Of Sons and Skies: Flying through World War 2
with Robert Arley
Thursday 26 September 2019
The first talk of the 2019-20 season was given by Robert Arley in September, subtitled “WW2 aerial warfare” which encapsulated the thrust of the narrative.
Robert began by dismissing the myth that the sum of the aerial warfare carried out by the RAF concerned a few men in Spitfires during the Battle of Britain frightening off the Germans and so winning the war. The aerial warfare had actually started earlier, just after September 1939 when the war began, and grew apace until 1945, when the war ended.
During the early 1930’s the aircraft available had been of old fashioned design but progress had been made with both fighter aircraft and bombers.
Initially bombers had only carried leaflets to the German mainland, warning of what would come: this was to avoid civilian casualties. Similarly only ships at sea could be attacked. In 1940 the fighters of the RAF were used to cover the Dunkerque evacuation, but at a distance from the beaches forming a cordon of 20 miles around The RAF was criticised for not being seen by the troops although they really saved many casualties.
Robert then explained that the Battle of Britain was to prevent a German invasion which required German control of the air. Defence used primitive radar, but also relied upon listening posts to hear enemy aircraft approaching; this enabled (largely women) plotters to give their approximate positions, so enabling fighters to be directed to intercept. He explained that British pilots shot down over southern England could be returned to their squadrons very quickly, while the enemy faced a long Channel crossing in a damaged plane or years of captivity. Whether an invasion could have been planned and carried out was also questioned.
The Blitz that followed was at night and, without good radar, British pilots could not find the bombers, leaving only the anti-aircraft guns to try to defend the cities. Again women were involved in this: Robert showed a photo of Gwen Thomas, now aged over 90, who had been involved in the shooting-down of a German plane.
Robert paid tribute to the large number of Bomber Command aircrew killed, largely in the latter years of the War. The bombing of German cities by both British and American airforces was seen to be justified, as was the use of the atomic bombs to finally end the Second World War.
A comprehensive investigation of aerial warfare much appreciated by the audience.