The Royal Navy and The Battle of Britain by Anthony J. Cumming

The Royal Navy won the Battle of Britain. An argument, I am sure, that would have anyone making it carted off to the historical loony bin. Or, at least, the orthodoxy of British national history would have it so. The problem with such grandiose arguments is that invariably they are filed under ‘revisionist’ simply because they do not agree with the perceived, ie Churchillian, version of the history of the Second World War.

I’ve often wondered just why the Royal Navy is so overlooked in most versions of events of the summer of 1940. While we all know about Fighter Command and ‘the few’, and how they gallantly won the Battle of Britain, no-one sees fit to mention the role that the Royal Navy’s home fleet might have played in defeating an invasion. And not just that, but in deterring the Germans from crossing the channel in the first place. A pertinent point is the time and resources spent in preparing the D-Day landings – could the Germans have really pulled off a similar operation in 1940?

Cumming presents his argument in a masterful way. Firstly, he argues that an invasion was not necessarily inevitable in the summer of 1940, and many German commanders had serious misgivings – and a fear of the Royal Navy. Cumming then examines whether the Luftwaffe would have been able to attack major British warships in a sea battle in the Channel, the conclusion being that although the battleships were not as well armed for anti-air warfare as might have been hoped, they would still have been operating under cover of UK-based aircraft, and the Luftwaffe did not have many aircraft capable of attacking major warships. Whilst ships might have been sunk, it might not have been quite the whitewash that many predicted. Even a couple of big-gun battleships getting through would have wreacked carnage on the invasion barges, especially with a puny Kriegsmarine being able to offer little protection.

Another useful consideration that Cumming makes is whether the RAF truly ‘won’ the Battle of Britain in the first place. Popular wisdom holds that ‘the few’ defeated the Luftwaffe over southern England in the summer of 1940. Cumming makes use of official records that suggest that British Fighters might not have been quite as effective against German aircraft as first thought, including some useful technical data relating to a lack of stopping power with .303 bullets compared to cannons, which the Spitfires and Hurricanes lacked. So, in essence, Cumming is arguing here that regardless of whether the Royal Navy ‘won’ or not, we should not blindly assume that the RAF DID win it. It is no insult to suggest that whilst the RAF by no means defeated the Luftwaffe, it did not lose – which was crucial in itself.

One of the strangest facts about 1940 is how little is known about the Commander-in-Chief of the British Home Fleet, Admiral Sir Charles Forbes. Compared to predecessors such as Jellicoe and Beatty and successors such as Tovey and Fraser, Forbes is a virtual unknown in the annals of naval history. This may well explain why the Navy gets very little credit for the deterrent role that it played in 1940. Perhaps a more dashing and popular Admiral might have been used as a ‘poster-boy’. Finally, Cumming concludes his study by suggesting that the importance of winning American public opinion may have shaped the reporting of the events of 1940 – a heroic battle won by the RAF was easier to sell than an invasion thwarted by the deterrent of the Home Fleet.

These are interesting points indeed, that I have often pondered. Heavens knows why its taken so long for someone to write a book asking these difficult questions. And Anthony Cumming has made a very good job of it too. It would unfair to label his work as revisionism, it goes much beyond that. For me the most interesting point in the book is the conference in which Winston Churchill stated that in the event of an invasion he would expect the Royal Navy to steam into the straits of Dover from both ends. It really wound have been a second Trafalgar – probably more important – and, if I were a German Admiral, it would have had me thinking twice.

The Royal Navy and The Battle of Britain is published by The Naval Institute Press

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40 Comments

Filed under Book of the Week, Navy, Royal Air Force, World War Two

40 responses to “The Royal Navy and The Battle of Britain by Anthony J. Cumming

  1. James this is a good work but it suffers from a major problem of definition. As much as ‘revisionists’ would like to say that that the RAF did not win the Battle of Britain the truth is they did. Cummings has skewed this definition. The Battle of Britain is the physical aerial battle that occurred in 1940. Yes there are several key reasons why the Germans did not launch SEA LION but the victory of Fighter Command should not be miscounted. Indeed contemporary Combined Operations doctrine noted that invasions could not win without air superiority.

    What Cummings is discussing is the Battle for Britain; a different, more esoteric event that did not happen. One in which the RN played/would have played a significant role in and it is true that there is an element of deterrence effect here too.

    The problem is here that what we have a reactionary thesis here; this is the same historian who claimed that RAF fighter pilot could not shoot straight BTW. Hopefully at some point both air power and maritime, and to a degree land warfare, historians can meet in the middle at some and analyse the battle as what it really was; a failed Combined Operation.

