Book Review – The Royal Navy and the Battle of Britain

[Cross posted from The Second World War Military Operations Research Group]

Anthony J. Cumming, The Royal Navy and the Battle of Britain. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2010. Appendix. Notes. Index. Cloth. pp.207.

With 2010, having being the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain it is unsurprising to find new books released on this ever-popular subject. However, it will be hard to find one that will be more thought provoking than Anthony Cumming’s The Royal Navy and the Battle of Britain. Based on the authors PhD thesis from the University of Plymouth it presents a revisionist interpretation with regards to the significance of the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) victory over the Luftwaffe in stopping Operation Sea Lion; the proposed German invasion of Britain. The central argument in Cumming’s work is that the deterrence effect of the Royal Navy had a significant impact on the nature of German planning and that this was prevalent in their discussion over whether or not it was possible to invade Britain and that in ignoring the Royal Navy’s role the historiography of the battle has been distorted. In order to challenge the traditional interpretation concerning the RAF’s importance, Cumming’s examines several key themes throughout the work such as the construction of the Battle of Britain myth and the status of the Royal Navy. Thus, to borrow a phrase from a 2006 Daily Telegraph news article was it the Royal Navy that won the Battle of Britain.

However, this is not a new argument with Derek Robinson having written on this theme recently; Invasion, 1940 (London: Constable, 2005). The most notorious exponent of this argument was the Battle of Britain veteran Wing Commander H.R. Allen who wrote Who Won the Battle of Britain (London, Arthur Barker, 1974),and much of Cumming’s Chapter 4 is an attempt to verify some of the claims made in Allen’s work. As early as 1958, Duncan Grinnell-Milne was making the case for the Royal Navy in his work The Silent Service (London, Bodley Head, 1958). Most recently in 2006, three Joint Services Command and Staff College historians tried to bring some balance to the debate that emerged after a journalist, Brian James, stated in History Today that the Royal Navy had won the Battle of Britain.

In his opening chapter, Cumming’s produces a useful synthesis of some of the key elements in the problems that faced the German High Command in their planning of the operation. However, his reliance on post-war Naval Intelligence Division interrogation reports’ raises question of accepting this as de facto evidence of the Kriegsmarine’s fear of the Royal Navy in any attempted invasion. While there may be truth to this, an exploration of these reports and their use as historical evidence would have been useful. One of Cumming’s contentious points concerns the effectiveness of RAF pilots in combat against the Luftwaffe. In Chapter 4 Cumming’s makes, much of the problem with British fighter armament compared the Luftwaffe and the impact this had on fighter claims. This technologically deterministic view does not get to the heart of the problem for the RAF in 1940, which was primarily one of combatting the stresses of war and the impact that this had upon its training regime. By necessity, the war led to a shortening of training at Operational Training Units (OTU) from four to two weeks. Despite this the RAF lost 304 killed or wounded in August and only received 260 replacements. The impact of reduced training, which was partially offset by the increased numbers of OTUs, was not merely an issue of performance but one of culture. Most of the new pilots joining the squadrons were not inculcated with the organisational culture of the RAF and therefore, took time to adjust to the life in the RAF.  On the issue of not being able to shoot correctly, Cumming’s cites Allen’s claim that this was discovered over Dieppe in 1942, however, that the evidence does not exist. This is not entirely accurate, as a record of gun camera footage does exist; however, what was done with information is not entirely clear.

