The Few, the Extremely Frightened
Topic: Must Read
We tend to romanticize old wars and old battles: Agincourt, Yorktown, Gettysburg. Another good example is the Battle of Britain (July-September 1940), rhetorically immortalized by Winston Churchill. “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few,” he remarked in a speech to the House of Commons on 21 August 1940. He was referring to the pilots of RAF Fighter Command who, in their Spitfires and Hurricanes, were contesting control of the air over southeast England with Hitler’s mighty Luftwaffe. His words were greeted with prolonged applause that has echoed down to this day. In the high summer of 1940 the fate of Britain—indeed of the world—seemed to hinge on this air battle. Churchill’s "few"—a few hundred RAF fighter pilots, most of them in their twenties—thus entered history’s Valhalla.
If this is your impression of the Battle of Britain, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to read Derek Robinson’s Piece of Cake (1983; now available for the Kindle).
Robinson’s novel chronicles the adventures of Hornet Squadron from the outbreak of war in September 1939 to the climax of the Battle of Britain. It’s not a very romantic story, and it’s not Hollywood-heroic. The pilots of Hornet Squadron find themselves pitted against the Luftwaffe with inadequate aircraft. (Their first Hurricane fighters have two-bladed wooden propellers and fabric-covered wings while lacking cockpit armor and self-sealing fuel tanks.) Moreover, the RAF’s rigid peacetime tactics prove disastrous against the well-trained Germans. After taking a pasting in France, the squadron returns to Britain for the great battle. By the time the book ends, only a few of the characters the reader has gotten to know along the way are still alive.
While taking nothing away from the brave young men who fought and died in the skies over England in the summer of 1940, Piece of Cake tells it like it is. War is hell, everybody's scared, the good die young and sometimes survival is merely a matter of luck. This one’s a must read.
Posted by tmg110
at 11:12 AM EST
Updated: Thursday, 11 April 2013 9:54 PM EDT