Today marks the 75th anniversary of the official start of the Battle of Britain, the first major military campaign in history fought entirely in the skies. While the Channel Islands had been invaded and occupied on June 30, 1940, and the first aerial battles between the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the Luftwaffe had taken place a day later, July 10 marked the intensification of the battle and the beginning of nearly continuous action that would last until the middle of September. After raids of hundreds of German bombers at a time, the gallant RAF defense forced Hitler to postpone and eventually abandon his plans for “Operation Sea Lion,” the invasion of the British Isles, continuing instead the terror bombing of the Blitz through the spring of 1941.
The heroism and daring of the RAF’s young pilots and their extraordinary operations crews can’t be overstated. The revolutionary command-and-control system included the role of radar and the tactics of Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding, incorporating a nationwide system of spotter/reporters. All together, it marked an entirely new approach to home defense. Signals intelligence, provided when the Brits cracked the Germans’ Engima cipher, resulted in the “Ultra” intercepts, some of which proved highly important in preparing for raids. The harassment strategy designed by Dowding, to constantly intercept German bombers with small squadrons, was carried out most effectively by 11 Group, headed by New Zealander Keith Park, who was widely credited with saving London from the Luftwaffe. Statues of Dowding (in front of St. Clement Danes church, the RAF central church, on London’s Strand) and Park (outside the Athenaeum Club on Pall Mall) stand as reminders of their extraordinary efforts, despite internal military disagreement over tactics that resulted in Dowding being reassigned in November 1940.
As we honor those heroes of 1940, we should also pause to consider the type of future security we need to protect our open, rules-based global order.
Each individual element of the defense was vital to the success of the British. But at its core will forever remain the timeless heroics of those young pilots, not only Brits, but Canadians, Australians, Czechs, Poles, and others. The RAF lost 544 pilots during the battle, while destroying 1,900 German aircraft and inflicting 2,500 casualties on the Luftwaffe. Today, no one in the West can imagine living under the threat of aerial attack or bombardment, but our European parents and grandparents suffered through the terror and fear of never knowing when the sirens would go off and the bombs would start falling. Similarly, today neither America nor its allied militaries have any experience operating in a world in which command of the skies is not assured. Indeed, no American soldier has been killed by enemy air fire since 1953, during the Korean War, and every American military campaign since Vietnam has been undertaken with no fear of enemy aerial attack.
Today, that aerial calculation is slowly changing. The Russians and Chinese are building up their air forces with modern fighters, including stealth fighters, and both are upgrading their long-range bombers. The Russians repeatedly are flying their bombers dangerously close to American and European airspace, sometimes even menacing civilian aircraft. The proliferation of advanced air-defense systems, originating in Russia, to aggressive regimes around the world, including Iran, has already given U.S. military planners pause, and potentially hindered U.S. action in Syria. Three-quarters of a century after the Battle of Britain, the world’s skies are once again becoming contested.
In commemorating Britain’s great effort to defend itself today, as we honor those heroes of 1940, we should also pause to consider the type of future security we need to protect our open, rules-based global order. The derring-do of fighter pilots and the technological complex that supports them, including drones piloted from thousands of miles away, may well become once again the first line of defense, and the most necessary element of any credible military plan.
— Michael Auslin is a frequent contributor to National Review.