Monday, February 28, 2011

With Wings Like Eagles

With Wings Like Eagles: A History of the Battle of Britain
© 2009 Michael Korda
322  pages

"The odds were great: our margins small: the stakes infinite." - Vice Air Marshal Keith Park, No. 11 Group. RAF.

As far as drama goes, the Second World War is unmatched, for few conflicts in human history have lent themselves so well to stories of good and evil. Following the unexpectedly quick collapse of the French army in May 1940,  Great Britain found itself the lone democracy actively engaged in opposition against the monstrous ego of Adolf Hitler, set to make himself the master of Europe.  The other democracies had been conquered by the Blitzkrieg, Germany's potent combination of tanks and dive bombers, and the Soviet Union, the only continental power capable of curbing Hitler's ambitions, had become his accomplice in destroying Poland. Far across the Atlanatic, the United States looked on disinterestedly,  not keen on the idea of being engaged in another European war.  Throughout the summer of 1940,  Britain stood alone -- defended by her Navy and her airmen in the Royal Air Force. This is their story.

Though highly complimentary of the airmen -- whose character and fortitude stand out -- and the Spitfires and Hurricanes they flew,  Korda sees the RAF's triumph as being the product of sound leadership, both from forward thinking politicians like Neville Chamberlain and its own military leadership, particularly that of Air Marshall Hugh Dowding. Though reviled as an appeaser, Korda is kind to Chamberlaine and sees his leadership as responsible for the establishment of Britain's "Chain Home" range of radar stations. Dowding is the great hero of Korda's story, though. As the head of Fighter Command, his gifts for organization and grasp of air strategy allowed him to consistently turn back the Luftwaffe through the long summer, a time of generally clear weather and smooth seas that would pave the way for a German invasion in the event of failure.  Korda hails him for not only guiding the RAF's fighters through these perilous times, but standing up to the British government, particularly Winston Churchill, when their actions compromised his fighters' ability to do their work.

With Wings Like Eagles is an excellent narrative history of the Battle, remarkable for its thoroughness and detail. The story begins in the 1920s, covering the evolution of British and German air strategy and advances in airplane design. I had no idea that seaplanes were at one time regarded as the future of military aviation, or that the Spitfire was created from maritime designs. Like Albert Marrin, Korda's use of detail puts the the reader in the driver's seat along with the pilots, or inside Bentley Priory where all the information from the RAF's observation posts and RADAR stations  was channelled and interpreted by Dowding into squadron-by-squadron instructions. Rather than risk all his men in a set-piece battle with the Luftwaffe, he chose instead to force them to underestimate his strength and bleed themselves to death by rushing into apparent breaches again and again. This airborne chess match between Dowding and the Luftwaffe continues throughout the book, ending only in the fall of 1940, when weather conditions marginalized the prospect of German invasion.  Along with his reappraisal of Chamberlain, Korda is also skeptical of Operation Sealion's threat to British sovereignty. Hitler seemed to be less than enthusiastic about the operation and committed to it only after it became obvious that Churchhill was not about to be replaced by 'reasonable' men who were willing to admit to Britain's defeat. 

I'm quite impressed with With Wings as Eagles: I enjoyed it chiefly in one sitting and think it as appropriate for an undergraduate history paper as it is for a leisurely afternoon read. Korda is generous with book recommendations, another boon for students of the subject. Recommended. 

Related (and Recommended):
  • The Airman's War, Albert Marrin.  Coverage of WW2's aerial campaigns from the American perspective.
  • The Luftwaffe: Creating the Operational Air War, James S. Corum. 
  • The Influence of Air Power Upon History, Walter J. Boyne

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