A groundbreaking new account of the Battle of Britain from acclaimed historian James Holland
The Battle of Britain paints a stirring picture of an extraordinary summer when the fate of the world hung by a thread. Historian James Holland has now written the definitive account of those months based on extensive new research from around the world including thousands of new interviews with people on both sides of the battle. If Britain's defenses collapsed, Hitler would have dominated all of Europe. With France facing defeat and British forces pressed back to the Channel, there were few who believed Britain could survive; but, thanks to a sophisticated defensive system and the combined efforts of the Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy and the defiance of a new Prime Minister, Britain refused to give in. From clashes between coastal convoys and Schnellboote in the Channel to astonishing last stands in Flanders, slaughter by U-boats in an icy Atlantic and dramatic aerial battles over England, The Battle of Britain tells this epic World War II story in a fresh and compelling voice.
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About the Author
James Holland was born in Salisbury, Wiltshire, and studied history at Durham University. A member of the British Commission for Military History and the Guild of Battlefield Guides, he also regularly contributes reviews and articles in national newspapers and magazines. He is the author of Italy's Sorrow: A Year of War, 1944-1945; Fortress Malta: An Island Under Siege, 1940-1943; Together We Stand: North Africa 1942-1943 – Turning the Tide in the West; and Heroes: The Greatest Generation and the Second World War. His many interviews with veterans of the Second World War are available at the Imperial War Museum. James Holland is married with two children and lives in Wiltshire.
Read an Excerpt
The Battle of Britain
Five Months That Changed History May-October 1940
By James Holland
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2010 James Holland
All rights reserved.
Sunday, 5 May 1940, a little after two that afternoon. A warm, sunny day over much of Britain, but above Drem aerodrome, a busy grass airfield some twenty miles east of Edinburgh, a deep blue sky was pock-marked with bright white cumulus drifting lazily across the Scottish headland on a gentle breeze. Perfect flying weather, in fact, which was just as well because Pilot Officer David Crook could barely contain his excitement any longer.
Dispersed around one end of the airfield, beside the concrete perimeter track, were the twelve Spitfires of 609 (West Riding) Squadron. Elsewhere, further along around the airfield's edge, were more Spitfires, as well as various other aircraft, including a number of Harvard and Magister trainers. Clutching his leather flying helmet and parachute, David followed his friend and flight commander, Pip Barran, from the wooden dispersal hut towards the line of Spitfires. Groundcrew were busy around several of them, including L.1083, a Mk IA, and one of four that had been delivered to the squadron at the end of the previous August.
David had missed their arrival, although he had seen the squadron's first two Spits land at 609's pre-war base at Yeadon in Yorkshire on 19 August – just a few days after their last peacetime summer camp had ended. Flying ageing Hawker Hind biplanes had been grand enough fun, but the news that the squadron was to convert to Spitfires had been greeted with euphoria by all concerned. Like any man or boy alive, David had wanted to fly one of these beautiful machines ever since he had first heard about them. With its powerful Rolls-Royce Merlin engine and sleek, curving lines, the Spitfire was an ultra-modern machine of barely imaginable power. Moreover, its heritage could not be bettered; Supermarine, its maker, had won the Schneider Trophy – the award given to the fastest aircraft in the world – a decade or so before for the third consecutive time.
Although an Auxiliary Air Force squadron made up of 'weekend fliers', 609 had been mobilized shortly before the outbreak of war. Yet while some of the more experienced pilots had headed straight to Catterick in anticipation of the beginning of hostilities, David and five other Auxiliary pupil pilots had been left behind, first to kick their heels for a month at Yeadon, and then to be sent to complete their flying training.
David had finished his training just a fortnight before, and his leave the previous day. Of the six that had been sent to Flying Training School (FTS), only four were now returning to 609. Two of them, Gordon Mitchell and Michael Appleby, had driven up to Scotland with David the day before, having all met up for lunch in Leeds. They had stopped again for dinner in Alnwick, before finally arriving at Drem in time for reunion drinks in the mess.
It had been good to be back amongst his old friends once more, although there were a number of new faces too, including three regular RAF pilots and four members of the Volunteer Reserve. At first glance they had seemed decent enough, however, and David had been pleased to notice that, despite a new CO, the old atmosphere of 609 was little changed. And Drem seemed like a good spot, with enough hangars and activity to whet the enthusiasm of any keen young pilot, and plenty of golf nearby, as well as tennis and squash courts. Furthermore, Edinburgh, with its mass of pubs and entertainments, was just a short drive away.
