Michael Portillo Copyrighted image Credit: Production team

FOUNDRY NOISE

MICHAEL Behind me, you can hear the sound of history being made. At this bronze foundry in Basingstoke an image of our past is being cast before my eyes. The craftsmen here are shaping a monument to the brave men and women who fought in the Battle of Britain, which is to be placed on the Embankment alongside the Thames in London.

That’s what we do with the great legends of history – we construct and reconstruct them, we inherit and recast the great moments of our shared heritage. And when we consider the past, perhaps we change it a little. So how do we know whether our tableaux of the past are accurate?

In this series I’m revisiting some of the cast-iron events of history – the Spanish Armada, the French Revolution, the lunar landings and, here, the Battle of Britain – icons from the past forged in our minds - to see what we’ve remembered of them and why. And to see what we’ve forgotten, because our selective amnesia can be telling.

MUSIC 1940’S – BLUEBIRDS OVER THE WHITE CLIFFS OF DOVER

MONTAGE ARCHIVE OF DOGFIGHTS, CHURCHILL’S BATTLE OF FRANCE/FINEST HOUR SPEECH CLIP AND AIR COMMODORE PETER BROTHERS’ ORAL HISTORY.

CHURCHILL Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.

MICHAEL Summer 1940 and Britain is in danger of Nazi invasion. Only two things stand in Hitler’s way: the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy.

BROTHERS It was fine, you were shooting at aeroplanes, you’d been brought up on reading Biggles stories and so on.

CHURCHILL Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the War.

BROTHERS One thought about it after the War and realised how serious it was, but at the time you were fighting for yourself, for your wife and your country, and that was, that was it.

MUSIC

MICHAEL The men of the air, the few, have been immortalised by Churchill’s Shakespearean epitaphs. But did they do more to save us than their comrades at sea? Why is it that when we think of the Battle for Britain we look only up to the sky, and why have we forgotten to remember the Battle of Mers el Kabir?

MICHAEL If you close your eyes and think about the Battle of Britain I’m sure you’ll bring to mind the young pilots in their flying boots and their leather helmets, you’ll probably be able to hear the roar of the Merlin Engines that powered the Spitfires – “the spits” – over the clear blue skies of Kent. Everybody knows the story. History, national identity, the national survival myth, the Battle of Britain is remembered quite simply because we want to remember it.

And here I am at the RAF Museum in Hendon in the Battle of Britain Hall, a huge building filled with the machines that fought the Battle of Britain.

One of those entrusted with safeguarding the memory of the Battle of Britain and celebrating the role of the Royal Air Force is Aviation historian David Keen.

David we’re surrounded by the artefacts of the Battle of Britain, how crucial was this battle in British History?

DAVID KEEN It’s the most important action that the Royal Air Force has ever been involved in. It was important to Britain in 1940 because Britain stood alone. Of all the nations which had gone to war against Nazi Germany, Britain was the only one left undefeated and unoccupied, and it looked as if the invasion of this country was imminent and it was really in the hands of the Royal Air Force to prevent that. Both Britain and Germany knew that for a successful invasion of this island to take place control of the air was the key, and the RAF knew that if they lost control of the air then there was very little that could be done to prevent an invasion. True we had the Royal Navy, but they wouldn’t wish to commit their capital ships to the onslaught of the Luftwaffe, which remember had been undefeated in all their operations up to that point.

FX Scream of Merlin Engine and shooting

ARCHIVE I’m looking round now, I can hear machine gunfire but I can’t see our Spitfires, they must be somewhere there. Oh here’s one coming down now.

MICHAEL In the Royal Air Force’s view it was this one action that kept Britain in the war when the rest of Europe had succumbed.

ARCHIVE There are three Spitfires chasing three Messerschmidts now. Oh boy look at them going and look how the…

MICHAEL Certainly, to those who were there in the Hurricanes and Spitfires – there is no doubt what they were fighting for…

ARCHIVE Oh yes, the RAF fighters have really got these boys taped…

BROTHERS If we’d failed we would have been invaded, there were no question of that.

 
A typical 1940s family Copyrighted image Credit: BBC

MICHAEL  In July 1940 Air Commodore Peter Brothers was a Wing Commander with his squadron of Hurricanes operating out of RAF Biggin Hill.  In his late 80s now, and with a painting of his trusted aircraft, registration GZL hanging above his armchair, he takes us back to the skies of 65 years ago…

BROTHERS One didn’t think about what was going to happen afterwards, the, the job was to win that battle and make sure there was no invasion. That would have been a tremendous change in history, because there would have been no base for the Americans to come and help us, which they eventually did.

