During a visit to London in the 1990s my wife and I attended a service at St. Clement Danes, a once-bombed-out Wren church in the Strand, now station church of the Royal Air Force. By pure chance it was September 15, Battle of Britain Day. Half a century had passed since the stooped, graying veterans who gathered to worship that day had faced daunting odds in the skies over England. To visiting Americans, they made tangible the centrality of the Battle of Britain to collective memory in the United Kingdom.
Now, seven decades after the war, it is hard to conjure up the awe and dread that filled residents of southern England as they looked up into the brilliant blue skies of summer 1940, skies streaked with the contrails of hundreds of Luftwaffe planes, day after day. Michael Korda's latest book retells the familiar story of how Britain, alone, blunted the seemingly inexorable German tide. And although With Wings Like Eagles is not a work of original scholarship based on exhaustive sifting of unpublished sources, it is nonetheless a compelling synthesis, elegantly written.
Korda begins by recounting the fitful creation of Britain's air defenses. It may surprise readers that he gives credit to both Stanley Baldwin and, after him, Neville Chamberlain. As prime minister, Baldwin took little interest in the military and hated spending on it. In the House of Commons he feuded bitterly with Winston Churchill, who doggedly argued for greater defense outlays. (When Churchill later learned, during the war, that the Germans had bombed the Baldwin family factory, he groused, "How ungrateful of them.")
Baldwin parroted the orthodoxy of the times that "the bomber will always get through." If nothing could stop enemy bombers, why waste money on fighter planes? Yet he could not completely ignore defense, and by his parsimonious reckoning, spending a little on fighters would cost less than building fleets of bombers. Thus, in a roundabout way, he "stumbled on the idea of defense rather than deterrence."
Korda views his subject from the heights of central command rather than from the cockpit of a Spitfire. His hero, and the focus of this book, is Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding. Stubborn, remote, shy, incapable of charm, and lacking in humor, Dowding more than earned his nickname "Stuffy." Despite these debilities, he perfected the system that defined RAF Fighter Command.
At Bentley Priory, the 18th-century mansion outside London that served as Dowding's headquarters, buried telephone lines linked the commander to each airfield and radar station. A central operations room collected and distilled readiness reports from fighter squadrons and intelligence generated by radar and the ground Observer Corps. On a huge map table members of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) moved counters, representing these data, with a long pole "like that used by the croupier at the roulette table."
If war came, the counters constantly dancing across the face of the map would guide Dowding's orders to his squadron commanders, and from them to their pilots. By the late 1930s the latter flew two newly operational models of monoplane, the Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire, which were evenly matched with the best German fighter, the Messerschmitt Bf 109.
The Air Ministry and its political masters long doubted the value of defense by fighter planes, and both only reluctantly acceded--"at first more in the spirit of window dressing" --to Dowding's insistent demands. Undeterred, Dowding hectored them for funds, including money to build an underground duplicate of the operations room, protected by reinforced concrete. He got his way with just months to spare, and by the spring of 1940 had assembled the tools he needed.
The point Korda hammers home is that the RAF's victory "came about neither by luck nor by last-minute improvisation" but by thorough preparation. And when the conflict began, Dowding's genius lay in husbanding his forces rather than committing them all at once. He wanted his adversaries to think he was scraping the bottom of the barrel and about to run out of planes and pilots at any moment. With constant pinprick attacks by small numbers of fighters, he concealed his total strength while inflicting a mounting toll on German bombers. The head of Fighter Command knew his pilots--whom he sentimentally called his "Chicks"--could not win the war, but in that summer of endless blue skies, they surely could lose it.
A.J.P. Taylor once ended a litany of Churchill's many honors and offices with a simple coda: "savior of his country." And so he was. Korda gives Churchill his due, but does not deify him. He makes a special point of Dowding's opposition to the prime minister on the issue of sending planes to France when the battle there was lost. Dowding "solemnly warned" ministers against such a course at a meeting of the War Cabinet on May 15 after the Germans had broken through the Ardennes and begun their race toward the Channel. More fighter aircraft would only be wasted in France, with no radar network and no centralized command structure to filter information. Each plane dispatched to the continent reduced their chances of stopping the Germans over England.
Dowding's admonition carried the day, but only literally. One day later, Churchill overruled the cabinet and sent a further six squadrons to France to be frittered away piecemeal. Korda exaggerates a little when he argues that, by standing up to Churchill and preventing him from sending even more of Fighter Command across the Channel, Dowding "probably saved Britain."
After France capitulated in June, the Germans hesitated, hampered by "a combination of sloth and wishful thinking at the top." Hitler, giddy with the totality of his conquest, hoped the British would recognize their plight and offer an armistice. That hesitation during early summer gave Dowding the time he needed to prepare for the air assault that followed.
Korda reasonably asks whether Hitler really meant to invade Britain. Could all the ostentatious preparations have been a bluff to intimidate his opponents? Whatever the Führer's intentions, and despite the challenges any invasion faced, Korda is right that "all war is chance." Given breaks with the weather and a bit of luck, the Germans might have pulled it off. It was rational, then, to believe that Fighter Command was all that stood in the way.
In August 1940 the German Air Force launched Operation Adlerangriff ("Eagle Attack"), hitting fighter bases and aircraft factories to the exclusion of other targets. Though Dowding parried the main attacks on his airfields on August 15, Adler Tag ("Eagle Day"), the Luftwaffe did not give in but struck again and again with renewed fury. In the waning days of August, Dowding could see that the toll of attrition was turning against him. Despite inept German intelligence and leadership, "time and time again the Luftwaffe came very close to crippling Fighter Command."
Indeed, if events had continued on the same trajectory much longer, With Wings Like Eagles might have been the title of a book celebrating the code name for German victory. Instead, the Luftwaffe changed its targeting and thereby ensured that Korda's title linked Britain's airmen, not Germany's, with Isaiah 40:31: "But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint."
It all happened because of an error in navigation. German bombers, intending to attack an oil storage plant in the Thames estuary on the night of August 24-25, mistakenly dropped their payloads on the financial district of central London. The British could not know this was an error and mounted a retaliatory raid on Berlin. It did scant damage but convinced Hitler to change his strategy and punish the sprawling British metropolis. And punish he did.
Yet the shift in targeting to London and other cities lifted pressure on Fighter Command just as the fierce offensive against its airfields was at the point of paralyzing them. Dowding had won. He had kept Fighter Command intact until bad autumn weather meant no invasion could be mounted that year. On September 17, Hitler postponed the invasion indefinitely.
The book's publisher, Harper, lets down Korda with a mediocre index, and he occasionally indulges in too many long sentences and repeated anecdotes. But these small flaws detract little from his larger accomplishment: getting the big picture right with a fluid, engaging style that draws the reader into this pivotal moment in modern history.
No one person won the Battle of Britain, but Korda convincingly argues that Hugh Dowding deserves pride of place among those who determined that the United Kingdom would survive the summer of 1940. The Germans suffered from poor intelligence, tactics, and leadership, but in spite of these, they very nearly overwhelmed Fighter Command by brute force. Dowding's prophetic genius first manifested itself in devising a system that linked technology, intelligence, decision-making, and fighter planes, and then in his obstinate badgering of superiors for the resources to build that system before the war.
Finally, his deft application of force in the face of unrelenting German attacks justifies the inscription on the brass plaque at Bentley Priory: "To him the people of Britain and the Free World owe largely the way of life and the liberties that they enjoy today."
Nelson D. Lankford, editor of the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, the quarterly journal of the Virginia Historical Society, is most recently the author of Cry Havoc! The Crooked Road to Civil War, 1861.