Inspiring Lessons From the Battle of Britain
Today, Britain is engaged in a political fight for its sovereignty. Seventy-nine summers ago, it was in a struggle for its survival.
In the summer of 1940, Western civilization was under threat. At stake was the fate of Britain and, in some ways, the fate of the world. The outcome depended on the courage, sacrifice and success of about a thousand men—whose average age was just 20 years old.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill put it this way on June 18, 1940, before Parliament: “[T]he Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire.”
The Battle of Britain was the only World War ii battle fought entirely in the air. It is a dramatic, inspiring chapter in Britain’s history. And it teaches important lessons for us.
Today Britain is sparring with the European Union over political and economic questions. But it does not realize that even more is at stake. Bible prophecy shows that the world is on the brink of fighting another world war—this time with weapons of mass destruction.
God has not only prophesied this war, He has commissioned His people to awaken the world to this threat. Those with the courage to fight this spiritual war must think and act like fighters. They must do battle on three fronts: against Satan, against society and against the evil human nature within themselves.
In many ways, the fate of the world depends on just a few thousand, many of whom are young and carry great responsibility. God’s people—those who fight the spiritual war and support His work—are “The Few.”
A Nation Without a Cause
In the early 1900s, Britain saw the Germans unleash world war, and it had spent a generation of its young men to defeat them. Britain had forbidden Germany from rearming and especially from developing the latest technology: warplanes. And in the 1920s and 1930s, an exhausted Britain relaxed. Society became soft.
The Germans did not. They rapidly rebuilt. They trained military pilots in civil aviation schools and at a secret school in Russia. They designed commercial aircraft that could be easily converted into bombers. By the time Adolf Hitler formally announced the Luftwaffe in 1935, he had an air force of 20,000 men. He immediately broke the Versailles Treaty and ordered Germany’s aircraft industry to start military production. Within a year, they were producing 160 warplanes per month.
Meanwhile, Britain was disarming. Its air force fielded fewer than 500 planes, most of which were obsolete, made of wood and canvas.
Churchill fought for years simply to convince the nation to brace for war. Finally, in July 1934, Parliament voted to expand the Royal Air Force. It was now a manufacturing race between the fearful, hesitant, indecisive, democracy of Britain and the early-rising, aggressive, vigorous dictatorship of Germany.
On Sept. 1, 1939, World War ii began. Britain had about 660 fighter planes and few bombers. Germany’s Luftwaffe had more than 3,600 bombers and fighters, and recent combat experience in the Spanish Civil War.
Britain was especially vulnerable to air warfare. Churchill called London “the greatest target in the world, a kind of tremendous fat cow … tied up to attract the beasts of prey.” Bombers from mainland Europe could reach large parts of England within 20 minutes—while British fighters required 10 minutes or more to take off and reach operational altitude.
Germany quickly conquered Poland. Great Britain and France responded by declaring war on Germany. But still, many Brits were apathetic. The next spring, Neville Chamberlain resigned as prime minister, and Churchill took over. That same day, Germany attacked the Netherlands, Belgium and France in a fierce blitzkrieg and quickly overwhelmed all three nations.
At that point, Britain stood alone.
“The Battle of France is over,” Churchill told Parliament on June 18, 1940. “I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. … The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free, and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, … including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age …. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”
We need such courage in our spiritual war. When young David approached Goliath on an ancient battlefield, he spoke boldly: “Thou comest to me with a sword, and with a spear, and with a shield: but I come to thee in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom thou hast defied. … And all this assembly shall know that the Lord saveth not with sword and spear: for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give you into our hands” (1 Samuel 17:45, 47).
“Do you see how we can impact the world today with this kind of faith in the living God?” Trumpet editor in chief Gerald Flurry writes. “David was motivated to fight Goliath so that all the Earth may know there is a God in Israel!” (The Former Prophets: How to Become a King).
Bracing for War
Britain scrambled to make up for lost time. It formed a citizen army called the Home Guard. Hundreds of thousands rushed to join—but only 1 in 3 had even a rifle. The rest had shotguns, sporting rifles, axes, golf clubs and other improvised weapons. If and when they landed, German paratroopers would be using submachine guns and grenades.
Britain’s regular army had sustained heavy losses of men and matériel in its doomed effort to reinforce the French. It had only about 100 tanks and three underequipped divisions. The Germans had 45 highly trained divisions and were ready to supply 65 more. Had Hitler invaded at that point, the ratio of German superiority of men and arms against the British was an incredible 32 to 1. Britain needed time to build up its defenses.
It had to stop Germany in the air.
