Tribute to “The Few”
The battle was far from over when Winston Churchill returned from visits to Fighter Command airfields in southern England and went before the House to pay his unforgettable tribute to the intrepid airmen defending their island nation. Who can forget the incredible story of “the Few”?
How few? The Battle of Britain, the air battle of 1940, began with 2,670 German aircraft—Junkers, Dornier, and Heinkel bombers; Stuka dive-bombers; and Messerschmitt fighters—ranged against only 600 Royal Air Force (RAF) Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire fighters. Naturally, it was the bombers, all 1,015 of them, that were the real threat to the homeland and its defenders. Naturally, based in the newly captured airfields of France and Belgium, they didn’t have far to go.
After weeks of wondering, indeed even fearing, when the war would come home to them, the British citizenry had its answer on July 10. On that day the now legendary Battle of Britain began with heavy German raids on ports in southern England, presumed to be a likely invasion site. From then on, almost daily, bombers escorted by swarms of fighters struck at shipping and harbor facilities in port cities stretching from Bristol to Plymouth. The low point came on August 15, the day both southern and northern England took a beating from an estimated 940 German aircraft—with 76 German planes shot down to the RAF’s loss of 34 fighters and 21 bombers destroyed on the ground.
By this time, thanks to Fighter Command’s relentlessly fierce defense of the homeland, a new phase in Luftwaffe strategy had developed: the RAF itself became the target. Thus, the Luftwaffe went after airfields, radar facilities, and aircraft factories supporting Fighter Command in this all-out two-week effort to negate the RAF’s threat to German bombers. During this critical phase, the British lost 466 Hurricanes and Spitfires, along with 103 pilots killed and another 128 badly wounded—a fourth of the pilot pool in Fighter Command. These were terrible losses, difficult to overcome, but it is estimated the Germans lost twice as many aircraft and even more pilots and aircrews.
But on September 7 the Luftwaffe changed strategy again and began targeting the civilian population of England. London became the target of the German blitz, no holds barred. The new phase began with a daytime raid on London by 300 German planes. On September 15, 400 German bombers attacked the capital city, with 56 lost to RAF fighters and antiaircraft fire. Another change in tactics quickly followed. Now, the Germans would bomb only at night, with an average of 200 planes striking London with high explosives and incendiaries night after night—57 nights in a row during the peak period. On one of those nights, October 15, an estimated 480 German aircraft struck the capital city with 386 tons of high explosives and 70,000 incendiaries.
“The repetitive, heavy raids killed more than 43,000 British and wounded five times that number, caused tremendous property damage, and curtailed war and food production,” noted David Eggenberger’s Encyclopedia of Battles. “But the change to night attack made it clear that British fighter pilots…had broken the back of the Luftwaffe bomber offensive and unequivocally ended Nazi invasion plans. Although the air battle raged on for another two months…the issue had been settled in September.”
By November 3, Germany had lost 1,733 aircraft (although the British claimed to have downed 2,698 planes). By comparison, the RAF lost 915 fighters.
The air war continued, but the major targets were now the big industrial centers. This was when Coventry, on the night of November 14, suffered its infamous pasting by 500 bombers dropping 600 tons of high explosives and leaving even the city’s cathedral shattered. Birmingham was another high-value target and absorbed heavy raids into the fall and winter months. Meanwhile, London and the port cities continued to be intermittent bomber destinations as well.
The bombing campaign went on until May 1941. “During this time British air defenses destroyed an average of 15 to 20 planes a month,” reported Eggenberger. “In the first ten days of May  alone, 70 Luftwaffe planes were shot down by ever improving defensive weapons—more antiaircraft guns (almost 500 in London alone), better radar, and the addition of rocket batteries.” Indeed, the prewar British invention of radar, allowing Fighter Command to “see” where and when the attackers were coming from a minimum of sixty miles out was crucial to England’s survival. So was its solution to Nazi Germany’s own radio-based weapon—a radio beam that led pilots to their targets. But the British, discovering the beam’s presence, devised a way to “bend” it, thus often leading the German bombers to empty fields instead of blacked-out cities.
The Luftwaffe’s bombing campaign ended with a proverbial bang on May 10, the anniversary of Winston’s elevation to prime minister, when German bombers in their last major raid launched their most destructive raid of all on London. “Bombers started more than 2,000 fires and killed or injured over 3,000 people, at a cost of 16 planes (the most planes destroyed in a night attack throughout the blitz),” Eggenberger noted.
