“While England Slept”: Winston Churchill and Serendipity at the Book Fair

Last weekend, Linda and I went to a book fair in South San Francisco: I had a very interesting experience as a result. We had a choice between attending this smaller, “book and paper” fair or the annual International Antiquarian Bookfair across the bay in Oakland, one of the largest of its kind in the world. We have been to many of those over the years, and they provide a dazzling experience for any bibliophile. But we opted for the simpler afternoon excursion closer to home where book prices are not so astronomical. Linda bought a few inexpensive items, but I came home with an empty shopping bag. There was one book which did capture my attention – a very nice but pricey copy of the 1940 publication by a recent Harvard graduate, one John F. Kennedy. Its title: Why England Slept. That title rang a bell in my mind: I believed it to be an important book explaining how England was so unprepared to deal with Adolph Hitler’s subjugation of Europe in the late nineteen-thirties. Because I have a very strong interest in the subject matter, the book was tempting but for the price and a considerable degree of uncertainty on my part. I decided to pass and do some research on both the subject and the book.

Caution can be a very rewarding virtue, and so it was in this case. Back home, I quickly discovered that young Kennedy’s book sprung from his senior year college thesis and was ostensibly a coat-tail project which followed Winston Churchill’s 1938 publication titled, While England Slept. This latter book contains a collection of Churchill’s opinions and speeches in the period from 1932 to 1938 whose intent was to warn a “sleeping” England and Europe of the dangers posed by Hitler’s rapidly spreading dark shadow. Young Kennedy’s book focuses on the reasons why England was so unprepared prior to Dunkirk and the ensuing Battle of Britain. At least one reviewer panned the book as the relatively immature effort which might be expected of a recent college graduate, no matter how bright! Whatever merits Kennedy’s effort might possess, it also seems clear that old Joe Kennedy had a hand in his son’s publication and its success in the marketplace by calling-in a few personal favors within the publishing world.

It was immediately clear to me that Churchill’s book was THE book to have and read, and it was this title of which I was vaguely aware. Of course, only Winston Churchill could be the author of such an important book, a book that gives throat to a lone voice warning of impending disaster for Britain, indeed for all of western civilization. I am relatively new to the detailed panorama that was the thirties, with its dark Nazi storm clouds forming, and the forties when lightning struck the world at large. But I do know this much: Winston Churchill was likely the greatest figure of the twentieth century. This uniquely colorful character of a man seemed, by some pre-ordained, divine destiny, to be uniquely qualified to do what he did – which was no less than saving the world from Nazi tyranny. Indeed, Churchill himself deeply believed that such a destiny was his protection from risk and harm when he often emerged from underground air-raid shelters to quickly survey the damage from Hitler’s latest blitz attack on London. These images of him amid the smoking rubble and his desire to be among his people were not lost on Londoners.

England survived two major crises subsequent to the infamous appeasements of an invading Hitler by then Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in the vain hope that an independent England and a Nazi dominated Europe could peacefully coexist – never a possibility in Churchill’s mind. The first crisis was the potential immediate loss of most of Britain’s 250,000-plus army at Dunkirk after Nazi tank divisions and the Luftwaffe had forced the weary remnant of British troops to the sea near that small French village. Only a miraculous small-boat “armada of the people” saved the army by ferrying it across the English Channel to Dover, literally overnight, while the Nazi’s bided their time, assured of victory, so they thought.

                                                                                  Aviation artwork by Robert Taylor

The second historic event that saved the nation, known as the Battle of Britain, was fought in the skies above the English countryside. From July to October of 1940, a planned German invasion across the English Channel from occupied France was stymied by the intrepid young fighter pilots of the Royal Air Force. These youngsters, most barely 20 years of age, were badly outmanned in number and equipment, yet they answered the call to scramble their Hurricanes and Spitfires three, four, and sometimes five times a day, intercepting German bombers and fighter escorts of the Luftwaffe whose directive was to destroy RAF airfields and aircraft in preparation for Hitler’s imminent invasion of the island nation. The invasion never happened. The Luftwaffe’s losses signaled the beginning of its end.