However, the Royal Air Force (raf) too had been devastated in France. The head of Fighter Command said that Britain needed at least 52 fighter squadrons at home to defend Britain. They had only 37.
Miraculously, Hitler delayed attacking Britain for several weeks.
“Weeks of hectic activity followed as Britain steeled itself against invasion,” wrote Ira Peck. “War production began to climb steadily. In the factories, men worked long hours until, exhausted, they fell asleep at their machines. In homes, middle-aged women held ‘filing parties’ after tea to smooth down the rough edges of machine parts. In school workshops, boys helped rim the edges of airplane seats with hammers that were too big for some of them to hold” (The Battle of Britain).
But the fate of the nation depended on those who would strap themselves into those seats, the fighter pilots. These young men came from every background, most of them from civilian work.
God is looking for spiritual warriors who are eager to fight. When the Israelites faced a battle against the Midianites, God instructed their leader, Gideon, to say to the army, “Whosoever is fearful and afraid, let him return and depart” (Judges 7:3). And out of 32,000 soldiers, 22,000 left the ranks. He also eliminated many more by cutting those who set down their weapons to drink water. He retained only those few who remained vigilant as they refreshed themselves. These were the men most eager to do battle. But there were only 300 of them! Often only “The Few” are eager to fight.
But in the fight for the right cause, God will use every last eager soldier!
Face Down Fear
On June 5, 1940, Germany started air raids on England. Outnumbered raf pilots launched themselves into the sky.
Here is how one British Spitfire pilot described how he felt when he saw the enemy: “On sighting an overwhelmingly large enemy formation, there was a sort of hysterical humor at the hopelessness of the task—erased almost immediately by the onset of quick, stabbing shafts of fear as the armada of aircraft drew closer—and finally, before joining combat, a consciousness of a thudding and moist brow accompanied by a breathless, panicky fear.”
These men had to face down their fear. “Someone can look like a warrior, but it takes real faith to stand up to giants and other problems,” Mr. Flurry writes in The Former Prophets. “Trials reveal who the real warriors are. We cannot fake this. When the big battle comes, who will stand up like David and fight for the living God?”
Proverbs 28:1 says, “[T]he righteous are bold as a lion.” The key to being bold spiritual soldiers is to be righteous. If you believe and obey God in the little decisions you make each day, you will have boldness when you need it.
In Malachi’s Message, Mr. Flurry writes, “[S]piritual courage may be the greatest need. Without it, the other virtues are of little value! God’s people can’t cower in fear and still grow in God’s love.” Spiritually, we must be like those British pilots were physically: They had to love their country and their countrymen more than they feared the enemy.
“Now it has come to us to stand alone in the breach and face the worst that the tyrant’s might and enmity can do,” Churchill broadcast on the radio. “Bearing ourselves humbly before God, but conscious that we serve an unfolding purpose, we are ready to defend our native land against the invasion by which it is threatened. We are fighting by ourselves alone, but we are not fighting for ourselves alone. Here in this strong city of refuge which enshrines the title-deeds of human progress and is of deep consequence to Christian civilization, here, girt about by the seas and oceans where the navy reigns, shielded from above by the prowess and devotion of our airmen, we await undismayed the impending assault” (July 14, 1940).
To do our job, we must see the bigger cause. It is too easy to underestimate the difference your individual contribution makes. But we are not fighting for ourselves alone.
War Directive No. 17
The Germans prepared their ground invasion. They would attack British shipping, pulverize coastal towns, then land their forces. They were confident they could do this in two to four weeks. But they rightly understood that first they had to draw more British fighters into the sky.
On Aug. 1, 1940, Hitler issued War Directive No. 17: “The German Air Forces must with all means in their power and as quickly as possible destroy the English Air Force.”
The Luftwaffe switched from striking factories and infrastructure to heavy bombing raids against British airfields. On August 15, it went for the knockout, flying 1,786 sorties in a single day. But when the fighting was over, the Luftwaffe had lost 76 planes, and Britain’s Fighter Command had lost less than half that.
Motivated to defend their homeland, raf pilots hurled themselves at the swarms of German bombers and fighters. They emptied their ammunition and fuel in twisting, twirling aerial combat. They bailed out or crash-landed their shot-up planes, or landed on damaged runways, steering around the bomb craters. Then they went back up.
And the Germans kept coming. They were destroying airfields, planes and pilots faster than the British could replace them. Between August 24 and September 6, 295 British fighter planes were destroyed and 171 were badly damaged; 103 pilots were killed or missing, and 128 more were wounded.
“British replacement pilots were often easy prey for the more experienced Luftwaffe pilots,” wrote Peck. “As for the experienced Fighter Command pilots, the strain of flying seven or eight sorties a day was producing a terrible weariness in them. … Fighter Command was slowly but surely being bled to death. Only a miracle could save it from destruction” (op cit).
