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Battle of Britain
The Battle of Britain: The Myth and the Reality

(Richard Overy)

(To order this book from Amazon, click on the dust jacket or the title)

Richard Overy is what you might call a revisionist historian, but don't hit the delete key on that account. This is second-generation revisionism! It's become the fashion in recent years to say that the Battle of Britain wasn't all that significant--that Hitler wasn't serious about invading Britain anyhow, that there really wasn't a Battle, and that the British really didn't win it anyhow. (As one German commentator wrote: "There was no Battle of Britain, nor did we lose it.)

Overy begs to differ. He argues that invasion was a credible threat. If the British hadn't responded as they did, and if the Germans hadn't failed to put down Fighter Command, the invasion might well have proceeded on schedule. (Whether it would have succeeded is another matter. Nobody knew much about landing on a defended shore in 1940, and certainly the Germans didn't. This was a science that the Americans in particular developed with painful effort in 1942 and 1943.)

Among Overy's interesting findings is that the British population really wasn't aware of the BOB at the time. He lays the responsibility for terror bombing directly on the Germans, pointing out that the trivial RAF raid on Berlin in August 1940 was preceded by much more serious German raids on British cities, and that even London was bombed at about the same time as Berlin: the supposedly seminal RAF raid on Berlin was an excuse for a change in German tactics that was already underway. The British ability to fight the BOB was a gift from the famously pacifistic Chamberlain government, which had built the Hurricanes and Spitfires that enabled the RAF to fight.

Throughout the BOB, the British consistently overestimated German capabilities, and the Germans consistently underestimated the British ability to resist. This was a crucial difference, since it caused the British to fight and reequip at a desperate pitch, while the Germans failed to prosecute the Battle (and especially their own fighter production) at an equal rate. Throughout the Battle, the British outproduced the Germans.

Douglas Bader's famous "big wing" tactic wasn't very successful at all, as Overy sees it. Rather, RAF fighter pilots beat the German fighter pilots because they adapted the German tactic of the fighting pair, because their planes were as good if not better, and because they had the luxury of holding a significant part of their fighter force beyond the range of the attackers, committing them only when they were trained, rested, and ready.

Fighter losses were substantially identical on both sides. Unlike most commentators, Overy doesn't believe that the British ability to read German codes was terribly significant.

As to who won the Battle, Overy essentially takes the position that neither side did. However, since the Germans failed to achieve any of their objectives in the campaign, it can fairly be said that they lost it. Like Japan unable to defeat China, they said to hell with it and attacked a different enemy.

A worthwhile book on an important topic. You won't get much in the way of actual combat footage, however. It's a thoughtful reappraisal from a perspective of 60 years, and it's done almost entirely from research in German and British archives.