Thursday 22 September 2016

Book Review: Battle of Britain - Len Deighton

What a great picture! [1] (Source: RAF Museum)

Note: the pics used in this review - aside from the cover - are not from the book!

Deighton and Michael Caine on the set of the Ipcress Files, 1965

Len Deighton, now in his 80s, is best known as an author of spy fiction, and is ranked alongside contemporaries like Ian Fleming and John Le Carré in terms of his appeal and success. I bought a cheap used paperback of his book SS Great Britain a while back, during a period of fascination with Operation Sealion, but I have yet to read that. 

Now I'm in the middle of a new phase, and getting quite interested in the Battle of Britain. I got this book on the subject by Deighton for £1.50 in a local charity shop, and read it in two days, whenever I could snatch a moment between working and decorating our new home. I didn't used to like books of this sort - picture heavy surveys or 'digests' - but I'm starting to come round to liking them.

Heinkel He-111.

Dornier Do-17.

Junkers Ju 87, AKA the famous screaming dive-bombing Stuka.

I was intrigued to find out that Deighton had trained in the arts, and worked as an illustrator and designer in his youth. And, according to the Deighton Dossier, some of the illustrations in this book (which ones, I don't know) are by him.

A squadron of Hurricanes over Blighty.

Douglas Bader poses with fellow pilots of 242 (Canadian) Squadron, at Duxford. [2]

The book examines the Battle of Britain from numerous angles, with a core part of the text being in a a kind of 'diary' format. There are also sections on all kinds of related topics, from the evolution of air warfare in WWI and the inter-war years, to diagrams of planes, maps of attacks, and substantial use of quotes from both combatants and civilians.

The contributions of the WAAF and others is covered. Here they help deploy barrage balloons.

The role of Radar and similar technology is discussed, as is the breaking of the Engima code.

It's pleasingly easy and compelling read. I was mildly irritated by the need to jump around a bit page-wise, when a piece of text I was reading was interrupted by some sub-section or other. But that's a very minor niggle. 

It seems also that it's nothing new for writers to claim, as Deighton does here (and as both Ben Shepherd and James Holland do in their more recent books that I've just read), that they're exploding all kinds of popular myths.

This is far from being an in-depth study, although it is impressively comprehensive for a large-type, picture-heavy book of its kind. But if you're looking for an entry point into this subject - a relatively small battle, but of great significance nonetheless - as I was when I got it, it's really pretty good.

Deighton credits Hugh Dowding's careful conservatism with winning the battle.

But, as Deighton tells it here, Leigh Mallory intrigued against his boss; Dowding was duly axed, and Leigh Mallory ultimately took over his job.

In the end Britain wins the battle simply by surviving it. Park and Dowding are portrayed as courageously and stoically following a successful policy of carefully husbanding their scant resources, only to be stabbed in the back by Leigh-Mallory and Douglas Bader, with their 'Big Wing' ideas. 

Women building Hurricanes. [3]

The fact that Britain outproduced the Germans, in their manufacture and replacement of materiel, was also a key factor. So to was the German mismanagement of the whole campaign, with Goering proving himself - despite being a former WWI fighter ace himself - a poor leader, strategically speaking. The Luftwaffe changed focus too many times, and Goering loved his Me110s, or Zerstörer (Destroyer!), even in the face of the evidence that showed they were not as effective as he liked to believe.


So, all in all, a fun book, filled with great pictures and other visual reference material, with all the maps and illustrations being specially commissioned for the book, making for both a good read and a good introduction to the topic.

You can see why Goering like the Me110. It does look damnably cool!


[1] Flak was very inaccurate and inefficient, and could cause 'collateral damage' when spent munitions or unexploded rounds returned to earth. But it had psychological value in helping people feel they were being defended, and it unnerved attacking aircraft, making their job harder.

[2] I like this picture for several reasons, two of which are: my grandfather was a Canadian servicemen, over here during (and after!) WWII; Duxford is local to me, and I've been there many, many times. The text describing this image at Wikipedia says: 'Three decorated fighter pilots of No. 242 (Canadian) Squadron RAF, standing outside the Officers' Mess at Duxford, Cambridgeshire. They are (left to right): Pilot Officer W L McKnight, Acting Squadron Leader D R S Bader (Commanding Officer), and Acting Flight Lieutenant G E Ball. By the date this photograph was taken these pilots had, between them, shot down over thirty enemy aircraft.'

[3] This pic is from 1942, after the Battle of Britain, but it gets the idea across!

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