Some British commanders thought Fighter Command could last for maybe another week.
Meanwhile, the Germans had been bombing the outskirts of London, mainly to demoralize the British. Hitler had forbidden bombing London itself. He was saving that as his trump card. However, on August 24, one German pilot bombed the center of London, probably in error. Churchill responded by ordering the shelling of Berlin the next night and for several nights afterward.
Infuriated, Hitler made an emotional decision: He ordered London bombed. All the firepower that was successfully destroying Fighter Command was now diverted to attack London.
On September 7, the Germans dropped more than 300 tons of high-explosive bombs and thousands of incendiaries. London was on fire for miles. That night, as firemen and other citizens tried to douse the fires, the Germans returned. Using the fires as beacons to guide them, they bombed for seven more hours. Britain had practically no defenses for night raids.
“Hitler still nurtured the dream that bombing would terrorize the British people and make them sue for peace,” wrote Peck. And the almost nightly bombing continued for two months, killing almost 20,000 people, injuring many more, and reducing huge parts of the city to rubble.
Yet the British took “the Blitz” amazingly well. There was a lot of tragedy, “Yet there was another side,” Peck wrote. “The people of London, of all classes, became much friendlier than ever before or, perhaps, ever since. … People were thrown together with their neighbors, and even perfect strangers, in numerous situations—in air raid shelters, first-aid stations, fire-fighting groups, and groups to repair each other’s homes. … People showed their friendship in other ways, too. They looked after each other’s children, shared their stoves with less fortunate neighbors, and lent each other all kinds of necessities. There was kindness, there was sympathy, and there was understanding. …
“While Hitler hoped for ‘mass hysteria,’ and the British government feared it, the people themselves remained remarkably calm and cheerful. During the Blitz, the number of Londoners with mental disorders actually declined. There were fewer suicides, much less drunkenness, and less disorderly conduct.”
The Apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 4:8-9, “We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed.” We must have high morale in this warfare—even in very difficult circumstances. The British people set a marvelous example in this respect. These bombings “failed to break their spirit and end their will to fight.”
A second remarkable thing about the Blitz was that it essentially saved the Royal Air Force. It spared air bases and vital command posts from further damage and gave the British time to patch up their airfields and communication lines. In what proved to be a catastrophic blunder, Hitler had effectively surrendered his advantage, and England regained air superiority over Britain.
It was a miracle, not from Hitler, but from God. That same God can give us the miracles we need to prevail in our spiritual warfare and in doing His work.
Seeking God’s Help
The day after that first terrible air raid on London, perceiving an imminent invasion, King George vi called for a national day of prayer.
Churchill spoke to the nation over radio three days later. After reminding listeners of Britain’s historic successes of Nelson and Drake, he said: “We have read about all this in the history books; but what is happening now is on a far greater scale and of far more consequence to the life and future of the world and its civilization than these brave old days of the past. Every man and woman will therefore prepare himself to do his duty whatever it may be, with special pride and care. … It is with devout but sure confidence that I say, ‘Let God defend the right.’”
These godly oriented leaders motivated a nation to mass prayer to God for deliverance.
Exactly a week later, the Battle of Britain entered its worse crisis.
Hitler chose September 15 to be the day for the Luftwaffe to overwhelm Fighter Command with wave after wave and formation after formation of fighters and bombers. The British threw every fighter they had into the air. All day long, people on the ground watched the great battle unfold in the skies over southeast England.
At the height of battle, Churchill visited Group HQ of the No. 11 group, commanded by Keith Park. “I became conscious of the anxiety of the commander,” he later wrote. “I had watched in silence. I now asked, ‘What other reserves have we?’ ‘There are none,’ said Air Vice Marshall Park. In an account which he wrote about it afterward, he said that at this I ‘looked grave.’ Well I might. What losses should we not suffer if our refueling planes were caught on the ground by further raids of ’40 plus’ or ’50 plus.’ The odds were great; our margins small; the stakes infinite.”
Britain’s very survival hinged on the efforts of a handful of college-age boys who were willing to hurl themselves into the jaws of death.
The same is true of those supporting God’s work today. There are so few of us. But we have God with us. 1 Chronicles 12:8 describes the people God needs: “men of might, and men of war fit for the battle, that could handle shield and buckler, whose faces were like the faces of lions, and were as swift as the roes upon the mountains.” “That is what we need to be today,” Mr. Flurry writes. “God has called us to be spiritual soldiers. We are here to take on the worst Goliath of all time: Satan the devil in his worst wrath. We must be fit for this spiritual battle” (The Former Prophets).
