What Churchill really meant by ‘The Few’

The Few, the Bombers and the Starvationists

by Gwydion M. Williams

“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” That may have been Churchill’s best-ever ‘sound-bite’, and is taken to refer to a successful air defence by a few brave pilots against an enormously powerful German air force. And it is supposed that this ‘Battle of Britain’ was the turning point in the war.

Oddly enough, this 70th anniversary is getting a bigger boost than anything I remember from the 50th and 60th anniversaries. Of course we are now currently at war, and also Britain’s relative strength has become less, with Thatcher wasting Britain’s bonanza from North Sea Oil on building up financial speculation and running down manufacturing. Britain has actually been losing her relative position for a century and a half, having peaked in power in the 1850s and having been steadily losing real strength under the pomp and glitter of the late Victorian era. Britain was and still is much less keen on funding science than rival industrial powers. But Britain remained very good at waging war. And even better at achieving its aims and making an show of strength without actual warfare.

After the Fall of France, Churchill had made a fine impression by saying “we will fight them on the beaches”. Actually there were plans to set the sea on fire and ensure that the first wave of invaders would either burn or suffocate – it was not only Nazis who fought dirty. In any case, by the time of the speech Churchill knew from secret German messages decrypted by the Enigma machine that the Germans didn’t think an invasion feasible while the British Navy dominated the seas. His behaviour was as empty and theatrical as when Elizabeth the First made a grand show in front of her troops after it was pretty definite that the Spanish Armada would not be able to collect the Duke of Parma’s army from what’s now Belgium and make a serious invasion of England. Someone should do a parody of “we will fight them on the beaches”, a comic version based on Britain’s traditional ‘saucy postcards’.

The air war became the main war after Britain withdrew from Continental Europe. As Churchill said, the pilots were brave, that’s one definite truth. But that was true of both sides. And at the time there was much less difference between mainstream British and German outlooks than is now pretended.

It’s worth looking at the speech as a whole. It begins

“Almost a year has passed since the war began, and it is natural for us, I think, to pause on our journey at this milestone and survey the dark, wide field. It is also useful to compare the first year of this second war against German aggression with its forerunner a quarter of a century ago.” [A]

Hitler was undeniably an aggressor, but Britain and France had let him get away with it for as long as they saw him as a useful anti-Communist force and a possibly destroyer of the Soviet Union. He was allowed to re-militarise the Rhineland, ignore treaties, intervene in Spain and intimidate Czechoslovakia, the only country in Middle-Europe that retained a Western-style parliamentary government in the 1930s. His demands on Poland were moderate – Germany should have Danzig back, since Poland did not want it, and he should have an extra-territorial road across the Polish Corridor, which Hitler was willing to view as legitimate even though it had been carved out of territory with a majority of Ethnic Germans. Poland refused concessions, that was why Hitler started the war.

The First World War was a very different matter. The initial aggression was Serbian, the assassination of the Austrian heir to the throne by Serbian terrorists promoting the Serb claim to Bosnia-Herzegovina. There was a reasonable suspicion that the Serbian government had been involved, or at least its intelligence agencies. This was the point on which negotiations broke down.

Austria-Hungary wanted to punish Serbia. Tsarist Russia decided to protect Serbia. Germany said that they’d stick to their alliance with Austria-Hungary if it came to a war. France in turn said it would uphold its alliance with Russia – the very odd alliance between to powers that were Europe’s most radical and least radical, an alliance that only made sense because both of them saw Germany as an enemy. Germany supposed that Great Britain would remain neutral, but there had been secret preparations made with France years before, negotiations unknown even to some members of the British cabinet that was induced to start a war. It was definitely not a matter of German aggression.

Germany was also willing to settle the war in 1915, ready to agree that it had been indecisive and should end with a restoration of things as they were in 1914. Neither France nor Russia would have wanted that, but if Britain had been ready for such a peace they could not easily have held out. In Russia it might have led to something like their first Revolution, the one that established a Western-style Republic that collapsed mainly because it chose to continue the war. The war continued in 1915, not because Germany was particularly aggressive, but because the British ruling class wanted to break their most powerful rival.

Well before World War One, there had been a widespread feeling among the British ruling class that Germany was the main threat to their global hegemony. But the war left Britain distinctly weakened and in the 1930s most Britons wanted to avoid another war. Churchill took a different attitude, had long ago figured out that Hitler would start a war eventually and wanted Britain to be ready for it He also noticed that this was a radically new type of war:

“Although this war is in fact only a continuation of the last, very great differences in its character are apparent. In the last war millions of men fought by hurling enormous masses of steel at one another. ‘Men and shells’ was the cry, and prodigious slaughter was the consequence. In this war nothing of this kind has yet appeared. It is a conflict of strategy, of organization, of technical apparatus, of science, mechanics and morale. The British casualties in the first 12 months of the Great War amounted to 365,000. In this war, I am thankful to say, British killed, wounded, prisoners and missing, including civilians, do not exceed 92,000, and of these a large proportion are alive as prisoners of war. Looking more widely around, one may say that throughout all Europe, for one man killed or wounded in the first year perhaps five were killed or wounded in 1914-15.

