I started reading about the Battle of Britain over Christmas. A combination of heavy snow (trapping us in our cottage and leaving plenty of time for reading) and a series of documentaries led me to Stephen Bungay’s The Most Dangerous Enemy.
I listened to an interview with Bungay and thought him a curious and clever fellow.
The book is a terse and well-paced account, anchored with a deep bibliography and lively narrative style. You have to appreciate a book that titles its first chapter ‘The Reason Why’. I wasn’t thinking of reviewing it as I read it and I won’t crawl backwards now to give an account from memory. There’s plenty of comment on Amazon, which I think will give you the idea. Instead, I’ll just say that it is worth reading.
The Battle of Britain obviously doesn’t cover the precise period and geography that I’m looking at, but it’s such a dramatic place to begin. It introduces the characters (Park, Dowding, Douglas, Harris, Kesslring…) that I’ll need to learn so much more about.
It’s also an uplifting story to position against the darker tale of Bomber Command. The glory and the heroism of this brief battle have such a different character from the long, bleak raids over Germany with their burned out cities and horrifying losses.
I was talking to a pilot who has taken many veterans for flights in his historic aircraft. He has a collection of photos of bright eyed gents, well into their 80s, beaming away as they take their turn in the cockpit. He cheerfully explains that German pilots sometimes join them and they all have a pretty jolly reunion. But then he says:
“Although I took one guy, who had flown Dorniers, for a trip over Bath. As we approached, he started to cry and asked me to turn back. It’s just not on. Hated that. It wasn’t right…” His voice trails off and he looks away.
“Few events in history, and almost none in the history of warfare, are so uplifting and life enhancing as the story of the Battle of Britain. No battle has benefitted so many at the cost of so few. Few battles have ultimately proved to have such positive consequences for the defeated. Looking back over the century whose course it so decisively determined, hideous epoch though that century may have been, one can feel justified in saying that the Battle of Britain was one of humanity’s finest hours.”