RAFairman's Blog

An RAF Airman's Blog

The Beginning…

Today we are faced with 24 hour News. Breaking News. News Alerts. We are bombarded by News.

And each News show on the TV or Radio talks about a Crisis of some sort. The Financial Crisis, the Volcanic Ash Crisis, Political Crisis…and whatever the next Crisis will be.

But are they really crises? In the grand scheme of things are they momentous events that change the course of history?

For 70 years ago the country, Europe and indeed the world was gripped by a real crisis. In these late spring/early summer days, the Second World War was in full swing. The Nazi German war machine had already stormed though Poland and was turning it’s attention to the west. By todays date (20th May) the German army had already invaded the Low Countries and occupied most of Holland and Belgium – and was pushing deep into France.

Indeed five days ago, on the 15th the Prime Minister of France had phoned Churchill and told him that “We have been defeated”, and requested more British support – in particular aircraft to fight the enemy.

What I want to share with you are two letters from the time, written just a few days apart, showing just how dark the days then were and just what a real crisis is.

The first is written by the head of Fighter Command as a response to that French request for aircraft, and the second is a letter from a pilot who was already there in France.

A letter from Sir Hugh Dowding, Head of Fighter Command – 16 May 1940

I have the honour to refer to the very serious calls which have recently been made upon the Home Defence Fighter Units in an attempt to stem the German invasion on the continent.

I hope and believe that our Armies may yet be victorious in France and Belgium, but we have to face the possibility that they may be defeated.

In this case I presume that there is no-one who will deny that England should fight on, even though the remainder of the Continent of Europe is dominated by the Germans.

Once a decision has been reached as to the limit on which the Air Council and the Cabinet are prepared to stake the existence of the country, it should be made clear to the Allied Commanders on the Continent that not a single aeroplane from Fighter Command beyond the limit will be sent across the Channel, no matter how desperate the situation may become.

I must therefore request that as a matter of pramount urgency the Air Ministry will consider and decide what level of strength is to be left to the Fighter Command for the defences of this country, and will assure me that when this level has been reached, not one fighter will be sent across the Channel however urgent and insistent the appeals for help may be.

I believe that, if an adequate fighter force is kept in this country, if the fleet remains in being, and if Home Forces are suitably organised to resist invasion, we should be able to carry on the war single handed for some time, if not indefinitely. But, if the Home Defence Force is drained away in desperate attempts to remedy the situation in France, defeat in France will involve the final, complete and irremediable defeat of this country.

I have the honour to be, Sir, Your Obedient Servant.

Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief,

Fighter Command,Royal Air Force.

Sir Hugh Dowding.”

The second is a letter written by Sgt Eric Bann off No.238 Sqn to his parents in Macclesfield, Lancashire – 21 May 1940

Have been having a real rough time, lost nearly all my clothes and have been sleeping in any old place, plus getting into some real hot places. We have bagged about forty German planes in the last four days but their numbers are terrific. Have been going in for about six of us to forty or fifty of theirs, the air was thick. I think we lost the Flight Commander yesterday, what a nice chap, they said he was engaged by about ten fighters and went down fighting madly.

Our squadron had been flying every day and we are very tired – Believe me to see the German dive-bombers in their hundren cutting at our poor troops makes you only too glad to help – it’s terrible.”

That’s a crisis…

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2 thoughts on “The Beginning…

  1. Tom C on said:

    Interesting how this shows both types of courage the RAF wants in its people: moral and physical.

    What makes Dowding’s letter more remarkable is the fact that he would have had a fair expectation that it would be seen as defeatist, ending his career almost instantly. Even so, he knew he was right and that it had to be said, so wrote it anyway, regardless of the personal consequences. That’s moral courage.

    Sgt Bann must have known the odds were well against him, but continued to go up there and fight. In the end, it was to cost him his life, towards the end of the Battle of Britain: http://www.the-battle-of-britain.co.uk/pilots/B1-pilots.htm#BannES That’s physical courage.

    • I do feel it was this nature – and don’t forget his nickname was ‘Stuffy’ that led to his dismissal after the Battle. Maybe Dowding was treated badly…maybe he was just treated in the same way that the country treated Churchill in the election after the war…He was the right man for the job, at the right time, but after the event was over…During the Battle itself he mismanaged the conflict between Park and Leigh-Mallory, but his defencively minded approach to the role of Fighter Command, and the Home Defence of Great Britain, meant that ultimately, he was right in what he did and what he said in the letter.

      That said, he remained steadfastly loyal to his ‘fighter boys’.

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