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The Most Dangerous Enemy 10: The Defenders

April 13, 2011 Comments off

Faster than a speeding bullet! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! Is it a bird? Is it an aeroplane? NO! It’s Keith Park!

‘The Defenders’ is dedicated to the major personnel fighting the battle on the British end: Hugh Dowding and his immediate subordinates Keith Park, Trafford Leigh-Mallory, Richard Saul and Quintin Brand.

Air Marshall Hugh Dowding

Dowding gets comparatively little attention. Bungay does dwell on the shabby treatment he received, especially regarding the constantly moving date of his retirement. The manner of his actual retirement is treated without the usual drama other writers engage in, that of calling it a palace coup by Air Vice Marshal Sholto Douglas in concert with Leigh-Mallory. This, as we shall see, is merely a minor sop to the opposition.

Air Vice-Marshall Keith Park

Park gets built up to almost saint-like proportions as the ideal leader, beloved by his men, a visionary who understood what Dowding wanted and executed it almost perfectly. This is outright hagiography; reinforced by a completely unneccesary emphasis on Park’s Christian faith.

Air Vice-Marshall Trafford Leigh Mallory

The words used for Leigh-Mallory’s description are of a different class altogether. ‘Character assassination’ comes to mind. Unfortunately, instead of dwelling on the actual facts in the ‘big wing’ dispute and Dowding’s eventual retirement, Bungay engages in an ad hominem attack, calling Leigh-Mallory’s fitness for commanding a Fighter Command Group into question because he never flew fighters himself (unlike of course Keith Park, who was simply a dashing fighter pilot, darling), and using hearsay evidence furnished by none other than Keith Park as to Leigh-Mallory’s intentions of getting Dowding sacked. Yes, a real trustworthy source there.

Air Vice-Marshall Richard Saul

Never mind that as someone who flew a BE.2 in the run-up to Bloody April 1917 might have a very good idea of what attrition would mean in an air battle. No, Leigh-Mallory was definitely less capable a commander because of that, unlike Richard Saul of 13 Group who flew…wait, Richard Saul also flew observation missions in that selfsame BE.2, and also never commanded a fighter squadron. And yet this does not stop Bungay to praise him as a capable commander. This is, to say the least, illogical.

 

This chapter is one of the most infuriating pieces of crap writing I have ever had the displeasure to read.

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The Most Dangerous Enemy 9: Eagle

April 11, 2011 Comments off

This chapter opens with a rumination on the complexities of planning a battle, and launches the ‘cock-up’ theory.

In short: battle plans fail because somewhere down the line a cock-up is made. Those whose plans prevent the most cock-ups win. Cock-ups may happen due to 5 identified (by Bungay) factors:

  1. Ignorance. Missing knowledge about the enemy, his dispositions, or the battlefield.
  2. Uncertainty. Factors beyond control, such as weather.
  3. Complexity. The more complex a plan is, the more scope for cock-ups.
  4. Equipment. The wrong equipment at the right place and time, or the right equipment at the wrong place and time.
  5. The opposition. Too many battle plans do not figure in the reaction of the enemy, or depend on certain reactions only.

I have a major problem with this theory. As Bungay himself admits, no cock-ups at all cannot be prevented. Yet his whole theory depends on battle plans foreseeing every eventuality and planning for it. History, however, shows that great generals do not try to plan for every contingency, but make their plans flexible enough to change them at a moment’s notice once a cock-up happens. ‘No battle plan survives contact with the enemy’ after all.

Witness for example Montgomery’s plan to take Caen and the surrounding airfields: when early in the invasion this failed, he switched to a strategy of continuous offensives to contain the Germans on his front, keeping their Panzer divisions mostly away from the American part of the front. Monty may insist that this was his plan all along, which makes him a vain and arrogant twit, but a close look at what actually happened shows that in actual execution he was able to be flexible and adjust his battle plans on the fly to overcome the inevitable cock-ups.

What’s worse is that Bungay admits that this sort of flexibility is important at the onset of his chapter, and then starts expounding on the philosophy of complete prevention. This is sloppy thinking, to put it mildly.

That aside, Bungay’s analysis of the weakness of the plans for Adlertag, the opening offensive in the Battle of Britain, is another well-written piece showing just how confused the Luftwaffe planning was. After reading about the various plans made up at all levels, and the complete inability of the high command to turn out a cohesive battle plan, it leaves one to wonder how the Eagle offensive even got off to a start in the first place.

