Eighty years ago, the RAF repeats the Luftwaffe's errors of the Battle of Britain



Having been largely on the defensive for most of 1940, RAF’s Fighter Command under its new, aggressive commander Sholto Douglas tried to take the fight to the Luftwaffe. The scheme had actually been proposed by "the father of the RAF" Hugh Trenchard in keeping with his doctrine of favouring the offensive and it ignored an unfavourable tactical siuation to pursue attacks with questionable military purpose. Operating under the general codename Circus it began to undertake operations over northern France to begin with in collaboration with Bomber Command, which had started at the end of 1940 but intensified in the new year. It escorted in strength bombing missions of a size calculated to draw German fighters into battle. Circus proved to be costly and ineffective. The bombers - notably the Handley-Page Hampdens used in the early attacks - were unsuitable for the work and did little worthwhile damage and the British fighters had no special advantage. Like the German fighters in the Battle of Britain, they were handicapped by operating at the limit of their effective range and any British aircrew who survived the loss of their aircraft were made prisoner.

Vichy France began to experience a weird parody of political pluralism. Marshal Pétain had never been a member of or endorsed any particular movement, but his regime did not ban the existence of political parties in general. The Parti Populaire Français led by Marcel Doriot had come into existence before the war as a more-or-less openly Fascist party. It was enthusiastically pro-Nazi and rather critical of the Vichy government’s more cautious approach to collaboration. The PPF was funded and supported by the Germans. Marcel Déat had proposed to form a single, monolithic new party to support Vichy and its purported philosophy of Révolution Nationale, but Vichy - Pétain  in particular - had little time for anything approaching a positive ideology. Instead Déat founded his own Rassemblement National Populaire together with other former members of the SFIO trade union movement. In keeping with Déat’s trade union background, the RNP had the trappings of a workers’ organisation. Déat saw an opportunity to reshape the French economy in a more socialist form. Other Fascist supporting parties were to follow, all distinguished by mutual loathing.

The defeated Republican candidate in the US presidential election Wendell Willkie visited Britain on a mission from President Roosevelt, the victor. His journey was intended to demonstrate support for Britain’s war-effort but the underlying motive lay in US domestic politics. Even though Willkie had only recently joined the Republicans, it tended to create the impression that there was bi-partisan support of helping Britain and to undermine very powerful isolationist element. With the Lease-Lend bill coming up before Congress, the political stakes were great. When the aviator Charles Lindbergh, now the leading figure in the isolation America First group, had come to appear to testify against the bill before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, he had received a warm public welcome even if the Committee itself had been far less friendly. Lindbergh held his ground against hostile questioning for over four hours, insisting that the best outcome to the war would be British surrender.

Anthony Eden, who had succeeded Lord Halifax as Foreign Secretary a few weeks before, told Parliament that the government would welcome the return of Haile Selassie as Emperor of Ethiopia. He was practically signalling the British military campaign in East Africa aimed at the complete destruction of Italian power in the region and the destruction of the Italian empire. Italy still had large ground and naval forces there, but they were practically cut off from Europe. It was a poignant moment for Eden, who had been forced out of the Foreign Secretaryship in 1938 by Neville Chamberlain, who was anxious to appease Italy by recognising its conquest of Ethiopia and the establishment of the empire.


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