On that fateful day, those British pilots lost 26 planes. But they had downed 60 German planes, in addition to the 140 knocked out the previous week.
This was “a stunning blow to the Germans,” wrote Peck. “Even the Luftwaffe could not afford to lose planes at such a rate. Furthermore, Fighter Command had shown conclusively that it was not about to be driven from the air. The Luftwaffe commanders, once supremely confident, were now shaken. The German Navy, never keen on invading England, was now even less keen. The Army, confident earlier that it could do its part once the Luftwaffe had won air supremacy, was now having doubts of its own” (op cit).
“At the end of the battle one had the feeling that there had been some special divine intervention to alter some sequence of events which would otherwise have occurred,” said raf Air Chief Marshall Hugh Dowding. “I see that this intervention was no last-minute happening … it was all part of the mighty plan …. I say with absolute conviction that I can trace the intervention of God, not only in the battle itself, but in the events which led up to it; and that if it had not been for this intervention, the battle would have been joined in conditions which, humanly speaking, would have rendered victory impossible.”
After that day’s defeat, Hitler postponed invading England indefinitely.
Douglas “Tin Legs” Bader, the legless English ace pilot and commanding officer of raf No. 242 Squadron, summarized this historic turning point: “15 September was the day that the battle was won. Britain had been saved chiefly by about 1,000 boys and young men who flew for Fighter Command.”
Churchill engraved their accomplishment poetically: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
“Oddly enough, at the time of this epic … battle, the men who fought it had little idea of its importance,” Peck wrote. “It is very unlikely that any Royal Air Force fighter pilot ever said, or even thought, ‘I am fighting the Battle of Britain and on its outcome depends the fate of the world.’ … The fact is, the average fighter pilot at the time just thought he was doing his everyday job.”
One squadron leader remarked, “At the time, we didn’t know that it was a vital battle. We thought that that was the way a war was fought. You know—it was fighting every day and you just carried on. We didn’t know we were quite so close to defeat, either. Because down at the squadron level, pilot level, we didn’t know how short we were of aircraft and of pilot replacements. … [W]e were just young boys. I was 23, and I was one of the experienced ones.”
It’s easy to underestimate how much our daily battles impact God’s work overall. But the tougher each of us is individually, the greater this work will be.
David’s example of faith in God in defeating Goliath and throughout his life inspired the men under him, listed in 2 Samuel 21:18-21: “And it came to pass after this, that there was again a battle with the Philistines at Gob: then Sibbechai the Hushathite slew Saph, which was of the sons of the giant. And there was again a battle in Gob with the Philistines, where Elhanan the son of Jaareoregim, a Bethlehemite, slew the brother of Goliath the Gittite, the staff of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam. And there was yet a battle in Gath, where was a man of great stature, that had on every hand six fingers, and on every foot six toes, four and twenty in number; and he also was born to the giant. And when he defied Israel, Jonathan the son of Shimea the brother of David slew him.”
“Why did Israel become so great under David? These men wanted to do all they could to help their king. They killed giants just as David did! This faithful attitude came from David right on down through his generals,” Mr. Flurry writes. “This is how we can become the greatest possible Church! … Follow the faith of the man God is using to lead spiritual Israel. … We all need to be giant-killers! God makes that possible for every one of us. That is how the Body of Christ will become powerful and accomplish amazing things! … It is not enough that David be great. Everybody under him must be great! That is what is required if we are to have a great Church. There can be no breakdown in any link. … This towering lesson in government is what will help us finish the work with real strength!” (The Former Prophets).
“Not enough can be said for ‘The Few’—the pilots of Fighter Command who never considered defeat and who outdid themselves in combat, knowing all along that theirs was a just cause” (Peck, op cit).
Anne Turley George was the wife of a former fighter pilot. She said this about the Battle of Britain: “We lay in ditches and watched the dogfights and cheered on our warriors and laughed and danced and sang with them in the evenings, and saw them off the next day with the tight fist of fear knotted deep in our insides—and more and more fell …. They held our lives, our happiness, and our heritage in their young strong hands—and they never flinched. I wish I could write music—I would create one great triumphant shout of a hymn—praising and honoring them and telling of our love and gratitude to them for ever and ever. Amen.”
God wants us to take the victory. We are fighting so that all Britain, all Europe, all nations and peoples around the world may be free, and the life of the world may move into broad, sunlit uplands.
And what love and gratitude they will have when we take the victory. For eternity, we will enjoy praise and honor because of the warfare we wage today. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, when this Empire lasts for a thousand years and beyond, men will say, “This was their finest hour!”