Magazine article The Spectator

Aces High

Magazine article The Spectator

Aces High

Article excerpt

THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN

by James Holland

Bantam, £25, pp. 592

ISBN 9780593059135

GUN BUTTON TO FIRE

by Tom Neill

Amberley, £20, pp. 320,

ISBN 9781848688483

LAST OF THE FEW

by Dilip Sarkar

Ameberly, £20, pp. 240,

ISBN 9781848684355

Seventy years after the RAF repelled the Luftwaffe, the Battle of Britain continues to have a powerful resonance. The conflict not only decided Britain's very survival as an independent nation, but was also imbued with an epic moral purpose. The epochal months of 1940 represented the classic fight between good and evil, between freedom and tyranny, this romantic symbolism given added strength by the soaring rhetoric of Winston Churchill.

The 70th anniversary of the battle this summer has prompted a surge of new books and the republication of several old ones. Among the best is the comprehensive new study by James Holland, a historian who has already won international acclaim for his works on the siege of Malta and the Italian campaign.

This volume has all the hallmarks of his previous successes: the gripping narrative; the ability to recreate the intensity of combat, the breadth of research; and the authoritative historical judgements. Holland is superb at switching the focus of the action while maintaining the pace and drama of the story.

He can move effortlessly from Cabinet to cockpit, one moment describing Churchill's confrontations at the heart of government with arch-defeatist Lord Halifax, the next recounting an explosive dogfight over southern England, filled with the smell of cordite and the sight of disintegrating metal.

What is remarkable about Holland's book is the range of its material. Unlike most previous Battle of Britain histories, he covers not just the aerial conflict but also other arenas, such as the submarine war, American journalism and the position of neutral Ireland. So often neglected in previous histories, the role of Bomber Command is thoroughly analysed, including its attacks on the German invasion fleet based in the northern French ports and its sporadic raids on cities within the Reich. The urban bombing missions against Germany caused little real damage, partly because night navigation methods were so poor and partly because the RAF lacked an effective heavy bomber until the arrival of the Lancaster in late 1941.

Nevertheless, Bomber Command indirectly helped win the Battle of Britain, because in early September Hitler was so furious at RAF attacks on Berlin that he ordered the Luftwaffe to retaliate by switching its bombardment from Fighter Command's airfields to the heart of the London. This German change in strategy gave Fighter Command crucial breathing space. Having been battered for weeks, the squadrons and airfields across southern England recovered. On 15 September 1940, subsequently designated 'Battle of Britain Day', the reinvigorated RAF utterly broke the confidence of the Luftwaffe.

Holland is excellent on all the technicalities of the conflict, from the creation of the Britain's defensive radar system to the merits of the fighter aircraft. He concludes, rightly, that the German Me109 and the Supermarine Spitfire were about equal in their capabilities, though Luftwaffe planes had greater firepower than those of the RAF, which used rifle-calibre machine Browning guns. He is, however, a little too dismissive of the Hawker Hurricane, which made up the bulk of Fighter Command's force. …

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