    You might be interested in the follow ripostes’ from some leading historians based on some erroneous views espoused by a journalist a few years back.

    http://www.rusi.org/analysis/commentary/ref:C4538D604EF124/

  2. Ross, you do make a good point. The RAF had to be defeated before the Germans could give ANY serious thought to even attempting invasion. IF, and it’s a big if, the RAF had been defeated, though, the German invasion was still far from being a given. Most of the “landing craft” were river barges from inland Europe, hardly useful in the Channel even on the calmest of days. This book does a good service in pointing out that the RN would have been a powerful deterrent even if the RAF had been defeated. “The Few” that we “owe so much” to still are the victors of the campaign popularly referred to as “The Battle Of Britain”. But just as in another thread here, we discussed that “The Battle Of The Atlantic” was a series of events lumped together, “The Battle Of Britain” does rightfully have a naval component, to be considered if the Germans won the aerial component. In that case, this book serves a noble purpose by expanding the viewpoint of so many people, who aren’t quite the history geeks we, here, are, and don’t know as much about “Sealion” and its details. (“James can vouch for how big a geek I am!”, he says, grinning wickedly.)

    • I’m sorry, I just re-read my post, and I’m not sure I made sense at all (a common failing of mine). What I was trying to say was I agree with you, Ross, that this book talks about the naval component. But I think it does have a place on the shelf to detail that component that is so often overlooked. Is that clearer to understand? Sorry about the confusion!

  3. James Daly

    The main thing I took from this book is that there was a much bigger strategic picture going on in 1940 than Spitfires and Hurricanes over southern England. I don’t think its ever good when history becomes so accepted that its assumed. Anything that adds a new angle keeps us on our toes, even if it ends up being debatable, at least its got us thinking and challenging rather than accepting the same old narrative!

  4. I agree it has a place and hopefully one day we will have a proper holistic anaysis of the batte. In reality his thesis is not new, H R Allen and James Robinson have both written on this theme before; Allen back in the 70s. Actually I am sure that there is an even earlier work but can’t remember it’s author.

  5. Has anyone checked the British Pathe film archive online for footage relating to these events? I highly recommend the newsreels that are available to watch on http://www.britishpathe.com

    Jason

  6. x

    There aren’t 3 components there are 4; land, sea, air, and what the enemy cocked-up!! I see it more as the Germans losing the airwar than the RAF et al winning it. Further there were RN’s little ships in the Channel and Nore fighting

    • X- Good point on that fourth component! It’s a great demonstration point for those who tend to the view that Hitler didn’t start messing up badly until Barbarossa in 1941, or Stalingrad in 1942, or Kursk in 1943. (You can actually trace his meddling to Czechoslovakia, but that’s another thread altogether.) Between Hitler’s meddling, Goering’s lack of strategic grasp, and whichever nut (I forget the name) who decided river barges were landing craft, it was definitely the Germans’ battle to lose.

      • x

        Some of the conversion work on the barges was quite ingenious. But I think German losses would have been horrendous; even the Luftwaffe had achieved a degree of air superiority they would have struggled to defend the barges. Can you imagine destroyers just ploughing there way through the barges? How would the German aeroplanes safely attacked, the risk off blue-on-blue would have been high? And though the British were nearly bereft of heavy kit there would have been enough to deal with what ever German assets reached the beaches? I just don’t think the Germans would have got enough stuff across the Channel quick enough to make a difference. And before somebody says paratroops, well you need only rifles to meet rifles. I don’t think it would have been like Crete. Remember even with total air superiority (with the odd massive raid) it took the Allies the best part of a year to get from Normandy to Berlin. Proportionally the RAF was in a much better shape in 1940 than the Luftwaffe was in 1944/5. Lastly the German Army was still developing Blitzkrieg and it is whole success was based on this system. But surely this rapid thrust forward needs strategic depth? Would it work as well launched from a beach as it would launched from Germany? I doubt it. Look at how much stores had to be landed in the Falklands just so a light division could walk somewhere unopposed. Even better look at how much shipping the US needed to invade atolls in the Pacific. I don’t think the Germans had enough ‘planes to supply a corps. There logistical operation beyond the Panzer formations was still dependent on the horse.

  7. James Daly

    Both good points x. Its not difficult to see that the Germans did not seize the initiative after the fall of France, and it is hard to see that they took the thought of an invasion too seriously as they had virtually no contingency plans in place. I’ve always felt that the Germans stalled between the fall of France and attacking Britain, and that this might have been down to a lack of strategic grip.