On the development of Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding’s system Cumming’s offers some useful thoughts reminding us that the system was not fully complete when war came and that many were unsure of its likely success. Nonetheless, it should be remembered that it was a progressive system that had its origins in the First World War and was gradually refined during the 1920s and 1930s. A belief in command of the air pervaded the RAF and this was just a prevalent in its defensive operations as its offensive strategies. However, in the area of command and the legend of Dowding Cumming’s rightly points out that it is still susceptible to praise and hyperbole (p. 76). For example, on the ‘Big Wing’ debate Cumming’s reiterates that the problems that emerged between Air Vice Marshals Keith Park and Trafford Leigh-Mallory ultimately came down to Dowding’s poor management of the situation (p. 91). However, whether or not Leigh-Mallory’s position was based on the ideas of Bader is open to question (pp. 91-95). Indeed Cummings admission, based on John Ray’s The Battle of Britain: Dowding and the First Victory, 1940 (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1994), that Dowding’s indecision between his group commanders may have been down to his and Leigh-Mallory’s views being more in tune than previously acknowledged has much to commend it. The RAF had a history of offensive air power thinking based on the concentration of force at the decisive point and this can be seen as the origin for the ‘Big Wings’ idea rather than Bader himself. Leigh-Mallory himself was writing on this very theme in the RAF Quarterly in the early 1930s within the context of army co-operation missions. Additionally, Dowding himself lectured on the efficacy of ‘Balbo’ formations at the RAF Staff College in 1938. However, Cumming’s is right to question the effectiveness of the ‘Big Wing’ in the context of 1940 but perhaps the key issue was Park’s view of the battle, which he saw as primarily at No. 11 Group affair rather than a concerted effort by the whole of Fighter Command. In this respect Dowding’s admission in 1961 to Robert Wright that he was unaware of the breakdown in their relationship until informed of it by the Secretary of State for Air is perhaps the biggest indictment of his command competency in this area.

The areas where Cumming’s work highlights the problems of viewing the battle in purely air power terms comes in his chapters on the ‘Bombers versus Battleships’, ‘Wrong-Way Charlie’s Navy’ and ‘Why We Fight?’. Cumming’s provides a useful outline of the key debates surrounding the ability of bombers to sink battleships that occurred in the lead up to the Second World War. His analysis of operations around Crete (pp. 43-47) highlight the fact that ships could have operated in the face of concentrated air power offer some interesting thought on the issue but given the inter-war fear of launching combined operations in the face of air superiority one must be careful with a teleological argument being applied here. Perhaps the most important element of this work is the resurrection of the reputation of one of the ore undervalued British Admirals of the war, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Charles Forbes whose names appears to have fallen by the wayside. Chapter 6 deals with his role and that of his command, the Home Fleet, during the battle. It highlights the impact that this ‘fleet in being’ had upon strategy and that his ultimate downfall had more to do with the fact that he had little to offer in enticing the US into the war (p. 122). This leads onto his final chapter that deals with the issue of ‘Why We Fight’ and the role that the image of the RAF played in increasing US willingness to participate in the war. Indeed the image of ‘Britain Alone’ and being defended by the ‘Few’ was a powerful propaganda instrument for the British Government. Garry Campion in The Good Fight have extensively examined this theme: Battle of Britain Propaganda and the Few (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2009). However, one aspect that Cumming’s bring to the fore is that US reporting on the battle shifted in the period of June to August from being one that stressed the importance of the Royal Navy to one that dealt primarily with the ‘Aerial Blitzkrieg’ (p. 148). The chapter also highlights the complex nature of the propaganda that was being produced at the time. The reports produced depended on the medium used, who wrote it and who was the intended audience. It was this that would dictate whether it dealt with either naval or air power themes.

For this historian, this works enduring impact is that it opens up an interesting theme in the historiography of the Battle of Britain that needs further examination; what was the Battle of Britain and how it was won. Given the inter-war debates over the efficacy of combined operations in the face of air power; indeed the key question was could combined operations succeed in the face of air superiority, what is needed now is an overall view of Britain preparedness in 1940 through the prism of combined operations doctrine. By taking a combined view of the battle, historians will only then truly begin to understand the significance of the battle. Overall, this is useful work that adds to the corpus of knowledge on the subject and should not be ignored as it highlights hitherto misunderstood aspects of the battle. It certainly illustrates that the Battle of Britain is a much more complex event than is usually assumed by historians who view it purely from an air power perspective. This is an attitude that needs to be discarded if we are to fully understand the battle. However, there are areas of the book that require further development and in many respects, Cumming’s falls into the same pitfalls as air power historians of the past by pushing too hard to resurrect the reputation of the Royal Navy, which hardly needed quite as vociferous defence as he seeks to provide. What is required for 1940 is a work that examines how Britain prepared for its own defence in the face of the threats it faced not only from Germany but also from Italy in the Mediterranean and the various factors that linked these important events.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s