Episode 7 History & Images

What exactly was the Battle of Britain; who were the heroic RAF; and what was Churchill’s super-secret organization, the SOE? Find out the history behind World on Fire‘s gripping finale, Episode 7, on MASTERPIECE on PBS!

  1. 1.

    What Was the Battle of Britain?

    Front page of the Daily Sketch on 19th June 1940, with

    As France negotiated its surrender to Germany in June 1940, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill solemnly told the House of Commons: “…the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin.” At the time, Adolf Hitler doubted it would come to that, since he fully expected Britain to sue for peace. The war was over as far as the Führer was concerned, and he scheduled a spectacular victory parade in Berlin to celebrate.

    However, Churchill was in a fight to the finish and masterminded an attack on the French war fleet in the Mediterranean so it wouldn’t fall into German hands. Outraged, Hitler then ordered an invasion of Britain—something his generals had never seriously considered. Scrambling for vessels that could be used as troop transports, German military planners began marshalling resources for the coming Battle of Britain. And across the Channel, Britons got ready for the fight of their lives.

  2. 2.

    What Was the RAF’s Role in the Battle of Britain?

    British spitfire planes during the Battle of Britain, 1940

    Germany’s plan for the invasion of Britain called for an initial wave of air attacks, lasting several days, designed to destroy the Royal Air Force (RAF). That would be followed by amphibious and paratroop landings on England’s south coast. It was up to RAF fighter pilots like Vernon (Arthur Darvill) and Randy (Benjamin Wainwright) to shoot down as many Nazi planes as possible, crippling the operation in its opening phase.

    At this point in the war, RAF pilots had at least six months of training, their average age was twenty, and they came from all classes of society, being chosen for aptitude and fitness. About one in five was from an allied, Commonwealth, or occupied country. Luckily, Britain had a fighter, the Spitfire, that was a match for Germany’s top warplane, the Bf 109. Aerial combat was dangerous duty, and during the Battle of Britain the average life expectancy for an RAF fighter pilot was four weeks.

    Germany’s air attacks began with small-scale raids in July 1940, which rapidly grew in intensity. Aided by a brand new technology, radar, British defenders were rarely surprised, and reliably met the enemy with fighters and antiaircraft fire. Because the numbers of fighters and pilots were roughly equal on each side, the RAF had the advantage since their pilots could parachute to safety and be ready to fly again, whereas survivors of downed German aircraft were captured. The British aircraft industry also produced replacement planes at a higher rate than did the Germans.

    By the end of September, the RAF had prevailed. Hitler gave up the invasion plan, and his focus shifted to a long-term bomber offensive, targeting British cities and civilians. The Battle of Britain was over, and the “Blitz” had begun.

  3. 3.

    What Was the Special Operations Executive?

    Violette Szabo, a British/French Special Operations Executive agent during World War II.

    After he returns from Dunkirk, Lieutenant Harry Chase (Jonah Hauer-King) is summoned to an appointment at the Hotel Victoria in London. He is not told the name of the government entity that wants his services, nor is there any identification on the letter, the office door, or anywhere else. That’s because he’s being recruited by the super-secret Special Operations Executive (SOE), established by Prime Minister Churchill to “set Europe ablaze” with sabotage and subversion in occupied countries.

    Churchill was especially interested in special operations, since Britain had to keep pressure on the Nazis while building an army and a coalition that could oppose the German military directly. Churchill also loved the “shadow war,” which held the promise of big results for relatively little cost.

    But there were costs. One of the most famous SOE agents was Violette Szabo. Half-French, half-English, she went through SOE training and parachuted into occupied France with fake papers. There, she pinpointed promising Allied bombing targets until her clandestine group was exposed. Escaping, she returned to France during the D-Day landings in June 1944, this time sabotaging German lines of communications. Her crucial contributions won her the George Cross from King George VI—posthumously because like so many SOE agents she was eventually captured and executed by the Nazis.

Discover more about World on Fire:

Revisit all the drama of the Season 1 finale with our recap of World on Fire Episode 7!

Which historic events might appear in World on Fire, Season 2? Get the Season 2 inside scoop from writer & creator Peter Bowker!

Wondering why the Americans didn’t help France and the UK during the first year of the war? Find out what was going on in the United States in 1940.

Discover what sparked the first phase of the war and how it played out in our World War II Major Events Timeline.

Hear Cole Porter, Billie Holiday and iconic artists sing the songs of World on Fire in MASTERPIECE’s playlist.


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