Spirited study of the world-changing aerial campaign waged nearly 70 years ago.
There have been many books about the Battle of Britain, including Patrick Bishop’s Fighter Boys (2003) and David E. Fisher’s A Summer Bright and Terrible (2005), to say nothing of Winston Churchill’s Their Finest Hour (1949). Historian Korda (Ike: An American Hero, 2007, etc.) picks up on a central part of Fisher’s story, namely the careful excision of Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding from the historical record. Dowding orchestrated the costly but ultimately successful defense of Britain against German bombing raids—successful, Korda asserts, because “Fighter Command was prepared for it,” unlike so many other air attacks in history past and present. Dowding is to be credited, by Korda’s account, for the development and installation of radar and two critically important aircrafts, the Hurricane and the Spitfire, but more for the intelligent organization of Britain’s air force into a flexible, carefully interlinked service quite unlike that of the German foe. Korda turns up surprises on the other side, too, including the initial reluctance of Hitler and Göring to drop bombs on civilian centers precisely because the British would answer in kind, thus risking morale among German civilians. Needless to say, the German leaders’ stance later changed, but both were deeply unhappy at the sort-of-accidental bombing of Croydon during the wave attacks of summer 1940. Korda even finds room to praise, faintly, the much-despised Göring: “nobody could deny his energy, his flair for publicity, or his lack of scruples in achieving his ambitions on the largest possible scale,” which included rebuilding Germany’s air force against international orders not to do so. That rebuilding, of course, is what allowed Germany’s blitzkrieg in the first place, a tide blunted but not halted by the RAF’s storied defense.
Korda is a fluent storyteller with an eye for the ironies and political gamesmanship of the Battle of Britain. His book isn’t quite required reading, as Churchill’s is, but it’s much fairer-minded.