Norman Ridley, The Role of Intelligence in the Battle of Britain (Pen & Sword, 2021)
Most of us know the broad outlines of the Battle of Britain, and we still marvel at the skills and courage displayed in the skies over Britain during this intense aerial battle. Less well known is the role of intelligence fought in offices and bunkers on both sides of the Channel. Norman Ridley examines that unseen war and uncovers two very different stories that led to victory and defeat.
Ridley argues that both sides were unprepared for the Battle of Britain when it came to intelligence, and that had a significant impact on how the battle was fought. He begins with the Luftwaffe, which had a number of disunited agencies and little overall interest in improving the situation before the battle started. The sycophantic nature of Nazi politics also prevented the establishment of an effective intelligence system. The Germans did have their successes, however, including breaking some RAF codes, but they did not take full advantage. Herman Göring receives his own chapter to explain why he was the ‘wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time’. Göring was a vainglorious man, and he never put the work in while ignoring negative intelligence reports and inflating the Luftwaffe’s combat prowess. Ridley argues that Göring’s decision to switch to bombing London, thus losing the campaign on the brink of victory, exemplified his fatal character and professional flaws. Perhaps surprisingly, the Germans were initially ahead in the technical race to develop radar, but this too failed to bring its rewards, and underestimating the RAF’s capabilities proved destructive to the Luftwaffe.
Turning to the RAF, Ridley argues that they had their weaknesses too, along the same lines as the Luftwaffe. But the RAF responded differently. They increased their professionalism, improved communications and interceptions of German intentions, and used intelligence more wisely. Ridley gives much credit to Air Chief Marshal Dowding for his foresight in preparing for war and his introduction of the ‘Dowding System’ for a completely integrated defence with Radar to the fore. Nevertheless, the system creaked under trial by combat. Ridley then steps back to survey the Tizard Committee, set up in the 1930s to develop Britain’s air defences, including a mission to the USA to foster technological cooperation. He then provides a potted history of Enigma, which was not the panacea many have made it out to be, not during the Battle of Britain anyway. Ridley also gives full credit to the Polish codebreakers who pioneered the Enigma breakthrough. He concludes with a few informative curiosities in his appendices on Luftwaffe planes, how the Enigma machine worked, and the work of the influential Giulio Douhet.
If you have never considered the role of intelligence in the Battle of Britain, Ridley’s book will come as a bit of an eye-opener. The Germans, despite their internal problems, came close to breaking British defences, while the British employed foresight, professionalism, and expertise to turn the tide of the battle. Ridley lays that out clearly and methodically, which makes for a fascinating and informative book that readers of World War II and intelligence, in particular, will thoroughly enjoy.