Best of all, however, was the prospect of spending many happy hours flying Spitfires. At last! And Pip had been quick to put him out of his misery. A half-hour flight in a Harvard in the morning and then he and the others had been given the all-clear to take the Spitfire up.
The wheels of the petrol bowser had left their impression in the grass and the smell of high-octane aviation fuel was still strong as David and Pip reached L.1083. The two groundcrew – the plane's fitter and rigger – were still finishing preparing the aircraft for flight as Pip led David around the Spitfire for the external checks, stepping carefully over the lead from the accumulator trolley that fed into the cowling. With his helmet now on, and his parachute strapped and dangling slightly from his backside, David then climbed on to the root of the port wing and, at Pip's instruction, hoisted himself over the half-door and down into the cockpit. Clambering on to the wing beside him, Pip then talked him through any unfamiliar aspects of the plane, reminded him of the settings, and then, with a cheery smile, jumped down and left him to it.
David kept the rounded canopy pushed back behind his seat as he clipped his radio leads on to his helmet. The cockpit was narrow – just three feet wide – but even for a man of decent height and build like David it did not feel cramped: he could move his arms easily enough, while his feet rested comfortably on the pale green metal pedals. The smell was distinctive – as it was in all aircraft; a mixture of oil, metal, hydraulic fluid, sweat, rubber and fuel. Not unpleasant at all; reassuring, rather.
Elevator set, rudder fully pushed to the right. Flaps up, artificial horizon set. With his left hand, David set the throttle next to his knee to the start-up position, switched on the radio button and then, with his right hand, turned the engine start isolation switch to 'on'. He unscrewed the priming plunger locknut and began priming the engine. Magneto switches on. Fuel selector on. Glancing out, he saw the groundcrew, then he leaned forward slightly to the bottom centre of the panel and with the index and middle fingers of his right hand simultaneously pressed the engine start and booster coil buttons. As the engine began to turn he vigorously worked the priming pump until, after a few seconds, and with a lick of flame and a belch of smoke from the exhaust stubs, the mighty Merlin roared into life. He carried out his magneto checks, then gave a nod to the groundcrew, who now pulled the chocks clear. A voice from control – he was clear to roll.
The noise was incredible. The airframe was shaking, the engine growling angrily, so that even though the sound was muffled by his tightly fitting flying helmet and earpieces, it was still a throbbing roar. In front of him, blocking his forward view entirely, was the engine cowling, pointing imperiously skywards, the propeller a faint whirr. Glancing out, he saw the groundcrew unplug the lead from the accumulator trolley and pull it clear. Then hearing the static-distorted voice of the ground controller give him the all-clear, he acknowledged, released the brakes and felt the Spitfire roll forward.
Zig-zagging slowly so that he could see what was ahead of him, he successfully manoeuvred the beast to the end of the grass runway and then paused one more time to check that everything was OK. Engine temperature was already 100 degrees – it had risen alarmingly quickly. He glanced again at the dials, tightened the primer locknut, and then opened the throttle.
The effect took his breath away. The engine powered up with a smooth roar and the Spitfire leapt forward like a bullet, the fuselage almost trying to twist from the huge torque from the Merlin. Easing the stick forward slightly as he'd been told to do, he felt the fuselage rise and the cowling lower so that at last he could see ahead of him. Then, before David barely knew what was happening, the Spitfire was hurtling at ninety miles per hour and then the shuddering along the ground stopped and he felt the plane slip seamlessly into the air. He had never known such power; it was like driving a Grand Prix racing car having just stepped out of an ageing Morris and for a moment he felt as though the machine was completely running away with him.
As he continued to climb, he managed to collect his scattered wits, raised the undercarriage, made sure the temperatures and pressure were stabilized, and then turned the propeller to coarse pitch. Glancing backwards, he was astonished to see the airfield already far, far behind him. It was hard not to smile.
After cruising over the Lothians for a few minutes, however, David began to realize that his Spitfire was perhaps not quite as formidable as he had first thought during the first breathless moments, so with his confidence rising he decided to take the plane back for a bumps and circuit. This he managed without too much difficulty, touching back down and then promptly taking off again and feeling altogether more comfortable.
Climbing high into the clouds in this remarkable new toy he swirled and pirouetted through the early-summer sky, performing gentle dives that saw his air speed indicator rise to as much as 400 miles per hour. It was fabulously thrilling, a brief time of unbridled joy. As he was very quickly discovering, it did not take long to become accustomed to the Spitfire's great power and speed, and once this adjustment had been made, it was an extraordinarily easy machine to fly and a quite superb aircraft for performing aerobatics.
