After the fall of France in May 1940, the British Expeditionary Force was miraculously evacuated from Dunkirk. Britain now stood alone to face Hitler’s inevitable invasion attempt. For the German army to land across the channel, Hitler needed mastery of the skies—the Royal Air Force would have to be broken. So every day throughout the summer, German bombers pounded the RAF air bases in the southern counties. Greatly outnumbered by the Luftwaffe, the pilots of RAF Fighter Command scrambled as many as five times a day, and civilians watched skies crisscrossed with the contrails from the constant dogfights between Spitfires and Me-109s. Britain’s very freedom depended on the outcome of that summer’s battle: Its air defenses were badly battered and nearly broken, but against all odds, “The Few,” as they came to be known, bought Britain’s freedom—many with their lives. More than a fifth of the British and Allied pilots died during the Battle of Britain.
These are the personal accounts of the pilots who fought and survived that battle. Their stories are as riveting, as vivid, and as poignant as they were seventy years ago. We will not see their like again.
Review by travelforaircraft.wordpress.com:
I enjoyed and learned from the newest book by oral historian Max Arthur regarding the fighter pilots who were in the Royal Air Force (RAF) fighting what came to be known as the Battle of Britain. This is the battle, won by Britain and lost by Germany, was fought from July through October in 1940. Known as Luftschlacht um England or Luftschlacht um Großbritannien (Air battle for Great Britain) in Germany, Germany had taken control of Europe — Russia excepted — and to consolidate its gain needed to invade Great Britain before the winter could set in that year. Recent history teaches that invading a country is easier than winning the country but the Wermacht and Luftwaffe had swept across Europe and taken firm control of most of it. Famed military units and defenses fell to the new strategy ofblitzkrieg as well as Germany’s modern tanks and aircraft in the numbers needed to wage war — not the scant numbers that the victorious countries of WW I had permitted themselves in the interests if saving costs. Too late these nations began arming, with Britain particularly pushing ahead in the building of Spitfires and Hurricanes.
Arthur makes this clear to be sure, and he also makes it clear to not expect to comprehend the strategy of the RAF during the Battle of Britain. Instead, this book is meant to perceive the thoughts and actions of individuals who had parts in the battle. Like a report from an embedded journalist of today’s news media, the reader gets the grit of the action. No cheerleading or glad handing here — these are the feelings and thoughts recalled shortly after they were experienced — it is raw, with no propagandizing or editing by commanding officers or legacy makers.
He has researched well, particularly into the archives of the BBC and the Imperial War Museum. The mark of his professional approach is also made with the presentation of those who serviced the aircraft, those who worked in the plotting rooms as well as a handful of Luftwaffe participants.
I learned many things that weren’t covered in the strategy books of the battle I read but had their strategic inclinations, nonetheless. Some of them were:
- The Merlin engine required a servicing every 30–40 hours and an overhaul every 240 hours. Typically, fighter mission were an hour or so for three to as many as six times per day. The math indicates that the aircraft were rotated every month to month and half, or so.
- A sizable influx of aviators from Poland filled the RAF ranks when they were needed most. Squadron Leader Jack Satchell observed that many Poles arrived without shoes, having left France once she surrendered, but they all arrived with rifles, automatic weapons and ammunition.
- Many RAF pilots were shot up or shot down by the Messerschmitt Me 110. Most books relegate this aircraft to the ineffective file in the battle so it was worthwhile to note.
- I was amazed that time and time again pilots bailed out or made forced landings to fly again that day.
- Initially Britain had fewer aircraft than needed to replenish losses but that quickly changed after production ramped up. Replacing the pilots could not keep up with losses so many flew into their first, and often final, combat with less than ten hours of flying time in a Hurricane or Spitfire.
- The vaunted RAF radar stations were significant in winning this battle but more than one pilot described the difficult timing between the radar information and launching fighter aircraft. Undoubtedly the radar meant that standing patrols (and commensurate increases of the limited resources of aircraft and pilots) were not required, but aircraft were so few that they could not be launched due to a potential Luftwaffe feint. More often than not the RAF squadrons were sent up with insufficient time to gain an altitude advantage — I don’t think I read that before but the math is clear. The RAF pilot often was launched to fight at a severe altitude as well as numeric disadvantage.
Arthur writes at the major breaks in the oral histories so one understands the context of the reports as well as the development of the battle. He also does a welcome thing in dedicating the book to the pilots as well as the ground crew. Indeed, there are many ground crew reports and a few are incredible to read.
Many of these accounts are incredible to read, in fact, and should be read as this is history well recalled and well understood.
Fittingly, Arthur’s last page of the text quotes Churchill’s famous words from 20 August 1940 from which the book’s title originates. There is also a quote from Pilot Officer Bob Doe saying why he fought. This encapsulates why this book as so good to read and why it should be read by anyone who is interested in the thoughts of people in a struggle against insuperable odds.