In this summer of the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, a new authority on the subject appears to have emerged: Richard Overy, whose articles and essays on the subject have been hard to miss of late. As professor of modern history at King's College London, he is entitled to respect; even so, it has been astonishing to see the kind of review space normally reserved for major new historical works devoted to this very small, slight paperback.
Does The Battle deserve such attention, especially when more authoritative books have been published recently on the subject? It is the purpose of this short book, Overy writes, "to assess where the battle now stands in history", and to separate the facts from the myth. In this, he has relied as far as possible on official sources, and his approach reflects the pragmatic and unemotional nature of the documents available. He is certainly interesting about the ambiguity at the heart of British military preparations in the 1930s. What became known as the Battle of Britain was precisely the sort of conflict that Britain had been preparing to fight: defensive and alone, rather than on the Continent, far away from its supplies and new lines of communication. In Overy's analysis of the two sides, however, there is little new - that is, until he examines the numbers involved.
Overy sees the clash of the fighters as central to the battle, claiming that, if our pilots represented "the few", the Germans were the fewer, given that they had marginally fewer single-engined fighters than the RAF. Yet this is misleading, because it discounts the 200-plus twin-engined fighters - the Messerschmitt 110. Just as fast as the Hurricane and better armed, the Me 110 was, however, far less manoeuvrable. But it cannot be discounted from the equation just because it wasn't as effective. The Hurricanes were generally expected to take on the bombers, while the Spitfires engaged the Me 109s. This may explain why Hurricanes shot down more German planes than the Spitfires. Again, this is no great revelation, and it seems amazing that Niall Ferguson, a modern history don at Oxford and a prolific military historian, reviewing the book in the Daily Telegraph, learnt this for the first time.
Overy's major revelation concerns the numbers of pilots available and the rate at which Spitfires and Hurricanes were produced throughout that summer. Operational strength increased steadily, while the number of German fighter pilots dropped considerably. More than 2,000 new Spitfires and Hurricanes were built between June and November. This may be surprising to learn 60 years later, but it would have stunned the German High Command if it had known. Without doubt, appalling intelligence fatally damaged German efforts. Was invasion likely? Overy believes that Hitler meant to invade Britain, but that it took little to deter him. The battle did not seriously weaken the German war effort in 1940, and Britain remained in a perilous situation thereafter. But invasion was prevented. The battle in the skies enabled Britain to fight on.
As a brief overview, Overy's book delivers, even if he is, on occasion, guilty of playing with figures. Elegantly written, it is essentially a long essay, certainly not the major new work of research that some have claimed.
The writer is completing a novel about the Battle of Britain