Author and editor Michael Korda discusses writing about history.
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GUEST: Michael Korda
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.
And for one as old as I am, admittedly it does astound, perhaps even hurt somewhat that not very many among us today would, could identify Winston Churchill as the author – in Britain’s House of Commons, August 20th, 1940 – of the words that title today’s program: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”.
Nor might they identify those “few” as the brave young men of England’s Royal Air Force who fought the Battle of Britain that finally, five long years later, made possible the Allies blessed victory in World War II.
But my guest today does passionately remember, honoring them as they so fully deserve in his compelling new account of the Battle of Britain, “With Wings Like Eagles”.
Himself once part of the Royal Air Force, Michael Korda, long-time Editor-in-Chief at Simon and Schuster, has not only written many best-selling books himself, but has published and edited famed writers like Larry McMurtry and David McCulloch, Mary Higgins Clark, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, William L. Shirer, Henry Kissinger and Will and Ariel Durant.
And, of course, whenever he joins me here on The Open Mind, I hardly let him forget that he edited and published Jacqueline Susann and Harold Robbins as well!
But it was writer Michael Korda’s splendid Ike-An American Hero that brought him to this table first … though it might have been his acclaimed Ulysses S. Grant … for war heroes seem to draw my guest close.
And I think it not inappropriate to ask him just why. There we go.
KORDA: I think it is an appropriate question. And, and a difficult one to answer. I grew up in the war, of course, although I left England at the end of 1940 to come to the United States, along with Martin Gilbert, and Alistair Horne, two historians whom I know and deeply respect.
But I remember the war years very clearly. And I think that history, as it proceeds gets most interesting when it’s at its most tense. So it’s hard for me to be totally involved in history when it’s going along, as it so rarely does, but it does from time to time, on an even plane.
I like the moments when everything seems to be at stake. Therefore, for example, Grant fascinated me because Grant was central to the Civil War. Ike fascinated me because victory at one point in World War II so clearly depended on that one moment of D-Day on, on his decision to go.
And the Battle of Britain fascinated for a number of reasons. First of all because it is clearly the moment at which Hitler lost the War. It would go on for another five years, but his chance to win it, his one chance to win it completely was in September of 1940 in the two or three days that are described as the peak of the battle of Britain and he failed. Without even knowing that he failed, without him realizing that he failed, which is fascinating.
The second reason is that I served, as you point out … in the Royal Air Force. So when I was in the Royal Air Force, which was from 1950, I would say, to 1952 … through 1952, I still met plenty of people in the RAF who had been in the Battle of Britain. For whom it was not the past, it was almost the present.
Certainly it was the very recent past and it was the high point of their lives. And finally, because there’s something fascinating to me about those moments in history when a very small number of people … very, very small … make a huge difference.
The moment when 200 Spartans stopped the Persians is an extraordinary moment because there were so few of them. And, and most of us in the days when classics were still studied at school, remember that over their grave was engraved in the stone, “Stranger passing by, go tell them in Sparta that we died according to their laws”. Because it was the laws of Sparta … forbid anybody to retreat.
And on the days of the peak of the Battle of Britain, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, the Commander and Chief of Fighter Command had approximately 600 to 700 Spitfires and Hurricanes and 900 pilots. On any one of those days.
That’s the total amount of aircraft and pilots that were responsible for stopping Hitler in his tracks in the summer and the early autumn of 1940. Without which England would almost certainly have been invaded. Hitler would have won the war he wanted to win, which was the war in Europe, before America was brought into the war by the Japanese.
The world would be an entirely different place. So you must see that this entire structure of history, of well-being, of later misery and later problems … in short, the world as we know it … rested on September 7th and on September 15th, 1940 on about 900 young men aged between 18 and 20 or 21. And that’s it.
I wanted to study that and study that moment in time when everything that we know rested on just those … tiny, tiny, tiny number of, of pilots.
HEFFNER: Michael, you’ve remembered. Do you think the world remembers?
KORDA: Well, I would hope that this book will bring them back some memory of it. At any rate to those who are older. And also then also introduce to younger people some very radical notions about the way history works.
