In July of 1940, the world’s first real air battle took place in the skies above the English Channel.
Germany needed to achieve air superiority so that its naval invasion force of mostly river barges would survive the channel crossing, and Britain needed to beat back the aerial onslaught with alacrity so that the free world would know the war was not over.
All of England and all of Germany—indeed, the entire world—anxiously awaited each day’s scores, upon which the outcome of the battle, and the likelihood of invasion, seemed to hang. No. 101 echoed with hurrahs after the Air Ministry reported, typically: “The final figures for today’s fighting are 85 certain, 34 probable, 33 damaged. We lost 37 aircraft. 12 pilots being killed and 14 wounded.” After dinner on Saturday, July 13, Colville wrote in his diary: “Winston said the last four days have been the most glorious in the history of the RAF. Those days have been the test: the enemy had come and had lost five to one. We could now be confident of our superiority.”2
Churchill believed it. He was citing the figures he had been given, and no one had deliberately deceived him. No one was deliberately misleading the Führer either, but the numbers sent to his Luftwaffe commanders were very different. According to them, those days had been among the most glorious days in Luftwaffe history, and therefore clear evidence of German superiority. In retrospect it is clear that the communiqués being issued by both sides were quite worthless.3
The more I read, the more I distrust information hot off the presses or provided by anyone, honest or not, with a vested interest in a particular outcome. In this case, it was simply impossible to read accurately and completely from both sides of the ledger. Each side could only be sure how many fighters went out and how many came back. The rest required interpretation. On the German side, “interpretation” was more liberally applied.
The RAF accepted their pilots’ claims of German trophies without question. However, British accounts of their own losses were always correct. That was not true of Luftwaffe reports. Announcing light casualties for the Luftwaffe and severe British losses was a mighty tonic for Reich morale, and Germans concluded that their airmen were winning the battle.4
One problem with deception is that the deceivers deceive themselves. That is what happened to the Luftwaffe’s high command. “The Germans,” as Churchill told Parliament later in the war, had “become victims of their own lies.” The Germans had lost control of the battle’s vital statistics, which, by the beginning of August, had become simply incredible. At one point William L. Shirer observed dryly: “German figures of British losses have been rising all evening. First (they) announced 73 British planes shot down against 14 German; then 79 to 14; finally at midnight 89 to 17. Actually, when I counted up the German figures as given out from time to time during the afternoon and evening, they totaled 111 for British losses. The Luftwaffe is lying so fast it isn’t consistent even by its own account.”5
All of human nature fights accurate reporting during emotional times. Decision making in the moment is fraught with challenges, and we are not particularly good at looking backwards either. I guess it’s a good thing truth is negotiable these days.
#10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister’s residence and primary workplace. Churchill would later, reluctantly, move his base of operations to a shelter eighty feet below Piccadilly, which he called “The Burrow.” ↩︎
Manchester, William, and Paul Reid. The Last Lion Winston Spencer Churchill, Defender of the Realm 1940-1965. New York, NY: Little, Brown & Co, 2012. Kindle link ↩︎