This book represents a very thorough examination of the air war from the start of the Battle of France to the end of the Battle of Britain. It is packed with figures and statistics and is immensely detailed. Possibly more interestingly, it will prove to be uncomfortable reading for some people and it explodes many well-entrenched myths.
One of these is that the French Armée de l’Air Chasse Escadrilles (fighter squadrons) were actually comparatively more successful than either the Luftwaffe or the RAF in those crucial months of 1940. Robin Higham explains the reason for this as being because the Armée de l’Air Chasse Escadrilles “were homogenous, trained and experienced in their own aircraft, units, and milieu until mid-1940. They were an élite, knitted together by unit pride and camaraderie, even among the pilots and the ground crew. With an estimated average 750 flight hours each, the pilots had five times as many hours as new RAF pilots and three times the average Me 109 or Me 110 German pilot.”
This, paradoxically, caused difficulties for the French as it meant that they failed to bring any new pilots through the system quickly enough and had none to replace battle casualties. The French also had a very inadequate aircraft acquisition system and only thirty per cent of the replacement aircraft were delivered operationally fit. So, despite the evident abilities of the French pilots, the effectiveness of the French air arm was limited by these indirect factors.
Higham’s research also examines the fact that the three air forces, British, German and French, actually shot down only 19 per cent of the number of aircraft that they claimed. However, in the RAF’s case, 44 per cent of those shot down were readily repairable, contrasting with only 8 per cent for the Germans and a very damaging zero for the French.
Higham further considers the claim made by the French that Armée de l’Air was undefeated and that the collapse of French resistance was because of the defeat of the French Army: “The Armée de l’Air fought on, but the battle was lost on the ground by the Armée de Terre, which had prepared for a 1918–style trench war and was flummoxed by the German Blitzkrieg.” Almost one-third of the Armée de l’Air’s losses in the Battle of France were on the ground.
Higham also points out that the RAF performed relatively poorly in the weeks following the Battle of France. “The RAF,” he states, was “much better supplied and equipped, much better controlled, and with double the pilots – fared but half as well in the Battle of Britain only a few weeks later.”
A major reason for the failure of the Luftwaffe to defeat the RAF in 1940 was, Higham believes, not so much because of the efforts of Fighter Command as of the failure of the Germans to prepare fully for the Battle of Britain. “What the German air force lacked,” Higham notes, “was not grand-strategic heavy bombers, but long-range escorts to allow the medium bombers to cover all of Britain. Germany had developed the escort fighter from 1936 because it did not believe that the bomber would always get through [but] the Luftwaffe’s failure in the Battle of Britain was poor intelligence on the country, on British industry and on the RAF. And this was due to Hitler and the political Oberkommando not seeing Britain as an enemy until eighteen months before the war.”
This book will raise a few eyebrows and dispel many long-held beliefs. Anyone that chooses to read or write about the Battle of Britain needs to take into account Higham’s observations. Indeed, this book should be the starting point for any future investigation into the air war during those crucial months of 1940.
Review courtesy of Britain At War Magazine.