One of things I find most frightening about our culture these days is that nobody seems to know, or much cares to know, anything about history. I’m not talking about an appreciation of the ups and downs of the Hanseatic League here, or the diplomacy of Metternich. I’m talking about pivotal turning points. World War II, say, or the events of 1968. It’s a tired old saw that those ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it – and as an avid student of history, I’ve come to conclude that ignorant or not, sometimes you’re still just doomed to repeat it – but anyone who’d so much as seen a documentary on the rise of fascism would certainly have recognized all the old lies, all the crafty demagoguery, being put to use in the Trump campaign, and would have been inoculated against the contagion. Hell, Trump even strikes poses, with his scowls and upraised chin, that remind one of nobody so much as Mussolini. How is it that this consummate authoritarian huckster was able to put one over on so many people, all of whom have greater access to information than anyone who went before them?
To forget the past is to shed our armour against an unholy host of old cons that shouldn’t be remotely viable any more, yet somehow keep right on working. It’s as if as a society we keep falling for the Nigerian Prince with a ton of money scam. Trump’s latest budget proposal is a great example – well truss my legs and call me hog-tied, they’re trying the Laffer curve shuffle again? Really? How many times do they expect us to swallow the old “cut taxes, slash revenues, and balance the budget” two-step?
Answer: lots and lots of times.
We’re also at risk of losing any appreciation of the magnitude of our achievements as a civilization, how long and arduous the struggle has been, how costly the sacrifices that had to be made, and therefore how precious are the hard-won victories, both political and practical. Standing here on the shoulders of giants, we reap the benefits of the rule of law, the notion of constitutional rights, the miracle of bountiful clean water, the blessed freedom from disease brought by vaccination, not to forget universal suffrage, freedom of speech, and of the press; yet now, everything seems suddenly in danger, perhaps because there’s no living memory of a time before such things could be taken for granted, and apparently no interest among the living to find out what it once was like.
The witless hijinks of the odious “anti-vaxxer” crowd illuminate this problem in particularly stark relief. They probably wouldn’t get much traction in a world in which there was still widespread, first-hand memory of a time when everybody had lost some sort of loved one to polio, diphtheria, tuberculosis, and a host of other pathogens that used to rip through the population like wildfire. They’ve never seen a neighbour’s house with a yellow “Quarantined” sign plastered on the front door, warning you to keep away. To get a feel for what’s at stake, they’d have to be curious enough to read a little about why vaccines were developed in the first place, but instead all the hard lessons are lost in the unvisited past, even though, in this case, the bad old days were shockingly recent – I was born just four years after the development of the polio vaccine, and I had a young teacher in second grade who walked with a permanent limp inflicted by the often crippling disease. Not even a whole human lifespan has gone by. How have we forgotten?
Do most people find history boring? Is it just too much work to find out?
Especially troubling, to me, is the loss of any memory of the true heroes of the past, the few who stood fast when everybody else ran for the hills, who were there when it mattered, who bent the arc of history toward something far better than what very well might have been. I don’t want this blog to degenerate into a series of freshman foundation year lectures, but there’s one cardinal example of our tendency towards amnesia that has always made me terribly sad: nobody these days seems ever to have heard of the crucial actors who rose to the challenge when, during the high summer of 1940, precious little stood between everything I believe in and a descent into utter barbarity. We owe so very much, perhaps the survival of our entire civilization and way of life, to just a few key players. It’s dispiriting to imagine they could actually be forgotten, and I beg your indulgence while I tell the story of a couple I greatly admire.
First, there’s Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding, “Stuffy” to his men, who was commander of British fighter forces during the Battle of Britain. In the run-up to the war, Dowding modernized the organization of RAF Fighter Command, and developed the ground controlled intercept system under which his fighters were scrambled by a central air defence headquarters, and vectored by radar to find the enemy. This system was to be of decisive importance in the battle.
Second, Air Vice Marshal Keith Park, Dowding’s right arm as the commander of 11 Group – the fighter squadrons in the South of England that bore the brunt of the Nazi air assault – was, along with Dowding, the co-architect of victory. An oft-repeated assessment is that if Dowding ran the battle day-to-day, Park ran it hour by hour.
Dowding was never beloved by those above him in the chain of command, in part because of his propensity to insist, bluntly, upon what he knew to be necessary, and politics be damned. This was a good thing, as it happened, as there were some ruthlessly pragmatic and unpopular decisions that Dowding had the moral courage to make, both before and during the air battle, and these proved crucial. In the first place, despite enormous pressure, and what would to others have been a perhaps irresistible emotional imperative, he made sure there would still be sufficient strength in Fighter Command when the time came, by refusing to waste his precious pilots in a vain effort to save France. France was beyond desperate. She was lost. It was over. He wouldn’t commit, and sacrifice, significant forces over there when he would soon need them desperately at home. This was against Churchill’s wishes, and only a man made of the sternest stuff could tell Winston “no”.
