Lessons for today's battles from a WWII campaign 80 years ago

Learn from the past and we can be heroes

The world is transfixed in a battle against a viral enemy that will kill millions and cause economic and social devastation. Debates rage about the best tactics to engage with the enemy or whether it may be better to simply surrender to our fate.

Eighty years ago, the world was similarly transfixed by the Battle of Britain. The seemingly insurmountable forces of Nazism had overrun all of Europe and Britain stood alone. The survival of Britain, against the odds, was one of the defining moments in the war against fascism.

In school textbook mythology, Britain was united as one, and victory was achieved through the technological marvels of the Spitfire and radar, and of course, the heroism of 'The Few'. It is a great story, but the truth is somewhat different. For today, an understanding of how the Battle of Britain was won contains lessons for the battle against COVID-19.

Human behaviour in crises doesn't change. The retrospective image of a virtuous country united against the enemy is far from true. There were major disputes about strategy and resource allocation happening at the highest levels of the air force and the government. Rumours were rife. Profiteering and black markets were widespread. Some fled across the Atlantic. Sections of the British establishment were not averse to the idea of making peace with the Nazis.

The unglamorous achievements of thousands, keeping watch and doing their bit ... all working in a coordinated system, enabled the victory.

Victory was more complex than the Spitfire, radar, and the glamourous heroism of 'The Few'. Unprecedented industrial production enabled Britain to rapidly build guns and planes far faster than the Nazis expected. The people of London maintained morale and overcame fear in the face of attack.

Ultimately, Britain's key advantage was the brilliant battle command system established by Air Chief Marshall Hugh Dowding. Reports were gathered from intelligence, signals, radar, ground observers, and from the pilots themselves. They were brought together, analysed and synthesised in the command centre west of London. Command was then able to coordinate the defence, to scramble fighters to exactly the right place, and to maximise the efficiency of the pilots and planes.

The unglamorous achievements of thousands, keeping watch and doing their bit as observers, messengers, and support staff, all working in a coordinated system, enabled the victory.

The similarities with the battle against COVID are multiple. News reports are sometimes dominated by stories of glamorous 'front-line' healthcare workers, or hyped news of exciting scientific breakthroughs, new drugs, ventilators for intensive care and so on.

There are arguments about tactics, political disputes and opportunism. Inevitably, there has been profiteering, wild rumour-mongering, and some who sabotage the efforts of the many. There is the tantalising hope for a 'silver bullet' vaccine, the modern equivalent of radar or a Spitfire, to magically deliver victory.

But the key to victory in this battle is going to be similar to the unglamorous answers in the Battle of Britain. It depends on the commitment of the general population to the 'simple' strategies of social distancing, hand sanitising, and wearing masks. Some changes, such as stronger communal hygiene and fastidious cleaning of high-touch surfaces, will need to be permanent (as they have been in Asian countries for decades).

It is accepting the temporary loss of some of the activities and social freedoms that we used to enjoy. Rationing and economic difficulties. And it is having a coordinated battle command in our public health system

Ultimately, the Battle of Britain was won by the people of London - "The Bastion of Liberty" - standing strong, not panicking, and maintaining morale. It wasn't a quick victory: their "finest hour" took more than five years.

In Australia, after only six months, there are those seeking to concede defeat, despite our country (including Victoria) doing spectacularly better than the countries of Europe and the Americas.

For economic reasons, these defeatists are willing to accept the preventable deaths of thousands of our elderly. They ignore the fact that economic losses have been the same in those countries that have accepted defeat.

Ironically, the lives they wish to sacrifice are today's elderly, who spent their lives creating the wealth the defeatists now wish to take over.

As Churchill said: We should never give in to them. Never give in. Never give in.

Dr Ross Kerridge is a senior anaesthetist at John Hunter Hospital and associate professor at the University of Newcastle


This story Learn from the past and we can be heroes first appeared on Newcastle Herald.