By this week in 1940, the news from the front was uniformly bad. On 19 May, Churchill gave his first broadcast as Prime Minister to the British People. The tone was that of a looming disaster:
I speak to you for the first time as Prime Minister in a solemn hour for the life of our country, of our empire, of our allies, and, above all, of the cause of Freedom. A tremendous battle is raging in France and Flanders. The Germans, by a remarkable combination of air bombing and heavily armored tanks, have broken through the French defenses north of the Maginot Line, and strong columns of their armored vehicles are ravaging the open country, which for the first day or two was without defenders. They have penetrated deeply and spread alarm and confusion in their track.
The panzer divisions of General Guderian’s 19th Panzer Corps broke through French defences at Sedan and pressed forward as rapidly as possible in what was perceived by the defenders as a devastating onslaught from land and air.
On May 15, Holland surrendered. On the same day, the War Cabinet decided to send an equivalent of four Hurricane squadrons to France. The decision was made against strong objections of the chief of Fighter Command, Air Chief Marshal Dowding. Dowding, usually a restrained man well in control of his tempers, openly confronted Churchill, pulling from his pocket a graph of recent Hurricane losses. Pointing at the red line on the diagram which headed right downwards, Dowding told the PM:
“This red line shows the wastage of Hurricanes in the last few days. If the line goes on at the same rate for the next 10 days, there won’t be a single Hurricane left in either France or England!”
Dowding also stressed out that the Air Ministry’s (not his own) estimate at the minimum fighter force required to defend Britain was 52 squadrons. He was now down to 22.
Confusion of the day continued when Paul Reynaud, the Premier of France, phoned Churchil from Paris. His first words were: “The battle is lost”. It took Churchill by surprise; his high regard for the French army, although shaken by the events at Sedan, was still prevailing.
On the following day, the Prime Minister flew to Paris to discuss the crisis with the French government, arriving at Quai d’Orsay at 5:30pm. He met the atmosphere of resignation to an overwhelming defeat, and pleas for more help from Britain. General Gamelin in particular asked for more British fighters to stem the notorious German aerial supremacy over the battlefield. In an attempt to restore the spirits of his Ally, Churchill agreed to send additional ten fighter squadrons.
What was the reason for this desperate promise which so openly contradicted Dowding’s objections of the preceding day? We may never know. It is recorded that at another meeting, Churchill assured the cabinet that the minimum number of squadrons required by Dowding was… 25. Some historians claim that in a bizarre turn of events, and presumably also through enormous stress of the moment, the number of 52 mentioned (or shown) by Dowding became 25 in Churchill’s mind. In effect, he could have been unaware that the expense of additional 10 Squadrons would eat into Dowding’s last reserves. Anyway, if such mistake indeed took place, Churchill never admitted it.
His decision lead immediately to Dowding’s famous letter dated 16 May. A letter which later was claimed to have changed the course of history.
May 16, 1940
1. I have the honour to refer to the very serious calls which have recently been made upon the Home Defence Fighter’Units in an attempt to stem the German invasion on the Continent.
2. I hope and believe that our Armies may yet be victorious in France and Belgium, but we have to face the possibility that they may be defeated.
3. In this case I presume that there is no-one who will deny that England should fight on, even though the remainder of the Continent of Europe is dominated by the Germans.
4. For this purpose it is necessary to retain some minimum fighter strength in this country and I must request that the Air Council will inform me what they consider this minimum strength to be, in order that I may make my dispositions accordingly.
5. I would remind the Air Council that the last estimate which they made as to the force necessary to defend this country was 52 Squadrons, and my strength has now been reduced to the equivalent of 36 Squadrons.
6. Once a decision has been reached as to the limit on which the Air Council and the Cabinet are prepared to stake the existence of the country, it should be made clear to the Allied Commanders on the Continent that not a single aeroplane from. Fighter Command beyond the limit will be sent across the Channel, no matter how desperate the situation may become.
7. It will, of course, be remembered that the estimate of 52 Squadrons was based on the assumption that the attack would come from the eastwards except in so far as the defences might be outflanked in flight. We have now to face the possibility that attacks may come from Spain or even from the North coast of France. The result is that our line is very much extended at the same time as our resources are reduced.
8. I must point out that within the last few days the equivalent of 10 Squadrons have been sent to France, that the Hurricane Squadrons remaining in this country are seriously depleted, and that the more Squadrons which are sent to France the higher will be the wastage and the more insistent the demands for reinforcements.
9. I must therefore request that as a matter of paramount urgency the Air Ministry will consider and decide what level of strength is to be left to the Fighter Command for the defences of this country, and will assure me that when this level has been reached, not one fighter will be sent across the Channel however urgent and insistent the appeals for help may be.
10. I believe that, if an adequate fighter force is kept in this country, if the fleet remains in being, and if Home Forces are suitably organised to resist invasion, we should be able to carry on the war single handed for some time, if not indefinitely. But, if the Home Defence Force is drained away in desperate attempts to remedy the situation in France, defeat in France will involve the final, complete and irremediable defeat of this country.
I have the honour to be,
Your obedient Servant,
Air Chief Marshal,
Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief,
Written in polite but unequivocal terms, Dowding’s letter was without doubt intended to put a brutal view of reality in the face of the Cabinet - and, presumably, Churchill himself.
It should be noted that it was not a singular effort on Dowding’s part. In fact, it only happened to be an apex in his long struggle to preserve his fragile fighter force for the defence of Britain, documented by a series of fruitless letters issued by him to the Air Ministry since 1939. Even at the beginning of the war in September 1939, Fighter command counted an equivalent of 34 squadrons (allowing for the fact that some Auxiliary squadrons were only partially trained and equipped) instead of 52 estimated as a necessary minimum for the defence of the country.
Dowding’s worst fears were about loosing the core of his force through rapid attrition at the periphery. He later wrote:
Then began the fighting in Belgium and Northern France, and at once my fears about the incidence of wastage in this type of fighting began to be realised.
At the beginning of April, 1940, there were 6 fighter squadrons in France. Then 4 more complete squadrons were sent when the fighting began. Then [again - ed.] on the 13th May 32 pilots and aircraft were sent – say the equivalent of 2 squadrons.
Almost immediately afterwards 8 half-squadrons were sent. This was done under the impression that the loss of 8 half- squadrons would affect me less than that of 4 entire squadrons, because it was supposed that they should be able to rebuild on the nuclei left behind. But this assumption was incorrect because I had neither the time nor the personnel available for purposes of reconstruction, and the remaining half-squadrons had to be amalgamated into Composite Units with a resulting disorganisation and loss of efficiency. At this time, too, I was ordered to withdraw trained pilots from squadrons and to send them overseas as reinforcements.
I had now lost the equivalent of 16 squadrons, and in addition 4 squadrons were sent to fight in France during the day and to return to English bases in the evening.
The worst thing at the moment was that all this was to no avail. On May 19, the Cabinet was informed that Lord Gort was “examining a possible withdrawal towards Dunkirk.”