Richard North’s The Many, Not the Few: The Stolen History of the Battle of Britain, is a fresh new look at one of the most storied and romantic chapters of World War Two.
The official contemporary view of the Battle of Britain was summed up by Winston Churchill’s famous statement, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” This has now become part of the popular history of the Battle of Britain. Unfortunately, since the “few,” in this case, refers to the aristocratic and well-educated officers who constituted England’s Royal Air Force, the statement implies ipso facto that all those who were not aristocratic and well-educated were nothing more than huddled and terrified masses helplessly waiting to be rescued by their betters. Richard North presents ample evidence of the fallacy of this portrayal. The huddled and terrified masses were in fact the millions of civilians who endured with grace and humor the appalling lack of preparedness of the British government (the few). They were the millions of ordinary workers who kept the country’s factories and businesses, docks and rail lines, hospitals and mines, the whole infrastructure of their society, running as smoothly as possible against incredible odds. And they were the same workers who rebuilt that infrastructure almost as fast as the Nazis could damage it. If their contribution to the war was less glamorous than that of the few daring young men in their flying machines, it was every bit as critical. Mr. North: “Without doubt, the Battle of Britain was a victory of the people of Britain, those who endured a most grievous and terrifying assault, held fast and survived, without tearing down their government and crying for peace.”
But Richard North also brings to light the cynical use of propaganda that the British government borrowed, wittingly or unwittingly, from the Nazis. Joseph Goebbels’ most famous quote is: “If you tell a lie big enough, and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can only be maintained for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.” It was a philosophy adopted wholesale by Winston Churchill’s Minister of Information, the impeccably aristocratic Duff Cooper. Misleading reports of damages and casualties might have been attributed to confusing the enemy, but they were also intended to “keep up morale” among the many, the same many who were keeping the country running. That might be forgivable within the context and framework of war during that time. But concealing the government’s lack of preparedness comes much closer to Goebbels’ conclusion: “…the truth is the enemy of the State.” And worst of all were the penalties (fines and/or imprisonment) that were enacted for expressing any doubt about the war or repeating any information about any German success. This last is a page right out of Hitler’s playbook. Toward the end of the war, when the tide was irrevocably turning against the Nazis, German officers were ordered to summarily shoot anyone who said anything that might be interpreted as defeatist.
This extraordinary look at the, ah, less noble aspects and behaviors of Britain at war, are succinctly summed up by Mr. North: “Government is a poor master. But it can be an adequate servant, if forced to be so.” It’s an observation all Americans ought to memorize.