When so much was owed by so many to so few

THEIR FINEST HOUR: THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN By Tim Clayton and Phil Craig Simon & Schuster 320 pp., $27.50

In August 1940, the future of Western civilization looked bleak. Adolf Hitler's armies had overrun Poland, Denmark, Holland, Luxembourg, Belgium, and France in quick succession. Great Britain stood alone with only the English Channel separating it from the Third Reich. Most observers believed Hitler would make quick work of the underprepared British. The conventional wisdom, of course, was wrong.

In "Their Finest Hour," Tim Clayton and Phil Craig describe why and how the British prevailed. The story begins with the German invasion of France and concludes six months later, after the danger of an invasion has passed. Ultimately, the outcome was attributable to many factors, including inspired leadership, better equipment, good judgment, and some timely aid from America. But the most important factor was the bravery and pluck of the British people in the face of grave danger.

Clayton and Craig tell the story on two levels. The first focuses on the major military developments and political negotiations. Moving easily from France to Britain to America and Canada, they describe how each country's leaders tried to navigate the unprecedented dangers. It was not the effective partnership it would later become: The British distrusted the French military leadership and, much to their ally's outrage, sank the French fleet rather than let it fall into German hands. Roosevelt amazed the Canadians and angered the British by seeking public assurances that the Royal Navy would be sent to America if the British surrendered.

In truth, British capitulation was not out of the question. After the fall of France, several members of Winston Churchill's war Cabinet argued for a negotiated peace with Hitler.

The book also explores the memories of of those who lived through the events. It's a diverse group of eyewitnesses who tell their stories: Royal Air Force pilots whose lives were equal parts terror and exhaustion; soldiers who fought in France and were rescued from Dunkirk; sailors in the British navy whose ships were sunk; female "plotters" who used radar to guide RAF fighter planes to the German bombers; and American newspaper reporters who became committed to the British cause. Even children who survived the blitz or whose evacuation ships were sunk by U-boats are included.

And what incredible stories they are. The voices are uniformly eloquent and the memories vivid. Courage and heroism figure prominently. By skillfully weaving these personal recollections into the broader account of political and military strategy, Clayton and Craig make the story of this decisive engagement come alive.

While the outline of this story is well known, many of the details are surprising. For example, the RAF was small - roughly 1,500 fighters and pilots at the height of the Battle of Britain. While several hundred new fighter planes were produced every month, skilled pilots were a lot harder to come by. Because most of the fighting was over the British Isles, RAF pilots who were shot down and survived were sent back into battle the next day. By contrast, Luftwaffe pilots who were shot down and lived became prisoners of war.This ability to recycle pilots was, according to Clayton and Craig, a key factor in the British victory.

The book was written as a companion to a PBS series devoted to the Battle of Britain that aired in July. Unfortunately, the authors don't include maps to provide some idea of the location of the small towns and obscure airfields that loom so large in this story. Nor does the book provide much information about the military equipment used by both sides. The average reader will not know the difference between a Messerschmidt 109 and a Messerschmidt 110 fighter plane or, for that matter, between a Spitfire and a Hurricane. One hopes that a subsequent edition of the book will address both shortcomings.

Examining the events of World War II by probing the memories of people who were in the middle of it has become increasingly popular in recent years.This is not an easy approach because it requires the talents of both an expert historian and a first-class storyteller. But in the hands of capable authors like Clayton and Craig, it can make the stories fresh and real to readers who have little knowledge of the conflict. How fitting to finally ask the men and women who lived through that turbulent, dangerous era to tell their stories in their own words.

*Terry W. Hartle is senior vice president of the American Council on Education.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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