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Review: Battle of Britain


Overy, Richard. The Battle of Britain: The Myth and The Reality. New York: Penguin Books, 2000. 177. Reviewed by Steven Harkness

The Battle of Britain was a contest between Germany and Britain for control of the skies over the English Channel in 1940. Adolph Hitler believed that Britain could be made to surrender swiftly, but his air campaign ultimately accomplished very little in terms of German success, and perhaps accomplished a great deal with respect to the ultimate defeat of the sprawling Nazi empire. Richard Overy says that this battle is still celebrated, though its actual impact on the war has been either overstated, or simply poorly understood in general. The battle did not end in a decisive defeat, but it did keep Britain in the war. Likewise, it is widely held, according to Overy, that the battle itself prevented a German invasion on the southern coasts. This also seems to be a historical misrepresentation of the consequences of the battle. These myths and misunderstandings permeate the history of World War II, and the purpose of Overy’s work is to assess the modern understanding of the war, and to dispel some of the rumors and fantasies concerning its significance.

The book is structured around four major aspects of the battle: the setting, the adversaries, the battle itself, and the results of the battle. It has almost no illustrations, though there are plenty of notes. Each of the four chapters begins with a quote. And the whole book can be read in the space of a few hours. However brief, the book serves as an effective introduction to the history of the battle, the characters and composition of the German and British air forces, the strategies of each side, the aircraft and pilots, along with their respective production and training programs, as well as the attitudes of the people living on the ground beneath the war being fought above their heads. None of these particular subjects are fleshed out in great detail, relative to the others, and so the book does achieve a kind of balance in that respect. This is not to say that the treatment of these subjects is in any way superficial, just that the author is writing more of a survey history than an in-depth study. Overy is aiming for the big idea, rather than the nuanced narrative.

The setting of the book is predominantly 1940 Britain. The political discussions in the book lean much more heavily toward the Allied point of view than the German, and thus there is considerably more information about Churchill and parliament than there is about Hitler and the Reich. Contrary to popular views of Hitler, Overy stresses that Hitler’s goal was not to bomb cities and terrorize civilian populations. Hitler’s plan to invade Britain was tentative, and depended on the destruction of British war-fighting capability in the air. Overy points out that the eastern front against Russia was vastly superior in scope and relevance. The reader may conclude that had the British not declared war in response to Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939, the Battle of Britain may not have ever even taken place, and that the whole subsequent history of the continent would have evolved much differently. This idea was even being discussed in Britain at the time, Overy says, and that some politicians had considered just letting Germany and Russia “bleed each other dry” in a fight to the death. In the event, Hitler genuinely believed that Britain could be made to sue for peace, and Overy lists this as one of the reasons why the threat of invasion was more of a bluff than an operational goal.

The second major part of the book describes the adversaries and their resources in more detail. Again, Overy confines the majority of his discussion to the major brass. These include German Air Marshal Hermann Goering and British Air Marshal Sir Archibald Sinclair. The author describes the former as “ruthless and vain,” in contrast to the later, who was a “dignified public servant” hailing from elite British tradition. In action, the primary air commanders for the British were (Sirs) Cyril Newall, in charge of overall strategy, and Hugh Dowding, who prosecuted the day-to-day efforts as conceived by Newall. Their German counterparts were Field Marshal Albert Kesselring and Hugo Sperrle, both popular and capable leaders, in Overy’s telling. Britain fought a defensive war with Hurricanes and Spitfires, primarily, but also flew Blenheims and Defiants, which were less effective in combat and came to be used more often in night raids. The Germans flew Messerschmitt 109s and 110s, the 109’s being the primary fighter aircraft, which could outperform the Spitfires and Hurricanes over 20,000 feet. These were supported by the less effective Junkers. Overy claims that during the battle, there were rarely more than a thousand serviceable craft on either side on a given day, and generally a couple of hundred fewer were actually operational. Reasons for these numbers being lower than one might imagine include production shortages on both sides, and difficulties training and fielding combat pilots on short notice, in addition to high rates of attrition and loss during the raids themselves.

Both sides fought with similar arrangements. Bombers, which could fly higher and further, would be escorted by swarms of fighter squadrons. Overy points out that the British had little in the way of defensive capability against the bombing raids, beyond scrambling fighters to intercept. They had some radar installations scattered around the coastal areas, and many volunteer spotters posted in strategic locations with binoculars, telephones, maps, and tea kettles. This was not an efficient process, as Overy notes, even with a four minute response time for a six minute flight across the channel. However, once airborne, the bombers proved easy targets for the fighters themselves, and the accuracy of bombers was dismal. Additionally, Hitler’s primary objective was to disable the British air commands, and so his bombers primarily targeted airfields, radar installations, and other military targets associated with aerial combat.

