Books: From the Land of Shadows : In Their Flying Machines |
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In Their Flying Machines

Fighter by Len Deighton (Cape, London, and Knopf, New York)
The Last Chance by Johannes Steinhoff (Hutchinson, London)

After Bomber, which was mainly about bombers, comes Fighter, which is mainly about fighters. Len Deighton’s monomial titles ought not to mislead the reader into thinking that the man who dreams them up is simple-minded. Bomber was, and is, an excellent book. It strikes a difficult balance between moral outrage at what men did and enthralled interest in the machines with which they did it. Deighton’s bump for advanced technology was already apparent from his spy novels, while even the otherwise unspeakable Close-up was interesting on the nuts and bolts of a film star’s career. But Bomber was the clearest proof that Deighton possessed an unmatched gift for analysing complex systems. How the RAF went about the sad business of burning Germany by night, and how the Germans tried to stop them doing it, formed an elaborate, interlocking, technology-intensive closed system which nobody before Deighton had ever succeeded in bringing back to life. The sinister poetic force of the original events had not been captured by the official historians, while the full facts were either abridged or distorted in the pop memoirs. Deighton got everything in. I can remember reading the book in a single night, marvelling at the intensity of detail. He even knew what colour flashes the bombs made when they went off. (Like most members of the generation growing up after the war, I had always assumed — because of news reels — that the bombs had exploded in black and white.)

The weakness of Bomber lay in its characters. Deighton invented a representative battle and staffed it with what he fancied were representative types. Actually they weren’t as clumsily drawn as you might think. Deighton is not quite as bad at character as the critics say, just as John le Carré is not quite as good. A book like Yesterday’s Spy, one of Deighton’s recent fictions, is not only stronger on action than le Carré’s later work, but features more believable people. The cast-list of Close-Up is indeed hopelessly makeshift, but the characters flying around in Bomber, though divided up and labelled in what looks like a rough-and-ready way, are deployed with some cunning to bring out the relevant tensions. You could be excused, however, for not connecting them to the real world. In Fighter there is no way out of it. The Battle of Britain really happened. Not just the machines, but the people too, really existed. And Deighton has managed to give the whole event a clarity which it lacked even at — especially at — the time.

According to Deighton (and he is very likely right) the Battle of Britain was never won, but there was sufficient reason for triumph in the fact that it was not lost. Dowding’s whole effort was to ensure that Fighter Command should survive as a force. He could not realistically hope to destroy the Luftwaffe, but on the other hand he could hope to go on denying it command of the air, thereby rendering invasion impossible. Dowding was a percentage player. He was under relentless pressure — especially from one of his own immediate subordinates, Leigh-Mallory — to gamble his strength in mass actions. He resisted the pressure, guarded his resources, and fought a protracted battle with great patience as well as consummate skill and daring.

Deighton takes the full measure of Dowding’s superior mind. As conceived of by Dowding, full-scale warfare in the sky was not just chess, but that version of chess proposed by Brecht, in which the pieces change value according to how long they remain on a given square. Dowding balanced all, brought all to mind. The Germans would probably have beaten him if they had concentrated on attacking his radar stations and airfields. But in failing to do that, they were left in the position of matching their own limited supply of men and machines against his. Dowding understood his limitations better than they understood theirs. He kept his nerve while the stakes mounted. Their nerve cracked first.

Fighter would be valuable if it did nothing more than help correct the popular impression that Leigh-Mallory’s ‘big wing’ theory was a possible alternative to Dowding’s penny-packet tactics. The big wing theory was widely publicised after the war in Paul Brickhill’s best-selling biography of Douglas Bader, Reach for the Sky. Even retrospectively it is an appealing notion, and at the time must have seemed like simple common sense to the pilots of Leigh-Mallory’s 12 Group, kept in reserve by Dowding’s order until the battle was almost over. Bitterly frustrated, they could be forgiven for thinking that if they swooped en masse and shot down a whole raid the Germans would throw in the sponge. But Deighton has the facts and figures to prove that Dowding couldn’t take the risk. If his number of trained pilots fell below a certain point, there could be no making up the loss. So he set his face like flint against the rage of his own young heroes. In the long run (or, rather, the disgracefully short run) that was probably one of the things which cost him his job.

Eventually the British staved off defeat because they were better led and organised. The German fighter and bomber formations were well commanded at operational level but the generalship in the higher echelons was suspect and at the very top there was no firm control apart from Goering’s caprice. Deighton persuasively analyses the contending systems. He is good on the personalities but is well aware that the impersonal mattered at least as much. Above all, the machines mattered, and on those he is tremendous.

Each type of aircraft is traced through its full history. You are told what they were like to fly. There are diagrams to show how they compared in performance. The Messerschmitt Bf 109 could turn inside the Hurricane, which could turn inside the Spitfire. You will find out why dogfights always moved downwards. There is almost no end to what you will find out: even small boys who thought they were clued-up will be open-mouthed. Deighton can do all this because he looks upon aircraft as works of art as well as articles to serve a purpose. After the Futurist movement’s embarrassing enthusiasm it became unfashionable to take an aesthetic interest in machines, but Deighton is independent enough to respond to them with his whole soul. Among the results is that he is able to set new standards for this type of book. A pity that the printers could not do the same: the typeface is miserable and literals are frequent.

Sub-titled ‘The Pilots’ Plot Against Goering’, Johannes Steinhoff’s interesting book is the pop war memoir in its more traditional form, complete with vile editing (in the photo section, B-29s are shown bombing Germany, which they never did). Apart from the few unquestioningly gung-ho efforts like Rudel’s Stuka Pilot (in which the fighting was described in terms of how many Russian tanks Rudel could destroy before Hitler grounded him under the weight of increasingly elaborate awards for valour) the German fliers, from Galland on down, have usually been bent on telling us how much they could have achieved if they had not been saddled with a Nazi government. They were almost certainly correct. It might have been mere chance that the Allies could come up with leaders like Dowding but with the Germans there was no chance at all. Hitler was too erratic ever to grasp a strategic pattern and Goering simply didn’t understand modern aircraft: his mind, like his heart, was still with the Richthofen Circus. The Me 262 jet fighter might not have been able to stop the RAF at night but it could certainly have devastated the US 8th Air Force by day. As we know from the official histories, even with conventional fighters the Luftwaffe made the Schweinfurt raids so expensive that the Americans thought of calling a halt. The jets could have ruled the sky if they had been ready in time. But Hitler’s intuitive genius put a stop to that. When they were ready, Goering was too far gone to know how to use them. It is doubtful if the pilots ever really hatched much of a ‘plot against Goering’ but they certainly had every reason to despise him.

As it was, Steinhoff flew Me 262s in some of the last sorties of the war. Too late to affect the picture (which had already been transformed by the P-51 Mustang long-range escort fighter) the jets flew in a world of their own — the future. Steinhoff tells us what they were like to fly. He also tells us what they were like to crash. His face was burned off. There is a portrait of him as he was in 1942, a handsome young ace with the Knight’s Cross at his neck. There is also a photo of him taken in 1945, after the bandages were removed. The comparison should help destroy any lingering illusions about the romance of aerial combat.

New Statesman, 1977.