“The slaughter is only a small fraction, but the consequences to the belligerents have been even more deadly. We have seen great countries with powerful armies dashed out of coherent existence in a few weeks. We have seen the-French Republic and the renowned French Army beaten into complete and total submission with less than the casualties which they suffered in any one of half a dozen of the battles of 1914-18.”

In World War One, Serbia was surrounded by enemies, but it took more than a year to crush Serbia. That Poland should fall in weeks was indeed astonishing, as was the Fall of France. The real reason was that tanks could push through a front line and then cut the supply lines to enemy armies, but this wasn’t seen until later and until means had been found to counter it. For now, Churchill relied on new exotic methods emerging:

“The whole of the warring nations are engaged, not only soldiers, but the entire population, men, women and children. The fronts are everywhere… There seems to be every reason to believe that this new kind of war is well suited to the genius and the resources of the British nation and the British Empire; and that, once we get properly equipped and properly started, a war of this kind will be more favorable to us than the somber mass slaughters of the Somme and Passchendaele… Since the Germans drove the Jews out and lowered their technical standards, our science is definitely ahead of theirs. Our geographical position, the command of the sea, and the friendship of the United States enable us to draw resources from the whole world and to manufacture weapons of war of every kind, but especially of the superfine kinds, on a scale hitherto practiced only by Nazi Germany.”

Britain passed over to the United States two key developments. First, the war’s best radar systems out of the numerous separate developments: “In the 1934–1939 period, eight nations developed, independently and in great secrecy, systems of this type: the United States, Great Britain, Germany, the USSR, Japan, the Netherlands, France, and Italy.” [B] Second and even more importantly, a program for developing nuclear weapons, which was brought to fruition in the USA by teams including a lot of Jews, some refugees from Hitler. That much Churchill got right.

Churchill also helped create the ‘Anglosphere’, the partnership between the United States and Britain, along with those parts of the Empire that were mostly white and English-speaking:

“Some months ago we came to the conclusion that the interests of the United States and of the British Empire both required that the United States should have facilities for the naval and air defense of the Western Hemisphere against the attack of a Nazi power which might have acquired temporary but lengthy control of a large part of Western Europe and its formidable resources. We had therefore decided spontaneously, and without being asked or offered any inducement, to inform the Government of the United States that we would be glad to place such defense facilities at their disposal by leasing suitable sites in our Transatlantic possessions for their greater security against the unmeasured dangers of the future. The principle of association of interests for common purposes between Great Britain and the United States had developed even before the war….

“Undoubtedly this process means that these two great organizations of the English-speaking democracies, the British Empire and the United States, will have to be somewhat mixed up together in some of their affairs for mutual and general one can stop it. Like the Mississippi, it just keeps rolling alone. Let it roll. Let it roll on full flood, view the process with any misgivings. I could not stop it if I wished; no one can stop it. Like the Mississippi, it just keeps rolling alone. Let it roll. Let it roll on full flood, inexorable, irresistible, benignant, to broader lands and better days.”

Churchill was the grandson of the 7th Duke of Marlborough, but also the grandson of New York millionaire Leonard Jerome. Unification of the two traditions suited him.

What about the ‘few’ and the air war? People prefer to talk about the British fighter war against German bombers. But Churchill placed at least as much emphasis on the British bombing of Germany:

“The great air battle which has been in progress over this Island for the last few weeks has recently attained a high intensity. It is too soon to attempt to assign limits either to its scale or to its duration… It is quite plain that Herr Hitler could not admit defeat in his air attack on Great Britain without sustaining most serious injury…

“The conditions and course of the fighting have so far been favorable to us. I told the House two months ago that, whereas in France our fighter aircraft were wont to inflict a loss of two or three to one upon the Germans, and in the fighting at Dunkirk, which was a kind of no-man’s-land, a loss of about three or four to one, we expected that in an attack on this Island we should achieve a larger ratio. This has certainly come true…

“The enemy is, of course, far more numerous than we are. But our new production already, as I am advised, largely exceeds his, and the American production is only just beginning to flow in. It is a fact, as I see from my daily returns, that our bomber and fighter strength now, after all this fighting, are larger than they have ever been. We believe that we shall be able to continue the air struggle indefinitely and as long as the enemy pleases, and the longer it continues the more rapid will be our approach, first towards that parity, and then into that superiority, in the air upon which in a large measure the decision of the war depends.