CHURCHILL I look forward confidently to the exploits of our fighter pilots, these splendid men, this brilliant youth, who will have the glory of saving their native land, their island home and all they love from the most deadly of all attacks.

MICHAEL  But did the contrails across the skies of Kent in the summer of 1940 really spell out that air power had saved Britain from Nazi invasion – or does the propaganda of Britain’s finest hour still hang in the atmosphere obscuring a balanced assessment of how Britain was saved during those fateful months?

Andrew Lambert, Professor of War Studies at King’s College London thinks there are particular reasons why we remember the battle in the air to the exclusion of other things.

LAMBERT When the battle was over the British needed to make a statement about who they were and what their position in the world was, and for that the ultimate icon was going to be the Spitfire, it was going to be the Battle of Britain, because that sold, that was a marketable thing, here was modernity, the ultimate symbol of modern power, the fighter aeroplane, and you could sell this myth all the way round the world, because a large part of it is a mythology. Not that is untrue, just that the way it’s presented is designed to catch a particular market. This is public relations, this is propaganda, because Churchill knows it’s only if the Americans are prepared to back us that we can survive, and only if they join the War can we hope to win it.

CHURCHILL But if we fail then the whole world including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for will sink into the abyss of a new dark age.

MICHAEL I have been lucky to witness some historic events and I’ve now lived long enough to see how the passage of time alters their proportions.  I believe that the full story of how Britain was saved in 1940 is more complicated.  After all, what would have happened if we had lost the Battle for Britain in the air?  Would a Nazi invasion have been inevitable?

LAMBERT The Battle of Britain has a, a mythic quality as, as preserving the country from invasion, and it was those few pilots in their planes that stopped the Germans crossing the English Channel. The only reason the Germans didn’t cross the Channel in nineteen forty is because they couldn’t cross the Channel without being wiped out by the Royal Navy.

CHURCHILL Now here is where we come to the Navy, and after all we have a Navy. Some people are inclined to forget that we have a Navy...

CORRELLI The Royal Navy was vastly larger than the German Navy. By summer 1940 partly because of the Norway campaign the German Navy was reduced to just a few cruisers and destroyers, so the German Navy could not possibly on its own have covered an invasion in the face of the Royal Navy in any kind of strength.

MICHAEL Andrew Lambert and naval historian Correlli Barnet both see the defence of Britain in 1940 as a naval, not a fighter command issue.

LAMBERT The RAF had demonstrated very little capability to damage even the stationary invasion craft that the Germans were assembling in the Channel ports. The RAF bombed them, but damage was minimal. The problem was that the Germans were going to come across the Channel under heavy air escorts, and the attempts by the RAF to interdict  that would have been relatively unsuccessful. The German Admiral in command of all of this, Eric Raeder, said it’s simply impossible while the Royal Navy exists.

MICHAEL Hindsight is a fine thing, but how did it look at the time?  Were the RAF really our front line against invasion? 

FX DOG Barks

BAILEY Shut up. Sonnet, come here.

MICHAEL At home with his black Labrador, Sonnet, Capt Val Bailey - a Sub Lieutenant on HMS Active in the Summer of 1940 - still thinks that one of the things we’ve forgotten to remember about the early years of the war is the Navy’s role in any forthcoming invasion.

BAILEY Had we not won the Battle of Britain then life would have been extremely unpleasant, but there wouldn’t have been an invasion. And people like to think that a bunch of barges that assembled in Calais were going to motor across the Channel and invade England, this is rubbish. The waking terror of every landing is a cruiser in amongst ships trying to land troops. This is slaughter. We would not have actually had the German jackboots  running up and down Piccadilly for quite a long time until you’d got rid of the Navy, which was you know part of the system, keep the fleet in being.

MICHAEL Naval strength gave Britain the chance to destroy an invading force, to protect the convoys bringing us food and machinery, and to harass the enemy at long range.  Whilst we had the Navy, we had a chance.  But what if Britain’s naval superiority were threatened? 

CHURCHILL What General Weygand has called the Battle of France is over, the Battle of Britain is about to begin.

 

 

VE day in Picadilly Circus Copyrighted image Credit: Used with permission MICHAEL The surrender of France on June 22nd in breach of the terms of its alliance with Britain, left the entire French fleet under the control of a French government that had done a deal with Hitler.   

