Breaking Point, a novel by John Rhodes, tells the story of the Battle of Britain and the men and women who fought it...
It is August, 1940. Hitler’s triumphant Third Reich has crushed all Europe—except Britain. As Hitler launches a massive aerial assault, only the heavily outnumbered British RAF and the iron will of Winston Churchill can stop him. The fate of Western civilization teeters in the balance.
Johnnie Shaux, a Spitfire fighter pilot, knows that the average life expectancy of a pilot is a mere five hours of operational flying time. Sooner or later, his luck will run out. Yet he must constantly summon up the fortitude to fly into conditions in which death is all but inevitable and continue to do so until the inevitable occurs…
Meanwhile, Eleanor Rand, a WAAF staff officer in RAF headquarters, is struggling to find her role in a man’s world and to make a contribution to the battle. She studies the control room maps that track the ebb and flow of conflict, the aerial thrust and parry, and begins to see the glimmerings of a radical strategic breakthrough…
Breaking Point is based on the actual events of six days in the historic Battle of Britain. The story alternates between Johnnie, face to face with the implacable enemy; and Eleanor, in 11 Group headquarters, using ‘zero-sum’ game theory to evolve a strategic model of the battle.
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.82(d)|
About the Author
Rhodes graduated from Cambridge University where he studied history. His career in international banking took him all around the world. After many years living on the West Side of Manhattan, Rhodes now lives in Wilmington, North Carolina. 'My traveling days are over,' he says.
Rhodes rues the decline of history as a required field of study. 'If you don't know where you came from, you don't understand why you're here, let alone where you going to be next.' Reflecting Rhodes' search for historical accuracy, the battles in Breaking Point conform to the actual performance specifications of the aircraft, down to the details of their rate of climb and turning circles.
He has written two Thomas Ford detective novels and is busy on a sequel to Breaking Point. He inherited a love of old-fashioned detective stories, 'cozies,' from his father, particularly by the great generation of women writers including Agatha Christie and, in his words, the 'immortal Dorothy L Sayers.' Sayers's fictional protagonist Harriet Vane is, Rhodes confesses, an archetype for his character Eleanor Rand in Breaking Point.
Read an Excerpt
August 18, 1940
0430 hours, Sunday, August 18, 1940 RAF Christhampton, Surrey, England
Johnnie Shaux awoke an hour before dawn. His tiny cubicle felt dank. He groped for his uniform and pulled it on in the darkness, fumbled into his heavy sheepskin flying boots, and clomped down the darkened corridor, still half-asleep, unshaven and unwashed. Snores emanated from unseen cubicles on either side.
Outside the hut the night was still as black as pitch. There were no stars. The air smelled clean, in sharp contrast to the pervasive odor of unwashed clothes inside his sleeping quarters. No stars meant clouds, and clouds meant, perhaps, no flying.
He waited, yawning and rubbing his eyes until he could detect vague gradations in the blackness around him, and then set off to walk along a muddy track, stumbling occasionally into unseen ruts. The breeze was warm and soft, and somewhere to his right he heard the first tentative chirpings of the predawn chorus.
He reached another hut. It was barely visible in the gloom, and its windows were tightly sealed with blackout material. The glare of naked light bulbs dazzled him when he opened the door. This hut was also crudely constructed, like the sleeping quarters, and contained a haphazard array of battered furniture. A young airman, scarcely more awake than Shaux, wordlessly handed him a mug of hot, sweet tea. Shaux retreated back into the darkness. He felt his way to a decaying armchair on the veranda and sat down. The tea scalded his tongue, and the seat was damp with dew. He lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply. The smoke tasted harsh and acrid in his throat.
He sat with his eyes closed, gathering his senses, slowly stretching his limbs one by one, taking an inventory of his brief life, wondering dispassionately if he would still be alive to do so tomorrow.
The Royal Air Force station gradually awoke around him. A truck growled to a halt nearby and disgorged members of the ground crew. Shaux could follow their movements by their flickering electric torches and the muttering of their sleepy curses as they inspected the invisible aircraft parked around him.
