20th September 2013 Washington DC, USA

The Battle of Britain and a Foundation of Trust

This week marked a significant historical moment for my nation—the 73rd anniversary of the Battle of Britain. A brief description of this titanic struggle: by the 18 of June 1940, following the chaotic evacuation of 330,000 men from Dunkirk, all of Britain’s forces had been driven out of France. Recognising the very great danger that now loomed, Winston Churchill—who had been Prime Minister for less than a month—stood that day in the House of Commons to address the British Parliament—his words may have a faintly familiar ring:

… What General Weygand has called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.

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 made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, this was their finest hour.”

Less than a month later, on the 16 of July, Adolf Hitler issued Directive 16, initiating Operation SEALION—the invasion of Britain. It read:

“ … As England, despite a hopeless military situation, still shows no sign of willingness to come to terms, I have decided to prepare, and if necessary to carry out, a landing operation against her. The aim of this operation is to eliminate the English motherland as a base from which war against Germany can be continued and, if necessary, to occupy completely.”

Initially, the German Luftwaffe concentrated on attacking shipping in the English Channel as well as coastal towns and defences. From the 12 of August, their focus shifted to the destruction of the Royal Air Force, attacking airfields and radar bases and forcing aerial combat between fighter planes.

However, by early September, in the face of continuing British resistance, the Luftwaffe switched tactics again and set about destroying London and other major cities. On the 15 of September, on what became known as Battle of Britain Day, Spitfires and Hurricanes engaged the huge incoming Luftwaffe formations in the skies above London and the South Coast.

As Churchill put it … “the Royal Air Force cut to rags and tatters separate waves of murderous assault upon the civilian population of their native land.” By 17 September, Hitler angrily concluded that he had failed to gain the air superiority necessary for a ground assault; postponing SEALION and his invasion plans, and shifting his attention to Russia.

And so, as we mark the anniversary of this battle, we pause to remember those who gave their lives on both sides in this desperate struggle in the skies over England. We remember The Few, as we call the Allied airmen of the Royal Air Force, who fought against overwhelming odds to safeguard both the British people and the free world from tyranny.

The Battle of Britain was joined by almost two and a half thousand members of the Royal Air Force and the Fleet Air Arm, but also involved 595 gallant men from 12 other nations—a grim and heroic “coalition of the willing.” There were: 145 Poles, 127 New Zealanders, 112 Canadians, 88 Czechoslovaks, 32 Australians, 28 Belgians, 25 South African, 13 French, 10 Irish, and one each from Jamaica, the British Mandate of Palestine, and Southern Rhodesia and last, but assuredly not least, seven Americans.

The best known of the US pilots was Pilot Officer ‘Billy’ Fiske, a Cambridge University graduate and a member of the US Winter Olympic bobsleigh team. Billy joined 601 Squadron in July 1940. On 16 August, he was forced to crash-land his damaged Hurricane at Tangmere as the fighter base was subject to heavy attack. Strafed on the ground, Billy died of his wounds the following day. He is memorialised in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London—his tablet bears the inscription: “An American citizen who died that England might live.”

In the course of the Battle of Britain, between 10 July and the end of October 1940, 544 Allied pilots and 1,000 aircraft were lost. 2,000 German aircraft were destroyed and nearly 3,000 of the Luftwaffe also perished. The Allied and RAF sacrifice provoked Churchill’s immortal epitaph that:

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

We currently again confront great uncertainties and challenges in the international domain—challenges that can best, and probably only, be resolved by co-operative action and by working together with care and resolve. We must draw upon the trust and understanding which we have established through word and deed: our shared commitment, endeavour and sacrifice over two centuries, since the days when we found ourselves regrettably on opposite sides.

Trust is the glue of life—it underpins absolutely everything. It is a complex confection of competence, shared values, reliability and intimacy: a trust worthy of Billy Fiske and of his comrades from many nations “who slipped the surly bonds of earth” in the clouded skies above England; and indeed of the “Lightfoot Lads” of our own generation who have died in sandy climes defending the ‘Blessings of Liberty.”

About Major General Buster Howes

Major General Buster Howes OBE is currently serving as the Defence Attaché at the British Embassy in Washington. Buster was educated at Christ’s Hospital and York and London Universities and…

Major General Buster Howes OBE is currently serving as the Defence Attaché at the British Embassy in Washington. Buster was educated at Christ’s Hospital and York and London Universities and was commissioned into the Royal Marines in 1982.

Initially Buster served as a troop commander in 42 Commando RM, deploying for the first time on operations, in Northern Ireland. After training a recruit troop, he qualified as a Mountain Leader and was then posted to Recce Troop, 45 Commando RM. After a stint as AdC to Major General Training, Reserve and Special Forces RM, he was appointed to the 2nd Division, USMC, as a Regimental Operations Officer (for the First Gulf War). He subsequently commanded Charlie Company, 40 Commando RM; Commando Training Wing at CTCRM; 42 Commando RM (for the Second Gulf War); and 3 Commando Brigade. Buster has worked in personnel policy, in the Fleet HQ; as a planner in the Rapid Reaction Force Operations Staff of UNPROFOR, in Bosnia; and as a strategist in the Naval Staff Directorate, in MOD. He has attended the Naval Staff College, the Higher Command and Staff Course, the Royal College of Defence Studies and the Pinnacle Course. He has served as a Divisional Director for ICSC(L) at the JSCSC, and as COS to Commander Amphibious Forces (CAF). He was Chief Joint Co-ordination and Effects, in HQ ISAD X in Kabul and then Director Naval Staff, in 2007.

In addition, he also served as Head of Overseas Operations in MOD before being appointed Commandant General Royal Marines/CAF in February 2010. Buster commanded Operation ATLANTA, the EU Counter Piracy Mission in the Indian Ocean for 15 months up to 1 August. He is also a member of the Navy Board, Captain of Deal Castle, President of the Royal Marines Mountaineering Club, and Vice President of the RNRM Children’s Charity.