After an hour he landed back at Drem, rolling the Spitfire across the grass to its dispersal around the perimeter. Having shut down the engine, he pushed back the canopy once more. He felt quite light-headed with exhilaration; his life irrevocably changed. 'Practically everybody who has flown a Spitfire thinks it is the most marvellous aircraft ever built,' he noted, 'and I am no exception to the rule.'
Not for nothing was the RAF known as the best flying club in the world. By the beginning of the war, flying was still a comparatively new phenomenon, and those fortunate enough to get their chance to take to the air found largely empty skies in which the world seemed to be their oyster. For David, a 25-year-old sport-loving Yorkshireman, the Auxiliary Air Force had meant that he could work in the family sports goods manufacturing business in Huddersfield by week and fly at the weekend with lots of like-minded friends. Although being in the air force had, with the onset of war, become a full-time occupation, David was enjoying himself enormously, despite having to leave his young wife at home. At FTS he had made even more friends, was finding flying as rewarding and exhilarating as ever, and now, at the beginning of May, had finally been given the chance of a lifetime: to fly the already fabled Spitfire. The war – and the prospect of one day fighting for his life in a bitter aerial conflict – was barely given a thought.CHAPTER 2
The Eve of Battle
David Crook flew L.1083 twice more on 6 May, and again on the 7th and 8th. On Thursday, 9 May, he practised both aerial attacks and formation flying, then was given the afternoon off, so with several of his friends from the squadron he went into Edinburgh for a 'grand evening' including a slap-up dinner and an uproarious variety performance at the Empire. Life in 609 Squadron could hardly have been more enjoyable.
As David had been carrying out his ninth and tenth Spitfire flights on that May Thursday, the world must have seemed a very calm and peaceful place. Through the light puffs of cloud, he would have seen Scotland stretching away from him, Edinburgh nestling against the Firth of Forth and then, to the north, the rolling coast and, inland, the mountains of Perthshire. The country looked a much smaller place from even 6,000 feet. He would also have seen the North Sea, deep, dark and forbidding, with ships, small lines of white wake following behind, dotting the vast expanse of water as they ferried freight around the British Isles. Fishermen, too, continued to head out to sea, making their way carefully through the channels between the extensive minefields that had been laid all along the Scottish and English east coast.
It would have been a scene that after four days back with the squadron would have already felt utterly familiar. It was almost as though the country were not at war at all. Yet, far across the sea, on mainland Europe, these were the last hours of calm. Some 900 miles away, in Berlin, Adolf Hitler, the Führer of the German Reich, was in his study dictating a proclamation to his forces gathering on the Western Front. The new Reich Chancellery that stretched all the way along Voss-strasse in the heart of the German capital had been designed by Hitler's architect, Albert Speer. Despite being more than 1,400 feet long and containing not only vast rooms and galleries but a massive underground bunker system, the new headquarters of the Reich had been completed in less than a year by 4,500 workers operating in shifts around the clock, for seven days a week. The Führer's study was naturally at the new building's heart, with five towering six-metre-high French windows looking out on to a tree-lined courtyard beyond. There was a large marble map table by the centre window, and a portrait of Bismarck – one of his heroes – above the fireplace, beneath which were a long sofa and a number of armchairs. At the other end of the room was Hitler's specially designed writing desk. Otherwise there was very little. Just space. Hitler's outsize study was 27 metres long and 14.5 wide.
X-Day – as the Germans called the start of Hitler's long-anticipated offensive in the West – had been set on 1 May for five days' time. Four days later, he postponed it until 7 May and then, finally, at the request of Feldmarschall Göring, his deputy and the commander of the Luftwaffe, he postponed it again for a further three days. But that would be it. No more postponements; the fateful hour would be dawn on Friday, 10 May.
Now, as Hitler walked the expanse of his study dictating to his secretary, there was less than eighteen hours to go. By the next morning, his air fleets would be raining bombs over the Low Countries, his armies marching forward, punching their way through Luxembourg, Holland and Belgium. 'The battle which begins today,' he concluded in his proclamation, 'will decide the fate of the German nation for the next thousand years. Now do your duty.'
It was Hitler's way to describe decisions as unavoidable do-or-die choices; his view of life was largely black or white, with few shades of grey. This also justified his gambler's approach. Yet, in this case, he really did have no choice. He had thought Britain and France were bluffing with their threats to uphold Poland's independence, that they were mere words. After all, they had stood by and watched when he moved back into the Rhineland, again during the Anschluss of Austria, and then once again during his occupation of both the Sudetenland and then the rest of Czechoslovakia. Why should Poland be any different?
