Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain by Len Deighton (1977)

For new pilots the high-altitude battles could be a frightening experience. It was very, very cold at 25,000 feet, and the Spitfires slipped and skidded through the thin air, as the propeller blades failed to bite. Invariably the Perspex misted over and reduced visibility. Only slowly did the aircraft add a few hundred feet, and for this reason the throttles remained wide open. It meant that if a pilot dropped back from his formation through lack of flying skill, he could never catch up with them again. And above them were the Bf 109s, watching and waiting for just such a straggler. This was the way that many young men died: alone and cold in the thin blue air, peering through the condensation into the glare of the sun, unable to see the men who killed them. (p.244)

This is a totally gripping, impressively researched and comprehensive history of a key moment in British and world history and showcases the incredible depth and range of Deighton’s knowledge of the subject matter and period.

I read Blitzkrieg, the later book first, because that is the sequence of events. Both books are divided into five parts, with a long central section about the technical developments in the key weapons (tanks in Blitzkrieg, airplanes in Fighter) followed by an equally long section describing in detail the key events (of the German invasion of France in May 1940, of the Battle of Britain July-October 1940) ending with a fairly short epilogue or summary.

Fighter’s strengths

Fighter is the more enjoyable book, becoming steadily more gripping and exciting as you read on. I think it’s because:

  • Fighter planes are more beautiful and inspiring than tanks.
  • The planes were more directly the creation of inspired genius designers, who are more interesting to read about than the designers of tanks (Willy Messerschmitt, Reginald Mitchell the Spitfire, Sydney Camm the Hawker Hurricane).
  • The history of manned flight since the Wright brothers is more interesting than the history of putting metal plates and a machine gun on a lorry chassis and calling it a ‘tank’, and understanding how airplanes actually fly is more interesting, and more broadly applicable, than understanding how tank tracks work.
  • The fighter plane part of the battle concerns dashing and heroic individuals who Deighton names and describes in detail – Peter Townsend, Josef Frantisek, Adolf Galland – there are photos of them – unlike the largely anonymous and massed ranks activity of the Battle for France, led by a handful of rather imposing generals (Rommel, Guderian).
  • Later in the war, it all got vastly bigger. While Britain was producing 400 new planes a month, towards the end of the year President Roosevelt ordered his factories to begin producing planes, 50,000 planes a year! Later in the war the Luftwaffe was to lose in one day as many aircraft as it lost in the entire Battle. The Battle of Britain represents a moment when individuals still counted – Deighton calls it the last romantic battle in history.

Learnings

I learned that:

  • Lord Beaverbrook’s contribution to victory – put in charge of Fighter Command logistics by Churchill, cutting through lots of bureaucracy to maximise factory output and set up roaming repair squads – was as important as Air Chief Marshal Dowding’s contribution, and that Dowding said so. I was virtually cheering the Beaverbrook passages. I like his motto: Organisation is the enemy of improvisation.
  • The Germans didn’t have a plan. Hitler wasn’t much interested. Operation Sealion (the invasion of Britain) was conceived too late in the year (August) and Göring never gave clear strategic guidance to his marshals. The Germans fundamentally didn’t know what they were trying to achieve and Deighton lists four possible outcomes which included: destroy Fighter Command to give Germany control of the air and enable a cross-Channel invasion; bomb London into submission; destroy Britain’s war machine ie factories. They did some of each but none completely and all historians agree that they were on the verge of destroying Fighter Command – reducing airfields, planes and pilots below an operational minimum – when, early in September, they switched to the second strategy and bombed London for 57 consecutive nights. Though the population of London wouldn’t have agreed Dowding and Park considered this ‘the miracle’ for it gave them time to rebuild the fighter force.
  • When summer slipped into autumn and the weather worsened making a seaborne invasion impossible, Hitler shrugged his shoulders and got out his maps of Russia. Britain was effectively neutralised, the war in the West essentially over: he was interested in new adventures.
  • Deighton powerfully dislikes the bureaucrats at the British Air Ministry whose main contribution was to hamper Fighter Command with stupid orders, come up with pointless hare-brained schemes, and treat Dowding and Park, the two men whose masterly strategy won the Battle, appallingly. Both were sacked at the end of the year. Dowding was given 24 hours to clear his desk.

Robust views/detailed knowledge

As in Blitzkrieg, Deighton is confident in his opinions. Discussing one of the countless machinations of Air Field Marshall Erhard Milch, Deighton writes:

Milch’s allegations are nonsense. (p.301)

These kind of confident assertions are based on Deighton’s incredibly in-depth knowledge of the entire period, from the technical spec of the planes, through the organisational structure of both air forces, detailed profiles of the key players on both sides, to an understanding of the changing tactics developed by each side, down to precise descriptions of uniforms, medals, hats, parachutes and so on.

