The Good Fight
Battle of Britain Propaganda and the Few
London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010
Paperback, 358 pages. £18.99. ISBN 978-0-230-27996-4
Reviewed by Paul Addison
University of Edinburgh
In the seventy years since it was fought scores of books have been written about the Battle of Britain. It might have seemed impossible to produce, at this late stage, a thoroughly original contribution to the literature, but this is exactly what Garry Campion has achieved. Taking a leaf from the cultural historians, he shifts the focus from the military realities in the air to their presentation by the media on the ground. His book is an exploration of the Battle as projected to the public through the press, the radio, the cinema, books, magazines, periodicals and the work of war artists.
The Battle, he argues, was not only a military victory for the RAF, but a no less decisive victory in the propaganda war. It sustained the morale of the British through the critical period in which they fought on ‘alone’ against Nazi Germany, and also helped to swing American opinion in favour of sending aid to Britain. The argument hinges, of course, on definitions of the term ‘propaganda’. Indelibly associated with the shameless lies and fabrications of autocratic regimes, it is no less characteristic of liberal democracies, where it often appears in more subtle guise as a carefully crafted presentation of aspects of the truth. As defined by Campion it is therefore an umbrella term covering a diversity of phenomena: ‘the organised, systematic dissemination or projection of a given doctrine, information or allegations to assist, promote or injure a cause, government or movement'. In Whitehall officials shied away from the term and preferred to speak of news, information or publicity. But as Campion sees it they were propagandists all the same, magnifying the Battle and glorifying the fighter pilots in the interests of sustaining popular morale.
True, but the point is a subtle one. In the case of the Battle of Britain the dividing line between substance and spin was often blurred or invisible. Campion, who knows his military history, recognises that the RAF won a victory of great strategic importance, obstructing Hitler’s invasion plans and compelling him eventually to fight a war on two fronts. The Battle therefore deserved the headlines it received and the fighter pilots were genuine heroes whose daring and courage may well have saved the nation. It was a rare case of a great historical event in which propaganda worked mainly with, rather than against, the grain of the truth.
At the level of official propaganda, the Ministry of Information played second fiddle to the Air Ministry. Adastral House (the Ministry’s headquarters on Kingsway) had got by with a single press officer between the wars, but in March 1940 a Directorate of Public Relations (DPR) was established under Air Commodore Harald Peake. Divided into eleven specialised branches—PR1 dealing with film, PR2 with the press, PR3 with pamphlets, PR4 with broadcasting and so on—its staff increased from 19 in May 1940 to 37 in January 1941. Campion’s end-notes bear witness to exhaustive research in the Ministry’s files but no record of the day-to-day activities of the DPR survives and it is not clear how far its expansion was due to pressures of demand from the press and the BBC, and how far to empire-building on the part of Peake and his staff. Its precise role is therefore not always clear, but it was certainly active and enterprising.
Churchill immortalised the fighter pilots of the Battle of Britain in a famous tribute: ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few’. But the heroic imagery of ‘the few’ which appeared in newspapers and magazines was mainly the work of Air Ministry photographers. Campion, an acute observer of the visual evidence, speculates that a famous poster depicting five aircrew, of whom only two were pilots, was a deliberate attempt to align the RAF with the ‘people’s war’: ‘The poster is strongly at odds with the public school educated, Spitfire flying, derring-do junior officer perceived by many to represent the Few in the post-war years’. He is very informative, too, about the Air Ministry’s insistence on photographing pilots in combat-ready attire, complete with helmets, goggles, leather gauntlets, and silk scarves to prevent chafing to the neck. But, he observes, only about 4% sported the handlebar moustache traditionally associated with pilots.
Campion credits the Air Ministry with two major propaganda coups. After every air battle they issued a communiqué giving the number of British and German aircraft shot down. In almost every case the Luftwaffe were said to have suffered greater losses than the RAF and the figures were then repeated by the press and the BBC. Not until after the war was it discovered, from the German sources, that the number of enemy aircraft destroyed had frequently been exaggerated. The RAF’s figures were based on the debriefing of pilots and there is no reason to believe they were fabricated, but air battles were chaotic and confusing and errors crept in. An enemy aircraft might be reported as destroyed when it had in fact escaped, or multiple claims to a ‘kill’ recorded when only one aircraft had been shot down. And as Campion argues, some deception was involved. The Air Ministry knew that the statistics were problematic and a secret internal assessment in September concluded that the true figure was about 50% of the total claimed—but no hint of this was communicated to the public at the time. The press and the BBC stifled whatever doubts they might have had and reported the ‘cricket scores’ as though they were matters of fact. In the first weeks of the Battle Home Intelligence detected some scepticism among the public about the claims, but fortunately for the Air Ministry it gradually became apparent that Fighter Command was gaining the upper hand and the figures won general acceptance.
