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Few

September 15, 2015

220px-Josef_František

Could Battle of Britain Day (September 15) also be known as International Anti-Nazi Task Force Day?

I was brought up on the mythology of the Battle of Britain and consequent (or overlapping Blitz).  Both my parents were evacuated during the war, from Liverpool and London.  The house I grew up in was the only 1950s house in a road full of c. 1900 houses.  When I was but a tiny wee thing, my ma picked me up and rushed down to the end of the street so that we could both watch Edward Fox parachute into a back garden where he could be offered a cigarette in a memorable scene from Battle of Britain, the movie.

September 15th gets privileged because it was the day that the Luftwaffe really threw the kitchen sink at the RAF, hit them with everything they got, and were to be disappointed.  Seventy Five years ago today.

Then when I grew older, I started to distrust (or rather avoid) dewy eyed finesthourism.  I eventually achieved the belated realisation that the rest of the world did not buy into this mythology, that there has long been – for example – a prevalent American view that Britain’s war record was one of stupidity and cowardice, something that Brits are too chauvinistically nostalgic to wake up to.  And I began to be told that the battle itself had none of the strategic significance I’d been told it had.  Can any “real” historical sense of this struggle be disentangled from competing political narratives?

I started to read that Hitler could not have invaded Britain even if he’d destroyed the RAF.  That he’d no wish to invade Britain anyway.  That the whole affair was a side show compared to the battle with Russia a year later.

Well, having revised my revisionism, I now say “Yes but…”   It’s true that Hitler really wasn’t interested in invading Britain as such, although plans were certainly drawn up, in a someone reluctant fashion.  His concept of lebensraum did not include Sussex.  What he really wanted, and what he was mystified that he hadn’t already got, was a peace deal with Britain that gave him a free hand in Europe in exchange for permitting Britain to retain her enormous overseas empire.  Who wouldn’t take that deal, having been driven off the continent of Europe?  Certainly, a number of powerful people in Britain were ready to take it.  King George VI had been an ardent supporter of Munich and remained an appeaser well into 1940.  When Chamberlain resigned, the King tried to get Halifax made prime minister – Halifax who kept a surrender document in his top pocket with crosses next to the places where everyone could sign.)

(There’s a bitter irony attached to the Brexit campaign using Spitfires in its broadcasts – since the Spitfire is the supreme emblem of Britain’s refusal to abandon Europe.  Who can doubt that if Nigel Farage had been Prime Minister in 1940, he would have been a Lord Halifax, and nobody would have ever heard of Spitfires?)

The significance of the Battle of Britain therefore cannot be detached from this political context.  Whether or not the destruction of the RAF would have led to the invasion of Britain, the Nazi thinking was – that a demoralised and defeated Britain would have soon sent for Halifax and the appeasers.  The end of any western front.  Nazis free to plunder and slaughter the rest of Europe.

Perhaps that’s the implication of the sacrifice made by “The Few” that should be remembered.

I must say I hate the phrase “gave their lives”.  I’m with George S. Patton on this point.  Warriors do not (generally speaking) and should not (generally speaking) “give their lives”.  They risk their lives and sometimes lose their lives, which is a very different thing.

The guy in the photo was actually Czech, not Polish, an extraordinary man who fled the Nazi occupation of his country (facilitated by Neville Chamberlain) to Poland, where he fought his homeland’s enemies on Polish soil (or over Polish skies). His name was Josef František.  Following the Fall of Poland he eventually arrived in Britain (via Romania, North Africa and France) where he quickly joined the RAF. He then spent the crowded remainder of his very short life becoming just about the most successful fighter ace in action over southern England, with an inimitable flair for shooting down German planes, before crashing and expiring in October of 1940, perhaps out of sheer exhaustion.

Czechs and Poles were disproportionately effective pilots in the international anti-Nazi task force that was the RAF.  Battle of Britain day should never be a day for narrow chauvinism.  Today is a good day (for example) to hug a Canadian.  I married one, which makes it easier.  But hug New Zealanders too.  And perhaps above all, if you’re in Britain, hug recent refugees.

Yes.  I think the most authentically “patriotic” thing for any British person reflecting on the Battle of Britain to do today, would be to go out and hug a refugee.  Better try and offer some practical help and/or lobby for practical help (and hugs) to be generally offered.  Do something that Hitler would have hated.

Much of the British establishment would have given in to Hitler in 1940.  The Royal Family, much of the aristocracy and many prominent politicians were all ready to cut a deal.  Meanwhile migrants, refugees, newcomers to British shores, fleeing war and persecution at home took to the skies and did more than their fair share to inflict the first actual defeat that Hitler was ever to suffer.  So I’ll be thinking of Josef František today and the other refugees whose “finest hour” is worth recalling.

For many of them, life was to be measured in “hours”, and all too few of them.

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