Have you heard of the Battle of Britain – 80 years this month?
Have you heard of the Battle of Britain which started 80 years ago this August?’ I asked my Belarusian colleague.
‘No, ’ she asked, ‘What was that?’
‘It’s when Hitler’s Germany tried to invade Britain in what was called ‘Operation Sea Lion,’ I said.
When I was faced with a blank look, I explained as best I could in as few words, in order to not to bore her with too many details. This is the gist of what I said.
‘Having taken over The Netherlands, Belgium, France, Denmark and Norway in Western Europe, Hitler tried to make peace with Britain so that he could concentrate his forces against the Soviet Union. Britain rejected the offer of peace negotiations, so Hitler made plans to invade Britain. Britain was, however, in a weak position as they had had to abandon much of their military equipment in France when they helped France to block the German invasion of Western European mainland. The equipment included 700 tanks, 2,500 artillery pieces, 20,000 motorcycles and 45,000 lorries and cars – enough equipment for 8 – 10 military divisions.
In order to invade, Germany had to control the skies above Britain, so they sent bomber aircraft from airfields in occupied France, Belgium, Denmark and Norway to destroy the British airfields and the British Royal Airforce. They nearly succeeded in doing this. However, they switched to bombing British cities in revenge for the British sending bombers over to Berlin on 14th September 1941. While this caused great damage to British cities and to their population (up to 90,00 killed and injured), it did allow the Royal Air Force some breathing space.
By the time the Germans had called off the invasion, they had lost 1,700 and 2,800 planes and had over 2,500 military casualties. It is said that the Luftwaffe never recovered from these losses in material and qualified pilots The British lost an estimated 1,200 planes and 1,400 men. Although Britain fought alone, it did have the benefit of experienced pilots from the British colonies, from the USA, from Czechoslovakia, Ireland, France, Belgium and Poland. Polish pilots accounted for 2% of the total number of Pilots in the Royal Airforce, but destroyed 20% of the German planes. By the way, among this number in the Royal Airforce were people from the current territory of Belarus.
The Germans eventually ‘postponed’ operation Sea Lion. It was their first major defeat of World War 2. They then turned their attention to fighting the British in North Africa, in Greece and later against the Soviet Union. They did however try to starve Britain by using U Boats to sink British ships in the battle of the Atlantic.’
‘So, what was the Soviet Union doing during this time?’ asked my colleague.
‘Well, as you know, in August 1939 the USSR and Nazi Germany had signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which was an agreement to cooperate in the occupation of Eastern Europe: they divided Poland and the Baltic states up in to spheres of influence. In fact, there was a great deal of mutual aid. The Soviet Union received from Germany a battleship, fighter and bomber aeroplanes, trains, machine tools for production and so on. In return the Germans received food supplies: a million tons of cereals; 900, 000 tons of oil; 500,000 tons of phosphates and the use of a refuelling and maintenance base in Murmansk which enabled German submarines to attack British ships.’
‘Why Did Germany and the Soviet Union help each other during the Battle of Britain?’ asked my colleague.
‘Well, Nazi Germany received much needed food which enabled them to survive the British naval blockade around Germany and occupied France. The fuel was necessary for the Luftwaffe and Phosphates were useful for the fire bombing of cities. In return, the Soviet Union received much needed hardware for military production. For the Soviet Union, the current point of view in Russia these days is that Stalin needed a respite to build up his forces so he could liberate Europe from the Nazis. However, during Soviet times, the Soviet authorities had denied that such mutual cooperation existed and this certainly didn’t appear in Soviet history books.
An alternative reason given is that Stalin had hoped either that the British could be knocked out, leaving one enemy, Nazi Germany. If Germany was using up a considerable amount of resource to attack and occupy both mainland Britain and Ireland, the German military would have been substantially weakened and therefore enabled Stalin to send his forces to take over all of German-occupied Europe.’
‘Which is the most likely explanation?’, she asked.
‘Well, if you are interested, it might be a good idea to read more about it from different sources and then you can make up your own mind . There are different points of view on the internet, though much of it is in English.’