Book Review – Unflinching Zeal: The Air Battles over France and Britain, May-October 1940

Robin Higham, Unflinching Zeal: The Air Battles over France and Britain, May-October 1940. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2012. Tables. Illustrations. Notes. Glossary. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. xxi + 317pp. £31.95

Reviewed by Daniel Pilfold, PhD Candidate, Centre for War Studies, University of Birmingham


Robin Higham has undertaken a study that follows on from his book Two Roads to War, concerning the Royal Air Force (RAF) and French Armee de L’air during the inter-war period.[1] In Unflinching Zeal, Higham attempts to evaluate the performances of the three main combatants of the early phase of the Second World War and their respective use of air power. His specific interest is the Armee de L’air, Luftwaffe and the RAF. Higham examines the campaigns they fought in May-October 1940 and their associated policies, development, doctrine, logistical skills and training regimes. Higham then considers how each of the respects air forces areas coped under the pressures of wartime operations. As Higham has done, this author will split this review into three chapters concerning the three main combatants.

To begin with, the Luftwaffe. Upon beginning the book, one notices a series of problems with Higham’s analysis concerning German air power and military behaviour. In the introduction, Higham speaks of a ‘German blitzkrieg philosophy’ (p. xviii). It is a bold statement and repeats, without question, the key myth about German war making in the era of the Second World War. Higham does not hesitate to place the Luftwaffe within this context when he writes that, ‘The Luftwaffe’s sole purpose was to help win a short war’ (p. 2). Higham frequently uses the word ‘blitzkrieg’ to describe German intentions at the tactical, operational, and strategic level and utilises Robert Citino’s The German Way of War to demonstrate that 1940 was a continuation of the German historical way of war (p. 4). Citino’s work is not without its faults as The German Way of War only discuses only the vague similarities between German operations over several centuries and does not deal with the economic and grand-strategic nature of the Third Reich, or Hitler’s own geopolitical and strategic policies.[2]

This reviewer finds himself having to offer corrective analysis on this issue. In brief, the Nazi State, and Hitler, had taken sobering lessons from the First World War. It was evident through Nazi rearmament programs that the German state was not preparing for a quick war beginning in 1939, as it had done in 1914. Road and rail programs were not to be complete until 1944; the Luftwaffe, with equipped with a heavy bomber fleet was not to ready until 1942. Indeed, the Kriegsmarine’s Z-plan would not be complete until the late 1940s. The Hitler state was not preparing for a short war sooner, but rather a longer war much later. Adam Tooze, Richard Overy and Karl-Heinz Frieser have long since demolished the idea the German state intended to wage war this way.[3]

Concerning the Luftwaffe, Higham’s insistence that it was a ‘tactical air force’ cast into the role of a strategic one over Britain in 1940 bears the hallmarks of the same myth (pp. 17-18). It is evident that Higham has read James Corum’s work as he quotes it for German operations in the Spanish Civil War (p. 92). However, Corum has been one of a number of air power historians who have refuted the notion of the Luftwaffe as a tactical air force. Indeed, the Corum points to the 1935 manual that stipulated it was only the armoured and elite divisions that were promised air support.[4] More to the point, close support, or tactical missions, were only third on the list of critical functions; air superiority and the defeat of the enemy air forces came first, whilst interdiction of enemy infrastructure (operational mission) came second.[5] It was a cause of disagreement that Corum and Richard Muller have been keen to dispel and they both point to the original manual, which was unequivocal that greater emphasis was to be given to the ground battle only if the critical/decisive point had been reached.[6] John Buckley has also touched upon this and questions the notion that the Luftwaffe was a dedicated close support arm and points to the fact the only 15 per cent of its first line strength of the Luftwaffe in September 1939 was designed for close air support.[7]

Higham does, however, appreciate and grasp the fundamentals of the Luftwaffe’s strengths and failings in both the Battles of France and Britain. He points to the failings in Command that allowed a Chief of the General Staff, Generalmajor Hans Jeschonnek, (who owed his position to politics) to advocate throwing in reserves and training personnel into operations in short campaigns in comparison to Generalleutnant Walther Wever, his predecessor, who died in 1936 (p. 94). Higham rightly refers to logistics as a weak spot in German thinking – a left over from previous eras (p. 102, 104). The Germans continually struggled after the battle of France to sustain operations against Britain. Williamson Murray has noted that operational serviceability rates and front-line strength sank during the Battle of Britain. Prior to the invasion of the Soviet Union, the Luftwaffe was short of 200 medium bombers in comparison to May 1940.[8]

