70 years of Few and Phew

In Roald Dahl’s autobiography Going Solo, one tale he tells is of going out by himself for a drink in wartime London. He was wearing his RAF uniform. He came across a gang of bruisers who had had a few too many and were all set to beat up someone, anyone in uniform. He was their next obvious target, until he turned round and they saw his pilot’s wings. Then they left him alone.

That is how highly RAF pilots were respected during the Battle of Britain. Not that Dahl flew in that at all – rather ironically he had already been invalided out of flying duties due to a bad crash earlier. But anyway.

It’s 70 years since Churchill’s the Few speech, in case you hadn’t heard. (“Excuse me, sir, I want to join the Few.” / “Sorry, we’ve got too many” etc.) There’s an interesting set of pages on the Beeb. This one describes why the other side came second: our side actually (despicably, if you ask me) used tactics and planning and good communication while Jerry was more of a “it’s better to travel hopefully than arrive” disposition. There was also the simple fact that we were over home territory, so if our boys baled out they landed at home and could get back into another plane and take off again. For them, the war carried on. And such tactics as Goring had made the somewhat elementary error, when dealing with Britain, of requiring 4 consecutive days of blue skies. Is this where “blue sky thinking” comes from?

And then there’s this one, which gives a day-by-day graphic of planes and men lost from 10 July-31 October 1940. And, wow. Take 15 August 1940, the Luftwaffe’s worst day. Boys in blue, 35 aircraft and 11 men lost. Boys in grey: 76 aircraft, 128 men, the imbalance being because our planes were single seat fighters and theirs were both fighters and multi-crew bombers.

On the RAF’s worst day, 31 August: 41 planes and 9 men on our side, 39 and 21 on theirs. Looking at the chart I don’t think there’s a single day when our losses outweighed theirs.

It’s hard to talk about this and not sound like I’m gloating or discussing cricket scores. Whenever I catch myself heading in that direction I try to think of it in the terms of the time: the death columns in the papers, the telegrams from the War Office and all that.

Doesn’t stop the warm glow, though. And if you should chance to meet a Battle of Britain veteran, take time to thank them.

Dulce et decorum est

I’ve never had to fight for my country and would be surprised if I ever do. I still like to think that if the need arose then I would answer my country’s call. Then I would be so big, clumsy and easily confused that I would be shot during my first taste of combat and the average competence of the army I was serving would go up slightly. So, some good would come of it.

I always took some solace, growing up during the Cold War, that my country’s call would be worth answering. I emphatically don’t think “my country, right or wrong”; some wars, like the American War of Independence (okay, not a recent example) I am very glad indeed that we lost. We were incompetent and deserved it. But it’s not like the Middle Ages: like doesn’t go to war with like anymore just because King A’s distant ancestor had a claim on territory currently held by King B. When we go to war nowadays it is – mostly – over way of life, and for all the many faults of the western world, I prefer our way of life to any other.

WW1 served no directly useful purpose at all. It broke the age of empires – but that was an unintended side effect. The empires slugging it out considered themselves unbreakable and were as surprised as everyone else when it all went to pieces. Sometimes I treacherously wonder how bad it would have been if we’d lost. Would we have produced some home-grown hate-filled little corporal who would rise to dictatorship and start another world war? Possibly. It’s unknowable. What happened is what happened, so let’s start from there. I would say that, with the grip of the aristocracy broken, other unintended side effects could come crawling out of the woodwork that include feminism, civil rights for non-whites and much more representative democracy than before. It took time, but it happened. I would rather live in a world that has these things, and the unfortunate legacy of WW1 to look back on, than a world still trundling along under the smugly patrician tug-yer-forelock outlook of the early twentieth century. The war taught us new and modern ways of killing people but it taught us to be better in new and modern ways as well.

Of course, even in the justest war ever (whichever that was), in the bloody heat of combat no one ever thinks about the issues. It comes down to: that person’s trying to kill me, better kill him first. We have the advantage of being able to look back.

So, I honour the memory of those who died and I was glad to take a couple of minutes out at 11am to think of them. I don’t honour their memory because what they did was in any way glorious or heroic. (They certainly didn’t think so.) I honour them because they laid the foundations of the era in which I was born and grew up; and because of them, even though we still go to war from time to time, since 1918 we have put more effort into preserving peace than in starting a new fight. It doesn’t always work, and when it fails it fails spectacularly, but it works more often than not. That may be as good as it gets.