Thursday, May 13, 2010

Battle of Britain book review

Britain and the second world war

Boys in blue
May 13th 2010
From The Economist print edition

The Battle of Britain: Five Months That Changed History, May-October 1940. By James Holland. Bantam Press; 677 pages; £25. Buy from

EVERY country’s version of the second world war is selective. For Russians, it starts with Hitler’s unprovoked attack in 1941 and highlights the colossal battles in the east. For Americans, it starts with Pearl Harbour and features the Normandy beaches and Guadalcanal. Germans may privately start the story rather earlier, with the humiliation at Versailles which brought economic collapse and fuelled Hitler’s rise to power.

Each version is true up to a point. And each seems a bit odd to outsiders. James Holland’s comprehensive and readable history of the battle of Britain exemplifies the particular British blend of amnesia and nostalgia that the war arouses.

Yet in any terms, this is a tremendous story. In September 1939, Britain was fighting a phoney war alongside a seemingly powerful ally, France. Less than a year later, the country’s survival depended on whether a fragile array of a few hundred fighter planes, flown by exhausted young men, could prevent Hitler’s Luftwaffe from gaining the air superiority necessary for “Operation Sealion”: the first invasion of England since 1066.

The happy combination of youthful gallantry triumphing against overwhelming odds with brainy boffins giving the vital technological edge (through radar, and the brilliantly designed Spitfires and Hurricanes), as well as inspirational leaders using flawless tactics and matchless rhetoric, is irresistible. The author has an encyclopedic knowledge of his subject, weaving together reminiscences from both sides, statistics and technical details into the broader picture.

He describes the collapse in France and the near-miraculous rescue in mid-1940 of nearly 340,000 British and French soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk. He also tells the story of the carnage of poorly protected merchant shipping in the early months of the war which threatened to strangle Britain’s supply lines. He ends with Hitler’s fateful decision to postpone Sealion in September of the same year. The Luftwaffe had lost too many planes and pilots to the RAF’s fighters, while Bomber Command had punctured Germany’s myth of invincibility. It was, as Winston Churchill said, not the beginning of the end but the end of the beginning.

Published to mark the 70th anniversary of the battle of Britain, this book should sell well. But it will leave many readers unsatisfied. One problem is its glibness. Hitler can rightly be criticised for his many disastrous mistakes. But to write of the Nazi leader’s “almost complete lack of military understanding” is wrong: his problem was too much (self-taught) military knowledge, not too little. Similarly, to call the German general Gerd von Rundstedt a “pigheaded fool” is lazy language that would be out of place in a schoolboy essay, let alone in something that purports to be the work of a professional historian. Throughout the book, the language is unsettlingly colloquial and anachronistic. Confusingly, Mr Holland calls the pilots by their first names, though they refer to each other in diaries and memoirs by their surnames.

A bigger problem is that the author’s enthusiasm for his subject is not matched by his grip of history. He peddles the Anglocentric myth that Britain was “alone” in the summer of 1940 (insultingly forgetting Greece, Poland and the entire British empire). Too many characters appear, with annoyingly similar potted biographies. Their tinnily-told stories swamp the rather skimpy treatment of the underlying war-winning narrative, such as the innovative tactics of a brilliant New Zealander, Keith Park, and the way that Max Aitken revolutionised aircraft production. Heroism is indeed captivating. But it was more than heroism that kept Britain out of Nazi captivity.

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