As you grow up, you learn that some of the heroes that you believed in as a child were just myths or fairy stories. The blunt truth is that Roy of the Rovers did not play for a real team called The Rovers – he was just a comic book hero. And so it is with the Battle of Britain
IF you are a child of the early post-war years who re-enacted dogfights with your toy Spitfires over the bomb damage, it may come as a shock to learn that the reality is that the battle was not won by “the Few” in the skies of the south-east, no matter what Winston Churchill said.
It was about the many, and it was about the whole country.
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Political scientist, author and renowned eurosceptic Dr Richard North was surprised to discover that history was wrong when he started a blog to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the battle in 2010.
His postings did not seem to fit the established view of history.
His new book, The Many Not The Few: The Stolen History of the Battle of Britain, has grown out of that blog. It is controversial, debunking what he sees as a myth that Britain was saved by a handful of fighter pilots, brave as they may have been.
Next Tuesday, at Waterstone’s in Durham City, he presents a free lecture on his theories.
It was Churchill who was the first myth-maker about the battle, saying on August 20, 1940: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
But so many were involved in winning the battle. For example, the country relied on coal to fuel its industry and its war effort. That coal was mined in the North-East by Bevin Boys and transported by colliers down the North Sea coast – known as “E-Boat Alley” – to the London Docks.
Not only did these mariners have to contend with the Germans, but they were at the mercy of the weather. One company alone lost 13 colliers on this run.
Churchill’s comments suggest that the few were just fighting the war in the Home Counties. Yet some of the first German bombs to hit England were in the South Bank Road area of Middlesbrough, and in June 1940, bombs fell on the Transporter Bridge.
On August 15, German Air Fleet 15 began raiding the north of England from its bases in Stavanger, Norway, and Aalborg, Denmark. Most of the targets lay between the Tyne and the Humber and German aircraft had to fly 400 to 450 miles to reach them.
The first wave of bombers was intercepted off the Farne Islands by 12 Spitfires from RAF Acklington in Northumberland.
The German bombers had planned to fly across the coast south of the Tyne to attack the North Yorkshire airfields, but they made a navigational error. Spitfires, assisted by Hurricanes, broke up the bombers, but some still managed to hit Newcastle and Sunderland until they were forced home after British reinforcements came from RAF Catterick and RAF Usworth.
A second wave of German bombers that night crossed the coast at Flamborough Head and caused severe damage to RAF Driffield, although many bombers were shot down.
These were the first of many raids in the north.
So all conceivable occupations were involved in the battle, as were civilians in all parts of the country – Little Burdon and Bishopton, villages on the outskirts of Darlington, were hit by high explosive bombs in August 1940 at the height of the Battle of Britain.
But does it matter if history has got it wrong? Dr North says it does because it alters our whole reading of the war.
The traditional view is that “the Few” saved the many from a military conquest by the Germans. But what if Adolf Hitler was really targetting the many, not the Few?
What if he was not trying to win a military battle involving the Few, but he was really trying to win over the hearts and minds of the many?
What if his real aim was not to defeat the Few, but to persuade the many that Britain should be neutral and withdraw from the war?
Churchill, of course, needed the brave Few to be a beacon to inspire all the British people to take up the war effort; Hitler just wanted the British people out of the way.
If Dr North’s reading is correct, we need to look at the Second World War in a very different light.