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With Wings Like Eagles: A History of the…

With Wings Like Eagles: A History of the Battle of Britain (2009)

by Michael Korda

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If only all history books could be written by Michael Korda (or David McCullough or Doris Kearns Goodwin or Candace Millard or Stephen E. Ambrose or a handful of other writers with a gift for making history come alive). Enthralled as I was last year reading Korda's "Ike," a biography of Dwight D. Eisenhower, with its primary focus on the D-Day invasion, I was eager to read his 2009 book "With Wings Like Eagles: The Untold Story of the Battle of Britain." What a fine book it is.

The "untold story" has to do with Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, whom few Americans have even heard of and whom may not even be that highly regarded in Great Britain. Korda says the official history of the Battle of Britain, which sold more than 6 million copies, did not even mention Dowding's name. Yet Korda calls Dowding "the architect of this victory." It was he, more than anyone (with the possible exception of Winston Churchill, who instilled in the British the will to resist Hitler) who prevented a German invasion of Britain in 1940.

The German bombing raids that came to be known as the Battle of Britain were intended to weaken British resistance to an invasion during the summer of 1940. Destroying the Royal Air Force was a major part of that plan. Dowding began developing Britain's fighter planes long before the war started, at a time when most other military authorities thought bombers, not fighters, were where the money should go. When large numbers of German bombers began flying across the English Channel, however, it was Dowding's fighters that intercepted and destroyed so many of them.

Some military strategists try to convince the enemy he faces a larger force than he actually does. Dowding had the opposite strategy. He convinced the Germans the British had fewer fighter planes than it did, so the German kept sending bombers and fighters to try to destroy those remaining fighters, but Dowding brought more and more of them into the fight, weakening the German air force all the while. By the time late September arrived, it was too late in the year to count on favorable weather for an invasion, and Hitler called it off, for good as it turned out. "Perhaps without even realizing it, in mid-September 1940 Hitler lost the war, defeated by the efforts of perhaps 1,000 young men," Korda writes.

Yet in another aspect to this "unknown story," Korda gives credit to the many young British women who played major roles in the victory. Female pilots delivered new fighter planes, ready for combat, to the bases around Britain. Women worked as radar plotters and radio operators, continuing to work even as German bombs dropped all around them. (It was Dowding who insisted back in 1937 that telephone lines be buried deep underground to protect them during any possible airstrike.) Women deciphered German codes and defused bombs and dragged them off runways so British planes could take off and land.

Introverted and not one to build friendships or promote his own causes, Dowding was a controversial figure whose many rivals were always trying to replace. They succeeded long before the end of the war. Even Churchill didn't like Dowding and, according to Korda, never forgave him for being right about sending more fighter planes to France during the German invasion of that country. Churchill wanted to send more and more planes, while Dowding insisted France was a lost cause and those planes were needed to protect England. That Dowding was able to protect as many fighters as he did went a long way to making victory possible. ( )
  hardlyhardy | Sep 22, 2014 |
Very well done and fairly easy to read. This shines a lot of light on what was a pivotal period of time for Great Britain. It highlights the conflict between Hugh Dowding and most others in the high levels of command at the time. He was a maverick but his unconventional ideas (for the time) and strategy were vital in England being victorious and probably preventing a German invasion of the British Isles.I recommend this for any interested in learning more - and in depth - about the early stages of WWII ( )
  labdaddy4 | Jul 5, 2014 |
Listened to this in audio; the reader, John Lee, was enjoyable to hear. A good book for fans of British, military, or WWII history. It provided a lot of detail on the build up to the air war in the Battle of Britain (at least half the book) and almost day-by-day coverage of the skirmishes. It is rather detailed and the author is rather a name dropper but it did clarify a lot of misconceptions I had about that part of the war. ( )
  sswright46168 | Aug 29, 2013 |
Ranked among the greatest battles in British history, along with Waterloo, defeating the Spanish Armada, and Trafalgar, the Battle of Britain stands as a turning point during World War II when the Nazi juggernaut finally faced a foe that would not fall. Though few recognized it immediately, it was the turning of the tide in the war.

