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Defining the Battle

Winston Churchill first used the term 'the Battle of Britain' in a speech on 18th June 1940, as he surveyed Britain's prospects following the fall of France. At this time he anticipated a battle for survival involving Britain's land, sea and air forces, but also the civilian population, and industry. It was only later that the term became solely associated with the battle for air supremacy during latter-1940, and the invasion threat. 

Over seventy-five years since it was fought, the Battle of Britain remains deeply hallowed in British popular memory, Britain's Air Ministry moving quickly first to define, then proclaim this major aerial victory. Even by late-March 1941 the Battle as an event had been firmly mythicized in the Air Ministry's best-selling The Battle of Britain pamphlet, this originally giving the Battle as beginning on 8th August 1940 and continuing until 31st October 1940. In 1943 its start date was changed to 10th July 1940. 

The pamphlet itself was inspired, its influence shaping later-war and post-war perceptions of the Battle. The 15th September, later named as Battle of Britain Day, came to the fore in this unillustrated 3d publication, Luftwaffe losses of 185 aircraft believed to have been the moment that Hitler gave up his plans to invade Britain (above and below).  

It would be over four years before British intelligence was able to capture and study German military documents to establish the facts both about aircraft losses, but also Hitler's decision not to launch Operation Sea Lion. These revealed that Luftwaffe aircraft losses were rather fewer than claimed during the Battle's propaganda war itself, but also, that Hitler's decision not to attempt invasion was in response to the strength of both RAF Fighter and Bomber Command, but also, the Royal Navy. 

Churchill's Few - the fighter boys named following his 'Never in the field of human conflict...' speech on 20th August 1940 - received high praise in the pamphlet, the RAF's bomber attacks on barge concentrations in Channel ports not mentioned at all. It was only after captured German documents had been analyzed that it became clear that Hitler's decision on 17th September 1940 to postpone the invasion, was in part due to Coastal and Bomber Command's attacks during September, which sank some 10% of assembled barges. Churchill's tribute to the Few appeared in the illustrated version (above and below). 

Less exciting than the dramatic air battles many had viewed over Kent, Sussex and London, the sinking of shipping was less easy to turn into the dramatic 'cricket-score' headlines gracing British newspaper front-pages during the period of the Battle. Despite this, during September 1940, attacks on invasion ports were widely reported by the media as a whole, also attracting attention in America and across the British Empire. The 1941 pamphlet focused only on Fighter Command's prowess, the illustrated version - which appeared soon after the plain, unillustrated version - including several striking graphics (below).    

A children's version based closely on the narrative of the Air Ministry publication also appeared during 1941, this confirming the existence of radar as part of Fighter Command's air defence system (below). This was not revealed publicly until June 1941, by which time the war had moved on in several respects including Hitler's invasion of Russia on 22nd June 1941.

Slightly later in 1941 an Air Ministry propaganda booklet appeared during the Autumn, this time focusing wholly on Bomber Command's role during the war to that point (below). A section of this publication covered the bomber boys' attacks against the invasion preparations in 'Why the invasion armada never sailed', but other than recounting details of attacks, this inevitably lacked the glamour of shooting down bombers, and fighter dogfights. 

The final official wartime history of the Battle of Britain - only concluded a few years earlier, appeared in August 1943 as a training pamphlet for new recruits (below). This publication was striking in its determination to spread the laurels far more broadly than the fighter boys alone, a range of RAF Commands and their commanders, identified as contributing to the victory. The former head of Fighter Command, Air Chief Marshall Hugh Dowding, was also named in the pamphlet - and to Churchill's immense irritation - having been totally absent from the 1941 version. This interpretation adopted Dowding's 1941 'despatch' chronology, suggesting a start date of 10th July 1940 simply because the air attacks had reached a more significant level of intensity by this point.

Peter Dye kindly provided the following information about the pamphlet's authorship:

'Brooke-Popham started work on what became Air Ministry Pamphlet 156 in February 1943 and delivered the proofs in July to the Air Ministry. His notes show that he met with Richard Peck on several occasions and also worked closely with the Air Historical Branch. The narrative’s more inclusive approach (in comparison to the 1941 pamphlet authored by Hilary Saunders) sat well with Brooke-Popham’s air defence, training and logistic background. Supply and maintenance featured heavily in the 1933 staff exercise that he conducted at the ADGB. The narrative he authored on the RAF’s role in the Battle of France, signposted these same issues. As an ex-AOC Fighting Area, and the last CinC ADGB, Brooke-Popham had the credibility and authority to present an account that focussed less on ’The Few’ and more on ‘The Team”. Incidentally, according to Keith Park, Brooke-Popham had helped lay the foundation for Fighter Command’s success and was one of the first senior officers to see the value of science in addressing the country’s air defence needs. He was also a long-standing friend of Tizard. Brooke-Popham’s notebooks record meetings with Dowding, Bowhill and Harris to discuss the contributions of Bomber, Coastal and Maintenance Commands to the Battle. One of the questions he debated with Dowding was the number of phases in the battle. Were there five, rather than four?'

[Philip Brooke-Popham via Peter Dye]

It has been suggested that Albert Goodwin, involved in the 1941 pamphlet's research, had written the Air Ministry's 1943 version, but the above clarifies its actual authorship. 

Lord Dowding with several of the Few (below). Although he had attended an investiture at Buckingham Palace, the former C-in-C looks more like a bank manager who has found himself among fighter pilots, rather than the 'architect of victory'. This may have been how the Air Ministry wished him to appear, as there were more flattering, uniformed images of Dowding. Within the pamphlet this image gives the impression of having been added later as a centre-fold, as there are no images on its obverse: other plate-pages in the publication have images on both sides. Richard Hillary, author of The Last Enemy, can be seen just behind Flight Officer Henderson, but appears uncomfortable in this setting, perhaps because he was self-conscious about his lack of a DFC, which several historians believe he should have been awarded.