Book review: With Wings Like Eagles

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Five stars.

Okay, this is a Costco book. I’m a sucker for that big table in the entryway of Costco. I sometimes will walk through just to see if there’s an interesting book to pick up; with the precondition that its a good deal on an inexpensive book, as they all are, by definition, at Costco.

So what do you get for your $8.99? I really enjoyed Michael Korda’s broad brush strokes of the Battle of Britain. He starts with the fall of France, briefly touching on Dunkirk and the evacation of the British Expeditionary Force, and the relative ineffectiveness of British fighters tangling with the mighty German Luftwaffe overhead.

Then he really gets going, diving into the just-in-time developments of radar, the Bentley Priori where all the signals came together, the buried telephone lines hardened by concrete, the segmented and disciplined use of British fighter squadrons. Each element could not have succeeded without the other.

Furthermore, Korda delves into the minds of the German leadership; the tragic underestimates of British fighter strength, the underestimate of the power of radar, the underestimates of civilian resilience to bombing, and finally, the shift in strategy to bombing London.

And then, the role of serendipity in the war: if it were not for a mistaken bombing attack on the outskirts of London, Churchill may not have insisted on a bombing run at Berlin, which in turn enraged the Fuhrer who insisted then on obliterating London. This move gave a last minute reprieve to the Spitfire factories and airbases that were at breaking point, since bombing London meant bypassing the real military targets nearby.

Finally, the Channel and the weather were the final brackets around this drama: the closing of the weather window put an invasion out of reach for the rest of the year, as the Channel was too dangerous for a mass crossing after September.

I read this book, after reading The Myths of War, and wanted to hate it, with my new appreciation for the mistaken belief that War is the ultimate arbiter, that civilians are not harmed, that military struggles are just too messy and disrupt too many lives to be worth it.

And yet, this book sings to me: the political intrigue and the faults of leaders, the management and mismanagement of those in hierarchies, the unappreciated insight of one man in a position to make a difference, the nail-biting mano-a-mano of mono-wing fighters, a brand new technology, the innovative use of radar, the difficulty of guessing what your opponent is about to do, the strategy of setting the RIGHT goal for a situation (playing a delaying tactic and defense since the weather will help, versus playing an aggressive tactic).

As Churchill famously said in August 1940: “Never has so much been owed by so many, to so few.” Air Marshall Dowding, who  unceremoniously left the service only  a few months after this Battle had his faults, but also his great insights and successes. The world would be a very different place without him.

CMIO’s take? There are leadership lessons everywhere. Insightful use of technology, combined with innovative people and process, can tip the balance of history. The backstory on this thrilling chapter is not to be missed. And then of course, British Spitfires have been the coolest thing ever, since I was 5 years old, anyway.

Author: CT Lin

CMIO, UCHealth (Colorado); Professor, University of Colorado School of Medicine

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