Ok, ok – so I’m almost 15 years late in reviewing Dr Stephen Bungay’s account of the Battle of Britain: The Most Dangerous Enemy. But I have an excuse!
End of last year, I organised, along with RAF Northolt, a series of fundraising talks in aid of refurbishment work required to the Battle of Britain Bunker at RAF Uxbridge, and related buildings at Northolt (including the Sir Keith Park Building, named after a man whose importance will become apparent as you read on).
Dr Bungay gave the last talk, at which I picked up a signed copy of his book – and that’s the first time I got to it. Before he spoke, we chatted, and he gave me a couple of insights into his work. He said research had taken him a long time, and taken him to many places – but was expensive and a long road. He also seemed ever so slightly peeved that his book had been called the best “single volume” history to be published of the Battle: there were no double volume accounts, he explained!
I sympathise, for this is a brilliant account of the Battle, in both style and content. In terms of the former, Bungay’s prose is precise and sparing, at times moving, at others humorous. Just the right balance. As for content, he turns the received view of the Battle on its head: whilst it was hardly a walk in the park, and a major error by the RAF could have spelt danger, for the most part they were well on top of their German counterparts in the Luftwaffe.
Here are some of the key things I learnt:
– It wasn’t the German decision to blitz London that saved the day: the RAF remained in control throughout the Battle, and in particular, airfields/pilots/planes were not about to run out
– Their control stemmed from brilliant planning before and during the Battle, including radar (the “Chain Home” system)
– But it was radar as part of an integrated defence system – observers, the GPO, anti-aircraft gunnery and the like – that beat the Germans
– As did the brilliant and ruthless leadership, in particular, of the meticulous Hugh Dowding (C-in-C of RAF Fighter Command) and unrivalled tactician Keith Park, a New Zealander who led 11 Group (patrolling the South-east of the UK, and therefore most in the firing line). If there is one man whose contribution to the winning of the Battle stands out in Bungay’s telling of this story, it is Keith Park
– And if there is one plane, it is the Spitfire – “the Lady” – whose elliptical wing gave it the edge
– In contrast, anti-stereotypically, the Germans were largely tactically unaware, and fought the Battle as romantic aces
– There is an honourable mention for the aggressive Polish pilots, without whom, says Dowding, the Battle may have turned out differently
– Last but not least, the Battle was of immeasurable importance not just in preventing an invasion, but in keeping the War alive in Western Europe long enough to bring in the US. Without this, much of the world could have found itself under either a Nazi or Soviet yoke.
So, 5 stars from me – and with it a reminder to go visit The Battle of Britain Bunker at RAF Uxbridge, still preserved, haunt of Sir Keith Park, and thought to be the place where Churchill first made reference to The Few.