THE MANY NOT THE FEW: The Stolen History of the Battle of Britain. By Richard North. Bloomsbury. 456 pages. $30.
The title of Richard North’s “The Many Not the Few” refers, in part, to Winston Churchill’s 1940 speech, in which he declared: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
The “few,” according to Churchill, were the heroic pilots of Fighter Command. In his informative book, North offers a diligent and copiously researched re-evaluation of the Battle of Britain, for which he was able to rely on newly unclassified documents of World War II.
The “many” were the ordinary British civilians who withstood the relentless bombing in those early years, sleeping wherever they could find safe shelters, deprived of decent food or material comforts. They soldiered on, largely without complaint.
Though Hitler called for peace to Britain, the German war machine readied itself. Col. Gen. Alfred Jodl, chief of operation staff for the German Armed Forces Supreme Command (OKW), stated, “If political measures do not succeed, England’s will to resist will have to be broken by force,” namely siege, including sea and air war, and a blockade of shipments to and from Britain.
If England accepted the peace offer, Germany would not pursue war with the British Empire, instead focusing on countries east of Germany.
To enlist the help of the United States, Churchill knew that Britain had to put on “a good show.” So, with his inimitable oratorical zeal, he fashioned one.
North maintains that the early German threats of invasion were mostly bluff. He pinpoints Germany’s various peace offers to Britain, all of which were rejected. As to whether they were sincere or not, that is unknown as they were never put to the test. The likelihood of German invasion also is unknown, but preparations were made. In any case, in September 1940, Hitler postponed Sealion, the code name for the invasion), until further notice.
Meanwhile, the Luftwaffe attacked the length and breadth of Britain, with the important port cities of London and Liverpool suffering the heaviest air raids. As civilian casualties escalated, the British government, seeming somewhat detached from the needs of the populace, forbade the use of the London Underground as nighttime shelters. Soon, an uprising of several thousand Londoners forced the repeal of that ban. (Official counts vary, but 2,000 deaths were reported on the first night of the Blitz alone, Sept. 7, 1940.)
North, in a deeply sympathetic assessment, addresses the complexity of the war and the diplomatic maneuvering behind the scenes. But the Battle of Britain involved much more than fighting and diplomacy; it was “a victory of the people of Britain” who displayed stalwart courage and perseverance. They endured the ongoing nightmare of the bombings, and the Civil Defence mobilized to take care of casualties and help the homeless find a place to live.
Children were evacuated to caretakers in the country, and some did not return home for up to two years.
Without these unsung heroes, the outcome of the war could have been very different. It is time, North writes, to recognize the important contributions of “the many.”
Reviewer Frances Monaco is a writer based in Charleston.
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