), Sweden (also ready for war, also surrounded by German or German-allied territory), Spain (where Francisco Franco remained friendly to his benefactor Hitler, while studiously avoiding entering a war he realized would gain him nothing) and Germany’s ally Italy, had fallen.

It was also incredibly bloody by our standards today.  The six weeks between the invasion of the Low Countries and the surrender of France led to 65,000 French killed and missing;
Britain lost nearly 20,000 dead and captured and twice as many wounded; the Dutch lost nearly 10,000 dead and wounded in two weeks, the Belgians twice as many in about a month.  The Germans lost 27,000 dead conquering France, with at least as many wounded.  And the victory, crushing as it was, cost about a third of the strength of the German air force, the Luftwaffe.  That’s over 100,000 dead, not counting civilians, in less time than it takes for your tax refund to arrive if you file by mail.

A section of Boulton-Paul Defiant fighters in formation.

A section of Boulton-Paul Defiant fighters in formation.

So when German troops lined up along the English Channel, the big question was “what now?”  The obvious answer was “invade Britain”.

But this hadn’t been done successfully since 1066; in the nine hundred years since, Britain had built the world’s most powerful Navy, which if left to operate with impunity would shred any invasion attempt…

…unless it was impossible to operate because of crushing German air superiority.

German Messerschmidt 109 fighter

German Messerschmidt 109 fighter

This was a novel, radical change in warfare even since World War I, 22 years earlier; the idea that there was a third front, the sky, that could control movement on the land and sea and make it impossible to successfully resist.  It was complete German control of the air that hamstrung Poland’s resistance, that gave Germany’s shoestring invasion of Norway the advantage it needed, that drove the Dutch to surrender, that finally doomed France.  Because Germany controlled the skies, Stukas broke up French counterattacks and troop concentrations as German fighters mowed French bombing counterattacks down like sheep.

And the Germans knew they’d have to control the sky over Great Britain to have a chance of holding the Royal Navy at bay long enough to get ashore in Britain to face what might have been an anticlimactic battle against a British army that had left most of its equipment in France while evacuating from Dunkirk.

Hitler knew he needed to capitalize on his momentum.  He also needed to give the exhausted Luftwaffe time to recover, bring in new pilots and planes to replace casualties, and start over again, and give his Navy time to muster enough ships and barges to carry an army cross the Channel, especially after the grievous casualties they’d suffered in Norway over the previous three months.

So the Luftwaffe‘s first mission, which would occupy the first month of the Battle of Britain, scarecely touched British soil at all. 


So as fraught as the date and the events were, the Battle of Britain started with a bit of a whimper.   The Luftwaffe was exhausted from the Battle of France – and so, to slow down the tempo and allow for training replacement crews, the first month of the Battle was spent sparring over the English Channel.

German Heinkel 111 bomber - theretofore most famous for bombing Guernica, during the Spanish Civil War - over the Channel.

German Heinkel 111 bomber - theretofore most famous for bombing Guernica, during the Spanish Civil War - over the Channel.

Stukas, with powerful fighter escorts, descended on British convoys through the Channel.  The British being on defense, they had to try to cover all the convoys equally; being at the limits of the ranges of the Spitfires and Hurricanes that stood the patrols, the British advantage in radar (of which more in a month or so) was of little value.

German Stukas.  While history records that the Stukas were badly bloodied in the Battle, they went on to be among the most efficient ship and tank-killing planes of the entire war.

German Stukas. While history records that the Stukas were badly bloodied in the Battle, they went on to be among the most efficient ship and tank-killing planes of the entire war.

And so the two air forces spent the month like a couple of boxers in the first round, poking at each other, feeling out each others’ games.

Artists impression of a 92 Squadron Spitfire approaching the white cliffs of Dover during the opening stages of the Battle.

Artists impression of a 92 Squadron Spitfire approaching the white cliffs of Dover during the opening stages of the Battle.

For the merchant ships and the Royal Navy in the Channel below, of course, it was another matter; casualties in this first month became so heavy that the Admiralty stopped all convoy shipping in the Channel.

British ship gets a close call from a German bomb

British ship gets a close call from a German bomb

And so the first phase of the final battle for the future of western civilization went to the Germans by a close nod.

But things would pick up in August.

23 thoughts on “Battle Of Britain: Kanalkampf

  1. One quibble: NAZI Germany WAS western civilization. Goebbles adored Woodrow Wilson, as did Mussolini. Benito and Adolf were Progressives of the first order and strong proponents of the church-as-state.
    Kinda like the Current Occupant of the White House.

  2. Kermit- I suggest reading Paul Johnson’s “Modern Times”. Johnson makes a pretty good case for Naziism being a rejections of Western Civilization in favor of eastern “culture”.

    I’ll stick with Johnson.

  3. They rejected classical “Liberalism”, in favor of Progressivism, which was already firmly in place by the 1930s. Like it or not, that is the state of western civilization as we know it.

