Their Finest Hour

     On July 10th, 1940, an armada of planes lifted off from German air bases to begin the epic clash of wills between the forces of liberty and totalitarianism, in what soon would be referred to as the Battle of Britain.   A little known secret weapon, radar, allowed the British air force to have early warning and engage the armada over the English Channel.  The New York Times of July 11, 1940 described that battle in tense and lucid fashion:


 “One of the most spectacular air battles of the war thus far, with a hundred or more planes engaged, raged off the Channel coast yesterday. Big formations  of  British and German planes came to the death grip after Nazi airmen had attempted to attack a convoy. “

“The fierce fight over the Channel was overshadowed during the day by intense air activity in which the Germans raided parts of Scotland, England and Wales, killing and wounding civilians here and there and damaging private property. The authorities did not state whether any military targets were hit.”

“In the first phase fifteen German bombers overtook the convoy. Escort vessels sent up an intense barrage of anti-aircraft fire, but the German planes dived through it, showering down numerous high explosive bombs among the ships. A spectator on the cliff said that not a hit appeared to have been scored.

Fighters Join Action

The R. A. F. fighters immediately roared up to intercept the raiders, darting through the haze of gunfire smoke overhanging the Channel with their machine guns rattling bull blast. Soon afterward the first group of raiders was chased off.

The second phase developed ten minutes later. Thirty or more German bombers, protected by fighting planes, droned over the Channel at the 10,000-foot altitude.

Quickly they dropped salvo after salvo of bombs, which were seen bursting near the ships in the convoy while the anti-aircraft guns roared and British Fighters again closed in to attack. At the approach of the R. A. F. planes, more German fighters dived down through the clouds above which they had been hiding and the fight was on with a vengeance.

Three German bombers were shot down in less than three minutes, all hurtling brokenly in vertical dives into the sea. Another had its tail shot off. One bomber and one fighter collided in midair killing each other. Still another German fighter plunged into the sea after a British pilot had poured a stream of machine-gun bullets into its tail. One by one, in rapid succession ,other German planes were sent to a swift end.

Finally the German squadrons broke off the engagement and made for home. Some of them were so badly damaged that it was considered probable that they did not reach the French side of the Channel, according to London reports.

While the battle was going on, ‘the sky was black with planes,’ the skipper of one ship in the convoy related. He added that hundreds of bombs splashed into the sea.”   new york times frontpage 07.11.40


   The colorful writing classic for the press in 1940 makes no attempt to hide newspaper’s desire to inform the reading public as to which side was righteous in its actions.  How different is today’s press where equivalence of virtue is the norm and the struggle always required to protect individual liberties is considered gauche and reactionary.  We forget how fragile liberty is, and how vulnerable at times it has been to annihilation.  We expect our current economic and military might to be sufficient to discourage those who would seek to return the world to subservience and darkness.  Hopefully, the remembrance of epic struggles for freedom like the Battle of Britain, where the outcome was so unsure, the dangers so acute, will steel us for what continues to lurk in humanity’s darker nature.



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2 Responses to Their Finest Hour

  1. b. schmitt says:

    Truly one of the two most important moments in the war and history. Had the Germans managed to crush the British, there would not have been a D-Day. The equally (maybe more?) important moment has to be when the Red Army pushed back the Third Reich’s attempt to gain control of the Baku oil fields. Granted, Hitler’s hubris and the weather were tremendous allies, but it amazes me how easily it all could have been so very different. I think it is equally astonishing that our current leaders seem to think this nation is immune from consequence despite clear historical evidence to the contrary. Do we have a nation with the intestinal fortitude to stand up and fight with the same steadfastness as the British and Soviets did? Only the long lens of history will know for sure, but I do believe we are at a tipping point.

    • btf says:

      That is a good one… another remarkable moment in a war of remarkable moments was the less than 30 minutes in which dive bombers from American carriers caught 5 Japanese carriers with their decks full of refueling planes at the battle of Midway, and sent four of them to the ocean bottom. In less than the time it takes to drive to work, Japan went from an unstoppable offensive force threatening the California coastline and all of East Asia to a permanently defensive posture of retreat and inevitable defeat….Some thirty minutes.

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