The Mediterranean Air War, a Book Review

Ehlers Jr., Robert S. (2015) The Mediterranean Air War: Airpower and Allied Victory in World War II. University Press of Kansas. 520 Pages. ISBN 0700620753

51y2XtcvI2L._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_The Second World War’s Mediterranean Theatre of Operations was a sideshow, right? The road to defeating Nazi Germany where the Western Allies were concerned lay through Normandy, not North Africa. The Allies launched their great Combined Bomber Offensive from the United Kingdom as this incredible animation from the American Air Museum shows. Other efforts were relatively unimportant and sapped resources from where the real air battle took place. Or were they?

Robert S. Ehlers Jr.’s The Mediterranean Air War: Airpower and Allied Victory in World War II offers an important counter-narrative. The Mediterranean was not a sideshow. In fact, it was a critical theatre for Allied victory. Adolf Hitler committed the Wehrmacht to the Mediterranean in 1941 to support Benito Mussolini’s faltering armies in Greece and North Africa. Four years later the consequence of this simple plan was 400,000 Italian and 730,000 German casualties. But human casualties only tell part of the tale. The European Axis lost 42 percent of its merchant shipping in the Mediterranean. The Allies all but destroyed the Regia Aeronautica by mid-1943 while the Luftwaffe lost 17,750 aircraft in the Mediterranean throughout the war. By comparison, the Germans lost 20,419 aircraft on the Western Front while losing only 11,000 on the Eastern Front.

This is just the strategic picture. Ehlers’s work also talks logistics. Historians have often highlighted the importance of tank strength in the Western Desert. The side that could field the most tanks had the advantage. Since both sides had to maintain their forces across long supply chains the ability to retrieve and repair damaged battlefield equipment was crucial. The same was true for aircraft. The Royal Air Force created an efficient system for repair and salvage early in the campaign. Air Vice-Marshal Graham Dawson, the RAF’s Chief Maintenance Officer in the Mediterranean, organized the effort. Dawson was a Battle of Britain veteran who received a Mention in Dispatches for superb engine repair efforts in 1940. He coordinated his crews’ efforts with local Egyptian shops that could repair and manufacturer parts. Dawson’s command was innovative. It created modifications that allowed Hurricane fighters to engage high-flying Junkers Ju 86P photo reconnaissance aircraft. The aircraft’s service ceiling was 36,000 feet, yet the modified version achieved its first victory over the Nile at 49,000 feet.

AVM G.C. Pirie, AVM G.G. Dawson, AC W.E. G. Mann

Air Vice-Marshal Graham Dawson

The Mediterranean was ultimately a battle for sea lines of communication or SLOCs. Air superiority was key to winning this and other battles. With the war in North Africa won, Ehlers argues that the Western Allies were right to take the war to Sicily and then on to mainland Italy. After securing air superiority, the Allied air forces were free to expand their cooperation with Allied armies. The Allies produced great results when the services coordinated their efforts. In the first half of 1944, Operations STRANGLE and DIADEM sought to defeat German forces barring the way to Rome. STRANGLE was an air campaign aimed at depriving the Germans of supplies while DIADEM was a large-scale ground offensive with air support. On its own, air power’s effectiveness was limited. The Germans lost 20 trucks per day during STRANGLE, but that number rose to 100 per day during DIADEM. Pressure from the army kept enemy transports on the road in large numbers, making them easier prey for prowling fighter-bombers. Together these operations cost the Germans Rome and 80,000 casualties.

Ehlers convincingly argues that the final air campaigns flown from bases in Italy shortened the war and saved lives. Targets included the Luftwaffe, the German oil industry, and German lines of communication to the Eastern Front. Instructors who seek to offer their students a fresh perspective on the Mediterranean Theatre of Operations will do well to include this book on their reading lists.

Blushing Brides: Canada’s War Brides by Lindsay Elliott

Blushing Brides: Canada’s War Brides by Lindsay Elliott

March 8th is International Women’s Day, a day to reflect on women’s empowerment. It only seemed fitting, then, to explore a topic on that very sentiment. This blog is about the courageous, adventurous, and passionate Canadian War Brides of the Second World War. These British women fell in love with and married Canadian soldiers. They then left their previous lives and all that was familiar to them behind in search of a new life.

