Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
26 Apr. 2021
Review by Frances Houghton, University of Manchester
Battle of Britain 1940: The Finest Hour's Human Cost
By Dilip Sarkar
Havertown, PA: Pen and Sword, 2020. Pp. xxii, 370. ISBN 978–1–5267–7593–1.
Descriptors: Volume 2021, 20th Century, World War II, Battle of Britain Print Version

In his new book, Battle of Britain 1940, the prolific aviation historian Dilip Sarkar[1] shifts focus from "great men" and air heroes to the Royal Air Force (RAF) Fighter Command's less renowned but equally determined and courageous professionals, amateurs, and reservists who died during Britain's "Finest Hour." Of the nearly three thousand aircrew that Fighter Command fielded during the Battle of Britain, 544 lost their lives. Acknowledging the invariably "difficult and challenging" task of assessing the human cost of the Battle (10 July–31 Oct. 1940), Sarkar spotlights "the ordinariness and extra-ordinariness" of Fighter Command's casualties during summer and autumn 1940 (vii–viii). This is a tale of "also rans"—so dubbed by Peter Hutton Fox, a nineteen-year-old Hurricane pilot. It is emphatically not another paean to the Baders, Malans, and Stanford-Tucks of "the Few" who repulsed the Luftwaffe (35). Rather, it is an elegy to the nameless majority killed after only one or two battles. Sarkar's wide-angle perspective includes non-flying and female personnel:

While the pilots, navigators and gunners did do the fighting and deserve a special place in history, we must not forget that behind them was a great supporting infrastructure of ground staff, including engineers, armourers and numerous others, in addition to members of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force who performed various duties such as Operations Room work and nursing. These essential personnel were bombed, machine-gunned, and also suffered casualties. Moreover, the initial phase of the Battle of Britain was fought over the "Coal Scuttle Brigade," merchant ships carrying coal to Southampton. A number of ships were sunk or damaged, and many seamen lost their lives. Not widely known is that a substantial number of these unfortunate sailors were from India, China and Hong Kong. Furthermore, owing to the reach of air power, many civilians also died during our "Finest Hour"—some while toiling in vulnerable factories to produce Spitfires and other crucial weapons. When we think of the Battle of Britain, then, we should not just think in terms of the "Few," but of the entire "Home Team," which collectively made victory possible or stood fast against the threat of invasion. (xvii)

In outlining this "collective whole" of civilian and military casualties during 1940, the author evokes and honors the shared sacrifice of those who received no public accolades but were no less loved and mourned by their relatives and home communities. He tells the stories of the faceless dead, even when all that remains is a name passed through generations of family or friends. In this regard, his book is a genuine "tribute to all of those who gave their lives—and those left behind to endure the agony of their loss" (xvii).

The book's dedication—"To all who lost their lives during the 'Finest Hour'"—reminds us that the iconic year of 1940 involved far more than a rousing early-morning dust-up with the Hun, followed by eggs, bacon, and the cheers of pretty girls. The great strength of the book lies in its careful portraits of people who might have been one's own nextdoor neighbours, building a rich sense of the personalities of flyers, factory workers, and ground staff. Each time the thread of an individual life is brutally cut short, we sense the shock and loss it stirred. A highlight of the book is its inclusion of the families and friends of those who died, whose sorrow passed down the generations. Sarkar highlights the touching efforts of second and third generations to trace relatives who went missing in action; the included images of memorials and photographs underscore the longevity of traumatic loss.

Each of the volume's chapters concentrates on the lives, experiences, and untimely deaths of individuals in a range of wartime occupations. These may be read as stand-alone offerings, but they complement each other in a harmonious whole. A handy glossary explains relevant German and Luftwaffe terms and their RAF counterparts. Sarkar's (typically) impeccable attention to military detail will please and edify both experienced military/aviation historians and interested newcomers. Readers will learn about, for instance, the interwar development of RAF doctrine around the "shadow of the bomber," and the establishment of such key initiatives as the Auxiliary Air Force and Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, which provided routes into the RAF for many of the young men who perished in 1940. Students of aerial combat tactics will appreciate the lucid discussions of British and German operational maneuvres, including the Luftwaffe's Schwarm (swarm) formation, in which four aircraft cruised in line abreast and slightly stepped at two hundred yards apart, a tactic that menaced even hardened aces like the RAF's "Johnnie" Johnson, VC (275).

The book's best chapters are packed with lovingly detailed accounts of flyers long overshadowed by the "aces" who still attract the lion's share of attention. Sarkar's close ties to surviving members of "the Few" lend clarity and depth to his treatment of the lives, loves, and identities of ordinary men called upon to perform extraordinary feats. His subjects seem almost like his family. His obvious affection for them yet avoids drenching "the Few" in the mawkishness and over-sentimentality that afflict current portrayals of these airmen.

Sarkar expands the collective story of 1940 beyond any narrow preoccupation with the "glamour" of the flyer. As he correctly states, much work remains for historians to do in this regard, especially as concerns the critical roles that Chinese and Indian merchant seamen played in keeping open the Channel routes sailed by the members of the "Coal Scuttle Brigade."

One chapter tells the story of a certain "Subedar," known only as a thirty-six year-old Muslim seaman. The author composes an unbearably poignant epitaph for "Subedar"—"son of Sheikh Modee and husband of Tahera Bibi"—who died of wounds sustained aboard the SS City of Brisbane when German bombers attacked it in the Thames Estuary (66–67). Sarkar stresses that, like "Subedar," the 50,700 Commonwealth sailors who died in both world wars deserve a conspicuous place in the "finest hour" narratives, not to mention the relatives of "Subedar" and others left to grieve the loss of a son, a husband, or a brother on the far side of the world. The sheer narrative abruptness of this brief chapter attests to the heart-rending paucity of evidence about unknown sailors in the merchant marine, a shameful gap in academic and popular literatures of 1940.

It is disappointing that Sarkar's commitment to diversifying the story of 1940 does not extend to women's participation in Britain's "Finest Hour." He does establish the importance of recognizing that men and women confronted shared dangers and often died alongside each other during the air attacks. But one wishes he had allocated more space to women's own roles in the wider story of the "Finest Hour." But this quibble does not detract from the book's many sterling qualities.

Meticulously researched and affectingly written, Battle of Britain is a bittersweet memorial to the unheralded casualties of 1940 and their loved ones. At a time when key tropes and images of that momentous year are routinely hijacked, manipulated, and reduced to crass internet memes, Dilip Sarkar offers readers a sobering and timely reminder that "finest hours" leave a trail of terrible human costs in their wake.

[1] He has written some forty books, many centering on key aspects of the air war in 1939–45. In 2003, he was made an MBE for his "services to aviation history."

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