"Never in the field of human conflict …"

Battle of Britain poster with Churchill's 'the few'

Winston Churchill knew how to coin a memorable phrase and the Ministry of Information knew how to use it. In the earliest posters using his words Bomber Command pilots were featured. Churchill included bomber crew amongst 'the few' when he spoke on 20th August.

On the 20th August 1940 Churchill addressed Parliament on the state of the war. Once again his speech was a rhetorical masterpiece, taking the listener on a journey through the present difficulties to an eventual outcome that would see all Europe liberated. There was an unshakeable confidence in achieving this final full victory, whatever it might take.

It was full of memorable phrases including one that has become one of his most famous, a phrase now indelibly associated with the Battle of Britain:

Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.

“The Few” is now a widely understood reference to those RAF fighter pilots who were fought in the skies over Britain that summer. For example the Churchill Centre and Museum states in its introduction to the speech:

In this speech Churchill coined the phrase “The Few” to describe the R.A.F fighter-pilots.

Except that he didn’t. Any ordinary reading of the phrase in the context of the speech shows that he was referring to all RAF aircrew, including bomber crew, not just fighter pilots:

The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the world war by their prowess and by their devotion.

Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.

Perhaps a little unfairly, since the RAF incorporated significant numbers of pilots from conquered Europe as well as from around the Empire, he refers to “British airmen”. This is not a reference to fighter pilots alone.

In the very next sentence he elaborates upon this:

All hearts go out to the fighter pilots, whose brilliant actions we see with our own eyes day after day; but we must never forget that all the time, night after night, month after month, our bomber squadrons travel far into Germany, find their targets in the darkness by the highest navigational skill, aim their attacks, often under the heaviest fire, often with serious loss, with deliberate careful discrimination, and inflict shattering blows upon the whole of the technical and war-making structure of the Nazi power.

On no part of the Royal Air Force does the weight of the war fall more heavily than on the daylight bombers who will play an invaluable part in the case of invasion and whose unflinching zeal it has been necessary in the meanwhile on numerous occasions to restrain.

Whatever meaning “The Few” has come to represent in the time since, there can be no doubt that in this speech Churchill was referring to both fighter and bomber aircrew. There was intense public interest in the air battles above and in sight of the British public that summer but Churchill emphasised that the sacrifice was being made by unseen bomber crews as well. He would have been only too well aware of the scale of losses being sustained by Bomber Command on, for example, the Dortmund-Ems canal raid and the Aalborg airfield raid. Only some of these could be publicly acknowledged at the time.

When on the 18th June Churchill first used the term ‘the battle of Britain’ he was certainly not using the phrase to refer to the defence of Britain by fighter pilots. It referred to a much wider potential conflict, including possible invasion, that was yet to come. ‘The Battle of Britain’ was an Air Ministry pamphlet produced in March 1941, with a version widely distributed in the United States. The pamphlet was exclusively concerned with the fighter battle defence of Britain and, as an introduction, prominently featured this extract of Churchill’s of speech:

The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the world war by their prowess and by their devotion.

Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.

In the text the same extract was used, still without the following two elaborating sentences. No mention was made of Bomber Command operations. Only photographs of fighter aircraft and fighter pilots were featured. The Battle of Britain had been created and it was now inextricably and solely linked to Fighter Command. It became obvious and natural that “the few” referred to fighter pilots. According to the Air Ministry ‘The Battle’ took place between 8th August and 31st October.

In due course the Battle was given even more shape and became even more celebrated. The Battle of Britain clasp was issued as an adornment to the 1939-1945 Campaign Medal – and was only eligible to fighter pilots from certain squadrons who had served between specified dates. Now the scope of the Battle was even more closely defined, although the date of commencement moved to the 10th July 1940.

The clasp is not available for personnel who flew in aircraft other than fighters, notwithstanding that they may have been engaged with the enemy during the qualifying period.

battleofbritain1940.net has the full 1946 Air Ministry Order.

As the war ended in 1945 the work of Bomber Command suddenly seemed more controversial. Gratitude to the Bomber Command pilots and aircrew of the summer of 1940, whom Churchill had so clearly identified as being amongst “the few”, was now in short supply. Bomber Command as a whole was now associated with the laying waste of large swathes of Germany. Whatever the terrible sacrifices involved and whatever the contribution to ultimate victory, the later bombing campaigns were something that post war Governments did not want to celebrate. There was no campaign medal for any of Bomber Command.

The speech in which Churchill urged that “we must never forget” the bomber squadron crews ultimately achieved the opposite. It became used to promote a myth that excluded them from popular memory. The myth that the “few” who fought in the summer of 1940 in the “battle of Britain” came only from the ranks of fighter pilots. Fortunately some sources now challenge that myth – see What is the Battle of Britain?.

For all these reasons, and more, Churchills speech is well worth reading in its entirety.

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