By James Holland
Back in April on a cold but sunny day, I watched the extraordinary sight of Hans-Ekkehard Bob flying a Messerschmitt around North Weald and then landing it at this old Battle of Britain airfield. A former Luftwaffe fighter ace, the last time he had been there, he had been fighting against RAF pilots in the skies above. At ninety-three, Major Bob must be one of the oldest pilots in the world, but as the Messerschmitt drew to a halt and he eased himself out of the cockpit, he then surprised us all by lowering his backside onto the wing and deftly sliding off onto the ground – just as he had always done all those years ago.
If the survivors who flew for Fighter Command back in 1940 are the few, then those who fought for the Luftwaffe are the even fewer. Not more than a dozen or so remain alive today. Unlike RAF pilots, those in the Luftwaffe were not given regular leave or limited operational flying tours. German pilots were expected to fly and fly, which was why so few of those who had flown in 1940 were still alive at the war’s end. Of those survivors, many ended up as prisoners of the Russians and never saw Germany again. Hajo Herrmann, a former Luftwaffe bomber pilot during the Battle of Britain, spent ten years in a Russian gulag. He was one of the lucky ones to make it back. Speaking to both men, first for the book, The Battle of Britain, and then again for the BBC2 documentary was both a rare privilege and very revealing.
Examining the German side of the story is key to properly understanding what happened during that world-changing summer of 1940. For too long our image of the battle has been one of Spitfires and Hurricanes tussling against an over-mighty Luftwaffe, and of the Few who flew them saving Britain in our hour of need. Certain aspects of the myth are true. It probably was our finest hour. By denying Germany the quick victory she so desperately needed, Britain did save the free world from Nazi domination. Failing to defeat Britain in 1940 meant Hitler was forced into a long attritional war he knew he could not afford. This was instrumental in making him turn on Russia earlier than he originally planned – with catastrophic results.
By examining both the German perspective and looking in closer detail at our own, fascinating new light is cast on the Battle. In reality, it was fought on a much broader front; beyond the Few were the men of Bomber Command and the rest of the RAF, and the full weight of a great maritime nation. Britain was no David to Germany’s Goliath, while the outcome was as much to do with German failings as it was Britain’s achievements.
The fact is, the Battle of Britain was far more complex – but even more exciting and dramatic – than the story we have all grown up with. Seventy years on, it is absolutely right that we should still commemorate those incredible days, but it is also time to look beyond the myth, and that is what we have attempted to do in The Real Story.
Bestselling author and historian James Holland brings fresh analysis into the pivotal moment of World War Two in his documentary Battle of Britain: The Real Story, Wednesday 22nd September, 8pm, BBC2