After a pause of five weeks, the Luftwaffe next became fully engaged in Hitler’s surprise invasion of his wartime ally of nearly two years: the Soviet Union. Long before this, however, long before the salvation of Britain could be known, Churchill on August 20, 1940, had gone before the House to proclaim, “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.”
Indeed, none could ever forget “the few” after he went on to say, long before the outcome of the Battle of Britain was resolved: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
Additional note: While the myth persists that Winston knew from intelligence reports that Coventry was about to be bombed, and he allowed the bombing to take place unimpeded rather than compromise the highly secret Ultra code decrypts, historians say that isn’t the case. To the contrary, it seems that Winston was traveling in the countryside when he was misinformed that London was about to be attacked. He immediately returned to London and only learned later that Coventry was the night’s main target.
Days of Blitz
With the start of the London blitz, Winston was in the streets. No holding him back. “Winston, who disliked exercise, walked miles among the rubble and still-smoking skeletons of buildings,” wrote newspaperman Jack Fishman in My Darling Clementine. “As darkness began to creep up on the day, dock authorities became anxious for Winston to leave for home.”
On that first time out, too, “he was in one of his most obstinate moods and insisted that he wanted to see everything,” wrote Lord Ismay, his chief of staff at the Defense Ministry and constant wartime companion. “Consequently we were still with him at the brightly lit target when the Luftwaffe arrived on the scene and the fireworks started. It was difficult to get a large car out of the area, owing to many of the streets being completely blocked by fallen houses. As we were trying to turn in a very narrow space, a shower of incendiary bombs fell just in front of us. Churchill, feigning innocence, asked what they were. I replied that they were incendiaries and that we were evidently in the middle of the bulls-eye!”
Naturally, they were worried about the wandering PM back home.
“It was very late by the time we got back to No. 10 Downing Street,” Ismay commented, “and Cabinet Ministers, secretaries, policemen, and orderlies were waiting in the long passage in great anxiety. Churchill strode through them without a word, leaving me to be rebuked by all and sundry for having allowed the Prime Minister to take such risks.” Ismay said he may have used “the language of the barracks” in telling anybody who thought they could control Winston “on jaunts of this kind” that they were welcome to give it a try on the next occasion. Unfortunately, there were many such next occasions as the bombings of London continued.
Again and again, Winston was in the streets with the suffering Londoners.
But Clementine figured out a way to keep him from seeking the most dangerous pathways in the besieged city—namely, she insisted on going with him.
Thus, “Day after day Winston and Clementine walked together over rubble that was once homes, talking to the homeless, listening to their needs,” wrote Fishman. “He became the idol of the people, and the people were lucky in their idol—they could trust him with a tyrant’s power because they knew he would not use it like a tyrant.”
One day, cheered as they toured bombed-out streets in the East End, Winston turned to her and said, “They greet me like a conquering hero. God knows why. They are a great people.”
On that first tour, after the initial bombing of London and its docks, he indeed had been greeted that way. The moment he stepped out of his car, “hundreds who had been battered mercilessly, mobbed him, shouting ‘Good old Winnie! We thought you’d come and see us.'”
He couldn’t hold back the tears as he surveyed the destruction wrought by the bombs and noticed the tiny paper Union Jacks planted defiantly on the great piles of debris. “You see, he really cares; he’s crying,” said a woman from a few feet away.
His walking tours, his frequent rounds by Jeep, his V-sign hand gestures and defiantly tilted cigar, his obvious caring, all undoubtedly helped the British people to keep a stiff upper lip during their time of trial. But it took Clementine to realize, Fishman added, that Winston “undertook these journeys not only to instill encouragement into the people by his appearance among them, but also because their continued spirit in turn strengthened him.”
One day early in the war, thirteen-year-old Edith Harmer was walking in a small village with a young mother, her three-year-old daughter, and a baby in a carriage. Suddenly, German airplanes swooped down out of nowhere. They machine-gunned the village streets for a few seconds…and just as suddenly they were gone.
Edith and her friends escaped harm. As she later explained on the BBC’s “WW2 Peoples’ War” Web site (an archive of wartime memories from the public), this was not an isolated incident in the village of Woodchurch. “This did happen from time to time, and, as always, we dived for cover into the nearest ditch.”
