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“NEVER ...WAS SO MUCH OWED BY SO MANY TO SO FEW”
Written By: Peter Ayers Wimbrow, III and Sam Ghaleb
*Click images below to view larger versions.
“NEVER ...WAS SO MUCH OWED BY SO MANY TO SO FEW”
British Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding
“NEVER ...WAS SO MUCH OWED BY SO MANY TO SO FEW”
Air Marshal Sir Keith Park
“NEVER ...WAS SO MUCH OWED BY SO MANY TO SO FEW”
Dowding and the Few
“NEVER ...WAS SO MUCH OWED BY SO MANY TO SO FEW”
Luftwaffe Field Marshal Albert Kesselring (left); Gen. Wilhelm Speidel, Chief-of-Staff, Luftflotte 2; Luftwaffe Chief Reichsmarshal Hermann Goering
“NEVER ...WAS SO MUCH OWED BY SO MANY TO SO FEW”
British Hawker Hurricane
      By June 18, 1940, it was evident, that, as a result of the German Blitzkrieg, begun on May 10, 1940, The Republic of France would fall. In his speech to the House of Commons, that day, Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill said that,
“What General Weygand has called the ‘Battle of France’ is over. The ‘Battle of Britain’ is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life and the long continuity of our institutions and our empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.  But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister and perhaps more protracted by the lights of perverted science. Let us, therefore, brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its commonwealth lasts for a thousand years, men will say, ‘This was their finest hour!’”
The coming battle would be one fought solely in the air. The head of the Royal Air Force Fighter Command was Air Marshal Hugh C. T. Dowding. He had the sort of stubborn tenacity and scientific mind capable of achieving the task at hand.  In the course of the conflict, his skills were to be tested to the limit, but he ultimately emerged as the victor in the first decisive air battle in history.  During his early years at the Royal Artillery Staff College he was nicknamed “Stuffy” for his always-serious attitude. The name stuck and many of the pilots who fought for Dowding in the skies over Britain in 1940 were accustomed to calling him by this name. His basic approach was the integration of various capabilities under one command structure.  To create an efficient air defense system Dowding had to organize the functions of land communications, operations rooms, the chain of radar stations, Air Defense Artillery, the Home Observer Corp, and above all, the fighter air craft. The development of weapons capable of fighting the battle was an important advance in this period, as first the Hawk Hurricane and later the Super Marine Spitfire entered service. Although Dowding cannot be praised for such technical developments, it was his energy and urgency that ensured that Britain had enough fighters to conduct the battle in 1940.
He had divided Britain into groups, or areas, of responsibility. 11 Group was the most important, since it comprised most of southern England, including London, which was the closest to the French coast.  11 Group was commanded by Keith Rodney Park, who was born in Thames, New Zealand, on June 15, 1892, the son of a couple who had immigrated from Scotland.  
In 1938, Park was appointed Senior Air Staff Officer to Air Marshal Dowding.  It was said, at the time, that Keith Park knew more about fighter planes than any other man in England. When WWII began, 11 Group was commanded by Air Vice-Marshal Leslie Gossett. Its neighbor, 12 Group, was commanded by Trafford Leigh-Mallory, who had commanded that group since 1937. In April of 1940, Marshal Gossett was appointed Air Member for Personnel. Although the obvious choice to replace him as commander of 11 Group was Leigh-Mallory, Marshal Dowding appointed Keith Park. The appointment created enmity on the part of Leigh-Mallory toward both Park and Dowding, which was to have long-lasting and unpleasant repercussions on both their careers.
As soon as the German assault commenced on May 10, 1940, the French began screaming for help, including fighters. The fighters that were sent came mostly from 11 Group, to the consternation of its leader. He knew that the planes and pilots would be needed to defend Britain.  Then, on May 27, 1940, the Air Ministry ordered Fighter Command to provide air support over Dunkirk. The task fell to 11 Group. Park said that,
“Dunkirk was a prelude to the Battle of Britain that was to follow. This is where young and inexperienced pilots, as well as the more experienced, would learn on how to cope with long hours in the air. The strain of battle nonstop from first light to dusk, where we could put our coastal radar to the test, where ground crews could rearm and refuel aircraft in the shortest time possible so that the pilots could return back to the combat area almost immediately.”
