The Battle of Britain: Five Months that Changed History: May–October 1940

Richard Overy has misgivings about a new account of the RAF’s famous summer

The Battle of Britain
Author: James Holland
Publisher: Bantam Press
Reviewed by: Richard Overy
Price (RRP): £25

Those readers in any doubt about what the myth of the Battle of Britain might be need go no further than James Holland’s new account. After writing a conventional narrative of the summer months of 1940 he concludes that “the myth largely holds true”. And so it does, put this way.

His account has all the usual suspects: gritty Englishmen fighting against “vastly superior numbers”; Churchill bestriding the summer like a colossus; plucky civilians showing “stoicism and defiance” in the face of the Hun. The whole is summed up by one of Holland’s pilots who wrote in his diary after the fall of France: “So now it is England against the rest. We’ll show them!”

This works to an extent, since no one doubts that preventing the German air force from dominating the skies of southern Britain did act as the final deterrent to Hitler’s hopes for a cheap end to the war in the west. There were plenty of other factors that inhibited invasion, but the failure in the air sealed the decision to postpone it.

The following year Hitler hoped to destroy the Soviet Union and then turn a greatly reinforced Luftwaffe against Britain. What ended the threat was not the battle but the almost inexplicable capacity for resistance demonstrated by the Soviet people.

The other elements of the myth work less well. Holland has missed an opportunity to assess more critically, as much of the recent literature has done, the popular view of Churchill, or the reality of the ‘few’ against ‘the many’, or the damaging social impact created by the bombing. Instead he has produced a glib narrative which seeks to recreate the sense of drama from that summer.

The book is full of lively accounts of aerial contests and well-observed details.

The story begins in May because, Holland argues, that is when the long aerial contest began. This is a sensible choice since the Luftwaffe suffered heavy casualties across the whole summer, and the mauling in France explains why it then took so long  to get going against England in August.

The pilots, both German and British and Allied, are given a good deal of space here through their own diaries and accounts. One pilot remembered “unconscionable pints of beer” downed after combat. A German pilot recalls peeing against his crashed Me109 as a crowd of soldiers ran to capture him, taking the sting out of their agitation.

A Polish pilot who could only say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ remembers being asked at his medical examination on arrival in Britain if he had VD. He opted for ‘yes’ and was subjected to a humiliating examination.

All these stories bring the battle to life but they do not explain very much.

Holland argues firmly that the Me109 was a better aircraft than either the Spitfire or the Hurricane; he insists that German pilots drank less and so flew with fewer hangovers; and he sustains the myth that the Germans had vastly greater numbers. It is hard under these circumstances to see how the British managed to win at all.

He is also certain that it was a victory, yet the Luftwaffe had almost the same number of aircraft in October 1940 than it had had in July, and was able to sustain a terrible bombing campaign for a further seven months.

The Battle of Britain merged into the Blitz, against which there was relatively little defence. The question that should be asked now is not about the well-known spirited activity of the ‘few’, but the capacity of the ‘many’ to absorb the German attack for almost a year without buckling. 

Richard Overy is professor in history at the University of Exeter

Read more about the Battle of Britain in our September 2010 issue

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