There are so many things to be considered when exploring this topic. There’s the emotional side (love, marriage, war, and leaving home). There’s the societal side (having to adapt to a new culture). There’s also the family side (leaving family, travelling with children, and meeting new family and not always being welcome).

I hope that this brief (since I’ve been given my limit) snapshot either ignites a spark or fuels a passion for a topic that I am also quite dedicated to.

Love, Marriage, and (Sometimes) a Baby Carriage

8b5d8761-cfa3-4718-844e-cd2cd79f13cdThe whole world changed with the declaration of war in September 1939. The arrival of Canadian soldiers on British soil set the foundation for a most remarkable phenomenon: Canadian men and British women met and within months some were married and off to the Canadian coast, seeking out the ‘promised land’ their new husbands had so eagerly discussed. In fact, it wasn’t long until the first marriage occurred: “43 days after Canadian soldiers arrived in December 1939, they celebrated the first marriage between a British woman and a Canadian serviceman at Farnborough Church in the Aldershot area.” Over the next six years, 48,000 marriages occurred, resulting in 45,000 British and European war brides. Understandably, 93% of these were British, as this was where the soldiers spent a large part of the war.

Instead of focusing on their origins, I’m going to focus on their journeys to Canada and their experiences upon arrival. Many travelled alone before their husbands were cycled back, sometimes with children in tow. These new families had quite the adventure ahead of them: “[T]he War Brides have the shared experience of meeting and marrying a Canadian soldier during a war time, leaving their home country for a new world by trans-Atlantic ship across the ocean, crossing Canada by war bride train, settling in to their new homes, raising families and adapting to a new culture, language and religion in a time in our history where the future held great promise for new Canadians.”

Canada: New Beginnings, New Homes

andresan-billy-mitchon-lgWar brides arrived at Pier 21 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. From there they embarked on trains to travel to their final destinations all across the country. As they disembarked the train at their new homes, they were greeted with a variety of reactions and challenges. They were usually greeted by complete strangers (Jarrett, 48), with less than average standards of living (compared to what their husbands had said), faced ridicule from women who had already been patiently waiting back home, and encountered a whole new lifestyle. Some women were scorned at for a number of reasons ranging from their seemingly rash decision to marry, to taking someone’s sweetheart, to joining a family they were not welcome to. Peggy Chalkin’s arrival in Toronto mirrored such a fate:  “We English war brides were treated horribly in the middle forties. We were jeered at, spat at, and called dreadful names. I guess they were trying to break our spirits, but they were dealing with the wrong people. They hadn’t come through what we had. It made you tough” (Wicks, 156-160). Others were welcomed into society as they eagerly sought to fit in and learn the Canadian ways of living. It was hard, rugged, and traumatizing, but at the same time it was new, exciting and rewarding. War brides faced social restrictions upon arriving in Canada, forcing them to assimilate to the gender constructions of Canadian society. Many women arrived with a romanticised idea of what awaited them: a welcoming family, modern conveniences, land, and riches. A good number of them were faced with a crippling amount of culture shock, as many of their new homes had “no inside plumbing, no electricity, no gas, no facilities of any kind, and a little hand pump outside the house” (Wicks, 119). It was also not uncommon for them to have to adjust to a new religion and/or language, especially if they found themselves in a French community (Jarrett, 63).

For some, it was too much, and without their husbands (or in some cases, because of them), they took the return trip back home. The rest who stayed fought and adjusted to becoming Canadians as a way to survive. Wynne Brink (Alberta) was well aware of this: “I had one foot in Canada and one foot in England, and this would never do. I wanted to become 100 percent Canadian, so slowly but surely I began to shuck off my English ways and began to think Canadian” (Wicks, 179). The brides attended classes held by the Red Cross to teach them Canadian language and terms. They had lessons on how to dress, how to manage through the seasons, and they were also issued a Canadian cookbook (Hibbert, xv). For those who had families and young children, “as their children grew up, [they] became more involved in their communities and schools” (Jarrett, 119) and, in time, they found themselves at home in Canada.

