A History of the Battle of Britain
By Michael Korda
owed by so many to so few."
Churchill, 20 August 1940, House of Commons.
Like the defeat of the Spanish Armada and Trafalgar it is deeply etched into the British mind as a moment of supreme danger to the Empire. Korda, in spite of the academic pressures for historians to write revisionist tomes that glamorize or diminish according to their own inclinations, will have none of this. In WITH WINGS LIKE EAGLES, Korda gives a straightforward account of the intense political and military intrigue in the run up to the War that led to the formation of Fighter Command.
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Moviefone: Battle of Britain, the 1969 movie, and see a synopsis and two more posters.
During the 1930’s there was much debate about the mission of air forces in all of the countries that were soon to be at war. These forces were young and were largely commanded by WWI pilots used to open cockpits, no ground control, and blindly flying the skies looking for the enemy. However, the technology was developing that would put an end to such aerial combat in spite of the ‘old bulls’ traditional attitudes about individual gallantry. Closed cockpits were deemed unsuitable until pilots became convinced that 300 mph wind shear would be damaging to more than their combed hair.
In addition, Korda notes the general feeling among all that “The bomber will always get through” and that created a desire for each country to increase bombers over fighters. This seems to be an early and fledging use of the Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) that was developed fully during the Cold War. An attack on one will make certain the destruction of the other: Knowing that, neither will attack as both will face annihilation. Today’s nuclear doctrine of MAD is still relevant among the countries of the world possessing such weapons. Though strained, many attribute our long stretch of time without international world wars among Nations to this very strategy of nuclear deterrence.
Korda now turns his attention to Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding who becomes the central focus of WINGS; “To him the people of Britain and of the free world owe largely the way of life and the liberties that they enjoy today.” He, almost alone, understood that without modern fighters Britain might lose the war the moment it began. Enemy bombers could get through and wreak great physical and psychological damage; but, Britain could not deter such an attack by destroying, in turn, the aggressor’s homeland with its present bomber force. The distances were too great, the forces too small, and the technology too primitive. To save Britain Dowding surmised that the enemy must be destroyed enroute. Thus began his great personal effort to change the thinking of the military and political establishment to produce a modern fighter force in order to protect the homeland.
With much difficulty Dowding’s vision of the “big picture’ to defeat Germany became the reality called Fighter Command. Modern fighters, all weather concrete runways, radar sites, radio communications, hardened communication lines, observers, the integration of women as key players, central control, and much more were developed during the 1930’s.
As Korda notes, Dowding’s vision was to inflict a constant and unacceptable rate of loss upon the Luftwaffe through control of the air battle from Fighter Command Headquarters. The idea of overlapping radar sites to pick up enemy planes over the continent as a first line of defense to control the air battle was a daring and untried concept that caused bitter controversy for Dowding among his critics. Dowding intended to bluff the Germans by never revealing his hand and then bleed them to death. Luckily for Britain, they listened to this uncommunicative, but argumentative leader when it came to things that mattered to him, for they also mattered to all.
A fledgling fighter pilot, Geoffrey Wellum, who was not yet nineteen years old, posted straight to an operational squadron, having never seen a fighter, given a few hours of flying a Spitfire, and then met his baptism of fire. Wellum writes of this in almost poetic style as he describes the incident; and, Korda notes the “…description…as being about as good as words get in describing the indescribable”. Wellum fought through the Battle, won a DFC, had 100 sorties over France, and ended up fighting on the besieged island of Malta. Wellum summed up mortal air combat as remembering a simple, uncomplicated golden rule: “Never, never fly straight and level for more than twenty seconds. If you do, you’ll die.” A lesson learned mostly by those who survived.
On August 15, 1940 the Luftwaffe sent over a 1000 planes to bomb England in an attempt to completely destroy Britain’s capability to thwart a German invasion planned for September. Korda describes how Dowding’s strategy for Fighter Command had worked seamlessly as ordinary young Britons, just out of flight school, flew sortie after sortie until they could no longer count the number of take offs or the number of the enemy they had shot down. Crowds watched from the streets as the air battles took place out of sound but not out of sight not knowing the outcome. Civilian life went on as usual as the young men fought and died thousands of feet above in the sky. It was an eerie sight and time.
August 15 was to be one of the most critical days of the War; but at its end it was a British victory and a victory for Dowding. Churchill commented in his memoirs, “We must regard the generalship here shown as an example of genius in the art of war.” However, for both sides the hardest and most brutal fighting was still to come.
As Korda aptly states, those who flew in the Battle of Britain are forever remembered as “the Few.” The average age of a newly minted pilot was seventeen, with scant training, with a life expectancy in minutes; and, scarier to the veterans than the Germans were. It was about as intense a life as one could live. The Germans were making great efforts to destroy Fighter Command as Dowding’s “chicks” inflicted more and more destruction upon them. But, if Fighter Command survived, the Germans could not invade. And, so it was, modern British history for the ages in the making.
Churchill spoke to the Nation saying, “The effort of the Germans to secure daylight mastery of the air over England is of course the crux of the whole war.” Then, on September 15, came the decisive day of the Battle of Britain; and, many opine, the decisive day of the war. And, that became, forever, the day to be celebrated by the British as the Battle of Britain Day.
Korda does a marvelous bit of writing as he describes that day and “the Few” gloriously winning one of the four most crucial victories in British history. Amazingly, Dowding’s Fighter Command had never lost control of the air for even a single moment. To the wonder of the world, a personally remote military leader, sometimes reviled by his cohorts, and 2000 fighter pilots secured Britain’s freedom. In its time, it seemed a miracle.
With Wings Like Eagles will be quite interesting for C-133 crewmembers as we had several veterans in our early squadrons quite familiar with the European air battles. Also, for the WWII history buffs, Korda presents an unfettered analysis of this time in our lives when Britain stood alone against one of history’s most evil rulers in his quest for dominance of the European continent. Dowding’s unrelenting pursuit to implement his contested vision won the day. That in itself makes Wings a most enjoyable read. Kudos to Korda!
As a bonus, the 1969 movie, Battle of Britain, is available with marvelous flying scenes along with Dowding as technical director and Laurence Olivier playing him. I recommend it as an excellent depiction of these historic events and times as true to the story line. I had a very nostalgic evening viewing it after last seeing it almost 40 years ago. Click here to go to the Battle of Britain Historical Society homepage. Enjoy!
39th ATS, KDOV