I should have blogged about The Battle of Britain by James Holland a week ago when I finished it, but it was Christmas and family and celebrations, and I wanted to just enjoy the holidays. So I did. Now I’m tortured with thoughts of reviewing a book in a different year than that in which I read it. For an OCD person (and I really have OCD, I’m just not saying it), it’s torturous. But we’ll just have to pretend this is December 28.
I would give a short note on history, but this book does that. Which is awesome. It talks about the lead up to and then the lead down from those climactic air battles above London.
The Battle of Britain refers mostly to July – October 1940 when the United Kingdom was essentially alone against the Axis powers. This doesn’t mean that the United States wasn’t doing what we could (we did), or England was a country alone (it wasn’t: Canada, South Africa, Australia), but it was basically on its own for those five months to prevail or fail.
In this five-month-long battle, the Royal Air Force in their Hurricanes and Spitfires went up against the German Air Force, the Luftwaffe, in their Messerschmitts, the best fighter pilots on the continent. What commenced was a fierce battle that, if it had been lost by England, would have possibly changed the entire outcome of the war.
What I like about this book is that it doesn’t just cover the five months of the Battle of Britain. It gives a general overview of the war in addition to specifics on the battle and talks in particular about the air and—to a lesser extent—water aspects of the war. Holland explains the development and manufacture of various fighter planes from England and Germany as these were the forces seen above the slate-gray skies of England.
There were several pilots and even civilians on both sides of the fighting that Holland focused on. This was awesome because it gave a glimpse into the life of pilots, which consisted of hard work and play. It also humanized the German pilots, many of whom were very decent men just doing their duty.
While air bombardment wasn’t a surprise—the Luftwaffe attacked shipping convoys—what shocked the English was the bombing of London as civilian targets were banned on both sides. What Churchill didn’t know when he ordered an air counterattack on Berlin was that the bombing of London was quite accidental. But once both sides entered the fray of bombing civilian cities and areas, it was a free-for-all. Sadly.
The Battle of Britain began roughly July 10 with attacks on shipping convoys, but then air attacks were stepped up in order to destroy the RAF. Hitler knew that a successful invasion of England could only happen if there wasn’t an air force protecting it.
By August, the Luftwaffe started to bomb airfields. It wasn’t very good at it though. Naturally, the RAF couldn’t leave these bombings unanswered. Pilots patrolled the skies constantly, engaging in aerial battles with the enemy. August 18 was an especially dark time for the RAF, nicknamed The Hardest Day. Later this month was the accidental bombing of London.
Throughout September and October, tons of ordnance were dropped on London and other English cities. The RAF did bomb Berlin, but it was a further flight (the Luftwaffe could stage air raids from France, not so on the English side). The Battle of Britain culminated on September 15. But despite all the attacks, the RAF wasn’t destroyed, not even close, and Germany couldn’t invade unless it was. Plus, Germany had limited aircraft, and it was running out (England had limited pilots).
By the end of October, Hitler and his cronies pulled the Luftwaffe out, recognizing the futility of trying to gain air superiority over the English. They’d have to conquer Britain another way.
The writing was fantastic, especially because all of Churchill’s great quotes were included:
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
“We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
This story needs to be told, to be remembered. For those five months, the shoulders of the RAF upheld freedom in Europe. For a few months, the population of liberty prayed and hoped and lived for a few pilots and their planes. For a while, Great Britain held the world together.