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The myth of the Battle of Britain goes something like this: in the Summer of 1940, Hitler having rolled over the rest of Western Europe, the British though undermanned and outgunned unified in unprecedented fashion and overcame staggering odds to fend off a German air campaign which had it been successful would surely have been followed by an unstoppable invasion. In this very short but sufficiently thorough book, Richard Overy pretty much demolishes each facet of this myth, but notes that the reality that remains was still important, maybe even decisive to the outcome of the war.

It may be easiest to see the shortcomings of the mythic version by going backwards. To begin with, Hitler seems to have been quite cautious, even reticent, about the prospect of actually invading Britain. His various services--Navy, Army, etc.--were dubious about the chances of succeeding and no one appears to have thought it even worth considering the attempt unless the airwar rendered the British air force completely ineffective. The collective reluctance makes good sense considering that even if the air campaign had succeeded the Brits still had a superior navy and would have been defending their home soil with a not inconsiderable army. Think of it this way: folks continually portray D-Day as a moment of high drama, which could have gone either way. But by then it was the combined forces of Britain and America, attacking occupied territory with a potentially co-operative populace, defended by a Germany that was taking a beating in the USSR, and so on and so forth. The odds against a German version of D-Day would have had to have been astronomically higher, if not prohibitive.

Meanwhile, it's all a moot point because there was never much likelihood of the Nazis winning the air war. Britain was more than a match in both men and material. It had innovative technology like radar. The Germans had to fly to Britain just to begin the fight, while the Brits were right there waiting for them. Everything favored the British.

Lastly though, the nation wasn't particularly unified, with many folks more than willing to consider a negotiated peace. To some considerable extent this was a function of the very mythmaking involved in the Battle. Had people understood how slim Germany's chances were of ever invading and holding the British isles morale probably would have been better. But as Mr. Overy says, the Germans genuinely did underestimate British strength while the Brits truly did overestimate the Germans. In these circumstances people were understandably worried.

Ultimately, the myth mattered because American opinion shifted behind Britain as the tiny underdog courageously fought the mighty Nazi war machine. Bombing of civilians--though carried out by both sides and not, at that point in the war, designed to terrorize the citizenry--won Britain further sympathy, not least because American radio networks were there reporting on it. And, of course, even when you have the advantage in warfare it's still possible to botch it. The Brits didn't. The Battle of Britain should be a source of pride, even if it wasn't as perilous as the myth requires. Mr. Overy makes the case for all this in a straightforward, nonpolemical, and eminently readable fashion.


Grade: (A)


See also:

Richard Overy Links:

    -King's College London: History Department: Professor Richard Overy
    -BOOK SITE: Battle of Britain by Richard Overy (WW Norton)
    -ESSAY: The Soviet-German War 1941 - 1945 (Richard Overy, BBC History)
    -ESSAY: How the Allies Won (Professor Richard Overy, BBC History)
    -ESSAY: Like the Wehrmacht, we've descended into barbarity: The treatment of Iraqi prisoners is a consequence of coalition policy (Richard Overy, May 10, 2004, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: History will damn them: We must not accept our leaders' illegal occupation of a sovereign state (Richard Overy, March 20, 2004, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: Coalition in the dock: There is a strong war crimes case against US and British leaders, but big powers have immunity (Richard Overy, April 15, 2003, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: Mein Kampf: the sequel (Richard Overy, July 1, 2003, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Stalin's British Victims by Francis Beckett (Richard Overy The Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Vixi: Memoirs of a Non-belonger by Richard Pipes (Richard Overy, The Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Stasiland by Anna Funder and The Stasi Files by Anthony Glees (Richard Overy, The Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Gulag by Anne Applebaum (Richard Overy, The Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Khrushchev Era by William Taubman (Richard Overy, The Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-33 by Joseph Roth (Richard Overy, The Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Verdict on Vichy by Michael Curtis (Richard Overy, The Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of A Moral Reckoning by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen (Richard Overy, The Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Doves of War by Paul Preston (Richard Overy, The Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Berlin: The Downfall, 1945 by Antony Beevor (Richard Overy, The Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of The Real Odessa: How Peron Brought the Nazi War Criminals to Argentina by Uki Goni (Richard Overy, The Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of The Villa, the Lake, the Meeting: Wannsee and the Final Solution by Mark Roseman (Richard Overy, The Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Interrogations: The Nazi Elite in Allied Hands, 1945 by Richard Overy (JAMES J. SHEEHAN, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Interrogations: The Nazi Elite in Allied Hands, 1945 by Richard Overy (Ian Kershaw, The Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Interrogations: The Nazi Elite In Allied Hands, 1945 by Richard Overy (Anne Applebaum, The Spectator)
    -REVIEW: of Interrogations: The Nazi Elite in Allied Hands, 1945 by Richard Overy (Tim Coates, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of The Dictators: Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia by Richard Overy (Neal Acherson, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of The Dictators: Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia by Richard Overy (Sam Leith, The Spectator)
    -REVIEW: of The Dictators: Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia by Richard Overy (Simon Sebag Montefiore, The Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of The Dictators: Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia by Richard Overy (Max Hastings, The Telegraph)

Book-related and General Links:

    -The Battle of Britain History Site (RAF)
    -BBC News: Battle of Britain
    -The Battle of Britain: A beginner’s guide (History Heads)
    -ESSAY: The Battle of Britain (Dr Chris Bellamy, BBC History)

    -BBC History: WWII