Do I think that most people remember? Outside England … no. Inside England … it’s a cult. You know, the Battle of Britain is very much a cult moment of English life. For precisely the reasons that I’ve just given. And, in fact, September 15th is celebrated at Battle of Britain Day and a Spitfire and a Hurricane are still flown on that day. And are kept in the Royal Air Force, perfectly preserved in flying condition, just for that purpose.
Outside England, I think not. And yet there it is. It’s the moment at which victory was in Hitler’s grasp and he did not know it.
HEFFNER: You know, the two words that come to mind, of course, as I read With Wings Like Eagles … how come? Was it the, the monomaniacal nature of the man? Was it Goering’s interference in a sense in his realization of what the situation was? How do you account for the fact …
KORDA: The fact that he didn’t win? Or the fact that he fought the war in the first place?
HEFFNER: No … the fact that he didn’t do the things that might have enabled him to win.
KORDA: Well, I think the answer to that is that Hitler … ahh … had a victory in May and June of 1940 … greater than anything that even he had ever possibly imagined.
The entire German experience, which he shared as a solider … as a front line solider of the 1914 and 1918 War … and the German defeat, were reversed in the space of two weeks from May 10th, 1940 to June 10th, 1940 … France was beaten, collapsed, fell.
Hitler had already conquered Poland and Norway. He sat looking at the accomplishment of an unbelievable dream. And therefore he convinced himself that the British, if they were not defeated, would fall into line. And the British gave him ample reason for believing that.
HEFFNER: I wanted to ask you about that. You say they did give him ample reason. The aristocracy … anyone?
KORDA: Ah, well, I’m not so sure that you can … ahhh, that you can define it by class bashing … if you see what I mean. There, but there were ample …
HEFFNER: Why not?
KORDA: Because there were ample numbers of people in England … in the aristocracy, certainly, but also in the Labor Party, also in the Tory Party and ample members of the middle class who believed that a compromise peace might be the best solution.
France had fallen, the British were alone. After Dunkirk, the British Army … 250,000 of them came home without their weapons. And Halifax, then Foreign Minister of Great Britain was already in discussions with the Italian Ambassador in London about the possibility of Mussolini acting as go-between to ask Hitler what terms he would offer Britain for peace.
And Hitler had offered terms for peace that essentially amounted to British non-interference in a Europe dominated by Germany in return for which he would allow the British to keep the empire and their fleets. Not such terrible terms when you come right down to it.
What eluded him was that these were not terms that Churchill would ever accept.
HEFFNER: But you say the others would … many others would.
KORDA: Halifax would have accepted them and made no secret of the fact. I don’t believe that all the members of the War Cabinet would have accepted them, but I believe that had things gone in a slightly different direction, it would have been possible, certainly possible to make a compromise peace.
Churchill saw that and I think saw it rightly, as the first step on a downhill path to which there was no ending. A compromise peace would end in a world dominated by Nazi Germany. And with his passion for resistance, with his determination not to give in and go the way of the French, he brought the British ‘round to believing that they could survive … alone.
There’s a wonderful moment at the Cabinet meeting I think on … in May … May 27th, I think, when Lord Halifax reveals that he’s been talking to the Italian Ambassador, much to Churchill’s discomfort and anger.
And in the larger Cabinet, which … a large body of scores of people, rather than the War Cabinet, which was a very small one … Churchill goes to speak to them, and he’s aware now that he’s facing a catastrophe …that the British Army’s returning from Dunkirk without arms, that Halifax has already opened up the possibility of peace terms to the Italian Ambassador.
And he speaks to the Cabinet at large in his room in the House of Commons. And he says, at the end of it, “If this long story of ours is to end, let it end when we’re all lying on the ground choking on our own blood”.
And the Cabinet, the larger Cabinet, goes berserk. They, they cheer, they clap him on the shoulder, they shake his hand. And he comes back to the War Cabinet meeting of that afternoon buoyed up and determined that whatever the facts appear to be … that he will resist it. And it is the moment of a great conflict between himself and Halifax. And a great conflict which Churchill, with those cheers in his head, is able to resist. And therefore the British … through Churchill’s enormous confidence and enormous powers of expression were encouraged to believe that they could, in fact, resist.
