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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

“With Wings Like Eagles: The Untold Story of the Battle of Britain”, by Michael Korda


352 pages, Harper Perennial, ISBN-13: 978-0061125362

There is much in Mr. Korda's history to recommend it to students of World War II, military history, and air warfare. To begin with, he focuses on the big-picture aspect of the battle: the foundation on the British and German sides in technology and strategy/tactics; the major players involved, in particular Air Chief Marshal Dowding of Britain; and the key decisions before and during the battle. Though the daily descriptions of battle sometimes devolve into score counting (X British planes shot down; Y German planes shot down), Mr. Korda does a very good job of reminding the reader that real people died in these aircraft.

The book contains an excellent description of the first of what we would now call an air operations center. The key to Britain's success, Mr. Korda asserts, wasn't found strictly in the superior skill of its pilots, but rather in the highly sophisticated system of command and control created by Dowding. By tying radar stations, observers, analysts, controllers, radio operators and pilots all into one system, Dowding ensured the best use of his outnumbered forces, epitomizing the airpower cornerstone of "centralized command, decentralized execution."

The main issues from the book stem from, in my humble opinion, Korda's British viewpoint: he often uses phrases, words and acronyms that this American found unfamiliar and distracting. Additionally, the book at times feels like a sympathetic biography of Dowding rather than a history of the overall battle. Though Dowding is the central figure in the British victory, the focus on him as the unappreciated hero and victim of scheming peers eventually felt repetitive and out of place. Mr. Korda seldom delves into the battle from the German point of view other than to portray the incompetence of Goering and other Luftwaffe leaders.

Those looking for edge-of-your-seat descriptions of dogfights will be disappointed; Korda occasionally uses memoirs and letters for first-person views of the battle, but overall keeps the spotlight on the Marshals and politicians in command. Indeed, this work focuses on issues related to the battle, and not so much on the aerial combat itself. Other strengths of this book include its descriptions of the secret re-arming of Germany and the founding of the Luftwaffe, the question of whether or not the barges prepared for the invasion of England were part of a genuine invasion plan (or merely a bluff), and related matters. A history of radar is provided. The Luftwaffe is described as better than the RAF in terms of the recovery of pilots who had parachuted into the water.

If you are expecting to read about heroic dogfights between pilots from both sides, you will be disappointed; however,  if you want to know about the historical aspects of Britain’s Finest Hour – the whys, how’s, who’s, and outcomes of this particular period of World War II – then this book will provide much detailed facts.

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