 

The strategic implications of France’s surrender were grim.  Correlli Barnet…

CORRELLI The global scene was that we were already at war with Germany and Italy, and that meant the Italian fleet in the Mediterranean across our Mediterranean lines of communications to the Middle East and India and everywhere, and on the other hand the Japanese, they had a fleet of whatever it was something like eleven heavy ships and five or six aircraft carriers, and therefore the, the fear in Britain had been ever since the early nineteen thirties that when we found ourselves in a pickle in Europe that would be the moment the Japanese might choose to attack the British Empire in the Far East. So the overall naval picture after the French Navy was taken out of the equation was really pretty worrying.

MICHAEL If the French fleet joined Hitler the Royal Navy would be stretched and threatened across the oceans of the world, and be less able to defend Britain from invasion.

The potentially disastrous shift in the balance of naval forces was leading towards a Battle for Britain that we’ve forgotten to remember, perhaps because the memory is so distressing.

There’s no museum dedicated to it, there will be no South Bank memorial.

Today very few of us have even heard the name.  But the Battle of Mers El Kabir was crucial to saving Britain.

The nightmare scenario that the French ships would be available to Hitler preoccupied Churchill and the war cabinet as June turned into July, 1940.

Correlli Barnett – former Keeper of the Churchill Archive – showed me the cabinet papers for those critical days. 

MICHAEL Looking at the Cabinet papers here of Churchill saying that the French Prime Minister cannot be relied upon in any assurances he gives about the fleet and then saying finally that we must ensure that these ships either come under our control or are put out of the way for good.

CORRELLI That’s absolutely right. We felt in the desperate situation we were in we simply could not rely on the terms of the armistice in which the Germans and Italians had assured the French that these, these ships would never be used again in war on their side, how could you really rely on them, it all looks far too dicey, something had got to be done. So actually you’re quite clear about that, and so indeed was Admiral of the Fleet, Sir Dudley Pound, the first sea lord, and the first memo that I’ve seen on this whole topic was on the seventh of June, well before the War Cabinet was taking decisions, in which Dudley Pound was saying well really the only solution to this problem is to sink the French fleet.

MICHAEL So when does the War Cabinet begin to consider the possibility at least of an ultimatum if not actually sinking the French fleet as a possibility?

CORRELLI Around the twentieth of June onwards Churchill as Prime Minister said that we really had to sink these heavy ships, the so called force de raid, which was you know really one of the most formidable naval forces around at the time, and obviously if that went over to the, the German side under the terms of the armistice then it would be extremely alarming.

MICHAEL So when the British Government engages the French Government on these points it’s not a bluff.  Churchill knows that this may end up with the British Royal Navy sinking the French Navy.

CORRELLI Oh absolutely, I mean obviously he said in his speech to Parliament afterwards, I mean it was an anguished decision to have to take, but just the same you know Churchill and particularly Pound were absolutely resolute, and in the key meetings in late June there was no dissent at the Cabinet level whatsoever.

MICHAEL Back in May 1940, at the time of Dunkirk, Churchill had persuaded his war cabinet to fight on against Hitler, desperate though Britain’s position seemed.  Now as he approached the threat from France, Britain’s ally of only a few weeks before, he was single-minded in his appreciation of the strategic realities, his thoughts unclouded by sentimentality.  In these qualities lies his greatness.  Britain must sink the French fleet.

It was gathered mainly in two ports: at Alexandria at the eastern end of the Mediterranean and, in the west, at the Algerian coastal town of Oran, in its naval base of Mers El Kabir.

Admirals James Somerville, commander of the Royal Navy’s Force H at Gibraltar, and Andrew Cunningham at Alexandria delivered an ultimatum to the French Admirals on July the 3rd.

It offered stark choices: join the British war effort, sail to Britain, sail to the French West Indies, demilitarise in place, or be attacked.

Chief Petty Officer Alfred Fishlock was in the “B” gun turret of HMS Orion on the 3rd of July, moored in Alexandria next to the French ships that he might soon be asked to destroy.

FISHLOCK An ultimatum had been delivered to the Admiral of the Fleet in Alexandria, in the French fleet in Alexandria, telling them that they had a choice either to come over to us, or else they weren’t going anywhere. And I remember the person in charge of B turret at that stage was Chief Petty Officer Carpenter, and of course once we got the order to go to action stations we all assembled in B turret, he told number two, who was the person who opens and, and closes the breech, to open the breech. He looked along the barrel when the gun was practically horizontal and he said oh that’ll be all right, that’ll bloody hit ‘em. Doesn’t bear, imagine what would happen had eventually we’d opened fire or they’d have opened fire on us. Alexandria would have just disappeared off the map.