  4. Sorry Kermit – Mitch has it right on target.

    Mitch, stand up and take a bow; second only to your writing on charter schools, this is wonderful, one of your best topics. I always end wanting to read more. Applause!

  5. I admit to not having read Johnson, however Facsism has at it’s roots Marx and Hegl and they are the products of western culture.

  6. they are the products of western culture

    In the same way as the Symbionese Liberation Army was a product of American culture.

    My analogy strains a bit – but Naziism in particular, says Johnson, was a rejection of the Western notions of egalitarianism and representation for the Eastern notions of the primacy of the central culture.

    I recommend the book more strongly than virtually any other, notwithstanding that it’s almost thirty years old (and its second edition, written in about 1990 to include the events of the eighties, is nearly twenty). It is the best resource there is for untangling what really happened in the 20th century, and is worth whatever price you pay for its explication of the relationships between Leninism and Hitler alone – and yet that’s just a tiny part of its value.

    It is one of the four books that cemented my conversion to conservatism.

  7. Yes, but you called it the ” final battle for the future of western civilization” and I would argue that we may be engaged in that very thing today.

  8. Kermit, perhaps the conflict may be resolved by remembering that the Enlightenment was produced by Western Civilization and only Western Civilization. The fascists and marxist-leninists used Enlightenment tools to promote atavistic ideologies. In practice the rule of the Soviets was closer to that of Ivan the Terrible than to Nicholas II, for example.
    The source of 20th Century authoritarian ideologies is indeed a complex subject. It is undeniable that these ideologies have been adopted more frequently in the East than in the West.

  9. Yes, but where do you draw the line? Victoria and Nicholas were cousins (as was Wilhelm), and they all stem from the same vine. Calling Bismark “anti-western” would be foolish. Calling Mussolini “anti-western” would be a mistake.
    Facsism is the bastard child of western Liberalism.

  10. Well, Kermit, I haven’t read Johnson’s book yet, but from the reviews that I have read I suspect that he will trace the lineage of the modern totalitarian state to ancient non-Western states. We invented the idea of the constitutional republic, we did not invent the idea of the God-King.

  11. Terry,
    Plato is the primary western source of the philosopher-king paradigm and if you read the “scholarly” texts of Joseph Vissarionovich Djugashvili particularly his writings on linguistics and structuralism in the late 40’s and early 50’s its easy to make the case for Kermit’s argument. Mr Djugashvili clearly saw himself as cast in Plato’s mold of the Philosopher-King and one among the first of many rulers who would lead mankind out of the darkness of capitalism. By the way if you dig up his publications on linguistics ( there used to be a link to Colorado university to English translations but its since disappeared) you will see how highly derivative Mr Chomsky’s work truly is.

  12. Terry, the totalitarian state is an ancient construct to be sure, but as far as I’ve learned the republic idea stems from pre-Christian Athens and was translated to Rome before the advent of Julius Ceasar.
    Hellenism is fundamentally western, as many of our founding fathers would attest.

  13. While President Bush was doing what he could to save us from Islamic Terrorism, he was constantanly attacked by the left in America. These liberals are clueless to what Roosevelt did. FDR basically gave a big middle finger to US law to help out the British. Can’t give aid to a warring nation? Well, let’s just “loan” them weapons.

  14. Kel-
    A Philosopher-King knows the truth. A God-King is the truth, or at least creates it. I think the Philosopher-King link to Napolean and Bismarck is stronger than its link to Stalin. Philosopher-Kings do not require worship.

    I agree re Hellenism. One of the objections of the Roman republicans to Caesarism was that by destroying the power of the Senate he would turn Rome into an oriental empire of slaves.

  15. So classic fascism (the State is everything, everything to the State) is oriental? How is this different from monarchy?

  16. Monarchs had limited power. By the high middle ages their power was tempered by parliaments and chartered towns and cities. In most nations the Church had significant power through the power of land ownership and the threat of excommunication.

  17. Kublai Khan had limited power? If you told him that you would be holding your head in your hands.

  18. Kublai Khan was Eastern, Kermit.
    There. I’ve run circles around you, logically.

  19. Kerm,

    I very strongly recommend Modern Times.

    By the way:

    So classic fascism (the State is everything, everything to the State)

    That’s not actually classical fascism. Fascism tends to focus on adding power to existing institutions – nation, the people, existing traditions and so on. Mussolini and Franco were classical fascists.

    Totalitarianism tears down everything that competes with the state. In Mao, Pol Pot, the French Revolution and Kim Jong Il’s case, it meant literally destroying everything but the state. For Hitler, it meant co-opting everything – the church, Das Volk, the military – in the interest f the state. To Stalin, it meant destroying everything, unless he really needed it (as he co-opted what was left of the Russian Orthodox Church during the war, when he needed all the help he could get).

  20. There are times when I can see only two dystopian futures for the West — fascism or aristocracy. Right now it looks like like it will be the latter.

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