It was Britain who had declared war first, on the morning of Sunday, 3 September. When Hitler heard the news he had sat immobile, gazing blankly before him. Eventually, he turned to his Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, and with a savage look asked, 'What now?' In the days that followed, he had time to answer that question for himself. It soon became clear that neither Britain nor France had any intention of going on the offensive – at least, not for the time being. That meant he would have to strike first. He had always known that at some point he would have to deal with the Western powers and Britain in particular. He had nothing but contempt for the French but he did admire the British and their Empire. Yet although he had gambled on her not declaring war over Poland, he had recognized that Britain would need subduing before he could continue with his expansion programme. The need for living space – Lebensraum – lay at the heart of his plans for the Third Reich.
Thus Britain was the most dangerous enemy. 'Our enemy Number One,' Hitler had told Speer, as early as 1937. It was Britain that had led the talks at Munich back in September 1938 and it was Britain that had been most vocal in her protestations against the German absorption of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. From that time onwards, right up until the outbreak of war, it had been Britain, more so than France, that had continued to denounce Hitler's plans; Britain that had first threatened to uphold Poland's independence. 'England is our enemy,' Hitler had told his Minister for Propaganda, Josef Goebbels, 'and the showdown with England is a matter of life and death.'
Excerpted from The Battle of Britain by James Holland. Copyright © 2010 James Holland. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsList of Maps and Figures,
Note on the Text,
Part I Miracles,
1 First Flight,
2 The Eve of Battle,
3 The Go-for-Broke Gamble,
4 Hook, Line and Sinker,
5 The First Clash in the Air,
7 Inside the Third Reich,
8 A Battle Against Time,
9 The Battle is Lost,
10 Emergency Measures,
11 Learning the Lessons,
12 What to Do for the Best,
13 New Appointments,
15 Fighter Command Enters the Fray,
17 Black Monday,
18 Dunkirk: The Beginning,
19 Dunkirk: In the Balance,
20 Dunkirk: The Middle,
21 Dunkirk: The End,
Part II Respite,
22 What Next?,
23 The End in France,
24 Hitler's Dilemma,
25 All Alone,
26 Getting Ready,
27 Trouble at Sea: Part 1,
28 Bringing It All Together,
29 Trouble at Sea: Part 2,
30 Crooked Leg,
Part III Kanalkampf,
31 First Combat,
32 Peace Offerings,
33 The Besieged,
34 Hotting Up,
35 Bombs on Germany, Bomben auf England,
Part IV Battle Over Britain,
36 The Wall of England,
38 The Biggest Air Battle,
39 The Hardest Day,
40 Bombs on Berlin,
41 Tactics and Technicalities,
42 Breaking Point,
43 Black Saturday,
44 Summer Madness,
45 The Crux,
48 Last Flight,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
World War II is probably the most written about war of all time, and you keep saying to your self that no once can write anything new about it. Well, James Holland has done it. He has written an engrossing story on the Battle of Britain in a whole new way. Most scholars who write about the Battle of Britain start their narrative with the bombing of the channel convoys or the battle of the aerodromes. But Mr. Holland starts his book on May 10, 1940, the date the German Army invaded France. We get to see a wonderful description of the fighting done the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), and the fighting retreat to Dunkirk. This scholarship is something we don't see very often in books about WWII. I consider a book is extremely good if it tells me something that I did not know before. This book tells us that men, materials, and planes were sent to France after the Dunkirk withdrawal occurred, in a vain attempt to keep France in the war This necessitated a second withdrawal from France. I would highly recommend this bo0ok to anyone who is looking for a fresh approach to one of the most written about battles of WWII.
The Battle of Britain: Five Months That Changed History; May--October 1940 is a gold mine of information on the Battle of Britain and the Battle of France, taking the reader into the cockpit of the BF 109, the Supermarine Spitfire, the Hawker Hurricane, etc. This book also talks about the british intelligence network, radar, connections with America, and the lives of both pilots and citizens. The book does the exact same amount of justice to Germany, giving it the same amount of information as it gives Britain. Although this is a history book, it gives you the feel of a novel. I would give this book 10/10 any day, and James Holland does an amazing job. Please read!
Other than a distinct lack of appreciation of the difference between positive and negative G direction, it is a fine book.
Keeps up the suspense even though of course I know how it all turned out.
An excellent narrative. It actually covers quite a bit more than just the Battle of Britain.