The Battle of Britain, Winston Churchill famously remarked, was the “finest hour” of the Royal Air Force, which battled Hitler’s Luftwaffe in the skies above England for a few tense weeks. That storied episode, which historian Richard Overy deems a stalemate rather than a decisive triumph, has been layered with legends, one being that the RAF’s determined resistance was the key factor in repelling an impending Nazi invasion. It now appears that that was never a real possibility. Another legend was that the RAF was badly outnumbered and outgunned. In fact, as Overy details, the German and British air forces were fairly evenly matched, and the RAF sustained fewer losses than it delivered.
Richard Overy has produced another* superb book here. Not a right lot longer than I imagine the pamphlet it mentions at the end that was produced about the battle – that was the first to coin the phrase ‘The Battle of Britain’ – this is a concise, considered and thoroughly enjoyable snapshot of a few months in late 1940. A few months that have gone a long way to defining the fighting spirit of us British.
It does indeed strip away the myth and present the reality of what actually happened in that late summer and autumn. How many we’re ‘the few’, how many we’re they up against? How much do we, the ‘many’, owe them?
Every one – every British person of a certain age, that is – is surely certain they know what happened and who we owe our thanks to. We do, and then again, this book shows we don’t. Read this and you will understand much more about something you thought you knew all about.
*Everyone should read Russia’s War by Richard Overy as well.