The Most Dangerous Enemy 8: Sealion

April 10, 2011 Comments off

Much has been written on the viability of Operation Sealion.

Bungay does not much more than summarise the history of the plan as it made its way through the various German organisations. This includes the pessimism and general obstruction of the Kriegsmarine, and the almost foolhardy optimism of the Luftwaffe.

It also dwells a bit on the rather half-hearted planning efforts at the highest level (OKW) and ends with the fairly well-spread assertion that Sealion, if it had been attempted, would have amounted to little more than an enormous gamble that might have paid off.

The Most Dangerous Enemy 7: Strength for Battle

April 10, 2011 Comments off

This chapter is mostly concerned with the economic and logistical aspects of the forces pre-battle.

It gives us production figures, readiness rates and expected attrition rates (based on the previous campaigns in Spain, Poland and the German offensive in the West). All are well-sourced, and give a good notion of the time pressure the Germans were under to knock out Britain as quickly as possible before economic realities set in and would have made this an impossibility.

It also gives an account of the political pressures that led to Hurricane squadrons sent to France over the objections of Dowding.

An intriguing chapter, albeit a bit dry due to the amount of statistics quoted. It really makes one wonder whether or not the German objective of beating the RAF was realistic at all.

The Most Dangerous Enemy 6: The Bombers

April 10, 2011 Comments off

After discussing the organisation of Fighter Command and the equipment to be used in the previous two chapters, it is now the turn to take a look at the role of Bomber Command in the Battle of Britain.

I must say this chapter was a bit of an eye-opener to me. Anyone familiar with the RAF in 1940 knows about the disastrous deployment of the Fairey Battle squadrons in the Battle of France and the equally disastrous Wellington raids on Wilhelmshaven.

What surprised me though is the fact that Bomber Command materially affected the battle by raiding the Channel ports, hitting the German invasion preparations.

Another excellent chapter that gives well-cited details on the strategic thinking at the time.

The Most Dangerous Enemy 5: The Fighters

April 10, 2011 Comments off

A Spitfire Mk. IIa, from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight

After the excellent chapter 4, this is a bit of a let-down

The chapter opens with an excellently written description of the fighter design process that preceded the advent of the Hurricane and the Spitfire.

It follows with a detailed description of both these mainstay fighters of the RAF.

It falls down, however, on the fanboyish fawning over the Spitfire. Yes, it was a wonderful fighter, easily one of the best in service in WWII among all combatants. However, the way it is almost canonised as the only fighter platform to stay in service until the end is grating. The Bf-109 is given a short mention as being in service until 1945 (in the KÔÇôvariant), but this is almost summarily dismissed without taking into account that its relative performance in 1945 suffered mainly due to a lack of experienced pilots.

Also, too much is made of the Spitfire’s performance in a level turn. Sure, it’s turn radius was measurably smaller than that of the competition, both in 1940 and later on, but Bungay forgets to discount pilot quality, which is necessary to use this performance advantage. Which is doubly grating because he cites (among others) Mike Spick in his bibliography, an outspoken proponent of the theory that pilot performance trumps technological excellence.

He also falls down in using biased sources (such as Spitfire test pilot Jeffrey Quill) as proof of the wonder weapon nature of the Spitfire. When he cites a fly-off of a captured Fw-190 vs a Hawker Typhoon vs a Spitfire flown by Quill, he appears not to consider that it is no wonder the Spitfire flown by a pilot who intimately knows its strengths and weaknesses wins the contest.

This chapter shows Bungay at his worst: a wonderful writer with an axe to grind. His writing is so good, that an unbiased reader with no knowledge of other sources would come off believing his ‘wonder weapon’ stance.

The Most Dangerous Enemy 4: Air Defence

April 10, 2011 Comments off

Bungay describes in detail the organisation of the RAF control and command infrastructure. The description starts with the background of the strategic thinking in those days. He starts with the influence of the theories of Giulio Douhet, which stated that defence against bombers would be futile, and goes on to show how the RAF went about circumventing the points Douhet raised.

The description of the ‘Dowding system’ is exhaustive, and shows to the lay reader just how ‘the bomber will always get through’ was addressed by the structure of the RDF stations, filter rooms, Fighter command HQ, group HQs and sector stations.

Bungay also points out how flexible and robust this system was, which (looking ahead) was proven in actual battle.

No unnecessary psychological speculation, and Bungay’s experience in large organisations pays off in this chapter, as his insights into the organisational strengths of the Dowding system comes from someone with hands-on experience in leading a large organisation.

Again, excellent stuff.