For example, his captions to many of the 62 photos in the book not only point out the figures in a picture but name the medals the pilots and generals are wearing; there are few photos of planes without additional information about their markings or pointing out details of design and construction to look for. As in his other books, he shows a special interest in organisational structures:

Geschwader was about 100 aircraft, give or take twenty according to circumstances. It consisted of three Gruppen, always designated by Roman numerals I, II or III. Finally there was the Staffel, about twelve aircraft. Staffeln were numbered from 1 to 9, in arabic numerals, to make a Geschwader. Thus, III/JG 26 means the third Gruppe of Jagdgeshwader (fighter Geshwader) number 26. While 8/KG 26 is the eighth Staffel of Kampfgeschwader (bomber Geschwader) number 76. (footnote on page 129)

Towards the end of the book, Deighton makes the very broad claim (repeated in Blitzkrieg) that, without Hitler’s anti-Semitism – which forced many of Germany’s best scientists and engineers abroad – the Nazis would probably have developed atomic bombs and the long-range missiles to deliver them and would quite possibly have taken over the world. From the minutiae of medals to grand sweeps of alternative history, this is a fascinating and rewarding book on countless levels.

Conclusion

After the first four Ipcress novels Deighton’s fiction changed – his prose became more obvious and functional while he experimented with new subject matter: comedy, a novel set in Hollywood, and then his devastating documentary novel about a World War II bombing raid, Bomber. When he returned to the spy genre in the early 1970s, the three spy novels leading up to Fighter feel much weaker than the Ipcress set.

Could it be that the time and mental energy Deighton expended researching his WWII histories, visiting key locations, months spent at the Imperial War Museum and other archives, and the correspondence and meetings he had with key players in the Battle of France and the Battle of Britain (both books contain photos ‘taken by the author’ and refer to letters and conversation with eye witness participants) – could it be that this massive expenditure of time and effort and immersing himself in bureaucratic records and organisational archives, permanently damaged his imaginative prose style and weakened his fiction?