Fought entirely in the air, the Battle of Britain was the battle for mastery of the skies over England between the pilots of the German Luftwaffe and the Royal Air Force. With German invasion expected during the summer of 1940, Michael Korda takes us back to a detailed look at the preparations for war, the development of new technologies on both sides of the battle--including of the all metal monoplanes, like the Spitfire and the BF-109, and radar as a detection system--as well as the key figures that had the foresight to develop the aerial defense to prepare. In vivid colors we see Neville Chamberline, long considered an appeaser but perhaps a more nuanced figure, Winston Churchill, Reichsmarschall Herman Goring, and others.

Above all, though, this is the story of the obstinate, erudite, difficult, and eccentric Air Chief Marshall Hugh Dowding. His strategy of bleeding the German bomber force held off the Germans through the summer until crossing the English Channel in the inclement fall weather made invasion no longer feasible.

At 336 pages, With Wings Like Eagles is a short and fast read, but never fails to delve into the characters and issues that shaped the battle. At the time, as fight pilots died in numbers higher than could be replaced, that "Never was so much owed by so many to so few." It's an apt description of a time when a nation stood on the brink, and only a few stood there and held back the tide. Korda does a wonderful job of bringing it to life, providing perspective, and producing a story that is enjoyable, fascinating, and relevant. If you enjoy histories of World War II, then you'll enjoy adding this to your collection. ( )
  publiusdb | Aug 22, 2013 |
A pretty readable description of the preparation for and logistics behind the Battle of Britain, along with some of the main players including Winston Churchill and Hugh Dowding. Not very technical, but readable and accessible by the general public.
  pwjone1 | Nov 21, 2010 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0061125350, Hardcover)

Michael Korda's brilliant work of history takes the reader back to the summer of 1940, when fewer than three thousand young fighter pilots of the Royal Air Force—often no more than nine hundred on any given day—stood between Hitler and the victory that seemed almost within his grasp.

Korda re-creates the intensity of combat in "the long, delirious, burning blue" of the sky above southern England, and at the same time—perhaps for the first time—traces the entire complex web of political, diplomatic, scientific, industrial, and human decisions during the 1930s that led inexorably to the world's first, greatest, and most decisive air battle. Korda deftly interweaves the critical strands of the story—the invention of radar (the most important of Britain's military secrets); the developments by such visionary aircraft designers as R. J. Mitchell, Sidney Camm, and Willy Messerschmitt of the revolutionary, all-metal, high-speed monoplane fighters the British Spitfire and Hurricane and the German Bf 109; the rise of the theory of air bombing as the decisive weapon of modern warfare and the prevailing belief that "the bomber will always get through" (in the words of British prime minister Stanley Baldwin). As Nazi Germany rearmed swiftly after 1933, building up its bomber force, only one man, the central figure of Korda's book, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, the eccentric, infuriating, obstinate, difficult, and astonishingly foresighted creator and leader of RAF Fighter Command, did not believe that the bomber would always get through and was determined to provide Britain with a weapon few people wanted to believe was needed or even possible. Dowding persevered—despite opposition, shortage of funding, and bureaucratic infighting—to perfect the British fighter force just in time to meet and defeat the German onslaught. Korda brings to life the extraordinary men and women on both sides of the conflict, from such major historical figures as Winston Churchill, Neville Chamberlain, and Reichsmarschall Herman Göring (and his disputatious and bitterly feuding generals) to the British and German pilots, the American airmen who joined the RAF just in time for the Battle of Britain, the young airwomen of the RAF, the ground crews who refueled and rearmed the fighters in the middle of heavy German raids, and such heroic figures as Douglas Bader, Josef František, and the Luftwaffe aces Adolf Galland and his archrival Werner Mölders.

Winston Churchill memorably said about the Battle of Britain, "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few." Here is the story of "the few," and how they prevailed against the odds, deprived Hitler of victory, and saved the world during three epic months in 1940.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:49:39 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

Michael Korda takes the reader back to the summer of 1940, when fewer than 3000 young fighter pilots of the Royal Air Force--often no more than 900 on any given day--stood between Hitler and victory. Korda traces the entire complex web of political, diplomatic, scientific, industrial, and human decisions during the 1930s that led inexorably to the world's first, greatest, and most decisive air battle.… (more)

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