After three months of deadly combat in the skies and destruction rained down on British soil, Hermann Goering’s superbly equipped Luftwaffe was beaten back by the courage and skill of the young pilots of the Royal Air Force. Today, there are barely any of them left, those young Brits who flew Hurricanes and Spitfires against the Luftwaffe. Thankfully, there exist a number of excellent interviews and film documentaries which feature the dozen or so survivors still alive several years ago. Go find them and watch them and find out for yourself why Churchill eulogized them forever with his famous words, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

“Alone.” That word for many months symbolized the state of both Winston Churchill and the British island nation after Hitler crashed his way across Europe, finally occupying neighboring France on June 17, 1940. Weeks earlier, on May 10, Winston Churchill replaced Neville Chamberlin as Prime Minister. England finally had heeded Churchill’s urgent warnings about Hitler and the need to rearm, but almost too late. Churchill had thought it might be too late, once France had fallen.

So, it is this 1938 book of Churchill’s, While England Slept, which I purchased from a bookseller last week, that embodies those urgent warnings of Churchill to pay heed to the Nazi threat while putting aside the memory of Britain’s revulsion to the all too recent World War I experience. Late last year, the fine movie, Darkest Hour, had implanted in my head the full measure of Churchill’s greatness. His written and spoken eloquence remind me of another great leader/statesman with similar attributes, Abraham Lincoln. It is said of Lincoln, that he saved the union. It can truly be said of Churchill that he saved Europe and western civilization. Lincoln also found himself very “alone” during his first months in the White House as the Civil War raged around him. Although from opposite ends of the personality spectrum, similarities between the two men and their history abound – including well-honed personal senses of irony and humor.

I had already been into Churchill and World War II history for some years before serendipity brought me to this latest book acquisition last week. I now have all the material resources required to truly learn the subjects in greater depth. Along with the problem of available bookshelf space, only available time can slow me down!

 

The Rolls-Royce Merlin Aircraft Engine: P-51 Mustang Power Defeated the Luftwaffe

The North American P-51 Mustang was the best fighter airplane in World War II. It became available to the U.S. fighter command as a potent package in enough time to tilt the air war with Germany in the Allies’ favor. I wrote about the justly-famous P-51 in a previous post (July 6, 2016). That post can be found in my home page archives. In it, I referred to the Merlin V-12 power plant which, when finally coupled with the great airframe platform from California-based North American Aviation, turned a decent performer into an iconic fighting airplane.

While “Rolls-Royce” on this engine clearly denotes an English heritage, the same can, surprisingly, be said of the P-51 itself. Designed and built by North American Aviation in Los Angeles, California, the airplane’s genesis actually emanated from England. The P-51 began as a specification provided to North American by the British Purchasing Commission early in 1940. Incredibly, the first prototype appeared on September 9, 1940, a mere 102 days after the contract with North American was signed. The NA-73X airframe first flew on October 26, 1940.

Originally designed for the British Allison V-1710 engine, the Mustang prototypes demonstrated disappointing performance at altitudes above 15,000 feet. The B-17 and B-24 bombers of the Eighth U.S. Air Force typically cruised over 20,000 feet on their bombing missions into Germany from bases in England. During the Battle of Britain in mid-1940, the German Luftwaffe was already flying their front-line fighter, the Messerschmidt 109. The Me 109 and the Focke-Wulf 190 would both prove to be a significant threat to Allied bombers in the skies over Germany throughout the war. Despite Britain’s just-in-time introduction in 1940 of their own top-line fighter, the Supermarine Spitfire, the Me 109 still had advantages over it and the older Hawker Hurricane by way of its firepower and its fuel-injected engine. The Messerschmidt had, in addition to 50 caliber machine guns, a 20 mm cannon firing through the spinner of its propeller. That deadly weapon coupled with the much longer firing-burst capability of its guns gave the Me 109 a significant advantage. The Hurricane and the Spitfire had carbureted engines with a typical float-chamber in the fuel system which caused the airplanes to hesitate when abruptly put into an evasive dive maneuver. The fuel-injected 109s had no such problem and could easily overtake their prey on the way down.

The major problem faced by the U.S. Eighth Air Force bomber command by 1942 was the vulnerability of its B-17 and B-24 heavy bombers after leaving their bases in the English countryside and entering German air space. The B-17 “Flying Fortress” was aptly named given the eventual array of thirteen 50 caliber machine guns in eight strategic locations around the aircraft. Early in the war, it was believed that bomber formations of aircraft with that degree of armament would be quite capable of protecting themselves from German fighter interceptors who came up to meet them over German territory. That assumption quickly proved very erroneous as losses mounted.