The only harm done this time was some damage around the village and a blackthorn wound to the three-year-old’s bottom. That was on a September afternoon in 1940 or 1941, and later that day the teenaged Edith was sent back to the village to buy some potatoes. She found the grocer sweeping up glass from his shop window—shattered during the strafing attack.
As the real excitement of the day, however, along came a “big black car.” It stopped across the road from the grocer’s, and out stepped the king and queen of England and the prime minister, Winston Churchill! No escort, no security detail—”just them and their driver.”
Edith, of course, could hardly believe it. Especially as the queen approached and spoke to her while Churchill and the king made a beeline for a nearby group of soldiers. “She asked if it had been a bad raid and if anyone was hurt.
“I managed to stutter out, ‘No, no one.’
“‘I’m so glad,’ she replied and returned to the car.”
Within moments the car drove off, the royal couple seated in the back and Churchill up front with the driver. Meanwhile, Edith was so “dumbfounded” by the whole affair, she only then remembered that she had forgotten to curtsey to the queen.
No. 10 Under the Bombs
On October 14, 1940, as the Churchills dined in the garden rooms at No. 10 Downing Street, the prime minister’s official residence, bombs began dropping— “the usual night raid,” he termed it later. But this time not quite.
“The steel shutters had been closed,” he wrote Their Finest Hour. “Several loud explosions occurred around us at no great distance, and presently a bomb fell, perhaps a hundred yards away, on the Horse Guards Parade, making a great deal of noise.” Since No. 10 Downing Street consisted of two houses joined together, one facing Downing Street and the other the Horse Gardens Parade, this last bomb was pretty close.
While dinner continued and “the butler and parlor maid” carried on their service “with complete detachment,” Churchill recalled that the kitchen was “lofty and spacious, and looks out through a large plate-glass window about 25 feet high.” He quite suddenly “became acutely aware” that the kitchen and its expansive window were to the rear of the Downing Street part of the house and the last bomb had been pretty close to that area. By “provincial impulse” he went into the kitchen. There, he told the butler to put the dinner on a hot plate in the dining room and ordered the cook and other servants out of the kitchen area and into a shelter.
He hardly had taken his seat at the table again when, with a “really loud crash” close by, “a violent shock showed that the house had been struck.” Indeed, as he was told moments later, “the kitchen, the pantry and the offices of the [nearby] Treasury were shattered.” Worse yet, three civil servants on Home Guard duty were killed in the blast, which came from a bomb landing on nearby Treasury Green. It did extensive damage to the empty kitchen and state rooms at No. 10 Downing Street as well.
Before this, newly appointed Prime Minister Churchill and his wife, Clementine, had resided in the second-floor flat at No. 10. Following his long-established practice, Winston “often dictated speeches, memos and letters to his secretary while lying propped in bed in the morning or later in the evening, cigar in hand,” recalls the online history of No. 10 Downing Street. But close calls such as the October 14 bomb, which came as the Battle of Britain raged in the skies overhead, dictated fresh steps to enhance security at the residence.
“Keeping Downing Street, the Prime Minister and the War Cabinet safe became a top priority,” notes the historical sketch of the famous residence. “Steel reinforcement was added to the Garden Rooms and heavy metal shutters were fixed over windows as protection from bombing raids. The Garden Rooms provided a small dining room, bedroom and a meeting area which were used by Churchill throughout the war. In reality, though, the steel reinforcement would not have protected him against a direct hit.”
Good reason, naturally, for the fact that a year earlier, at the outset of the war, the British cabinet had moved its meeting place from No. 10’s traditional Cabinet Room into underground rooms built in the basement of the innocuous-looking Office of Works opposite the Foreign Office…into the complex open to public visitation today and known as the Cabinet War Rooms. Although the neighboring complex included office and sleeping quarters for Churchill, his wife, and various aides, plus his beloved map room, the Churchills actually lived most of the time in the “Number 10 Annex” established right above the war rooms.
But Churchill still preferred the prime minister’s real home at No. 10 “for working and eating,” the official history notes. “A reinforced shelter was constructed under the house for up to six people, for use by those working in the house,” the same online source adds. “Even George VI sought shelter there when he dined with Churchill in the Garden Rooms.” And “although bombs caused further damage to Number 10, there were no direct hits to the house, allowing Churchill to continue to work and dine there right up until the end of the war.”
