alan little’s weblog

bungay’s battle

17th October 2004 permanent link

I recently read Stephen Bungay’s The Most Dangerous Enemy: A History of the Battle of Britain. Excellent. Thanks to somebody in the blogosphere for recommending this book, but I can’t remember who. Apologies for the lapse in netiquette. Bungay is a management consultant and his take on matters, clearly based on experience of how things work in the real world, is refreshingly different from academinc historians and their tendency to see everything through the lens of why Dr. B is wrong about what Professor A said about it. I studied history but eventually decided I wanted no part of that inward-looking, self-referential academic world.

In the process Bungay overturns what he sees as some existing myths and preconceptions. He presents the German command structure as amateurish and poorly co-ordinated, muddling and improvising their way to defeat; whereas RAF Fighter Command were professionals rigorously and successfully executing a well-prepared plan – contrary to British mythology and, as he sees it, nothing to be ashamed of.

Communication and coordination between the German fighters and bombers was poor – they had incompatible radio systems, and in any case the German fighter pilots tended to be more interested in chasing glory than protecting bombers. The RAF system of ground-controlled interceptions was rigorously disciplined and tightly co-ordinated. Dowding and Park, the leaders of RAF Fighter Command, were air force professionals who had spent decades thinking about defence against bombers. Kesselring, the commander of the relevant part of the Luftwaffe, was a former artilleryman who had just made military history using his air force as flying artillery to support a successful ground campaign, but he had no systematic plan for how to defeat an opposing air force without, as Bungay puts it, “tanks on runways”. A lot of the German fighter pilots still believed the First World War “Knights of the Air” myth – again contrary to British myths, there is no evidence that they systematically attacked parachuting pilots who had baled out (although Dowding was on record as saying they would have been perfectly within their rights to do). Whereas the British as a matter of policy did attack German air-sea rescue planes, which German pilots regarded as a war crime. And the bombing of Guernica, the event that inspired the defining work of art of the twentieth century, was a failed attempt at a precision attack on a military target and not a deliberate terror raid.

I once flew from Munich to London City Airport in a little Dornier turboprop business jet. Flying up the Thames Estuary in a propellor-driven Dornier was an interesting experience for an Englishman of my generation. My childhood was twenty years after the war, but we still grew up with Airfix models of Hurricanes and Stukas hanging from the bedroom ceiling. Achtung, Spitfeuer! But there weren’t any. We must have been re-enacting the day when a squadron of Dorniers got separated from their escorts over London and, thanks to an untypical RAF command-and-control cockup, most of them managed to get away.

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