With Wings Like Eagles: A History of the Battle of Britain

With Wings Like Eagles: A History of the Battle of Britain

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by Michael Korda, John Lee

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Michael Korda's brilliant work of history takes the reader back to the summer of 1940, when fewer than three thousand young fighter pilots of the Royal Air Force—often no more than nine hundred on any given day—stood between Hitler and the victory that seemed almost within his grasp.

Korda re-creates the intensity of combat in "the long, delirious, burning


Michael Korda's brilliant work of history takes the reader back to the summer of 1940, when fewer than three thousand young fighter pilots of the Royal Air Force—often no more than nine hundred on any given day—stood between Hitler and the victory that seemed almost within his grasp.

Korda re-creates the intensity of combat in "the long, delirious, burning blue" of the sky above southern England, and at the same time—perhaps for the first time—traces the entire complex web of political, diplomatic, scientific, industrial, and human decisions during the 1930s that led inexorably to the world's first, greatest, and most decisive air battle. Korda deftly interweaves the critical strands of the story—the invention of radar (the most important of Britain's military secrets); the developments by such visionary aircraft designers as R. J. Mitchell, Sidney Camm, and Willy Messerschmitt of the revolutionary, all-metal, high-speed monoplane fighters the British Spitfire and Hurricane and the German Bf 109; the rise of the theory of air bombing as the decisive weapon of modern warfare and the prevailing belief that "the bomber will always get through" (in the words of British prime minister Stanley Baldwin). As Nazi Germany rearmed swiftly after 1933, building up its bomber force, only one man, the central figure of Korda's book, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, the eccentric, infuriating, obstinate, difficult, and astonishingly foresighted creator and leader of RAF Fighter Command, did not believe that the bomber would always get through and was determined to provide Britain with a weapon few people wanted to believe was needed or even possible. Dowding persevered—despite opposition, shortage of funding, and bureaucratic infighting—to perfect the British fighter force just in time to meet and defeat the German onslaught. Korda brings to life the extraordinary men and women on both sides of the conflict, from such major historical figures as Winston Churchill, Neville Chamberlain, and Reichsmarschall Herman Göring (and his disputatious and bitterly feuding generals) to the British and German pilots, the American airmen who joined the RAF just in time for the Battle of Britain, the young airwomen of the RAF, the ground crews who refueled and rearmed the fighters in the middle of heavy German raids, and such heroic figures as Douglas Bader, Josef František, and the Luftwaffe aces Adolf Galland and his archrival Werner Mölders.

Winston Churchill memorably said about the Battle of Britain, "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few." Here is the story of "the few," and how they prevailed against the odds, deprived Hitler of victory, and saved the world during three epic months in 1940.

Editorial Reviews

Phillip Carter
Any new history of World War II must clear a high bar to distinguish itself from the competitors that fill the shelves of libraries and bookstores…Michael Korda's With Wings Like Eagles, his new volume on the Battle of Britain, clears this hurdle in a modest way, by stepping back from the minutiae of the clash between the Royal Air Force and the Luftwaffe in 1940 to focus on the truly critical events that determined the outcome. The book soars in those parts in which Korda describes how the British prepared for the war in the skies, or how the Germans failed time and again to deliver a knockout blow.
—The New York Times
Diana Preston
…passionate and eloquent …With Wings Like Eagles is a skillful, absorbing, often moving contribution to the popular understanding of one of the few episodes in history to live on untarnished and undiminished in the collective memory and to deserve the description "heroic."
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

The Battle of Britain has become as much myth as history. Korda (Ulysses S. Grant), former editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster, gives its story fresh life with the expertise of an established popular historian and the polish of a master narrator. In the summer of 1940, Britain stood alone against the Third Reich, which had quickly overrun Western Europe and seemed poised to finish the job. All that blocked the Nazis were a couple of thousand fighter pilots and their commander, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, the story's hero. Dowding fought to build Spitfires and Hurricanes, and trained men to fly them. He set up the radar system and the observer networks that kept watch for German raids. In the face of initial defeats, he husbanded his resources for a greater battle he knew would come. Korda is no triumphalist, demonstrating the mistakes, misunderstandings and simple cussedness that threatened the chances for a British victory. But Dowding's Brylcreem Boys, nicknamed for their favorite styling gel, succeeded against an enemy no less brave and skilled. 7 pages of color and 16 pages of b&w photos. (Jan. 6)

