To the Ramparts!

Reviewed by Diana Preston
Sunday, January 11, 2009


A History of the Battle of Britain

By Michael Korda

HarperCollins. 336 pp. $25.99

Several years ago, in a quiet English village, I noticed my elderly neighbor Richard throwing out some old notebooks and photographs. "No one will want them when I'm gone," he said. "It was all a long time ago." Richard was one of "the few," as Winston Churchill called them: the fighter pilots who in late summer 1940 fought the Germans for control of the skies over England during the Battle of Britain. Their victory caused Hitler to call off his invasion plans. The notebooks Richard was abandoning were his diaries of those critical weeks. I hope I persuaded him to consider donating them to an archive.

Michael Korda's passionate and eloquent With Wings Like Eagles tells the story of the battle, analyzing the political, diplomatic, military and technical factors that influenced it -- and the people. Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, head of Royal Air Force Fighter Command, was, as Korda shows, remote and uncharismatic. Contemporaries nicknamed him "Stuffy." Yet Korda gives us the courage and cussedness of a man who stuck to what he believed in -- he was prepared to face down Churchill if necessary -- and cared not a jot for popularity so long as he got his way. A man of vision, imagination and superlative organizational ability, Dowding argued that the only way to save Britain from invasion was by building an adequate fighter force. Korda calls Dowding a prophet. He met the prophet's proverbial fate: to be unappreciated in his own country. When the official history of the Battle of Britain was published, Dowding's name did not appear.

Two other characters also emerge with unexpected credit. Korda lauds Prime Ministers Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain -- often dismissed as appeasers -- for their foresight in pursuing the development of radar, which proved critical to Britain's defense in 1940. (In one of the many ironies of this period, refugee scientists Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls -- debarred as aliens from working on the sensitive British radar project -- turned to another new technology, the atom bomb, and early in 1940 established that an explosive device would be viable.) Baldwin and Chamberlain also rearmed the RAF, ordering Hurricane and Spitfire fighters.

Delineating the clashes and rivalries among engineers striving to push technological boundaries, Korda captures some very human moments. When engineer Reginald Mitchell learned his new fighter plane was to be called "The Spitfire," he said, "It's just the sort of bloody silly name they would give it."

Korda details the battle itself day by day: the tactics, the targets, the successes, the losses and the shifting political and operational arguments on both sides. He argues that it was not a simple contest between a German Goliath and a British David, as often portrayed; the Germans did not have significantly more fighters than the British. He evokes the raw terror, exhilaration and unreality of combat five miles above a sunlit landscape. Many of the young pilots -- Dowding's "chicks" -- had received little training. The rule was "Never, never fly straight and level for more than twenty seconds. If you do, you'll die." Often, new pilots didn't have time to unpack before getting airborne and were killed before anyone had a chance to ask their name. One young pilot with no time to dress took off in his pajamas. Another, utterly exhausted, fell asleep at the controls as he was landing his plane. Seeing his head slumped over the controls, the ground crew assumed he was dead. Pilots waiting on the airfield for orders to scramble their planes vomited when they heard the phone ring. Young women working in control rooms listened through earphones to the screams of dying pilots.

A big question is whether the Battle of Britain really saved Britain or whether, as sometimes suggested, Britain was not truly at risk of German invasion in 1940. Korda makes a convincing case that the invasion threat was real. A little further analysis of the longer-term strategic implications of the British success would have been interesting. For example, had the Germans occupied Britain or forced her to terms, Hitler could have fought on the Eastern Front unconstrained by a threat to his rear; if and when the United States entered the war, Britain would not have been available as a forward base, and Operation Overlord would have been long delayed with tragic consequences for Europe. Nevertheless, With Wings Like Eagles is a skillful, absorbing, often moving contribution to the popular understanding of one of the few episodes in history to live on untarnished and undiminished in the collective memory and to deserve the description "heroic." ยท

Diana Preston is the author of "Before the Fallout -- From Marie Curie to Hiroshima." Her next book, "Cleopatra and Antony -- Power, Love and Politics in the Ancient World," will be published in April.

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