Captured Hearts COV-REV.inddThese women uprooted their whole lives at a tumultuous time in history in the hopes of a better life. They overcame obstacles and became solid fixtures within the country. These outstanding individuals created a new generation of Canadians that capture the hearts and fascination of historians to this day.

References:

Melynda Jarratt, Captured Hearts: New Brunswick’s War Brides (Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane Editions & NBMHP, 2008).

Melynda Jarratt, Canadian War Brides: The Authoritative Source of Information on the Canadian War Brides of WWII: http://www.canadianwarbrides.com/intro.asp (accessed 5 March 2016).

Ben Wicks, Promise You’ll Take Care of My Daughter: The Remarkable War Brides of WWII (Toronto: Stoddart Publishing Co., 2002)

Hibbert, Joyce Hibbert, ed., The War Brides (Toronto: Peter Martin Associates Limited, 1978).

Through Blood and Sweat, a Book Review

Zuehlke, Mark (2015) Through Blood and Sweat: A Remembrance Trek across Sicily’s World War II Battlegrounds. Douglas & McIntyre. 288 Pages. ISBN 1771620099

In the summer of 2013 I found myself on a battlefield tour of Sicily. I was there with a group of touring scholars organized by The Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society. Seventy years earlier the island was the site of a relatively overlooked Second World War battle. We visited the battlegrounds of American, British, and Canadian engagements against German and Italian defenders. I was in the midst of research for my master’s thesis, having visited archives in the United Kingdom on my way to the island.

BloodandSweat_frontA second group of Canadians was visiting the island. This group was Operation Husky 2013: The 70th Anniversary Citizens Memorial Campaign. A small but devoted contingent of Canadians led by businessman Steve Gregory marched the approximate route taken by 1st Canadian Infantry Division in 1943, stopping at towns along the way for remembrance ceremonies involving local officials and Sicilians. Mark Zuehlke, Canada’s leading popular military historian, recounts the journey in his most recent book, Through Blood and Sweat: A Remembrance Trek across Sicily’s World War II Battlegrounds.

As someone who was in Sicily at the time but was not at many of the marcher’s ceremonies, I was keenly interested in Zuehlke’s recounting of these moments. Veteran Sherry Atkinson emerges as the book’s – and indeed the memorial campaign’s – highlight in these ceremonies. In Modica, a small Sicilian town that Lieutenant Atkinson helped liberate in 1943, he recalls how he and his fellow soldiers were so moved by the sight of starving children that they gave away all of their rations. Sherry’s war was mercifully short. A couple of weeks later he was wounded outside of Nicosia by shrapnel from an artillery shell. In 2013 he tells the locals, “My blood has been shed upon your earth, and I consider myself one of you.” Sherry’s message throughout the memorial campaign is that remembrance is not about glorifying war, but about hoping that war never happens again.

Another great moment shared by Zuehlke is the effort to capture a piece of history in the present. His group recreated a photo of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada moving up to hear General Montgomery speak in 1943. This is the photo on the bottom half of the book’s cover. My tour group recreated our own historical image. We visited Troina, the site of the heaviest fighting American troops encountered on the island. The town is full of historical posters featuring images of the town and its occupants in 1943. These inspired us to capture our own photograph. We chose one of Robert Capa’s famous images of American troops resting near the entrance to the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption in the battle’s aftermath.

IMG_20160131_102438Markers honouring the fallen along the marchers’ route were another part of the memorial campaign. The exercise was primarily meant to honour the Canadian Army’s losses across the island. I sponsored a marker and, having researched the airman’s fate, sent the campaign an email noting that he and his crew were killed when their Wellington bomber was shot down and crashed in the mountains north of Messina. I was disappointed when my advice for where to place his marker went unheeded, but acknowledged the difficulties of fitting the air campaign into the route. The marchers’ path can be generally said to mark where soldiers fell, but the reality is not so simple for airmen. Canadian airmen lost their lives across the central Mediterranean in support of Operation HUSKY. Their names are on memorials all over the Mediterranean – from the Agira Canadian War Cemetery to the Malta Memorial for airmen who have no known grave. I’d be interested to know Zuehlke’s reflections on this point as he seems to have initially been skeptical of the marker concept.

