A spirited account of what Winston Churchill deemed the Royal Air Force’s “finest hour”: the defense of English skies against the advancing Luftwaffe in the summer of 1940.
Since Churchill’s day, the Battle of Britain has been among the most heavily studied episodes of WWII—and rightly so, the four-month-long dogfight having been one of the early turning points of that great conflict, setting the stage for future Allied victories. Daily Telegraph associate editor Bishop adds to the literature twofold. By focusing on the young men who, smitten by visions of heroism and fed in childhood on tales of WWI aces real (Albert Ball) and fictional (James Bigglesworth), made up the fighter wings of the RAF in the opening days of the war against Hitler, he first delivers a class-conscious, highly personalized view of the battle. “You did not need ties of blood or romance to feel a particular bond with the Fighter Boys,” he writes of his contemporary compatriots. “The backgrounds of the 3,000 or so pilots flying Hurricanes and Spitfires in the summer of 1940 reflected the social composition of the nation.” Which is to say, unlike the British army, the RAF was made up of men who, in the main, had come from the working class or risen from the ranks, whose notions of patriotism and duty were a shade different from those of the upper crust. (For all that, one of Bishop’s heroes is Denis Wissler, an heir to the fortune wrought by Marmite, the strange vegetable spread beloved of the English.) Second, Bishop draws liberally on the memories of the Luftwaffe pilots who flew against England, many of whom believed, in the words of one, that “it would be possible to beat the English in England the way we had beaten them in France.” As, of course, they did not: and whereas the Battle of Britain didn’t, strictly speaking, bleed the Luftwaffe dry, Bishop does a good job of considering the implications of the German failure in light of subsequent developments throughout the European theater of operations.
Nicely written and rich in detail: a winner for students of aerial warfare.