The Battle of Britain: Notes on the Origin of the Name

The Battle of Britain of 1940 remains an inspirational episode that proved to be a turning point at a moment of desperate danger in the war against Hitler. Oddly enough, the story of the naming of the conflict seems to have dropped from sight. Not until March 1941, six months after the climax of the air battles, did the clash between the RAF and the Luftwaffe become definitively known as the Battle of Britain.


In what became known as the "Finest Hour" speech, Winston Churchill told the House of Commons on 18 June 1940:

"What General Weygand has called the 'Battle of France' is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin."**

The speech was a rousing warning of a ferocious land battle following the expected German invasion. "The whole might and fury of the enemy must very soon be turned upon us."

A sub-heading in the parliamentary report of The Times on 19 June highlighted two phrases from Churchill's peroration: "THIS WAS THEIR FINEST HOUR":  BATTLE OF BRITAIN TO BEGIN. As will be seen, it may be that it was an unknown headline-writer on The Times who later transmuted the meaning of the phrase from an anticipated land invasion to a retrospective tribute to a series of aerial combats.

The phrase "Battle of Britain" was subsequently to the fighter battles fought in the skies over southern England between July and September 1940. (As Richard Overy remarked in his The Battle of Britain: The Myth and the Reality (2000), unlike most battles, even the dates demarcating this one are fluid.)

In a broadcast on 26 June, Anthony Eden (Secretary of State for War), announced evacuation measures from coastal areas in the event of invasion. Like Churchill, Eden was evidently thinking of a land battle, not a series of aerial engagements when he said:

"The mass of refugees helped to lose the battle of France. They will not lose the battle of Britain."

Key word searches of the on-line file of The Times for the second half of 1940 cannot be guaranteed to pick up every instance of the phrase, but they are nonetheless revealing. First, during the summer months of 1940, "Battle of Britain" was rarely used to describe the air battle. Even when it began retrospectively to acquire that specific meaning, from about October, it was also selectively used in Churchill's original sense to characterise the overall national struggle for survival.

Reports of air battles over the Channel and south-east of England that might have been expected to use the phrase but  did not include HEAVY ENEMY LOSSES (12 July), AIR BATTLE OVER S.E. COAST (25 July), 17 RAIDERS DESTROYED IN 30 MINUTES (30 July) and BATTLES IN THE AIR (14 August).
(Many of the British claims for 'kills' of German aircraft had to be downgraded later.)

A report from The Times correspondent in Washington on 14 August was headlined U.S AND THE BATTLE FOR BRITAIN. The next day a despatch from the paper's Tokyo correspondent was headlined JAPAN AND THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN. These headlines would have been written in The Times office, probably by the same unidentified copy-editor.

On 19 August The Times unequivocally used the phrase twice in reference to the air battle. A news item referred to "the opening phase of the Battle of Britain". A leading article announced that "we have won the first round in the Battle of Britain." But the implication was still that the air battle was part of a larger conflict, a precursor to the feared invasion.

But in the House of Commons on 20 August Churchill still did not apply the phrase he himself had coined:

"The great air battle which has been in progress over these islands for the last few weeks has recently attained a high intensity."

It was in that speech that he uttered one of his most moving phrases, in a tribute to Fighter Command:

"Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few."

It is striking that Churchill was so slow to use his own phrase in relation to the air war.

On this occasion, even The Times confined itself to a restrained sub-heading: BATTLE IN THE AIR: FAVOURABLE RESULTS

Equally noteworthy is the absence of the phrase from contemporary diaries by well-placed observers. Cuthbert Headlam had used the phrase "air blitzkrieg" on 1 August. "Air action yesterday marvellous", wrote Foreign Office mandarin Alexander Cadogan on 14 August.
Churchill's private secretary, John Colville, wrote of "these great air battles" on 18 August.
Churchill had appointed Harold Nicolson to a junior post at the Ministry of Information to make use of his literary imagination but he, too, used the term "air battles" on 19 August.

From about 29 August, "the Battle of Britain" seems to have become an accepted term for the "great air battle", e.g. Eden on 3 September: "The Battle of Britain still beats about our ears".

