- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 26, 2005

A SUMMER BRIGHT AND TERRIBLE: WINSTON CHURCHILL, LORD DOWDING, RADAR, AND THE IMPOSSIBLE TRIUMPH OF THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN

By David E. Fisher

Shoemaker & Hoard, $26, 281 pages

REVIEWED BY MARTIN SIEFF

This book is a strange mixture of contradictions in many respects. It tells an important, almost unknown, exceptionally heroic and riveting true story and it does so execrably badly. It is a heartfelt tribute to an extraordinary and admirable man of vast historic importance and global destiny and utterly bungles the job. It is also the story of a man who by any standards of conventional society would be regarded as a ridiculous crank, but who also happened to be one of the most successful and brilliant air generals the world has yet known.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding directed Fighter Command through the Battle of Britain, the first great air battle in history. He was not a macho, confident, bright young wonder but a vegetarian, teetotaler and prickly old fellow almost 60 years old who was despised by the bomber barons who ran the Royal Air Force and was kept on as little more than an afterthought only because there was no one with comparable experience or credentials to fill the job. He was more responsible than any other man for the fast, heavily armed, monoplane fighters that fought and won the Battle of Britain and for the pioneering system of radar stations and visual observers feeding information back to a central command headquarters who directed them. He ranks with the great U. S. aircraft carrier Admiral Raymond Spruance, victor of the Battles of Midway and the Philippine Sea, as a cool, scholarly commander who was ignored by the hero-making media moguls but who never made a single significant mistake in their conduct of amazing victories against overwhelming odds.

But Dowding was also convinced that his dead wife and the ghosts of his dead pilots returned to comfort him night after night during the battle. He believed in the literal existence of elves and fairies. After the war, he wrote a series of books championing the causes of spiritualism, theosophy and talking with the dead. He believed in Atlantis, perpetual motion and the power of magnetic rays to heal arthritis and gout. He believed vivisection was evil and was an outspoken believer in the reality of UFOs from other worlds. The British Establishment regarded him as an embarrassing crank for the rest of his long life (He lived to be 88). However, it was very happy one: A widower, in his 60s he married the young widow of a dead British bomber pilot after she was convinced her dead husband had directed her to Dowding. Their marriage was an intensely happy one.

It should be impossible to bungle the telling of this story but unfortunately Mr. Fisher, a professor of cosmochemistry (whatever that is) manages it. This book is probably the sloppiest nonfiction work I have ever reviewed. There are no footnotes. Dowding’s extensive papers are included in the bibliography but there is almost no evidence that Mr. Fisher ever used them. Dowding’s heroic fighter pilots are endlessly referred to as his “chicks,” a demeaning and weird conceit and one I have never heard a single RAF Battle of Britain vet use to describe himself or his comrades. The writing style would embarrass a 12-year-old.

Mr. Fisher claims Dowding is a disgracefully ignored figure, but in Britain, the consensus of military historians has given him his full due for more than 40 years. It is pleasant to record that his character plays center stage in the magnificent 1970 British movie, “The Battle of Britain,” where he is played by Britain’s greatest ever screen actor Sir Lawrence Olivier in a performance far more understated and subtle but as profound and definitive as George C. Scott’s famous role as “Patton.” Dowding, shortly before his death, saw the movie and received a standing ovation from the audience, which was filled with his surviving fighter pilots.

What is ironic is that Mr. Fisher still manages to get most of the big issues right. Winston Churchill, Britain’s legendary war hero, did indeed falsify his account in Volume 2 of his war memoirs of the crucial decision not to send too many of Britain’s fighter squadrons to be lost in the Battle of France, preserving them for the defense of Britain. In reality, as Mr. Fisher writes, Churchill ignored Dowding’s prescient warnings but was overruled or just ignored by his own collaeagues and the air staff.

Dowding and his brilliant deputy, Air Vice Marshal Keith Park, were entirely right tofight the battle with small attack forces of fighters rather than rely on the ponderous, big, showy and usually utterly ineffectual “big wings” championed by Air Vice Marshal Leigh-Mallory and his overrated favorite group captain, the leg-less, but also brainless, Douglas Bader. Dowding was right to fight for bulletproof cockpits and self-sealing fuel tanks for his pilots. And his focus on big, twin-engined, two-crew night fighters carrying radar as the only effective defense against night bomber proved spot on, as the Luftwaffe also proved when it converted its Junkers Ju-88 light bomber into a superb night fighter against RAF Bomber Command for most of the war.

Dowding was an extraordinary, fascinating and utterly admirable human being as well as the first great successful air defense general in history. His amazing life, career and achievements deserve to be explored and recorded by one of Britain’s finest military historians like Anthony Beevoir, Richard Overy (who has already written a little gem of a book about the Battle of Britain called “The Battle”) or Max Hastings. No biography of him had been published since 1969 before Mr. Fisher wrote this book and another is urgently overdue. Dowding is so important and his story so little known in the United States, that Mr. Fisher’s work should still be recommended for all its shortcomings as an introduction to him. But Dowding deserves far more. A modern definitive biography has yet to be written.

Martin Sieff is national security correspondent for United Press International.

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