Flying through blue sky towards London, the Luftwaffe crews were in a confident mood. It was 15 September 1940 and their commanders had told them that, after weeks of intensive combat, the RAF was all but beaten. Even when the first British fighter planes appeared on the horizon, they remained dismissive of the threat. “Here come those last 50 Spitfires,” sneered one pilot of a Dornier DO-17 bomber. But complacency soon turned to fear. Badly misled about the strength of Britain’s defences, the Luftwaffe suffered heavy losses at the hands of Fighter Command. That day marked a decisive defeat for Germany. Hopes of achieving air superiority were extinguished. On 17 September Hitler issued a formal directive postponing indefinitely his plan to mount an invasion of Britain.
The resonance of the Battle of Britain is all the more powerful today, given that this month marks the centenary of the RAF’s foundation. Created in April 1918 through a merger of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service, the force came into being largely as a result of political pressure for an effective response to German bomber and Zeppelin attacks on southern England. More than two decades later, against a much deadlier aerial threat from Germany, the RAF had its “finest hour”, as Winston Churchill famously said. The name of Churchill will feature heavily in the RAF centenary commemorations. But in contrast, that of his predecessor in No 10, Neville Chamberlain, is likely to be either ignored or disparaged. Where Churchill is seen as the architect of salvation, Chamberlain is considered to have brought Britain to the brink of disaster.
According to the conventional narrative, his cowardly policy of appeasement emboldened Hitler, while his mix of parochialism and thrift left the country ill-prepared for war. In the memorable insult of Lloyd George, he saw “every problem through the wrong end of a municipal drainpipe”.
But this portrayal does Chamberlain a gross historical injustice. For all his undoubted flaws, including his vanity and self-delusion about Hitler, he deserves a large amount of credit for the RAF’s success in 1940. Far from leaving our defences ill-equipped, he was the leader responsible for ensuring that Britain had the planes ready for the titanic struggle against the Luftwaffe. For most of the 1930s, while he was prime minister and chancellor, his decisions provided the funds for the RAF’s expansion and ensured the money was focused on fighters. As he wrote to his sister Ida in July 1940: “If I am personally responsible for deficiencies in tanks and guns, I must equally be responsible for the efficiency of the RAF.”
In the 1930s, Chamberlain had a crucial impact on air policy because he challenged the RAF orthodoxy, which held that its central purpose was to deter a continental enemy by the threat of devastation through strategic bombing. This theory of the so-called knockout blow was known as the “Trenchard doctrine” after the first head of the RAF, Hugh Trenchard, who put all his faith in bombers and believed that fighters were an irrelevance. “The aeroplane is no defence against the aeroplane,” he once said. Even after he departed in 1930, Trenchardism remained in the ascendant until Chamberlain broke its grip.
It must be admitted that he did so partly for fiscal reasons, since one bomber cost as much as four fighters. But he also saw that new technology, particularly the introduction of radar and fast, single-seater, forward-firing monoplanes like the Spitfire and the Hurricane from the mid-1930s, had the potential to transform aerial combat by making bombers far more vulnerable.
Contrary to his quasi-pacifist image, Chamberlain showed a keen interest in the technical details of the new fighters, telling the House of Commons in May 1938 about their record-breaking speeds and their advanced features, such as “engines of unprecedented efficiency” and “variable pitch airscrews”. Indeed, in his enthusiasm for the Spitfire and Hurricane, Chamberlain showed more insight than Churchill, who, as a Tory backbencher, felt that the RAF should be concentrating production on two-seater fighters with rearward-firing turrets. In 1938 Churchill explained: “The urgency for action arises from the fact that the Germans must know we have banked on the forward-shooting, plunging Spitfire, whose attack must most likely resolve itself into a pursuit which, if not instantly effective, exposes the pursuer to destruction.”
Exactly such a plane was being made, though not in the quantities that Churchill wanted. It was called the Boulton-Paul Defiant and proved a disaster in the war, offering little more than target practice for the Luftwaffe.
Fortunately for the RAF, Chamberlain prevailed. Under his leadership, the entire focus of the government’s rearmament programme was on fighter defence. “I have won all along the line,” he wrote triumphantly in 1934 when still chancellor, after he persuaded the RAF and cabinet colleagues to agree an increase in the number of home squadrons.
Contradicting his reputation for parsimony, Chamberlain poured money into a succession of 13 RAF expansion programmes, while, as prime minister, he approved the construction of a series of aircraft factories, most notably the world’s largest plant at Castle Bromwich in Birmingham, which was meant to produce 1,000 Spitfires by June 1940. By 1939, rearmament was swallowing 21.4 per cent of Britain’s gross national product, a figure that reached 51.7 per cent by 1940. When Chamberlain finally declared war in September 1939, Britain’s aircraft output had overtaken that of Germany’s.
During the war, Labour liked to portray Chamberlain as one of the “guilty men” whose folly had almost resulted in national humiliation. Yet much of his air force rearmament was accomplished in the teeth of ferocious Labour opposition, especially before 1938. As Labour leader between 1932 and 1935, George Lansbury, who was a Christian pacifist, said he would “disband the army and dismiss the RAF”.
The 1938 Munich Agreement was central to the “guilty men” charge sheet against Chamberlain. That is understandable. But apart from the cold reality that there was little public appetite for conflict at the time of Munich, Chamberlain understood that Britain’s aerial defences were still too weak for war. Just before he left Heston airport on 29 September, he received a letter from Sir Charles Bruce-Gardener, the chairman of the Society of British Aircraft Constructors, who privately warned that “if war was declared, the equipment available for the RAF, both in types and numbers, was far below that of the German air force”.
Munich undoubtedly bought Britain time for the RAF to modernise dramatically over the next two years. In autumn 1938 Fighter Command had just 25 squadrons, mostly made up of obsolete biplanes. By the eve of the Battle of Britain, there were 58, most of them Spitfires and Hurricanes. Denis Webb, a manager at the Supermarine company that built the Spitfire, wrote, “Chamberlain’s despised scrap of paper gave us a good return”.
Chamberlain died from cancer in November 1940, but lived long enough to see the victory in the Battle of Britain.
Leo McKinstry is a biographer and historian
This article appears in the 18 Apr 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge