If I’m honest, it was the Battle of Britain that first sparked my interest in the Second World War. An aerial battle for survival over England, in which enemy forces were regularly flying over the cities, towns and villages of Britain, and in which iconic fighter aircraft helped save the day, captured my imagination.
And it was the Battle of Britain that became the backdrop for my first writing on the war, a novel called The Burning Blue. It remains the book I have enjoyed writing above all others and so I am unbelievably excited about now having the opportunity to write a serious new history of this momentous period in the war.
Funnily enough, although reams of books have been written on the subject, no-one has ever really tackled the summer of 1940 from both sides. Richard Collier’s superb Eagle Day – incidentally one of the best narrative histories about the battle – did to a degree and there have been a number of books from purely the Luftwaffe’s point of view, not least Chris Goss’s brilliantly researched work on the subject. But none that are split 50:50. Nor is there any history of the battle that widens the scope to look at those critical months from a broader perspective. My book will focus on the aerial battle but it will also include the beginning of the German Atlantic blockade (it will be the first Battle of Britain book to include U-boats and their crews); it will include the higher command, both political and all three armed services, and it will include RAF Bomber Command as well as Fighter Command.
As with all my non-fiction, I will be following a number of individuals through the narrative. The difficulty is not finding the right people to write about on the British side, but getting the stories of Germans is much harder. Far fewer Luftwaffe aircrew from the Battle of Britain made it through the war than did those in the RAF, not least because German policy was to keep their pilots flying almost continually. In the RAF there were tours of duty, so that when pilots had done a decent stint of combat flying, they would be rested and sent off as instructors. Second, German veterans are, for obvious reasons, less forthcoming about talking about their experiences. However, I have met and spoken with some interesting people so far, including a lady who was living in Berlin and working for the Siemens factory when the RAF first bombed the German capital. The Imperial War Museum has some excellent interviews with German pilots and also the wireless operator of U-47, the submarine responsible for the sinking of the City of Benares. Last year I spent a good week at the German archives in Freiburg carrying out some preliminary research. Sadly, there were fewer useful personal memoirs and diaries from that period, but the nearby national Tagbuch Archiv did produce a really good account of the Battle of Britain by former JG 42 pilot, Siegfried Bethke. And whilst in Freiburg, I managed to talk at length with former JG 53 pilot, Hans-Ekkehard Bob.
Next week, however, I am off to Germany to interview a number of German aircrew, both former fighter and bomber pilots, so I’m praying that I get some good information. At any rate, I’m feeling reasonably confident that all will be well. As ever, the process of information and material gathering is always a long one!