Reviewing the first year of the War on 3 September 1940, The Times avoided the phrase and used the longer circumlocutions, as it did again as late as 1 November. Churchill does not seem to have used the phrase when he reviewed the progress of the War in the House of Commons on 5 September. "The general air battle ... continues. ... August has been a real fighting month." "How very differently this air attack which is now raging has turned out from what we imagined it would be before the war."

Also speaking on 5 September, the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, called the clashes with the Luftwaffe "one of the decisive battles of the world".

An anonymous diplomat in Cairo was quoted by The Times on September 10 as referring to "the Battle of London". The Times reported on 16 September the [alleged] destruction of 175 German planes in a single day (Sept 15th) – subsequently regarded as the climactic day of the air war – but once again did not use the phrase.

The first Times headline that specifically applied the term to the fighter campaign was on 25 September: PRAISE FOR BALLOON CREWS:  VITAL PART IN BATTLE OF BRITAIN.
The Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshall Sir Cyril Newell was reported to have sent a message of congratulation to the Air Office Commanding, Balloon Command, commending balloon crews for "their gallantry and devotion to duty in the Battle of Britain." However, Sir Cyril Newell's use of tenses was significantly different from the journalistic slant. He praised the "gallantry and devotion to duty" of balloon crews and "which I am sure they will continue to show under most trying conditions. They will play a vital part in enabling us to win the Battle of Britain." Replying on behalf of his crews, Air Vice Marshall Boyd echoed the theme, speaking of their pride in "forging ahead to victory in the Battle of Britain." Most historical accounts regard the Battle of Britain as over by late September: for two very senior RAF officers, it had yet to begin.

The Times does not seem to have been repeated the phrase until 28 October: INVASION A FAILURE: BATTLE OF BRITAIN DECIDED. Once again, the headline did not entirely reflect the report, this time of a speech by L.S. Amery. "The Battle of Britain might not be over, but its issue was, he believed, already decided."

From Australia at about the same time, the Sydney Morning Herald commented that "the loss of the Battle of Britain and shattering of preparations for invasion" had forced the Axis powers to shift their aggression to the Middle East. But from Canada, a month later, came a warning from Finance Minister J.L. Ilsley that too many Canadians "seem to feel that the Battle of Britain is won, and all is well."

On 2 November, an editorial in The Times claimed that not even "the tremendous drama of the Battle of Britain" had managed to overshadow the American presidential election campaign. However, it was still not clear that the phrase referred to the conflict in the skies or to the wider struggle for national survival implied in Churchill's June 18th use of the phrase.
One week later, another leading article paid tribute to the contribution of Poles, Czechs, Dutch and Belgians "in the air battle over Britain", a phrase it repeated editorially on 22 November.

General Sikorski, the exiled Polish leader, was reported on 26 November to be claiming that "more than 300 German aeroplanes have been brought down by Polish air squadrons in the battle of Britain", evidently a continuing struggle. However, The Times headline could be read as a retrospective acknowldgement.  POLES' HELP IN BATTLE OF BRITAIN: OVER 300 GERMAN AIRCRAFT BROUGHT DOWN. But in a statement issued on 11 December, the Czech leader in exile (The Times rendered his name as "Dr Benesh") referred to "the decisive repulse of Germany in the air battle for Britain" as one of his reasons for believing that the war was entering a new and victorious phase.

To mark Armistice Day, the Government issued a message to schoolchildren to be read in schools on 11 November. Once again, this assumed a wider and continuing meaning to the phrase. "In this battle of Britain we are engaged upon a battle for freedom itself."

Similarly, a memorandum uncovered by Richard Overy shows that as late as November 1940, General Alexander regarded the German bomber assault as a prelude to the "Battle of England".

An American newsreel documentary on the first year of the war, reviewed on 16 November, was praised for the dramatic effect with which it showed the Nazi war machine "finding the beginning of its recoil in the battle of Britain." Again, the usage was ambiguous, and not necessarily confined to the aerial combat.

On 19 November, a leading article praising Canada's contribution to the war effort seemed to use the phrase in reference to the air war, but to imply that the battle was ongoing. Canada's role in the Empire Air Training Scheme was singled out: "the first batches of trained men have already arrived in this country to take part in the Battle of Britain." (A subsequent editorial on 1 March 1941 made a similar statement about the Empire Air Training Scheme, suggesting that The Times operated on an Alice-in-Wonderland principle, in which individual writers called upon their own meaning of the phrase.) The pilots were followed at the end of November 1940 by Canada's Defence Minister, Colonel Ralston, and the Dominion's leading soldier, General Crerar, who had "come to observe at close range the conditions under which the 'Battle of Britain' is being fought." By Christmas Eve, Ralston had seen enough to tempt him into word play: "there was not only a Battle of Britain's, there were also Battles of Britain." The misplaced apostrophe probably disguised a late-Victorian sentiment that the Dominions were new Britains overseas. The second half of the statement remains obscure.