DSC00338

Missing from the book is a reflection on what Sicily meant in respect to the larger war. Zuehlke makes this connection in his previous work, Operation Husky, but not here. This is a shame, because it needs to be remembered too. It is not enough to say that lives were lost in the fight for the peace, liberty, and freedom of Canadians and Sicilians alike. True enough, but how was that fight being waged, and where did Sicily fit inside that strategy?

The book is an excellent remembrance reflection. It is not often that an historian takes the time to reflect on the battle he or she studies in the manner Zuehlke has. Through Blood and Sweat will make an engaging primary source for future war and memory researchers for many years to come.

How the War Was Won, a Book Review

O’Brien, P.P. (2015) How the War Was Won: Air-Sea Power and Allied Victory in World War II. Series: Cambridge Military Histories. Cambridge University Press. 640 Pages. ISBN 9781107014756

The Second World War is known for its decisive battles. The Battle of Britain, the Battle of Stalingrad, the Battle of Midway, and the Battle of Normandy are among the most popular. But what if there was no such thing as a decisive battle in the greatest conflict in human history? This is what Dr. Phillips Payson O’Brien of the University of Glasgow argues in How the War Was Won: Air-Sea Power and Allied Victory in World War II, a monograph in the making for at least a decade and a half.

whytheallieswonO’Brien seeks to contest the now standard argument that the Soviet Union bore the brunt of the German onslaught. The Red Army broke the back of German power while the Western Allies played a relatively modest role according to this view. This is one of the main themes in Richard Overy’s Why the Allies Won, a well-reputed study of the war from the mid-1990s. Western access to Russian archives emerged as the Cold War ended. Overy and other scholars took the opportunity to learn more about the war from Russia’s perspective. What emerged was significant criticism of western scholarship for downplaying the USSR’s role in the victory over Nazi Germany.

O’Brien’s analysis turns this thinking on its head. Those who laud the Soviet contribution do so within a paradigm that understands the contribution to victory through manpower. O’Brien cannot deny that the USSR engaged a larger percentage of the Wehrmacht than the Western Allies. His argument is that the Second World War was primarily a mechanized war. The production and destruction of equipment is what decided the war in spite of the human cost of 70 million dead (civilians included).

The production of air and sea weaponry far outstripped that of land weaponry. As such, O’Brien argues that the air-sea war was more significant than the fight on the ground. For instance, the German army received only between 30-35% of production when it was lucky. A plurality of production effort was generally aimed at air weaponry. For instance, in May 1943 40% of German production efforts were spent on aircraft. American, British, and Japanese production efforts were similar, with the UK spending approximately one half of its production efforts on aircraft from 1940 onwards. Naval production for each of these four nations also typically outstripped that of armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs) associated with the great land battles.

Air and sea power allowed for more efficient destruction of Axis equipment. This destruction could be achieved in three phases. “Pre-production” destruction prevented the Germans and Japanese from producing weaponry in the first place by damaging factories and destroying or preventing the arrival of raw materials. “Production” destruction meant destroying equipment as it was being assembled in the factories. “Deployment” destruction refers to equipment lost as it was in transit from assembly plants to the front lines. The Western Allies – mainly Great Britain and the United States – were primarily responsible for these equipment losses. The Russians did not maintain a very large navy, nor did they invest in many large, four-engined bombers to strike at the German economy.

howthewarwaswonThe great land battles were not decisive. The incredible attrition sustained by the German and Japanese war machines on a daily basis was decisive. O’Brien’s argument is that this super-battlefield of air and sea weaponry mattered most. Few battles were actually decisive in terms of equipment destroyed. German AFV losses at the Battle of Kursk, commonly lauded as the greatest tank battle of the war, were a meagre 0.2 percent of German armaments production in 1943; German AFV losses at the great British victory at El Alamein were a paltry 0.1 percent of 1942 armaments production. O’Brien does note an exception to this: the Battle of Midway. At that near-decisive naval engagement the Imperial Japanese Navy lost four aircraft carriers, vessels that could not be replaced for a number of years. Consequently, it is little surprise that an image of Japanese carriers under attack at Midway graces the cover of the book.