“The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the World War by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. All hearts go out to the fighter pilots, whose brilliant actions we see with our own eyes day after day; but we must never forget that all the time, night after night, month after month, our bomber squadrons travel far into Germany, find their targets in the darkness by the highest navigational skill, aim their attacks, often under the heaviest fire, often with serious loss, with deliberate careful discrimination, and inflict shattering blows upon the whole of the technical and war-making structure of the Nazi power. On no part of the Royal Air Force does the weight of the war fall more heavily than on the daylight bombers, who will play an invaluable part in the case of invasion and whose unflinching zeal it has been necessary in the meanwhile on numerous occasions to restrain.

“We are able to verify the results of bombing military targets in Germany, not only by reports which reach us through many sources, but also, of course, by photography. I have no hesitation in saying that this process of bombing the military industries and communications of Germany and the air bases and storage depots from which we are attacked, which process will continue upon an ever-increasing scale until the end of the war, and may in another year attain dimensions hitherto undreamed of, affords one at least of the most certain, if not the shortest, of all the roads to victory. Even if the Nazi legions stood triumphant on the Black Sea, or indeed upon the Caspian, even if Hitler was at the gates of India, it would profit him nothing if at the same time the entire economic and scientific apparatus of German war power lay shattered and pulverized at home.”

Germany had not in fact prepared for ‘strategic bombing’ – they had tried it with zeppelins in World War One, but didn’t have the same belief in its effectiveness. Only the Fall of France allowed them to bomb Britain, whereas Britain’s longer-range bombers could hit Germany without the need for overseas bases. The USA too had prepared for ‘strategic bombing’ and would have used it regardless of what enemy they might encounter, just as they have ever since.

The real air war has also been directed mostly at flattening cities, not just particular industrial or military targets.

Finally there was the matter of using starvation as a weapon of war. On this, Churchill was deceptive:

“It is our intention to maintain and enforce a strict blockade, not only of Germany, but of Italy, France, and all the other countries that have fallen into the German power. I read in the papers that Herr Hitler has also proclaimed a strict blockade of the British Islands. No one can complain of that. I remember the Kaiser doing it in the last war. What indeed would be a matter of general complaint would be if we were to prolong the agony of all Europe by allowing food to come in to nourish the Nazis and aid their war effort, or to allow food to go in to the subjugated peoples, which certainly would be pillaged off them by their Nazi conquerors.

“There have been many proposals, founded on the highest motives, that food should be allowed to pass the blockade for the relief of these populations. I regret that we must refuse these requests… The only agencies which can create famine in any part of Europe, now and during the coming winter, will be German exactions or German failure to distribute the supplies which they command.”

Before World War One, the law was unclear and it was arguable that food should be allowed wherever it was needed. But Britain could easily blockade the sea routes to Germany, which had foolishly let itself become dependent on overseas imports. Blockades of course depend on being willing to sink any ship that disobeys: but with surface vessels, the threat is equivalent to an unarmed man facing a man with a pistol and it is seldom necessary to actually sink a ship. Germany could only retaliate by a submarine war, the actual sinking of vessels, which created a much worse impression. But the blockade during World War One killed far more by food shortages and famine than were killed by submarine warfare. The blockade was also continued after the armistice of 11th November 1918: it was continued well into 1919 and compelled Germany to accept terms much worse than it had been expecting.

Churchill knew all of this, had been intimately involved in it as First Lord of the Admiralty from 1911 to 1915, losing office only because of the unconnected bungle at Gallipoli. He knew that Germany had been starved, and had no excuse for not knowing how this had changed German attitudes and made them more receptive to Nazi ideas. He had every reason to expect that the British blockade would produce another wave of hunger on Continental Europe, as indeed it did. And that the Nazis would undoubtedly give the smallest amount of their dwindling food supplies to those they viewed as inferior or hostile, as also happened. There is no sign that he cared.

As the war developed, the Polish resistance ensured that Britain was made aware of the mass extermination going on at Auschwitz – not only Jews, but Jews were definitely the main target. Suggestions to bomb the railway lines leading to Auschwitz were simply ignored.

As far as Churchill was concerned – and probably also for Roosevelt – the war was all about power. It was a struggle by the Anglosphere against Germany and Japan. Having Soviet Russia as an ally might not have been their first choice, but it became their only choice. After the Fall of France, only the Soviets had been able to face and then drive back the German army. The Western Front was tough going even with two-thirds of the German Army committed to a losing battle on the Eastern Front: the Anglosphere needed the Soviets. They more or less agreed that they could have Middle Europe as a reward, including Poland which was still officially an ally and which had contributed large numbers of pilots and ground forces to the Western cause.

The USA also drew some sensible lessons from World War Two and used the Marshall Plan and aid to Japan to turn potential foes into allies. The sort of thing they saw no need to do when the Soviet Union collapsed: instead the Churchillian spirit was invoked for ventures every bit as foolish and costly as the Gallipoli landings.


[A] [http://www.fiftiesweb.com/usa/winston-churchill-so-few.htm], also [http://www.winstonchurchill.org/learn/speeches/speeches-of-winston-churchill/1940-finest-hour/113-the-few]

[B] [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_radar]


First published in Labour & Trade Union Review, 2010

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