Tuesday, July 26, 2011

What We're Reading

The Battle of Britain: Five Months that Changed History;
May-October 1940
by James Holland

The Battle of Britain is the name that historically has been given to what was primarily an air war above Great Britain and the English Channel in the late spring to early fall of 1940. The United States had not at this time entered World War II, and would not until the attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. It may never have entered the war if the Germans had successfully won this battle, for it was a battle for the survival of Great Britain, and if it had been lost, would have been followed by the invasion and occupation of Britain and the end of conflict in the European theatre of the war.

In a stunning gamble, Germany had quickly defeated France and bottled up the English forces that had come to her assistance on the European continent. Largely through mistakes and hesitations in the German command, as well as bad weather and English air cover, the British forces managed to escape capture by a dramatic seaborne escape at Dunkirk. But German control of the European continent meant that the Luftwaffe could now launch bombers and fighters from bases closer to England, assaults now greater in mass and further in reach. The purpose of these assaults was to destroy English aircraft and military manufacturing plants, to destroy airfields and aircraft on the ground, and to lure English fighters into the air where they could be destroyed, thus wearing down and decimating English air protection. The destruction of England’s air power would help minimize, as well, the threat from the English navy, and allow a successful passage of German troop transports to the island. It was the Luftwaffe’s Herman Goring who boasted, “England is no longer an Island.” This book explains why that assault failed.

Holland’s account is accessible military history written for a general audience. Matters of strategy, decision-making and the technical capabilities of armaments are explained in an understandable and interesting manner. (I can now tell you the differences between a Spitfire and a Messerschmitt.) Holland also tries to be comprehensive in his overview, explaining some of the simultaneous battles that went on at sea and also the experience of the “blitz” in London. He describes the state of public morale and the domestic preparations made in anticipation of the German invasion. The glimpses of British politics, how Churchill came to power, and how he governed, are particularly engaging, as are the passages concerning America’s ambassador to Britain during these years, Joseph Kennedy.

In addition to its accessibility and comprehensiveness, there are two other major virtues of Holland’s account. There is a long prelude that leads up to the Battle of Britain (almost a third of the book) in which Holland gives the account of how France fell to the Germans and how the British, Dutch, and Belgian forces faced defeat. For those more familiar with the history of WWII, this may seem superfluous, but for the less seasoned reader it provides an overview of what is one of the most notable military upsets in history and gives some sense of the suddenness of the crisis that England faced and the reasons for the depth of the shock and fear that characterized the country. But certainly the finest and most impressive accomplishment of this book is to be found in Holland’s use of original source material and interviews of pilots who were engaged in the Battle of Britain, both German and English. In some cases he is able to give personal accounts of the action and engagements by individuals on both sides who were involved in a particular fight. This gives the reader a sense of immediacy about the encounters. It is pretty exciting stuff.

Holland’s immediate and personal accounts of action in the air are thrilling, and they make you understand to some degree why the life of a fighter pilot has a perennial attraction for young men. It is life led at a greater intensity and at higher stakes, a contest of personal skill and valor. You can understand how the rush could be addicting. But balanced against this saga of knights in the air, Holland’s account is full too of accounts of the misjudgements, incompetence, and unpredictability of war, a power so great that it mocks the hubris of men who think they can control what they have unleashed, as skeletons roll the dice.

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