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Library Journal

Korda (Ike), a skilled popular historian, here retells the familiar story of the Battle of Britain as a largely political tale, emphasizing the background, personalities, and preparation for the battle instead of the fighting. Strongly recommended for public and college libraries as a literate and readable supplement to existing books on the subject, e.g., John Lukacs's Five Days in London: May 1940, but it should not be the only source on the battle.

—Edwin B. Burgess

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Read an Excerpt

With Wings Like Eagles

A History of the Battle of Britain

By Michael Korda
Copyright © 2009

Michael Korda
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-06-112535-5

Chapter One "The Bomber Will Always Get Through."

-Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, House of Commons, 1932

Few moments in British history are so firmly fixed in people's minds as the summer of 1940, when, after the fall of France, fewer than 2,000 young fighter pilots seemed to be all that stood between Hitler and the victory that was almost within his grasp. Like the defeat of the Spanish Armada and Nelson's victory at Trafalgar over the combined fleets of France and Spain, it is etched deeply into the national consciousness as a moment of supreme danger when Britain, alone, courageous, defiant, without allies, defeated a more powerful and warlike enemy in the nick of time.

Today, nearly seventy years later, the Battle of Britain-as it rapidly came to be called, after a phrase in one of Winston Churchill's greatest war speeches -unlike many other great events of World War II, has lost none of its luster. As modern warfare goes, it was, up to a point, both glamorous and gentlemanly (though, as we shall see, it involved plenty of horrors, atrocities, and suffering), and it was fought by fairly "dashing" young men on both sides (and on the ground, on the British side of the Channel, also by young women, the WAAFs of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force who operated the radar plotting stations and took their full share of casualties).

Of course there is, among the victors at any rate, a natural tendency to glamorize the past, but even allowing for that, the Battle of Britain still retains a certain glamour, and not just in the United Kingdom-even the Germans, who lost the battle, are still fascinated by it, to judge by the number of German-language books and Web sites on the subject, as are the Japanese, who were not even in the war at that time. In Britain it is still commemorated annually on Battle of Britain Day, September 15. Until 1959, the events of the day included the "fly past," of a carefully preserved Spitfire and Hurricane, the two principal British fighter aircraft of the battle, flying low over London, weather permitting, the unfamiliar low-pitched, throbbing roar of their twelve-cylinder Rolls-Royce Merlin engines music to the ears of those old enough to have heard it before, as they passed over Buckingham Palace and climbed swiftly away. For a time, they were flown by aces who had taken part in the Battle of Britain, but soon they were too old to fly anymore.

Given time, all historical events become controversial. That is the nature of things-we question and rewrite the past, glamorizing it or diminishing it according to our own inclinations, or the social and political views of the present. Historians-indeed whole schools of history-have made their reputation by casting a jaundiced eye on the victories, heroes, and triumphs of their forefathers. Nobody in academe gets tenure or a reputation in the media by examining the events of the past with approval, or by praising the decisions of past statesmen and military leaders as wise and sensible.