Facts were sometimes the best propaganda of all. In the south of England enemy aircraft were shot down in full view of spectators on the ground, and schoolboys collected fragments of the wreckage strewn among the fields. Campion cites a widely published cartoon of September 1940 depicting two men in a country lane. One asks for directions and the other replies: ‘Go down the lane past the Messerschmidt, bear left and keep on past the two Dorniers, then turn sharp right and it’s just past the first Junkers’. As yet, however, ‘Battle of Britain’ was a nebulous expression that referred to a series of air battles with no agreed chronology or narrative, and no authoritative assessment of its significance. It was the Air Ministry that shaped the Battle into a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, and the claim to be one of the decisive battles of world history.
The Ministry’s Air Historical Branch commissioned Hilary St George Saunders, a World War One veteran, successful novelist and member of the Public Relations Directorate, to write a short history of the Battle. An Oxford historian, Albert Goodwin, was enlisted to do the basic research, but Saunders was given full access to the records, supplemented by interviews with combatants. The outcome was a 32-page, text-only pamphlet published in March 1941. ‘The pamphlet’s structure and headings’, writes Campion, ‘confirmed the Air Ministry’s determination to seize the initiative, define its version of events, maximise the propaganda opportunities and enhance the reputation of the RAF.’ Appearing at a time when the British were desperately short of good news, it sold a million copies, followed by an illustrated edition that sold another half million, and a Puffin edition for children. Like Churchill in his war memoirs, the Air Ministry laid hands on the title-deeds of history, and once in possession they kept a firm grip on them. When post-war historians began to research the Battle of Britain they were unable to obtain the official records, which were closed under a 50-year rule. But they were briefed and guided, and supplied with much inside information, by the Air Ministry’s Historical Branch.
In spite of their flair for public relations the staff of the Air Ministry were still in some ways reluctant propagandists. They displayed no enthusiasm for documentary or feature films about the Battle. ‘It is possible’, Campion writes, ‘that the RAF believed—unofficially—that the fighter boys enjoyed more than enough attention as it was, without the need to yet further aggravate relations between Fighter and Bomber Command.’ Not until September 1941 did the RAF establish a Film Production Unit, and its coverage of the Battle of Britain was confined to an eight-minute feature produced in 1945. It was the newsreels, the Ministry of Information’s Crown Film Unit, and the commercial cinema, that put the fighter pilot on the screen.
There was also an RAF tradition of hostility to cults of personality. It was the press that identified the ‘air aces’—pilots credited with five or more ‘kills’—and turned them into celebrities who stood out from the otherwise anonymous ranks of ‘the few’. The Air Ministry also tried at first to ensure the anonymity of memoirs by fighter pilots: hence the publication of Brian Lane’s Spitfire (1942) under the name of ‘B.J. Ellan’. If they did not prevent airmen from publishing they did not encourage it either. Richard Hillary’s The Last Enemy (1943) was the work of a pilot who happened also to be an ambitious self-publicist of great literary ability.
In his concentration on the events of 1940, Campion appears to have overlooked an instructive episode that occurred in July 1942. Richard Peck, the Assistant Chief of Air Staff in charge of publicity, wrote to Sir Archibald Sinclair, the Secretary for Air, recommending that victory in the Battle of Britain should be celebrated on 15 September, the anniversary of the greatest of the air battles over London. The Vice-Chief of Air Staff, Wilfred Freeman, commented with more than a touch of sarcasm:
The historical precedents for self-congratulatory celebrations in the middle of a war are not very happy. Belshazzar held a banquet while the enemy were outside his gate: he lost his throne the same night. [...] The so-called Battle of Britain consisted of a series of successful defensive operations by Fighter Command. It is true that the RAF then saved this country from defeat, but in my view it is a misuse of words to refer to "our victory" or "our deliverance". Victories can only be won by offensive action; and deliverance must be permanent to give much cause for junketing.
This exchange of views took place during a prolonged phase of military disasters in which the Battle of Britain remained the only great victory the British could celebrate. Nevertheless Churchill in the House of Commons rejected a proposal to designate 15 September as ‘Air Trafalgar Day’, and the Battle was commemorated mainly by services of thanksgiving. No representative of the RAF attended the service in Westminster Abbey. Had the Battle, perhaps, already served its purpose? But if so, why was Battle of Britain Day perpetuated, with the enthusiastic support of the Air Ministry, from 1943 onwards?
The reports of Home Intelligence for the summer and autumn of 1940 tend to confirm the view that the Battle of Britain revived and sustained popular morale after the fall of France. Campion is persuasive in arguing that without the combined efforts of the Air Ministry, the press and the BBC (on which he is also very good) the public would not have appreciated the significance of the struggle or the magnitude of the victory. What remains obscure is the internal politics of the Air Ministry, where there were clearly differences of opinion over the extent to which the RAF should engage in types of propaganda that some saw as vulgar and distasteful, tensions between the interests of Fighter and Bomber Commands, and changes of policy. We are also bound to wonder how far the publicity generated by the Air Ministry was part of another propaganda war altogether: a war against the Admiralty and the War Office. The records, of course, always leave much unsaid, and mysteries that will never be resolved, but Campion’s rigorous and scholarly analysis takes us as close to the truth as we are ever likely to get.
Cercles © 2011