HEFFNER: Could Churchill, as Churchill, ever done otherwise? Could he have? Could that man …
KORDA: Churchill was so deep, so devious … that the answer to that question has got to be “Yes”, of course. At the back of Churchill’s mind was always the possibility a) that we might lose, b) that, indeed, a negotiated peace might have to be settled.
He was, I think, very conscious of the fact that he was not the person to do that. That his old colleague, David Lloyd George, or Lord … his Foreign Minister Lord Halifax, might be the ones who would have to make that peace. He was perfectly aware that he could neither do it, nor would he have been an acceptable person to negotiate that peace with Hitler, because Hitler would not have accepted it.
But at the back of his mind certainly, he kept that as another card to play if he had to play it. But he was right in perceiving that the British would get no worse a deal if they resisted than if they gave in. And therefore he felt that they must resist to the end.
And, of course, that led to the determination to beat the Germans in the air, when the Germans began to prepare for the invasion. And … I think it’s at that moment … and it’s one of the reasons why With Wings Like Eagles is in its way elegiac as history.
I think it’s at that moment that the British first saw themselves clearly as surviving. That they saw themselves clearly as resisting even though they were alone, daily the Germans came over in huge numbers, daily British pilots shot them down in large amounts … as day after day went by and week after week went by … and days and weeks of great suffering, not just for the air crew, but for the ground crews and for the young women in the radar stations and who, who served in the Operations Room, but also for civilians, because although the Germans were not at that time blitzing, as it were, the cities, nevertheless bombers were coming over … if they turned around, the jettisoned their bombs.
Day by day I count in the book the number of people who were killed simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time … even if that was their bed or their arm chair.
Day by day it began to dawn on them that we could beat them and that those 900 pilots a day who fought were beating them. And it also began to dawn, even on people like Lord Halifax, who were defeatist … that if we beat them through the month of September and early October, that the season in which it was possible to invade England across the Channel would come to an end.
Because Dowding’s great strategy, and he paid a very heavy price for it, even though it was the correct one, was that the Royal Air Force was not called upon to win a single great victory … an aerial equivalent of Waterloo or Trafalgar. It was called upon to inflict upon the German forces continuous losses until mid-to-late September when the storms and the gales in the British Channel would make an invasion no longer possible.
And that’s exactly what he and exactly what his pilots did. Though his pilots, of course, had no idea that that was the strategy. They assumed every day when they went up … because they had to assume … that they were going up for a huge victory.
They did not realize that what they were fighting was a war of attrition and that their responsibility was to go up and inflict losses on the Germans over a period of time long enough to make invasion impossible.
HEFFNER: You use the phrase “war of attrition” and as I remembered those days and as I read With Wings Like Eagles, I could not imagine how the Germans could not win, would not win that war of attrition. Knowing the outcome, I still, as I read the book find it so hard to believe.
KORDA: It is amazing. But it is … and it was one of the pleasures of writing history. It is a jigsaw puzzle which you have to put together.
Because to me the fascinating thing about … two things … or the three things that were the most fascinating are Churchill himself … his character, his personality, his buoyancy, his anger, his ability to put into words what other people felt, but could never have expressed.
And he … above all … his enormous driving capacity for optimism in the face everything that called for pessimism.
HEFFNER: He was a great actor.
KORDA: Great actor. But believed in his own acting. So he is fascinating to write about as is Dowding who is quintessentially the opposite … Air Chief Marshall Dowding was … his nickname in the Royal Air Force was “Stuffy” Doughy. And he was stuffy. He was, he had no sense of humor. He had crank ideas. But he absolutely understood, from Day One, how to win the Battle of Britain.
And thirdly, the pilots themselves are fascinating because they’re such a varied group. And because they fought in a way which we can’t even conceive today. They up four, five times a day. Their, their rate of loss was astonishing. And yet they were young, buoyant, immensely confident in, in a way that people no longer are confident.
