Why was the Battle of Britain important, and what significant lesson can we learn from it today? When the British saw their future balanced on the edge of a knife, did the country turn back to God? Is it turning its back on God today?
As an eight-year-old boy in 1940, my late father-in-law watched in awe as the Battle of Britain raged over southern England. The air battle was for Britain’s very survival, and brave pilots struggled to prevent invasion. The valiant efforts of airmen—the few, in their finest hour—ultimately turned the course of World War II for the many. Planning and preparation against the invasion of Britain were key, but history also tells us of a now-neglected power working even at the national level to accomplish the seemingly impossible victory. Considering 1940’s decisive events in the light of God’s word, what lessons can we learn and apply today?
The advancing German army’s blitzkrieg occupation of France, Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg in the early summer of 1940 meant that Britain was next. A seaborne assault across the English Channel seemed imminent. Britain was about to become the last defence against what Prime Minister Winston Churchill called “the menace of tyranny.” The German High Command decided that supremacy in the air was essential for their victory, and in August 1940, Adolf Hitler expected to destroy the Royal Air Force (RAF) in a matter of 14 to 28 days.
The Battle of Britain, fought from July 10 to October 31 that year, is distinctive in part because its name comes from a speech Churchill gave before the conflict even started. On June 18, 1940, Churchill declared,
What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation.… Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free.… Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”
Churchill’s effective use of the English language motivated the whole nation to rise to the occasion. “The country responded in its own way to the exceptional sacrifices that the airmen were making: ground staff serviced planes round the clock, whilst civilians con-tributed to Spitfire Funds, voluntary donations that ran at about £1 million a month in 1940, to build more planes” (Simon Schama, A History of Britain, volume 3, p. 522, 2002).
Planning and foresight amongst the RAF leadership had enabled sound preparations to be made under Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding. Newly developed radar towers positioned at tracking stations along England’s east and south coasts facilitated aircraft detection, providing advance warning of approaching planes from the German air force before they even crossed the Channel. Members of the Royal Observer Corps at the coast then visually confirmed numbers and other details. This information was passed directly to Fighter Command Headquarters to coordinate the response from different fighter groups. This “Dowding system” ensured that more than 75 percent of fighter aircraft scrambled from the ground found their assigned targets in the air.
By late August 1940, daylight raids proving less effective than expected, a major German tactical decision was made to ignore airfields and focus on bombing London instead. Thus, a few hundred RAF fighter pilots had effectively contributed to the postponement and later cancellation of the German invasion. Churchill famously concluded in the House of Commons on August 20, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” Some have used this quote to develop a mythology around the battle, describing an ill-prepared, plucky little air force fighting against a superior, better-organised foe, but author James Holland challenges some of these perceptions:
Britain was far better [prepared] than that image suggests and won the Battle of Britain because it was ready and prepared to fight such a battle. It had the world’s first and only fully co-ordinated air defence system, aircraft production that was out-producing Germany at a ratio of 2:1 and had the mechanisms to fight a protracted war (“It’s Time to Shatter the Myths of the Battle of Britain,” London Daily Telegraph, September 15, 2015).
September 15, 1940, when 56 German planes were shot down, proved to be a turning point in the conflict. Losses on both sides throughout the three-and-a-half-month battle were staggering, with an estimated total of around 1,000 RAF fighters and 2,000 Luftwaffe aircraft downed.
However, beyond all this preparation and training, one vital petition made the difference, sealing the eventual success of the entire campaign.
Few today even know of Sir Hugh Dowding’s important statement, “I say with absolute conviction that I can trace the intervention of God, not only in the Battle itself, but in the events which led up to it.…” On another occasion, Dowding noted, “At the end of the Battle one had the feeling that there had been some special Divine Intervention to alter some sequence of events which would otherwise have occurred. I see that this intervention was no last minute happening.… It was all part of the mighty plan” (W.B. Grant, We Have a Guardian, p. 13).
Why the intervention? King George VI called for a National Day of Prayer on September 8, at the peak of the aerial battle. The people heartily supported the King’s request for intercessory prayer for deliverance, and queues formed outside churches all over the land. Britons had undoubtedly been encouraged by the results of an earlier Day of Prayer on May 26, when more than 338,000 evacuating soldiers escaped certain annihilation at Dunkirk.
Most Britons today are absorbed in our “post-Christian” world and doubt that God even exists, let alone guides world events. That the people of Britain 80 years ago collectively asked for divine guidance and acknowledged their dependence upon God’s supreme power seems bizarre and backward to most today. Yet, as a Tomorrow’s World reader, you may be among the few recognising this mindset as indispensable to our lives.
Bible prophecy predicts a dire future for nations that turn away from God (Deuteronomy 8:11–20; Leviticus 26:15–17, 19, 33, 37–38). Moses warned the Israelites not to forget Him or cease keeping His commandments, lest He set His face against them and let their enemies defeat them. God is working out His purpose on earth, and His hand does direct the destiny of nations (Daniel 4:17, 25, 32).
A sobering future and further decline of British power awaits today’s generation unless we, as a nation, are willing to repent and turn to God. Speaking to King Solomon, the Eternal God made very clear how we can restore a right relationship with Him: “If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14).
We can pray that our nations wake up. But even if they do not, you can personally humble yourself, repent, and draw close to God—and receive blessings for doing so. To begin seeking your own intervention, read our booklet Twelve Keys to Answered Prayer at TomorrowsWorld.org, or order your own free copy.