Monday, 13 September 2010

The Battle of Britain

Well worth reading. Oh, just to clarify, this is the one that's just come out by James Holland. Not perfect, perhaps, but incredibly wide-ranging. To be honest, calling it a book on the Battle of Britain is a bit of a misnomer. It starts with the invasion of France and the Low Countries, it ends in October with the beginning of the Blitz. It doesn't just cover the air-fighting, but instead the war at sea, the war in France, the politics, the attempts to draw in America, the beginning of Lend-Lease, and, of course, the dog-fighting over England. Also gives brief mention to E-boats and the British bombing campaign. In short, a wide-ranging book, which perhaps isn't as detailed on the air-fighting as some books I've read but that's hardly to be expected when it covers such a vast swathe of the conflict. Oh, and covers the invasion planning, the Home Guard, Churchill's consolidation of power, supply and maintenance, and a myriad of related topics, also including the morale of pilots.

It's not overburdened with statistics and diagrams, it's not full of complex explanations of exactly how each aircraft works, and it's not narrowly focussed, although at the end it does seem to drop the story of the E-boats and doesn't give as much detail to the Battle of the Atlantic as perhaps it could, focussing instead on the air fighting. Uses a lot of first hand accounts, and well written enough that I quite happily sat in a library and read it for well over two hours without moving (other than to turn the pages). It is a big book, and I found the section on the Fall of France very interesting as it's not something that's all that easy to find books on.

On the other hand, I didn't agree with some of the analysis of why Britain won. Well, more specifically, I don't agree that the Me-109 (oh, and I've finally found out why it's alternately the Me or the Bf, it actually depends on when the aircraft was produced as the factory was initially called Bayerische Flugzeugwerke and later the name was changed to that of the chief designer, becoming Messerschmitt) was better than the Spitfire. It was interesting that apparently British pilots were more wary of pushing the Spitfire to the edge than the German pilots were of pushing the Me-109, but surely it's better to have an aircraft that can be flown well by everyone rather than an aircraft that can be flown reasonably by most and excellently by a few. The trouble is, while the Messerschmitt was faster and had a better rate of climb, it didn't have as good a turning circle. And in a dogfight, a turning circle was needed, and because of the way the fighters were being used as escorts for the bombers, dogfights were inevitable. Ideally, the Me-109 should have been flown in from the sun, drop down on an unsuspecting Spitfire or Hurricane, shoot it down, climb out the way and scoot off. But radar could be used to estimate heights and as the battle progressed they could be estimated quite accurately by increasingly experienced operators, the Germans did not then have the element of surprise that they had in France. So because of the way the aircraft were being used, the Spitfire was probably the better fighter.

That out the way, I was pleased to see that Holland didn't just say that because the numbers of fighter aircraft were equal that made it much easier for the British than previously assumed. Ah, not quite. Cos they did still have to shoot the bombers down, couldn't just let them meander off over England. It was the bombers that they had to focus on, truth be told, because it was the bombers that could do the damage. The fighters could only damage other fighters; if it was just fighter sweeps coming over England there'd be little point in meeting them.

The E-boat sections were fascinating, I would've liked to see a bit more made of that side of the story. However, I suspect that space was getting limited (as in, 600 pages full of words already and maybe not so great to put that many more pages in). And the politics was well told too, on both the British and German sides and in terms of relations between Britain and America. I think the point could have been made that although Beaverbrook did kick British aircraft production up the bum so to speak, he did so at the cost of various longer term projects, including four-engine bombers, and that there's no way he can be totally responsible for results coming in by the end of the week in which he was appointed. Further, what he did was a short term solution--people can't work the hours he was insisting on long term, not without burning out and starting to make mistakes.

In short, this was a thoroughly enjoyable book and I'm sure it will become a recommended read for anyone studying WWII. It wasn't quite as balanced as it could have been between the different aspects of the campaign--there was little on the British bomber campaign although to be fair it did get a mention which is unusual. And it is, as far as I'm aware, the first time the 'story's' been told like this, in such a wide-ranging interpretation of the Battle of Britain.

Definitely recommend it, might actually buy a copy when it comes out in paperback (borrowed it out the library--hardback history books are pretty expensive to buy loads without any real idea of whether they'll be all that great). So if you see one floating around at the library (although if the queue's anything like it was at mine to get hold of it, as in, about seven more people waiting after me and I thought I'd had to wait a long time for it you might not see it for a while), it's definitely worth taking the time to read it.

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