THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN IN AMERICAN CONTEXT AND PERSPECTIVE
Dr. Richard P. Hallion, SES
Air Force History and Museums Program
Bolling AFB, DC 20332-1111
5 September 1998
Compleat artical HERE:
In the summer and early fall of 1940, over approximately three and one-half months, Great Britain became the first nation in history to retain its freedom and independence through the use of air power. In often bitter and costly fighting, British airmen kept control of the skies over Southern England, shattered attacking Luftwaffe fighter and bomber formations, struck at ports and embarkation points for Hitler’s planned invasion of Great Britain, and protected coastal supply convoys and shipping. The Royal Air Force’s victory in the Battle was a seminal moment in the history of military air power and, not surprisingly, an exciting drama that drew world-wide attention. In particular, it held extraordinary interest for the world’s airmen, especially those of the United States. But beyond this, and arguably of far greater significance, it ended forever the aura of Nazi invulnerability and military superiority, greatly encouraged the pro-British interventionist lobby within the United States, set the stage for Anglo-American military cooperation and planning, launched America on the road to rearmament and military buildup, and made far easier President Franklin Roosevelt’s actions prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
What ‘Neutrality’ Anyhow?: An Introductory Observation
By the late summer of 1940, the United States was a nation rent by an increasingly acrimonious debate over whether or not it should remain aloof from what was happening across the Atlantic. Far from following a simplistic credo that the United States should sever its ties to the rest of the world, America’s isolationist movement reflected great complexity. Isolationists generally had no problems with American involvement in the affairs of the Western Hemisphere, and few if any with American overseas policy towards Asia. (Indeed some were ardent internationalists in Latin and Asian affairs). But it did draw upon a strong "go it alone" spirit reflecting skepticism and outright suspicion of involvement in European affairs that dated back roughly a half-century to the agrarian reformers of the Populist Era in the early 1890’s, and which had first flowered into prominence during the First World War. Not surprisingly (and despite isolationists being found among all social classes and in every geographic locale in the United States), the movement thus had its greatest support in the agrarian Middle West, in rural communities rather than urban ones.
Before early 1917, already a potent force, isolationism had worked against American involvement in the "Great War." Three catalytic events combined to undo it: Imperial Germany’s foolish decision to engage in unrestricted submarine warfare; the disclosure of the "Zimmermann Telegram" (with its call for a German-Mexican, and perhaps German-Japanese as well, alliance against the U.S.); and changing American public opinion (thanks, at least in part, to strong and creative British public affairs initiatives). In the interwar years, isolationism gained strength, in part from such well-known activities as the Nye investigation of American munitions manufacturers and their policies, disillusionment with the results of the war and the subsequent League of Nations, and the domestic demands and needs of the nation wracked by the "Great Depression." It found its fullest expression between September 1, 1939 and December 7, 1941, when isolationists increasingly battled with so-called internationalists (or interventionists) to win the minds of American citizens, a struggle symbolized by the "Battle of the Committees" between the isolationist America First Committee and its interventionist rivals, The Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies and, later, the even more extreme Fight for Freedom.
But was the United States as neutralist in philosophy and action as postwar assessments and conventional wisdom allege? In fact, growing American isolationism and the ‘official’ neutrality of the United States once war broke out in Europe did not mean that the interwar years had been peaceful ones for America’s airmen and aircraft industry. During the Spanish Civil War, though an arms embargo generally prevented American aircraft from participation, a number of mercenaries, adventurers, and politically committed American pilots had flown in the Loyalist air arm alongside like-minded international colleagues and Soviet cadres against Franco’s Spanish, German, and Italian airmen. Nor was Spain an isolated example. Indeed, by the time of the Battle of Britain, American aircraft (some piloted by American airmen) already had flown in Chinese skies against the Japanese for nearly a decade, openly sold by American manufacturers to various Chinese factions and Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang government during the Hoover and Roosevelt presidencies. Even in Europe, despite the strength of the isolationist movement, the products of American industry sold both prior and after Hitler’s invasion of Poland had been blooded in extensive and fierce combat by the late summer of 1940. (In fact, a French-piloted American-built Curtiss Hawk 75 scored France’s first aerial victory in the Second World War, and the first RAF airplane to engage in aerial combat with the Luftwaffe was an American-built Lockheed Hudson maritime patrol airplane). Within a year, over Finland, American-built fighters sold by the Roosevelt administration to the Finnish government would clash with Russian opponents as well.
Already, by the late summer of 1940, Great Britain was well along towards acquiring thousands of American aircraft to fulfill a variety of roles ranging from training and air combat to strategic bombing and maritime patrol. Table 2 presents a listing of American combat aircraft in operational use with the Royal Air Force in 1939-1940, delivered for service with the Royal Air Force or Royal Navy but not yet in combat, or ordered for delivery to the RAF and RN, prior to the end of the Battle of Britain. As can be seen, it represents virtually a duplication of almost all of the then-contemporary "frontline" force structure of the U.S. Army Air Corps and U.S. naval aviation forces:
Selected American Combat Aircraft in Service With, Delivered to, or on Order for, the RAF and Royal Navy, as of September 30, 1940
Status of British Service
U.S. Service Designation
Boeing Flying Fortress
North American Mustang
North American Mitchell
Again, this table does not include numerous other aircraft such as trainers, transports, and utility types in British service, as well as general aeronautical equipment furnished from America, such as engines, propellers, instrumentation, tires, tools, parts, and the like. (Overall, by August 15, 1940, Great Britain had already placed orders for 20,000 American airplanes and 42,000 engines). Further, thanks both to prewar agreement and wartime sales arrangements, American suppliers delivered sufficient quantities of performance-enhancing 100 octane fuel to England in time for use by RAF Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain, a contribution of profound significance to the operational success of both the Spitfire and Hurricane fighters.
As these two charts clearly show, then, America and its airmen already had a great and long-standing stake in both Europe and Asia, despite the perceived strength and influence of the isolationist movement.