Friday, December 30, 2011

With Wings like Eagles

The Battle of Britain ranks as significant no matter who writes about it. In Michael Korda’s detailed history the significance goes beyond the participants, especially Air Vice Marshal Dowding, to include many of the men who have become synonymous With “appeasement.”

Both Stanley Baldwin and his successor Neville Chamberlain are viewed as lacking the foresight to see that Adolf Hitler was preparing for war the entire time he was consolidating power in Germany. What is not recognized in characterizing these men in such fashion is that they were struggling against a revulsion to war that had come about with the loss of so many millions of British soldiers during World War I.

Even so, both men provided the money and got out of the way of the development of airplanes and men like Dowding who not only foresaw the best way to defend England from the inevitable air attack that was foreshadowed in H.G. Wells “The Shape of Things to Come,” in which he described a devastating and catastrophic rain of explosives from the sky.

As the rearmament of Germany proceeded along with Hitler’s grand scheme to invade and conquer the low countries of The Netherlands and Belgium, various elements of the defense of England were coming together in the development of both the Hurricane and Spitfire fighter planes, the perfection and deployment of radar stations and the strategic installation of telephone communication and hardened focal points from which the fighter defenses were to be coordinated.

On the other side, Herman Goring was acquiring more power, but his peculiar self-aggrandizement would have telling consequences in the air battle that would determine whether or not Nazi Germany would invade England.

Various decisions among the Nazi leaders led to the development of airplanes that were not adequate for the conquest of the air over the English Channel and England itself. The Stuka dive-bomber was an excellent machine, but was much too slow to evade destruction by English fighter planes. The two-engine “Destroyer” was supposed to be a fighter plane in its own right, but was no match for the nimble Hurricane or Spitfire flown by adroit pilots.

As the summer of 1940 progressed both sides prepared for the titanic struggle that would become the legendary Battle of Britain.

Dowding had numerous fights he had to win before his grand strategy of protecting England could reach fruition: He had to convince Winston Churchill that there was a minimum figure of fighters needed to protect the skies over their country (Churchill, leaning toward sending more fighter planes to France to help the French crush the onslaught of the Nazi armor even though the fighter planes only had bullets that would be totally ineffective against tanks); he had to make sure that there were enough planes available; he had to somehow ensure that there would be enough pilots to man those planes; and finally he had to make sure that all his sub-commanders would follow his grand plan to lay waste to the Luftwaffe before the Germans could do the same to his air armada.

As the battle progressed, it appeared as though the English might be holding their own, but the German commanders knew that to defeat the English air arm they had to put their airfields out of commission. Mistakes were made on both sides, but with the narrowest of margins, the English pilots prevailed.

Korda tries to give the reader a sense of the drama of the fight as well as the real numbers of planes, pilots and damage that actually occurred. He succeeds in what he attempted (to write a coherent history of that part of World War II) and gives the reader a feeling that the time spent reading his book was time well spent.

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