Related links

Paperback cover of Fighter

Paperback cover of Fighter

Len Deighton’s novels

1962 The IPCRESS File Through the thickets of bureaucracy and confusing misinformation which surround him, an unnamed British intelligence agent discovers that his boss, Dalby, is in cahoots with a racketeer who kidnaps and brainwashes British scientists.
1963 Horse Under Water Perplexing plot which is initially about diving into a wrecked U-boat off the Portuguese coast for Nazi counterfeit money, then changes into the exposure of an illegal heroin manufacturing operation, then touches on a top secret technology which can change ice to water instantly (ie useful for firing missiles from submarines under Arctic ice) and finally turns out to be about a list – the Weiss List – of powerful British people who offered to help run a Nazi government when the Germans invaded, and who are now being blackmailed. After numerous adventures, the Unnamed Narrator retrieves the list and consigns it to the Intelligence archive.
1964 Funeral in Berlin The Unnamed Narrator is in charge of smuggling a Russian scientist through the Berlin Wall, all managed by a Berlin middle-man Johnnie Vulkan who turns out to be a crook only interested in getting fake identity papers to claim the fortune of a long-dead concentration camp victim. The Russians double-cross the British by not smuggling the scientist; Vulkan double-crosses the British by selling the (non-existent) scientist on to Israeli Intelligence; the Narrator double-crosses the Israelis by giving them the corpse of Vulkan (who he has killed) instead of the scientist; and is himself almost double-crossed by a Home Office official who tries to assassinate him in the closing scenes, in order to retrieve the valuable documents. But our Teflon hero survives and laughs it all off with his boss.
1966 Billion-Dollar Brain The Unnamed Narrator is recruited into a potty organisation funded by an American billionaire, General Midwinter, and dedicated to overthrowing the Soviet Union. A character from Funeral In Berlin, Harvey Newbegin, inducts him into the organisation and shows him the Brain, the vast computer which is running everything, before absconding with loot and information, and then meeting a sticky end in Leningrad.
1967 An Expensive Place to Die A new departure, abandoning all the characters and much of the style of the first four novels for a more straightforward account of a secret agent in Paris who gets involved with a Monsieur Datt and his clinic-cum-brothel. After many diversions, including an induced LSD trip, he is ordered to hand over US nuclear secrets to a Chinese scientist, with a view to emphasising to the Chinese just how destructive a nuclear war would be and therefore discouraging them from even contemplating one.
1968 Only When I Larf Another departure, this is a comedy following the adventures of three con artists, Silas, Bob and Liz and their shifting, larky relationships as they manage (or fail) to pull off large-scale stings in New York, London and the Middle East.
1970 Bomber A drastic change of direction for Deighton, dropping spies and comedy to focus on 24 hours in the lives of British and German airmen, soldiers and civilians involved in a massive bombing raid on the Ruhr valley. 550 pages, enormous cast, documentary prose, terrifying death and destruction – a really devastating indictment of the horrors of war.
1971 Declarations of War Thirteen short stories, all about wars, mainly the first and second world wars, with a few detours to Vietnam, the American Civil war and Hannibal crossing the Alps. Three or four genuinely powerful ones.
1972 Close-Up Odd departure into Jackie Collins territory describing the trials and tribulations of fictional movie star Marshall Stone as he betrays his wife and early lovers to ‘make it’ in tinseltown, and the plight he currently finds himself in: embroiled in a loss-making production and under pressure from the scheming studio head to sign a lucrative but career-threatening TV deal.
1974 Spy Story The Unnamed Narrator of the Ipcress spy novels returns, in much tamer prose, to describe how, after escaping from the ‘Service’ to a steady job in a MoD war games unit, he is dragged back into ‘active service’ via a conspiracy of rogue right-wingers to help a Soviet Admiral defect. Our man nearly gets shot by the right-wingers and killed by Russians in the Arctic, before realising the whole thing was an elaborate scam by his old boss, Dawlish, and his new boss, the American marine General Schlegel, to scupper German reunification talks.
1975 Yesterday’s Spy Another first-person spy story wherein a different agent – though also working for the American Colonel Schlegel, introduced in Spy Story – is persuaded to spy on Steve Champion, the man who ran a successful spy ring in Nazi-occupied France, who recruited him to the agency and who saved his life back during the war. Via old contacts the narrator realises Champion is active again, but working for Arabs who are planning some kind of attack on Israel and which the narrator must foil.
1976 Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy (aka Catch a Falling Spy) The narrator and his CIA partner manage the defection of a Soviet scientist, only for a string of murder attempts and investigations to reveal that a senior US official they know is in fact a KGB agent, leading to a messy shootout at Washington airport, and then to an unlikely showdown in the Algerian desert.
1977 Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain Abandoning fiction altogether, Deighton published this comprehensive, in-depth and compelling history, lavishly illustrated with photos and technical diagrams of the famous planes involved.
1978 SS-GB A storming return to fiction with a gripping alternative history thriller in which the Germans succeeded in invading and conquering England in 1941. We follow a senior detective at Scotland Yard, Douglas Archer, living in defeated dingy London, coping with his new Nazi superiors, and solving a murder mystery which unravels to reveal not one but several enormous conspiracies.
1979 Blitzkrieg: From the Rise of Hitler to the Fall of Dunkirk Another factual history of WWII: Deighton moves quickly over Hitler’s rise to power and the diplomatic bullying of the 1930s, to arrive at the core of the book: an analysis of the precise meaning of ‘Blitzkrieg’, complete with detailed notes on all the weapons, tanks, artillery and hardware involved, as well as the evolution of German strategic thinking; and then its application in the crucial battle for the river Meuse which determined the May 1940 Battle for France.
1980 Battle of Britain
