The history of the world is written by its victors. So it was that, this summer, the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain has been commemorated: a 14-week period that was defined by Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, that ended on 31 October 1940 and resulted in Germany’s first defeat of the war.
That is not the way everyone saw it at the time, of course. Churchill was a politician who needed to inspire his country towards a prolonged and outwardly hopeless war that most people dreaded, thus he declared Fighter Command’s survival of the Luftwaffe’s summer onslaught to be a victory of epic proportions. Even as he spoke, however, German bombs were raining down on British cities at night as the Luftwaffe operated almost with impunity.
It is important to remember that, even in 1940, the pilots of RAF Fighter Command considered that their leader had somewhat over-egged the pudding. Tom Neil, a 20-year-old Hurricane pilot and ‘ace’ in 1940 described the ‘so-called’ Battle of Britain thus:
“So-called, as that then-familiar phrase related to a national crisis which for us had been merely part of a sustained period of activity against the Luftwaffe, a tidy but emotive expression for a tidy fourteen-week event, conveniently terminating on 31 October 1940. As though the war had started for us in July and ended in October, which it most definitely had not!”
The Battle of Britain is therefore open to considerable interpretation and the 75th anniversary of these events should have been handled with care with those few remaining voices who fought and lived through it being given fullest attention. But this is 2015 so there was no chance of such subtlety.
The role of host broadcaster for the commemorations was handed, fairly inexplicably, to Channel 4. This is the broadcaster of bean curd, socialism and dubious sexual practices; sort of an advertiser-funded Student Union.
The presenter of Channel 4’s broadcasts was to be Dermot O’Leary, a man who has fairly rocketed up the greasy pole of media celebrity from local radio to hosting The X-Factor, aided by his anodyne matiness and a bottom that makes grown women weep. Alarm bells immediately clattered into life at the S&G.
Then came the title of the first of Channel 4’s commemorative programmes, which caused the alarm bells to shatter and the wall upon which they were hanging to be blown down flat. Battle of Britain: The Day The War Was Won
As the opening credits rolled, Dermot’s voice rang out with no little sense of occasion. “Tonight we will be winding the clock back 75 years to that crucial day when the Nazis attempted to annihilate the RAF and pave the way for a full-on land invasion.”
Not just any kind of invasion, you understand, but a ‘full-on land invasion’. I bet that’s what Hitler called it as well – about ten seconds before he realised that, in 1940, any kind of sea invasion of the British Isles was utterly impossible to achieve.
The thrust of the programme, however, was that Churchill did not go far enough in distilling an 11-month campaign into a 14-week victory. Now it all boiled down to one day, 15 September 1940, upon which the fate of everything in the world, if not the known universe, would depend.
Presumably even the producers realised that they were catastrophically wide of the mark and thus to save their bacon a tame historian was required to endorse the scriptwriter’s dismal handiwork. Enter the ubiquitous James Holland.
James was not his usual ruddy-faced self. He had the haunted look of a man who had been handed the choice between making a convincing case for the script or making a convincing case for his reputation. In the end, he managed neither. As a fall-back position, he adopted a slightly weird Estuary twang and said:
“The idea is to kind of, sort of bomb London into submission, demoralise the people, you know, hit the factories, but it’s also to, you know, kill people as well. That’s the point of it. But what the Luftwaffe have got to do is destroy the Air Force because you cannot do a cross-Channel invasion unless you have command, or control at least, of the skies in that invasion.”
There was that word again: invasion. Not a ‘full-on land invasion’ but still, scary stuff. Yet although the ‘i-word’ was repeatedly proffered it was never explored. This was a shame, because I’d like to have heard what thoughts James had to offer on that subject.
Instead we were offered Arthur Williams, whose PR describes him as ‘a young, ambitious and exciting new broadcaster identified by Channel 4 as a star of the future,’ and he was ready for his big moment. Pointing out towards France, Arthur said: “Waves of Hitler’s planes set off to attack us…”
Terminology is everything. First we had Dermot telling us that the Nazis were attempting to annihilate the RAF. Now we had Arthur describing ‘Hitler’s planes’ mustering over France. There is an obvious omission here: the ‘g-word’. This was not a small, crazed sect of ‘Nazis’ with ‘Nazi plans’ and armed with ‘Hitler’s bombers’ – it was the entire nation of Germany galvanised to arms and cheering itself hoarse with delight at having conquered mainland Europe.
After Arthur’s contribution came Dermot’s recap: “Hitler’s Luftwaffe had set out to smash the RAF and pave the way to invasion…” The S&G’s television narrowly escaped from being chucked through a window.
So thank God, then, that for the last couple of minutes the endless parade of statements died down and, in the quiet, those last few faltering voices of the men and women who were there spoke their own epitaph. This was brilliant, electrifying TV of a kind that Channel 4 couldn’t possibly have bargained for or understood, otherwise it would have shown nothing else.
First there was Tom Neil, still clear-eyed and forthright at 95, who concluded: “I’ve done my bit. My generation’s done its bit. But I’m now not afraid of dying.”
Then there was Geoff Wellum, still full of dapper good cheer, who added: “It’s not about medals. It’s not about thank-yous. But it’s nice to be remembered because being remembered covers everybody who served through and fought in the Battle of Britain. And being remembered is all that we want.”
‘Battle of Britain Day’ is commemorated on 15 September each year, and for the 75th anniversary this meant a live broadcast on Channel 4. Up to 40 aircraft, representing types flown by the RAF in the Battle of Britain, prepared to fly off from Goodwood to tour the south of England as the main act of the day. To make sure that as many people took notice as possible, this programme was entitled The Battle of Britain: Return of the Spitfires
Dermot O’Leary and James Holland were back in their Laurel and Hardy roles. The programme was called Return of the Spitfires, thus Dermot was walking among Spitfires (after flying in a two-seat Spitfire) when he asked James which particular aircraft of all those standing around them stood out: ‘that Hurricane over there’, James replied, pricelessly.
When, finally, the flying got underway the focus did at least fall in the right direction: back on that brilliant man Tom Neil, who was back in a two-seat Spitfire after half a century and in pride of place in the formation as it toured the skies where the battle was fought.
Wing Commander Neil had refused a full helmet or radio link. Instead we were treated to the view of his 95-year-old features wordlessly absorbing the environment that, within just five years on active service, had come to define the rest of his life. It is also an environment to which he is unlikely to ever return, making it all the more remarkable to share his experience as best we could. When this silent, stoic salute to a generation was over, Dermot could be relied upon to ask the Wing Commander for his thoughts.
“Quite an emotional business,” came the reply.
Right from the very first planning meeting, through two deeply underwhelming TV programmes, nobody else had stood a chance of saying anything more profound than its veterans. If only they could have had the courage not to even try.