It happened today - July 10, 2015

Battle of BritainSeventy-five years ago, on July 10 1940, the German Luftwaffe began one of the pivotal battles in world history, the Battle of Britain. Hundreds of planes attacked shipping in the English channel as the preliminary effort to draw out the Royal Air Force, destroy it, and thus keep the Royal Navy away from the planned “Operation Sealion” invasion of the United Kingdom.

It didn’t work. By the narrowest of margins, through desperate efforts by airmen from many nations including Canada, using the latest technology, with some luck and enormous grit, the British cause triumphed. What if it had not?

What if, to take just one example, the British had not developed a new alloy in the winter of 1938-39 that gave the Spitfire a harder propeller casing, more RPMs and a critical speed advantage over the rival Messerschmitt 109? Or suppose a limited British raid on Berlin in late August had not sent Hitler into one of his patented rages in which he ordered the Luftwaffe to destroy London, turning its main attention away from Britain’s radar and airfields and giving them a desperately needed break?

Possibly not all that much. Maybe the Germans would have been logistically incapable of getting across the channel in decisive force anyway. But I hate to think of it. After all, the Blitzkrieg had crushed Denmark, Norway and then France with stunning speed. I harbor a bleak image of Britain’s famed battleships desperately entering the fray without air cover and sinking blazing into an oil-covered sea as Swastika-ed landing craft rush the beaches at Hastings.

The odd thing about pivotal battles is that there are so many of them. There are other what-ifs from this period including what if the Bismarck, in its mad dash to evade the Royal Navy in May 1941, had run into either of the American battleships USS New York or USS Texas as, I believe, FDR rather hoped it would, and opened fire? We might then see this clash, precipitating early American entry into the European war, as pivotal.

I sometimes think liberty has hung by a highly improbable thread all along. Other times I think the underlying resilience of free people is so great that if one had been lost another would have been won soon afterward. The British government was, after all, still willing to trust its citizens with weapons in 1940 and it is not impossible that a German occupying force would have been destroyed by civilian resistance. But I am glad we did not find out.

In the middle of the Battle of Britain, Churchill told the House of Commons “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”. Looking back, despite all the vagaries of history, I believe he was right. It is one of many pivotal battles in which a fairly small but very determined band of free men and women snatched victory from the looming jaws of defeat.