MICHAEL Alfred Fishlock’s commander, Admiral Cunningham, was negotiating with French Admiral Godfroy in Alexandria.  Perhaps it was the proximity of the British ships that persuaded Godfroy to disarm; perhaps it was his British wife.  But for Admiral Somerville’s force H in the western Mediterranean there would be no such compromise.  Captain Val Bailey was part of the Force H and remembers setting sail for Mers El Kabir.

BAILEY We sailed from Gib, call all ships, I don’t remember what time so when it was dark, and went down into the Atlantic. On arrival in the area we were detached.  Active was detached to go and do an anti submarine, run up and down outside the breakwater at Oran, which was quite exciting because by then it was fairly obvious we were, we’d been told that any submarines coming out were to be sunk. So we’re going up and down a few hundred yards off the breakwater and you could see through the other side of the breakwater some dirty great big masts which were battleships. Nobody told us anything but we saw at intervals a boat going into the harbour and then coming out again after some time and then back in again.

 
Squadron Leader LW Feltham DFC Copyrighted image Credit: Used with permission

MICHAEL The boats that Capt Bailey could see were Cunningham’s emissaries frantically negotiating with the French Admiral, Gensoul. For Val Bailey and his fellow men, this was one of many actions in the Mediterranean that summer – but what was to follow was to have a profound impact on the rest of the war;

For the Cabinet, deciding that the French fleet should if necessary be sunk was repugnant. But it fell to the man on the spot to decide when all hope of an alternative had to be abandoned. Admiral Somerville was under pressure from the Admiralty, as Correlli Barnet explains …

CORRELLI Well in signalling final instructions to Somerville Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound said, you are charged with one of the most disagreeable and difficult tasks that a British Admiral has ever been faced with, but we have complete confidence in you and rely on you to carry it out relentlessly. Well I certainly have a feeling that Churchill was a bit behind that one too, because it, it has a Churchillian ring about it.

MICHAEL Negotiations had failed. In the harbour of Mers El Kabir were some of France’s most modern warships; tarpaulins covered their decks and their boilers were cold, but they were now designated an enemy of Britain. Val Bailey was part of what happened next.

BAILEY Suddenly at six we got the signal’open fire’. Shells and things were going overhead and bangs and booms were going on inside and finally there was one dirty big bang, which I think was the Bretagne or something going up, but the Hood, the mighty Hood overtook us in the gathering gloom, and as she went past us something came out, a frigate or something came out of Oran, and the mighty Hood turned its entire heavy armament on it and blew it clean out of the water, which we at that time genuinely thought was very unfair, which wasn’t necessary for a thing that size which just disappeared in a big splash.

People said, you know, didn’t you feel sad about it, I didn’t feel a bit sad about it. You know people say but surely you must have felt something, I felt absolutely nothing at all, I mean we’d had an exciting time, far too busy to bother about what the moral issue was, which wasn’t an issue to me.

FX Naval guns

MICHAEL News of the attack at Mers El Kabir arrived at Alexandria. Alfred Fishlock, on board HMS Orion, had been stood down from aiming his 8 inch gun at the French ships moored next to him, but his thoughts were with the men of Force H off the coast of Algeria.

FISHLOCK News came through that H Force had been in action. The mind boggles at the thought of what happened, because what were our friends were now our enemies and we were sinking them.

I hate to think what it would be like for the people taking part in it, knowing full well the people firing the guns, fifteen inch, sixteen inch, six inch, eight inch guns, shells, the casualties were terrific, and a sailor’s a sailor whether he’s French, English, German or whatever.

MICHAEL The casualties were heavy, three battleships had been destroyed, 1,350 French sailors had been killed.

The First Lord of the Admiralty AV Alexander broke the news to the British nation.

ADMIRAL AV ALEXANDER Only when all of the alternatives had been rejected did the Navy take the action which His Majesty’s Government had considered themselves compelled to order as a last resort. In the result to our great sorrow heavy loss has been inflicted on French seamen. It has been a bitter road from the glorious cooperation of the two navies at Dunkirk to the melancholy action at Oran.

