Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Bungay’s ‘The Most Dangerous Enemy’: A fine analysis of a fascinating campaign

A few months ago, one of youse told me to read Stephen Bungay’s history of the Battle of Britain. Again, thank you. Even if I didn’t care about the subject, I would have enjoyed the book. Bungay can write, he can analyze, and he appears to be meticulous and thoughtful in his research. I’ve been ...

A few months ago, one of youse told me to read Stephen Bungay’s history of the Battle of Britain. Again, thank you. Even if I didn’t care about the subject, I would have enjoyed the book. Bungay can write, he can analyze, and he appears to be meticulous and thoughtful in his research.

I’ve been reading a pile about World War II in 1940, so I was surprised to learn so much new from Bungay. His analysis of RAF flying tactics is damning: “As they realised that squadrons flying…were blind to the rear, the RAF introduced ‘weavers,’ one or two aircraft of the rear section flying on a zig-zag weaving course…above and to the rear of the squadron to ‘guard’ it from behind. The job of weaver tended to go to the most junior pilot. Most were never seen again.” He is also good on the issues of command: “Deciding when to pull squadrons out [of the front line] was a fine judgment,” balancing the value of pilot experience against the dangers of pilot exhaustion.

His analysis of the Luftwaffe going into the fight is also interesting. He argues that the Spanish Civil War, and especially the bombing of Guernica, had given the German air force somewhat of inflated reputation. In fact, he says, it had weaknesses in aircraft production, crew training, and command and control. In sum, he writes, “The Luftwaffe was designed to fight a short war, and entered what was to become a war of attrition with no reserve.”

Interesting odd fact: Because of a shortage of good powerful airplane engines in Germany, the first Bf 109 was powered by a Rolls-Royce motor.

A few months ago, one of youse told me to read Stephen Bungay’s history of the Battle of Britain. Again, thank you. Even if I didn’t care about the subject, I would have enjoyed the book. Bungay can write, he can analyze, and he appears to be meticulous and thoughtful in his research.

I’ve been reading a pile about World War II in 1940, so I was surprised to learn so much new from Bungay. His analysis of RAF flying tactics is damning: “As they realised that squadrons flying…were blind to the rear, the RAF introduced ‘weavers,’ one or two aircraft of the rear section flying on a zig-zag weaving course…above and to the rear of the squadron to ‘guard’ it from behind. The job of weaver tended to go to the most junior pilot. Most were never seen again.” He is also good on the issues of command: “Deciding when to pull squadrons out [of the front line] was a fine judgment,” balancing the value of pilot experience against the dangers of pilot exhaustion.

His analysis of the Luftwaffe going into the fight is also interesting. He argues that the Spanish Civil War, and especially the bombing of Guernica, had given the German air force somewhat of inflated reputation. In fact, he says, it had weaknesses in aircraft production, crew training, and command and control. In sum, he writes, “The Luftwaffe was designed to fight a short war, and entered what was to become a war of attrition with no reserve.”

Interesting odd fact: Because of a shortage of good powerful airplane engines in Germany, the first Bf 109 was powered by a Rolls-Royce motor.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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