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A dual biography of two classic World War II fighters
on 30 July 2012
Focusing on the two best-known and arguably most significant fighter aircraft of the Second World War - the British Supermarine Spitfire and the German Messerschmitt Bf 109 -- this book is a "dual biography", aimed at the more general reader (think Roberts, Hastings, Beevor rather than Price, Goss, Shores as its apparent models). Nor is it a technical history, of which there are already shelves full of valuable books for the scholar and buff alike).
The book documents the two opposing fighters' intertwined evolution, and how this was related, in turn, to the 1930s race to design and deploy these fighters, to the prewar arms buildup, the vital role each fighter played in its country's war-fighting capability, and how each has become an artifact of history and legend. The book shows the two fighters as organic entities: growing, changing, adapting.
I liked best (because it was new to me) the opening chapters. The book starts with the two designers, Germany's Willy Messerchmitt and Britain's R.J. Mitchell. These chapters show how the interaction between the Spitfire and Bf 109 included the race to design, develop and produce the fighters in the 1930s - a race the Germans won through early rearmament. This was followed by a second competition, starting as war appeared closer and ending when the two fighters first met in air combat over Dunkirk in May 1940. The results of these two competitions lead directly to the most important air combat in history, the Battle of Britain.
The writing, especially about air combat, is vivid and exciting, drawn from first-person accounts and combat reports. But this is a story also about those that designed and built these fighters as well, including enslaved workers forced to build the 109. I would have liked more first-person accounts from the Spitfire production lines.
Today, both fighters are valued relics of an earlier age. But what is changing is that the context in which they were developed - the organizations that operated them and the industries that built them - have already faded into history. Few remain of the many thousands that designed, built, flew and maintained the Spitfire and Bf 109 during the Second World War.
The closing scenes of the book are at the Imperial War Museum's Duxford airfield, where Spitfires and a few Bf 109s (usually in their post-war Merlin-powered version) fly. The challenge will be to prevent them from becoming artifacts of a vanished world, a place that we can no longer understand. The danger is that, in losing this understanding, the context of the aircraft and the actions of those that flew them may be lost too.