By November, then, there were two meanings to the phrase jostling side-by-side, one postulating a total struggle for national survival, and the other a continuing conflict in the air. However, there were signs of a third, memorialising interpretation, an air battle but one that had effectively terminated.  On 22 November, the Daily Express announced that it had signed up a New York journalist, Ralph Ingersoll, who had "decided about six weeks ago that the Battle of Britain was just about the greatest newspaper story any one in his lifetime would witness." It was a story, he concluded, that needed an outsider's perspective and he jumped on a flying boat and came to London to craft "the only intimate comprehensive day-to-day story of the Battle of Britain", in a series of articles that already "created a sensation in America". Readers of The Times were invited to switch papers to read "the 'low-down' on the Battle of Britain." Ingersoll was exploiting his immediacy to the bombing of London, but he was also leading the way in historicising the events of the summer months, singling out "the unsuspected significance of September 15, 1940", a day that would eventually come to rank alongside the Battle of Waterloo in British history. However, a review in The Times of another instant history on 8 February 1941 looked back on "the crucial days of late summer" as "the first phase of the Battle of Britain".

Similarly, on 27 November a correspondent of The Times reported that Germany was short of pilots and air crew because of "the heavy losses inflicted by R.A.F. fighters and the ground defences during the Battle of Britain." The same writer commented on New Year's Day 1941 that "although our losses were inevitably severe during the Battle of Britain, we had more squadrons operating in the line at the end of that battle than we had before it started". The phrase "that battle" indicates a narrowing in the meaning of the phrase.

Another journalist optimistically reported, on 29 November, that the Japanese had taken note of "Germany's failure to win a decision in the Battle of Britain". "We had already won the Battle of Britain," Labour MP James Griffiths told the House of Commons on 5 December. Rolls-Royce were also declaring victory, an advertisement on 3 January celebrating the "unexcelled performance" of their engines which powered the Spitfires and Hurricanes "in the Battle of Britain". "Tommy" Sopwith, chairman of Hawker Siddeley, spoke at the company's annual general meeting on 3 February of his "pride" that the company's Hurricane fighter had formed the "backbone" of resistance "during the period known as the 'Battle of Britain'". Hawker-Siddeley had reason to boast. Not only, as Sopwith pointed out, had the Hurricane flown more missions than the more glamorous Spitfire, but was also producing a successor, the Hawker Tornado, "with engines of nearly twice the horse-power of the fighters which bore the brunt of the Battle of Britain", so the Air Minister Sir Archibald Sinclair told the Commons on 11 March 1941. To The Times on 26 March, it was by then "the Battle of Britain last year".

However, the notion of a broad and continuing struggle continued to infuse the phrase. An article in The Times of 10 January 1941 condemned those who fled the cities at the first bomb. "If these people were typical, the battle of Britain would be over by now." In an unusually flowery speech on 21 January, Anthony Eden reverted to his usage of the previous June, using it as the foundation for a flight of fancy: the struggle against the Nazis was "not merely a battle of Britain; it is not even merely a battle for Europe – it is a battle of the Universe, for upon its outcome the future of world civilization depends." The City Architect of Coventry similarly argued on 24 January that "after the Battle of Britain has been won "aircraft factories should be switched to producing building materials. As late as 25 March, a Labour MP serving in the Army, with the unlikely name of Captain Kirk, announced that he wished to quit active service and return to Parliament because he thought his constituents would prefer to be represented there during "the Battle of Britain now in progress".