The eastern sky grew perceptibly lighter, and the graceful outlines of Supermarine Spitfire fighters emerged from the darkness like wraiths, their long noses lifted skyward as if scenting the early morning breeze for prey. The silence was shattered by a whine and a whirr and a bang and a clatter and another bang and then a staccato roar as the ground crew started a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, the supercharged heart of a Spitfire.
More engines started. The ground crews would run them for five minutes to warm them up "to splash the oil about a bit," as they said. Additional trucks appeared: an elderly civilian tanker to top off the fuel tanks, a truck with oil cans and bottles of hydraulic fluid and oxygen tanks and batteries and all the other innumerable supplies that Spitfires consumed, and finally a five-ton lorry loaded with long, snaking ammunition belts for the eight Browning .303-caliber machine guns mounted in each Spitfire's wings.
Other pilots materialized from the gloom, as drowsy as Shaux, and took their places silently beside him. The telephone inside the hut began to shrill at regular intervals.
"Readiness at dawn, chaps. B Flight first, A Flight later. Let's get a move on," Flight Lieutenant Debenham, the B Flight commander, announced through the doorway. "Chop, chop, fingers out," he added unnecessarily.
Shaux and the other pilots stood up like automatons and walked behind the hut to urinate.
"The wind's from the northeast, gentlemen," someone said, and they formed a row to piss downwind. In the past two weeks — a lifetime — it had become something of a 339 Squadron tradition. A new pilot — Dalton, or Haughton, or some name like that — fresh from Central Flying School and Spitfire conversion training up in Lincolnshire, threw up on his uniform. The others ignored him — all fighter pilots had an intimate familiarity with fear in all its manifold expressions and did not demean those who exhibited it.
Shaux pulled on his orange Mae West life jacket and his parachute. He adjusted the parachute straps so that it hung awkwardly behind his backside; it was designed for the user to sit on it instead of a seat cushion. He put on his leather flying helmet with the corrugated rubber tube for his oxygen and the trailing leads for his earphones and microphone. He arranged his goggles on his helmet and pulled on his gloves — first silk ladies' gloves and then fur-lined leather gloves on top. It would be very cold at twenty thousand feet.
He searched the lightening sky. Overhead a stately convoy of clouds was headed toward the south coast at five thousand feet, but otherwise the sky was clear. There would be no reprieve.
"Okay, chaps, time to go," Debenham called. "B Flight will patrol over Hastings, or so I'm told. Four aircraft. You, er, Dalton, stick to Shaux's tail. Remember — he's Red Leader and you're Red Two. Keep your eyes wide open, and no heroics."
The pilots walked out to their waiting Spitfires in an untidy gaggle. The fighters were slippery with dew. Shaux clambered onto the port wing of his aircraft and stepped into the tiny cockpit, easing himself down so that he sat on his parachute. The cockpit stank of 40-grade oil. One of the ground crew helped him strap in and wished him luck perfunctorily. Shaux went through his preflight routine methodically, testing the control surfaces one by one, and then started the engine, muttering his private catechism as he did so.
"Generator switch on — generator switch on. Magneto switches on — magneto switches on. Radiator flaps open — radiator flaps open. Fuel switches on — fuel switches on. Primer — one, two, three. Throttle one-third — throttle one-third. Starter."
He pressed the starter, and the twelve-cylinder Merlin engine spluttered reluctantly to life. The propeller blades rotated jerkily as the exhaust manifolds emitted burps of gray smoke and the fuselage lurched and shook in protest. Then the engine caught, missed, and caught again, and the propeller disappeared into a gray circle. Shaux ran the Merlin up to fifteen hundred revs, and it settled into a smooth roar. He tapped his instrument gauges one by one to make sure the needles weren't stuck.
The eastern sky was brightening as the four Spitfires formed an untidy line and straggled across the wet grass to the southern end of the field in order to take off into the wind. Shaux's Merlin grumbled and burbled as it bounced and swayed across the field, emitting clouds of high-octane exhaust fumes. Dalton was far too close behind him, threatening to chew up Shaux's tail. At the far end of the field he stamped on his left brake, and the aircraft swerved abruptly into the breeze. Somehow Dalton also managed to turn without hitting him. It must be beginner's luck.