In the actual battle, Overy says that there is no clearly defined beginning or end, nor is there a particularly well defined geographical area. Furthermore, Overy points out that there was no real winner or loser. There were minor German raids beginning as early as the first weeks of June. Hitler’s major assault, codenamed Aldertag, or “Day of Eagles,” was scheduled for the first week of August, and then rescheduled for the middle of August, and began ambiguously. The British record the start of the battle around the eighth of August. Battle of Britain day, which marks the height of the conflict, is celebrated on the fifteenth of September, at which point Overy says the most decisive combat, resulting in the heaviest German losses, turned the tide of battle in Britain’s favor.

This pivot occured, in Overy’s telling, when the British successfully bombed Berlin in an impulsive raid on the twenty-fifth of August. In response, as it is popularly understood, Hitler switched his aerial strategy from military targets to civilian and urban targets around the fifth of September, but Overy claims that this decision was actually made at least two weeks before the speech he gave on that date. Instead, the author suggests that the British raid just gave the Germans an “alibi” for what they were probably going to come around to doing anyway. From the German point of view, this escalation represented an underlying urgency to persuade the British forces to sue for peace and conclude the war in order to save their cities and prevent an invasion. His peace offer in September heavily favored the German interest, and was summarily dismissed by the British government. From the British point of view, Hitler’s shift in strategy allowed for a period of recovery in production and training. Essentially, as Overy argues, Hitler’s decision to retaliate against civilian targets effectively relieved pressure on military targets and precluded any chance of German success afterwards. Since his original goal was to disable British air power, this conclusion makes sense. Hitler had allowed pride and haste and hubris to undermine his original strategy. One of many odd moments in the war in which history is indebted to Hitler, at the very least, for being Hitler, and not a brighter and more capable leader.

Once the Germans decided to target British cities, which were less accessible to the bombers, the bulk of the battle shifted toward night raids, which were safer for those over extended bombers, but the raids themselves were orders of magnitude less successful. This pivot directly preceded the battles between the seventh and fifteenth of Britain, which Overy describes as “decisive in turning the tide” against the German forces for the duration of the conflict. The resulting losses of aircraft and pilots were so high that Hitler postponed the “scheduled” invasion (Operation SeaLion) of the southern coasts of Britain, deciding to reconsider the plan in early October. This “planned” invasion would never come. Hitler failed to establish control of the air over his operating environment. After the September “Blitz,” the air war over those shores basically “petered out,” as Overy puts it.

Overy concludes that the battle, in spite of its anti-climactic end, did accomplish some important outcomes. While the British had significantly overestimated the size and lethality of the German air command, the Germans were making the exact opposite mistake, profoundly underestimating the number of planes and pilots the British could float. They were surely helped into these assumptions by a constant stream of British misinformation, fed daily into the stream of frenzied intelligence reports. But the main culprit lay in Hitler’s own arrogant hubris. He expected to be winning. He didn’t consider failure a realistic possibility until it was well behind him. But by the end of the Battle of Britain, Hitler could not invade Britain with confidence, and as Overy notes, the risk of a military defeat, inevitably accompanied by a political catastrophe, was too high. But the war kept two million Germans occupied while the Russians struggled to gain a foothold in the massive land war to the east. It obligated Britain to stand up to Hitler, proving a European power could and would still do so. The visible aggression against a defiant “sister democracy” persuaded America to aid the British with destroyers, planes, pilots, food, money, and other critical implements.

The United States would not enter the war for roughly another year after the great and celebrated “petering out,” as it were, but the August deal to exchange American destroyers for forward bases was an important step along America’s path to obtaining world power status. Though much of the yankees’ early effort would be directed at Japan in 1942, this deal (along with others negotiated by the Roosevelt administration against a political tide of isolationist sentiment) set the stage for the working relationship which would develop between Roosevelt and Churchill. It should not be forgotten that Britain had concurrent strategic obligations against Italy and in Egypt. The aid provided to the British was arguably critical in sustaining the island’s survival, and had Britain simply allowed themselves to be bowled over by the Luftwaffe, those other fronts would have fallen away immediately, dramatically altering Hitler’s calculus against the Soviets on the ground, to say nothing of Stalin’s!

Overy’s work makes these conclusions easier and more accessible by clarifying the misconceptions surrounding the Battle of Britain. It really was an important battle, even if its significance has been misconstrued, and even if its scope was dwarfed by other conflicts in other theaters. For these reasons, Overy’s book is an important book, even if its scope is dwarfed by the achievements of other authors. Recommended for students and general audiences.

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