Churchill was furious. Yet France was indeed beyond saving, and in short order the Battle of Britain became inevitable. Hitler hoped that Britain would come to its senses and reach some sort of peace deal, failing which he wanted to invade England with all possible haste. Churchill wasn’t coughing up any peace deals, so invasion it was going to be, with plans being drawn up under the code name Operation Sea Lion.
Dowding then had the wit to understand that large air battles were what the Germans would want. A rapid annihilating blow was what they’d be after. Before they could invade across the channel in keeping with their ambitious schedule, the Germans would have to gain local maritime superiority from the Royal Navy, and to do that, they would need to achieve air superiority over the Royal Air Force. Sea Lion also envisioned paratrooper operations, the success of which would require dominance in the air over Southern England. Their strategy would be to draw up the British defensive fighters in large numbers, and destroy them wholesale.
When the battle was joined, Dowding and Park refused to play along. They knew that to win the battle they didn’t need to destroy the Luftwaffe. They only had to keep Fighter Command in existence as a credible fighting force. As long as there was a Fighter Command, there could be no invasion, however many bombers the Germans might fly over England. Their almost achingly young fighter pilots would make it painful for them to come, every time, until they figured out that Fighter Command was never going to go away.
Let them come. As long as we remain a force in being, we win.
Thus British fighters, while always dispatched to intercept the German marauders, were husbanded carefully. Dowding and Park steadfastly refused to assemble the “big wings” that many of their fighter leaders, as well as most of their superiors, thought he should be sending up to confront the Germans in equal numbers. Big wings were unwieldy, took too much time to assemble, and exposed too many planes to potential destruction at one time.
The RAF was fully committed only once, during the massed attack on September 15, 1940, the climax of the battle (celebrated in England today as Battle of Britain Day). That day, Churchill happened to be in the gallery of 11 Group headquarters, watching the markers representing the opposing forces being shifted about by the women who ran the plotting board. There were a lot of markers. Churchill asked “What reserves have we?”. Keith Park told him dryly that there were none. That one day, it was all on the table.
Dowding’s tactics drove the Germans to fits of despair. The British refused to come out and be slaughtered like men! Instead, Park’s fighters were prosecuting what amounted to aerial guerilla war. Not only was that infuriating, prolonging a struggle that the Germans wanted finished with increasing urgency; it should still have been unsustainable, given the presumed British losses – for Luftwaffe pilots (and British ones too) vastly over-estimated the number of aircraft they were shooting down. Kills were reported in numbers great enough that despite their tactics, the British should have been running out of planes, and irreplaceable pilots. The Luftwaffe’s attrition strategy, which also involved bombing radar stations and airfields, seemed to be failing.
It wasn’t, actually. The Germans didn’t realize they were actually very close, despite all that Dowding and Park could do, to grinding the RAF down to a powder. All they could see was what Dowding wanted them to see, which was that no matter how long they hammered away at Fighter Command, its Spitfires and Hurricanes rose every day to oppose them. Eventually, almost as if they were storming off in a snit, they changed tactics, and took the heat off of Fighter Command, in part as an enraged response to an unintended RAF night bombing raid on Berlin (bloody navigation error, old boy). The battle shifted to bombing British cities under cover of darkness, in a campaign that Londoners called “the Blitz”. Invasion plans were quietly shelved, and Hitler turned his attention to the East, and his plans to conquer Russia, leaving England, decidedly still alive and in the fight, for another day. Huge mistake.
For his trouble, having secured victory, Dowding was forced to retire at the end of 1941. His insistence on doing things his way had made him a number of powerful enemies, none of whom much cared, now that they didn’t have to worry about losing, that Dowding was right and they were wrong.
Today I’m sure I could walk the streets of Toronto until I’d asked fifty thousand people, and none would ever have heard of Hugh Dowding, or Keith Park. If those two hadn’t been in charge, and the Battle of Britain had been lost, it would have been a disaster for civilization. Perhaps Russia would still have won in Europe, but in doing so they might have marched the Red Army all the way to Hadrian’s Wall. Perhaps America would have survived, but facing a post-war world in which there was no Western Europe to buttress, no NATO allies, and a Soviet Juggernaut in control of everything from Cadiz to Vladivostok. Or perhaps the Germans, unencumbered by a second front, would have beaten Russia. Try that world on for size.
Who then, in WW II, or all of Western military history, or history generally for that matter, was more important than Hugh Dowding? Who served more nobly than Keith Park? What hope have we, when we don’t even remember those who delivered us from evil? Having forgotten the agents of our deliverance, isn’t it just a short further leap to forgetting the evil too?
Dowding and Park below. Park was a fighter pilot himself, and while obviously too valuable to be risked in combat, he tended to strap into his Hurricane and pop in on the various airfields under his command, checking on morale and the material condition of his men and machines.