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Book Review, NRJ 61.1

February 15, 2016 12:00 PM | David Eddy (Administrator)

The Battle for Britain: Interservice Rivalry between the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy, 1909-1940

Anthony J. Cumming

The creation of the Royal Air Force on April 1, 1918 was largely a wartime expedient intended to unify the sometimes competing aviation interests of the Royal Navy and the British Army in the cause of defeating Germany at a critical juncture during World War I. Its subsequent evolution during the inter-war period never adequately resolved the tensions between the Air Force’s doctrinal commitment to the supremacy of independent aerial operations and the Navy’s requirement for an air arm integrated within the fleet in order to fulfil its operational requirements.

On the basis of his own in-depth research and much recent published work, Anthony Cumming paints a very different picture of Britain’s wartime successes and failures up to the end of 1940. His perspectives on the campaign in Norway, the evacuation from Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, and the collapse of German plans for a cross-Channel invasion are markedly at odds with conventional wisdom on these topics.

At the heart of Cumming’s thesis is his analysis of the efficacy of the combatants’ air power doctrines, especially as they pertain to naval operations. He contends (and the evidence he presents supports him) that air power—as deployed by the Royal Air Force, the Luftwaffe, and the Regia Aeronautica—was largely ineffective against warships, even in narrow waters. Off Norway and in the Mediterranean, where the Royal Navy operated with minimal air cover, its losses to air attack were very small. Even at Dunkirk, where large numbers of vessels were lost to air attack, the vast majority were non-combatants, unarmed and too slow to take effective evasive action. By way of contrast, he points out that, even at the time, it was obvious that, while the Air Force’s bombers were largely ineffective in sinking German invasion craft, the Royal Navy’s light forces (cruisers, destroyers, and motor torpedo boats) wrought havoc against them, even inside the French ports, and it was this success, rather than the outcome of the Battle of Britain, that ended the invasion threat.

Cumming also emphasizes the doctrinal corollary of successful air power integrated with the fleet. Although German stukas at this time generally were failures for anti-shipping operations, the Royal Navy’s dive bombers successfully sank the cruiser Königsberg in the defended Norwegian port of Bergen. Seven months later, twenty-one naval torpedo bombers launched from the carrier Illustrious sank three Italian battleships inside the Regia Marina’s principal base at Taranto. The contrast could not be starker.

The Battle for Britain challenges conventional wisdom and asks us to re-examine long-held beliefs about air power in a different way. It is a very important contribution to the history of World War II.

  • Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2015
  • 6-1/2” x 9-1/2”, hardcover, xii + 224 pages
  • Photographs, notes, bibliography, index. $39.95
  • ISBN: 9781612518343

Reviewed by Steven Fitzgerald, Wilmington, Delaware

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