MICHAEL No battle honours, no British memorials, little press coverage. But how did Parliament respond? Andrew Lambert

LAMBERT Even at the time it was contentious. Churchill was attacked in the House of Commons, it was said this was a, a really bad thing to have done and it shouldn’t have been allowed. Churchill I think very clearly got up and said I leave it to the judgement of history, and history has to say that right or wrong it wasn’t a mistake, it was necessary, it was unpleasant, but I think it was necessary, so Churchill clearly had an agenda, the French fleet had to be taken off the board, it had to be neutralised, and he was prepared to break the rules and to push his luck all the way.

MICHAEL In breaking the rules, Churchill had ensured that the Royal Navy retained numeric superiority over the German and Italian fleets. Had the French fleet not been sunk at Mers El Kabir, the war might have been lost.

So why then, if this battle was so crucial to keeping Britain in the war, have we forgotten to remember it?

LAMBERT The history that we like to remember is the history that fits everything together and explains how we got where we are now, and Mers El Kabir isn’t a necessary part of that story, we can explain our success in resisting German invasion in 1940 much more conveniently by stressing things we did face to face with the Germans. The Battle of Britain is the fighting at this period against the main enemy and therefore it must be the most important part of the story. The fact that it isn’t is really less important. We need to know how we got to the end of the War without being invaded, how did we stop the Germans? The Battle of Britain is perfect.

MICHAEL But can we attach so much significance to Mers El Kabir as to suggest that it contributed as much as, or more, than the Battle of Britain to keeping this country in the war? Andrew Lambert thinks so.

LAMBERT If we accept that the only way the Germans could have landed in Britain and invaded successfully was across the Channel by sea, then the removal of the French fleet from even the, the complicated position of being an active neutral certainly simplifies the task for the Royal Navy. It allows it to concentrate its forces on the key tasks, which in the Mediterranean remain the Italian fleet, but in home waters the defence of the United Kingdom against invasion. So more ships can be kept at home ready to deal with this threat. So the removal of the French Feet at Mers El Kabir I think plays a critical part in allowing the balance to be drawn and the right forces to be in the right place at the right time.

MICHAEL A view veteran Alfred Fishlock endorses.

FISHLOCK It is a concept that ought to be rectified by the historians inasmuch as they explain that the Battle of Britain, while it was for the RAF was a wonderful achievement for the amount of equipment they had, what must also be realised that the aircraft can only cover a certain area and can only remain in that position of a, as a fighting unit for a certain amount of time, whereas ships were there for days and days, and while we’ve got ammunition aboard we should be fighting that ship. There’s no danger of us ever packing in, we’d have been going in and while the ammunition there we should have been having a go.

MICHAEL But Air Commodore Peter Brothers, who fought in the Battle of Britain, dissents.

BROTHERS The Navy couldn’t have done it, dive bombers would have sunk them I’m afraid, narrow waters to operate, they’d have no room to manoeuvre in the Channel. The stoker boys, the dive bombers, they were good and they had overwhelming numbers, didn’t matter how many the enemy shot down there were still plenty more left. The Navy took a long time to learn the lesson and I think it finally struck home when the Japanese sunk the Prince of Wales in ... and they hadn’t got air cover and they were just decimated by Japanese air attack. That’s why the Navy were kept out of the way up at Scapa Flow, let’s face it. I’m afraid I know the Navy find this very disheartening, but, but they had their day at Trafalgar.

MICHAEL The Battle of the Channel never happened. But within a month of each other in 1940 two other battles did – we remember one, and the other is almost entirely forgotten. And yet both had an enormous influence on the outcome of the war. The Spitfires and Hurricanes of the air battle denied air supremacy to the Germans, whilst the Battle of Mers El Kabir ensured that the Royal Navy would retain the unchallenged superiority needed to repel any sea borne invasion.

Whatever the finer points of inter-service rivalry, one fact remains obvious, Mers El Kabir deserves to be remembered. Captain Val Bailey cannot overlook it because he was there – but the significance he attaches to it should prompt us to remember what has been forgotten.

BAILEY Yes I think if suddenly the Germans had appeared with the same number of ships taking the French Navy which was big, then we would have had a major bloody problem because we probably would have lost the fleet, I mean in a big battle and they could have damaged us so much we couldn’t have ensured that there wasn’t an invasion of England, so I think it was terribly important.

MICHAEL These two battles illustrate our selective national memory. How easily we remember the action that was close to home, costly of young British lives and heroic – and how easily we forget the messy, unglamorous and morally complicated action that occurred far from Britain and would do little to lift national moral. Yet to remember one event at the expense of another does disservice to both, and to their participants and to British history.

Further Reading
Richard Overy The Battle: Summer 1940 (Penguin 2000)