‘With Wings Like Eagles’ by
Michael Korda: A fresh look at the Battle of Britain
12:00 AM CST on Sunday, January 11, 2009
In the summer and fall of 1940, the world’s fate hinged on the Battle of Britain. Had the Nazi Luftwaffe prevailed in its air assault on England, the war might have ended. But the British victory ensured the war would continue until the United States joined and tipped the power balance.
That story has been told before. Now, Michael Korda provides a fresh, new account of the man most responsible for victory in With Wings Like Eagles: A History of the Battle of Britain.
Korda, a former editor-in-chief at Simon and Schuster and a Royal Air Force veteran, takes a personal interest in the story. His uncle, Sir Alexander Korda, was listed by the Gestapo as a person to be arrested once the invasion of England was complete. But that invasion was stopped by the RAF.
Often, accounts of this battle focus on Prime Minister Winston Churchill. This is no accident. When he was asked how history would remember him, Churchill famously answered that it would remember him well since he intended to write it. He did, and won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his World War II memoir. But in With Wings Like Eagles, the author manages to move the prime minister into a supporting role â€“ no easy task.
Instead, Korda shines the spotlight on Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding. He led the RAF Fighter Command from its creation in 1936. In those days, the fighter plane was the weak stepchild to the proud, muscular bomber. “The bomber will always get through,” theorized military planners before World War II. Dowding disagreed. He foresaw the fighter plane’s importance.
“Dowding had a good picture in his mind of the battle to come,” Korda writes, “and what it would take to win.” He began planning for dogfights in the air, and meticulously oversaw the implementation of radar and radio control of aircraft, as well as the creation of new single-engine monoplanes, such as the eight-gun Spitfire.
When the Nazi air assault came in 1940, the RAF pilots were ready. By September, the battle ended in Hitler’s first defeat. Mr. Korda writes, “Perhaps without even realizing it, Hitler lost the war, defeated by the efforts of perhaps 1,000 young men.”
Ironically, perhaps Dowding’s greatest battle occurred not with his enemy but with his prime minister. As the Battle of France had ended and the Battle of Britain was beginning, Churchill favored sending fighter planes to France to help repel the Nazis. Dowding saw that France was lost and that any planes sent across the channel would be lost, as well. His refusal saved many fighter planes for the English and helped win the Battle of Britain.
But Dowding possessed vices as well as virtues. A difficult man, his sharp elbows had bruised many egos throughout his military career. As the Battle of Britain wound down, the Luftwaffe began nighttime raids that were strategically less important but still frightening. When the RAF Fighter Command proved less effective in combating these attacks, Dowding’s critics conspired to blame him and remove him from command.
But Dowding’s achievement in the Battle of Britain remains undiminished. “Few prophets have ever had a clearer picture of what was to come,” Korda eulogizes, “or what to do about it.”
Kasey S. Pipes is the author of Ike’s Final Battle: The Road to Little Rock and the Challenge of Equality.
With Wings Like Eagles
A History of the Battle of Britain