Imagine if as you read this the news came on the TV or radio and David Cameron said that Britain’s armed forces were going to go in to action against a hostile force hell bent on the utter annihilation of British culture. That over the coming weeks Britain (or whichever country you call home) would either survive or be completely subjugated by a foreign power.
You could make Euro-sceptic jokes here if you wish but don’t forget that for the people of 1940s Britain this was a very real situation.
Western Europe had fallen to Nazi Germany and with the conquest of France complete only Britain stood in the way of total victory for Adolf Hitler. July 1st 1940, the official start date of what Churchill called the Battle of Britain, saw the start of a sustained air campaign designed to smash the Royal Air Force in to oblivion. Success for the Luftwaffe would allow the German army to cross the English Channel with swarms of German planes above keeping the Royal Navy at bay and smashing ground defences as they had done so successfully against Poland, Belgium, Holland, Norway and France.
Never in the history of Great Britain had it come so close to defeat but over the next two months the RAF whose ranks included thousands of foreign nationals – ranging from pilots from the British Empire’s colonies, pilots who had escaped their own countries before they had fallen to the Nazis and Americans who recognised the threat posed by Hitler – fought the most bitter and desperate air battle in history. The memory of having such a gargantuan force from mainland Europe threatening to invade remains burned on the British psyche and goes some way to explain why now in the 21st century many Britons feel they are still fighting Europe albeit with bureaucracy rather than bullets. Perhaps there is some poetry in the fact that as we celebrate our victory in 1940 against overwhelming odds we are now having to consider what our future in Britain is as we consider whether or not to leave the European Union.
I am not making a case here for one argument or the other. We each have to answer that ourselves as we go to the polls in the coming referendum but we have to remember as we look back to those dark days in 1940 that it was those men and women who fought in the skies, the control rooms or even the factories that built the planes who allowed us to live in a world where we make our decisions through democracy rather than the gun.
And for that we must be forever grateful to those who gave their youth and their lives to preserve freedom.