O’Brien does leave some unanswered questions. He does not discuss the role – real or imagined – of initiative in the conflict. Battles are often considered decisive, not only for the casualties or equipment losses they incurred, but for their role in shifting perceptions of how the war was going. His assessments of certain Eighth Air Force raids over Germany in 1943 may also be open to some criticism. He totes the efficiency of the air-sea war, but the losses sustained on these raids were anything but efficient. More salient to my research is his mixed treatment of the Mediterranean Theatre of Operations. O’Brien acknowledges the significant attrition imposed on Axis air forces there, but laments that this was not a more integral part of Allied strategy. He opposes the Allied decision to focus on the Mediterranean in 1943 instead of mounting the invasion of France.

How the War Was Won is an excellent read for those interested in how the interaction between production, logistics, and combat decided the war against Germany and Japan. This is its greatest contribution to the Second World War’s expansive historiography.

Eagles over Husky with WW2 Podcast

Eagles over Husky with WW2 Podcast

11102735_1633119866923950_1421865506041426316_nIn 2014 I completed my master’s thesis in military history through the Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society at the University of New Brunswick. Since then, I’ve been working to share my findings with interested readers through popular history journals and other publications.

This past summer I was fortunate enough to be introduced to Angus Wallace, the mastermind behind WW2 Podcast. He graciously agreed to share my findings with his listeners in this month’s episode. The following is a summary of these findings:

Eagles over Husky: The Allied Air Forces and the Sicilian Campaign

Allied air forces played a crucial role in the Battle of Sicily. The Luftwaffe was intended to provide a significant part of the Axis force meant to defend the island and throw the Allies back into the sea. The Allied air forces foiled this effort and inflicted losses on a German Air Force that was badly needed to defend the Reich, serve on the Eastern Front, or held in reserve for the 1944 invasion of Normandy. Raids on mainland Italian railway transport crippled Axis resupply efforts and brought pressure on the Italian state to denounce Fascism and join the Allied side. Army commanders also relied heavily on tactical air power to destroy Axis forces in Sicily. While most histories of the campaign focus on the escape of German forces across the Messina Straits, this thesis argues that these contributions were critical to a strategic victory which forced Nazi Germany to stand alone in the defence of Southern Europe.

Angus has managed to pull together some amazing guest speakers in a short time. I am humbled to be included among the likes of Mark Zuehlke, Canada’s leading popular military historian. Although Mark’s podcast covered the ill-fated Dieppe Raid of 1942, he also speaks to his most recent book, Through Blood and Sweat: A Remembrance Trek into Sicily’s World War II Battlegrounds. I’ve ordered my copy just in time for Remembrance Day and plan on writing a review which will appear here.

BloodandSweat_front

New Brunswick’s Battle of Britain

New Brunswick’s Battle of Britain

Visit the small museum at the Moncton International Airport and you will find a lovely tribute to Moncton’s role with the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War. Much of the exhibit focuses on the local flying training that went on in Moncton as part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. The museum also pays tribute to New Brunswickers who served in the Battle of Britain, a battle which saw the United Kingdom avoid defeat at the hands of Nazi Germany.

Somewhere between 88 and 112 Canadians flew in the Battle of Britain. The numbers aren’t clear because Canadian citizenship didn’t exist in 1940. It was possible for an airman to be born in the UK, immigrate to Canada, and return to the UK to join the Royal Air Force prior to or during the Second World War. It was also fairly common for those living in Canada to join the RAF instead of the RCAF in the pre-war years as the RCAF was small and had limited space for prospective pilots.

New-Brunswick

New Brunswick is a small Canadian province. Even today it numbers only about 750,000 residents. In 1940 New Brunswick was home to just over 450,000. Seven of its young men managed to find their way from communities throughout the province to the contested skies above Britain. I have briefly profiled each of these airmen below.

Some interesting facts can be examined in the aggregate. Five of the seven died during the battle. One was killed in a flying accident, while the remaining four were killed in combat. As it turns out, if the New Brunswicker survived the battle he also survived the war. The pair of flyers who survived went on to have exceptional wartime careers in the RAF. Both of the men served in Burma – one served in Italy – and ended the war as decorated senior officers.

Source for all: RCAF Association website (see Battle of Britain tab).