The term finally acquired its modern meaning with the publication, at the end of March 1941, of the Ministry of Information pamphlet, The Battle of Britain. On the day it appeared, modestly price at threepence, an estimated 300,000 copies were sold, and sales ultimately topped the million mark. Its success finally tipped the balance of meaning: the Battle of Britain was now irrevocably RAF Fighter Command's struggle in the skies, confined to a specific period of 1940 and ending in victory. Given that Britain still faced invasion in the spring of 1941, the official decision – presumably taken at the highest level – to redefine Churchill's 18 June 1940 use of the phrase away from land invasion towards aerial combat,  was perhaps a risk: if Hitler had halted his preparations to invade Russia and once again concentrated on the West, some fresh inspirational call would have been required.

Indeed, in the early months of 1941, Britain was facing a crisis of survival, this time not from the Luftwaffe in the air but from German U-boats at sea. As early as 9 April 1941,
Churchill was talking of the Battle of the Atlantic, a phrase evidently evolved from the Battle of Britain. It may be that it was felt necessary to declare victory in the air battle in order to build confidence that, somehow, the country would also overcome the submarine menace.

When the war ended, it was natural to dramatise the crisis of 1940 in terms of the Battle of Britain, garlanded by Churchill's electric phrases about the young pilots of the RAF which became crystallised as "The Few". The first Battle of Britain Week was celebrated as early as September 1945. "Five years ago – in September 1940 – the Germans made a mistake which cost them the war," wrote The Times. Not even the official admission in 1947 that British propaganda had overestimated German losses during the air battles could dent the mythology. Battle of Britain Week became a major public relations exercise for the RAF: in 1952, 76 air stations were open to visitors and 966,000 people turned up.

A few closing reflections on the history of the phrase. First, it is a rare inversion of a pervasive national mis-labelling. To the annoyance of the Scots and Welsh who share the island, the pervasive culture of the United Kingdom has an insensitive tendency to use "England" (Shakespeare's "sceptre isle") as a shorthand term for the whole country. It was probably the alliteration that made "Battle of Britain" a rare exception to this unthinking practice (although it seems that General Alexander, who came from an Ulster family and served with the Irish Guards, still thought of a "Battle of England"). The irony is that German aircraft lacked the range to fly further inland, thus confining the struggle for control of the skies to the south of England.

Second, the sleight of hand that links the air campaign to 18 Churchill's June 1940 speech is a subtle example of the Churchill Legend at work. Given the towering, if indeed sometimes flawed, nature of the Churchill reality, it is hardly necessary to attribute to him the naming of the Battle of Britain, with the implication that his prescience foresaw that the struggle in the air would constitute a turning point in the war.

Third, it may seem curious that it took so long for an agreed name to emerge that would encapsulate the air battles of 1940. To adopt Ralph Ingersoll's parallel, The Times in an earlier generation had reported Wellington's defeat of  Buonaparte on 22 June 1815, and six days later was describing it as "the victory of Waterloo." Probably it as harder to conceptualise a series of high-speed engagements in the clouds in the same way as a clash between land armies.

However, there is another example from 1940 that gives pause for thought. From 7 September 1940, first London and later other cities and towns came under prolonged attack from Nazi bombers. A new term, "Blitz", was soon in use to describe this phase of air war. The Salvation Army was using it, with inverted commas, in fund-raising adverts by 18 October, and Marshall and Snelgrove offered "Beauty in the 'Blitz'" hair-dos on 21 October.
It was odd that a German word meaning "lightning" should have come to mean "prolonged aerial bombardment". Indeed, it is curious that a word from the language of the hated enemy (a tongue that had definitely sounded appealing in newsreel coverage of Hitler's oratory) should have taken root among British people at all. It would hardly have been good marketing policy for Marshall and Snelgrove to have used the term had it not so rapidly acquired general acceptance.

Lastly, it seems inexplicable that celebrations of Battle of Britain Week should have recurred year after year for almost seven decades without anybody seeming to have noticed that a phrase that is still honoured with such emotional resonance was not in fact much used at the time.

One final reflection is called for, lest this study should seem to be an exercise in debunking. Whatever it was, or should be called, the Battle of Britain remains an episode that combined the desperate courage by brave young men with the scientific and organisational skills of a modern air force, backed by the resolve of a largely united nation. To somebody of my generation, born in 1945 and – I am proud to say – close to the RAF fighter station at Hornchurch, the story of the Battle of Britain still commands my emotions as well as my historical enthusiasm.
Ged Martin July 2011

** There is some doubt about whether Churchill used the word "that" following "expect". It seems that he may have omitted it when repeating his speech later that day in a wireless broadcast.