Even so, despite Jeschonnek, the tactical and technological development of the Luftwaffe was sound. Even the development of the Messerschmitt Bf 110 heavy fighter reflected a genuine attempt to produce a long-range escort fighter for bomber operations while the deferral of anti-aircraft arms to the Luftwaffe and their deployment to army units facilitated the crossing of the Meuse at Sedan against Allied bombers – with appalling loss for the latter. Ground-to-air communication was vital in the campaign in the West that was won thanks to the adaptation that emerged from the campaigns in Spain and Poland. If incapable of counter-naval operations against heavy units, for which it was unprepared and trained, it was certainly effective at carrying out general army support and bombing. However, it did not have the reserves, logistics, or intelligence to prevail against Britain in 1940 and certainly not so soon after losing a third of its strength on the continent.[9] A far wiser stratagem for the Luftwaffe, as noted by Higham, would have to assist in the blockade of British ports, however, the development of naval-air doctrine and equipment was lacking. For all of its effective command and control structures, Luftwaffe air operations were undone by poor intelligence on British industry and the RAF’s infrastructure and an inability to sustain costly operations.

The analysis of the Armee de L’Air is on much firmer ground. Higham leads the reader through a variety of complex social, political, economic and military factors with reasonable clarity, enabling the reader to understand the failure of French aerial operations in May-June 1940. French preparations for war were not good. There was a great debate in France over the future of military aviation. A decision was never reached with satisfaction on how France would use air power in a future conflict. The political elite were pacifists at heart, and preferred a defensive strategy. The focus was on fighters than bombers, of which no modern unit existed until the spring of 1940. Higham shows a disconnect that Paris had with the military as it believed it had more modern aircraft than it did. It resulted from a confused system that saw unserviceable and non-combat machines listed as front-line aircraft. The Armee de L’Air did not reach a comparative numerical strength with the Luftwaffe until June 1940, by which time it was too late. The non-existent infrastructure meant many aircraft had missing parts, and facilities had few spares to complete them. Serviceability rates during the campaign were very low and this hindered operational effectiveness. On top of this production-supply fiasco, Higham does well to identify political factors. In 1936, the Popular Front’s decision to nationalise the aircraft industry led to delays in design and supply of aircraft, while parliament was reluctant to offer funding owing to fiscal difficulties, using the supply interruptions as an excuse. The production of large numbers of aircrew and ground crews to handle more modern types was also deficient (pp. 34-38).

The quality of aircraft designs produced was certainly below that of its allies, particularly bombers. Higham uses lost statistics to portray the inadequacy of design but also of doctrine, which in battle left bombers attempting to hit enemy targets without escort. Fighter aircraft had potential, but there remained problems with light-armament and general performance with low-powered engines and a lack of radio communications that left pilots using hand signals in the air (p. 51). Nevertheless, in the hands of an experienced pilot the best French fighters, in particular the Dewoitine D.520, were equal to both the Bf 109 and Hawker Hurricane. However, these designs were in the minority and it was evident that the French did not have the kit to conduct an effective air war en-mass. The modern types reaching the front-line did so just before and during the battle and only in small numbers.

The quality of the aircrew was a different matter. Higham argues that the Armee de L’Air suffered fewer losses in respect of its victory-to loss ration compared to either the British or the Germans in 1940. This is strange since his own research shows that the Armee de L’air was substantially shorts of trained pilots and aircrew in 1938-39 due to its underestimation concerning the building and staffing of training establishments (p. 47). A situation that was not rectified until after the evacuation from Dunkirk. Nonetheless, Higham’s analyse of claims in combat compared with loss records, determines that the French did marginally better in combat than has been supposed; though he guesses, without sources, that French pilots had five and three times the amount of flying hours than RAF or Luftwaffe airmen and that they lacked intelligence and did not respect their opponents.

Higham, using statics collected from secondary and primary sources, attempts to marry German losses to the victory claims of French records. Higham determines, reasonably, that French losses in air combat were identical to that of the Germans. The French pilot had overcome his services’ deficiencies. French fighter units were thus tenacious in battle despite their technological shortcomings and the hopelessness of French operational art.[10] The crippling Achilles heel was the lack of doctrine, command, control and communication. The ability to maintain a defence was worsened as the Germans penetrated the French interior and disrupted supply lines and communications that collapsed the Armee de L’Air’s rudimentary system (pp. 64-87, p. 234, 247).

