Monday, April 8, 2013

mormonhermitmom's review of The Battle of Britain; Five Months That Changed History, May-October 1940

I only took one course of Military History in college, but I enjoyed it.  I don't qualify as an "armchair tactician".  That being said, I don't enjoy a work of military-focused nonfiction that goes too far into terms that only military personnel would understand.  I can follow only a short ways before long acronyms and other jargon start to lose me.

This work by James Holland, fortunately, doesn't go too far that way.  I learned a lot about 'the Blitz' from this book I hadn't known before. 

For instance:  I never knew about Great Britain's network of first generation radar that stretched along it's southern coast. The Germans had something like it for intelligence gathering but they totally dismissed the idea that all the big towers along the English coast were for that purpose.  The Germans sent wave after wave of Stukas and ME 109's in what they thought were sneak attacks, only to be met, again and again, by Hurricanes and Spitfires.  The Germans had the better planes but the pilots were hindered by tactics and orders that wouldn't let them use their planes to their best advantage.  The English pilots were plagued with ammunition capacity that only let them shoot for a few minutes before having to return to their bases to reload, if they managed to get away without being shot down.  The English pilots were also dealing with outmoded fighter pilot training that was stuck in methods developed during the First World War.  Only gradually did one of their higher-ups realize that a new way of dogfighting would work.

In other books about the World War II, the unbelievable actions of Hitler never failed to amaze me.  Here again, more examples of his erratic, emotional, and manipulative style of leadership lead me to wonder how he managed to do so much damage.  He took risks that shouldn't have worked but did, he sat on his hands at precisely the wrong moment to ensure a permanent victory for himself and yet gave his enemies the time they needed to shore up their defenses, and instead of working to instill a unified command, actually encouraged his subordinates to try to outdo each other to gain his favor.  How does one fight a war this way?

Holland gives us a look at how England's government was dealing with the real threat of invasion at that time.  Chamberlain lost his seat as Prime Minister to Winston Churchill - not the smoothest of politicians, but apparently exactly what England needed to prepare for the Germanic plague across the Channel.  Direct, blunt, and yet surprisingly realistic in the political nuances that had to occur to keep things moving, Churchill could be compared to an old bulldog; short, unattractive, physically beat up, but watch out if you threaten his territory - you'll find his stout jaws clamped on your leg and heaven help you.

Included in the book are a wealth of photos of the airmen on both sides whose reminiscences make up a good part of the narrative.  Holland weaves the point of views of the rank and file with those at the top of the command structure very well.  I appreciate a history that brings a personal, real-life perspective to the work.  Names, dates, even photos can be musty and seemingly out of touch with today's world, but when you can include the words of those who lived in those times, you actually remember they were real people.  They had families, they had dreams, they had frustrations, they had feelings.  History no longer becomes something to memorize, it becomes something you want to remember as you witness the events going on around you.

I find this an excellent source of information for those wanting to know more about the European theater of World War II.  Teenagers could handle it, however few teenagers would care to read it.  With all the technology around, the study of history becomes more and more of a dead academic pursuit for the young.  Sad, but that's just how it is.  Churchill would probably want to trip a few up with his cane if he were alive today.

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