Harry R Hamilton prior to being awarded his wings.

Harry Raymond Hamilton prior to being awarded his wings.

Flight Lieutenant Harry Raymond Hamilton of King’s County, NB was posted to No. 85 Squadron RAF as a flight commander for the Battle of Britain. Flying a Hawker Hurricane, he shot down a Me 110 twin-engine fighter on 18 August 1940. On 29 August he destroyed a Me 109 fighter before being shot down and killed. Harry Hamilton lies interned at Hawkinge Cemetery in Kent, UK. He left behind his mother and father, Nina Pearl and Walter Wesley Hamilton, of Oak Point, NB.

Source: Commonwealth War Graves Commission website.

Flying Officer John S. Hart of Sackville, NB was born on 11 September 1916. During the Battle of Britain he flew Supermarine Spitfires with Nos. 54 and 602 Squadrons RAF, shooting down a Me 109 on 29 October 1940. Promoted to Squadron Leader, he went on to command No. 67 Squadron RAF in Burma from May to July 1943, and then No. 112 Squadron RAF in Italy from April to August 1945. John Hart was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in June 1945 for his leadership before leaving the RAF in 1946.

Flying Officer George Fellows McAvity of Little River, NB flew Hawker Hurricanes with No. 3 Squadron RAF during the Battle of Britain. The unit was stationed in northern Scotland to provide air defence for the Royal Navy’s base at Scapa Flow. On 19 October 1940, during an anti-aircraft exercise, Flying Officer McAvity lost control of his aircraft and crashed while attempting a slow roll. He is buried near Caithness-shire, Scotland. George McAvity left behind his mother and father, Amy and Allan McAvity, and his widow, Frances McAvity.

Source: Commonwealth War Graves Commission website.

Flying Officer Alec Albert Gray Trueman was born in Sackville, NB in 1914. He flew Hawker Hurricanes with No. 253 Squadron RAF during the Battle of Britain. Trueman was shot down on 4 September 1940 and is buried in St. Luke’s Churchyard, Whyteleafe, Surrey, UK. Alec Trueman left behind his mother and father, Agnes and George Trueman, and his widow, Ethel Trueman of Lincoln, NB.

Source: Commonwealth War Graves Commission website.

Kirkpatrick MacLure Sclanders prior to being awarded his wings.

Kirkpatrick MacLure Sclanders prior to being awarded his wings.

Pilot Officer Kirkpatrick MacLure Sclanders was born in Saskatoon, SK in 1916 but was brought up in Saint John, NB. He served in the pre-war RAF but was forced to resign due to ill health. Not initially accepted by the RCAF in 1939, “Pat” attempted to join the French Air Force and was in Paris when that country came under attack. He made his way to England and eventually joined No. 242 (Canadian) Squadron RAF in late August. On 9 September 1940 he was killed in combat with German Do 17s and Me 110s. Kirkpatrick Sclanders is buried in St. Luke’s Churchyard, Whyteleafe, Surrey, UK.

Source: Battle of Britain London Monument website.

Pilot Officer Robert Roy Wilson of Moncton, NB flew Hawker Hurricanes with No. 111 Squadron RAF. He shot down a Me 109 on 2 June 1940 during Operation Dynamo, the exodus of British and French forces from the continent. He shot down a second Me 109 on 25 July during the Battle of Britain. He disappeared on 11 August 1940 when he failed to return from combat with German fighters over the sea. His name is on the Runnymede Memorial in Surrey, UK. Robert Wilson left behind his mother and father, Ivy and Roy Wilson.

Source: Commonwealth War Graves Commission website.

Flying Officer Thomas Patrick Harnett of Moncton, NB flew night fighters with No. 219 Squadron RAF during the Battle of Britain. He survived, trained flyers in Canada as part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, and eventually rose to command No. 435 Squadron RCAF, flying Douglas Dakota transports supplying British Fourteenth Army in Burma. He was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross in October 1945 for his leadership. Thomas Harnett left the RCAF shortly after the war ended at the rank of Wing Commander. He passed away on 19 December 1985.

Source: RCAF Association website.