Higham’s evaluation of the RAF raises a few eyebrows on occasion. His introduction states that the Air Staff was better organised and more independent than the French General Staff of the Air Force but claims it was inferior in quality to that of the Luftwaffe (p. 126). He is perhaps right to question that the Germans may have had a more comprehensive approach to aerial warfare than the strategic-bombing centric British doctrine at the outbreak of war, but this reviewer has already drawn attention to Jeschonnek, his method of war, and the Oberkommando der Luftwaffe’s (Air Force High Command) poor intelligence and failed logistical ‘system’. Failings over Britain and later in 1943-45, were caused by gaps in doctrine concerning naval aviation and air defence. Caused by the High Command, it can hardly be argued it was ahead of its enemies nor does it equate to a thoroughly competent air staff. The British, on the other hand, did undergo a learning curve and improved doctrine development and its application to operations.

The RAF performed poorly in France, when operating on the continent. Unable to conduct a mobile war, it abandoned huge stores of equipment. British doctrine left a void in air-ground cooperation that was largely non-existent in practice. Inadequate bomber designs and the failure of tactical doctrine exposed unescorted bombers to debilitating losses. Training was also inefficient; poor bombing results and gunnery in many fighter units coupled with poor tactical deployment on the ground and in the air retarded combat effectiveness. Most histories have already comprehensively covered this area of RAF operations, so Higham focuses on the Battle of Britain, and the British preparations for air defence.

The RAF was better prepared to carry out air defence in 1940 than any other air force in the world. The organisation of functional commands in 1936 streamlined the RAF into dedicated arms. Before the 1936 reorganisation and since 1918, the RAF had reduced in size, adopted the mantel of bombing, which over time encouraged a dogmatic approach to air warfare, excluding air defence and naval aviation.[11] While naval aviation and trade defence was continually neglected until mid-way through the Second World War, the Air Staff did invest heavily, albeit late in the day, in air defence, with sufficient pace to see the fruits of its labour in 1940. That investment was critical in four areas; air crew, aircraft, logistics and early warning development.[12]

Tactically the training of pilots and the production of modern aircraft were essential. The investment in Hawker and Supermarine produced the fighter aircraft that was able to meet the Luftwaffe on equal terms. Powerful in-line engines, adequate armament for air-to-air combat in the shape of eight .303 machine guns (perhaps 20mm cannon could have been introduced sooner for anti-bomber operations but would have required modification of the Spitfire’s tin elliptical wing), wireless radio transmission between pilots and ground unit presented the appropriate arms. Pilot training was barely sufficient, though given the pressing need for keeping squadrons replete with manpower, practice on operational types would not be adequate until the following year. All in all the Spitfire and Hurricane were more-or-less, the equal of the Bf 109 and better performers than the Bf 110. Higham eventually gets around to acknowledging OTU units (Operational Training Units) which gave pilots six weeks to familiarise themselves with Spitfires and Hurricanes. The 150 hours given was substantially lower than the 250 hours given to German pilots (and Higham’s guess of 750 for French pilots). OTU’s had problems, namely time. Pilots were pushed through with speed, and with new aircraft, more complicated than biplanes, a lack of dual instruction and wireless R/T, accidents occurred. Nevertheless, OTU’s gave just enough experience to pilots to enable the RAF to keep on top of losses in all Commands even though less than fifty per cent of pilot requirements were met before the battle of Britain. It was just enough (pp. 225-6).

The use of these assets by AOC-in-C (Air Officer Commander in Chief) Fighter Command, Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding, and AOC No. 12 Group, Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park, required careful use. Since the rationale of British deployment and strategy for the air battle has been explained endlessly, Higham rightly restricts himself to noting Park’s stratagem of avoiding a decisive battle, remaining intact, and committing sufficient force to inflict attrition on German intrusions into British air space. Given that Dowding and Park’s goal was to sustain operations, and merely keep their forces intact, thereby winning the battle by default, the first move was to disperse production facilities of the two fighter types and create shadow factories. With the industrial base more difficult to destroy, attention turned to the supply chain. Higham thankfully alludes to the accident rate as well as poor training, which had cost the RAF dearly in France and in training thus far. He recognised that the foundation of RAF Maintenance Command, formed in July 1938, and the Master Supply Scheme, triggers the creation of supply depots in May 1940 with a full complement of transportation facilities allowing the rapid deployment of aircraft from factory-to-airfield-to-repair. Female pilots were utilised to save ‘man-power’ and ‘slave’ engines were used purely as ferry power plants to save wear and tear. Each depot contained a month’s stock of aircraft in 1940. Instead of self-supporting squadrons, specialist maintenance units took over the repair of aircraft. It was certainly a streamlined system. He correctly notes that it was a far more efficient system than the chaotic German supply chain, or the amateurish French system (p. 131).

