Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Battle of Britain - John Ray

I have just finished this book and thought I would put up a quick review. Firstly my view point of the Battle of Britain is largely based on the well known film of the same name and the odd bit of reading here and there, so I have a general and somewhat romantic knowledge of the battle.

We know the story, outnumbered gallant british (and colonial, polish , czech) pilots ,outnumbered and out gunned take on the might of the Luftwaffe and defeat them. Hugh Dowding the commander of fighter command lead this band of the "few" to victory but was replaced as head of fighter command shortly after the battle.

Several books have been written on this subject (none of which I have read) but John Ray sets out to give a balanced unbiased account of the possible reasons for Dowding's removal.

If you are looking for a dramatic action packed review of the daily dogfights during this battle I suggest you put this book back on the shelf and look elsewhere. This book goes into incredible depth, sifting through the many memos, letters, reports, interviews etc. of the period to piece together the machinations of the RAF, Air ministry and politicians in the eventual removal of Dowding. It is a bit dry reading but incredibly interesting.

Leading up to the war Dowding took command of an ill prepared british fighter defence force and turned it into the best fighter defence in the world by the time the battle of britain began. He championed the cause of Radio Direction Finding ( now known as radar) and prevented fighter's being gobbled up in the disaster of the defence of France. Dowding was ably assisted by Keith Park who then took command of 11 group. The group which was to be pushed to breaking point in the ensuing battle. Dowding plan was to fight a defensive battle to conserve his forces and keep britain " in the war" until the weather turned bad and the possible german invasion was averted.

However once the battle began disagreements arose between his subordinates over tactics, in particular Leigh-Mallory commander of 12 group who advocated "Big Wings" to aggresively attack the germans in large numbers versus Park commander of 11 group who prefered a single squadron response.
Dowding comes across as indecisive and reluctant (almost stubborn) when it came to adopting new tactics in a changing battlefield.

Dowding and Park spent the entire battle defending their position from criticism coming from within the RAF and the air ministry on an almost daily basis when they were supposed to be fighting the most important battle in their nation's history. Air vice marshall Douglas comes across in this book as very ambitious and keen to see Dowding's removal and actively worked to see it happen. By November Douglas had succeeded and he took over command of Fighter command.

This is a fascinating book. John Ray is like a detective piecing together the many sources to give an accurate and even handed view of Dowding's command and the behind the scenes movements to have him removed.

A must read for any person interested in a serious examination of this famous battle.

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