A green flare from a Very pistol shot up from the makeshift control tower at the other end of the field. Without permitting himself the least moment for doubt or fear, Shaux opened the throttle, and his Merlin howled as the revs spun up to 2,600 rpm. The airscrew dragged his Spitfire along the bumpy turf as if it were a toy kite in a gale, a thousand screaming horsepower pulling a six-thousand-pound, thirty-foot-long aircraft. The tail came off the ground within seconds. The bumps grew harsher as the Spitfire accelerated, and the springs in the undercarriage legs creaked in protest. Engine torque tried to drag him off path to the right.
Behind him, Dalton was having difficulty keeping his Spitfire straight. Shaux had heard a Spitfire described as a large Rolls-Royce engine with a small Supermarine aircraft stuck on the back. The engine housing ahead of the cockpit was over twelve feet long, and therefore much of Dalton's forward view was blocked; he literally couldn't see where he was going.
Shaux held the control column forward until it became light in his hand, waited a heartbeat, and then eased it back. Instantly his Spitfire rose into its natural element, as sure and elegant in the air as it had been ungainly and awkward on the ground, a transformation that never failed to move Shaux regardless of how many times he witnessed it. He cranked the wheels up into their slots beneath the wings, and the rumble of air turbulence subsided. The sun rose rapidly above his horizon, bathing the Spitfires in pink light even while the ground beneath them remained in gray predawn shadow.
He glanced over his shoulder. Dalton was miraculously in the right place, a hundred feet behind his port wing. With only four aircraft in the formation, they were flying in the loose finger-four formation used by the German Luftwaffe instead of the rigid arrowhead vic formation that RAF Fighter Command insisted on.
There was little to do for the next eight minutes but to follow the flight commander as their droning engines pulled B Flight higher and higher. A Spitfire had a climbing rate of twenty-five hundred feet per minute, and they were headed for twenty thousand feet. Shaux closed the canopy and buttoned on his mask. There was nothing but static in the earphones. He fiddled with the oxygen supply and inhaled a sweet whiff of oxygen combined with the smell of damp rubber. Oxygen, rubber, and oil merged into the sickly taste of imminent danger.
Southern England stretched out below him. Trees etched long shadows across a patchwork quilt of green meadows and golden wheat fields as the sun rose above the ground horizon. It could have been a moment to marvel at the immutable beauty of the English countryside. It could have been a moment to admire the grace of the Spitfire's lines and the thundering precision of the Rolls-Royce Merlin effortlessly lifting him higher and higher. But Shaux had locked away such inessential emotions as marvel and admiration long ago; he knew all too well that a fighter pilot who paused to savor life would very soon be dead.
They climbed into the band of clouds at five thousand feet, and the world disappeared into blinding white. Shaux kept his eyes on his instruments to ensure he was flying straight and at the right rate of climb, hoping the pilots around him — Dalton in particular — were doing the same.
They emerged into brilliant sunlight at nine thousand feet. Most of B Flight was still in formation, although Dalton had wandered off and was at least half a mile away. Shaux began to search the sky methodically, sweeping the horizon and then the four quadrants of the sky above him. This was the most dangerous moment of the patrol so far; if there were German Luftwaffe Messerschmitt 109 fighters above them, the Spitfires would be clearly visible against the clouds, sitting ducks for 109s howling down upon them out of the rising sun. Dalton, alone and inexperienced, would be particularly easy prey.
Shaux's earphones crackled. The sector controller directed — vectored — them toward Chichester in Sussex. A force of twenty or more Luftwaffe bombers — "bandits" or "EA" (for "enemy aircraft") in RAF parlance — was crossing the south coast of England over Selsey Bill at fifteen thousand feet. Fighter Command preferred to send its slower Hurricane fighters to attack bombers while Spitfires flew higher to engage any fast 109s that might be flying cover above the bombers. In this instance Shaux assumed there were no Hurricanes close enough to reach the bombers before they flew far into England and reached their targets.
