The Burning Blue:
A New History of the Battle of Britain

Paul Addison + Jeremy A. Crang (editors)

Pimlico 2000
A book review by Danny Yee © 2003
The Burning Blue contains eighteen papers on the Battle of Britain. They all come from the one conference, but from a conference designed with a book in mind, so the result makes a coherent volume. There is no attempt to recount the day-by-day details of the Battle, however, with the papers offering instead a wide range of different perspectives, from the literary to the geopolitical.

Papers by Klaus A. Maier and Malcolm Smith describe the preparations and state of the German and British air forces in the lead up to the Battle. The Luftwaffe, organised for close support of the army, was ill-prepared for strategic air war — but it was that rather than an invasion that was on the cards. The British inherited from the First World War an independent air force and an offensive doctrine with a strong emphasis on bombers. Critical events for the Royal Air Force were the preservation of most of the existing fighter squadrons during the Battle for France, the setting up of a Shadow Factory scheme for aircraft production, and the development and deployment of radar.

As Horst Boog describes it, "15th September, the turning point of the Battle in the British view, does not occur as such in the German table of events". As well as being at a tactical disadvantage, the Luftwaffe was hampered by faulty intelligence and conflicting goals; and the switch from attacks on RAF infrastructure was a major mistake. On terror bombing:

"At the beginning of the Battle of Britain bomber crews were instructed to hit prescribed targets of military or economic relevance and avoid collateral damage as far as possible. Crews had to bring their bombs back if they did not find their targets. RAF Bomber Command attacking Germany acted likewise in this period."
Sebastian Cox describes the early raids, the war of attrition and the problems the RAF had finding pilots and maintaining airfields; he agrees that the switch to attacking London was a mistake. He also describes the dispute between Park and Leigh-Mallory and the dismissal of Dowding.

Three papers look at the perspective of the then neutral great powers. Russian historiography on the Battle has been dominated by politics: early pro-German treatment was followed by a period of quite objective coverage; the Cold War then saw the downplaying of "air fighting" over Britain with respect to "real" battles such as Stalingrad and Kursk. The Battle played a role in broader United States aid and in the conflict between Roosevelt and Lindbergh and between interventionists and isolationists more generally. Some lessons about air warfare were learned from US fact-finding missions, but others were not. And Japanese military attach├ęs in London reported on the Battle, though reports that the British were going to win were not appreciated.

Three papers offer firsthand views of the Battle. Two by surviving veterans, one German and one British, are not particularly useful — "Old men's memories do a lot of editing", as one of them writes himself. More interesting is a collection of letters from a pilot to his family, written between June and December 1940.

Owen Dudley Edwards presents a fascinating look at the Battle of Britain and children's literature, considering four different authors: pre-war boys weeklies such as the Magnet and Gem, in particular Frank Richards' stories about Greyfriars (and his exchange with George Orwell about the merits of his stories); Elinor Brent-Dyer's Chalet School books, which "contextualised the Battle [as a] defence of the Jews and of all other true religions and persecuted peoples"; Richmal Crompton's "Willam" books; and W.E. Johns' Biggles, who "made the Battle of Britain an event in the First World War", and female pilot Worrals.

Angus Calder looks at pilot's memoirs — Richard Hilary's The Last Enemy, Paul Brickhill's Reach for the Sky, and Peter Townsend's Duel of Eagles — tracing their ancestry back to the First World War romanticisation of flight and in particular of single-pilot fighters. Tony Aldgate surveys films about the Battle, both wartime and post-war. Adrian Gregory examines the commemoration of the Battle in events such as Battle of Britain Day, which has been limited by the problem of reconciling a celebration of the "few" (most narrowly, 2917 Fighter Command aircrew) with the broader war. And Jeremy Lake and John Schofield look at the architecture and conservation of Battle sites, of airfields, radar stations, crash sites, and anti-invasion fortifications.

Addison and Crang themselves consider Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland and the association of the Battle with a particular area of England, as well as the Commonwealth contribution and that of Allied Europeans, notably Czech and Polish pilots. And Richard Overy teases out some of the military and political consequences of the Battle, its connections with German plans to attack Russia and its effects on Soviet and US policy. (Something not touched on is whether the aircraft and aircrew the Germans lost during the Battle might have been decisive in either Russia or the Battle of the Atlantic.)

The Burning Blue is a mixed collection, but one with some fascinating material, much of it genuinely new. It is not for those with a narrow interest in military history, but can be recommended to anyone interested in how the Battle of Britain fits into British cultural history and the broader Second World War.

April 2003

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%T The Burning Blue
%S A New History of the Battle of Britain
%E Addison, Paul
%E Crang, Jeremy A.
%I Pimlico
%D 2000
%O paperback, references, index
%G ISBN 0712664750
%P x,292pp