Not surprisingly, the Battle of Britain has come in for its share of revisionary history and debunking, though given its special standing as (let us hope) the last in the series of great battles in which Britain stood alone against a tyrant threatening invasion (and seeking at the same time hegemony over the European continent), it has not come in for the kind of sharp criticism directed toward British motives and generalship in, for example, the American Revolutionary War, the Crimean War, or World War I. There is no equivalent here of General Burgoyne's surrender at Saratoga, or the Charge of the Light Brigade, or the First Battle of the Somme. As at Trafalgar, the British got it triumphantly right-RAF Fighter Command made up for years of dithering, pessimism, and appeasement among the politicians between the wars (the "locust years," as Churchill called them), and also of doubt in the Air Ministry that fighters could defend Britain against air attack, since the conventional view was not only that "the bomber will always get through," a phrase Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin had borrowed from an immensely influential book by the Italian theorist of aerial warfare Giulio Douhet, but that the only defense lay in having a bomber force big enough to deter any continental enemy. "The only defense is in offense," Baldwin warned the House of Commons darkly in 1932, "which means that you have to kill more women and children more quickly than the enemy if you want to save yourselves." This was a grim prospect, which the prime minister, like most members of the House, wanted to eliminate or discourage altogether, rather than to prepare for; indeed, he was arguing against increasing military expenditure at the time.

Throughout the 1920s and the early 1930s, Fighter Command (as it eventually came to be called) was the Cinderella of the Air Ministry. Such money as was made available to the RAF by the politicians was used, according to the prevailing orthodox doctrine of air power, to build up Bomber Command. In theory, money spent on fighters was money down the drain, since the only real protection was thought to be a force of bombers large enough to scare off the Germans.

Reluctant as the British government and the air marshals were to develop an effective fighter force, it remained unclear what the role of the RAF was to be in the event that a diplomatic policy of "appeasing" Germany failed to prevent a war. The roots of many of the various controversies that surround the Battle of Britain may be found, as we shall see, in the prejudice against building fighters and the mistaken belief that bombers (theirs and ours) would always "get through." In addition to this, there is a more recent, and growing, tendency to question whether the Battle of Britain in fact played the decisive role in discouraging Hitler from attempting to invade Britain when to his surprise the opportunity to do so suddenly presented itself after Dunkirk.


Excerpted from With Wings Like Eagles by Michael Korda Copyright © 2009 by Michael Korda. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Michael Korda is the author of Ulysses S. Grant, Ike, Hero, and Charmed Lives. Educated at Le Rosey in Switzerland and at Magdalen College, Oxford, he served in the Royal Air Force. He took part in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and on its fiftieth anniversary was awarded the Order of Merit of the People's Republic of Hungary. He and his wife, Margaret, make their home in Dutchess County, New York.