Whatever the case, it sounded like a cock-up — four Spitfires would engage twenty enemy bombers. God help the Spitfires if there were 109s waiting above the bombers.
The enemy appeared on cue as a line of tiny black dots, scarcely visible in the morning glare, crawling across his windshield from right to left. As the distance closed, the dots grew larger and sprouted wings, engines, and fuselages.
"EAs are Dornier 17s," crackled Green Two's voice in his earphones. Green Two was a newish pilot named Digby, blessed with phenomenal eyesight.
"Red Leader and Red Two, take the left," said Debenham. "We'll take the right."
The RAF, like the navy, used port and starboard instead of left and right, but experienced pilots knew that novices like Dalton had trouble finding their own balls on a clear summer's day, let alone translating port into left in the excitement and fear of battle.
The enemy dots further resolved themselves into twenty-four distinct gray-black aircraft flying in tight formation, heading northeast at fifteen thousand feet. Shaux could now recognize the Dornier bombers by their glass cockpits, like long, narrow greenhouses stuck on top of the aircraft, and their slim fuselages, which gave them the nickname of Bleistifts — flying "pencils."
Each bomber was carrying two thousand pounds of bombs — twenty-four bombers, twenty-four tons of high explosives to rain down on southern England, probably on some RAF station, perhaps Shaux's own.
Shaux calculated. His closing speed on the enemy would be fifty yards every second. If he opened fire at 250 yards, he would have five seconds to engage his target before passing slightly above him. As soon as he disengaged, he would make a rapid circle to come around behind the Dornier formation for a second attack. His tightest turning circle in level flight had a radius of about three hundred yards. Therefore, he computed, the circumference of his circle would be two times pi times three hundred, equaling eighteen hundred yards — roughly a mile — or about thirty-six seconds of flight time. The EAs would have flown away from him for thirty-six seconds at 250 miles per hour; therefore he would be two miles behind them. It would take a minute and a half to catch up. Therefore he and Dalton could engage them for five seconds every two minutes. That assumed something else didn't happen in the meantime, although something else almost always did.
Shaux chose his target — the Dornier third from the left in the rear row. He would approach the enemy from the rear and slightly above and fire into the center of the aircraft, where the wings joined the fuselage, and then "walk" his guns forward to the canopy and the engines. The Dorniers had a dorsal machine gun at the rear of the greenhouse. If he could knock that out, the Dornier would be just about defenseless; the rest of its armament was little more than dead weight.
"Red Two, Dalton, stay with Red Leader and do what he does," Debenham instructed.
Shaux could see Dalton a hundred yards behind him, flying erratically as he gripped the controls too tightly. Shaux guessed the new pilot's heart rate was at least two hundred beats a minute.
"Watch for 109s above us, chaps," the flight commander said. "Tallyho!"
The enemy aircraft swam toward them. The distance was closing fast. Shaux spared a long look above them for a fighter escort but could see nothing; perhaps there had been a Luftwaffe cock-up to match their own. Debenham and Green Two were away to his right. He could see the white phosphorus sparkle of tracer — incandescent white-hot shells so that the pilots could see where they were aiming — as the flight commander opened fire.
Shaux picked the optimal angle of deflection to intersect his chosen target and flew straight and level, partly to give himself the steadiest possible aiming platform and partly to let Dalton sort himself out.
The rear gunners of the nearest Dorniers opened fire. Shaux imagined their cries of "Achtung! Achtung! Spitfire! Spitfire!" as they saw his slippery gray shape growing rapidly behind them, playing hide-and-seek behind their tailplanes.
Shaux watched bright lines of enemy tracer arcing toward him. Most of them disappeared to his rear and below him, but the gunners' aim would improve as the distance closed. A rapid mental calculation in the trigonometry of congruent triangles told him how wide the wingspan of a Dornier should appear to be in his gunsight at 250 yards. He waited fifteen long seconds as the Dornier grew larger and larger. The sky seemed full of enemy tracer, like a fireworks display on Guy Fawkes Night, and the tracer seemed to accelerate as it approached him. He heard a sudden whack-whack-whack behind him as enemy fire hit his rear fuselage or tailplane. Shaux hoped they hadn't hit anything vital. The unarmored Spitfire had not so much as quivered; so far, so good.