After that, though, the old home required both cosmetic and structural repairs that took nearly two decades to complete. First, as Labor Minister Clement Attlee and wife succeeded the Churchills in 1945, the attic was converted into a flat for their living quarters. But downstairs, alarming discoveries were made as the repair work advanced. The wartime bomb damage had only made preexisting structural problems worse, problems such as “sloping walls, twisting door frames and an enormous annual repair bill.” Still, basic solutions were put off until a committee established by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan reported in the 1960s “that drastic action was required before the building fell or burnt down.” Among the recommendations: tear down No. 10 Downing Street and its adjoining Nos. 12 and 11 (the traditional home of the chancellor of the exchequer) and start over.
Of course, that would never do. “The idea was rejected and instead it was decided that Number 12 should be rebuilt; Number 10 and 11 should be strengthened and their historic features preserved.”
Only then, as workers began the £500,000 restoration project, was it discovered that the foundations were so rotted “that concrete underpinning was required on a massive scale.” As the work proceeded, No. 10 was gutted completely. “Walls, floors and even the columns in the Cabinet Room and the Pillar Room proved to be rotten and had to be replaced.” With brand-new features added here and there to Nos. 10 and 11, the project wound up taking an extra year to complete (in 1963) at a cost double the original estimate. Even then, with dry rot turning up on the premises, still further work had to be undertaken. By then two-time resident Winston Churchill long since had gone his inimitable way, followed by Anthony Eden, Macmillan, Margaret Thatcher (“living above the shop,” she called it), Tony Blair, and Gordon Brown, among others.
In 1991 an IRA mortar round provided a brief scare during the tenure of John Major. Fired from a van, it exploded harmlessly in the garden at No. 10. Harmlessly…true, but uncomfortably close to the PM himself while he was leading a cabinet meeting just yards away from the crater the mortar round created.
Additional note: All kinds of history, both momentous and menial, has unfolded behind the front door of No. 10 Downing since Sir Robert Walpole first conceived of the building’s role as the home and office for the leading minister of England nearly three hundred years ago. For here, not only Winston Churchill in the 1940s, but his onetime mentor David Lloyd George led the nation through the twentieth century’s two devastating world wars. Here, too, William Gladstone strived to convert prostitutes into honest women, and Walpole “openly entertained his mistress Maria Skerett” while still married to, but estranged from, his wife.
The No. 10 tradition began in the 1730s when George II presented both the Downing Street house and the Horse Guards residence directly behind it to Walpole, who held the high office of first lord of the treasury and thus “effectively served as the first prime minister.” It was Walpole, taking up residence here in 1735, who conjoined the two houses but refused to accept the Downing Street property as an outright gift. Instead, “he asked the King to make it available to him, and future First Lords of the Treasury, in their official capacity.” Thus, “to this day prime ministers occupy Number 10 in the role of First Lord of the Treasury. The brass letter box on the black front door is still engraved with this title.”
Was there, however, a Mr. Downing of any kind ever involved with London’s most famous address? There was, actually. He was an early housing developer. But Sir George Downing—born in Dublin, Ireland, and raised in America and educated at Harvard University—also was “an enterprising rogue,” per the property’s online history—”a spy, traitor and shady property developer—who saw building houses on prime London land as a means to get rich quick.”
At one time he served as Oliver Cromwell’s intelligence chief, and after Cromwell, Downing managed during the Restoration period to ingratiate himself to Charles II, serve as ambassador to Holland, and after various intrigues and adventures, compile his fortune. Gaining title to property near Hampden House and Westminster, home of Parliament, he tore down existing structures and in their place created “a cul-de-sac of 15 or 20 terraced houses.”
These were not grand structures by any means. “Designed for quick turnover, Downing’s houses were cheaply built, with poor foundations for the boggy ground. Instead of neat brick facades, they had mortar lines drawn to look like even-spaced bricks.” One of them was the No. 10 Downing Street so widely known today…only back then, in the 1680s, it was a much more humble No. 5.
The Best Little Stories of Winston Churchill is reprinted with kind permisison of C. Brian Kelly and Cumberland House, 2008.
C. Brian Kelly, a prize-winning journalist, is cofounder of Montpelier Publishing and a columnist and editor emeritus for Military History magazine. He is also a lecturer in newswriting at the University of Virginia. He is the author of several books on American history and resides in Charlottesville, Virginia.