In this respect, Higham’s work is a useful addition to Richard Overy and Peter Dye’s work, who both contend that the British logistics structure was never in danger of collapse. Both provide convincing data that the number of pilots fit for operations also did not decrease from July 1940 onwards and the aircraft repair facilities were keeping pace with losses. Williamson Murray also supports this concluding that statistics undoubtedly show serviceability rates in the RAF were substantially higher than in the Luftwaffe.[13] Higham notes that while experienced pilots were in short supply, the overall quota of pilots never exceeded ten per cent. Aircraft reserves, he says, were never lower than 161 by late August; apparently because ‘tactical’ lessons had been learned, though the stability of production and the efficient repair of airfields are used to explain this (p. 213). This was in fact an operational lesson. Critically, the battle of supply ended in a one-sided victory for the RAF; 44 per cent of its fighters were repaired against just seven per cent of the Luftwaffe’s (all types) (p. 223). The British had proved more operationally competent, and consequently prevailed.

To conclude, this book, as with its precursor, Two Roads to War, is very much a curates egg,. It would have been better served if its author had studied James Corum and Richard Muller more carefully, especially since he has quoted from these authors. His assertions concerning German air doctrine are at odds with these scholars, who have made substantial contributions to the study of German aviation. Higham’s study of British operations is mostly sound, but is undermined by unsubstantiated, or unexplained statements – particularly when offering a comparison between the German and British Air Staff. There is some interesting information on the French side of the fence, and titbits throughout, but the impression is of a haphazard study that has missed some fundamental issues that can only serve to damage the book’s credibility.

Citation: Daniel Pilfold, ‘Review of Robin Higham, Unflinching Zeal: The Air Battles over France and Britain, May-October 1940’, The Second World War Military Operations Research Group, 11 August 2013

You can download a copy of the review here.

[1] Robin Higham, Two Roads to War: The French and British Air Arms from Versailles to Dunkirk (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2012).

[2] See: Robert Citino, The German Way of War: From the Thirty Years War to the Third Reich (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2005), passim.

[3] Richard Overy, ‘Hitler’s War and the German Economy: A Reinterpretation’, The Economic History Review, Vol. 35, No. 2 (May, 1982), pp. 272-291; Adam Tooze, The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy (London: Allen Lane, 2006); Karl-Heinz Frieser, The Blitzkrieg Legend: The 1940 Campaign in the West (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2005).

[4] James Corum, The Luftwaffe: Creating the Operational Air War, 1918-1940 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1997), p. 138.

[5] Ibid, p. 138, pp. 140-144

[6] Ibid, p. 5; James Corum, and Richard Muller, The Luftwaffe’s Way of War: German Air Doctrine, 1911-45 (Mount Pleasant, SC: Nautical & Aviation Publishing Company of America 1998), p. 195

[7] John Buckley, Air Power in the Age of Total War (London: UCL Press, 1999), p. 127.

[8] Williamson Murray, Strategy for Defeat: The Luftwaffe 1933-45 (London: Brassey’s 1996), p. 80

[9] Ibid, p. 40, pp. 45-56

[10] For the most comprehensive analysis of Armee de L’air doctrine prior to the Second World War, see: Christopher Cain, The Forgotten Air Force: French Air Doctrine in the 1930s (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002).

[11] For the most recent analysis of the evolution of RAF doctrine, see: Neville Parton, ‘The Evolution and Impact of Royal Air Force Doctrine, 1919-1939’, PhD Thesis (University of Cambridge, 2009).

[12] John Buckley, The RAF and Trade Defence, 1919-1945: Constant Endeavour (Keele: Keele University Press, 1996); Maurice Kirby and R. Capey, ‘The Air Defence of Great Britain, 1920-1940: An Operational Research Perspective’, The Journal of the Operational Research Society, Vol. 48, No. 6 (Jun., 1997), pp. 555-568; Peter Dye, ‘Logistics and the Battle of Britain’, Royal Air Force Air Power Review, Vol. 3, No. 4 (Winter 2000), pp. 15-38.

[13] See: Dye, ‘Logistics and the Battle of Britain’; Richard Overy, Battle of Britain: Myth and Reality (London: Penguin, 2010).

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