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With Wings Like Eagles: A History of the Battle of Britain 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 26 reviews.
WinstonMontgomery More than 1 year ago
Perhaps in the long glorious history of England, nothing captures readers of English or Military history like the Battle of Britian. When England stood alone in the summer of 1940, it was the "few" , the pilots of the RAF who perhaps are most well known in legend and fact. The fighter pilots of the Hurricanes and Spitfires who rose daily to duel with the mighty German Luftwaffe. Michael Korda, as he did with "IKE", brings realism, excitement, triumphs and tragedies to the men and women who took part in the 3 months that will ever be known as the Battle of Britian, in his outstanding book "With Wings Like Eagles." This book ranks with the classics of the telling of the heroism (on both sides of the English Channel) of the air battle to save England in that terrible summer of 1940. Korda takes you from the inside struggles of Bomber and Fighter Command on how to fight the air war against Germany. To the Spitfire pilot on the grass runway at Biggin Hill with sweat pouring down his flight suit as he nervously awaits orders to "scramble" for the defense of his country. You meet, via Korda's research and insight, the brave British and German pilots. And the forgotten, heroic, unknown figures such as the Wren Officers who plotted the attacks of the approaching NAZI fighters and the men who endlessly returned to the beaches of Dunkirk to save the British Army while dogfights of unbelievalbe intensity raged overhead between opposing air forces. As the figures of WWII pass from our midst, the famous few who defended England in the air and often paid with their lives become fewer and fewer. It is gratifying to have authors like Michael Korda to not only accurately tell their story but more importantly bring the players to life. A must read, enjoyable, engrossing and engaging.
John72 More than 1 year ago
Great Read
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A must read for anyone who has an interest in WW II.
earlk More than 1 year ago
Instead of the usual tedious chronology of daily missions and debatable statistics, Korda offers us a concise and even-handed account of the conflict viewed from both sides of the Channel. No ponderous reading anywhere between the covers. The author captures and maintains the reader's interest, tells an easy to follow story, and presents facts and conclusions in a logical, almost spellbinding manner. A refreshing look at a critical moment in modern history.
yeomanSM More than 1 year ago
Anyone interested in World War II will find this book very enjoyable. It is an excellent description of the Battle for Britain. It is very well researched and contains very good descriptions of the leaders and pilots. It also describes the German leaders and pilots. The descriptions of England an the ordinary citizen is also very interesting. I would recommend this book to anyone.
Elmodawg More than 1 year ago
With Wings Like Eagles puts the Battle of Britain in a whole new light -- one that other books about WWII (and History-Channel versions of the RAF or Luftwaffe) clearly miss. When you tell your friends you've read this book and describe the subject matter, they may wonder why anyone would read so focued a study. But despite the somwhat dry subject matter and extremely descripitive accounts of the main characters' personal traits -- particulalrly Dowding's -- this book was a page-turner. It is thoroughly well-written, meticulously referenced, and most importantly, it is easy and enjoyable to read: explanations of the systems and practices, technology and equipment, personalities and pecadillos, strategy and tactics are simply fascinating and the chapters flow from one to the next seamlessly. Highly reccommend.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Beyond the clearing, the woods go on for yards and yards and yards, with prey everywhere. In leafbare, prey is slightly scarce, but there is sometimes an animal, woken up to search for food.<p>Hunting Ground/Forest Reminders: Hunting is done here. You can also vote on weather here. Attackers, once past the border, make posts showing your clan coming through here.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very good book. Buy it.
Iulievich More than 1 year ago
There are so many books on the Battle of Britain that one sometimes wonders why there should be any more.Yet there are, and this is a good one. Focused mainly on the contribution of Air Chief Marshall Hugh Dowding, the author describes Dowding's championship of modern fighter aircraft over the heavy concentration on bomberes, as well as his role in recognizing technological advances such as radar, radio communications, and armaments, and incorporating them into a rational system of defense specifically designed for efficient and rapid interception of bomber formations as well as to conceal from the enemy the actual strength of Fighter Command. Korda discusses Dowding's political challenges and personal weaknesses, as well as his many strengths. He also presents a fair exposition of the handicaps posed to the German Luftwaffer by the limited range of their fighter aircraft and the disadvantage posed to them by conducting the battle over enemy territory, as well as the gemeral unpreparedness of the Luftwaffe arising from the difference between the battle faced for air dominance over Britain and the essentiallly ground support role for which it had been created and prepared to that point. Finally, he recounts adequately the geographical and weather challenges facing a Germany that was fundamentally unprepared for a seaborne invasion against the British Isles. It is a sober and reasonable account of perhaps the most stirring epic of the last century. It's only failing is to tie the air campaign over Britain in 1940 to the larger geopolitical, logistical, and military circumstances that shaped the air battles and that, in the end, cemented their success in the larger was.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book superbly takes the reader throughout the fasinating history of the Battle of Britain. The book helps the reader ti understand the internal struggles within Fighter Command, as well as the effect that this battlehaon the world stage. A great read for any WWII fan!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A very thorough and well presented history of the air defense of Britain during WWII - from the early days after WWI up to the end of the war. Much more than just a retelling of the Battle of Britain, it shows clearly how development of the newly created radar stations and the placement of fighters worked together to defeat the numerically superior German forces. It manages to be informative and entertaining while not glossing over the problems, egos and issues faced by the men in charge both during and after the war.
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lapd00duke More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed the book greatly and learned alot of new things. The only thing I didnt like was that there were too many notes at the bottom of some pages. It needed to be added into the paragraph. This failure made it kind of difficult at times. Author did good research and built the story line up to the climax. Great book.
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