Battle of Britain
© 1980 Len Deighton
“When I told them that Britain would fight on alone, whatever [the French] did, their generals told their prime minister and his divided cabinet, ‘In three weeks England will have its neck wrung like a chicken.’ Some chicken! Some neck!” – Winston Chuchill,
In 1940, the whole of Europe lay under the flags of brutal tyrannies, fascist and Soviet alike. Having rolled over France with ease, Hitler bid the English to lay down their arms; acknowledge him as master of Europe, and the struggle would be over. Hitler, it seems, skipped Napoleonic history altogether; not only did he miss l’empereur’s blunder in Russia, but the fact that Britain was no stranger to defying a continent arrayed against it. Such defiance could be broken, however, through force of arms: Britain’s army had barely escaped the continent via Dunkirk and left much of its equipment behind. Its only hope lay in the Royal Air Force, protecting both the Isle and a Navy shielding convoys and guarding against invasion. Through a long summer, young men took to the air for the frantic defense of their home, fighting a battle so vicious that mere survival counted for victory. The Battle of Britain is justly called, however, for it summoned to action civilian and servicemen alike. As sons and brothers fought in the air, those unable to fight stood their ground below, watching for the enemy and turning back the flames of war, both parties enabling Britain to carry on. Len Deighton’s Battle of Britain offers a day-by-day account of the summer and brims over with information valuable to younger research students and casual readers alike.
Battle of Britain is nearly less narrative than reference material. There is a story here, not nearly as tightly told as With Wings as Eagles, but delivered ably. What jumps out here is information — orders of battle, tables of planes produced and destroyed, schematics of Spitfires, Hurricanes, and ME-109s, illustrations of how radar worked on both sides of the Channel, and gobs of photographs. There are photographs of letters and generous excerpts from after-action reports and diary entries from both sides of the conflict. The layout is impressive, too; all these graphics are not cordoned off by themselves, or simply stuck in every now and again; Deighton integrates the two, so that a chapter on Operation Sealion begins set against a photograph of German troops practicing beach landings. There are generous maps, and even full-spread illustrations of a typical RAF base. At times there’s so much competing information that one loses track of the narrative – tables! Photographs! Sidebars! — but only occasionally.
There is a story, however: after a brief history of military aviation during the Great War and afterward, Deighton leads into the months of constant struggle. He focuses more on tactics than strategy, but essentially Dowding’s accomplishment was to prevent the RAF from perishing by attrition. British factories were humming with production, but Germany’s war had been a long time in the making and its Luftwaffe out-gunned the competition. The RAF proved discretion the better part of valor; not by running, but by choosing the best ground and best time to fight. Earlier in the year, at Dunkirk, British leadership had made the choice to use airmen only sparingly, knowing what lay ahead. Here, too, the RAF is used with caution. Had Fighter Command heeded the impulse to make an all-out defense of the nation, Britain may have very well been “bled white”, its planes exposed and devoured: instead, the Germans were allowed to fly in force, and the fighters scrambled to make the best of opportunities, making quick stabs instead of prolonged duels. Deighton also gives generous space to the civilians and troops on the ground, who defended Britain in their own way — spotting the enemy so the RAF could intercept them and restoring order to the chaos German bombs attempted to create. As summer gave way to fall, the season for invasion passed, and the Germans increasingly distracted themselves by bombing cities. The darkest hour was not yet over, but the RAF had seen the nation through the worst of it.
“I have always loved England, but now I am in love with England. What a people! What a chance! …we shall, by our stubbornness, give victory to the world.” – Harold Nicolson, July 1940.
With Wings Like Eagles: A History of the Battle of Britain, Michael Korda