But, but the jigsaw puzzle is to piece together through the 1930s how people like Neville Chamberlain and Stanley Baldwin, generally called “The Appeasers” because they were the appeasers. Nevertheless, how they put together with Dowding piece by piece the structure for fighter command so that in 1940 when the Germans attack we were, in fact, in that one area ahead of them and ahead of everybody in the world.
HEFFNER: That’s what’s so impressive about Dowding … that the Fighter Command was there, they did it. They were there, they were put together through that period that you’re talking about.
KORDA: It is amazing. It is amazing. So to me, the lives of people like Sydney Camm, the designer of the Hurricane, or R. J. Mitchell, who designed the Spitfire. And the way, in the early ‘30s they were already putting together aircraft which were revolutionary. Eight gun, monoplane fighters with retractable undercarriage and enclosed cockpits, in an age when the, the fighters of every nation in the world were, were bi-planes.
The way in which Watson Watt, not stumbled upon, but actually invented radar. And the way in which the British government secretly, without anybody knowing that it was happening … not only accepted radar, but built a chain of radar stations around the United Kingdom in the 1930s. That was, in fact, key to winning the battle. We could see the Germans forming up a couple of hundred miles before they reached the English shores. We could count the number airplanes they were sending and the height they were going.
All of a sudden, what Dowding had created was the system which was irresistibly stronger than the Germans ever imagined it to be. And everyone of those people plays a significant role. I am just as interested, and I hope to make the reader just as interested in Mitchell, this young genius of an airplane designer, who was building planes the 1930s that flew 400 … over 400 miles an hour. For the day an unbelievable speed.
Ahem, and in the way in which chance so frequently played its part. When the British government could no longer finance the Mitchell Super Marine Racing Aircraft, for example, on which the Spitfire was based … a Lady Houston, a widow, immensely wealthy widow … put up a hundred thousand pounds which is almost eight million pounds in today’s money … $16 million dollars. Out of her own pocket to keep financing Mitchell’s designs.
Each one of these stories is interwoven and comes to its, its head, to its fruition … in that summer of 1940 when the Germans attacked.
HEFFNER: But what impresses me most … not that the others don’t, of course, is your statement here, at this crucial time, “That evening Goering called his wife Emmy in Berlin to tell her triumphantly ‘London is in flames’.”
But you go on to write, “a more perceptive comment came from the distinguished American journalist, James Reston, then the correspondent of the New York Times in London, who cabled to his paper that night, “One simply cannot praise the average man here too highly. Out of a history and environment of these past thousand years, he has inherited a quality of courage which is a true inspiration, one simply cannot convey the spirit of these people. Adversity only angers and strengthens them, they are tough in a way we Americans seldom understand, that curious gentility among their menfolk confuses us. We underestimate them, the British people can hold out till the end.”
And I have to tell you, with all the personalities whom you bring to life … and you do so vividly … James Reston’s statement about the British was so enormously important.
KORDA: And absolutely true, by the way. Absolutely true. The British … at any rate …the British of 1940 … our national passion for politeness … our national passion for putting things at their least sensational … for understatement as a method of communication … which is a very British thing … leads people to believe … and certainly led people to believe in 1940 that the British will not fight.
But the British have always been like. Napoleon underestimated us. Phillip of Spain underestimated us. I tried to show in, in the book how Fighter Command was not, in itself, alone.
Fighter Command, I think represented very, very profoundly the actual spirit of the British people who were prepared to be bombed, who were far more afraid, I think of panicking then of being defeated. Panic, giving way, giving in … Churchill himself, when he visited Harrow’s alma mater school, which he had hated when he was there.
(Laughter) But I remember that when he went in 1940 to address the boys at, at Harrow … he said, at the end of a short speech … he said, “Just remember, never, never, never, never, never give in … never surrender … never give up.”
HEFFNER: Michael Korda, if that’s the point at which we say, “Never … no more time.” Thank you for joining me.
KORDA: (Laughter) Thank you for having me.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.
Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.