Because of the distance and limited range of the fighters, 11 Group’s Hurricanes and Spitfires could not spend very much time over the beaches at Dunkirk. And so, to the soldiers standing on the beach waiting to be evacuated, while being bombed and strafed by the Luftwaffe, it seemed as if the Royal Air Force was nonexistent. After the soldiers returned to England, there were many fights between them and “the Brylcreem Boys” of Fighter Command. In eight days of operations at Dunkirk, sixty-two pilots were killed, fifteen injured, and eight captured. 11 Group’s commander was the last British airman to leave the Dunkirk area. He watched the last two British ships set sail, while making a final survey.
For the next month, the two opponents - the Royal Air Force and the Luftwaffe - rested, recuperated, and girded for the coming struggle. The combat units of the Luftwaffe were gradually deployed to airfields between Hamburg and Brest. These units were organized into two air fleets - Luftflottes. To the east, Luftflotte 2 was deployed under the command of Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, and to the west, Luftflotte 3 was subordinated to Field Marshal Hugo Sperrle. These two air fleets contained 1,200 bombers (HE111, DO17 and JU88), 280 Stuka dive bombers (JU87B), 760 single engine fighters (ME109E), 220 twin engine fighters (ME110) and 140 long and short range reconnaissance aircraft. A total of twenty-six hundred aircraft were deployed between these two air fleets. In addition, Luftflotte 5, commanded by Col. General Hans-Jürgen Stumpff, was deployed in Norway and retained a force of one hundred thirty HE111 Bombers, thirty ME110 Fighters and thirty long-range reconnaissance aircraft.
During the last phase of the Battle of Britain, the Regia Aeronauctica Italia supplied the 170 plane Corpo Aereo Italiano under the command of General Rino Corso-Fougier. The Italians were based in Melsbroek, Belgium. They didn’t arrive until September 25, 1940 and didn’t fly their first mission until October 24. By then the outcome of the “Battle of Britain” had been determined. By January 1941, most of the planes had been redeployed.
While this massive strike force was gathering on the airfields in France and Belgium, the intervening weeks before the start of large scale operations were used by the RAF Fighter Command to restore its depleted squadrons and build up its reserves. Air Marshal Hugh Dowding also put the final touches on the fully integrated air defense system. He pressed for other commands important to the defense of Britain to be brought under the wing of Fighter Command: Balloon Command, Anti-Aircraft Command and the Observer Corp had all been linked to the efforts of Fighter Command.
On July 9, 1940, Phase I of the Battle of Britain began with the attempt by the Luftwaffe to close the English Channel to British shipping - the Kanalkampf. During Kanalkampf, Hitler waited for the British to sue for peace. The offer never came, so Hitler ordered the planning of Operation Sea Lion - the invasion of Great Britain.  But before the invasion, the Royal Air Force had to be destroyed, so on August 12th, the Luftwaffe launched Eagle Attack (Adlerangriff).
During this period of “The Battle of Britain,” the Luftwaffe attacked the air fields of the Royal Air Force and other military installations in an attempt to destroy Britain’s air defenses. This effort cost the Germans 403 aircraft with a further 127 damaged. But RAF Fighter Command casualties were equally serious with ninety-four pilots killed or missing and sixty wounded, and the losses in aircraft amounted to fifty-four Spitfires and 121 Hurricanes.
The third phase lasted from August 24th to September 6th. During this period the Luftwaffe’s major effort was devoted to the attack on RAF airfields and installations in the extreme south and southeast of England, with emphasis laid on the RAF fighter concentrations deployed around London. Throughout this period Fighter Command suffered 295 planes destroyed and 171 damaged. But far more serious was the loss of 103 pilots killed or missing, and a further 128 withdrawn from combat because of injuries. The Luftwaffe’s losses amounted to 378 aircraft with a further 115 damaged. 
