With Wings Like Eagles. Michael Korda.

Korda, Michael. With Wings Like Eagles. HarperCollins, New York. 2009. NF; 5/18.

As soon as I finished Korda’s other World War II book Alone I moved on to this one, interested to see the same kind of detail applied to the Battle of Britain. I wasn’t disappointed. Here we recognize the terrible balance of violent events in war, and at several points Korda emphasizes how easily things could have gone the other way.

The author and his family moved to North America shortly after the Dunkirk evacuation, and so had only secondhand knowledge of the terrible months of the summer and fall of 1940 in England. A major difference between this book and Alone (which was written eight years later) is the omission of Korda’s family anecdotes, which is probably a good thing.

The ”architect” of victory in the Battle of Britain according to Korda was Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding. Rendered as a chilly, somewhat dreamy, almost socially-inept but extremely determined man, Dowding analysed and understood the technical and strategic realities faced by his country and prepared the British Air Force to confront them. His system of radar stations in the South, observers with binoculars, armoured telephone lines, underground control centers, radio communications, and sufficient high-speed fighter airplanes to defend against aerial attack seems to have been uncannily accurate in predicting and providing what was needed to win.

Some of the most gripping parts of the story describe fighter pilots’ experiences in battle, the emotional and physical challenges of first-sortie 18-year-old men manoeuvring single-engined Spitfires or Hurricanes to kill an enemy before he can machine-gun or incinerate their planes. Young women populating the control and communications centers are described hearing through their headphones pilots’ whose planes are on fire screaming. In the early going, English families picnicked and walked their dogs in the sunshine of the 1940 summer, while machine-gun shell casings dropped to the ground around them, and five miles overhead war was raging.

Ultimately although the Germans now in control of airfields in Belgium, Norway, and Northern France sent hundreds on hundreds of bombers and fighters over England, including civilian parts of the city of London, Dowding overcame criticism and opposition to maintain his airforce and enough of his surveillance and control system to prevent the Germans from crossing the Channel and invading the south of England.

Herman Goring, chief of the German Luftwaffe, is portrayed as an egotistical, histrionic, sybaritic, opioid-addicted martinet whose intelligence about British fighter forces and the location of features on the ground was consistently inaccurate. Several times errors in the plan of German attack were based on misinformation that could have been corrected by reference to publicly available maps and telephone directories.

Dowding was forced into retirement when his fighter command failed, because of the relatively slow development of airborne radar and the necessary airplanes to prevent the blitz of night bombing that eventually killed about 50,000 English civilians. But his planning and determination controlled the outcome of an aerial battle on September 15, 1940, which was in retrospect the turning point ending Hitler’s plan, if indeed he had a practical one prepared, for invasion as the fall weather descended.

The famous calm and resilience of the English public and their warriors was partly responsible for the United States’ readiness to enter the war, prompted of course by Pearl Harbour. As I’ve been in reading other accounts of historic events, I was struck by the terrible contingency, often just random, on which the outcome of conflict which literally turned the fortunes of war depended.

If you want to read just one of Korda’s World War II books, this for me would be the one. 9.0/8.8.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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