THE BATTLE OF FRANCE – THEN AND NOW By Peter D Cornwell
If ever a book could be described as ‘groundbreaking’ it is After The Battle’s Battle of Britain – Then And Now’. I bought my copy at the Helston Aero Park in 1980 and cherish it. It was a book that moved away from concentrating on the hardware and the mythology of the battle and dealt more with the grim day-to-day reality. Previously anonymous pilots came to life and the true sacrifice of The Few became accessible. Thus, I as able to fill in some of the detail of a 601 Squadron pilot whose grave I photographed at Wimereux cemetery, near Boulogne, in 2003. He was Pilot Officer Patrick Chaloner Lindsey; a twenty year old Hurricane pilot from Cheltenham who was shot down off St Anne’s Head on the 26th of July. He was the victim of Oberleutnant Dobsilav of III/Jagdgeschwader 27 and was lost around 10am that day. The temptation to open the book at the start of the battle and follow it day by day was great, but modern life intervened. Even now, I pull the book out occasionally and catch up with some familiar faces and locations.
Thirty odd years later the publishers have returned to tell the story of what happened in the hectic months before the Battle of Britain. The format is broadly similar and the many faces of lost aircrew seem as familiar as the men lost over British skies. The author, Peter D Cornwell, has spent thirty years amassing a wealth of information about what the publisher bills as the “greatest air battle in history”.. You might balk at this claim, but stop to consider this was an air battle involving Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and a potpourri of pilots from Poland and Czechoslovakia against the might of Germany and Johnny come lately Italy. It has taken eight years to make the book a reality
Aircrew and aircraft losses run into the thousands, beginning with the Phoney War and exploding with the Blitzkreig that began on Friday, May 10th. This is a telling day, you only have to look at Dutch aircraft losses which run over two pages, nearly all destroyed on the ground.
This is not a book for aircraft spotters. The vast majority of planes shown are crashed or abandoned wrecks. There are no colour pictures in this monochrome world. The vast majority of snaps are taken by amateurs or official cameramen. It is interesting to note that once the wholesale retreat of the Anglo-French armies gets under way that their photography of aerodromes and wrecks comes to an abrupt halt. Only the Germans have time to enjoy the huge number of airframes littering newly conquered territory.
One of the main threads of the book is the adventures of 73 Squadron RAF. They were first in and last out of France. During those hectic days the squadron produced a real hero, New Zealander Edgar “Cobber” Kain scored ten kills. As a valued ace he was evacuated to Britain and chose the occasion of his departure to display his aerobatic skills for his chums. His plane stalled during one too many flick rolls and Cobber was killed instantly. The sense of a wasted life does not diminish.
In happier times an Air Ministry appointed photographer arrived to photograph the squadron in flight and on the ground. Strapped in the rear of a Fairey Battle, he took a succession of superb shots of Hurricanes formatting for his camera. He was Stanley Devon, a Times man who had taken famous images of the Germans entering the Rhineland in 1936.
The pilots called Mr Devon “Glorious”, such is the gentle humour of the day. Sad to say these images do not appear in the book of his life’s work; but Cobber Kain smiles out from one of the pages. Copies of this book are as rare as hen’s teeth.
Peter Cornwell has created nothing short of a masterpiece. This book is a true companion to it’s forbear; linking the ‘First of the Few’ with the climactic days of the Battle of Britain. As a source of information it is essential. As a memorial to the airmen who died amid the chaos of defeat it is simply un-missable.
Published by After The Battle
ISBN: 978 1 870067 652