  8. James Daly

    Also the little ships were waging a very agressive defensive war in the channel and the north sea. We did not have the numbers of mtb’s that we would have later in the war and the early types were rather small, but still useful and the men crewing them showed particular daring. And then there are the RN Patrol Trawlers and the like.

  9. x

    I think early WW2 is portrayed as Hitler on a rampage. It wasn’t that way at all. All sides hesitated. I remember reading about a French sentry who stood in rifle range of German soldiers openly playing football. He didn’t fire because he hadn’t been ordered too and they weren’t bothering him….

    Again I don’t want to come across as anti-RAF. It is just the picture is a bit more complicated than the officer-class running to their kites to give Jerry a damn good thrashing.

    (I have soft spot for RAF ASR launches……..)

  10. Okay, James and X, there’s a fantastic project for you. Sing the praises of those truly under-rated heroes, the air rescue folk! Not only did they save a lot of lives under bad weather AND enemy threat, but just as the US PT boats and subs did for the Americans in the Pacific, they allowed experienced pilots to re-enter the fray, while helping to capture (and thus remove from service) experienced enemy pilots. God may love the infantry, but there’s a special place in heaven for those who go in harm’s way to save another’s life. (My soft spot has always been Vietnam-era medevac. Fly an unarmoured helo into enemy fire to pluck wounded out for rescue. THAT is a story, WW2, Vietnam, or ANY era, that should be required reading and common knowledge!)

    • x

      Already been done,

      http://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/?product_id=2449

      Pen and Sword are a gem of a publisher.

      To be honest it is the British Army’s Navy that needs a good book. I do have one and its OK (well better than OK) but it lacks something. I have an interest in navies that aren’t navies. The US Army had some wonderful tugs around the corner from Portsmouth on Southampton Water.

      • X- Thank you VERY much for that. Looks great! Now I just have to scare up the money. (That’s gonna take a LOT of scaring, trust me.) Just one other thing, though. Can a navy, that isn’t a navy, BE a navy? Can it overcome its’ inherent non-navy-ness and aspire to achieving that level which allows it to be a navy? Sounds like we need to book you into a good philosophy class! (And me into a rubber room with a straitjacket!)

        • x

          I believe that the second largest air force in the world is the US Army…….

          RLC “ratings” wear No4 uniforms and they do pipe senior officers aboard.

          • Oh no, the US Army cannot be an Air Force. Thus it has been legislated! The Army only operates “rotorcraft” – they cancelled a helo in the 1960s, the AH-56 Cheyenne, because it had stub wings to carry ordnance! (Yes, they have calmed down about that, since the AH-64 has such stub wings, not to mention the number of converted civilian aircraft they use.) Amazing what silliness passes for serious military debate sometimes!

            • x

              I know the Cheyenne. It had a rather clever head tracking gun if memory serves.

              In the UK there is supposedly a gentlemen’s agreement between the RAF and the Army over the weight of airframe the latter can fly. A Lynx is OK, but a Blackhawk would be too big. I have asked on several forums for somebody to actually point me to a copy of this agreement but I have yet to see it.

              (AH64 Longbow are the exception that prove the rule….. :) )

              • The Cheyenne was a neat piece of kit. The head-tracking gun system is standard on AH64 and latest models of AH-1. The pusher prop made it the fastest pure-helo ever built. (Ospreys can go faster.) Pity it had to be a victim of an inter-service spat.

  11. Um.. I know this isn’t the right place to post this, but as a heads-up to all on this list. Don’t know if you saw this, my wife just passed it on to me from the Beeb.

    http://shar.es/0ySMg

    The RN will be decommissioning Ark Royal “almost immediately” instead of 2014, as originally stated. I am SO sorry to hear this – I always have loved the “new” old Ark, not just because of her namesake but for her outstanding service as well. All you UK residents can know there will be a number of us Yanks feeling broken-hearted along with you!

  12. James Daly

    Full post about the scrapping of Ark coming later today folks. Suffice to say its a very sad day indeed.

    • x

      I am lost for words which is something for me. I can always do words even if they lack sense…..

      • My friend, I think we all have PLENTY of words for this. The problem is, we’re all trying to be polite, and the words we have in abundance are, well, in U.S. terms, definitely on the far side of R rating bordering on X-rated. (If you think of nice words as red and “darn” or “bloody” being slightly blue, we’re working towards ultraviolet here!)

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