‘Of all Germany’s possible enemies, Britain is the most dangerous’ wrote Oberst Beppo Schmid, Head of Luftwaffe Intelligence on 22 November 1939. It proved to be an astute observation in the build up to the subsequent conflict that became the ‘Battle of Britain’.
I was born in Croydon and it was my hometown that was selected as the Luftwaffe’s first target at the beginning of The Blitz. My early childhood, through to my mid twenties were spent in Wallington, only a few miles away before returning to Croydon following my marriage. The whole span of my life has been spent under skies that witnessed fury and fear in equal measure during those frequent and ferocious encounters between the Luftwaffe and the RAF during much of 1940.
Small wonder then that this small boy soon began absorbing the prolific number of publications that sprang up from the fertile breeding ground of the battle. I revered our pilots as heroes and developed great respect for the Luftwaffe’s more gentlemanly aviators, Galland and Molders. Having Croydon Airport, Kenley Aerodrome and Biggin Hill (described as ‘the most famous fighter station in the world’) on my doorstep merely served to endlessly feed my imagination. Fact or mythology, my unquenchable appetite swallowed it all. In later years I settled, comfortably sated, into a cultural knowledge of the Battle of Britain that was as recognisable and familiar to Britain as Nelson’s Column or Buckingham Palace. Further books on the epic clash between Britain and Germany could, I reasoned, only be mere reiterations of what was already well understood. My opinion was widely shared.
Fortunately, Stephen Bungay was of a different mind. A meticulous researcher and historian, he spent copious amounts of time at the RAF Museum in Hendon, the Imperial War Museum and the Public Records Office at Kew, as well as a week at Freiburg in Germany, examining their military archives…and it shows. His prodigious re-examination of the battle, from all salient perspectives has, as its wing man, a gift for writing and expression that has transformed it into the finest single volume on the subject.
‘The Most Dangerous Enemy’ contains within its pages many surprises and poignant moments, as it dispels and sweeps away the mythology which has grown up around the battle and replaces it with, for the first time, a clear, lucid and properly balanced understanding of this most pivotal of times in the recent history of the western world.
I share the author’s unequivocal view that the Battle of Britain has never really been accorded its true comparative status alongside other key events in World War II. The tendency has been to regard it as a localised or almost provincial victory but without that success there could have been no safe haven for American and Commonwealth forces to reside in during preparations for D-Day and no bases within reach of the German munitions industries by air. The occupation of Britain included documented plans to eliminate the English completely as a race by means of genocide, in the same manner as the Jews. The entire map of our existence today would have been impossible in the wake of defeat. It was a battle that had to be won.
The book reveals that the Luftwaffe’s defeat was, to a significant degree, ‘engineered’ by shortcomings in the German war machine but it also tells of the key contribution of Bomber Command, whose tale is largely, if not completely silent in other accounts. Regarded widely as a purely ‘fighter’ war from the RAF side, it was also very much a bomber campaign as daylight raids were thrown against the build up of invasion barges and associated equipment on the North French coast. The suicidal nature of the missions and the raw heroism of the crews who set off, knowing their return was at best unlikely, is finally given a voice. The disruption in the organisational plans in France, bought at a fearful cost, played no small part in preventing the Germans from attempting a crossing.
This is a magnificent book. The prose is quietly elegant, eminently readable and maintains the reader’s attention from the Prologue to the last page. In a couple of decades or so it’s likely that the last witnesses of a struggle that played out 75 years ago last year, will have departed this life. ‘The Most Dangerous Enemy’ will remain a fitting monument of understanding and appreciation for all those who were there when Churchill said “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed, by so many, to so few”.