Shaux depressed the big brass firing button on his control stick and heard the harsh coughing of his machine guns, four in each wing, firing six rounds every second. His tracer flashed on the Dornier's wing roots, one round of tracer followed by four invisible live rounds, gradually converging on the canopy as he flew closer. Five seconds to fire, six rounds per second, eight guns; that meant 240 rounds were pouring in among the four members of the enemy crew crowded into the narrow, twelve-foot-long greenhouse.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Breaking Point"
Copyright © 2019 John Rhodes.
Excerpted by permission of Suncoast Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part I August 18-20, 1940 Sunday, August 18, 1940 0430 hours—RAF Christhampton, Surrey 1 0900 hours—Air Ministry, London 14 1030 hours—RAF Christhampton, Surrey 19 1200 hours—Air Ministry, London 25 1300 hours—RAF Christhampton, Surrey 28 1500 hours—Air Ministry, London 35 1600 hours—RAF Oldchurch, Kent 41 1700 hours—11 Group HQ, Uxbridge Middlesex 47 1800 hours—RAF Oldchurch, Kent 52 2100 hours—Air Ministry, London 56 Monday, August 19, 1940 0730 hours—Air Ministry, London 67 1030 hours—RAF Oldchurch, Kent 71 1200 hours—11 Group HQ, Uxbridge Middlesex 75 1230 hours—RAF Oldchurch, kent 81 1500 hours—11 group HQ, Uxbridge Middlesex 88 1600 hours—RAF Oldchurch, Kent 91 1900 hours—11 Group HQ, Uxbridge Middlesex 96 2030 hours—RAF Oldchurch, Kent 105 2130 hours—11 Group HQ, Uxbridge Middlesex 110 Tuesday, August 20, 1940 0430 hours—RAF Oldchurch, Kent 115 0630 hours—11 Group HQ, Uxbridge Middlesex 123 1200 hours—RAF Oldchurch, Kent 127 1230 hours—RAF Oldchurch, Kent 134 1500 hours—RAF Oldchurch, Kent 142 1700 hours—11 Group HQ, Uxbridge Middlesex 147 2030 hours—RAF Oldchurch, Kent 155 2045 hours—11 Group HQ, Uxbridge Middlesex 161 Part II September 6-8, 1940 Friday, September 6, 1940 0530 hours—RAF Oldchurch, Kent 169 0730 hours—11 group HQ, Uxbridge Middlesex 176 1300 hours—RAF Oldchurch, Kent 181 1400 hours—RAF Oldchurch, Kent 185 1415 hours—RAF Oldchurch, Kent 190 1430 hours—RAF Oldchurch, Kent 194 1500 hours—RAF Oldchurch, Kent 203 1530 hours—RAF Oldchurch, Kent 209 1600 hours—RAF Oldchurch, Kent 212 1900 hours—Prince Frederick Hotel, Hastings, Sussex 214 Saturday, September 7, 1940 1030 hours—11 Group HQ, Uxbridge Middlesex 226 1100 hours—RAF Oldchurch, Kent 235 1600 hours—11 Group HQ, Uxbridge Middlesex 240 1615 hours—RAF Oldchurch, Kent 246 1630 hours—11 Group HQ, Uxbridge Middlesex 251 1645 hours—RAF Oldchurch, Kent 254 1700 hours—11 Group HQ, Uxbridge Middlesex 259 1730 hours—RAF Oldchurch, Kent 262 2230 hours—East End of London 269 Sunday, September 8, 1940 0430 hours—RAF Oldchurch, Kent 275 0630 hours—11 Group HQ, Uxbridge Middlesex 280 1030 hours—RAF Oldchurch, Kent 283 1530 hours—10 Downing Street, Westminister, London 300 2100 hours—Charing Cross Hotel, London, SW1 315 EPILOGUE Wednesday, September 9, 1940 1030 hours—AUSTRALIAN HIGH COMMISSION, ALDWYCH, LONDON, SW1, ENGLAND 315 AUTHOR NOTES 319