Roundels63

A “Canucks Unlimited” Douglas Dakota DC-3 flying with the markings of No. 436 Squadron RCAF

Canada’s Battle of Britain

“What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin.” – Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill, 18 June 1940

The Battle of Britain Silver Coin minted for the Royal Canadian Mint for the 75th Anniversary of the battle.

The Battle of Britain Silver Coin minted by the Royal Canadian Mint for the 75th anniversary of the battle.

Summer and fall 2015 mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. One of the most important battles of the Second World War, the German Luftwaffe, fresh from victories in France, Belgium, and The Netherlands, attempted to soften up the British Isles for Operation Sea Lion, the planned invasion of southeast England. At the time, Great Britain was the last bastion of democracy in Europe. For Churchill, failure was unthinkable: “…if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.”

Britain, its Empire, the Commonwealth, and the remnants of armed forces from German subjugated countries – such as Poland and Czechoslovakia – did not fail. After months of heavy air fighting starting on 10 July 1940 the resiliency of the Royal Air Force’s Fighter Command and the presence of the Royal Navy forced Nazi Germany to look elsewhere for future conquests. The purpose of this post is to introduce followers of @BoB_CdnAirForce to the topic and provide some explanation for the tweeting format. A more detailed story of the battle is told elsewhere. There are numerous websites, books, and articles that one can learn more from. I’ve included a couple of suggestions below.

For Canadians interested in the role of their countrymen: http://www.rcaf-arc.forces.gc.ca/en/battle-britain/history.page

For a great quick read I highly recommend Richard Overy’s The Battle of Britain: Myth and Reality.

Although most historians peg 10 July 1940 as the beginning of the Battle of Britain, I have chosen to start the tweets on 1 July 2015. Early tweets focus on No. 242 (Canadian) Squadron RAF, a unit that was stood up early in the war to include Canadian pilots serving in the RAF. By summer 1940 the squadron had suffered significant casualties and reinforcements were not always Canadian. An excellent book on which some of the @BoB_CdnAirForce tweets are based is Hugh Halliday’s 242 Squadron, The Canadian Years: the Story of the RAF’s “All-Canadian” Fighter Squadron. When tweeting about pilots in this unit I’ve generally provided the names of Canadians in capital letters to differentiate them from their non-Canadian comrades.

Hurricane pilots 'scramble' rushing to their aircraft to make the next intercept.

Hurricane pilots ‘scramble’, rushing to their aircraft to make the next intercept.

The Royal Canadian Air Force fielded its own squadron in the Battle of Britain. This was No. 1 Squadron RCAF which became operational in mid-August. While I’ve primarily used No. 242 Squadron’s war diary and Hugh Halliday’s book for that unit’s tweets, the No. 1 Squadron diary is less complete and so I’ve supplemented it with information from the Royal Canadian Air Force Association’s website. I also relied on this website for information about Canadian flyers elsewhere in the RAF. I occasionally made use of the Battle of Britain Monument in London’s website when information on the RCAFA site was lacking. It seems that the RCAFA site only includes information about a pilot’s exploits when he destroyed an enemy aircraft. As such, there are few @BoB_CdnAirForce tweets regarding damaged or probably destroyed claims. I’ve done this because tracking down the other claims and creating tweets about them would take up time beyond what I allocated to this project. It should also be noted that a destroyed claim does not necessarily mean that a German aircraft was destroyed. Fighter Command claimed far more aircraft than German records indicate were lost. Exaggerated enemy loss claims were not uncommon throughout the Second World War on all sides.

A typical tweet includes the squadron number, the rank of the pilot (usually in short hand due to character limits on twitter), the pilot’s name, the pilot’s hometown, and details pertinent to that day. Common rank shorthand includes Pilot Officer (P/O), Flying Officer (F/O), Flight Lieutenant (F/L), and Squadron Leader (S/L).

I hope you follow @BoB_CdnAirForce and enjoy the feed. I’d like to think of this project as a fitting way to honour Canada’s contribution to the Battle of Britain, in particular the 23 Canadians who died defending Great Britain, the last bastion of democracy in Europe, during that frantic summer.

"High Summer High Battle" by Nicolas Trudgian

“High Summer High Battle” by Nicolas Trudgian