Most feel that the Luftwaffe was on its way to achieving its goal, when a German bomber accidentally dropped its bombs on London. In retaliation, Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered  bombing raids on Berlin. Enraged, Hitler (who had forbidden bombing raids on civilian targets) ordered the Luftwaffe to retaliate, and the “Blitz” began. This switch, by the Luftwaffe, of objectives, gave Fighter Command just the breathing space it needed to remain effective.  Britain’s Prime Minister, on August 20, 1940, recognized the efforts of Fighter Command when he immortalized the men and the battle with his comment that, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
In the last phase of the “Battle of Britain” Luftwaffe Chief, Reichsmarshal Hermann Göring, resorted to the use of fighter bombers operating at high altitude. The speed and altitude at which the fighter bombers operated rendered their interception extremely difficult. The main Luftwaffe effort was directed now to night attacks which the RAF was woefully unable to counter, but to all intents and purposes, the threat by day had been neutralized. The crisis was over.
But while the “Battle of Britain” was raging, another battle was being fought. This battle was being fought between Hugh Dowding and Keith Park, on one side, and Trafford Leigh-Mallory on the other side. Leigh-Mallory began espousing the “Big Wing Theory.” In this theory, the British fighters did not attack the Germans until the British had achieved a mass of fighters. Of course, it worked for Leigh-Mallory, because his group was not on the coast. His group had the time to form the “Big Wing.”  But 11 Group only had minutes in which to react to the  Luftwaffe. It got into the air what fighters it could get into the air as soon as possible, to attack the enemy before the enemy had dropped its bombs.  Quite often, under the “Big Wing Theory,” the attack was made after the enemy had dropped its bombs. In addition, use of the “Big Wing” meant that all of the planes would be returning at the same time, getting refueled at the same time, and getting rearmed at the same time. This, of course, would result in significant periods when there was no protection. Another cause of friction between the two Group commanders occurred when fighters from 11 Group’s bases near 12 Group would be scrambled and 12 Group was asked to provide protection for their bases. Several times, 12 Group did not provide the requested protection, with the result that the 11 Group’s bases were damaged.
Leigh-Mallory took his complaints to the Air Ministry. After the Battle of Britain had been won, and Dowding and Park should have been celebrating, and feted by all, Dowding and Park were summoned to an inquisition at the Air Ministry. This charade was used to force Dowding out of his position in November, to be followed by Park the next month. Park was given command of a training squadron in January of 1941. Leigh- Mallory was given command of 11 Group. Park later said that, “To my dying day, I shall feel bitter at the base intrigue which was used to remove Dowding and myself as soon as we had won the Battle of Britain.” After the Battle of Britain was won by Fighter Command, the Air Ministry published a 32-page booklet about the battle which did not contain any mention of either Dowding or Park!  
It has been stated that Hugh Dowding controlled the “Battle of Britain” from day to day, while Keith Park controlled it hour by hour. Air Vice-Marshal Johnny Johnson said that, “He was the only man who could have lost the war in a day or even an afternoon.” Sir Arthur Tedder went even further, when he said that, “If any one man won the “Battle of Britain,” he did. I do not believe it is realized how much that one man, with his leadership, his calm judgement and his skill, did to save, not only this country, but the world.”
A commemoration ceremony was held at the Memorial to “The Few” at Capel-el-Ferne in Kent, on July 11, 2010. Approximately 100 of “The Few” survive. 544 pilots died during the Battle.
 
Mr. Wimbrow writes from Ocean City, Maryland, where he practices law representing those persons accused of criminal and traffic offenses, and those persons who have suffered a personal injury through no fault of their own.
 
Mr. Ghaleb writes from his home in Ridgecrest, California.
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