The Battle of Britain
by Kate Moore, Osprey, Oxford, UK, 2010, $29.95.
The Most Dangerous Enemy: An Illustrated History of the Battle of Britain
by Stephen Bungay, Zenith, Minneapolis, Minn., 2010, $40.
Last of the Few: 18 Battle of Britain Fighter Pilots Tell their Extraordinary Stories
by Dilip Sarkar, Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK, 2010, $34.95.
Seventy years ago this past summer, two powerful air force rivals clashed in a contest that still stirs the imagination. The story of Winston Churchill’s gallant “Few” standing up to Adolf Hitler’s Luftwaffe has been told and retold, and as the anniversary year unfolds we can expect dozens of new volumes to add to the many hundreds—if not thousands—of books dealing with the Battle of Britain. We have here three noteworthy books that, for different reasons, stand apart from the pack.
Many of the new offerings can be described as “coffee table books”—long on glossy graphics and short on substance and analysis. It would be a mistake to lump Kate Moore’s The Battle of Britain into that category. True, it is beautifully illustrated. Photos, wartime posters and drawings, and even a pilot’s handwritten diary—mostly culled from the Imperial War Museum’s vast archives—make this one of the most attractive illustrated treatments to appear. The brief, authoritative text is a match for the graphics. Moore draws on the best of the secondary literature, enhanced with material from the IWM’s sound recordings collection, to produce a short account of the air battle that is both comprehensive and readable. Only a few erroneous photo captions mar an otherwise magnificent presentation.
Stephen Bungay’s The Most Dangerous Enemy originally appeared in 2000. This large-format, heavily illustrated edition preserves most of the original text, sacrificing only the source notes, orders of battle, epilogue and postscript. The photos are a mix of lesser-known and well-worn shots, augmented by new maps, charts and tables. Though the illustrations certainly add something, the real value of this book is that it is quite simply the best single volume treatment of the battle to have appeared in 70 years—and there is some stiff competition. Bungay’s work covers the waterfront—technology, tactics, command and leadership, personal accounts and thorough discussions of subjects such as intelligence and aircraft production. He also provides a gripping dayby-day narrative of the air action that rests on superb research while at the same time conveying the struggle’s human drama. His overall interpretation—that the British victory was not due to “muddling through,” or solely the result of German blunders, but was rather the product of superior generalship—will stand the test of time.
Of the 2,936 Fighter Command aircrew members who flew in the battle, fewer than 100 survive today. Aerial combat in 1940 claimed some, many others did not survive the remainder of the war, and time has done in the rest. Dilip Sarkar has over the last 20 years interviewed hundreds of survivors, combining this priceless archive with additional research to produce more than a dozen books on the battle. Last of the Few emphasizes not the role of the well-known aces (only one of the 18 subjects of the book, George Unwin, qualifies as a familiar name) but the exploits of the self-acknowledged also-rans of the battle. The focus here is on pilots with few kills, who served with the less prominent 10 and 13 Groups, or were otherwise denied the limelight—and whose collective contribution to the RAF’s victory is uncontested. Most were interviewed by Sarkar, but one squadron leader, Brian Lane, died in action in 1942. Building on recollections of squadron mates, Sarkar reconstructs the story of this gifted leader.
A consistent theme is the survivors’ humility. Most are reluctant to discuss their own exploits; one even notes, “It is sad that the best pilots seemed to get killed whilst the‘hams’ like me survived.” Future generations of aviation historians are in Sarkar’s debt.
Originally published in the November 2010 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.