Seventy years after the RAF repelled the Luftwaffe, the Battle of Britain continues to have a powerful resonance. The conflict not only decided Britain’s very survival as an independent nation, but was also imbued with an epic moral purpose. The epochal months of 1940 represented the classic fight between good and evil, between freedom and tyranny, this romantic symbolism given added strength by the soaring rhetoric of Winston Churchill.
The 70th anniversary of the battle this summer has prompted a surge of new books and the republication of several old ones. Among the best is the comprehensive new study by James Holland, a historian who has already won international acclaim for his works on the siege of Malta and the Italian campaign. This volume has all the hallmarks of his previous successes: the gripping narrative; the ability to recreate the intensity of combat, the breadth of research; and the authoritative historical judgments. Holland is superb at switching the focus of the action while maintaining the pace and drama of the story. He can move effortlessly from Cabinet to cockpit, one moment describing Churchill’s confrontations at the heart of government with arch-defeatist Lord Halifax, the next recounting an explosive dogfight over southern England, filled with the smell of cordite and the sight of disintegrating metal.
What is remarkable about Holland’s book is the range of its material. Unlike most previous Battle of Britain histories, he covers not just the aerial conflict but also other arenas, such as the submarine war, American journalism and the position of neutral Ireland. So often neglected in previous histories, the role of Bomber Command is thoroughly analysed, including its attacks on the German invasion fleet based in the northern French ports and its sporadic raids on cities within the Reich. The urban bombing missions against Germany caused little real damage, partly because night navigation methods were so poor and partly because the RAF lacked an effective heavy bomber until the arrival of the Lancaster in late 1941. Nevertheless, Bomber Command indirectly helped win the Battle of Britain, because in early September Hitler was so furious at RAF attacks on Berlin that he ordered the Luftwaffe to retaliate by switching its bombardment from Fighter Command’s airfields to the heart of the London. This German change in strategy gave Fighter Command crucial breathing space. Having been battered for weeks, the squadrons and airfields across southern England recovered. On 15 September 1940, subsequently designated ‘Battle of Britain Day’, the reinvigorated RAF utterly broke the confidence of the Luftwaffe.
Holland is excellent on all the technicalities of the conflict, from the creation of the Britain’s defensive radar system to the merits of the fighter aircraft. He concludes, rightly, that the German Me109 and the Supermarine Spitfire were about equal in their capabilities, though Luftwaffe planes had greater firepower than those of the RAF, which used rifle-calibre machine Browning guns. He is, however, a little too dismissive of the Hawker Hurricane, which made up the bulk of Fighter Command’s force. It might have been slower than the Spitfire, but it was also robust and, more importantly, was easy to produce in large numbers. Without it, the battle would have certainly been lost.
Holland’s book is full of lively pen portraits and unusual insights. He reveals, for instance, that Goebbels’ propaganda machine concentrated its efforts on the radio rather than the press and even oversaw the production of cheap wirelesses, known as the ‘People’s Receivers’, to ensure the Nazi message was spread. It is also disturbing to learn that Churchill could have easily been shot down on one his missions to France in June 1940, aimed at bolstering French resolve. On one occasion he returned to London without a fighter escort and it was only by a stroke of good fortune that his plane was not spotted by a section of German aircraft a few thousand feet below. The author also enjoys challenging conventional wisdom. So he demolishes the myth that Herman Goering, head of the Luftwaffe, was ‘an overweight buffoon’ and points out that Neville Chamberlain, long despised as the architect of appeasement, was actually the political driving force behind the expansion of Fighter Command. Nor were German armed forces as fearsome as their reputation. In early 1940, half of all German soldiers had only a few weeks training and a quarter of them were aged over 40. In addition, the Reich’s military intelligence was poor, its tactical planning for the invasion inadequate, and its obsession with dive bombing disastrous.
But for all its virtues, Holland’s book has two major problems. One is that its account is badly lopsided. Despite the title, The Battle of Britain does not actually start until almost two-thirds of the way through the text because so much detailed attention is given to events leading up to the conflict, especially the Battle of France. This lack of chronological balance not only means that the account ends rather abruptly but also that too little attention is paid to episodes in the autumn of 1940, such as the beginning of the Blitz or the sacking of the Fighter Command Chief Sir Hugh Dowding. The second drawback is the language, which sometimes slides into cliché or colloquialism. So Neville Chamberlain is described as ‘ashen’ and ‘shell-shocked’ during the Norway debate, while one German naval commander is said to have been ‘born with the sea in his lungs’ which sounds like a life-threatening medical condition.
One of the RAF airmen who features heavily in Holland’s story is Tom Neil, a dashing Hurricane pilot whose 1987 Battle of Britain memoir has now been reissued. His gift for description and his raw honesty make this a truly compelling account of the conflict, which he fought when he was aged just 19. Equally enjoyable is Dilip Sarkar’s Last of the Few, which uses a wealth of first-hand testimony from 18 former RAF pilots. Unlike Holland’s account, the story is told entirely from Britain’s point of view but it is still fascinating to read about the real experiences of the airmen, stripped of mythology and bombast. A former police officer, Sarkar has become a leading expert on the history of Fighter Command through his mix of enthusiasm and energy. He has written more than 20 books on the subject and this is one of his finest, a worthy tribute to the men who gave our nation her finest hour.