1981 XPD SIS agent Boyd Stuart is one of about 20 characters caught up in the quest for the ‘Hitler Minutes’, records of a top secret meeting between Hitler and Churchill in May 1940 in which the latter was (shockingly) on the verge of capitulating, and which were ‘liberated’ by US soldiers, along with a load of Nazi gold, at the very end of the war. Convoluted, intermittently fascinating and sometimes moving, but not very gripping.
1982 Goodbye, Mickey Mouse Six months in the life of the 220th Fighter Group, an American Air Force group flying Mustangs in support of heavy bombers, based in East Anglia, from winter 1943 through spring 1944, as we get to know 20 or so officers and men, as well as the two women at the centre of the two ill-fated love affairs which dominate the story.
1983 Berlin Game First of the Bernard Samson spy novels in which this forty-something British Intelligence agent uses his detailed knowledge of Berlin and its spy networks to ascertain who is the high-level mole within his Department. With devastating consequences.
1984 Mexico Set Second of the first Bernard Samson trilogy (there are three trilogies ie 9 Samson books), in which our hero manages the defection of KGB agent Erich Stinnes from Mexico City, despite KGB attempts to frame him for the murder of one of his own operatives and a German businessman. All that is designed to make Bernard defect East and were probably masterminded by his traitor wife, Fiona.
1985 London Match Third of the first Bernard Samson spy trilogy in which a series of clues – not least information from the defector Erich Stinnes who was the central figure of the previous novel – suggest to Samson that there is another KGB mole in the Department – and all the evidence points towards smooth-talking American, Bret Rensselaer.
1987 Winter An epic (ie very long and dense) fictionalised account of German history from 1900 to 1945, focusing on the two Winter brothers, Peter and Paul, along with a large supporting cast of wives, friends, colleagues and enemies, following their fortunes through the Great War, the Weimar years, the rise of Hitler and on into the ruinous Second World War. It provides vital background information about nearly all of the characters who appear in the Bernard Samson novels, so is really part of that series.
1988 Spy Hook First of the second trilogy of Bernard Samson spy novels in which Bernie slowly uncovers what he thinks is a secret slush fund of millions run by his defector wife with Bret Rensaeller (thought to be dead, but who turns up recuperating in a California ranch). The plot involves reacquaintance with familiar characters like Werner Volkmann, Frau Lisl (and her sister), old Frank Harrington, tricky Dicky Cruyer, Bernie’s 23-year-old girlfriend Gloria Kent, and so on.
1989 Spy Line Through a typically tangled web of incidents and conversations Samson’s suspicions are confirmed: his wife is a double agent, she has been working for us all along, she only pretended to defect to the East. After numerous encounters with various old friends of his father and retired agents, Samson finds himself swept up in the brutal, bloody plan to secure Fiona’s escape from the East.
1990 Spy Sinker In the third of the second trilogy of Samson novels, Deighton switches from a first-person narrative by Samson himself, to an objective third-person narrator and systematically retells the entire sequence of events portrayed in the previous five Samson novels from an external point of view, shedding new and sometimes devastating light on almost everything we’ve read. The final impression is of a harrowing world where everyone is deceiving everyone else, on multiple levels.
1991 MAMista A complete departure from the Cold War and even from Europe. Australian doctor and ex-Vietnam War veteran Ralph Lucas finds himself caught up with Marxist guerrillas fighting the ruling government in the (fictional) South American country of Spanish Guiana and, after various violent escapades, inveigled into joining the long, gruelling and futile trek through the nightmareish jungle which dominates the second half of the novel.
1992 City of Gold A complex web of storylines set in wartime Cairo, as the city is threatened by Rommel’s advancing Afrika Korps forces in 1942. We meet crooks, gangsters, spies, émigrés, soldiers, detectives, nurses, deserters and heroes as they get caught up in gun smuggling, black marketeering and much more, in trying to track down the elusive ‘Rommel spy’ and, oh yes, fighting the Germans.
1993 Violent Ward Very entertaining, boisterous first-person narrative by Los Angeles shyster lawyer Mickey Murphy who gets bought out by his biggest client, menacing billionaire Zach Petrovitch, only to find himself caught up in Big Pete’s complex criminal activities and turbulent personal life. The novel comes to a climax against the violent backdrop of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in April 1992.
1993 Blood, Tears and Folly: An Objective Look at World War II
1994 Faith Return to Bernard Samson, the 40-something SIS agent, and the world of his friends and family, familiar to us from the previous six Samson novels. Most of the characters (and readers) are still reeling from the bloody shootout when his wife returned from her undercover mission to East Germany at the climax of the previous novel. This book re-acquaints us with all the well-loved characters from the previous stories, in a plot ostensibly about smuggling a KGB colonel out from the East, but is really about who knows the truth – and who is trying to cover up – the real cause of the Fiona-escape debacle.
1995 Hope 40-something SIS agent Bernard Samson continues trying to get to the bottom of the death of his sister-in-law, Tessa Kosinski and is soon on the trail of her husband, George, who has gone missing back in his native Poland.
1996 Charity Ninth and final Bernard Samson novel in which it takes Bernard 300 pages to piece together the mystery which we readers learned all about in the sixth novel of the series, ie that the plot to murder Fiona’s sister, Tessa, was concocted by Silas Gaunt. Silas commissioned Jim Prettyman to be the middle-man and instructed him to murder the actual assassin, Thurkettle. Now that is is openly acknowledged by the Department’s senior staff, the most striking thing about the whole event – its sheer amateurish cack-handedness – is dismissed by one and all as being due to Gaunt’s (conveniently sudden) mental illness. As for family affairs: It is Bret who ends up marrying Bernard’s one-time lover, the glamorous Gloria; Bernard is finally promised the job of running the Berlin Office, which everyone has always said he should have: and the novel ends with a promise of reconciliation with his beautiful, high-flying and loving wife, Fiona.

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