I wanted to read a good book on the Battle of Britain, and picked up this book by the author of Dam Busters. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your perspective, this is not a book about aerial combat over Britain in the summer and fall of 1940. Instead, Holland starts, if not with Hitler's invasion of Poland then certainly with his assault on the West in May 1940, and tells the story of the entire struggle, land, sea and eventually air, that culminated with the RAF battling the Luftwaffe until Hitler finally postponed the invasion of England in late fall 1940.
As a result, you are literally halfway through the book before the air war over England even starts. But that ended up being a great way to tell the story, because I learned so much about the German war machine and war aims and conduct that I had never known, as well as how the RAF has the resources it did.
First all, Germany. Hitler wanted a war with Russia, not the West, and his major miscalculation was that Britain and France would not react when he invaded Poland. But they did, and Hitler was forced to attack west to sideline then before he could attack Russia. But what I never understood was how inferior, in numbers, material and actual quality of hardware the German army and air force was to France and Britain when Hitler attacked France. His offensive had only the barest chance of success, and in his wildest dreams he didn't think he'd win a complete victory over both nations. Much of that success was due to his armor leaders – Guderian and Rommel, notably, who ignored orders to halt and regroup. When they saw the French in flight, they pursued, and ended up with a French surrender, and trapped British army. So why did Hitler invade France in 1940? Because all of his economic indicators were that since Britain and France had only recently started rearming, he would never have as good an opportunity again. So even though his military was nowhere near ready for a large war against mature powers, he attacked anyway.
But as the book had by this point made clear, Hitler had overreached, and had nowhere near the resources to mount an invasion of England. What chance he had was lost by delay, giving Britain a chance to organize and fortify its coasts. And the air war, when it began, would be fought with the Luftwaffe overstretched, flying the wrong aircraft (due to horrible planning by Goering and his underlings), and at the limits of their range, with bad tactics.
The RAF, on the other hand, had benefitted from the breathing space Hitler's delay had given them to allow Churchill to install Beaverbook as head of aircraft production, and bring into effective use radar and organized interception protocols at Fighter Command, so that by the time the air battle started in earnest, the RAF had not only enough planes but actually more than it could find pilots for. The Luftwaffe, on the other hand, was not only losing enormous numbers of planes, but generally lost the crews with the planes, either to death or capture. As Holland tells it, while some banged up airfields made the battle a close run thing for several weeks until the Luftwaffe redirected its attention to London over the crucial military targets (the Fighter Command airfields and bases) it became increasingly clear as the fall went on that Hitler could not mount a successful invasion of England, and the next year had to mount his invasion of Russia with Britain still at war with him on his western front.
If the point of a good history book is to teach you something, this one certainly did!