Book Review – Dogfight: The Battle of Britain

Adam Claasen, Dogfight: The Battle of Britain. Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2013. Illustrations. Maps. Appendix. Notes. Index. Pbk. 224 pp.

Reviewed by Stephen Moore, PhD Candidate, University of Newcastle

Dogfight New Cover 600pix

The Battle of Britain is one of the most popular subjects of both airpower and the Second World War and the historiography is extensive, with 1,819 titles listed in the British Library catalogue. Inevitably subjected to widespread scrutiny, any new contribution to the narrative will have its significance questioned due to the vast quantity of previous literature on the campaign. Due to the volume of titles produced on the subject, the rigour of books produced by academic scholars contrast strongly with those emerging from ‘populist’ historians. This presents the author of any new work with a potential poison chalice, not to mention their erstwhile reviewer, especially depending whether they are in the ‘Park/Dowding’ or ‘Leigh-Mallory/Bader’ camps (although no one ever seems to be in the ‘Sholto Douglas’ camp).

The subject is so familiar that the elements in Battle of Britain are predictable. The discovery of radar and the development of the technology into an integrated command and control system will be there, as well as the development of the Supermarine Spitfire and Hawker Hurricane. The rise of the Luftwaffe pre-war and the decision to optimise it to support Wehrmacht operations at the expense of a strategic bombing force may be included for historical balance. Described to varying degrees are the reorganisation following the Dunkerque evacuation will begin the campaign narrative, and then all of the usual elements: Kanalkampf, Adlerangriff, the ‘Critical Period’ and the attacks on London. Discussed and over-analysed, controversies such as Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding’s relationship with the Air Ministry, the deterrence value of the Royal Navy, the ‘Big Wing’ debate and the removal of Dowding and Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park once the Battle was over will appear.

It is arguable that no more can be said about the Battle of Britain and that there is nothing new to be added. The standard narrative approach will at best mimic Derek Wood and Derek Dempster or Francis Mason while measured against John Ray or Stephen Bungay; esoteric titles face a challenge or originality. All of this begs the question of whether we really need another book on the Battle of Britain, which Adam Claasen does considers at the beginning of his Introduction. As a lecturer at Massey University in New Zealand, this book was originally written as a part of the ‘Anzac Battles Series’, and this unique part of the story, he maintains, is their contribution to the Battle. Although a few other books have previously documented either the Australian or New Zealand effort, none has attempted a combined history.

ANZAC should only refer to ‘Australian and New Zealand Army Corps’ and has nothing to do with aviation, so for the rest of this review ‘antipodeans’ will be used where appropriate. A preliminary flick through the book seemed promising, with reasonable maps (although nothing that would surprise Wood and Dempster), and properly numbered references instead of the hideous system of using a page number and a sentence fragment to identify them which has become depressingly common.

The book attempts to weave the story of the antipodeans from leaving the southern hemisphere until the end of the Battle of Britain while also documenting the wider story. This starts as they journey to Britain, learn to fly and deal with the frosty weather and frostier reception from the British class system. The development of the Spitfire and Hurricane forms part of this chapter, plus the installation of constant-speed propellers, although Claasen manages to go straight to these from fixed pitch two blade and misses out the variable pitch three blade completely (p. 35). Featured notably in this chapter, Cobber Kain was an early Battle of France ace and a definite New Zealander. Other pilots identified as antipodeans in this chapter are less definitive, notably Richard Hillary. There is no evidence from Hillary’s own writing that he ever considered himself an Australian.[1] Although he was born in Sydney, by the time he was three his parents had relocated to London and all his education was within the United Kingdom.[2] Another irritation is the use of Me designation instead of Bf. Although acknowledged in the references, there is no excuse for not employing the correct designation unless using a direct quotation. The Bayerische Flugzeugwerke did not become Messerschmitt AG until 1938, and the designations used should reflect when the aircraft design originated, specifically the Bf 109 and Bf 110.

The structure of the book does not encourage easy reading. Although the author assures the reader in the introduction that he will avoid ‘a series of disparate biographical entries or vignettes’ (p. 15), the book then adopts a system of giving an overview of operations within the period of a particular chapter before describing the experiences of relevant antipodeans, which leads to a disjointed narrative. Most of the operational summaries – irritatingly the book refers to ‘missions’ in places (p. 65) – consist of familiar material, although there are a few original insights within the text. Despite the extensive referencing, however, when discussing a secret RAF report on Fighter Command losses from August 1940 there is frustratingly no reference included (p. 137).

The major issue with the book is there seems to be an unseemly scramble to identify anyone with the slightest connection to Australasia as antipodeans. The issue with people who emigrated to Britain at an early age like Richard Hillary has already been described, and there are cases of men who arrived in southern hemisphere as adults, including one who arrived in New Zealand as late as 1938 (p. 183). These make about as much sense as the reviewer, as a native of the north east of England, claiming the late Vincent Orange, who made his name while at Canterbury University, Christchurch, New Zealand, as British. Orange was born in Shildon, County Durham, so that surely makes he a north easterner using the rules that Claasen employs.[3] In fairness, the author does acknowledge the difficulty in assigning national status to some individuals (p. 200), but for a sizeable number there should be no dispute that they are quite clearly not from the southern hemisphere.

The book quite rightly claims Keith Park and Sir Archibald McIndoe, the noted plastic surgeon, as New Zealanders. Indeed, Claasen describes Park as the country s greatest wartime commander (p. 188). Less convincing is the assertion that Park’s holistic approach to command was due to ‘native aviation intuition’ (p. 49). This is only one amongst a collection of peculiar descriptions, some of which may be down to poor proofreading. Examples of this are ‘draft’ beer (p. 25); the Bf109 engine as ‘venerable’ (p. 39); Manston as ‘Hell’s Corner’ (p. 113) and Werner Mölders as an ‘ardent’ Catholic (p. 171).

This book feels like a missed opportunity. If written twenty years ago, the group of veterans available would have provided a unique perspective with a great depth of experiences. As written, the veteran accounts form a small and shallow pool that the biographical accounts, combat reports and oral history extracts are unable to expand convincingly. Not explored in enough depth, the concept underpinning this book requires refinement and overall, this is a disappointing work and it is unlikely to feature prominently in the historiography of the Battle of Britain.

Citation: Stephen Moore, ‘Review of Adam Claasen, Dogfight: The Battle of Britain’, The Second World War Military Operations Research Group, 14 October 2013

You can download a copy of the review here.

[1] Richard Hillary, The Last Enemy, (London: Macmillan, 1942).

[2] David Ross, Richard Hillary (London; Grub Street, 2003) p.2.

[3] Sandy Hunter (ed.), Defending Northern Skies, (Brighton: RAF Historical Society, 1996), p.56.


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