Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Hinge of Fate

The Hinge of Fate

This is the title of the fourth book in Winston Churchill's astonishing history of the Second World War. But it also describes a very real event in history--when momentous events swing on individuals or small groups making decisions, either good or bad. One expression of this is Churchill's speech in which he described how the really tiny number of pilots of the Royal Air Force, during the Battle of Britain, held off the Luftwaffe--and made it possible for Britain to avoid defeat. "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few." The film The Battle of Britain (1969) really captures the enormous human courage and loss required to hold back the Luftwaffe. If you've never seen it--you should.

I'm reading Derek Wood and Derek Dempster's The Narrow Margin: The Battle of Britain and the Rise of Air Power: 1930-1940 right now. This is the book upon which the film is somewhat based. The Narrow Margin is written in a style that I have come to expect from British academics--a bit stilted. Nonetheless, it's an important book, and worth reading.

The book points to one of those "hinge of fate" decisions in 1934, when the British government announced that it was going to expand the RAF's home defenses from fifty-two to seventy-five squadrons--by the spring of 1939. There was an uproar in Parliament, because many members were still convinced that this was pointless.

1. "The bomber will always get through" was still a dominant belief--that there was no simply no point in trying to prevent bombing raids. The parallel to the current liberal insistence that there should be no defense against incoming missiles is pretty obvious.

2. The vigorous pacifism left over the from pointless bloodshed of World War I was still dominant among intellectuals and other forms of sheep.

3. It was going to be expensive, and there were many prepared to argue that Mr. Hitler was simply trying to save Germany. (Remember that National Socialism had many admirers in Britain--including some members of the royal family.)

Still, Winston Churchill pointed out that Germany had already violated the Treaty of Versailles, and it was best to be prepared for war. (Much like those who think that Iran's violation of previous U.N. resolutions means that it is time for more resolutions.)

Imagine if Parliament had prevented the building up of the RAF! Even a year or two delay on this building program would have wiped out the narrow margin by which the RAF won the Battle of Britain. I would like to think that Britain would have still fought as Winston Churchill's June 4, 1940 speech put it:
We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France,
we shall fight on the seas and oceans,
we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be,
we shall fight on the beaches,
we shall fight on the landing grounds,
we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
we shall fight in the hills;
we shall never surrender....
But I also know that without air cover, a German invasion of Britain might well have succeeded--and the costs of World War II might have been far higher than we can imagine. Occupied Britain, instead of being America's unsinkable aircraft carrier, might have been Germany's unsinkable aircraft carrier to attack Iceland, and from there, Greenland. From Greenland, easy bombing raids on Canada and the U.S.

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