It was summer 1940. Great Britain had been at war with Nazi Germany since Sept. 3, 1939, though direct combat between the two nations had been minimal. First, Hitler had chosen to deal with Poland, which he quickly dispatched, and then, in the spring of 1940, France. After that country’s stunning capitulation, it was England’s turn. As Winston Churchill said to parliament after the French surrender, “… The Battle of France is over. The battle of Britain is about to begin.”
And so it began with tremendous bombing from the Luftwaffe on strategic military targets of the Royal Air Force (RAF). And after weeks and weeks of this, the RAF was almost on its knees. With the Germans focused on demolishing the airfields in southern England, there would soon be nowhere for the RAF fighters to take off and, with air supremacy established, the invasion of Britain (Called Operation Sea Lion) by the Nazis could begin.
But one day, the Luftwaffe bombers missed their military targets and accidentally hit London. Not knowing this was an accident (or perhaps not caring), the RAF bombed Berlin. Hitler was outraged and, after sustaining high bomber losses to the zippy RAF Spitfires, he and Herman Goering (leader of the Luftwaffe) changed their strategy from bombing military targets by day to indiscriminatingly blitzing London by night.
The city burned, but the change in focus gave the RAF the reprieve it desperately needed. The Luftwaffe would never gain the air superiority the navy needed as a prerequisite to invasion, and so the invasion was shelved until spring. By that time, Hitler had lost interest in this tough nut and turned his eyes eastward, invading the Soviet Union in June 1941.
I have always been fascinated by these few weeks of history and came upon them again while listening to “Adolf Hitler” by John Toland (a great listen from a great author and narrator). And what fascinates me most is the fact that, by my read, it wasn’t an overt act by England that thwarted the Germans. The Nazis, although they didn’t know it, were on the right track and merely had to stick with their strategy for a bit longer in order to prevail, but they got frustrated with how long things were taking and, in their lack of patience, abandoned the right strategy for a doomed one.
This concept of not quitting when you’re on the right track has been espoused in Napoleon Hill’s famous motivational work “Think and Grow Rich” with its warning tale about a miner who quit digging “three feet from gold.” (A good synopsis of which can be found here.)
And what’s the antidote to this? It’s Churchill’s fighting attitude:
“Never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.” In short, never stop.
That’s what England did, and that’s what the RAF did — and by never surrendering, they simply outlasted the enemy. Sometimes, that’s both all you can do and all it takes.
Of course, as with everything, the key is knowing when you’re three feet from gold and when you’re — as was famously uttered by Indy and Sallah in Raiders from the Lost Ark — “digging in the wrong place.” Unfortunately, there’s no crystal ball to tell you. But when you’ve got a hunch that the best thing to do is hunker down, following the British model from those early years of World War II — when they stood alone — is a good recipe, and it might just constitute your finest hour.