Eighty years ago, the Battle of Britain takes its final turn and Vichy begins the hunt for scapegoats


The Battle of Britain entered its final phase when the Luftwaffe switched its emphasis to bombing British cities, London above all, from attacking RAF aerodromes. There is no single, clear explanation for this change in strategy. Unlike the RAF which had an unshakeable faith in the decisive value of bombing enemy cities, the Luftwaffe was far more pragmatic. It could have been just that the Germans did not feel that their strategy up to then was working and just wanted to try something new as a means of winning air superiority, the crucial precondition for a successful invasion. The Royal Air force had suffered severe attrition, but at no point were unable to mount a serious defence. The picture is compplicated by the weakness of Gerrman intelligence which constantly exaggerated the level of success against Fighter Command. The Luftwaffe might simply have hoped to reduce the levels of casualties that it was suffering by switching to new and larger objectives. To begin with the raids were made during the daytime. This marked the start of what came to be known as the Blitz, over two months during which London was attacked on almost every day or night.

The attack on London handed the British the makings of a magnificent propaganda coup when some of the bombs fell on Buckingham Palace. The British proceeded to muff the opportunity, although they did insinuate that the target had been chosen intentionally. With astounding self-restraint and an honesty that would have entirely baffled Josef Goebbels, the British admitted that the Royal family had not been in residence at the time and thus not in peril of their lives. They also made great play of the fact that the bombs had destroyed the swimming pool built two years before specially for Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret Rose. Naturally it was great blow for the princesses, but it was perhaps an unwise reminder to the British public that the Windsors enjoyed an immeasurably more luxurious lifestyle than the vast majority of their subjects.  

Marshal Petain’s regime began to display an even-handed approach to the former colleagues of the head of state. Unsurprisingly General de Gaulle had already been sentenced to death in absentia for desertion and treason. The government now turned its attentions to France’s military leaders during the campaign of the summer. General Maurice. Gamelin, who had commanded the French army from the start of the war until his dismissal on May 18th as the Wehrmacht’s invasion made its main breakthrough, was arrested. Gamelin had been complacent and ineffectual, but the same might be said of most of his colleagues. Vichy was clearly looking for scapegoats for France’s defeat, whose identification and punishment would add another layer of legitimacy to its formation and proceedings.


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