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The story so far

Posted by Richard Friday, August 27, 2010


With the new parliament now in place, I am no longer earning most of my living as a parliamentary researcher and must find new sources of income. But I have been fortunate in gaining a commission from my publisher to write a new history of the Battle of Britain, and am planning other ventures based on this project ... hence the focus also on The Tales of Glory blog and the fall-off in writing on this blog.

The fall-off will only be temporary. It is "silly season" and there is a certain ennui in the air, so I am taking the opportunity to get ahead of the game in what will be a long and difficult project. At this point, I must repeat my appreciation for all those who have commented on the forum – everything is read and stored, and there is some incredibly useful stuff there.

Crucially, at the moment, I am working on the air-sea rescue issue, and have made significant advances. And one of the sources to which I was directed to on the forum was this:
One problem area which did arise was the Air Ministry's fault, and a lot of people got killed as a result. I refer to the non-existent air-sea rescue service; the system should have had one but it didn't. ... [A] lot of pilots were killed, either through shock or burns or just being dragged away by their parachutes and drowned, never to be seen again through lack of co-ordination.

Later in the war, in 1941, we formed the Air Sea Rescue (ASR) Service, and if anybody came down there was somebody on the spot almost before they had landed in the sea. But this didn't happen in 1940, and this is a black mark which the system had to endure right the way through the battle.
These are the thoughts of Derek Wood (or some of them), co-author of the seminal text on the Battle of Britain, The Narrow Margin, articulated at a symposium in Bracknall in 1990, sponsored jointly by the RAF Historical Society and the RAF Staff College Bracknall.

What I now have to do is set out the case for why the failure to provide an adequate (or any) ASR Service is still relevant 70 years later. And the most obvious point is that similar failures are happening in the here and now in Afghanistan, were happening five years earlier in Iraq and most certainly have been happening earlier elsewhere.

My feeling is that, had even the background of what I already know about the 1940s failures been part of the public domain when I started arguing in 2006 for the replacement of Snatch Land Rovers, it would have been much easier to get the message across that the military was, through neglect and other diverse reasons, allowing their troops to be killed.

What makes the Battle of Britain experience so valuable are the many different facets which put the current experience in context. Firstly, we see established a failure of the "system" to take measures to safeguard the safety and lives of military personnel, and not just any personnel – those who were the key to the whole battle and from which shortage the battle could have been lost.

This demonstrates that, even when the whole campaign and even – as is asserted to be the case here – the whole nation depends on preserving the lives of a few men, the "system" failed to step up to the plate. And if it could do it then, it most certainly could do it in the context of operations where the survival of the nation was not at stake.

Secondly, we see that it is a "system", not a political failure. Although the problems were known at high level within the RAF – and therefore within the Air Ministry – not one of the critics even begins to suggest that prime minister Winston Churchill might have been responsible, or bore any responsibility at all for the resultant deaths. I am still doing the arithmetic but, over the whole period the system failed, we are talking thousands rather than hundreds of deaths.

The point here, of course, is the contrast with modern times, where the prime minister Gordon Brown has been blamed for equipment failures and the military high command effectively absolved from any responsibility – by the popular press, at least.

Thirdly, we see the effect of censorship, secrecy and lack of scrutiny. The combination ensured that, even when the problems were known, very little timely action was taken other than, to ensure the guilty persons were not censured, an extensive, multi-layered cover-up was embarked upon, which survives to this day.

So pervasive is this that Wood believes that Dowding managed to "pinch" twelve Lysanders and base them around the coast so that they could drop dinghies to anybody they could find. But, while this is supposed to have happened in the July 1940, it seems more likely that the aircraft were available from late September only, and in smaller numbers.

But, what is also fascinating is that the use of amphibious aircraft in the form of the Walrus (pictured above) was proven on a small scale during the months of July and August 1940, the lessons were not applied until late 1941 and amphibians were not fully integrated into the system until 1942 – when the Germans had been using dedicated seaplanes for ASR since 1935.

The story is far too long to tell in the framework of one post, and although I have already told some of it, there still much more to research. But I will build the story gradually on the other blog and keep you appraised of developments as they materialise.

Perversely - but rather predictably - some of the most useful starting points for learning about the inadequacies of the system come not British sources, but from New Zealand and the United States. This report here, for instance, gives a good overview. Originally "confidential", it has now been declassified, and even the fairly anodyne language makes it clear how hugely inadequate the system was.

What is so important though is that the British military establishment went to quite considerable pains to conceal its neglect and paint an entirely false picture of what was actually provided and its effectiveness. It really does tell us something about an establishment which is keen to applaud the exploits of "the few" for its own purposes, while allowing airmen to die needlessly in their hundreds and thousands.

Anyhow, I'll get back to near normal on this blog shortly, and thanks for bearing with me.

Comment: Battle of Britain thread