The solution? Provide fighter escorts for the bombers. Prior to the introduction of the P-51 in late 1943, that assignment was handed to fighter wings typically flying the Republic Aviation P-47 Thunderbolt. The P-47 had two major problems. To begin with, the airplane had a short fuel-limited range which forced it to turn back and abandon its escort duties soon after entering German airspace. That, of course, was precisely when the bomber formations would most likely encounter German fighter resistance. Besides, the chunky P-47 suffered severe disadvantages in aerial combat with the more agile and faster Me 109 and Focke-Wulf 190 German fighters. Bomber losses were severe from the combination of aerial flak guns and German interceptors, culminating in the disastrous bombing raid on Regensburg, Germany, where sixty bombers were lost in one day – some 600 men.

Enter the P-51 Mustang in late 1943 whose horsepower, speed, agility, and high-altitude performance provided a palpable advantage over German counterparts thanks to its supercharged Merlin engine which had replaced the original Allison V17-10 powerplant. With the airplane’s inherently large fuel capacity and an added pair of drop-tanks beneath its wings, the P-51 could go all the way to the target and back with the “heavies.” The bomber crews fondly referred to the Mustang escorts as their “little friends.”

Most of the eventual Mustang production of some 15,000 planes was powered by the Rolls-Royce Merlin built under license by the Packard Motor Car company in Detroit. The Merlin engine was also widely used in other notable wartime aircraft including England’s top fighter, the Spitfire. Nothing in the air during the war could match the powerfully effective Merlin/Mustang combination, however.

I recently watched a wartime documentary on the momentous effort to design and ramp up production of the Merlin engine in England during the early phases of WW II. This was a huge wartime effort on the part of the English who faced the possible invasion of their country and the subjugation of Europe at the hand of Hitler’s Germany. The film was totally enlightening and engrossing – so many history and social lessons to be derived from the can-do spirit of the English.

My wife and I recently saw the movie, The Darkest Hour, which portrayed Winston Churchill’s lonely desperation in 1939/1940 as the destiny of England and, indeed, all of Europe became increasingly problematic. Fact is always stranger and more dramatic than fiction, and this fine movie drives home the point. So much hung in the balance, a balance which finally tilted favorably to the Allies on the knife-edge of numerous pivotal decisions and efforts. The Merlin engine and the P-51 Mustang airframe from North American Aviation were two of those very decisive factors which ultimately doomed Hitler – especially as combined together in the final P-51 designs. In 1945, many of Germany’s major cities had been reduced to rubble by Allied bombers based in England which, thanks to the Mustangs and their intrepid pilots, could now reach their targets.

I will close by calling upon a recollection from my earlier post on the iconic P-51 Mustang when the Collings Foundation brought their Wings of Freedom touring air show to nearby Moffett Field. My two young grandsons and I stood close by on the tarmac as their P-51, Betty Jane, prepared to fly.

Firing-Up the Big Merlin-Packard Engine of Betty Jane

As my grandsons and I stood outside the roped area, a mere 50 feet from Betty Jane, the pilot fired up the big Packard-built twelve-cylinder engine sporting a large, four-bladed propeller. The pilot yelled “clear” from the cockpit, the big prop started to turn, and the engine came to life after belching smoke and the usual series of backfires. The engine sounded a throaty roar as Betty Jane moved out toward the taxi-way. My grandsons held their ears…I did not and drank it all in. In my mind’s eye, I could imagine the emotions of a pilot on the flight line at Leiston, England, bringing that big engine to life en-route to yet another bomber escort mission over Germany in 1944/45. Despite the huge war effort and all the backing provided by the allies for combat flight operations, out there on the flight line, as the engine coughed, sputtered, roared to life, and the canopy closed, it was one man in one machine – very far from home. The pilot was about to face the uncertainties of weather, navigation, and his enemy counterparts who would be out there, somewhere, waiting for him and the opportunity to shoot him and his machine out of the sky.

For me, it is difficult to conjure up a more daring and exhilarating human experience than that encountered by those flyers in World War II. For them at the time, there surely seemed nothing “romantic” about the deadly task they faced – only a sense of high adventure and “what the hell, I hope I come back from this one!” I have read the late-life accounts of some who flew Mustangs against the German Luftwaffe and lived to tell about it. Despite some surely ugly recollections of killing and death which stubbornly remain, time dulls many of the sharp edges – as it always does – for these men. These flyers are revered by the public for their courage, daring, and skill during wartime, and that is appropriate. Despite old age and the challenges of settling down after flying, these warriors possess indelible and precious memories of that time in their young lives when they and their machines defied the great odds stacked against them. Those who flew the P-51 Mustang, to a man, relate their admiration of and gratitude to the airplane that saw them through.