A slender meditation on a critical episode in WWII history.
During the Battle of Britain in 1940, as popular memory has it, outnumbered pilots of the RAF turned back wave after wave of Nazi aircraft that were bent on bombing England into submission. Overy (Why the Allies Won, 1996) subtly adjusts the record. He observes that the RAF was, in most respects, an even match for the Luftwaffe in the number and quality of its aircraft and pilots, and that the British air forces far outnumbered the German invaders in the waning days of the offensive. The German Messerschmitt, he allows, was more powerful than the Spitfire, but only at high altitudes (“if the Battle of Britain had been fought at 30,000 feet,” Overy notes, “the RAF would have lost it”), but the flexible organization of British squadrons meant that the RAF could get planes into the sky quickly enough to counter lower-altitude bombers. Furthermore, the author holds, the Germans did not deliberately seek out civilian targets during the early years of the war, although their tactics would soon “reveal the gradual abandonment of any pretence that civilians and civilian morale would not become targets”—and, in any event, as many as 40,000 British civilians died in bombing raids over the south of England during the weeks when the Battle of Britain raged most fiercely. That England avoided defeat and the possibility of a German sea-and-land invasion gave it a surprising resolve. (Harold Nicolson, for example, confided afterwards to his diary: “I think we have managed to avoid losing this war. But when I think how on earth we are going to win it, my imagination quails.”) That resolve would be expressed in some of Winston Churchill’s finest speeches, and in British memory for generations to follow.
A well-crafted essay that will appeal to WWII buffs and professional historians alike.