Startling but persuasive reappraisal of the myths and realities of the battle
Jun 13, 2012
The traditional short-form narrative of the Battle of Britain is relatively well-known: In the summer and fall of 1940, the German Luftwaffe attempted to destroy Britain's Royal Air Force as the prelude for an all-out cross-channel invasion. But incredibly, when the RAF was almost on the ropes, Hitler stopped targeting the RAF and instead began terror-bombing London. This gave the RAF the time it needed to rebuild, and ultimately to turn back the Hun threat, thus saving England and, ultimately, the free world. "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."
The problem is, as Richard North argues in this provocative but persuasive book, none of the traditional narrative is true. Victory in the Battle of Britain -- what victory there was -- was won not by small, technocratic elite of government employees ("the Few"), but by the dockworkers, the factory workers, the firefighters, the air raid wardens, the coal miners, the civilians who endured the Blitz ... as well as by the other elements of the RAF (Bomber and Coastal Commands), the Royal Navy, and the Merchant Marine. In short, by the "Many."
If North were merely attempting to get history's spotlight to shine on a broader range of people, that would be admirable enough. But in fact, he has pulled together elements of military, diplomatic, political, and social history to give us a comprehensive reappraisal of the battle. It's hard to cover in a review all the ground he does in the book, but I should note his emphasis on the three different, overlapping German objectives during the battle (including, ultimately, what we would now term a "shock and awe" campaign to force regime change); how ill-prepared the British government truly was for the battle, particularly for the consequences of urban bombing; and on the fight within British political and media circles to define the battle and place it in a broader context.
It's this last part that I found most interesting. North posits an ongoing "conversation" (p. 347) between Churchill and novelist and broadcaster J.B. Priestley (as principal representatives of two competing views) as to whether the war was truly a people's war, or one of "chieftains and princes." If it was the former, Priestly argued, the people of Britain were entitled to a say in what the world following the war would look like. There could be no return to the prewar status quo. Churchill, on the other hand, was emphatically not fighting to build a new and different world out of the ashes of the old, but rather to preserve and restore the world he knew. War, like other government programs, was to be managed by a privileged and paternalistic elite. The people, in Priestley's savage characterization of the conservative position, "is still expected to pay its taxes and then mind its own damn business, leaving the pundits to carry on the great task of fighting all over again the second Matabele War" (p. 312). By defining the British people in his famous epigram, not as equal participants in the struggle, but rather as a collective "Many" in permanent debt to the "Few," Churchill was making "quite a deliberate snub to the Left" (p. 349). Framing the relative positions of rulers and ruled that way continues to be useful, North notes. Yet, "this is a false image of the British people, even if it is one that present-day politicians are only too keen to endorse" (p. 5).
It's a fascinating, and I think very insightful, interpretation. What it isn't, however, is "revisionist." Winners write the history, and as observers from R. Bourne to R. Higgs have shown, in every war the real winner is government. The narrative "corrected" (p. 359) by Churchill and others and now regarded as mainstream was the real act of revisionism. By recovering "stolen history" and bringing it back into the spotlight, Richard North has performed a strongly *counter-*revisionist act. We should thank him.
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About the reviewer
Andrew S. Rogers (Cascadian)
Mostly, I'm a moderately prolific Amazon.com reviewer who's giving Lunch a try as another venue for my reviews.
[The book] is brilliantly bold in its overview and rigorously forenstic in its analysis... I do urge you to read North's book, because it's riveting and devastating... What North has achieved here is admirable. He has set out to reclaim for the people of Britain the credit for a glorious victory which was stolen from them by the political Establishment. -- The Spectator