Monday, September 22, 2014

How Britain won the war in 1940

If only all history books could be written by Michael Korda (or David McCullough or Doris Kearns Goodwin or Candace Millard or Stephen E. Ambrose or a handful of other writers with a gift for making history come alive). Enthralled as I was last year reading Korda's Ike, a biography of Dwight D. Eisenhower, with its primary focus on the D-Day invasion, I was eager to read his 2009 book With Wings Like Eagles: The Untold Story of the Battle of Britain. What a fine book it is.

The "untold story" has to do with Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, whom few Americans have even heard of and whom may not even be that highly regarded in Great Britain. Korda says the official history of the Battle of Britain, which sold more than 6 million copies, did not even mention Dowding's name. Yet Korda calls Dowding "the architect of this victory." It was he, more than anyone (with the possible exception of Winston Churchill, who instilled in the British the will to resist Hitler) who prevented a German invasion of Britain in 1940.

The German bombing raids that came to be known as the Battle of Britain were intended to weaken British resistance to an invasion during the summer of 1940. Destroying the Royal Air Force was a major part of that plan. Dowding began developing Britain's fighter planes long before the war started, at a time when most other military authorities thought bombers, not fighters, were where the money should go. When large numbers of German bombers began flying across the English Channel, however, it was Dowding's fighters that intercepted and destroyed so many of them.

Some military strategists try to convince the enemy he faces a larger force than he actually does. Dowding had the opposite strategy. He convinced the Germans the British had fewer fighter planes than it did, so the German kept sending bombers and fighters to try to destroy those remaining fighters, but Dowding brought more and more of them into the fight, weakening the German air force all the while. By the time late September arrived, it was too late in the year to count on favorable weather for an invasion, and Hitler called it off, for good as it turned out. "Perhaps without even realizing it, in mid-September 1940 Hitler lost the war, defeated by the efforts of perhaps 1,000 young men," Korda writes.

Yet in another aspect to this "unknown story," Korda gives credit to the many young British women who played major roles in the victory. Female pilots delivered new fighter planes, ready for combat, to the bases around Britain. Women worked as radar plotters and radio operators, continuing to work even as German bombs dropped all around them. (It was Dowding who insisted back in 1937 that telephone lines be buried deep underground to protect them during any possible airstrike.) Women deciphered German codes and defused bombs and dragged them off runways so British planes could take off and land.

Introverted and not one to build friendships or promote his own causes, Dowding was a controversial figure whose many rivals were always trying to replace. They succeeded long before the end of the war. Even Churchill didn't like Dowding and, according to Korda, never forgave him for being right about sending more fighter planes to France during the German invasion of that country. Churchill wanted to send more and more planes, while Dowding insisted France was a lost cause and those planes were needed to protect England. That Dowding was able to protect as many fighters as he did went a long way to making victory possible.

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