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Canadians in the Battle of Britain

By Stephen J. Thorne

The course of history can change by whim, foible or happenstance. When it comes down to it, the great affairs of humankind are ultimately subject to the failings of humans—and acts of God. So it was with the Battle of Britain, that epic few months in 1940 in which Britain stood alone against Hitler’s marauding Luftwaffe. England was an island in every sense of the word, with nothing behind it but a vast ocean. Against all odds, The Few prevailed. But what if the battle had been conducted differently? Would all of Europe, and perhaps the world, be speaking German?

A recent study by mathematicians at the University of York in England contends that if Adolf Hitler had launched the battle three weeks earlier—immediately after prime minister Winston Churchill’s legendary “Battle of Britain” speech on June 18—and focused on airfields instead of shifting his bombing campaign to London and other cities, his chances of winning would have increased precipitously.

Instead, Hitler revelled in his victory over France—indeed, Europe. His army and air force had driven British and Allied troops off the beaches at Dunkirk, after which he staged a theatrical armistice signing on June 22 near Compiègne, at the site where Germany surrendered in 1918. The English Channel is less than 34 kilometres across at its narrowest point, between Cap Gris-Nez, France—a couple of hours’ drive from Compiègne—and Shakespeare Beach, Dover. If Hitler had taken a stroll along the French bluffs instead of dancing his infamous jig, sightseeing in Paris, and visiting the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, he might have seen the white cliffs across the water. Maybe, just maybe, the temptation to proceed sooner would have been too much to resist.

In this special edition

Part One

A fight at home

After France surrendered in 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill faced a split cabinet between those who wanted to pursue peace with Germany and Churchill’s own desire to continue the fight. He famously addressed Parliament, saying “We will never surrender”

Part Two

The battle joined

Germany launched its plan for the invasion of Britain but first it wanted to cripple the Royal Air Force by bombing airfields and radar installations to ensure air superiority. The RAF responded with Hurricanes and Spitfires.

Part Three

Unto the breach

Squadron Leader Ernest (PeeWee) McNab became the first Royal Canadian Air Force pilot to shoot down an enemy aircraft in the Battle of Britain. As the fighting started, the RCAF’s 1 Squadron was called into action.

Part Four

Fateful decisions

After Churchill ordered a bombing mission on Berlin, German leader Adolf Hitler changed tactics and ordered the Luftwaffe to start bombing cities in Britain. Ironically, that move bought Britain and its Commonwealth partners enough time to meet the challenge and the battle ended.

Canadians in the Battle of Britain

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